Issue 55 |
Fall 1991


To celebrate twenty years of
Ploughshares is to celebrate the idea of our revolving editorship, a series of guest-edited issues directed and moderated by the magazine's staff, with each issue and guest editor speaking to others in the progress of the series. For this issue, with the assistance of Don Lee, our managing editor/associate fiction editor, we set out to convene the extended community of
Ploughshares editors by soliciting new poetry, fiction, and commentary from them. As a result we are delighted to be featuring work by twenty-four of these editors, along with new work by many former contributors, and, in the tradition of
Ploughshares, a number of unsolicited firsts and "discoveries" by writers who promise future growth and recognition.

This is an occasion for thanks not only to these editors and writers, but to all the writers and, in particular, the volunteer staff members who have "believed
Ploughshares into existence" (as we put it in our announcement for the first issue in September 1971), from the first, founding group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1970 to our current international roster. This roster developed from seeds of friendship and literary admiration, originally rooted in one location, and has spread, each year, further and further afield.

In fiction, for instance, a friendly disagreement between DeWitt Henry and Fanny Howe led to DeWitt's editing a special
Realism issue, where he published the first short fiction by Tim O'Brien, as well as early fiction by James Alan McPherson and Andre Dubus; later, O'Brien moved to Cambridge and co-edited an issue with DeWitt featuring the early fiction of Jayne Anne Phillips, who herself later moved to Cambridge and co-edited an issue with poet Lorrie Goldensohn. McPherson would co-edit issues with DeWitt in Vols. 11 and 13, and would regularly refer young writers to us. Similarly Jay Neugeboren was introduced to the magazine as a writer and went on to edit one of our most successful fiction issues. Rosellen Brown was enlisted as a then-local writer the staff admired, and having edited Vol. 4, No. 2, with Andre Dubus, later published in issues edited by DeWitt and by Leonard Michaels. Michaels, again, had been enlisted, long-distance from Berkeley, on the basis of professional regard. Raymond Carver, who appeared in the first volume of
Ploughshares with poems, published his story "A Small, Good Thing" in an issue edited by Donald Hall in Vol. 8. He subsequently edited a fiction issue in the ninth volume, as Tess Gallagher, having appeared in his issue, would go on to edit an issue in Vol. 12. Ellen Wilbur, who published in early volumes and acted as a valued advisor, making suggestions throughout, co-edited Vol. 10, No. 4, with Jane Shore and helped to discover Carolyn Chute. Dan Wakefield, Anne Bernays, and Justin Kaplan, as scions of the Boston literary community, all edited fiction issues. James Carroll piloted a graduate seminar at Emerson College on "The Virtue of Writing" and subsequently edited an issue of stories focusing on ethics. Though Richard Yates never edited an issue, from the first-as presented in a 1973 interview and with later contributions of fiction and reviews-he has remained an important influence, as has George Garrett, first introduced to us by Yates, then featured as a writer in Vol.
4, and co-editor later of our
Southern Writing and
Fiction Discoveries issues. James Randall's influence persists as well, from the convening of a writing community at Emerson College that grew and overlapped with the magazine's, to his editing issues in Vols. 1, 4, and 7.

In poetry, Lloyd Schwartz, friend of David Gullette, introduced us to Frank Bidart, and, by association, to Robert Pinsky, as well as to Gail Mazur. Joyce Peseroff, our first managing editor, came to
Ploughshares through poems accepted by William Corbett for Vol. 1. In turn, she suggested the editorship of Donald Hall. Thomas Lux had been a student of James Randall, who helped to arrange the early sponsorship of
Ploughshares at Emerson. Assisting Randall with Vol. 7, No. 1, was Richard Tillinghast, at the time Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, who later co-edited the
Southern Writing issue with George Garrett. Jane Shore brought in Lorrie Goldensohn, who led us to Ellen Bryant Voigt; later, while teaching at Tufts, Shore suggested we invite Philip Levine to edit an issue. Peter O'Malley's international vision created the transatlantic connection to Seamus Heaney, which engendered issues edited by Derek Walcott and Stratis Haviaras. Maxine Kumin, frequent contributor of essays, poetry, and fiction, edited an issue in Vol. 14. Alan Williamson was a colleague of Allen Grossman's and Frank Bidart's when he was Fannie Hurst Lecturer at Brandeis. Jennifer Rose, our managing editor for three years, was an admirer of Marilyn Hacker's work, and approached her to edit one of our most diverse issues. DeWitt met Rita Dove and Fred Viebahn while serving on the Board of Directors for AWP, and got to know Gerald Stern while teaching one summer at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Don Lee had lunch with James Alan McPherson and DeWitt when Jim was visiting
from Iowa, and Don provided the impetus for last fall's issue,
Confronting Racial Difference. Then again, some people came to us completely by surprise, like M. L. Rosenthal, who presented us with a proposal for his
Works-in-Progress issue through the mail.

Can any publishing enterprise boast editorial contributions amounting to a debate of sensibilities and literary agendas by such a varied and distinguished list of writers, including, aside from those named above, George Kimball, Paul Hannigan, Linda Bamber, Charles Simic, Madeline DeFrees, Maura Stanton, Bill Knott, Carolyn Forché, and Alberto Alvaro Ríos?

This is also fit occasion to thank the founding publisher, Peter O'Malley, for his years of service, and to thank our trustees emeritus, Daniel Aaron, Bernard McCabe, and Seamus Heaney, for their steady wisdom and guidance; also to announce and to welcome publicly their successor trustees, Frank Bidart, Carol Houck Smith, and James Alan McPherson, who will oversee the organization under the newly established affiliation with Emerson College. Thanks also, in this iron age of public funding for the arts, to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council (formerly the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities) for their long-standing support.

Perhaps on or around the fifth birthday of
Ploughshares, the critic John Aldridge published an article in
The Saturday Review about the leading literary magazines and annoyed us first by omitting timely mention of
Ploughshares, and second by asserting that contemporary literary magazines, unlike those of the early modernist generation, "lacked an imperative function." At best, he saw them as "institutionalized outlets for mediocrity." He was speaking as a literary historian, and his imperious tone is still to be heard in recent essays by such neo-conservative observers as Hilton Kramer and Joseph Epstein.

The "imperative" of
Ploughshares, the driving passion that supported it from the start, lacking cash, was to discover a new literary generation and to explore its various directions, new or otherwise, and, overall, its richness. We meant our editorial disagreements to encourage a more cosmopolitan literary awareness, taking writers out of their individual sanctuaries and inviting them to share common ground, while allowing readers to judge what was vital and valuable within each style or "direction" of interest. Where this has led some readers to view the series as lacking an identity, our motive has been precisely to highlight the question of editorial identity. The imperative of many of our editors, we believe, follows that of William Wordsworth, who wrote, "Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished; he must teach the art by which he is to be seen."


John Barth's prediction that the "irreal" was all that would characterize the fiction of the decades to come was cited in my
Realism issue in 1974 as a myopic and partisan viewpoint -- one that the vigorous "realisms" in our pages, then and since, have served to refute. Though stretched to some stylistic and symbolic extremes (Searle, Harjo), the twelve stories here are emphatically mimetic, "not mistaken for realities, but bringing realities to mind" (Samuel Johnson), though the cultural and spiritual realities they bring to mind are, to give Barth his due, discomfiting and "irreal." In some there is a longing for normality, with normality conceived of as something like the functional family portrayed in Jacqueline Simon's "Leaving Letitia Street" and then despaired of like paradise lost, with wit, pain, anger, bafflement, and regret. Other stories pass from longing into deeper human recognitions, like the compassion learned in Eileen Pollack's "Neversink"; or the complex far side of paradise for Andre Dubus's fifty-five-year-old, thrice-divorced man in "The
Lover," who lives with the pain of domestic wreckages, yet loves: "It was always love for me, love of a woman. I look back and I think love needs tenacity. Maybe that's what I didn't have." Even in Rick Bass's "Days of Heaven," where the narrator, a caretaker of a Montana ranch, equates nature with normality, and views the greed-driven realtor and the tormented new owner as despoilers to be stopped, there is a deepened perception: "Quentin was wild, and of course he wanted to come to the woods, too. I didn't know if the woods would have him." The alcoholic couple in Joy Williams's "Craving" are "falling to pieces together," not separating; their mutual trust, schooled in knowledge of mutual weakness, reminds me -- as a sometime teacher of Shakespeare-of Antony's and Cleopatra's, separating together from an intolerable world.

Affirmation in the irreal, these writers are saying, remains possible, and in a world of greed, of privilege without merit, of ambition without talent, of "living a lie," of "Hav-a-Heart" traps, of distrust, of cheats, of characters who lack self-knowledge or heart enough to recognize their own desires or to take responsibility for their choices -- in such a world, the source of value is the one celebrated in Dan Wakefield's portrait of his teacher at Columbia, Mark Van Doren: "the courage to go to the depths of yourself to tell your story."


I began with a remark from Seamus Heaney's introduction to Vol. 10, No. 1: "Occasionally, the ploughshares broke new ground, but its usual work was to plough up the old ground and to cross-plough its own furrows." In the last twenty years, the furrows opened and received by our poets have included the long-breathed line of Whitman, the prose poem and verse paragraph, the verse which turns upon the image, the chant, the koan, the page notated like a musical score, together with syllabic stanza, sestina, and sonnet. These pages have featured African-American poets whose lineage includes the Black Mountain school and the Harlem Renaissance; Jewish writers informed by Native-American stories and song; homage to forms five hundred years old and to those -- like the letter and the diary -- even older. The debate over "multiculturalism" seems already resolved to the careful reader of contemporary literature, when a poet like Thylias Moss can recast the metaphysical wit of John Donne in her own
image, and a Polish writer like Piotr Sommer can develop the American sensibility revealed by William Carlos Williams. Ha Jin, Chinese-born and composing in English, melds the influence of vernacular poet Lu Xun with an American narrative style derived from writers as diverse as Robert Frost and Frank O'Hara. "What is in our experience can enter the canon," Marilyn Hacker wrote in her introduction to Vol. 15, No. 4, and one must recall that the canon is maintained by writers who remember other writers, reading them in gratitude.

The "new ground" in this issue includes poets like Leslie Adrienne Miller and Diann Blakely Shoaf, who appear in
Ploughshares for the first time; for some, like Ruth Moritz and Andrew Feld, this is their first national publication.

With our mix of new work from past editors and contributors, seasoned with the discoveries that editors who examine thousands of unsolicited manuscripts rejoice over, we hope to extend what David Gullette has called "the 'debate of tastes' that has raged or simmered within the pages of
Ploughshares over the years." Gullette writes: "I'm reminded of a remark Octavio Paz made to me once when I mentioned that DeWitt was putting together a 'realist fiction' issue: 'Realist fiction? That is a contradiction in terms, no?' No, Octavio, it isn't. Despite Derrida's claim that language is only about itself, and Octavio's idea of poetry as transhistorical myth, good writing is a dream about a real and waking world, about real people struggling in their actual historical moment."

Poems by David Wojahn, Sam Cornish, Sandra Yannone, Cyrus Cassells, Alice Mattison, Rita Dove, Tom Sleigh, Michael Milburn, Gail Mazur, Thomas Lux, Suzanne Owens, and Eleanor Ross Taylor, among others, reflect this notion of individual as citizen, wrestling with the cosmos within his or her skin. Other poems, like those by Nancy White, Fanny Howe, and Russell Edson, create a seductive, hermetic world, less penetrable by logic but no less compelling.

More specifically my design for this issue involved an attentiveness to the poem's animal life, its ability to surprise within its strictures the way a genetic sport surprises, or a child invents a new use for coffee spoons. I also responded to Rita Dove's comment in Vol. 16, No. 1: "Poetry at its best nudges the body awake." Reading submissions, often at night, after a day's cares, I seek the consolations of poetry: its ability to name the unspeakable, needle the mind, astonish the sensibilities, and beguile the ear, crying, "Sleepers, awake!" Derek Walcott's note to Vol. 13, No. 1, concluded, "My principle was affection, and affection meant variety, not theory." I concur.

The photos that follow commemorate some of the physical moments in our two decades; like home movies, they are more private than public documents, yet together they compose a
Ploughshares documentary: (a) DeWitt and Peter O'Malley playing carnival barkers at the
Ploughshares table during the 1978
Boston Globe Book Festival, where some portion of 35,000 book people strolled past and some portion of that portion stopped to ask, "Who is Robert Lowell?" Many of the writers and editors of the featured issues did their time at these tables as well; (b) Florence Tamburro, Ellen Wilbur, and Richard Wilbur at a benefit reading by Richard Wilbur and Brian Moore, May 26, 1979; (c) Anne Bernays, DeWitt, and Brian Moore, at the same event; (d) Seamus Heaney Benefit Reading at the Cambridge Boathouse, February 28, 1981; (e) Lloyd Schwartz and Alice Methfessel perusing the
Ploughshares archives, at the same event; (f) Joyce Peseroff flanked by artists Ralph Hamilton and Michael Mazur, both of whom have had work featured in
Ploughshares portfolios and covers, at the same event; (g) "Where's Waldo?" -- an attempt at panorama, photographed by DeWitt from the podium at the Blacksmith House
Ploughshares Editors benefit reading, Spring 1988 (audience in top photo, from bottom right to top left, includes Frank Bidart, Jane Shore, Steven Cramer, Jane Kenyon, Justin Kaplan, Seamus Heaney, Lucie Brock-Broido, Peter O'Malley; audience in bottom photo includes Carolyn Chute, Lloyd Schwartz, our office manager/editorial assistant Jessica Dineen, Jay Cantor, Bill Knott, and Linda Bamber).

Over the years
Ploughshares has regularly called upon the greater Boston community for benefit readings and other fundraising events. Highlights unrecorded here include numerous events at the Blacksmith House, generously arranged by Gail Mazur; Robert Lowell and John McGahern reading at Harvard; Mary Lavin and the Friends of Elizabeth Bishop reading at Harvard; Elizabeth Hardwick and James Merrill at Harvard; Raymond Carver at Harvard; Frank Conroy at Harvard; Siobhan McKenna at the Parker House; John O'Connor at Harvard; Maxine Kumin, Dan Wakefield, Brock Brower, and John Williams at the Cambridge Boathouse; Richard Wilbur reading at Lucia Moffet's home on Martha's Vineyard; William Styron and Richard Yates at Boston University; and, among others, Jayne Anne Phillips, Thomas Lux, Gerald Stern, and Gwendolyn Brooks at Emerson College.

Thanks to all of these writers and friends, and to our subscribers. We've been very fortunate to have such a strong, distinguished community supporting our efforts.