We have long admired Ploughshares -- not only for its eclecticism, which has proven an energizing force in contemporary American letters, but also for its nineteen-year history of consistently excellent poems, stories and essays. That's why we gladly agreed to edit this issue. Once the prospect of filling two hundred pages loomed large, however, we had to ask ourselves: How should we go about filling these pages? Basically, there were two possibilities: Either we'd solicit work from writers we admired, thereby closing the issue to all but "names" and literary friends, or we'd just wait and see, opening the field to anyone who followed Ploughshares and decided to submit their stuff this time around, SASE included.
We decided to take the more hazardous avenue -- to wait. The unsolicited manuscripts arrived by the hundreds last fall, and after we'd waded through them we knew we had made the right decision. There was actually more "quality material" than we could possibly print, so the hardest part of our selection process became the final winnowing to what you now find between these covers.
We had nosedived into the task with the rather simple-minded notion that we would choose the best, and that was that: just the cream at the top, admittedly what most pleased our own tastes and idiosyncrasies, but no themes, no aesthetic schools. Well, we soon discovered that there is cream and there is cream. A high percentage of the submissions were competently and clearly written, many poems and stories addressed vital themes, much brought pleasure and restored lost memories of childhood and adolescence. But what is it in a line or passage that, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, can take the top of your head off? What is it about a poem or a story that transforms?
The poems here embrace an aesthetic before and beyond the easy "isms" (surrealism, modernism, postmodernism, etc.). Poetry, after all, finds its origins in song and dance, in the breath moving through the lungs and across the larynx and tongue, the word resonating in the chest and belly and liver and thigh, inciting the body to assist the rhythm. With the advent of the printing press, literature ostensibly became more readily available but actually became more elite: One had to learn to read in order to feel the music. And the community dispersed as individuals curled up with books; the body's participation became moot, breath dwindled as the mind radiated its insular light.
Poetry at its best, however, nudges the body awake. Poetry resonates and transforms by injecting us with the palpable pleasure of language: Words impress their contours on the tongue, and we breathe with the heartbeat and silences of the line tugging against the sentence as it wraps its sense around the instinctual axis. This, then, became a credo for many of the poems included here. Be it the incantatory evocation of Cyrus Cassells' "Woodwind and Thunderbird" or the jazzy elisions of Chris Gilbert's "Absentee Landlord," these poems engage body and mind, tongue and synapse. Silences and disjuncture have their song as well in Laurie Sheck's work, and the inarticulate misery of the disempowered finds its expression in the poems of Carolyne Wright and Eric Trethewey. Timothy Nolan's "Beyond the Sign of the Fish," as a meditation on the efficacy of faith and memory, is a tour de force; whether one classifies it as a poem, a poetic sequence, or a combination of poems and prose, it is impossible to dismiss. Marilyn Chin's poems recall the sardonic calm of Ovid or Martial. We join the hopped-up, neon-lit dance of contemporary relationships in Lisa Bernstein's "Purgatory" or Betsy Sholl's "The Red Line." Geography defines certain experiences: The West and Southwest find their representation in poems by Cassells, Dick Bakken, and Cynthia Hogue, as does the South in Andrew Hudgins. Stephen Ajay takes us to Bali and David Ray speaks from New Zealand. Linda Zisquit's haunting poems reflect the complex relationships of faith vs. ardor, power vs. destiny, in Israel. Regardless of demographics or subject, though, these poems occupy an intense interior space with a voice that reverberates as it speaks.
Fiction, on the other hand, is often written less from inside the body and strains less against the limits of our existence; instead, fiction circumscribes these limits or tells how we are affected by and fight for our place within the boundaries of our origins personalities and capabilities; fiction attempts to describe how we occasionally (usually early on in life, less and less later) try to make a break for it. In "Hacienda del Sol, Jamie Diamond shows such entrapment from the light side, and still there is little lasting hope in her sunny California air. Claire, in Maria Flook's "The Cheaters' Club," has become dependent on a man who in turn is trying to shake the predictabilities of a working-class life. And in Lisa Koger's "The Retirement Party," not much energy is left for anything beyond small-town routines. All five stories in this issue deal with the self-imposed prisons of their characters and the futility of escape -- even if, as in Eileen Pollack's "Past, Future, Elsewhere," the tethers of prejudice can be torn. Even the liberation achieved by the father in Steven Schwartz's story, "Lives of the Fathers," comes too late and is too little; what remains is an old man wrestling with the ghost of his past.
Only a few of the poets, and none of the short fiction writers, were previously known to us. That gives us grounds for hope and confidence in the grass-roots diversity of American letters. Indeed, we are proud to be able to demonstrate, in the following two hundred pages, that literature in this country continues to be alive and well; neither its creation nor its vision is dependent upon lucrative publishing contracts or mass-market applause -- although the stimulation, encouragement and support provided by creative writing programs certainly accounts for the breadth and some of the technical sophistication of American writing today. While narrow-minded, backwards-staring hack scholars like Joseph Epstein have succeeded in instigating yet another of those periodical debates on the value of contemporary poetry, while extremists of the right like Jesse Helms, legitimized by blindered voters, try to subjugate the arts to "majority" taste, literature continues to prevail in its ability to connect us, spirit to spirit; in this respect it is the uncensored communication of all aspects of our humanness.
The authors represented here have, in effect, written out of their humanity rather than about their humanity; the poems and stories find their form through the need of the experience they represent. In the words of Gaston Bachelard (from The Poetics of Space): "The mollusk's motto would be: one must live to build one's house, and not build one's house to live in."