"I like songs I can relate to," Ray Charles said in an interview in 1960, long before "relate" became part of the ubiquitous psychobabble. And I guess that was Jane Shore's and my one persistent criterion for the work we've included in the following pages. In some fundamental, surprising, persistent way, the poems and stories announced themselves and stuck with us on first reading, or else we came back around, until subsequent readings finally instructed us how to get purchase on them. So there it is, simply put. The pleasure of reading; revelations born of rereading. Obviously, too, this was our rare opportunity to offer a compendium of contemporary (with the exception of Jonathan Galassi's splendid translation of Eugenio Montale) writing, whose depth, amplitude of earned and rendered emotion, and outright craft impressed us. Each accepted work had to have some inimitable sense of integrity and immediacy and permanent fix on the world, of course, because how else to judge? Editing, furthermore, gave
us a special, humbling sort of experience: publishing writers whose writing lives have now spanned at least four decades: Joyce Johnson, Philip Levine, Hettie Jones. There was the counterpoint excitement, too, of introducing newer writers -- new to us, at least -- such as Lily King. In my case, the editing hours allowed me to admire my wife Jane Shore's tough-minded, generous sense of discretion. I read the fiction, Jane read the poems; indeed there was little consultation about final choices. And that seemed right, because whatever level of competence we felt we suspected would implement itself most successfully in that exact division of labor.
Jane observes, "I found I had chosen poems that had the sound of the human voice. What do I mean? They sound like a person talking, but in heightened language, telling me something urgent. And most of these poems, in retrospect, tell stories about people-mothers, children, husbands, even literary figures: Keats, D. H. Lawrence. They struck me as fresh and unpretentious.
I didn't plan it this way, but when ordering these poems for the magazine, they seemed to speak to each other, toss ideas and arguments back and forth amongst themselves. Reading these poems is like being in a room with a group of fascinating and lively people. One wants to eavesdrop in on their conversations, and then jump in."
I recently served on an NEA panel for fiction, nonfiction, and translation (right in Washington, D.C., far from home in Vermont). In between cordial, heated, always rigorous panel sessions, I'd cab over to listen to various Congressional harangues (and witnessed a few in private offices), myopic assessments, and, on far less frequent occasion, passionate advocacies for arts funding in America. Imagine, if you will, the exhibitionist spectacle of a tax-paid representative waving a volume of so-called "pornography" (which actually was a collection of brilliantly subdued erotic stories), eyes turned to the ceiling, as if that was the one partition between him and God, imploring, "Why should we support this smut?" The sheer level of intellectual violation was at times mind-boggling. At night, I could not help but return to work on this issue of
Ploughshares with profound happiness (mitigated, of course, by the dire forecasts of what might happen to the individual artist's grants, funding for magazines, etc.). But happiness, nonetheless, I admit, for the most selfish yet familiar and sustaining of reasons: I was back in my room, which was full of light and all these passionately forged words on the page-many pages. And able to sit for consecutive hours, working. Philip Roth put it this way: "Writers live mostly in a room." Editors do, too, I guess.
Compared to many, I have not taught writing workshops for very long. I have no working philosophies about the phenomenon itself. But I had one student, at the University of Maryland the first year I taught there, in 1988, named Ernest Acosta. He was Cuban. He died of AIDS some years back. Now and again I reread his splendid novel,
Second Exile, which he completed shortly before his death. Anyway, Ernie would sit in the workshop, his intense, handsome face a mask of well-rehearsed torments, when only an hour before, over a coffee, he had presented only the upmost serene sweetness of person. He'd listen to what was read, or whatever critique of a story was offered (he never went first), and when it was his turn to comment, he'd often begin with a profound sigh of resignation. He'd loosen his collar. "Is it just me, or is it suddenly hot in the room?" He'd rub his face like kneading bread dough, work up to a statement, often replete with a kind of anecdotal philosophy. Here's an actual example: "Well, I
suppose we're all here for a reason. Maybe even the same reason. It's to ask, Does this writing have
soul? If it doesn't, we shouldn't be bothered; we should be drinking a cold glass of water, putting the glass to our foreheads and feeling great relief we no longer have to suffer through this." It was melodramatic, sure -- even preposterous. But it saved us all a lot of extraneous babble, especially the inept investigative strategy I was so amateurishly wont to overuse that year: "What's the writer's ambition here? Is it the right ambition, and if so, how well-executed is it?" I relied on Ernie. Because he cut out all the in-between bullshit and went directly to the
useful idea of writers upping the ante, writing at the top of their capacity at every given moment, and of being
uncompromising. He took writing
personally. So, that's one other thing I felt about the poems and prose in this issue (written by pros, many who've had hundreds of writing students of their own); reacting to them, Ernie Acosta (my ghost editor) would not have sighed, gone out for a smoke, mumbled in Spanish something incomprehensible but nonetheless frankly indicting -- no, he would've said, "All right. Now, we have something I'd like to
I feel pleased and obligated to mention Jane Shore's long association with
Ploughshares. In 1977, Jane edited the poetry for Vol. 3, Nos. 3&4, which she refers to as "The Elizabeth Bishop Issue." And she edited again, with Ellen Wilbur, Vol. 10, No. 4, in 1984. She first met the founders, DeWitt Henry and Peter O'Malley, in 1971 -- so her association goes back quite a ways. I thought about
that, and about the prolific generosities of
Ploughshares, when witnessing arguments for and against the support of literary journals on Capitol Hill (I can't get those NEA "debates" out of my mind). I guess it would be accurate to say that
Ploughshares is a literary community whose good writing has helped keep, as Joseph Brodsky said in a lecture once, "anesthetizing despair at bay." Because without good writing, despair is what, I firmly believe, we would fall victim to.
I used to keep a kind of daybook: odd jottings, letters never sent, desperate ideas for anthologies, quotes, etc. -- useless, really. But I at least
felt like I was working. One obsession was to chronicle other writers' reports, notions, suggestions of what Peter Handke, in an essay by this title, called "A Successful Day." I had entries from Peter Esterhazy, Junichiro Tanizaki, Bash¯o, Wallace Shawn, Beckett, Mandelstam, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Kerouac, Paul Blackburn, Miklos Radnoti, Boleslaw Sulik, Cees Nooteboom, and so on. My long-term intention was to construct a consensus profile of "The Successful Day" in a writer's life. It was a nonsense project; it kept me busy. In the end, most accounts -- tucked into journals, letters, occasional pieces, even novels -- had little to do with actually writing. It had to do with walking by the sea, talking on the telephone, buying light bulbs, fretting over illness, seeing a matinee, endless driving, fixing a bicycle, dinner with friends, love -- anything but owning up to the inescapable (thank our lucky stars)
preoccupation that is writing. And one day in New York City, I actually saw my all-time favorite writer, Max Frisch, in the Gotham Book Mart. I couldn't believe my luck. It was far more thrilling than seeing -- well, to me --
anyone. And, reader, I confess to actually following him. Out of the bookstore. Through the diamond district. He walked blocks and blocks, smoking a pipe. He was dressed in a casual suit, sensible shoes. I followed him for maybe an hour. He bought a pretzel. He went into a bar and drank a beer. Finally, he went into a small uptown hotel.
To write, I thought, to carry on with
successful day. But actually I doubted it, because he had bought a dozen magazines en route. I mention all of this because one unexpected reward of editing this issue was an uncanny kind of
connection (however self-serving) with the writers in this issue, some of whom Jane and I know personally. I fairly obsessed in trying to imagine, in all their various cities and houses, what their working days were like: perhaps comprised of not writing, but at least
thinking about what they are writing. A diary of a writer not writing would be a far cry from a book about "writer's block" -- pray tell, we don't need any more of
That is all. Editing has allowed us to be in residence with fine writers, the chance to reminiscence, to guess at the nature of other writers' lives, to read all sorts of things we might not have otherwise. We thank all of our contributors for sending their work.