Saturday, March 21, 2009

Perusing "The New England Review"

The journal experiment has been such a glorious thing, with unexpected surprises. This office's first copy of The New England Review arrived, and again, it is different from any other journal out there. The more I practice this fascinating exercise of studying literary journals, the more convinced I become that the time-honored practice of writing a poem or a short story in private and then sending it various places to see where it sticks is less my style -- I prefer the notion of understanding a journal as an entity and writing just for it.

(Flannery O'Connor might argue with me. She had her own way, and in the late 1940s she resisted so strongly her first editor's pleas for conformity that they ended up not working together, with each party declaring the other intractable. Maybe she was right. But this is for now my opinion.)

My first impression of The New England Review is that its size and the unfussy quality of the paper combine to give it the feel of a workbook. Unlike The Georgia Review that is rich with illustrations, or The Virginia Quarterly Review that features photography leaning toward a global, human rights focus, this copy of NER has no images except black-and-white ones in the ads, and the simple cover is a closeup of an abstract painting. No fuss, no drumrolls, just the work, laid out page by austere page. There is a certain cleanness to that, a lack of sentimentality. Also, NER has less of the perceived pretension that kept me away from the literary journals for such an unfortunately long time. Dare I say, it seems approachable. (But then, so does Ploughshares in a different way).

Of the 27 contributors to this 30th-anniversary edition, nine are faculty members, and that's good news both for those employed within and without the academy. For academics, it is comforting to know that a full third of the contributions come from us. For non-academics, it is good to know that two-thirds work elsewhere and publish very well. The notion that there would be a robust representation of academics but not an overwhelming majority interests me. I don't know what it means, but it seems balanced.

The oddest thing about all of this is that I have begun to read more poetry. It has long been my greatest challenge, as I have consistently preferred prose forms. But the poetry showcased in these journals has tended toward the extraordinary, and I begin each day with anticipation of it.

To a reader who might ask if I read these journals in one sitting, the answer is absolutely not. I try to make one copy last about two months, with readings from it every day or two. Sometimes I'll go a few days and not read, and then other times I might read for an hour, but I do dip in and out. One goal of the journal experiments -- besides learning the nature of many journals by reading them as a regular subscriber, and besides heightening awareness of their richness for those aspiring authors who may benefit richly from discovering that world -- is to make shorter work such as short fiction and poetry part of the fabric of everyday life. I eat, I wash, I walk the dogs, I read poems, I garden, I visit friends, I read short fiction, I dance, I sing, I pray, I study, I read novels, I rise, I sleep, I worship, I read nonfiction. Amen.

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