On Leaving the Womb
My predecessor, Colette Kelso, had nicknamed the AGNI production office “the womb.” A 15’ x 30’ space, courtesy of Derek Walcott, carved out of the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre on the western edge of the BU campus. Its walls were, with the exception of one corner splashed with white, a dark, pinkish orange, the color made darker by the shortage of light coming through the one small window at the end of the room, and by the lack of overhead lighting, leaving us to use standing lamps, those good ole’ black halogen torchieres everyone bought at Costco in the late eighties. And in the mornings—during the winter, at least, which is when I began as managing editor four years ago—I would open the door and be met by a blast of heat from the wall heater, the thermostat having been left on high the evening before by the actors in the dressing room next door. Small, dim, pinkish, hot, cozy. The womb.
Once I got the heat problem fixed, the thing that struck me most upon entering was the smell: an old, musty, papery scent that one would have assumed rose from books, except that we didn’t have shelves on the walls then, holding stacks of our back issues. So perhaps it was the carpet, or the thin plywood walls. Regardless, I loved that smell, so different from the new but staid, prepackaged odor of my previous job in the BU business school building. Coming into the dim, quiet room, sunlight—once spring hit—from the east streaming through the little window, the weight of the magazine pleasantly on my shoulders, charged with carrying it forward day to day under Askold’s watchful, benevolent eye, I was excited. Relieved. One might even say happy. Certainly happier.
Since then, I have painted the walls a light “Boston cream” (I do like bright walls—and doughnuts); had shelves installed on both walls, displaying for visitors (but more for ourselves) our back issues, the magazine’s illustrious history in one glance; bought another new, if no less troublesome, computer; put up a plant—first a fern, which died for lack of care, then a golden pothos, which limps along despite regular neglect. But the scent is still there, this “eau de AGNI,” every morning when I unlock the door, reminding me of my first days here. If only I could bottle it.
The first time I had a chance to apply for the job, I didn’t. I still didn’t “get it.” I’d only just heard of the magazine two years earlier, while applying to graduate programs in creative writing and seeing it touted in the BU literature. At that point—like so many of my classmates, I would find—I didn’t really read the lit mags, but rather the standard glossies. And throughout the program we dreamt of that New Yorker publication and that $15,000 check (so it was rumored), or at least The Atlantic, Esquire, Playboy, etc. Even when, that spring, our fellow BU alumna Jhumpa Lahiri published her first three stories simultaneously in The New Yorker, Salamander, and AGNI, and our director, Leslie Epstein, told us, “See, you’ve just got to keep at it,” I must still have been focusing on The New Yorker, or the number of her publications, or her playful-sounding name, which I’d seen while typesetting her story as an AGNI intern, thinking I wish I were Indian. What I really should have been asking myself was which story I liked best of the three (it was “Interpreter of Maladies”), and where was it published (here).
Which is not to say that it’s not okay to dream. But let’s not forget that all our great fiction writers—Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, etc.—started in the lit mags. That’s where, I would learn from Askold, their bread and butter—well, their butter, anyway, which is to say their publishing and reputation, as opposed to their financial sustenance—came from.
Forget it I did, however, (or really didn’t even know it) and so after my MA and a fall of teaching, I ignored the opening here at AGNI and took a job back in fundraising, in a fancy office at a very good salary. You’d think I’d have learned from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—wherein the greedy, power-mad capitalist chooses the shiniest gold cup as the Grail and, sipping from it, withers to dust (“He chose . . . poorly,” laments the guardian knight), whereas wise, courageous Indy chooses the humblest, grimiest cup and is saved—that all that doesn’t glitter isn’t not gold. (sic)
It is some consolation that Proust’s overriding “message” in Remembrance of Things Past (or so I’m told; I’m finally reading it myself) is that no matter how many correctional experiences we have, we make the same mistakes over and over.
Excuses, excuses. I chose . . . poorly.
What a difference a year makes. I still consider it strong evidence for the existence of God that the AGNI job opened again the following fall. The intervening year—the job—was one of the worst of my life, not least because I wasn’t writing, and the people where I worked didn’t really care about writing. And so I came crawling back, doing everything I could to get the job. Nothing underhanded or unfair, mind you, just a full-color Power Point presentation with a new layout for the magazine, slides packed with reasons why I was best for the job, etc. etc. Who says Microsoft and a computer background are antithetical to literature?
One of my favorite lines in rock is from The Steve Miller’s Band’s “Jet Airliner”: “You have to go through hell before you get to heaven.” Amen to that.
When I decided in early November to leave AGNI to finish my novel, I couldn’t wait to get out of here. Not that this job hasn’t exceeded my expectations in every way. It has. And Askold and Sven have both been very generous with my hours, leaving me some time to write. But I seem to be a slow writer, and have always been chomping at the bit for more (who isn’t?), so I couldn’t wait to have all those hours free—to write, to read all those classics, to finally be . . . what, relaxed? not under pressure? As though there won’t be any difficulty or strain or boredom in writing full time. If there is a Proustian mistake I’m sure I will continue to repeat, it’s assuming that the grass will be a richer, unending verdure once I just get over that fence, whether it be writing full time, publishing my novel, becoming famous, finding the love of my life, losing those ten (okay, twenty) pounds, whatever. No, in fine Grunwaldian fashion, I allowed myself to forget what I’d be losing in leaving AGNI, all those things that have prompted me over the last four years to enthusiastically tell people what a great job it is, best I’ve ever had. It has only been as my actual departure has barreled closer and my successor—the very capable Bill Pierce—has been hired and trained (by me) that sadness has crept in, and the second thoughts the come with the realization of all that I will miss.
I will miss the staff-only orgies at Birkerts’s and Melnyczuk’s. I will miss the groupies milling about the offices, the private jet at our beck and call, the dinners at the Governor’s mansion and the White House. I will miss being able to seduce any woman with the irresistible, double-barrelled fact of being both a writer and an editor at a literary magazine.
Seriously, though, I will miss the free review copies of books and lit mags that stream in through the mail. Hell, I will miss getting all that mail, even if it is mostly submissions. And I will miss my free internet access.
Most of all, though, I will miss the discounted office supplies.
Okay, okay. I’m joking to hide my true feelings. My loss.
I will really miss Kate and Jake and Heidi and Marc down the hall, doing their thespian thing and constantly helping out AGNI—and me. Talking poetry and fiction and playwright with Jake. I will miss the sounds of theater across the hall, especially the actors occasionally screaming obscenities at one another, and that thrill of fear (hope?) that they are, for once, not just acting.
I will miss working with and getting to know the new crop of interns every year from the graduate creative writing program and elsewhere, of hearing the gossip from the workshops, of giving them advice born of the wisdom of being an “old hand” at it—i.e., “When I was in the program, there wasn’t a subway, and we had to walk both ways uphill in the snow, and Leslie used to make us stand at attention and salute him at the beginning of every workshop,” etc.
I will miss publishing the work of authors, especially the new, up-and-comers but also the well-established ones, who are all so grateful for what we do. Of occasionally having a hand in what gets published, the thrill of discovering something new and sharing it with the world (to paraphrase Sven from AGNI 57). Even if I still can’t publish my own fiction. As they say, if you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.
I will probably even miss struggling with the unending bugs in this computer and its predecessor, much as the United States has felt lost without its old nemesis the USSR, or Kirk without Kahn.
Mostly, though, I will miss getting to work with an editor—in both Askold and Sven—possessing a brilliant mind and unique personality and who has not just been a great boss but has also become a mentor and friend. I feel extremely fortunate to have been managing editor at this juncture in AGNI’s history: the succession of editors; the thirtieth anniversary, with a celebration including thirteen fine poets (and people); the launching, finally, of this website, bringing AGNI, despite the misgivings I share with Sven, completely into the digital age—and, contradictions aside, I will miss updating the website every week: “websetting” and proofreading the new pieces on our own computer and then, bang, with the touch of a button making them visible to literally the entire world (mind-boggling); reestablishing a New York presence with a couple of events down there; brainstorming and strategizing for the future, thinking about the basic question of what AGNI, what a literary magazine, should be.
In short I will miss, as Askold put it in my job interview, being the magazine.
In his final column as editor, Askold wrote in the 30th-anniversary issue: “The best part of the literary life, as perhaps with everything, are the friends one makes along the way, and I have been hugely blessed.” As have I. More than anything, I will miss the daily camaraderie. Fortunately, I take all these friendships—not just from the office, but from many of you out there, too—with me into the void, where I will surely need them.
I will miss the womb sorely. But this time, I don’t go out alone.
Eric Grunwald is no longer managing editor of AGNI.