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Shadowboxing: Putting Down the Gloves, Leaving the Whispering Gallery

by Askold Melnyczuk

 

          We asked to be obsessed with writing
          And we were.

                          —Robert Lowell

The literary romance was in full bloom when I arrived in Boston in the summer of 1976, and it was my good fortune to stumble into the thick of it. Robert Lowell was still alive and that fall gave a reading at Harvard, which I avoided on principle. According to the neo-surrealists, who claimed imagination superior to memory, and under whose spell I was, Lowell was a dinosaur, doomed to mythologizing his aristocratic past.

Now, of course, this is just another item on a long list of Errors of Youth — the very kind you swore to yourself at twenty you would never compile. Today I hear clearly Lowell’s sonorous, surging music and appreciate his casual fierceness, his willingness to sound the public note and name liars in public places, his belief that his voice mattered. Self-lacerating, destructive personal lives strangely thwarted that generation—but such may be the consequences of living in interesting times.

Listening to poetry is a lot of what I’ve done over the last decades. It was time well spent. In a frequently ruthless and breathtakingly greedy empire, currently run by a family of warlords named Bush, American poetry offers an alternative vision of experience, one which has made it necessary to shade all assessments and reports—to myself, to my immigrant family, to strangers—about what America, the real America, is. The complex nature of the American spirit was early and beau-tifully articulated by Whitman and Dickinson. They recognized its possibilities, and they anticipa-ted the dangers it would face. In his introduction to Leaves of Grass, Whitman enjoined his readers:

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men—go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families—reexamine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Much has been said about the diminished ambitions of contemporary poetry, and most of it’s been wrong, no more than the voice of ignorance that’s unwilling to wade and weigh for itself the heft and heart of the words. Writers like Derek Walcott, Robert Pinsky, Glyn Maxwell, Tom Sleigh, Ha Jin, Lucie Brock-Broido, William Corbett, and Thomas Sayers Ellis prove the grand ambition electric and coursing in an unbroken continuum, and no empty conversations about book sales or literary politics will confuse the compilers of anthologies several generations down the line when they finally take stock of us. They will in time hear the music, and they will respond.

At AGNI we had the privilege over the last thirty years of hearing early the sounding of many genuine notes. I remember the ex-citement in the office when we read early work by Edward Hirsch, Melissa Green, Peter Balakian, Stuart Dischell—the list is long, and surprisingly inclusive. Looking over who has appeared in the magazine I have been repeatedly struck by how many exceptional poets crossed our threshold (and not just poets: I distinctly recall reading, late one night, three starkly beautiful manu-script pages by a novelist I’d heard of but not met, Susanna Kaysen, which became the opening to Girl, Interrupted; and I remember poring over three stories by a writer whose work we’d seen before, sensing in them a new authority and wanting to publish them all before settling on “Interpreter of Maladies.” But there were many such epiphanies, including my first brush with the stories of the too-little-known C. S. Godschalk and M. T. Sharif—as well as, alas, a far greater number of fumbles). From Chinua Achebe to Oksana Zabuzhko, we have had the chance to overhear significant sensibilities from around the world whispering in public.

While I will miss walking through this whispering gallery, I’m hungry for the new voices that will begin echoing around my il-lustrious successor, Sven Birkerts. In book after book, from the essays in An Artificial Wilderness to his recent memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, Birkerts has shown himself the acutest of listeners, capable of tuning in both to the work of a vast range of writers, domestic and international, as well as to the subtleties and nuances of experience. Indeed, rarely has a comparable capacity for attentiveness to both realms appeared yoked in a single temperament. A sensitivity to one usually attenuates awareness of the other. I anticipate only the unexpected: where Birkerts will take the magazine I’ve no idea, but I have absolute confidence in the guide.

*      *      *

All that remains is for me to offer some heartfelt thanks.

I will not here attempt to rehearse AGNI’s history, its evolution from a high school underground newspaper in Cranford, New Jersey, partly subsidized by my parents, to the present. However, I want to acknowledge a number of people whose contributions made the magazine both possible and often a joy to produce. 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. My fellow editors in high school were Marianne Lynch, William Hayes, Eric Weisgerber, Charles Capro, Lawrence Lee, and Thomas Bahr— and I am fortunate to have re-mained in touch with several of them.

In 1972, when the newspaper was reincarnated as a literary journal at Antioch College, I counted among my gifted collaborators Stuart Dischell, Eric Hoffman, and Kim Connell. Later, again in New Jersey, the journal profited hugely from its association with David Ghitelman. Once it settled in Cam-bridge in 1976, Tia Kimberk and Sharon Dunn came on the scene.

In 1980 I left the editor’s chair, bottle in hand, to chase the writer’s life for several years. Between then and 1987, Sharon Dunn produced a number of brilliant issues, aided by John J. Clayton, William Logan, Mary Morris, Lawrence Millman, Norman Dukes, and Bruce B. Anderson, among others.
In 1987 I resumed editorship, and when Leslie Epstein, chair of the B.U. Creative Writing Program, offered us office space, I seized the day and the room, and the magazine profited daily from the association.

The Boston literary community took a healthy show me stance toward the magazine, and I remain ever grateful to Bill and Beverly Corbett for the generous open house they kept on Columbus Square, to Diana Der-Hovanessian, whose devotion to the New England Poetry Club has kept that organization alive and central, to Gail Mazur for her heroic and essential work at Blacksmith House, to Stratis Haviaris, formerly of the Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard, and especially to the late Ed Hogan, of Zephyr Press.
Over the years my colleagues at B.U. have included not only Leslie but Derek Walcott, Robert Pinsky, Susanna Kaysen, Ralph Lombreglia, Sue Miller, Aharon Applefeld, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, Amos Oz, and many others. B.U. was a large part of why Boston in the eighties was, for my money, as close as you could get to Paris in the twenties.

AGNI has also been fortunate in its managing editors, from Ann Greenberger to Marcelle Hinand, to Jennifer Rose, to Erin Belieu, to Valerie Duff, to Colette Kelso, and finally to Eric Grunwald, who is superbly equipped to help the journal make this current transition.

Our covers over the last years showed the penetrating eye and wide reach of our art editor, Gerry Bergstein.

Our poetry and fiction panels dramatized just how much passion these arts can still generate. Jenna Blum, Michael Collier, Claire Jarvis, Bill Corbett, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Fred Marchant, Tom Sleigh, Michael Franco, and Valerie Duff gave selflessly to the monumental task of culling a limited number of works from slush piles of thousands.

And while the discoveries were gratifying, crossing paths with ac-complished spirits was sublime, and we were much boosted by the generosity of poets like Daniel Berrigan, Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich, and many others.

Finally, I would like to thank all the fine intern editorial assistants over the years, especially those of this summer—Liz Behrend, Nate Beyer, Darcie DeAngelo, Katie Krell, and Scarlett Stoppa—without whose enthusiasm, dedication, and acumen this tremendous anthology could not have come together so quickly, smoothly, and beautifully.

I myself will miss the excitement of discovery that can come with reading the slush pile, and the comradeship that springs from producing a journal, the pleasures of working with a small but extraordinary staff, the delights and burdens of organizing events and readings, and the meetings and conversations with writers, but I look forward to visiting the magazine regularly, now as a contributor.

— A.M., 9/12/02
Medford, MA


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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI