In 25 years, a high school samizdat becomes a literary triumph
by Eric McHenry
AGNI magazine has a distinguished roster of patrons, including Donald Hall, David Lehman, the late James Laughlin, and the Hindu god of fire.
If Askold Melnyczuk (GRS'78) had known, in 1971, that the underground newspaper he and his Cranford, N.J., high school buddies were founding would over the next quarter-century metamorphose into one of the nation's premier literary journals, he might have second-guessed the method of selection that led to its being named after a Vedic deity.
"We went into an old used bookstore," Melnyczuk recalls, "and somebody opened a book and said, 'We're going to call it whatever we find here.' It was the '70s, and that sort of felt like destiny."
Perhaps it was.
"Of course, everybody then liked the idea that the Hindu god of fire would be our patron," he says. "It stuck."
So did the publication it stuck to. On Wednesday, December 3, AGNI will hold its 25th anniversary celebration at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. Issue 46 of the semiannual magazine was released this month. It features first publications from young writers, whose work was selected by more established members of the national literary community.
Attracting and exposing young and previously unknown authors, Melnyczuk says, has been among AGNI's enduring purposes. One of the magazine's old promotional inserts has a list of previous contributors divided into several categories, ranging from "The Usual Suspects" (Seamus Heaney, Joyce Carol Oates) to "People We Suspected First" (Ha Jin [GRS'94], Lucie Brock-Broido) to "People No One Else Suspects Yet" (Rafael Campo [GRS'91], Thomas Sayers Ellis). In cooperation with Graywolf Press, AGNI has brought forth two installments of Take Three, a series that annually collects chapbook-length manuscripts from three up-and-coming poets in a single volume.
The first issue of AGNI, reincarnated as a literary journal, cost $50 to produce. Melnyczuk took a printing class and assembled it himself. He circulated a mimeographed call for submissions and attempted to solicit work from the poet Robert Bly, who responded thoughtfully.
"He wrote back at once, saying that he didn't have a lot of poems on hand, but maybe I could use this -- and he wrote something on the postcard," says Melnyczuk. "I still remember this one-line poem of his that we published: 'The train whistles the way I thought in the womb.' I've come to know Bly over the years, and he's an enormously generous guy."
Toward the production of issue number two, Antioch gave Melnyczuk a grant of $100. These little gestures of encouragement, he says, helped AGNI acquire some momentum. Even when personal financial concerns forced him to leave Antioch in 1974, the life of the magazine was not imperiled.
"I went back to live with my parents in New Jersey and went to Rutgers, in Newark," he says, "but continued producing AGNI, which by that time had become what it has remained -- a kind of way to stay in touch with the literary community."
Melnyczuk graduated from Rutgers in 1976. With $500 in his pocket, he moved to Boston and took a job at a photocopying center. After a year, he entered the BU master's program in creative writing. All the while, he continued producing AGNI twice annually. Far from being burdensome or distracting, he says, it was a source of stability in his life. And it gave him entree into Boston's literary circle.
"It was a very sustaining thing," he says, "an organizing and focusing thing. It gave me a calling card, a way to meet writers here. I think without it I would have been much more lost in Boston."
The city is an ideal location for a magazine with AGNI's objectives, says Managing Editor Valerie Duff. Although it is by no means a regional publication, she says, AGNI both contributes to, and draws energy from, Boston's lively writing community.
"It's great to have writers constantly converging here," Duff says, "and being able to talk face-to-face with the people we publish. Of course the other magazines -- Ploughshares, Partisan Review, Harvard Review -- create a happy, healthy competition."
In 1980, Melnyczuk turned the editorial reins over to the poet Sharon Dunn. After two peripatetic years, he accepted a teaching position at BU. When he reassumed AGNI's editorship in 1987, the English department agreed to donate office space, and the magazine's University affiliation began. Melnyczuk says it was a necessary foot in the door. AGNI now receives a $20,000 annual subsidy from the University.
That's important, because the days of the $50 issue are long gone. Between production expenses and authors' fees, each new AGNI number costs about $12,000 to create. In addition to BU's undergirding, consistent financial support from various trusts and groups such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and from the aforementioned patrons, has been vital to the magazine, Melnyczuk says. Serious readers are a decided minority in the United States, he adds, and no literary journal can survive on sales alone.
"I remember reading that something like 67 percent of the American population would like to write a book," says Melnyczuk. "They believe that they have a book in them. And something like 7 percent actually buy books. People want their stories told, but they don't necessarily want to hear yours."
He paraphrases author Joseph Brodsky and author/publisher James Laughlin, both of whom have appeared in AGNI's pages more than once through the years.
"Brodsky used to say that all he wanted was four good readers," says Melnyczuk. "That would be enough to keep him writing. I think it was in Laughlin's obituary that he was quoted as saying he'd much rather a book have 800 serious readers, who will keep it alive over time and create a sort of pyramid, than a million readers in one year who immediately forget the book.
"That," he says, "is what we count on and believe we have achieved. We endure in the longer, deeper memories of our readers."
AGNI's 25th Anniversary Celebration will begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday, December 3, at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave. For more information, call 353-7135.