Sunday, October 06, 2002

The reduction or narrowing of discourse that is a fundamental dynamic of the thematic exists for publications as it does for poems. One project in which I once participated, chronicling the first hundred days of the Jimmy Carter administration, was almost luridly obsolete before the ink dried. The present spate of literary publications “in response” to 911 are themselves doomed to the same sad fate.

Two journals have shown that the ability to concentrate can be expansive and inclusive rather than restrictive. Chain demonstrates how to avoid this impoverishment largely by focusing on programmatic themes:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Gender and editing
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Documentary
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Hybrid genres & mixed media
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Processes & procedures
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Different languages
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Letters
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Memoir/Anti-memoir
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Comics
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Dialogue
Chain characterizes these not as themes but as topics. Each, in the description posed on the journal’s website, is

a yearly issue of writing and art gathered loosely around a topic. The topic serves as an editorial limit and changes the question asked of each piece submitted from "is this a great piece of art" to "does this piece of art say something about the topic that is not already known." This makes Chain a little rougher around the edges, a little less aesthetically predictable.

Only the initial 1993 issue on “gender and editing” can be said to completely focus on a topic as such, in the sense of content. The others can be more accurately characterized as identifying a genre or strategies of writing, without specifying further where any given project might choose to focus. One might say anything in a dialogue, write anything in a letter, remember (or anti-remember) anything, draw a comic on any subject whatsoever. Chain’s strategy maximizes its contributors’ degree of freedom, one reason that it has become, as previously noted here, “the premier American literary journal.”

An interesting comparison might be made to Poetics Journal, the publication edited by Barrett Watten & Lyn Hejinian between 1982 and 1998. With its commitment to serious in-depth critical discussion, Poetics Journal is Chain’s most direct ancestor. From its second issue onward, PJ also organized each issue around a theme:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Close reading
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Poetry & philosophy
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Women & language
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Non/narrative
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Marginality: public & private language
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Postmodern?
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Elsewhere
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>The Person
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Knowledge
With the exception of “non/narrative,” Poetics Journal’s topics were more thematic than formal.* But the topics were so global – the last three could be read as primary ontological categories – that any sense of limitation was minimal.

The two issues that come closest to one another are “Woman & Language,” the fourth issue of Poetics Journal, and “Gender & Editing,” Chain’s focus in its first issue. The proportional scale that each theme proposes – Chain conjoins a broader first term to a narrower second one – seems completely accurate to the editorial inclinations of that journal.

Both publications show what can be accomplished via an organized, topic-driven strategy to editing. My own hesitation toward this approach is not fully resolved, however, simply because two exceptional teams of editors demonstrate that it can be done right. Because mostly in the world of little magazines (and big), it’s not done very well at all. To some degree, my own sense reverses the questions staked out in Chain’s website: Would this text have been written without the artificial stimulus of pre-assured publication? Is the work, on its own terms, necessary? Chain & Poetics Journal exemplify what can achieve when only the highest standards of writing & thinking are accepted. Would that more journals were like this.

* “Close reading” could be characterized as formal, but on the side of the reader rather than the writer. Given its appropriation & reframing of the major methodological device of the New Critics, one could argue that this was Poetics Journal’s most radical intervention.