Thursday, March 01, 2007

It is a sign of a considerable amount of editorial confidence for a literary journal, any literary journal, to start running three poems by John Ashbery on page 319. Conjunctions can do it for its 25th anniversary issue because

(a)  it’s an all-star issue, even by the standards of Conjunctions, which has been the best literary review in American now for pretty much all of its 25 years;

(b)   the lead-off position is already inhabited by Jonathan Lethem;

(c)   319 is still 97 pages ahead of where John Barth’s latest work turns up.

The table of contents for this issue is simply intimidating. It includes, in the following order: Jonathan Lethem; Ann Lauterbach; Jim Crace; Peter Gizzi; Joanna Scott; Valerie Martin; Robert Antoni; Lydia Davis; Robert Kelly; Howard Norman; Edie Meidav; Clark Coolidge; Marcella Durand; C.D. ; Wright; Christopher Sorrentino; Joyce Carol Oates; Reginald Shepherd; Rosmarie Waldrop; Elizabeth Robinson; Peter Dale Scott; William H. Gass; Micheline Aharonian Marcom; Can Xue; Martine Bellen; Marjorie Welish; Edmund White; Rikki Ducornet; Jonathan Carroll; Peter Straub; John Ashbery; Barbara Guest; Keith Waldrop; Maureen Howard; Lynne Tillman; Rick Moody; Julia Elliott; Rae Armantrout; Lyn Hejinian; Forrest Gander; Jessica Hagedorn; Brenda Coultas; Scott Geiger; Diane Williams; John Barth; and Will Self.

With regards to poetry, that’s an interesting list in & of itself. It includes two masters of the New Americans Poetry (NAP) (Ashbery & Guest), four poets from the generation immediately following the New Americans (Kelly, both Waldrops, Peter Dale Scott), three langpos (Coolidge, Armantrout, Hejinian), several “third way” or elliptical poets (Wright, Lauterbach, Welish, Gander), one identarian (Hagedorn), even one School of Quietude writer (Shepherd), plus several younger poets of the post-langpo variety (Gizzi, Durand, Robinson, Bellen, Coultas). That’s the kind of broad-spectrum inclusion one used to associate with Poetry magazine during the later years of Henry Rago’s tenure there. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that several of these poets also treat Conjunctions much the way writers did Poetry in those years as well, by saving their best, or at least favorite, poems for the journal. It doesn’t matter all that much that Shepherd might not be one of the SoQ poets I would think to pick if I were making an effort to show that tendency off to its best advantage (tho it's not his first appearance in the journal's pages), or that Hagedorn’s contribution is fiction. Rather, Brad Morrow is doing what good editors do best: he is giving us a path through poetry that shows how one might choose to read each of these writers & kinds of writing. The issue as a whole can be read as an argument, or even as a jigsaw puzzle. Morrow is showing us how, for him, these pieces fit together.

He is also offering us a series of values as well. With the exception of Shepherd, really all of the other poets included, even Hagedorn, fall into the broad post-avant tradition. But Morrow is not without his commitments here also. There’s no visual poetry, none of the politically inflected documentation oriented poetics that one saw around a journal like Chain (tho one might make the case that Peter Dale Scott is a direct antecedent to such), nor the pure-play conceptual poetics, say, of a Kenny Goldsmith or Christian Bök. With the exception of the langpos & Peter Dale Scott, the poets are uniformly from the East Coast. The New American are both New York School. Someone who knew poetry, but had no information about Conjunctions or Morrow per se, could probably place its editorial address within 50 miles.

I would suspect that one could trace a very similar set of values through the prose work here as well. Gass, White & Barth may be among the most honored fiction writers of the past half century, but they’re all decidedly High Lit & with more than a little of the Pomo about them. Oates is deceiving because she often looks like a conventional writer, but she produces so much work so quickly (a trait she shares with Robert Kelly) & her writing always bristles with ideas & a superb ear (ditto Kelly again, but one might also say much the same about Stephen King, who would be a surprise to find here). Jonathan Lethem is a present-tense fiction superstar, the way Barth was in the 1970s, &, also like Barth, is a writer whose intellectual ambition is almost without bound. Lydia Davis is very possibly the best writer of short fiction since Borges or Kafka. Although she received a MacArthur a couple of years ago, she’s still on my list of most under-celebrated writers of my generation.

I’ve tended – this may be my own bias showing through here – to imagine that Morrow’s editorial vision has always been so strong because he got it not so much in grad school as he did in the book business itself, buying & selling books & archives. How much should one credit Morrow’s co-founder Kenneth Rexroth, whose own allegiances to the New Americans, for example, were not with the New York School (nor, for that matter, with the Projectivists, the other NAP tendency one is apt to find in these pages albeit not so directly in this issue¹, at least not after Creeley ran off with his wife), and who died basically the same year Conjunctions was founded? It’s easy to forget that Morrow was not already a successful novelist when this project began & that the quality of the first handful of issues, before people began to automatically associate Conjunctions with quality, is as much a consequence of his own chutzpah as anything else. Conjunctions is a major magazine, possibly the last print journal deserving that designation in America, because Brad Morrow willed it so. And was willing to do the work to make it happen.


¹ One might see the Projectivist influence indirectly here through the presence of Kelly, one of the poets most directly influenced by Olsonian poetics and by what I would characterize as “Duncan’s reading of Zukofsky’s ear,” and in the presence of Christopher Sorrentino, son of Gilbert, who has become a significant fiction writer in his own right, though without the same sense of a poet’s prose one saw in his father’s books.