Guest Editor: Jorie Graham
Editor: Don Lee
Vol. 27, No. 4. Winter 2001-02, 215 pages, $9.95
The Pros and Cons of Seasonal Farming
Most literary magazines, even the renowned ones, can be like the jar of pickled eggs depicted in Richard Baker’s painting “Jar” that covers the Winter 2001-02 issue of Ploughshares. It can be hard to tell from the outset who packed it and whether its contents are going to be fresh or spoiled.
For over the past 30 years, however, Ploughshares has sidestepped this problem to some extent by opening its editorial circle to an acclaimed guest editor with each new issue, giving readers a better idea of who is packing the jar.
By bringing in prominent writers to cull the published works from both solicited and unsolicited manuscripts, in what usually amounts to a 50/50 split, Ploughshares is, as the policy states, “designed to introduce readers to different literary circles and tastes, and to offer a fuller representation of the range and diversity of contemporary letters than would be possible with a single editorship.”
While this is a noble endeavor and one that makes for a wonderful eclecticism from one issue to the next, it also means occasionally taking the bad eggs with the good. In the first line of her introduction, “Something of a Moment,” Jorie Graham, this winter’s migrant editor, freely admits that she primarily concerned herself with the selection of the 61 poems by the 27 poets in the issue, leaving the seven works of prose, “except for a few instances,” to be selected by the regular editorial staff.
The discrepancy is clear.
On the whole, the quality of the prose tends to be higher than that of the poetry, which seems to be consistent only its unified reflection of Graham’s own postmodernist leanings.
As a poet, Jorie Graham is not short on acclaim. She has written nine books of poetry, received countless awards including the Pulitzer Prize, and has just recently left the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty to become Harvard University’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. While this is not to say that these accolades are undeserved, Graham’s career does serve as proof that those in the school of postmodern thought have become the Literary Establishment. And, as is the case with any establishment, many sub-par works can pass as long as they subscribe to the dominant school of thought.
Such seems to be the case with much of Graham’s selections as an editor. At times, like with the poems of Laura Mullen and Cal Bedient, Graham’s only criteria seems to have been that the poem ends with an unclosed parenthesis. With other selections, the guiding principle seems to have been that the poem contain the word “word” (11 of the 27 poets make this inclusion).
Possibly the worst example of these postmodern selections can be found in James McCorkle’s poem “Iron Path [Eisen-Steig]” which ends with its own endnotes provided by the author. The notion of suggesting further reading by citing sources seems not only to be an unreasonable demand on the reader but also antithetical to the communicative purpose of poetry.
None of this is to say that no salvageable image, concept, or even whole poem exists within this volume. David Kirby’s “The Ha-Ha, Part II: I Cry My Heart, Antonio” makes a wonderful analogy, among all its echoes, between the masking of thoughts with anecdotes in conversation and 18th-century English landscaping. Poems invoking poems, however, as this piece later does, are about as effective as songs about songs. A couple of the more consistently structured poems come towards the end of the issue, alphabetically arranged by author’s last name. Both Sam White and Dean Young, with their poems “Snake Hunting at Night” and “Side Effects” respectively, make amazing turns with their imagery. Like a finger tracing the lines of a map, the reader’s mind is drawn through the emotional experiences of these poets.
Some of the other more complete poetry selections found within the Winter Ploughshares include Dan Chiasson’s “Anonymous Bust of a Man, c. 100 A.D. (Cyprus),” Matthea Harvey’s “The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away,” Mark Levine’s “Then,” and Tessa Rumsey’s “Headset.” But regardless of Graham and her generally spotty choices this time around, Ploughshares has garnered its share of notoriety over the years for both its poetry and its short fiction. In all likelihood, it will continue to do so, especially in the case of the latter.
Over the past decade, more selections from Ploughshares have appeared in The Best American Short Stories collections than any other literary journal. Last year alone, a record number of four stories were chosen from their publication. And since works later selected for those guest edited anthologies of greatest hits are regularly reaped from Ploughshares‘ crop, to see a change in Ploughshares is to witness a turn of the trends.
One such refreshing sign is what seems to be a return to a more equal balance in the range of points of view represented. Four of the seven short stories use the third person point of view, not simply limiting what is considered a good story to those that stick to the subjective first person.
Of the third person stories, Diane Ackerman’s “Hummingbirds” and Thomas H. McNeely’s “Tickle Torture” rank as the top two. Ackerman’s story plucks at the tender contempt involved in an illicit affair between a younger (though not young) woman and a married man. With such lines as, “There was nothing more irritating than trying to show one’s esoteric cultural knowledge only to be sucker-punched by someone with better trivia,” Ackerman pushes her cleverness to its maximum, but never overdoses the reader past caring about the characters or their story. McNeely’s “Tickle Torture,” on the other hand, places the story of a boy and his mother’s aimless vacation in a stark relief suitable to its Texas setting while still maintaining the shadowy element of the child protagonist’s knowledge.
However, by far the best of the whole bunch is Chelsey Johnson’s “Pinhead, Moonhead,” a first person account of one self-conscious adolescent girl’s afternoon with her friends. Not only does Johnson maintain a believably naive yet insightful narrator, but the integrity of the other characters is not jeopardized by this consistency. And despite the simplicity of the events that transpire, the climax can still twist a wrench in the reader’s guts.
Ultimately, to fault Ploughshares on this issue, or even on the whole as a literary magazine, for Graham’s selections would be wrong, as the magazine’s express interest is to provide glimpses into the tastes of different prominent authors, whatever their agenda. But hopefully next season’s offerings will be more fresh. It won’t be long now, anyway. Spring is all but here.