Ten Years After
Art or an art is not unlike a river, in that it is perturbed at times by the quality of the river-bed, but is in a way independent of that bed. The color of the water depends upon the substance of the bed and banks immediate and preceding. Stationary objects are reflected, but the quality of motion is of the river. The scientist is concerned with all of these things, the artist with that which flows.
Intelligence is international, stupidity is national, and art is local.
— The Spirit of Romance, Ezra Pound
Ten years is not a very long time. I know that now, having crossed the threshold of forty and feeling, for the first moment, time pressing down. But ten years in the life of a literary journal leaves a watermark, a height notch in a growing child’s doorway, and as such, should be remarked upon. So taking inventory of the last ten years, I have tried to give a capsule summary in this issue, an overview, a shake of the snow globe to show what has settled in our 2500 pages of publication since 1994.
Our first issue contained 22 poets (11 men and 11 women) from talent-rich Western North Carolina, and were culled from a couple hundred entries. We had three stores that agreed to sell this first offering, and no one but myself thought it was much more than a literary snapshot, a nice compendium and complement to the first Asheville Poetry Festival, which attracted four hundred or so hardcore enthusiasts. And although the Festival died in three years, the Review lived on and gathered strength. It is now distributed throughout North America and Western Europe. We have published over 1000 writers from 22 different countries. In the past twelve months we have received 7800 submissions, from some of the finest writers in the world. It is an honor to read and share their work.
Our credo, before we established The Asheville Poetry Review as a creative entity, was to publish the very best regional, national and international work we could find, regardless of style or political outlook. We needed quality to be our guide, craft our beacon, ideas married to a dynamic style. Any subject matter was fit to be considered so long as the language was vivid, with a clear sense of rhythm. We hoped to stay true to the Borges dictum that imaginative writing always involves a combination of “algebra and fire.” Our main agenda was to avoid the appearance of any agenda. We’ve gradually added more translations to the mix, then slowly encouraged more book reviews and historical perspectives.
A well-rounded magazine should teach as well as expose or showcase. Each issue has featured an interview with an interesting poet, not necessarily famous in this country, or a household name, but interesting in the sense of unconventionality. We’ve always invested more in the maverick than the mainstream. And as such, we’ve hoped to shine a brighter light on poets whose work has been neglected. This culminated in our Special Millennial Issue, where we chose Ten Great Neglected Poets of the 20th Century. This issue is still in print and has been used as a teaching text by several high schools and universities.
Many of the poets within these pages are deeply involved with the issues of the present, predicaments magnified by hindsight, yet timeless in their execution. Diana Jurss’s The Last Disaster, for instance, is remarkably prescient for a poem written ten years ago, but seems prophetic now, in the dual shadows of 9/11. Borges’ Ragnarok never fails to astound, and speaks for oppressed people stewing with violence in every decade, divorced from the puppet masters who control their fate. Frank Stanford’ s first person account in Terrorism flips the coin, and speaks with devastating accuracy to the boredom and spiritual bankruptcy that creates the modern-day monster with nothing to lose. The same can be said for Edmund August’s James Earl, whose wound is filled only with the attention his senseless act has garnered; by voiding greatness he washes his face in the sheen his violence generates.
I realize that the artist who ensconces himself, or his subject matter, too deeply inside the events of his own time may become as dated, or as transparent, as those events themselves eventually do. When viewed through the filter of hindsight you may actually devolve, become a mere precursor to more momentous occurrences; but we have to live and breathe and create in the moments we are given. “The poet hankers to write in and for a culture,” Richard Wilbur says in his essay Poetry and Happiness. “What characterizes our life is a disjunction and incoherence aggravated by an intolerable rate of change.” The ideas of order and form can cleave a happiness from the chaos and velocity of our lives. Poetry is such a form, traditional or avant garde, giving voice to what we knew all along, but were unable to express. This allows us to be present and accountable and alive now — for tomorrow the air has moved past you and the place where first you parted it. If science is the memory of the mind, then art is the memory of the feelings.
Every artist has to feel that the era in which they work is the most important, but who can live in this country at this time and not be bombarded with ideas? What other time, if not this one? When have we felt a greater imbalance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’? Cynicism lives hand-in-glove with a culture comprised of fear. Art must contain deliberate rations of cynicism, but the artist cannot afford such a luxury. When Baudelaire wrote Le Fleurs du Mal, even in his most base and hopeless periods, his resurrection was found in the body and its emotional poles, and the work that was made by his body. “Making the work of the body a body of work,” as Bill Matthews said of Mingus. Children acquire language to give voice to the stories that are already within them. As poets, our essential tools are our memory and experience. Poetry therefore, is the codice of the present, the memory of humankind timelessly rendered, like the ancient insect captured in amber, refracting the present light as a reader peers through it.
Most fledgling literary magazines have the shelf life of an NFL halfback, about 3–5 years at most, and share a common characteristic. Poverty, either budgetary or literary, encroaches and most die like a plant, from lack of light or water, or both. Finding the work to publish is the easy part — throw a rock in any direction and you’ll probably hit a poet — but distribution is difficult, and fund-raising, without non-profit status or university affiliation, is a constant albatross for the harried editor. Editing, at the best of times is a pleasure, a privilege, a breeze, riding like young Di Caprio atop the bow of the Titanic, arms out-stretched, king of all you survey. Other times it’s a slog, a menace, a swamp. There is no shortage of bad poetry my friends, I assure you.
Many colleagues, editors of other literary vessels, are usually beaten down at some point, buried beneath a massive disproportion of proffered love, with little offered in return. Their own poetry suffers from neglect, their families as well, and the old cost/benefit analysis sets up firewalls in their brains. The labor of love becomes too much water to carry and they set the bucket down. I understand this feeling all too well, but I have not suffered from lack of love or support.
After the first crude issue, whose covers were individually silk-screened by the volunteers and minions of the Asheville Working Press, several folks offered their talents and guidance and took a rudder. Chief among these is Lowell Allen, who is with me still, who took the cover design and interior layout and made it sing, whose input and advice have been invaluable, his commitment clear and steady — despite his meager compensation and my sometimes desperate demands — whose friendship abides and deepens.
Lindig Harris also made dramatic contributions at the onset, helping me to hang on as the Review grew at an alarming rate, who helped proof the magazine as well as typeset it, and who reached out to other stores in other states, encouraging them to carry the magazine, long before our reputation had been established.
Thomas Rain Crowe and Nan Watkins helped to refine and focus the journal with their efforts, supporting the editorial process as the journal became more confident as a progenitor of dialogue and critical analysis. Both helped build our bridge into Europe and fired my commitment to publish work from other cultures. Their experience and vision helped me to sharpen my own axe, as they willingly shared their correspondence and resources.
Emöke B’Racz has served as an example and inspiration to countless others in our community, but her support has been singularly important to me. Her optimism and guidance from the outset were unwavering, her friendship and counsel unblinking. We couldn’t have done it without her and the constant support of the ship she steers, Malaprop’s Bookstore, that independent magical kingdom where hundreds of poets and lovers of poetry get their java and Rilke in equal measure.
One of the great Blake lines from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is “Opposition is true friendship.” He doesn’t mean that the devoted destruction of opposing individuals will make their hidden adhesion clear — quite the opposite. In our poetic relations to one another and our community, it is as important to challenge each other as it is to lubricate the air with praises. It’s not enough to buy the axe; you have to sharpen it. It takes work to get better, to clear away the brush and tangle, to chop down the vines, to condense, condense, condense. The writing muscle is like all other muscles; it works better when exercised.
The community from which this journal has sprung is remarkably supportive, diverse and deep and indiscriminate. Let us challenge each other to remain so, to be accountable and present in each other’s lives. Dante’s Paradiso opens with the phrase, “In una parte piu e meno altrove.” In one part more and in another less. One of the radical hypocrisies of our democracy is that the class system doesn’t exist. But poetry, like democracy, is “politically contested and historically unfinished,” as James Clifford would say in The Predicament of Culture. Just as a successful journal becomes, in a hundred years, the record of this time, the wax grooves where the voices are imprinted, so too must we, as an immense minority ourselves, nurture the voices that struggle to be heard or find themselves not wholly formed. Wherever the least of us is hungry, or needs watered, there we all sit, in famishment. It takes each of our voices to make the sound complete.