by Steve Evans
first published in The Modern Review 2.2 (Fall 2006)
If we take Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review as a plausible first instance of “the little magazine” that we’ve since come to know, then we’ll be marking the centenary of this peculiar cultural form in 2008, just the blink of an eye from now in literary time. Much about literary life has altered since 1908, and many of the works that first made their scandalous, glamorous, tremulous (or, perhaps, simply silly) entrance into the world in the pages of some slim shortlived magazine, we now think we know what to do with: canonize the very few, consign to the archive and the academic conference a handful more, to the compost pile with the rest—and may a thousand flowers bloom from the rot. But what of the means by which those works were first delivered? the stages onto which those manifestos stormed? the form underlying all those fine (and thus bitterly insisted upon) distinctions as to policy, aim, and audience? Is the little magazine itself just a vestige of the heroic early days of the modernist project, a relic the worship of which reeks of nostalgia and role-playing (with Ezra Pound as the Napoleon aped by all, whether consciously or not), a convention grown as stale in the digital age as the sonnet had in Williams’s?
If you answer “no,” it will be because some number—perhaps only one—of today’s many literary magazines intrigue, infuriate, or inspire you, show you things not otherwise likely to have caught your eye, awake in you the desire to contest or imitate or take further or obliterate some line of thought, some technical move, some stance toward the real, that you have found in its pages. But did you answer no? Honestly and upon reflection? Out of more than politeness toward our gracious hosts here at the Modern Review?
I’m not sure that I can, though to admit it causes me no small torment. The situation seems to be this: while my enthusiasm for the idea of the little magazine continues unabated, and my notebooks teem with descriptions of journals past (beneath the dispassionate scholar’s attitude can be detected a stinging envy of the contemporary readers of Daisy Aldan’s Folder, say, or middle-period Kulchur, or the smaller-format early numbers of Sulfur), at present I suffer from something worse than impatience, something slacker, more insidious, a kind of casual interest that isn’t really so far from downright indifference, toward the magazines I see and sometimes, but ever so calmly, read.
If I interrogate this attitude—into which I seem to have drifted imperceptibly, and wholly involuntarily, in recent years—a set of disappointed expectations begins to be discernible, a list of little grievances which I here make public in the Blakean hope of dispelling them. My expectation that little magazines should, at least at the very beginning, when hopes and energies are high, and printing and shipping debts aren’t yet, establish a rhythm, preferably a brisk one, and stick to it for a while, hasn’t fared at all well: the bi-annual has become the norm, the annual a favored alternative, the biennial not unheard of (I believe that Shiny now follows this rhythm by design; many others do so de facto). And as the intervals between issues lengthens, the spine sizes fatten, until magazines are indistinguishable from anthologies in girth, if emphatically not in the patient and rigorous application of well-considered selection procedures. One could, I suppose, choose to be cheered by the bounty thus proposed, but this plethoric mode of editing invites a reader’s indifference—the more so when multiplied from one journal to the next—by visibly displaying the editor’s own unwillingness to exclude things, which is tantamount to the inability to value anything.
An indication of the extent to which production rhythms have slackened can be seen in the bizarre, but increasingly common, experience of finding in the freshly-struck pages of some magazine poems that one has already seen printed in book form. This stark reversal of the usual order of things is not, I think, trivial, for it deprives writers of the opportunity to revise their poems based on the response generated by journal publication (even when the actual response is not robust, there is the simple, sobering fact of seeing the thing in print), even as it deprives readers of the chance to trace a writer’s new trajectory while it is new, rather than encountering it as a perfect-bound and volubly-endorsed fait accompli.
Thick issues disgorged at long intervals with more or less interchangeable contents: thus reads my list of little readerly grievances in full. As the contemporary French artist Alexandre Delay once remarked to poet friend Emmanuel Hocquard: “Look, there’s television on every channel.” Similarly it might be said of our poetry magazines that one finds always and only what one expected to see there—more poems (a major exception: Juliana Spahr and Jena Osman’s recently-retired Chain). Now I don’t subscribe to the “I, too, dislike it” school of intra-poetry anti-poetry sentiment: it’s a form of contempt for others, convenient exception-making for oneself and one’s friends, and cowardly siding with the poetry-hating majority that I find poisonous to the environment. But it does strike me as self-evident that poetry flourishes through exogamy, in the presence of vigorously and generously exchanged ideas about poetry and in contact with artistic and cultural practices other than poetry.
One of the virtues of Kulchur was that it invited poets to write—in a style Gilbert Sorrentino retrospectively described as “personal, colloquial, wry, mocking, and precisely vulgar when vulgarity seemed called for”—about a variety of extra-poetic experiences: the music editors were LeRoi Jones and A.B. Spellman, Frank O’Hara (and later David Antin) handled art, Bill Berkson film, Joe Le Sueur theater, and Charles Olson, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan and others (Sorrentino not least among them) contributed as the spirit and evolving subject matter moved them. Given the manic, omnivorous, opinionated eloquence of poets on subjects ranging from underground hip hop to Kylie Minogue, from conspiracy theory to labor history to global economics, from silent films to zombie schlock to YouTube, it would seem a resource is either being wasted outright or siphoned off into specializing venues every bit as self-enclosed and autoreferential as—though often better paying than—the poetry mags from which they’re missing (a funkily exemplary exception: David Meltzer and Steve Dickison’s Shuffle Boil: A Magazine of Poets and Music).
More critical thinking about poetry, by poets and readers alike, and in a manner not too mortgaged either to academe or the anti-intellectual overreactions to academe; more critical thinking radiating from poetry out into the almost stupefyingly hypermediated cultural moment; and some commitment to the vexed ideal of cosmopolitanism, by which I mean the imperative to find out what is stirring beyond the bubble of imperial American self-absorption: such desiderata are in no way “innovative.” The little magazines we remember from the past fused, added to, and often enough collapsed under the contradictory pressures of similar imperatives (those collapses are a reminder that little magazines can and should sometimes behave like Tinguely machines, noisily bent on a liberating self-destruction, and not always in the manner of self-preserving institutions projecting themselves into all possible futures). Maybe the problem isn’t too much emulation of the young Ezra Pound, but—in this one regard at least—too little.
In a wonderful 1964 essay surveying “Fifty Years of Little Magazines” for the inaugural issue of the Art and Literature (another of those editorial feats that makes one envious of those who got to read it in “real time”), Cyril Connolly famously distinguished between two kinds of magazine. Those that “flourish on what they put in” he calls eclectic, likening their editors to “hotel proprietor[s] whose rooms fill up every month with a different clique.” Those that aim to introduce new groups of writers, new styles of writing, new ideas about writing and its possible relevance to that world called real, and that therefore define themselves “by whom they keep out,” he calls dynamic, noting that these magazines “have a shorter life and it is around them that glamour and nostalgia crystallise.” Perhaps all that I’ve succeeded in communicating, in this reluctantly-filed report on one reader’s growing indifference to the literary magazine as a form, is the degree to which my thinking remains beholden to the ideal of the dynamic magazine, to the quickness, the pointedness, the reach, the irreverence, the clarity, the company it provides. It consoles me to think that perhaps the mystical (and doomed) union between editor and angel (to use Connolly’s parlance for financial backer) capable of delivering the next dynamic magazine is even now taking place. Until then, play-it-safe eclecticism reigns, and anyone with need to put up for a night in comfortable anonymity, with a CV-line for a souvenir, has no cause to complain.
Further readings: In addition to the indispensable essay by Connolly, who edited Horizon between 1939 and 1949, in Art and Literature 1 (1964), interested readers might also enjoy Ezra Pound’s 1930 article on “Small Magazines” for The English Journal, which can now be consulted online—along with many other materials formerly extremely hard to get at—via the Modernist Journals Project (www.modjourn.org). The best single volume on the topic remains Elliott Anderson and Mary Kinzie’s The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History (Yonkers: Pushcart, 1978). There you’ll find Clayton Eshleman’s candid and instructive “Doing Catepillar,” Gilbert Sorrentino’s excellent notes on Neon and Kulchur, Robert Creeley’s remembrance of editing Black Mountain Review, and admirable though very different essays on Poetry by Karl Shapiro and Joseph Parisi (the latter writing as an “associate editor” with an amazing command of the institutional and financial history of the magazine he would soon take the reigns of). For a look at how the adversarial symbiosis of The Little Review (avant-garde and dynamic) and The Dial (canonizing and eclectic) served modernist poetry, I recommend Alan Golding’s “The Dial, The Little Review, and Modernist Canonicity” (archived online at http://www.thirdfactory.net/3F36.html).