Background: I was alerted to this incident via one of my UB colleagues, Victoria Brockmeier, who posted about it on Facebook, linking to a blog run by Daniel Nester. Apparently a number of poets had poems accepted by The Paris Review over the past couple years, slated for publication in 2011 and beyond. (Everyone who has published creative material knows that there is typically a several-year lag between acceptance and publication — generally speaking, the bigger deal the journal is, the longer the wait.) No contracts were signed, but the poems were accepted by the editor and later confirmed by interns and whatnot. Suddenly, with the recent ushering in of a new editor, many of the poets received notice that their poems had been unaccepted.
That’s the story in a nutshell. Nester has really been bothered by this, and seems to have gone on a personal quest to get to the bottom of it, writing to express his bewilderment and even tracking down some of the jilted authors to get their reaction. The sense that’s emerged (I won’t call it a consensus) from his posts and the comments in response to them seems to be that “unaccepting” work is a common practice in the book publishing world, where new editorial staff at an imprint typically means wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch, regardless of what offers have previously been made. However, this sort of mentality creeping into the world of literary journals, according to Nester, is quite unusual and sets a dangerous precedent, and so on — that’s what he seems to be saying; hard to tell exactly what the conclusion is, aside from outrage at the unfairness of it all.
My response: it’s really not that surprising. In fact, in a cynical mood I would even give Paris Review kudos for bothering to tell the authors that their work will not in fact be published. Having sent work out for a number of years, I’ve had the following things happen with surprising regularity: 1) sending work to a journal that explicitly states it’s seeking work and never getting a response one way or the other; 2) sending work to a journal and getting no response, only to find out the work has in fact been accepted (and in some cases, published without my knowledge); 3) sending work to a journal and having it accepted, then waiting years for it to come out, being told that it would come out, and finally finding out through the grapevine that said journal ceased publishing at some point; 4) variations on all of the above.
That’s not to say that I’m bitter. I’m grateful to all the editors who have taken the time to respond to my work, positively or negatively. I simply refuse to play the game anymore. Granted, this is seven parts laziness, three parts conviction. My will to print poems and lick stamps does not equal the patience it takes to be rewarded with publication. There are some journals I actually read and respect, and if I do gather the strength to send work out anonymously again, I will send it to them. But by and large, I’m done. It’s not worth it. As Nester notes, quoting Ezra Pound, poetry is “news that stays news.” Most literary journals don’t have the resources or the respect for the work to honor that notion, which is why they allow precious years to go by before dumping hundreds of poems into massive bricks of text that few will ever read. I prefer to think about the approach of Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka when they published The Floating Bear, in which vital new work by poets such as John Wieners, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, etc., would hit the mailboxes of other interested poets within months of composition. More recently, the singular vision of editors such as Richard Owens, with Damn the Caesars and accompanying chapbooks from his Punch Press, feels vital in a similar way.
For example, Owens is doing a lot of work on British poet Jeremy Prynne. He is the only editor that I know of in the United States to take notice of, and devote himself to publishing, work from the currently exploding innovative poetry scene in and around Cambridge that largely derives from the lineage of Prynne. That scene itself, I gather, is markedly different than the “wait three years for a poem to come out in a glossy perfect-bound university-sponsored mag” approach that’s so entrenched here. Those poets take advantage of lo-fi technology at their disposal to get work out quick and dirty, photocopying, stapling, passing it along, reading and responding to each other with lightning speed. Poetry that’s alive demands urgency, not constipated editorial meetings and endless delays. In light of this, I also found the response to Nester’s query from one of the jilted poets quite refreshing:
This experience will move me even further in the direction I was already headed, toward placing my trust in peers and comrades in the field of innovative writing to create forums for the circulation of exciting work – with new magazines, Web zines, reading series, etc.
Frankly, more people should be doing this. The resources are there. All we have to do is tap into a community, find the least expensive options for producing materials, and a venue to hold readings in. And dive in.