Monday, August 6, 2007

From the Back Issues: New York Quarterly no. 59, William Packard memorial issue

Little Magazines, Little Books
by Travis Kurowski

"The New York Quarterly is an amazing, intelligent, crazy, creative, strange, and indispensable magazine. William Packard surely must be one of the great editors of our time."
-James Dickey

"Civilization is individual," said Ezra Pound. William Packard quoted this phrase of Pound's to end an essay on the state of American poetry, which was republished in the 2003 New York Quarterly memorial issue (pictured right) dedicated to Packard, the magazine's founder and longtime editor. Packard's essay was written largely in reaction to the increasing number of graduate writing programs throughout the U.S., and how these programs seemed to him to be growing more impotent and false. Packard was a creative writing teacher himself, and so certainly did not condemn the entire field. But true, riveting art, Packard asserts in the essay, comes from within. This is certainly true to a great extent, but it is also true that nearly all artistic production in the world is collective; one need only look at art galleries, theater productions, book publishing, carnivals, architecture, and throughout the publishing history of literary magazines such as the New York Quarterly.

When I bought issue 59 of NYQ (Packard memorial issue; cover: all black, three solemn pictures of Packard's face in the center; back cover, only: In Memoriam, William Packard, 1933-2002) four years ago from Powell's Books, I was largely uninitiated in the world of literary magazines (I had maybe flipped through an issue or two of The Paris Review). I did not conceptualize any sort of ontological difference between the magazine I had purchased and the shelves of literature--of books--that filled the next room. Both were literature in the Poundian sense: "Writing filled to the utmost with meaning." It was this issue of the NYQ more than any other other little magazine I can recall that embodies how Jonathan Lethem once memorably described Boston literary magazine, Post Road, saying, "I keep them lined up on my shelf like little books, because that's what they are." Like little books. He could have said, like small gifts, tools, references, companions. What differs a little book from a big one? How do we treat them differently? I treated that issue of NYQ how I treat so many little magazines now--the same as when I was a teenager I kept copies of Hemingway, or how I treated the novels of Philip Roth during those first confusing years just out of college. I behaved towards all these things as though they were something to be prized. For weeks I carried issue 59 of NYQ in my shoulder bag, showed it to friends at parties, lectured my poor friends about it, bought people copies of it as presents, and then, at home, stuck it onto the piles of books which lined the walls. Instead of treating the issue as a magazine, as a compilation of disparate elements, I treated it as a book--which, then, is what it was.

The issue begins with new editor Raymond Hammond writing about Packard's funeral, and, at the same time, he is writing proudly about the future of NYQ (the magazine had folded for a while during the previous years when Packard was sick). Next, is a reproduction of one of NYQ's famous craft interviews, this one with Packard himself. Then more Packard, even some of his poetry ("i am always elsewhere/ always anywhere/ but where i am right now"). What is shocking--what I remember hardly noticing my first read--is how almost seamlessly, with no editorial force, the issue transitions perfectly into the usual NYQ fare: ribald, alive, shouting, moody, cacophonous poetry--which, to a young man fresh out of college (me), seemed a breath of fresh air. A breath of real writing. Of the underground literary world I imagined existed, what Henry Miller called the writing from the streets, and not "literature" as taught in school. The New York Quarterly seemed the opposite of school. The opposite of debt. The opposite of capitalism, checking accounts, petty jobs, rejection slips, and so many often trying things. (I had as a young man a dream of starting my own journal of the "real" writing out there, the stuff that wasn't getting published but was 100 times better than that found in the New Yorker, and this, I thought, thumbing again and again through NYQ's pages, was it. It was already here.)

I have since changed my ideas about writing, literature, youth, age, responsibility--about even the New Yorker. But I haven't lost my initial feelings for this issue of NYQ. Fresh out of college with a writing degree, the issue felt alive in ways some other books feel like, well, pressed paper: useful, but overall inert. There was a life to this issue commemorating a man's death. Holding the copy now, cover scuffed and pages creased, it still feels that way, like it did. Like the sharp end of youth.

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