"The reality of 9/11, or the surreality of 9/11, was devouring my invented reality. It wasn't that the city was destroyed; it was the consequences, which I misread. I actually thought it would send the country's efforts not outward, but inward."
-Junot Diaz from the Sept/Oct issue of Poets and Writers
As nearly everyone in the world is aware of, today marks six years since the horrendous New York World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. The days' attacks had such sudden and violent repercussions worldwide in the shapes of the American Iraq and Afghanistan wars that--though they were certainly suffered through and memorialized--it could be argued that the events of 9/11 were not allowed enough time to be sufficiently digested by the American nation. The images were flashed repeatedly on televisions and newspapers. Talking heads worked from behind podiums. Wars were begun.
Literary journals are largely a medium of and for reflection. They traffic in reflexive thought, thought that doubles back on itself, makes statements and reconsiders them. They are not generally the mouthpieces of individual taste (though some certainly have been), but they tend to function more in the vein of F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of genius: one who can hold two opposing views in their mind at once. Flash and pizazz is not typical of literary magazines, either. Nor are they known for bold or dramatic statements about subjects. And it is much due to this reflexive nature that such magazines are often months, even years, behind the flow of current political events and social discussion. In this sense, they are the opposite of the majority of newspapers and glossy magazines who make it their job to break news--or to at least cover the same stories at the same time everyone else is.
Though such a distance from the "hot moment" can make literary magazines seem culturally behind the times, there is much to be appreciated from such editorial patience, as it is usually only with such patience that publishing venues (and the artists within) are able to get a broader and more complex view of events. When events are covered in the literary magazine world--like Atlanta Review's recent issue on the Iraq War or New Orleans Review's Katrina issue--the result can be a publication rich in considered historical and contemporary detail.
In Decemeber of 2001, just months after the attacks, Robert Coles's photography and literature magazine DoubleTake (which ceased publishing in 2003, but has been recently relaunched as DoubleTake/Points of Entry) did a special edition on the 9/11 disaster that, like every other issue of the magazine up to that point, included succinct and powerful writing from some of the best around. Some writers in the 9/11 issue are Seamus Heaney, Francine Prose, Bill McKibben, Stuart Dybek, and Billy Collins, their writing laid out alongside photography capturing what Coles wanted the magazine to capture overall: "the voices and visions of ordinary folk." Which, in the end, is everybody.
It is commonly thought that horrific events such as 9/11 are historically difficult for art to represent very quickly, as artists require a certain undefined period of gestation before they can produce anything worthwhile. The same might hold true for literary magazines, as they are by definition devoted to aesthetic concerns above political and capital ones. It is understandable then why nearly all the writing DoubleTake chose for their special issue on 9/11 was written before the WTC attacks. Even given this fact, at no time does the issue feel dated or discontiguous. On the contrary, the entire issue reads as though it could have been written the day after the attacks, or many years later, as the amount of exposed emotion and careful reflection--of direct declaration and skillful explication--are evenly balanced throughout.
The issue opens with an excerpt of Seamus Heaney's translation of Sophocles Philoctetes, retitled by Heaney as The Cure at Troy. "Human beings suffer/" Heaney's translation begins, "They torture one another,/ They get hurt and hard./ No poem or play or song/ Can fully right a wrong/ Inflicted or endured." The poem, written by Sophocles over 2,000 years ago and translated by Heaney in 1991, feels as though it could have been written just moments after the attack, in a direct response to the bloodshed and violence brought onto the people of New York City. Such, Heaney shows us, is the power of literature.
The rest of the issue continues in this manner, with very few mistakes or overstepping of editorial bounds (which near everyone writing was worried about in the immediate wake of 9/11). There is an essay on what we remember about traumatic events by Francine Prose; a handful of eerily fascinating photographs of airports and the people in them by Adam Shemper, a both surprisingly gentle and painful poem about the WTC attacks by James Hart, a piece about Ghandi's peaceful revolution by Bill McKibben, and a spread of evocative photographs taken of Northern Afghanistan from 1999 and 2000 by Robert Sanchez.
One of the most surprising and disturbing pieces in the issue was written in October 1958 by William Carlos Williams, about a child from Paterson, New Jersey playing with building blocks. W.C.W. tells how the child built a tower with the blocks meant to suggest "those huge buildings in New York City where a cousin of his dad's worked." As W.C.W. watched, the child knocked the building down. "What happened?" Williams asked the young boy. "Someone real mean came," the boy says, "and he got his way."