Friday, October 12, 2007

The Job


"He could imagine us rushing around Manhattan in our suits and attache cases."
-from Hammond's introduction for
NYQ 63

From the outside, the world of literary publishing can seem rakish and cruel: a world of delays, unending rejection slips, and minuscule monetary rewards, if any at all. On the other hand--usually after reading a magical story or mind-altering book of poems--the same world can seem mysterious and wonderful, the sort of place where you would love to hang out if only you knew the right people, talked the right way, understood how they made such amazing things, how you could maybe get them to let you help.

The world of the literary object is a mysterious place for the uninitiated, which we all were at one time (excepting the occasional Waugh or Amis, of course). In many ways, this uninitiated world is inescapable even for the most seasoned publishing veteran. The power of fiction and poetry, though to some extent comprehensible, always slips just beyond our rational grasp. Language moves us, we know, and the language we call literature (from comics to Shakespeare to slam poetry) is that which moves us to the greatest extent; it is that which moves us inexplicably. There is a type of secular magic at work in literature (for more on secular magic, see our previous review of Cabinet magazine), and it can almost seem like the people who publish literature are, like people who work at Apple or on Hollywood films, living a life surrounded by this magic. That they are allowed the privilege. That they have a power the rest of us do not, one filled with music filled parties, lunches with artists, and an unending flow of cappuccinos. And that it is the duty of those with such privilege to share their glory, and that it is our right to censure them if they do not.

But, of course, anyone who has worked a real job or takes a few minutes to consider the world, will realize that no such publishing world exists--unless you replace parties with nights alone at the computer, lunches with tuna fish sandwiches at a desk (again alone), and cappuccinos with Folgers. The real world of publishing is filled with papercuts, deadlines, and the same uncertainty and apprehension as anywhere else. And still those who work in it are lucky, though their days be overloaded with work, bills, and more work.

Editor Raymond Hammond discusses this constant relationship between the unending work and the rewards of literary magazine publishing in a refreshingly sincere and engaging introduction to New York Quarterly's most recent issue, number 63. As self-congratulating as such a piece could easily be, Hammond's piece comes off as an immensely readable and unpretentious view of what goes on behind the masthead of one of the nation's top poetry journals.

Hammond wrote his introduction in response to a letter NYQ received from an author whose poems their editors had rejected: "In the letter, the writer was upset that we had not accepted any of his work and added that he was further insulted by the fact that he could imagine us rushing around Manhattan in our suits and ties with attache cases making arbitrary decisions about who gets in the magazine and who doesn't." The great "umbrage" Hammond takes with the letter is not that the writer was upset because his work was not accepted. Instead, what bugged Hammond and drove him to dedicate five pages to illuminating the world of what his job as editor consists of was that the man imagined Hammond and his staff "rushing around Manhattan" in suits making off-the-cuff decisions about NYQ content and, one might infer, having a simply gay old time doing it.

The reality, as one might assume, is quite the opposite. Hammond is hardly the corduroy jacketed literary aesthete one might imagine sitting behind the editor's desk of a literary magazine, but he is most likely closer to the norm than many readers might expect.
In his "other life," Hammond is a Federal Law Enforcement Park Ranger at the Statue of Liberty (here is a link to a picture of Hammond "on the job," as it were). Not the job one would expect for a lit mag editor? As Hammond himself puts it, "All of your editors have regular jobs, most of which do not pay very well and most, if not all, of which have nothing to do with magazines, academia, or the arts." Well, maybe he is painting the lit mag world in too broad a blue-collar tone, as some editors jobs are with the academy or the arts, and a few even work full-time as magazine editors, but his point is made. The majority of the work done on lit mags is from the heart and done for little or no pay--some even pay for the opportunity, shelling out money from their own checking accounts to keep the magazine going. (True: some people working in publishing did go to Ivy League schools, were rich, and may have got their positions because they knew someone at the company--but one can rest assured that this is very rarely the case for literary magazines, if ever. It is a more blue collar world down there, as Hammond's piece shows.)

And the introduction to NYQ 63--where Hammond shows us his early poetic career and befriending former editor William Packard (pictured at left)--is only the first section, as we are told that the story of Hammond's "becoming editor will continue in issue 64." If there are more sensitive descriptions of working class New York poets and portraits of the late Packard like the following, then the sequel will definitely be worth the wait: "Afterwards we met up with Bill who was elated that Anna had come. They had not seen each other in years. We walked towards the subway, Doug and I up front, Bill and Anna lagging behind lost in conversation about poetry. I have a vivid image of the night in my mind, the snow had begun to lightly fall through the light of the streetlights overhead and settle on their shoulders as they walked and talked behind us. At the end of the block, Doug and Anna parted and Bill and I decided to sit on the corner pizza parlor and have coffee. He said that he had lost a friend that day. It was January 19, 1997, and I had heard on the news that James Dickey had died. We talked for an hour probably even longer but the time always flew by, as Bill shared memories of James Dickey. When we parted, I ducked into the subway as Bill walked off into the lighted snow. Little did I know that this would be one of my last vivid memories of seeing Bill walk."


Brandt Kurowski said...

lovely piece- thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I have my doubts. Big doubts, serious doubts.

Yes the slush is mostly junk, I've seen it. Yes lots of writers submit the wrong stuff to the wrong markets. I've done it.

But --

The literary journals have their share of nepotisms, favoratisms, discriminations, prejudices, sloppiness, apathies, and plain bad judgments.

Plenty of times a good piece targeted to just the right journal will get a form letter reply, and you know the editor did not give it fair consideration.