People regularly donate books and magazines to my classroom. They come unsolicited from friends’ caches of review copies and cast-offs, and they come from requests that I make, to fill a need. Once, I put out a call for old National Geographics, and I got so many that I had to turn people away. One man gave us every issue from the mid-1960s through the late 1980s, in pristine condition, organized chronologically into boxes by decade.
Even though my students are digital babies, I’m a print guy myself, and I like for the room to be filled with a variety of materials, from big tabloids on newsprint to perfectbound paperbacks. It matters to me that the room has publications with matte lamination and with gloss. I keep art books for their spot varnish and hardbacks for the ragged edges on the signatures. And because I’m a print guy among digital babies, I’m about the only one who really looks through some of the multitudinous print publications that we receive: The New Yorker, Garden & Gun, Black Warrior Review, Conde Nast Traveler, and The Atlantic, even other high schools’ folded-and-stapled literary magazines.
Among those donations is a stack of literary magazines, mostly American Poetry Review and Writer’s Chronicle, that has rested ignominiously on top of a black metal bookshelf near the classroom door for most of a decade. Recognizing the value of their content, I can’t bring myself to throw them away. Every spring, I blow the dust off of them and move a different issue to the top, hoping to incite interest.
But that hasn’t been happening.
So I decided, as I was cleaning out at the end of a school year, to dive into the stack myself. Starting with the one on top: the purple and neon-green 33rd anniversary issue of American Poetry Review – November/December 2005 – which featured good ol’ Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on the cover. Some long-gone school secretary had scrawled my last name in permanent marker above the address label, probably so the student aide in the office — who is about 30 by now — would know whose mailbox to put it in.
Although I wouldn’t design a publication of my own in this way, I do like American Poetry Review for the uniqueness of its big, unwieldy format and its two-column text that clusters groups of poems by author. Current expectations have moved many print editions to adopt the matte-laminated, letterhalf-sized, perfectbound style – one poem per page, often in a Roman font that’s set too small for comfortable reading – with younger staff members maintaining a similarly designed online presence. Today’s cleanly laid-out literary journals give us lots of white space around the poem— but not APR. They pack it onto the page!
I also like APR for the author photos on the covers, which can range from elegant to downright bizarre. On the odd end, we have the November/December 2004 issue featuring a wide-eyed John Ashbery who looks like someone just walked in on him in the bathroom again, or the November/December 2014 issue with Maureen Boruch, who looks like she’s about to climb into her shirt. But then there’s March/April 2014, with Mihaela Moscaliuc striking the pose of the flirty mom at some kid’s birthday party, or the kindly looking, hand-on-chin Robert Hass from September/October 2007. When I look at these images, part of me wonders what expression I would have, if I were to grace the cover of APR . . . What an uncomfortable thought.
After an ad for a reading of Emily Dickinson poems by Meryl Streep and a pair of poems by Uncle Walt, the 33rd anniversary issue moves right along to an English translation of a critical essay by Tzvetan Todorov, whose 2017 obituary in The New York Times describes him as a “Literary Theorist and Historian of Evil.” What a moniker. The heady essay begins by asking what we would have if we took “verse” out of poetry, essentially: what would poetry be without musicality? To end his very first paragraph, Todorov asks,
Is there such a thing as transcultural and transhistoric “poeticity,” or are there only localized solutions circumscribed in time and space?
A brilliant guy, I can already tell— but I’m not going to keep reading.
Since I decided not to fool with Todorov the Historian of Evil, thumbing through the issue before deciding what to read led me to a picture of Dorianne Laux sitting in a ladder-back chair in a small, cluttered office, holding her knees to her chest and her hands to her face. She looks exasperated beyond redemption. Nope. Then the author photo of Maxine Kumin looked like the archetype of your best friend’s mom, inviting you to come back anytime. Meh.
I do this, with every magazine I pick up: I first flip through like I was in the doctor’s office waiting room. I look at the headlines, deciding what to read, and at the pictures, about which I make up little stories. Like in this issue: on page 17, James Grinwis’ weird John Ashbery stare led me to believe that he had also been surprised in the restroom, and on page 45, Rex Wilder looks more like the owner of a surf shop than a poet. I will actually read some of the poems in the issue, but I have to do this first.
After that whimsical perusal, I settle on reading Gerald Stern’s long poem, “The Preacher,” which the introductory note explains is rooted in the Book of Ecclesiastes, my favorite book in the Bible. I’d been treading lightly on some of the shorter poems, since I encountered Jason Shinder’s “The Rescue,” on page 31, which began: “When the doctor inserts his two fingers / into my mother’s rectum”— Wait, what? The rest of the poem made little sense to me, but probably because I was flustered by the way it began, and I gave up on Mr. Shinder pretty quickly.
“The Preacher” was refreshingly not about someone’s mother with fingers up her butt. Over five two-columned pages, Stern weaves, with sparse and unorthodox punctuation, through a highly cerebral conversation with a man named Peter about a crazy squirrel that eats daisies, dead trees, the beauty of frogs, the author of Ecclesiastes, holes torn in the fabric of the world, jazz great Charles Mingus, winding conversations, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, ugly acts of war, the movie The Greatest Story Ever Told, Kant and Schiller, hell, rabbis, fog, buckets, all kinds of stuff. After reading through the poem twice, I found that it was one of those poems I could read often and keep finding new things. I particularly liked Stern’s sense of humor in spots, and the phrase “the dull folk I hate so well,” and the lines “‘I always look at the end / of a poem,’ he said, ‘and what I did I like / though I can’t paraphrase it, you’d get it wrong / the same as me if you tried.” He’s right: I was looking at the end of “The Preacher,” and I can’t paraphrase it either.
Among the other works there, Susan Stewart’s “shadowplay” stood out with its juxtapositions of bird and hand imagery, but her “red rover” seemed like an obligatory space-filler. I couldn’t bring myself to read James Grinwis’ only poem because I didn’t want to stay on the page with that wide-eyed glare. I skipped Ira Sadoff’s essay, “On the Margins,” but read Bianca Tarozzi’s poem “A Face,” which is about her mother’s death. I used to get aggravated by poetry and creative nonfiction about parents’ deaths, but since my father’s death, I’ve understood why writers harp on those things.
By that time, I’d had enough of the 33rd anniversary issue of American Poetry Review. On the final pages are fifteen Emily Dickinson poems, I glanced at some of them, with Gerald Stern still swirling in my head. He probably will be for a while.