by Charlotte Pence
I have recently moved from Tennessee to Illinois, a state that I used to think about only in relation to Chicago. When I was six, my mother had to explain to me that Chicago was not a state, but part of something larger, this thing called Illinois. Well, I’m now living in this thing called Illinois, more specifically, Charleston, Illinois, a town of 22,000. I have lived in approximately twenty different cities, both national and international, so moving is something I am accustomed to. But I am having a different feeling about this move. Perhaps it is a feeling that others are having this time of year when college acceptance letters and university job offers have materialized into new realities. I don’t understand the landscape where I now live. As a poet who has identified herself with the Appalachian landscape, I find myself in that unsettling space of placelessness.
One interesting aspect about place is that the process of naming it, of acknowledging it, separates a place from an undefinable space. In other words, if we imagine space as a circle, it is just a vast amount of nothing until someone adds a dot and calls it: “Dot.” Suddenly, the dot creates a reference point, therefore creating a place. Borders, in a sense, are just a series of dots that a group has jotted down on paper. So, what may feel very personal, even idiosyncratic, about a place is dependent upon a community to move it from a private association to a physical location. For instance, by writing down the name of my grandfather’s valley, Possum Holler, which is too small and remote for any map, I am able to nudge that speck of place from a personal memory to a public location. I have articulated and shared the dot that is meaningful to me.
Describing a sense of place isn’t limited to literature, of course. Film, art, psychology, geography all study the effect of place on the person or project. Since Robert Schumann’s celebrated review of Schubert’s Symphony in C in 1840, music critics have considered how the place of the composition aids in understanding the music. The last twenty years in ethnomusicology and popular-music studies have seen unprecedented discussions of how place influences music and, in turn, how that same music can then affect the place.
So, what is a writer to do when he/she doesn’t “get” the landscape? As I write this, I sit on my rental cabin’s porch, which is situated on the southern, hilly side of town. The hills make me feel a bit more at home. Still, certain details remind me that I’m not home. A creek surrounds the cabin, yet there’s no water in it. To me, this would indicate that we are experiencing a drought, but I don’t know this for sure. Is a lack of rain normal in central Illinois in October? I also see lovely trees, but that is all I know to say. These palmate-veined leaves cannot be transformed into a specific tree that I know. Where I once would have said “maple,” I now say, “tree.” Specificity has been exchanged for abstraction, which is rarely a welcome change for a writer.
Even the corn and soybeans that surround me are sources of confusion. When I lived in Georgia as a kid, I would sell our extra Silver Queen corn and Big Boy tomatoes at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. When my brother was too busy to load his truck and let it sit there for the morning sale, I’d set up a table with two sawhorses and sell the extras in front of the house. My point is, I know more than a bit about gardening and the joy of eating what I grow. Seeing all this corn fattening inside their husks creates such a desire to stop the car and snatch an ear or two. But I’m told I can’t eat the soybeans and corn that I see growing around me. Here, vegetables are not meant for food, but for ethanol, feed, and high fructose corn syrup.
The solution, of course, will be to get out a little guidebook and go on some hikes. But I wonder. The one poem that I have started and finished since my move here is set in a purely fantastical realm: a discovered mermaid cemetery where the ocean has shriveled up and become a bustling tourist trap. What interests me about this poem is how it is about nothing I know, which at the present is what I know. With the realities of a new tenure-track position and a toddler, both of which have bottomless needs that engage me, I wonder how much time I will have to learn the names of things anytime soon, especially with winter coming. Maybe, this sense of placenessness will open up my poetry to more imaginative places. As the exterior world baffles, my hope is that the interior world will grow more vivid, more like a home whose warm rooms provide both comfort and surprise.
Charlotte Pence’s first full-length poetry collection, Spike, will be released by Black Lawrence Press in 2014. A professor of English and creative writing at Eastern Illinois University, she is also the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks and the editor of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics (University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
by Christian Anton Gerard
I am Grist’s current editor-in-chief, and it gives me great pleasure to be writing this inaugural post for our new blog. I have served on our journal’s staff for the last five years in every capacity possible. My experience on Grist’s staff has also allowed me to see Grist grow, and to begin to understand that making a literary journal involves more than any one person or staff at any given time. During the last five years I have to come to understand that the journal I serve is, like the making of literature itself, a collective project. In what follows, I’d like to address some thoughts about the writing and editing community and why we have decided to launch a new blog in the first place.
Several years ago a poet friend of mine attended a conference session where someone inevitably asked the editor of an established journal what her staff looks for when making their selections. The editor responded that the best way to know what the journal looks for is to read past issues. After the presentation, my friend, in a rather audacious move, approached the editor and asked if she really believed her own answer.
“Well, yes” the editor said.
“Then doesn’t that mean you’re just publishing the same issue over and over again?” my friend asked.
“You’ve got a point,” the editor replied. “I guess the truth is we don’t really know what we want until we see it.”
I often think of this story because it reminds me of the messiness involved in writing and publishing. The editor wasn’t lying. She’d been asked a difficult question, one of the most difficult questions anyone can ask an editor. That question essentially means, “what can I send that will be accepted into your journal?” How was the editor supposed to explain the magic that happens when the reading season opens and everyone on staff begins talking about a few pieces that aren’t just wonderfully crafted and full of the good fire, but also speak to each other in a way nobody could have anticipated? How was she supposed to explain that the journal didn’t have a plan for what the next issue would look like, because it was still in the act of making itself?
In framing her answer as she did, the editor was doing her best to give writers some kind of empirical way to proceed in a submission process that often feels cryptic to all involved. She was also doing her best to maintain a professional image. She was projecting the idea that editors always know what they’re doing and that journals have a plan, or at least a way to differentiate themselves from the thousands of other journals out there.
There exists in the literary world an idea that some journals are “better” than others, and this idea is packaged in many different ways. Some of us believe a journal is better than another because it has been alive longer. Some of us believe a journal is better because it publishes the people we read and want to be, or because the masthead consists of writers with vast credentials. But I’m beginning to think there’s a problem with our terminology. It’s not that these journals are “better” than others for these reasons. Rather, they’ve gained a communal recognition because from year to year their staffs have established an interior culture of commitment to the process that is journal making and editing.
Much like the writers they publish, the journals that consistently demonstrate their commitment to producing the best possible product have embraced the messiness inherent in the creative writing process. But they’ve also done a great job covering up that messiness. When we hold the latest issue of The Southern Review, New England Review, Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, [or insert any journal you love] we see the final product. We see that thing as perfectly polished as the work inside. What we don’t see are the hours of conversations taking place about why piece A will fit better than B or what kind of arc the issue is making from beginning to end, nor do we see the hours and hours editorial staff spend reading, talking, and working to understand what it is they’re doing with the publication of each issue. We don’t see the conversations taking place concerning how the present issue works both with and against the tradition a journal has already established, and what it might mean for a journal to publish a piece or pieces normally outside its wheelhouse. This is the kind of messiness I’m talking about. The kind of messiness that makes it difficult to say what it is the editorial staff looks for when selecting work for a journal, because journals are constantly revising themselves in the act of making themselves.
As writers, we’re told from the beginning to send our very best work and to expect rejection, lots of it, and to revise, revise, revise. And revise we do. And rejected we are. So much so that we’re either deadened to the rejection, or we begin to take it personally, as if the world, or the pen and paper have something against us.
I remember thinking when I was younger, “I’m working so hard here. Why isn’t anyone noticing?” I wasn’t able to see editors as people or journals as living things, that sometimes what’s been published in the past isn’t what the journal needs to grow in the present. I was focused on my work. I wasn’t able to understand that editors have to turn away more excellently written material than they’d like to because they’re striving to make something larger than each individual piece, and sometimes an individual piece, no matter how stunning, just doesn’t work with the current issue’s movement. Editing is just as messy as writing, and I wasn’t able to see that then. I wasn’t able to understand that making a journal is a process, and editors themselves are often left scratching their heads thinking, “I’m working so hard here. Why isn’t anyone noticing?” When the process remains hidden, both writing and editing can be solitary and lonely.
As Grist has grown we have begun to increasingly ask ourselves what it means to be “the journal for writers,” and we’re beginning to believe we can do more to enact the fellowship inherent in the writing community of which we’re all a part. Grist has begun another revision of itself. We’re thinking that all of the polish I discussed above both in writing and editing, the polish that covers up the messiness we all know exists, but don’t often openly acknowledge, only works to present one side of the writing and publishing life. To that end, we have decided to launch a blog feature on our website to let writers and editors be people as well as ink on pages. We’re hoping to let writers illuminate the work of writing in a different way, sharing something about process, craft, or introducing ideas that don’t fit into the traditional journal format because of space, timing, genre, and the like. The blog will feature an ongoing series of contributors all sharing their thoughts on writing and the writing life in a format that asks for the honesty before the polish. We’re asking our bloggers to open up and talk about the messiness inherent in what they do, to help us all remember that we’re not alone in a writing life happening, by and large, before publication. Of course, not all of these pieces will be about messiness, and indeed, some will be quite polished in their own right, but we’re hoping you’ll find something in each post that underscores a part of the writing community we don’t often or always talk about when we talk about writing.
I hope our new blog will give you another way to identify with other writers, and that you’ll embrace this unkempt part of Grist that’s jumped out of bed late to work, tying its tie at stoplights, failing to get its makeup on before the light changes. I hope it will be another reason you keep coming back to us, as we, like you, revise, revise, revise.
Christian Anton Gerard is editor-in-chief of Grist. His first book of poems, Wilmot Here, Collect For Stella, is forthcoming in spring 2014 from WordTech.