Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Steve Davenport: What's cutting edge about good writing?

It’s 4:44 in the morning. My head’s hammered with allergies and I have a deadline. I need to write this essay about the nine semesters I spent editing Nonfiction for Ninth Letter, or maybe I should be making a point about something specific via one of the essays I edited (which one? pick me, pick me), except that I didn’t edit so much as, with the help of a new assistant editor each issue, I co-managed revolving bodies of MFA students who, because human, had different tastes, interests, personalities, affiliations, and exhibited varying degrees of preparedness and investment in the genre. In short, we were a team, except that we were a different team each time, except when we weren’t. And what we produced as an editorial body of many minds was not predictable. Maybe the best example of that came in the last issue.

In “When My Muse was Young,” Nicholas Delbanco delivers a long, rich lecture that runs from W. B. Yeats and Franz Liszt through Georgia O’Keeffe. Here’s a snippet, the last two sentences, to give you an idea:

She was still at work in her nineties, but the years did take their toll, and the blind lame visionary who scrawled her signature on codicils leaving more and more to Hamilton was no longer self-sufficient. Black Rock with Blue Sky and White Clouds, painted in 1972 before she lost her eyesight, is one of the last completed oils and rife with the old mystery--yet what it portends is unclear.

On the opposing, similarly and wildly colored page (wild for publishing anyway) sits the opening of Brian Oliu’s captivating and enigmatic “siren(1).exe”:

C:\run thelxiope.exe

This program cannot be run until SCOPULI.EXE is installed. Install now? (Y/N) N



C:\run molpe.exe

This program cannot be run until SCOPULI.EXE is installed. Install now? (Y/N) Y


Initializing SCOPULI.EXE...



Say what? Will the real Ninth Letter please stand up? (Psst. There is no real Ninth Letter.) I served as Nonfiction Editor for Volumes 2-5 (or Issues 3-10) and stepped off the editing platform with 6.1 (or Issue 11), co-edited with Audrey Petty, in the bag. I’m now back at it for what will become Issue 22 (or 11.2, AKA Fall/Winter 2014). I’m not here, though, to yak about what will be (who knows?) in this next issue or the ten issues (6.2-11.1) I had nothing to do with. I’m here to say the sun’s doing its dawn thing out on the Atlantic and my face is right here in central Illinois clenching like a fist against allergies as I’m doing well to remember most of the sixty or so essays we must have published during my first shift. And it was, for me, a great run. While I missed the birthing and bottle-feeding of Ninth Letter in that first volume year as well as the planning that preceded and produced it, I got to be there for its formative years. I sat in the meetings that brought together in one room professors from Creative Writing and Art & Design, who insured its investment in interdisciplinarity. I remember a meeting or two in which we were anxious parents who didn’t agree. And in the editorial meetings that featured the Delbanco and Oliu pieces, we didn’t agree.

But that’s the way, or should be, that things get done. No one needs to feel passionately in favor of every piece, but every piece should enjoy passionate support. That said, I heard in a meeting yesterday that people still walk up to the Ninth Letter table at AWP and explain their reluctance to submit as a reaction to our interest in, or preoccupation with, cutting-edge texts. I imagine what they’re responding to is not text but design. And what does cutting-edge mean anyway? Consistent deliverance of new technique? Fresh content areas served on shape-shifting plates visible only under special lamps or old content made fresh by hiply bringing its naughtiness or unspeakability into the light? Shit so new it will reinvent stink? I find the cutting-edge remark bothersome because I don’t believe it’s true. I believe that while we published on my shift an occasional nonfiction piece that pushed one or both of the envelopes, content and form, to the far edge of the table, there were four or five Delbancos for every Oliu or Elena Passarello (see “Kareninas” in 4.1), by which I mean essays like Nicole Walker’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (available just after the Passarello in 4.1) that gradually and often gorgeously reveal their meaning in fairly traditional ways. I believe we published the best essays, by which I mean the ones that managed to make their way through slush and into the many minds that filled the editing room, found sufficient passion and admiration, even if no one of us would have selected the final line-ups. I believe that’s as good a way as any, by which I mean a sure-fire way to publish pieces that will resonate and find a home with the right readers.

By which I mean, as the sun starts to hit the window and coffee is distracting me from my allergies, I don’t see what’s cutting-edge about that.

Steve Davenport is the author of two poetry collections: Overpass (2012) and Uncontainable Noise (2006). His poems, stories, and essays have been anthologized, reprinted, and published in scores of literary magazines both on-line and in print. A story in The Southern Review received a 2011 Pushcart Prize Special Mention. His Murder on Gasoline Lake, published in Black Warrior Review and later as a chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His day job is Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he is temporarily back in his old job as Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ninth Letter. He keeps a website/blog at

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