Yesterday, I sat down to the phone in my office to call a poet I very much admire (however quietly) to see if an essay he’d sent to Copper Nickel was still available. Generally speaking, Dean Young’s sentiment about the phone—“I hate the phone, how it pretends to be / your friend” (“Upon Hearing of My Friend’s Marriage Breaking Up,” see BAP 1994)—encapsulates my feeling, but at times the phone brings good news and is a friend, so, as Young wrote, “I called you anyway.”
I expected, as the great Jeanne Lieby wrote in her piece “Why I Call,” that I’d reach the author’s voicemail, my number unrecognized, but he answers and we talk for a bit. The essay is available, which is a relief to me since I’ve come to admire it so seriously in the last few days and since I’ve come to need it to fill a very specific gap in the issue I need to send to press in just a few weeks. He allows that the essay is very important to him and he’s happy to offer it to us, and I say how much I admired his recent book, and as Jeanne wrote, “In the moment of the call, the writer likes me and I like her and we celebrate the work.”
The author is thinking this, too, and invokes Jeanne, whom we both knew, and I feel, as he feels, that we’re participating in the life of her large spirit, mindful of her statement about the importance of this person-to-person connection. I can sit on a panel of editors and explain editorial principles and defend specific choices on their literary merits, which is as it should. This connection, however, this voice-to-voice and person-to-person circuit, this is my reward (as nearly as I have one).
This is my reward. The author recognizes me, as I recognize him (or her in another moment), and we’re real people together in a real universe in which our solitary work doesn’t remain entirely solitary, which is something of a relief for both of us. It’s a relief, I think, because at the moment I’m ready to print the piece, I’m representing a thousand or more potential readers, and as he offers it, he’s representing any number of writers who send us work in the hopes of publication he’s realizing—but he’s also representing those same readers. He reads the journal, so he’s also ready to see the work of other writers, and we’re working together to complete this circuit. At the same time, and this is where things get really really good for me personally, the author is—because I found him through his work—the text incarnate. What I admire about the essay lives in him, and if I meet him in person, if I see him again, I’ll be seeing the essay in the flesh.
This is an idea—that writers come to like other writers as people by liking their work first—that gets downplayed, either because there are also writers who are insufferable even though their work is interesting or because we writers and we editors may be afraid that it may seem nerdy (at best) or incredible (at worst) to articulate our admiration this way. But without saying so, we leave ourselves open to conspiracy-theory arguments—they know each other, so the publication must be a personal favor—when it’s almost always the other way around—the publication makes friends of us. And while I can’t speak for anyone else, I imagine a lot of other editors feel that the friendly connection between editor and writer may be a model or a seed for the relationship we hope builds between a journal and its readers.
So, too, I imagine for the anthologist.
I think back to Best American Poetry 1994 not only because of the Dean Young poem, but as well because it was edited by A. R. Ammons. I was a student in Ammons’ workshop in the months after BAP 1994 came out, and even within the program there were certain resentments and suspicions about the editorial program because the volume contained two poems by colleagues of Archie (Roald Hoffmann, a Cornell physicist chemist with whom Archie often had morning coffee, and Phyllis Janowitz, another poet teaching in the program (and my teacher the following year)) and two poems by recent/current students (Burlin Barr and Angela Shaw), all of whom I knew, if only in relatively formal ways.
Reading these poems now, I wish I’d talked to each of these poets more.
I shared coffee with Roald and Archie one morning, and mostly kept my quiet because I didn’t know what to say to Archie, much less to a Nobel laureate in physics chemistry, until the quiet was broken by another colleague, C. A. Carlson, who brought Archie the lyrics to Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” which he read, emphasizing the line “I want to feel you from the inside,” to which he responded “Indeed!” Archie had a great sense of humor I hope people also get from his poems and which was helpful in reading his poems. Sometimes the charge could be sexual or a little off-color, but I always felt the intent was to release some tension so you could get down to the real conversation. And so, after a lot of workshop afternoons and quiet morning coffees, Archie would call out to you in the hallway, as he did to me, and call you in and begin talking to you about one of your poems which he’d partially memorized, reciting it as he was giving you advice. It was humbling, terrifying, but also wonderfully human and humane. I imagine if he and Roald were good friends, Roald must have appreciated this, and reading his poem about glass I imagine, too, that the changes in the poem’s form replicate and represent the changes in the process of making glass—the melting, the forming of crystals, the cooling and solidifying—and I see there a sensitivity Archie would have admired.
Phyllis, too, who, like Archie and Robert Morgan, was fairly reserved in workshop, offering a brief comment in a lull or at the end of a line of conversation—now that brevity of phrase is written here in her “The Necessary Angel”:
What a simple lot we were, but she,
raspingly clever, kept us breathless,
our innocuous moxie cresting to order.
“Innocuous moxie” — what great sound. With an ear that could make that I’m sure she heard and caught and probably tried to tell us all a great deal more than we took in. Burl, quiet at the poker table, thoughtful on the summer-twilight-soiree porch, clearly knowing, thinking, even saying to himself more than would ever come out in polite conversation, the flood of relation and information about a geography we shared. Inside the dim ditch of the valley above the glacial lake, he wrote:
Clearly we’d found the rim of something.
No sooner were we skirting
its edges for the purpose of a clear outline,
than every step seemed possible
infraction; the inlet had frozen
and our excursions crazed
the surface; extreme cold, we’re informed,
changes the properties of things:
as anyone who lived there could tell you. This was what was happening all around, these intense concentrations, sometimes, usually inaudible, out of which came brilliant crystallizations, like Angela Shaw’s:
in the shallows. Later, unlaced, what breathes
in slip and stocking feet. Left to settle
what rich, indecent cream resurfaces.
Brilliant lines in brilliant poems—and brilliances magnified through the lens of my brief acquaintance with each, so I wish I’d read their poems before I met them and inverted the sequence of this relationship—but how much more brilliant, perhaps, to Archie who may have known these poems for a while, may have read them in office or workshop or coffeeshop, who would, then, have kept reading them in memory, so when he saw them again in the journals chosen by David Lehman as potential contributors, they shone right as poems magnified by the human relation to the poem—which he offered in his Best American selection, putting them in the anthology so that relation, in which the friendship is a kind of reading, is also offered to the reader.
Is that claiming too much?
It’s hard to read Ammons’ introduction to BAP 1994 and think of him disagreeing:
Language is the medium that carries the inscription, but what is inscribed in poetry is action, not language. The body of the ice-skater is only the means to an inscription on ice. Beautiful as the body may be, the inscription does not exist for the purpose of the body but of what the body does what its doings symbolize.
On the phone, we got the business out of the way quickly. Maybe, the phone, as a metonym of this writer whose work I’ve been admiring, became a kind of friend. But, in this light, I think, the phone, too, serves as a medium—not for the friendship—but for the thing the friendship, or at least the friendliness, is a medium for: this admiration for what has been done and for the language in which is was made.