Monday, August 24, 2009

Available Surfaces II: The Gravitas of Paper

"Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr Gibbon?" --William Henry, First Duke of Gloucester

In the late spring of 2001, the boxes began arriving. Buoyant gentlemen in brown uniforms brought them four afternoons in a row, stacking them on the old wooden porch in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, where I then lived, though I would not be living there for long. Inside the house, other boxes were accruing, because we were preparing to move.

In particular, I had just finished packing up all my books. In the dining room, there was a virtual levee of boxes identical to the ones that were arriving on the porch: one hundred (more or less) cartons bought at the U-Haul store full of the tools of my vocation. It would have been easy, if I’d had the corpse of an author on hand, to make a funeral cairn of books, to contain the body of a poet entirely within a tomb of boxes marked Poetry in appropriately black Sharpie to prevent confusion; likely I had enough Fiction boxes to encompass a trio of novelists; and the Criticism could have stashed the cremains of a panel of deconstructionists in a tidy mausoleum.

I was, in short, myself entombed inside my own collection of books. And yet, on the front porch, more boxes were arriving. And, perverse as it may appear, as I packed box after box with household goods, the incoming boxes were unpacked, their contents scrutinized.
Writers are apt to be all too well acquainted with the weight of paper. Those sheets that flutter so lightly in the wind when we don’t want them to, that crumble so easily into balls under the force of our writerly frustration, have a way of accruing into groupings—packets, bundles, parcels, walls, mountains—of enormous density. I was told a story once that the library at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale got around a cut in their book acquisition budget by claiming—and in fact proving—that books are an efficient insulating material. That slim volume of poems that almost levitates off your desk can, when joined with sufficient others of its ilk, crush the child who tries to climb a freestanding bookshelf. The cousins of those buoyant gentlemen and -women of UPS--I mean professional movers—quickly lose their cheerfulness when confronted by a personal library, especially one packed in cartons deemed by the movers “too big,” i.e. too heavy. Weight has consequences. Mass accrues. A spine, not to say a heart, can only bear so much. I could, as easily as that clambering monkey-child alluded to above, be killed by my books. So could a mover. So could a moving van.
That copy of Ulysses you use for a doorstop is one thing, literally; multiply it by a few thousand and you have my personal library; multiply it by millions and you have the unsupportable weight of your university’s research facility. How much do the books at the Library of Congress weigh? At some point we approach the density of a dwarf star.
The old house where we lived in Richmond—built in 1885—had the original oak flooring. As I piled my boxes of books in the downstairs dining room, I imagined the effect of the weight. Was the floor sagging there? (Who could tell? In that lovely old house, nothing was plumb, level, or square.) Then again, maybe the trees from which the flooring came were relatives of the trees from which the paper in the books were made: maybe there was a reunion going on from which I was excluded.

All these things passed through my mind, but I was perhaps a tad unhinged. I was not at a crossroad, but I was just beyond a myriad of them, in the sense that a lot of complex decisions had recently been made and many consequences were beginning to appear.

That was the spring of my fiftieth year, and yet, upstairs resting (as she should), my wife of two years was pregnant, and we were about to set off to parts unknown, more or less, because I had taken a new job. It was mid-April; on July 1 I would become the editor of one of America’s best literary quarterlies, The Georgia Review. I was doing almost all of the things that psychologists list as the most stressful human activities, and I was doing them all at once.

The boxes that were arriving on my porch were, in fact, arriving from Athens, Georgia. Their contents: the first 15 years of The Georgia Review. I was not yet in the employ of The University of Georgia, but I was already beginning the work, because I had taken on a task that needed all the time I could give it. I would be editing the magazine, yes; but I had also agreed to take on a larger than normal hunk of editorial work, suggested to me by the magazine’s staff: I would spearhead the completion of a special anthology issue, Best Essays from The Georgia Review.

This task was, I began quickly to realize, Herculean in several senses. The Georgia Review had been chugging along since 1948, always publishing a hefty percentage of nonfiction material. My predecessor, the late Stanley W. Lindberg, had, along with the staff, done Best Poetry and Best Fiction issues of the Review ten years earlier; a Best Essays had always been part of the plan, but it was never brought to completion. Exactly why this was the case I have never been sure. Partly it was the consequence of a long illness that in the end was fatal for Stan; partly it was the consequence of having many other things to do. But it was also, I think, partly the more or less inchoate nature of the task. Poetry and fiction have rather precise borders; nonfiction, including the essay, rather less so. Stan had made notes about his plans for the essay issue, including responses to his reading of the early issues, edited (of course) by his own predecessors. Reading these, it seemed to me, with all due respect, that Stan was dithering. And I could see why: the earliest issues of The Georgia Review were particularly Augean Stable-ish. The task was huge, the terrain very messy, and the stakes high.

What were the stakes? I had the distinct impression that I was being tested. The Georgia Review is a proud old institution; one doesn’t just walk through the door to be the editor without having to run the gantlet. I was being tested; indeed, I was being hazed; and I was determined to pass with flying colors.
If writers know the weight of paper well, editors not only know that weight, they are one with it. I was not walking into an editorship without understanding what I was getting into; I had already been editor-in-chief of Quarterly West, of The Kenyon Review, of The New England Review, and poetry editor of The Cimarron Review. I had done, then, more or less equivalent jobs before, and understood that I would be breathing, eating, and excreting paper. Day by day it would arrive and demand attention; it would be carried about and handled; it would be read; decisions would be made; most of it would be returned to its sender, but not without having first thrown its weight around.

There is hardly a literary quarterly anywhere that has office space as commodious as The Georgia Review; and that space is crammed, every nook and cranny and available surface of it, with paper. Some of it is more or less permanently installed on bookshelves; much of it circulates like turgid blood in a peculiar alien circulatory system. The editors are its custodians, and also its tenants. I would come to live in the offices of The Georgia Review, as I had other places, as a kind of symbiote, simultaneously responsible for and dependent on a body of paper, and not a lean fit body either: the body would be bloated, slow of metabolism, and gassy. This is not a description of The Georgia Review per se but of all such publications, maybe of all publications period. A journal of the traditional kind is made of paper, and it eats paper: too much paper enters it, and so—like an obese person living in a donut shop—it grows.
In Virginia—it was a lovely spring; flowers of many kinds were blooming, and the weather was luminous and perfect—I opened my boxes and began to examine their contents.

I discovered a minor mass of apparently identical objects, all the same shape and size, and all alas the same color, a species of khaki, or, as you might say, something on the pale end of a spectrum of shit brown. They arrived from an era in the history of literary magazines when publications were visually Spartan, to put it nicely. It was as though editors—and not only the editors of this publication, but virtually all editors of all similar publications—made a virtue of ugliness, as if to say: this is serious business, friends, like cod liver oil. To do them justice, color, in those days, was expensive; and furthermore, these editors, virtually to a man (and they were virtually all men) were, in the best sense, amateurs of publication. They dealt with content, and put forward content as content, rather the way a cereal company concerned entirely with matters of nutritional virtue might put forward oatmeal as oatmeal, in a thoroughly unappetizing oatmeal colored box. This was all well and good for the mission, and for the bottom line, but did not go far toward making the children want to eat.

I ate it. I ate it all. I read every word of every nonfiction piece (essays and otherwise, for there are distinctions to be made here) ever published in The Georgia Review. Beyond a certain point, the material was wonderful, and the choices difficult only because they were to be made between better and best. From the early years, however, there was not much nutrition in an acre of pine trees. And, of necessity, I read chronologically, from start to finish, so that, there in my dining room in Richmond, my meals were heavy, friends, and joyless: pieces on peach farming in Georgia, and how the “Negro” might be “improved” (for, yes, the Review began as Agrarian and Fugitive outreach, and adopted a “genteel” segregationism grounded in “The Briar Patch”).

Upstairs, my wife grew, as we say, heavy with child. Downstairs, I grew heavy with paper. Furthermore, I became clogged with dust. These issues were oddly new—most of them, like most issues of most literary magazines everywhere, had never been opened—and at the same time old. They had spent decades untouched by human hands but moldering in a Georgia storeroom, and they harbored peculiar allergens, to which I proved susceptible. They wicked all the moisture from the skin of my hands as I held them, and as I sneezed, my skin cracked; I went through a small swimming pool full of hand lotion.

Ah, friends, the act of reading is, for all we might say about the readerly imagination, thoroughly physical, and editors are the weightlifters of readers. There are joys in the profession, moments of electric discovery, illumination; but there are perils too, hernias and ruptured discs of readership, cracked hands and blurred vision, and susceptibility to whatever dusty invisibles cling to the page and plan their insidious invasions.

I read my old issues, I made my notes, and when I was done, I packed them all back in their boxes and piled them up with my other books. When the time came, I saw them off in a moving van; they were going home, and I was following, sucked along behind them by an irresistible if not altogether appealing field of gravity.
There is something to be said for the internet.

I have heard out the grouchy purists, those in love with paper. I am even one of them; I love paper too. I love books, and would never want to see them go away. I love literary magazines, broadsides, chapbooks, pamphlets. I love beautiful type, thick rich pages, the marvels wrought by ink. By and large, by now I am largely made of paper. You are what you eat, and I have eaten my oatmeal. My loyalty here is real.

But I also love the library inside my computer. I love the brilliance of the screen, its pure luminosity. Light! I love lightness! It’s not for nothing that I’m a poet: the lyric lifts, it floats, it flies.

Let there be beautiful books forever. Let them be read forever in bathtubs, a place where computers should never go. But let there also be digitization, let there be hard drives containing, almost weightlessly, libraries dwarfing Alexandria. And let all ugly back issues of literary magazines, bound in shit-colored cheap cover stock, be turned into electrons that never make us sneeze.

Along with the excellent staff at The Georgia Review, I finished editing the special essay issue, and a fine strong issue it is too, not because of me but because of the editorial excellence of my predecessors there.

It is, however, an especially thick, weighty issue, and that is mostly my doing. And in some future, a new editor-to-be will, at the Review’s two hundredth anniversary, have to edit a mega-meta-Best-Of issue. I imagine the boxes arriving on his or her futuristic porch. I imagine that unfortunate—attenuated into noodle-like physical wimphood by another hundred and forty years of machine-aided human evolution—struggling to lift them. I imagine his or her dining room floor—made of polymer-uranium reinforced Styrofoam materials—collapsing under the weight, the whole structure of the house imploding, the editor and all back issues vanishing down a robotically engineered safety sinkhole put there precisely in case of such an eventuality.

I will look down, or up, from whatever afterlife I then inhabit, and I will say to myself: there is my legacy.

[*Reposted from The Best American Poetry Blog]


  1. You are Rocking Daddy O---------!!!!!!!

  2. As Winonie Harris put it so well, "All I wanna do is rock. . . ."