In this Fall 2019 issue of The Georgia Review, the last with which I will be involved, Anne Wright’s essay “On the Farm”—about her late husband, James Wright (1928–1980), and his important involvement with fellow poet Robert Bly—opens with this sentence: “It seems incredible that such a simple act as going to the mailbox on a hot summer day could change someone’s life.”
In the spring of 1983 I answered the telephone in my family’s small rented house in Columbia, South Carolina, the smaller-and-cheaper one we had recently moved into because my three-year teaching contract at the University of South Carolina was about to come to its end, and I was readying myself to (among other things) apply for unemployment benefits.
The telephone was a rotary wall model mounted in our tiny kitchen; I think the phone’s casing was pale yellow, but it might have been beige—and I hereby publicly apologize to it for my failure to remember this central detail.
The cause of that particular ringing of that particular phone was Stanley W. Lindberg, editor of The Georgia Review, calling with the news that would disappoint the other ninety-eight applicants for the new assistant editor position with the journal, the job for which I had interviewed at the University of Georgia campus a few weeks earlier.
Yes, I know: all of us can focus on countless moments in our lives and wonder/speculate (usually pointlessly, or at least foolishly) about what we might have been if those moments had been otherwise, but that does not mean we shouldn’t ever pay such special attention—nor does it mean that some moments are not our crucial ones. And, because I am here closing out my many years of up-front editorial remarks, I am certain I have chosen the most relevant tick-tock seconds—there were probably a few hundred of them there in that kitchen that day—to conjure, if only because so many of 2019’s GR readers and contributors have probably never held and negotiated a rotary telephone. (To stop and think I have published polished and mature work by writers not yet born—and I don’t mean born as writers, I mean born—when I started working with GR both excites and spooks me.)
The Georgia Review and I, by the purest of pure chance, went public at nearly the same time—GR in the spring of 1947 and I in the summer of 1948. Further, my reporting for work at the journal’s office in mid-July of 1983 and my departing (as I write this) in late July of 2019 means the publication and I were associated for almost exactly half of our respective lives, and it means—here’s the real point—I’ve had the chance to be associated with a great number of writers and readers.
Spoiler alert: Luddite nostalgia is about to appear.
My early GR years were (or so it seems now) all paper and human voices.
Submissions all came via the United States Postal Service, and nearly all came with return envelopes, because their authors did not want to have to retype the rejected work to be able to send it elsewhere. We did line editing directly on the accepted paper manuscripts—I still do so first, but more on that later—and our letterpress providers, Heritage Printers in Charlotte, North Carolina, were conversant with our mark-ups and applied them when setting the work in hot-lead type on those huge and remarkable Linotype machines I got to observe once on a field trip. (Go to the closing scenes of the 2017 movie The Post for a brief glimpse at these marvels in action.) Heritage mailed back to us long newsprint galley sheets to proof, sheets we returned so the printers could render those lovely final pages and bind them into an issue—those pages you could lightly run your fingertips across, eyes closed for concentration, and feel the slight surface indentations created by the letterpress process.
Communication with authors about accepted and potentially-to-be-accepted poems, stories, essays, and reviews was conducted by postal mail or telephone conversation, with the latter being the preferred method—especially in the later stages of the process. Editors and writers talking.
Following Stan’s too-early death in January of 2000—he was sixty—one of the first thoughts I had in my capacity as acting editor was to invite contributors to write brief eulogistic remarks for publication in the Review. Our Summer 2000 issue included twenty-one writers under the heading “Remembering Stanley W. Lindberg: A Festschrift,” and about half of those pieces made mention of working with Stan through the telephone. Veteran reviewer Sanford Pinsker recalled how “editing at The Georgia Review was always a collaborative process, whether it happened in the beginning stages as we chatted on the phone about a would-be essay dancing awkwardly around in my head, or at the end when we would debate the relative merits of parentheses as opposed to the dash.” Marjorie Sandor, whose initial fiction publication had been in GR in 1984, said “The first time he telephoned to edit, I knew from his questions that more than language would emerge transformed: he was teaching me how to work, how to be.” And Gerald Weales, whose drama round-up “American Theater Watch” had been appearing in every Fall Georgia Review since 1978, concluded his remembrance this way: “With every one of my contributions we would spend an hour or two on the phone quibbling over the smallest details—proposing, rejecting, advancing, retreating. It became a kind of game both of us looked forward to—at least, I think both of us did. I know I did . . . For me, for this moment, what I need to say is how much I am going to miss not having a chance to say once again, ‘Oh, God, Stan, you don’t need a comma there.’ ”
Paper and voices: different but related things to be missed for different but related reasons. To insist that the real life, the genuine life, of The Georgia Review resides in its printed pages is an attitude (and a love) I have refused to abandon; the surrender of nearly all live-voice conversations with our authors has been something over which I have had less control, but that does not mean I approve of the loss—which is a loss.
Good literary-magazine editing is an intimate act.
Partially born of education, professionalism, historical context, and certain practicalities that must keep an eye on an elusive third party generally referred to as “the reader,” such editing is at the same time born of passion, uncertain certainty, immediacy, and love. To be entrusted with passing a judgment on artistic creations—in my life, on poems, stories, and essays—is no small thing, at least to my way of thinking; so, no matter how strong my reactions may be to a piece of writing, whether strong positive or (much more commonly) strong negative, I have to recognize the inner circle where I am being allowed, being privileged, to stand.
As I have said more times in my life than I want to admit—though in somewhat different words—a good literary editor is not simply an opinionated and passive chooser, but a passionate and hyper-careful delver, who must ask a key question: What might make this or that potent piece of writing even stronger on its own terms, whether by addition and/or deletion, by massage or (occasionally) smacking?
Seldom have I published—or recommended publishing, during all those years when I was not the person with the final say-so—works I did not think needed at least a few bits of reassessment/revision by their authors. Is this fact a sign of arrogance or power-mongering? I am not the one to say “no” definitively, but I do say “no” because I believe an editor’s experienced and more objective (or should we call it “differently subjective”?) take is vital. And I do know that the “writer” me always hopes for such advice from other editors.
Some editorial suggestions are tiny, which does not mean unimportant. Think of the nicely dressed-up person you are about to go out with for the evening; you are admiring, and as you do you spot a manufacturer’s tag peeking up on the back of her neck from the inside of the blouse, or you see that his shirt cuff is twisted where it peeks from his coat sleeve—the new cufflink caught on the seam of the coat. You speak up and then reach to tuck, to dislodge, to improve the overall look you know was being sought.
Some editorial suggestions are substantive, and thereby in danger of being offensive and/or misguided—if not, as things may turn out, flat-out wrong. You say the blouse or the coat just doesn’t go with the otherwise finely chosen outfit, and simply must—like Oscar Wilde’s deathbed wallpaper—go.
Good literary-magazine editing is an intimate act.
If you didn’t like the previous analogy, this other one may seem really too far out, but so be it. Consider the highly trained gymnast racing full speed on the mats toward the vault, bare feet both pounding and springing; their leap launches the body for its first landing—of the hands on the vault box—and then the hands and arms initiate the flying/twisting/spinning of the “vault” itself as the whole body seeks the perfect integration of movements and the “stuck” landing.
The gymnast feels it all. The coach stands near the vault box, motionless, watching for the imperfections and considering how to remove them. Between them, the two can turn the 9.8 into a 9.9—and, now and then, a 10.
I did not know Ann Woods would come back into my life in the months after she was a student in one of my freshman composition classes at the University of Florida; neither did I know she was going to make a repeat appearance in my writing efforts when I began this final “editorial,” and so of course I did not know she would lead me back to my old nasty and out-of-bounds hero, Ambrose Bierce, whose infamous, brutally funny, right-and-wrong-headed Devil’s Dictionary pulled out all the stops with its long definition of editor, abbreviated here: “a severely virtuous censor . . . who flings about him the splintering lightning and sturdy thunders of admonition till he resembles a bunch of firecrackers petulantly uttering its mind at the tail of a dog” as he “spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit.” Bierce was not, of course, speaking about good editors.
To an Ex-Student, on Learning She Is a World-Class Gymnast
—for Ann Woods
What routines you must have mounted
in Mycenae and Greece
while the rest of us studied texts
in our windowless rooms:
your chalked palms know
they can vault the Cretan bull’s horns,
your spine curling down
to the rough, frothing beam of his back.
In the Test of the Bow, you dance
across the axe-helves, beggaring
even the hero’s threaded shot.
You sit with a hand on Homer’s thigh
as that night’s Odyssey becomes itself.
As the poet fights
the strange and familiar magic of his brain,
your touch reminds him
the tongue is first a muscle.
Your silent sprung flights and twistings show
what the body of his song can be.
Even writers can learn from others—and so can editors, especially if given forty years.