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Published: Thu Oct 22 2015
Art by Jin Suk
Sea-Changes and the Necessary Arrangement

The newest issue of AGNI (Issue 82) has just “gone to bed” and I have that momentary—and illusory—sense of peace. I’m not sure it’s the best metaphor. Bed invokes the idea of sleep and sleep the idea of waking, and the correlations to putting out a magazine feel pretty loose. I actually favor something more alchemical; or, getting literary and going to the Bard, think of a “sea-change into something rich and strange.” I want the idea of transformation, something that will express the pleasure—and mystery—at the heart of the enterprise. I mean, we gather up this big stack of all the things that we have accepted over a six-month period and set about trying to make the one best unity, an issue that will feel necessary and right and that will, if taken in cover to cover (as it rarely is), feel like its own organic thing. A tall order, and who knows how well it is ever realized, given that we are moving by feel through the realms of subjective taste?

But I now hasten to say that the making of an issue is in no sense a crap-shoot. There are patterning energies in play through all the period of reading and accepting submissions, and others that come active during the crafting of sequence. These are intuitive in the extreme, but they can be talked about.

For me, an issue can be said to begin with the first acceptance of a strong and distinctive piece of prose—fiction or non-. A poem, even a poem of many pages, cannot do it. Or, I should say, has not yet. This beginning has to be a clear note—and it may just be that any poem of many pages is bound to strike a number of notes. (I’m sure I will be contradicted on this.)

What I’m looking for is a key signature, or maybe an anchor—or maybe I need to lose the metaphors altogether.

One of the first pieces I accepted for the new issue, early on, was Susan McCallum-Smith’s long memoir-essay “Smithereens.” I loved the precision of its language, the ambitious reach of its sentences, and the sense it gave of the writer searching through memory for a place, or emblem, of inner repose. That’s what I remember, anyway. The point is that as I read other submissions—in all genres—over the following months, I had the feel of this essay with me.

Which does not mean, here or ever, that I am looking for pieces that are similar in theme or style or anything of the kind. That would be a recipe for dullness. No, it just means that it stands as the first term of what will over time become a set of relations. I may confer with poetry editors and choose certain poems, for their interest and excellence, of course. But as we choose, I also know that we have added another point to what will eventually become a spatial figure. So that when we’re debating the merits of a certain story, I have a dim—but real—awareness of where its tone and essential content stand in relation to the other pieces. And so on.

Sometimes it will happen that a submission comes in that feels like a ‘taker,’ even as I’m also aware of certain overlap with things we have already accepted—and I worry that rather than strengthening the feeling, it will somehow go the other way, dilute. I gave some thought to this when Sheila Kohler sent us her memoir-essay “In a Woman’s Kingdom.” I found myself thinking like Alexander Calder might have thought while working on one of his mobiles: how would this size, shape, weight and color play against that—what kinds of adjustments and spacings would be needed? The two essays are in the issue. My hope is that they are rightly placed.

This ‘placement’ is the counterpart phase to the extended period of acceptances. Indeed, when the time to make the issue finally arrives, the ordering must be done quickly and decisively. I take printed copies of all the poems, stories, essays, as well as the text that accompanies the art feature, and I lay everything out on the big table in our “library.” Then, for a long time, I just pick things up and look at them and set them down again. In each case I am trying to remember what the kernel feeling is, whether it’s a story or a poem read four or five months ago or an essay just recently accepted.

What I end up doing—though I could not explain this logically—is trying to find the best, ideally the necessary arrangement for all the disparate pieces that, when accepted, were felt to be part of an emerging relation. I am now trying to make that relation actual. The whole process is very intuitive, very jigsaw puzzle-ish: this tinge of red somehow matches to that; that big loud piece pretty much has to go here. After an hour or two, my sheet with page-counts is all scrawled up with numbers—I have something. Is it the inevitable, the necessary, the one-and-only? I don’t think so. I don’t know that there is such a thing. But this is something—it is by no means arbitrary. And as I work I feel that this arranging honors—and completes—the process of the preceding months.

_Completes…_that’s not quite accurate. What completes the process, both literally and symbolically, is opening the mailer when the first copy is sent along—seeing what Bill’s cover design really looks like, feeling the very specific heft, running the thumb along the closed pages, and then with a parachutist’s leap of faith opening it up to get that first sensation of words released from their enclosure. That’s the moment.

Sven Birkerts is coeditor of AGNI. He is the author of ten books: An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on 20th Century Literature (William Morrow), The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry (William Morrow), American Energies: Essays on Fiction (William Morrow), The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber & Faber), Readings (Graywolf), My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time (Viking, 2002), Reading Life (Graywolf, 2007), Then, Again: The Art of Time in the Memoir (Graywolf, 2008), The Other Walk (Graywolf, 2011), and Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015). He has edited Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Writers and the Muse (Graywolf) as well as Writing Well (with Donald Hall) and The Evolving Canon (Allyn & Bacon).

He has received grants from the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. He was winner of the Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle in 1985 and the Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award from PEN for the best book of essays in 1990. Birkerts has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Mirabella, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and other publications. He has taught writing at Harvard University, Emerson College, Amherst College, Mt. Holyoke College, and the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, which he directed for ten years. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts. (updated 10/2022)

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