This magazine presents a moment in time, and like a Muybridge photo it captures something in motion. Three months ago this issue was almost entirely unknown. It was an aspirational blank book, completely open to the promise that writers are always working, urgently and with deep sense of purpose, to imagine, draft, revise, and submit their new work. Now is the moment when all the possibilities that have been swirling around us—all the thousands of poems, stories, essays, and translations—finally become fixed. This magazine is not like a book, vetted by a marketing team and categorized by Dewey decimals; in its quarterly cycle, it remains much more fluid than that. But it’s also not a day in social media, a week in the news. It stands in the sweet spot between the fresh and ephemeral, and the polished and canonic. It is contemporary—belonging to and occurring in the summer of 2016—but it is also, we hope, timeless, as the most powerful writing can be.
At the same time, writing is such a changeable medium that each of these poems, stories, and essays is like an object in motion. Even before the advent of the backspace key, which gobbles up drafts without a trace, writers would type and retype, endlessly scratch out and correct and even burn old drafts. First publication, which is what you see here, is a moment of capture. It’s the moment the work leaves the writer’s private world and becomes public. The version that appears here may be fixed for NER 37.2—and we believe it’s in its prime—but some works will go on to be part of a book, and then maybe years after that will be revised again for a “new and selected.” Even for the classics, it’s difficult to agree upon definitive texts. There is often a later publication, a revision, a first folio, a last folio.
As time passes, a piece of writing changes. Often, even after it has been sent out to take its first steps in the public world, the writer will keep working, such that the piece originally submitted will be quite different from the one that appears in our pages. Writers and editors both need to recognize when it’s time to stop, at least for the time being. One writer from this issue worked on his piece for five years before submitting. Another confessed that the piece had been rejected and revised dozens of times before it was taken here. No doubt some pieces were written as recently as this past winter. Often writers don’t tell how much or how little time they took. It’s a secret, which may be divulged in our “Behind the Byline” column online, but not here in the magazine.
Every work that appears here and now is also, of course, in conversation with the past. Time overlaps in writing, as works from both the recent and the ancient past find their way in, through discussion or translation or in ways much more subtle than that. Even in the case of our “rediscovery”—a two-hundred-year-old preface to a poem that was itself a response to stories of ancient Greece—the writing is different when it appears today than when Keats wrote it, when it was entirely new and his life’s work was uncertain. The words are the same, but caught now in the summer of 2016, it is layered not only with the meaning of what comes before it in the magazine but with what we know now of the longevity of Keats’s own poems.
The present moment here in the US burns with outrage and divisiveness. We’re preoccupied by a troubling presidential campaign, and stories of violence and anguish around long-burning injustices have found their rightful place at the top of our newsfeeds. While this magazine appears in the midst of that, and our writers are steeped in this world, it often takes time for them to make meaning out of the chaos that every day offers, to make news that will stay news. It doesn’t mean writers aren’t writing about today’s affairs today; they are. Just as they were writing about 9/11 on 9/12.
This magazine appears in the summer of 2016 but is not of the summer of 2016. The object is still in motion. But hopefully, like a moment in a Muybridge photo, it will still be captivating next year and the year after that. Another metaphor might be this: if contemporary literary expression is the tide rolling in from the great roiling ocean of human thinking, feeling, and being, then this magazine offers a collection of shells. We stand on the shore and search through the thousands of them that lie on the sand, ready to be picked up—the beautiful nautilus, the plain clam, the shiny oyster, the rare, the common. And we present to you those that are most intact and true to form, most arresting in shape and color, those in which, if you hold them up to your ear, you can still hear the ocean.