When something is created in one context but presented in one that feels profoundly changed, it makes us uneasy. We lose confidence. Does it still make sense, does it still matter? The 24/7 news cycle, which can age a piece of writing beyond recognition over the course of a day, and which seems to speed up and slow down according to each day’s anxiety level, has been operating at a ferocious clip these past few months. How can something that seemed important last winter, when it was possible to make plans, when certain expectations were in place, still matter this summer? Writers who dedicated their full attention and imagination to the work now at hand are faced with the effects of that strange passage of time. Now that all the words and pages are assembled and ready for print, ready for readers online, do they mean the same thing as when they first came together over the past months, the past year?
During the winter, and looking ahead to this issue’s release, I had some idea in mind about what NER 41.2 would be about. For once, I thought, I can predict what theme will arise when it’s finally complete. With Marilyn Hacker finalizing her selection of contemporary UK poets, with permissions solidifying around a Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen collage/essay, with Brexit finally taking place, and, on a personal level, with a trip to London planned and partly paid for, I felt a kind of convergence. A theme pertaining to Britain, or maybe to our shared language and historical differences, was sure to arise, and all the poems and stories that are decidedly about something else would find a place in that context, reverberating with that theme, as so often happens as an issue of this magazine takes shape. And while the UK poets feature did come together, and the Brexit referendum was big news early this year, Britishness does not in the end feel like the theme here. Not even for the British poets. The idea that a “British theme” would emerge began to seem as short-sighted as expecting any other issue to have an “American theme.” What would that even mean?
Instead of having something to reveal about the UK in particular, what this issue seems instead to reveal is something about persistence—the persistence of each individual piece, over time, over place, over context—and the resilience of the literary creation in general. While it’s only been several months or at most a year since the pieces here were selected, 2020 already feels very different from, and much later and darker than, any date in 2019. While it’s true that certain pieces play a little differently now than they did a few months ago, and that different images and details stand out, sometimes even feeling prescient, overall there’s persistence: their images are still vivid, their humor is still funny, and their truths are still true.
One thing that a magazine like this can do that’s even more pronounced now that our physical spaces are so fraught is to bring dozens of writers together in one place in a meaningful way. Bringing in a troupe of British poets, who themselves are not a coherent group with similar aesthetic or linguistic preferences, opens up borders that are now attempting to close. Their work can travel in a way that we can’t and suggests an alliance, or an affiliation, between contemporary England and our “New England.”
Marilyn Hacker, who edited this feature, is a poet who crosses plenty of borders. While our readers will be familiar with her for her own poetry and translations—she has published fourteen books, winning the National Book Award and Lambda Literary Award among others, and first appeared in NER in 1979 and as recently as 2019—editorial work has also long been part of her mission as a literary citizen. She was the first full-time editor of Kenyon Review in 1990 to 1994, served twice as guest editor of Ploughshares, and more recently was, for ten years, part of the editorial committee of Siècle 21, editing and co-editing sections on African American writers, New York writers, Syrian writers, Lebanese writers, and more, all in French translation. While here she brings together fifteen poets, all new to NER, the most difficult part for her was narrowing it down to just this group and just these poems. To alleviate the constraints a little, we’ve posted more poems by these writers on our website.
Since this spring, writers have already sent us dozens, maybe hundreds, of poems and prose pieces about the Coronavirus or quarantine. Certainly this is the most well-documented pandemic in history, and it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. Will our next issue have the pandemic as a theme? I’m not even going to guess. The virus will make its way in as subject matter, of course, but it will turn into something else altogether by the time the news changes direction once again.
Today is Friday, May 22. I am in Middlebury, Vermont, and redwing blackbirds are making a racket outside my window. Restaurants, closed since March 17, can open in a limited way tonight.
No, now it’s May 31. George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and our cities are on fire. I can think of nothing else.
Now it is what day, and where are we now? Where are you?
We offer these pieces as a way to reach across that time and space.