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Behind the scenes at The Great Paris Review Poetry Purge of 2010, part 2.

July 20, 2010 \am\31 11:02 am

Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8extras

On July 16, just days before Lorin Stein sent out an email to several poets to un-accept their work, he remarked to the New York Observer that he was “putting together what he hopes is a “holy shit” poetry section for his first issue on September 15.” More:

In June, Mr. Stein oversaw the transition of Meghan O’Rourke and Dan Chiasson, poetry editors under Mr. Gourevitch, away from the section and brought in Robyn Creswell, who is working toward a doctorate in comparative literature at New York University. “My original background is more in poetry than in prose, so I have my own views,” said Mr. Stein, who studied poetry at John Hopkins University.

Dan Chiasson, a respected poet-critic, took over the co-editing the Paris Review‘s poetry section from Charles Simic in Fall 2008. “I now feel like I’m involved in all steps in the poetry production chain,” Chiasson told Poets & Writers in January 2009. “I write poetry; I teach poetry, which exposes me to fresh and unformed young minds; I review poetry for newspapers and magazines; and now, at the Paris Review, I read unpublished work by accomplished, award-winning poets and rising stars, and have a hand in selecting it for publication. It’s very thrilling to be so involved and to see the differing mind-sets of students versus poets submitting work to me.”

Flash forward to July 2010. “I was disappointed to hear that some of the truly great–in our judgments–poems we had accepted were likely to be cut,” Chiasson writes me yesterday from Facebook mail. He uses the “our” pronoun, referring to his co-editorship with Meghan O’Rourke. “I do support Lorin and his vision for the magazine, which is why I was pleased to be asked to stay on as “advisory” editor. I’ll personally look for other ways that I can help the poets getting bad news–it’s a top priority to make certain this work gets the recognition it deserves.”

Just how many poets’ work has been purged from the production schedule remains unclear.  I now know of four poets, and I’ve sent out requests for comment and information from each, and I’ll be posting  that soon. Here’s what I also know, or have learned: it was not unanimous decision to clear some of the decks to make way for Lorin Stein and Robyn Creswell’s poetry picks.

What is also clear, based on my interviews with several people who know of the situation at Paris Review–but not running it; I still have yet to hear from Stein and Creswell–is that even more work would have been cut from the Review’s pages if not for Chiasson and O’Rourke staying on in an advisory capacity. That next “holy shit” issue of The Paris Review, in other words, may include work that was to have been cut by Stein and Creswell, but was saved in some fashion by their predecessors. Perhaps those entries on the Table of Contents should bear an asterisk.

What appears above is  reportage; here is part of my take on the situation and is certainly subject to debate and comment. This is by way of making clear why these events merit as high-profile coverage as I am make them out to be.

Few would quibble with Paris Review’s place as an anchor store publication credit in the shopping mall of a book’s acknowledgments page, one of the first that would be mentioned in a short and essential writerly bio. The Paris Review perennially places in the top 10 journals for a poet in which to publish his or her work; that ranking is arguable among poets and poetry editors who keep a sharp eye on which journals publish those who are up-and-coming and who are established.

There are various scenarios for how an editor might treat previously accepted work when he or she takes over the reins at a literary journal.  At a movie studio, it’s not uncommon for projects to be shelved, sold, dumped, placed in development hell; at a book publisher, manuscripts are back-burnered for years, decades, or are given a letter such as Stein’s that addresses an imprint’s new direction.

But I would argue literary journals are a different animal altogether; the stakes are lower, sure.  Little if any money changes hands, and a single credit in a single journal usually doesn’t make or break a career.

The editors of literary journal—and there are hundreds, even thousands of them in the United States alone—abide by few, if any, common universal regulations.  I would say that one bylaw would be that when work is accepted for publication, it is accepted.  When a new editor takes over the reins from a predecessor, one of that person’s first tasks is to see what work has already been accepted, what is in the production pipeline, what submissions have yet to be read and ruled upon.

This is one of the many unsexy jobs of a literary journal editor, but hundreds perform these tasks every day.  When I took over La Petite Zine, there were several writers whose work has been accepted.  I should point out here that my taking over was not a peaceful one; my predecessor had been let go by the publisher of Web Del Sol for unclear reasons, ones I didn’t want to know.  But I did abide by those previous agreements.

Am I a particularly ethical person?  I don’t think so.  Might this be the reason La Petite Zine has the status it has and Paris Review remains at the top of the heap?  Perhaps.

Another explanation is that editors at The Paris Review see themselves as more of a magazine—along the lines of, say, The New Yorker or Harper’s, as opposed to Open City or Fence.  In the former’s world, a short story abuts fragrance ads, and work is spiked, kill fees paid; in the latter, funded by subvention or library subscriptions or spouses, run from college cubicle or attic from a laptop’s folder, where all or most concerned realize the stakes are so low that some honor among thieves has to exist.

Still another explanation is that Stein, a former editor at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and Cresswell, a PhD student in New York University’s comparative literature program, are still learning how to run a literary journal. All—or most?—of the previous poetry editors at Paris Review were poets themselves or were literary journal editors in some capacity before–Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Tom Clark, Yvor Winters, Ed Sanders, others. One would assume they would have a knowledge of how literary jourals are run from some side of the production.

I’ll add links and proofread and add more soon.

UPDATE: Proofread and edited this July 21.  Still on road.

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  1. July 20, 2010 \pm\31 12:17 pm 12:17 pm

    Sing, O muses, of the wrath . . . of the poet scorned.

  2. Jordan permalink
    July 20, 2010 \pm\31 1:59 pm 1:59 pm

    Don’t forget Tom Clark.

  3. Elaine permalink
    July 20, 2010 \pm\31 3:21 pm 3:21 pm

    Absolutely, Jordan–Clark’s tenure was PR’s poetry apex–weird, beautiful, various–yeah, like Clark’s own work.

  4. July 20, 2010 \pm\31 3:31 pm 3:31 pm

    I’m really curious about the line you didn’t finish. I know you haven’t proofed yet, but…

    there exists an honor among thieves in the literary journal world, where all or most concerned realize the stakes are so low that some …

    As an editor, I’m on the edge of my seat :-)


  5. July 20, 2010 \pm\31 8:01 pm 8:01 pm

    The same thing happened to me as a music historian: an article accepted for publication in 2004 was never published and disappeared in limbo. As recently as last fall, five years after the promised publication, I was assured by the editor that “yes, yes, we are getting to it” while nothing seems to be indicating that they, indeed, are getting to it. By now, though, unlike poetry which lasts for millenia, the article has lost some of its lustre which came from its being original and current, at the cutting-edge of research. It still has merit, but I’m not as excited about it as I was. Sad to see that poetry has its share of such occurrences. I thought ill of my fellow music historians; now I see that it is everywhere, just human nature, that’s all…

  6. Robin Russin permalink
    July 21, 2010 \am\31 4:06 am 4:06 am

    I would give this whole article more credence if you, as an editor, had bothered to proof-read it before publishing it. There are so many missing articles and even unfinished sentences (“…where all or most concerned realize the stakes are so low that some…” some what?!) that it is painful to read.

    • July 21, 2010 \am\31 7:58 am 7:58 am

      I agree. I am writing this quickly, which I didn’t want to do. Am editing as I get online, since I’m on the road.


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