I am sitting in the doctor’s office in my hometown, looking, half-heartedly through demographic stacks of fashion mags, gun mags, men’s health mags, gossip rags, and the like, wishing I’d remembered to bring a book. There wasn’t a literary magazine in sight. It’s not surprising, but a shame, since this is one of the scenarios in which a literary magazine is ideal. You’ve got to wait 5 minutes? You’ve got enough time to read a poem or two. Fifteen? Maybe there’s a short essay. And if your wait stretches, as mine did, to nearly two hours, you’ve got enough time to read a substantial story, perhaps even a novella.
I go home. I sleep for a day. When I wake up, I think, I should buy the doctor’s office a subscription to some nice literary magazine, or maybe pick a few back issues from the shelves and send them over.
It’s not hard to accumulate a lot of literary journals. You subscribe, and the copies keep coming. But chances are, if you read literary journals, you know others who do too, and, chances are, at some point in any given year someone you know is going to hand you a copy of an issue they’re done with or—if you’re really lucky—because it has something in it the bequeather thinks you might enjoy. And if you keep most of what’s handed to you, you’ve got a small bookstore in your office.
This passing on of journals has been part of my writing life since college, when my first teacher, R. T. Smith (editor, now, of Shenandoah) would occasionally rise from his chair, scanning his shelves, and pull a volume or two from his library—a third copy of an issue of The Georgia Review, sometimes, or a mini-digest-sized back-pocket copy of a journal printed twice or three times with money collected in a hat, or a safeguarded copy of a relatively rare periodical, like Brendan Galvin’s Poultry, parodic and hilarious.
When I was in graduate school at Cornell, I pulled from my box one day a copy of Poetry—this was when they still had the card cover—on which A. R. Ammons had written: “R. T. has a poem in here! –Archie.” I was grateful for the hand-me-down, as graduate student budgets didn’t always leave much for journals. I read the poem, but had trouble passing the copy back or passing it along. I had a decent amount of Archie’s handwriting on my poems, but this inscribed cover was a different kind of artifact, and though I like shiny covers, sometimes I miss the old card covers on which you could write something and let the journal record its own passage through the world.
In my office in Denver is what we call now a “journal library,” a probably too-large accumulation of back issues and cast-offs from across the department, which serves both as a body of editorial example and as a design reference when we teach our students the trade.
I can walk the shelves in my mind to my first copies of The Kenyon Review (bought at Behind the Glass bookstore in Auburn, Alabama) or the hand-sized Caesura, a short-lived Auburn journal, or The Brass Ring, an even shorter-lived journal from Auburn, or the black square of the fourth issue of The Germ. For something that’s defined by its relationship to the day, to the time, I have held on to so many copies, in hand and mind.
This summer, I suppose, when I return from Atlanta and integrate the new books into the stacks, I will have to cull a few less familiar copies from the library and do as my teachers did, pass them on to students or friends or maybe even drop a few in the offices of doctors and dentists where maybe they’ll help someone enjoy the time instead of just passing it.