My special treat: returning to the stories, poems, and essays that will appear in an upcoming issue of this journal in order to write a new set of editor’s notes. Usually, you see, it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance. That’s because, given the rhythms of our production schedule, I tend to be working a year or so out, considering submissions about twelve months in advance of publication.
It’s a joy, then, to rediscover in these pages Vanessa Cuti’s strange and wonderful tale “A Box from the Moon.” Or Lauren Schenkman’s “Fat Little Gods.” Kevin Young’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” on the other hand, came to us more recently as part of a book project that will be going to press in the near future. You’ll see that it’s a masterful, funny, illuminating, and in some ways deeply disturbing article on the great American tradition of the hoax—political and literary, comic and absurd. We scrambled to make room in our schedule, and now it’s an honor to bring this to you.
And then there are the winning entries from the 2017 Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers, selected this year by the gifted poet and editor Natalie Shapero. Returning to Eileen Huang’s “Movie Scene on a Highway Shoulder” reminds me of the skill, the brilliance, and wit of this young poet. Once again my pride has been rekindled by the many hundreds of inspired entries we receive for this annual prize.
There’s more, however, to the deep satisfaction I find in reading all of these pieces once more. In fact, engaging a poem or a story deeply a second time is essential—it goes to the heart of the matter, though we don’t often say so in this age of instant gratification.
One of my marrow-deep assumptions is that all authors—writers striving for true literary achievement—do so with the secret desire that readers will finish their story or poem and then, having been deeply moved and delighted, make their way through it again from the beginning.
We encounter countless other modes of writing every day, of course: journalism, legal briefs, instructions on a tube of super glue. Each may entertain or instruct or persuade us. But they never presume a reader will linger. Literature, however, demands that deeper engagement. It bids us: read me again.
The authors featured in these pages have anguished over every animating verb, every precise and vivid noun. Even—and this is true—over the rhythms achieved with every comma. Or by the removal of that comma.
No one—no reader, no matter how skilled or intuitive—grasps the entirety a first time through. Indeed, and here’s the larger truth: only in light of a successful ending does the beginning of a story or poem fully blossom. Perfection comes clear after the fact. You have to return, to reread, for the deep resonances to strike home.
My point is that a second reading isn’t an indulgence or a luxury: for literature it’s essential.
A further iteration of this truth is realized in how we as a culture, or broadly interlaced set of cultures, come to judge those works of art that will endure. They become part of our selves as individuals and who we are as a society. They stay with us long after the fact. They repay our reading and relistening over months and years. Indeed, each encounter seems somehow fresh and alive. We are always discovering something new.
Think of encountering Lear yet again on the heath crying out, after the fact, “O Fool, I shall go mad.” It’s more terrible, more wrenching, the tenth time than the first. Or Sethe, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, confronting the men who intend to carry her baby back into slavery. Or a Bach cello sonata. Or Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” Or perhaps it’s a fresh encounter with your old friend Pip, held quite head over heals by the escaped convict Magwitch. What larks, we know, lie ahead. Such art remains forever full of deep surprise, even though at some level you know what’s going to happen or where the song ends.
In the later years of his life, Peter Taylor, one of our great storytellers, devoted himself to such old friends. He and his wife, Eleanor, would read aloud to each other. It might be Henry James of an evening—James really ought to be read aloud. Or perhaps they’d laugh with some of Eudora Welty’s mercurial characters and their families. They’d slowly wend their way through the villages and palaces of Anthony Trollope’s many landscapes. In the years since, I’ve often recalled Peter and Eleanor sharing their lives with these authors and with each other, and I am filled with admiration and no little envy.
We are reminded incessantly that we live in a very different moment. It’s all about the quick and the easy, the consuming of entertainment, the blitz of social contact without any real contact at all. So I’m treasuring my rather luxurious reimmersion in poems here by Bruce Smith, Monica Sok, and Analicia Sotelo. Tyrese Coleman’s potent essay “How to Mourn” well repays our attention. I invite you to enjoy them, too. And then, just maybe, later on, pick them for a second read. You’ll be glad.
On the Cover
Luci Gutiérrez is an illustrator based in Barcelona. Her clients include the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and the New York Times Magazine. One of her latest projects, the illustrations for the book Las mujeres y los hombres (Women and Men), published by Media Vaca, was awarded the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2016. Her book English Is Not Easy, a personal project she illustrated and wrote, has been published in more than ten countries.