Monday, April 20, 2009

What to Make of the NDR?

Back in the fall of '97 I opened my mailbox to find a free promotional CD from Naxos Records, a label specializing in inexpensive recordings of the more obscure corners of the classical music repertoire, often performed by fairly low-profile orchestras and ensembles. The CD was called Naxos: Ten Years of Success, and I suppose the bravado was merited. The good people at Naxos had succeeded by at least two criteria: they'd made a financial success for themselves, and they'd brought a vastly expanded range of music into broad circulation. The commemorative disk was a success, too, at least for me: I still listen to some of the tracks, long since scanned into my laptop and ported over to my various pods, phones, gizmos, and devices.

Today I opened my mailbox to find another collection commemorating a decade's worth of putting art in front of the public, only this time it wasn't music, it was writing: an anthology of poetry and fiction called Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years. The title's got none of the fine bragadocio of Ten Years of Success, although I suppose the implied existence of a second decade ahead is a bit of an expression of confidence, given the lifespan of most literary ventures. Still, one is tempted to ask: in what ways, if any, could the journal's first decade be described as "ten years of success"?

I've been reading the Notre Dame Review since its first issue, and have written for it more times than I can remember (there's a poem of mine, "Victory Over the Sun," in the anthology, too). There's generally been something I've been impressed by in every issue, and on occasion something I've disliked, but generally I've disliked it with a grudging respect. So even though I've only had the anthology in my hands for something like two hours, and read only bits and pieces, I feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the journal and what it has tried to accomplish.

The anthology has two introductions, one by each of the editors, John Matthias and William O'Rourke. Reading over Matthias' introduction helps clarify what has been best about the journal, as well as its shortcomings. Let's start with the main shortcoming. "All issues since the second," writes Matthias, "have an an umbrella-like theme — 'Dangerous Times,' 'Work,' 'Signs and Surfaces,' 'Body and Soul'..." This is true, in that each issue has a title, and several of the pieces inside relate to the title. But one senses some bad faith on the part of the editors: the themes tend to be quite general ("Signs and Surfaces" is hardly a theme in the way that, say, "New Cuban Poets" would be), and if you can write a convincing defense of how each piece connects even to the general theme, I'll come over and paint your house for you. There are exceptions: I remember one issue devoted to writing from the &NOW Conference of Innovative Writing. But overall I rather suspect that the idea of themes was part of the proposal written for the NDR early on, and that the editors experience it as a burden more often than not.

Other statements from Matthias' introduction really do clarify what has been best about NDR's editorial policy. "One distrusts a reader of Pound who cannot admire Auden, a reader of Elizabeth Bishop who will not open a book by Susan Howe," writes Matthias, and this broadmindedness informs both the journal as a whole and the present anthology, in which Caroline Bergvall and Derek Mahon rub shoulders. The presence of Bergvall and Mahon doesn't just indicate open-mindedness about form, either: it also indicates a sensitivity to writing from outside the United States, in translation and in English. Until the Chicago Review became a kind of American outpost of Cambridge School poetry, the Notre Dame Review was your best bet for finding exciting British poetry in an American literary review. Outside of a particular range of experimental work, it still is.

Matthias proudly points out that the first issue of the journal contained, along with much else, work by two Nobel Laureates and two poets publishing their first poems. One suspects the Nobelists were there as the result of some arm-twisting and some calling-in of favors, but I take Matthias' point: NDR has been neither hierarchical nor in-groupish, and this, too, is something in which its editors can take pride. There's a kind of centripetal force that afflicts some journals once they've become established, and it can result in a narrowing down of the range of contributors. Notre Dame Review has kept itself admirably open. This isn't to say that there's a lack of personality to the journal, though. There are, in fact, editorial preferences, best summed up by Matthias' observation that he and O'Rourke "notice that, among the selections, there is not a lot of first person hyper-subjectivity or narrow manifestations of identity poetics; when the self appears, it seems to be fully conditioned by history, and conscious of that." This seems entirely right to me in two senses: it's right in that it's an accurate description of the editorial preferences at work for the past ten years; and it's right in that it's a good policy to follow. We are, after all, always involved in a dialectical interaction with the past in one way or another (literary, social, political, etc.), and there aren't enough journals devoted to publishing writing that begins by acknowledging this. The idea that the writer should engage the past is as old as T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and as fresh as Edouard Glissant's Poetics of Relation. We need more of this, and the NDR is one of the places where we can count on getting it.

The anthology includes both fiction and poetry, but none of the critical writing that makes up a substantial portion of each issue, and this really is a shame, because NDR has been one of only a handful of journals (like Pleiades, Chicago Review, and of course Parnassus, among a few others) where reviewing habitually stretches its wings and becomes something more than publicity. When someone like John Peck writes a few thousand words worth of criticism, it's well worth anthologizing, and I wish some of that had been done. Still and all: I think the editors could, if they'd been less modest, have taken Naxos' route when titling the volume. Try it for size: Notre Dame Review: Ten Years of Success. Yeah, that fits.