If a person should happen to be asking the question, “What is the state of American literature, the state of American arts?” she or he could turn happily for an answer to the past thirty years’ pages of The Alaska Quarterly Review (AQR). If that surprises – if Anchorage seems far-flung,possibly even implausible, as a location for one of the most notable literary journals in the country – that in itself is part of the reason it is: one hallmark of American art is the faith it keeps with far-flungness, with the idea that the particular and the locally marked are not distinct from but the essence of a vibrant wholeness.
A functioning ecosystem is one in which variousness itself is the keystone. So it is with the arts. Experiment and the living new, whetherin evolution or culture, require both center and edge, and the tension between them. They require equally the continual circulation that erodes such definitions: what pollinates moves. The idea of “center” is in any case ultimately a false one. Infinity is a location in which every point is equally central. And who, involved in the arts, would want anything less than the optimism of infinite possibility for field of play?
For thirty years, AQR has been moving and sustaining its readers. I remember still my amazement at opening, some years ago, one issue to find a special section of unforgettable photographs and commentary investigating the situation in Chechnya. The poems, stories, and images published in these pages over three decades have drawn from the aquifers and mountain ranges of Africa, Italy, and Asia, without ignoring the closer terrain of Iñupiaq villages and Denali.
Which brings me to this issue, the second of this anniversary year’s special features, following the Spring/ Summer issue’s tribute to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two photojournalists who died in conflict zones. The photographs in that issue contributed by their peers from all over the world, along with companion narratives to those images, prove once more how large the scope of this exceptional journal is. AQR has always sought not only work of aesthetic strength and power but also work that includes a rigorous questioning of larger societal issues.
Five years ago, when AQR turned 25, I also was asked by AQR’sfounding and continuing editor, Ronald Spatz, to guest curate a celebratory section. When he called on me again, it seemed good to conceive something a little different. And so we decided on the shape of what you will find in the following pages: three sections of invited poetry. In one, you will find 30 previously published poems by poets familiar to any awake reader of contemporary literature. Many included in this section have also served as previous guest editors for AQR, all of whom were invited to contribute. I wrote to each of the thirty in this section and asked for a single, previously published poem, of their own choosing – sometimes describing it as a kind of tribute bouquet, meant for both the magazine and its readers. The resulting contributions are not bouquet in scale, though, they are continental. They range from signature poems – Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do” – to poems that first appeared in print in the past year, from publications ranging from The New Yorker to the online journal Clade Song.
I asked for no explanations for why the invited poets chose what they did, though some were offered; in some cases preference must have been tempered by the practicalities of permissions – the poets did need to grant the reprint themselves. Dorianne Laux chose a poem that came from a reading trip to Alaska. My own poem – Ron Spatz requested each of the guest editors to include work of our own – was selected, I will confess, by my asking Ron if he himself had a particular favorite. I was quite pleased, when he chose the poem that closed my third book in 1994, for this chance to bring it new readers. Patricia Hampl’s poem is even earlier; her note mentioned that my request arrived just as she’d found, deep in a pile on her desk, a 1979 contributors’ copy of Sing Heavenly Muse!, with two poems she had no memory of ever writing. She sent me both, saying that she’d found in each an earlier self still living, and left it to me to choose. Billy Collins also sent two to choose between, though in his case the poems were recent. The decision was equally difficult for me in both cases; there is, it seems, a good reason I don’t often edit a literary journal. This leaves me even more grateful to those who do, day after day, year after year, make the choices that limited pages and attention require. Two further comments from Patricia Hampl’s note begin to convey the sense of gratitude that AQR’s writers, in particular, feel: “Ron –one of the best editors I’ve ever had – he has such an ear” and “AQR, that valiant treasure of a magazine.”
To expand this special issue beyond my own range of knowledge and taste, Ron and I decided to invite in also two exceptional, and somewhat younger, poets, Camille Dungy and Todd Boss, to guest edit a second section of another 30 poems – in this case holding new work, previously unpublished, from a mix of poets. Some of the writers invited into this section have published major award-winning books; others represent the poets of the coming decades, published as yet only in journals. The energy, inventiveness, range, and power ofthese new poems offer yet another part of the answer to the question, “What is the state today of American letters?”
No generalization or single phrase can encompass the range of voices in these pages. Yet as I’ve read through the full set of sixty, one phrase has risen to mind: “urgent beauties.” “Beauties” because the poetry here is, without exception, beautiful (that is keel and counterweight to all other knowledge it holds), and “beauties,” in the plural, because they are so utterly variant, woven of so many divergent strings of subject, language, voice, and style. “Urgent” because that is the quality I find in so many of these poems: especially among those that are more recently written, the pressure of crisis underlies poem after poem.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams famously said, 50 years ago now, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Since the time when “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” was written, this country’s relationship to “news” has moved from the daily cycle of printed newspaper to the minute-by-minute cycle of updating banner crawl, text message, cell phone video, and tweet. The news of poems, stories, and images that small journals hold remains stubbornly slower: monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, bi-annual, annual. Yet what is found there – found, that is, here, in this journal you now hold – remains as necessary to our lives as the circulation in the living bloodstream of oxygen and iron. What the arts invite us toward is an understanding essential, subtle, and as entirely unnameable as the mysterious destination in the poem in these pages by this year’s Nobel Laureate poet, Tomas Tranströmer. It is a destination that lives in a question, not in an answer, whose character remains rightly unknowable, and yet whose meaning can change completely by something as precise and small and powerful as the alteration of a lower-case letter to upper:
Who’s got the Address?
Don’t know. But that’s where we’re going.
—Jane Hirshfield, Contributing Editor
Alaska Quarterly Review
Jane Hirshfield is the author of seven books of poetry, including the recently published Come, Thief (Knopf, 2011) and a now classic collection of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (HarperCollins, 1997). She has also edited and co-translated four books collecting the work of world poets of the past. Her sixth poetry collection, After (HarperCollins),was named a best book of 2006 by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and England’s Financial Times, and was a finalist for England’s T. S. Eliot Prize; her fifth, Given Sugar, Given Salt (HarperCollins,2001), was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. An introduction to Basho and haiku, The Heart of Haiku, was named an Amazon Best Book of 2011, and her co-translation of the poems of the two foremost classical-era Japanese women poets, The Ink Dark Moon, received Columbia University’s Translation Center Award. Hirshfield’s other honors include The California Book Award, The Poetry Center Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and The Academy of American Poets. In 2012, she was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Hirshfield is an Alaska Quarterly Review contributing editor.