The New Broom

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

You’re the newly appointed editor of an important literary magazine, eager to remake it in your own aesthetic. The problem is that the magazine has a substantial backlog of work accepted by its previous editors, including a number of poems that you either don’t like or don’t see as reflecting the magazine’s new identity. What do you do?

The acceptance of a poem—generally unmoored from commercial considerations—is widely viewed as all but sacrosanct, even when editors inherit manuscripts they wouldn’t have chosen themselves.

If you’re Lorin Stein, the new editor of the Paris Review, you renege on the magazine’s previous commitments to publish much of the backlog as a way of giving your new poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, a fresh start. “In order to give Robyn the scope to define his own section, I regret to say, we will not be able to publish everything accepted by [the previous editors],” he wrote in a form e-mail sent to the affected poets in July. “We have not found a place for your poems, though we see much to admire in them and gave them the most serious consideration.”

After a chorus of howls in the blogosphere, including the creation of a Facebook page calling for a boycott of the Paris Review (since withdrawn), Stein issued an apology, offering to pay the normal authors fees and publish the poems on the magazine’s Web site. “I noticed that it hurt people’s feelings, and I thought they were right,” he says now. “As soon as it was pointed out to me that it was a crummy thing to do, I agreed that it was, and I’m sorry to have been so ham-handed.”

Still, Stein stands by his decision. “I feel a duty as a new editor to give our staff editorial control,” he says. “Different editors have different tastes, and I want us to be able to ballyhoo every poem in the magazine the same way we’d ballyhoo every piece of fiction and nonfiction. I certainly didn’t enjoy turning stuff down. But I felt a strong editorial compulsion to do it as we relaunched the magazine.”

The decision and its fallout, exhaustively reported by Daniel Nester on his blog, We Who Are About to Die, were unusual for a variety of reasons, not least their relative rarity. While screenplays routinely get lost in the Hollywood purgatory known as “development hell” and novels sometimes get caught in the spinning of the revolving doors that connect New York City publishing houses, the acceptance of a poem—generally unmoored from commercial considerations—is widely viewed as all but sacrosanct, even when editors inherit manuscripts they wouldn’t have chosen themselves.

At the New Yorker, for example, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon found himself in 2007 with a six-month backlog of poems accepted by his predecessor as poetry editor, Alice Quinn, and the magazine’s editor, David Remnick. “I didn’t feel the need to have a fresh start, however, and I certainly didn’t drop any that had been accepted,” Muldoon wrote in a recent e-mail exchange. “It would have been ill-mannered at best, and ill-advised at worst, to drop poems. There were a couple I thought were borderline but even those I held on to. I abhor the idea of the new broom. Most new brooms are unbearably self-regarding. The bottom line here, I suppose, is that the poem is more important than either the person who wrote it or the person who rewrote it.”

Something similar happened in 2009 at the Iowa Review, where Russell Scott Valentino took over as editor from David Hamilton, who had served for thirty-two years. Valentino inherited nearly two issues’ worth of poems, short stories, and nonfiction from Hamilton, some of it “not exactly my aesthetic,” Valentino says. “But I looked at it as an opportunity, since it gave me time to spend that first semester learning about the magazine, working on the redesign, and having my first reading period.” The journal could have tried to “wiggle out” of its commitments to writers, he adds, but that was never considered. “That’s just not the way we’ve done business in the past, and that’s not the kind of magazine that I want to run. We spend a lot of time cultivating new writers and putting them next to experienced writers. It would have been devastating for our constituency—a lot of whom are new writers looking for their first break—to act like that. That kind of willfulness would have been unfair on our part, and also not very smart, given our following.”

Jeanne Leiby, who took over editorship of the Southern Review from Bret Lott in 2007, inherited no accepted work. But if she had found herself with a backlog, she says, she would have honored it for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that many poets are also academics whose career advancement depends in large part on their publication history. “I can see the dilemma of the Paris Review, but I also think that as editors, we work in service of writers,” Leiby says. “There are people behind those poems, and they have lives. If something like this happens at a smaller magazine, maybe it doesn’t have such a big impact, but publication in the Paris Review? That’s a career maker for some people. That’s tenure, and if the acceptance is out there on a bio and then all of a sudden it’s not true, that could be very detrimental to their career.”

But Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry magazine, sees Leiby’s view as “professionalizing the process a little too much,” and supports Stein’s decision (if not the way it was initially communicated). “A new editor needs to make a statement,” says Wiman, who recalls declining to publish about five poems previously accepted by Joseph Parisi, his predecessor at Poetry, in 2003. “You can’t just publish everything that’s flying around if it doesn’t contribute to the statement you’re trying to make.”

The recent controversy at the Paris Review—“the Purge,” as it became known on the Web—is reminiscent of an earlier changing of the editorial guard in 2005, when a large number of poems accepted by Richard Howard, then the poetry editor, were refused by the magazine’s new editors. Ironically, one of those poems was by Creswell, which lends his current status as the magazine’s poetry editor a karmic inevitability.

“No one even got in touch with him,” says Stein, who has known Creswell for years. “I myself had written freelance magazine pieces that had been killed, so when Robyn’s poem wasn’t used, neither of us thought that much of it. We laughed it off.”

No one’s laughing now.

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.