AUGUST 6, 2016
SO, PLOUGHSHARES is 45. Contrary to the expectations around its unruly beginnings the journal has achieved a respectable middle age. Early onlookers from the literary establishment made no secret of their dismissal of the undertaking — after all, it was founded not at one of Boston’s many distinguished colleges or venerable literary institutions, but at the Plough and Stars bar, an Irish pub in Cambridge. But if literary Boston was critical of the upstarts, those “upstarts,” for their part, were disparaging of Boston’s staid (some involved may even have gone so far as to say stodgy) literary tradition, which hadn’t previously allowed space for new voices.
Although let’s be clear: It’s not like the founders of Ploughshares were a bunch of wannabes: emerging stars all — Black Mountain poets, Harvard PhDs, Iowa Writers’ Workshop grads, Irish expats — they were deeply invested in the future of writing and reading. And just as the counterculture at that time (this was 1971) was questioning the status quo, the founders were questioning received wisdom about what was of value in literature, as well as literature’s value to society-at-large. Not that they were in agreement with one another: adding to the slightly disreputable nature of the journal’s beginnings (it’s safe to say drink was involved), was the fact that it grew out of heated argument rather than measured conversation, as those writers famously and passionately disputed definitions of excellence, and aligned themselves with competing schools and camps, factions and movements.
Therefore what happened next defies logic: rather than part company, they decided to join forces — to take their disputes from the barstool to the printed page. If this had been a romance, no one would have put odds on the marriage. Even so, two young men stepped up to handle the day-to-day operations of running the journal: Peter O’Malley, co-owner of the Plough and Stars (which gave the journal its name, of course), and DeWitt Henry, newly minted Harvard PhD and soon-to-be professor at Emerson College. And at the outset, they and the others agreed on at least one thing — a solution to their differences: every issue would feature a different standard-bearer from among their many points of view, allowing readers to sample a variety of literary values. In short time, literary Boston revised its initial opinion and began to take notice. It helped, no doubt, that among the earliest guest editors were young writers like Tom Lux, Fanny Howe, Frank Bidart, and Robert Pinsky, all of whom went on to have brilliant careers.
In this way, the guest editor policy, unique to Ploughshares, was central to the founding mission and is at the heart of our story of origin. Moreover, the tradition has continued under three different editors-in-chiefs: DeWitt Henry, Don Lee, and me. (Our anniversary issue, to be published this August, features a selection of international writers chosen by Claire Messud and James Wood.) That’s 117 guest editors in all, representing diverse regions, styles, voices, trends, beliefs, and experiences over our 45-year history.
So how does it work exactly? Ploughshares asks its guest editors to solicit work for half of their issue from writers they know and admire, and to choose the remaining half from a shortlist the journal has compiled from its submission process. From what they tell us, the process is singularly satisfying. From Patricia Hampl, for instance: “[T]hough I never cracked my way into Ploughshares — top of my charts then and now — I knew a good thing when I saw it. So imagine my glee, to sit in the guest-editor’s chair of the magazine that sets the bar. More than glee — gratitude.” And Major Jackson writes: “I […] still have in the corner of my office a single column of old Ploughshares. That I have not only joined in the conversation with my own edited volume, but that I have grown up enough to help shape the conversation, boggles my mind.” Jean Thompson says, “It was such a pleasure writing to those contributors who were making their first appearance in Ploughshares, since I remembered my own excitement those many years ago, when I got a similar notice.” And Nick Flynn confides, “Ploughshares was the first magazine I was ever published in. […] It changed everything for me, though it would take years for me to realize it, and so to be offered the chance to edit [an] issue was incredibly moving.”
Lauren Groff, whose book Fates and Furies was shortlisted for the 2015 National Book Award, was our guest editor last summer. “Ploughshares was the first literary journal that ever pinged across my radar when I was eighteen,” she writes. “When one of my first stories was selected by Ron Carlson for his issue in 2006, a supernova exploded inside my chest, and it was one of the more moving events of my life as a writer to be asked to be a guest editor.”
Groff agreed to expand on her experience, and to offer some thoughts about writing in general. We corresponded over email in late May.
LADETTE RANDOLPH: It was such a pleasure working with you — I’m wondering, were there any surprises for you in the process?
LAUREN GROFF: It was a delight to work with you, Ladette. I’ve been a huge fan of Ploughshares since college, when I’d sit in the library, reading the back issues instead of doing my actual school work. When you asked if I’d guest edit, I cried, then leapt at the chance. The entire process surprised me, because I had no idea how hard it would be to solicit work, how much of it I had to solicit before I found enough good things, how heartbreaking it would be when a piece I loved beyond life was yanked away, and how I’d get ulcers from declining work that I’d spent a great deal of time soliciting. As you know, when it came time to actually edit the pieces, not just gather and select them, I threw my hands in the air and ran around in a panic. It takes tremendous courage to be an editor. The thought of doing it as a daily job makes me ill with anxiety.
Your introduction outlined for us the kind of work you were seeking for your issue. “I’ve become hungry for narratives that are raw and passionate and strange,” you wrote, “work that teaches one how to read as it unrolls.” Who are the writers that feed you?
I think all readers go through phases where we just can’t find enough of the work that speaks to that starving space at the center of us, even though we know intellectually that there is almost too much beautiful work out there and we’ll never be able to read it all. The people who consistently speak to me these days include Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, Jean Rhys, William Maxwell, James Salter, Hans Christian Andersen, Tove Jansson, and Grace Paley.
In the introduction, you go on to say, “I’m hungry for voices that speak to me with real emotion because real emotion is always new.” I love that idea. But do you think young writers are taught to write that way? And are journals supporting this sort of work? Book publishers? What do you see happening in contemporary literature around the idea of real emotion?
I don’t know what advice young writers are getting from the academy or if journals or publishers are supporting this sort of work. I’d assume so, because I’ve loved the work of a number of young writers recently. But the literary world is far bigger than most of us assume it to be. It contains wild stuff, beautiful stuff, terrifying stuff. Not everything that deserves to be celebrated will be. What I meant in the introduction is that it takes a lot of practice, a lot of grit and work, a lot of courage to stare down real emotion and let it loose.
Two of the stories from your issue were recently selected as Pushcart Prize winners (Vladislava Kolosova’s “Taxidermy” and Daniel Peña’s “Safe Home”), which suggests that other readers are also hungry for stories that are, as you say, “written in blood or bile or choler, not necessarily sweat alone.” What advice do you give to your own students about how to write well?
Oh, I’m so delighted about the Pushcart news. That’s wonderful.
I think it’s important to not ever shy away from what is hard or dark for you; to find the places that scare you and not to look away. My advice is usually for my students to scrap what they’ve done and start over again. They probably hate me for it, but most of the time if you have a story that’s not working, that’s the only way to get it to work. I also tell them to write hot, which is hard, because I also tell them to write every day, and there are some days you’ll wake up lukewarm all over, but as long as you keep experimenting and pushing and trying, you’ll eventually find your heat.
I’d like to ask about your own work: your prose is so elegant and lyrical I think it’s easy for readers to be swept up in the beauty of the sentences and not quite realize at first how truly subversive it is. I’ve always appreciated that stealth darkness. Has that aspect of your work always been met with enthusiasm, or have you had to fight for your vision?
I’m grateful that you said that, Ladette. Maybe in my Waspy family, our real boiling darkness was always cheerfully tucked away behind our neat little matchy-matchy madras and khaki, I don’t know, but it seems a natural way to write to me. I started writing seriously when I was very young and it took me 10 years to publish anything, and though I wish I could say that the surface of my work distracted readers from seeing all the way down to its bitter heart, I’m not sure it’s true; much of that early work wasn’t good. That said, when I did start publishing, there were times when I was shunted into categories where I didn’t belong, for reasons that infuriated me. But you can’t take people by the collar and shake your truth into their heads. You can only do your job — you can only put your head down into the wind and keep writing.
Ladette Randolph is the author of four books, most recently the memoir Leaving the Pink House, and the editor of two anthologies. She is editor-in-chief of Ploughshares and is on the faculty in Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department.