The AGNI Newsletter
December 2016  

by Sven Birkerts  

Askold Melnyczuk founded AGNI at Antioch College in 1972, in the waning days of the so-called "counter-culture ferment," when long hair was still seen as a pledge of opposition - to the Vietnam War and to Washington power-elites - and the concept of a literary magazine was fundamentally dissident. We were not yet in the world of workshop and MFA. The ideal of expression was - we were young - Whitman's "barbaric yawp."

This may have been the last time, in this country anyway, that arts and politics were so intimately fused. Whether the poem, story, or essay addressed itself to the issues of the day almost didn't matter. To be publishing work in these marginal venues was implicitly political. Writing was an act of free expression defying the status quo; it was a provocation.

Things changed, of course, and by degrees new normalcies, new orthodoxies, took over. The hippies grew up, rock and roll anthems were used to sell running shoes, and writing - that revolutionary business - got ever more comfortable with department sponsorship. Do I simplify? Very well, then I simplify. I'll simplify further to say that things went on for decades in this way - until, as happens, it got very difficult to remember that they had ever been any other way. 

Until just recently. And you know what I'm talking about. Suddenly, in what feels like an interval of unprecedented historical - and moral, and emotional - compression, everything has changed and, to use the cliché, all bets are off. There is so much to contemplate and on so many fronts.

On this small front - the writing life, the literary magazine - anxiety and outrage have brought with them an unexpected clarification. And with that, a very bracing rejuvenation of purpose. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, "There is prodigious strength in sorrow and despair."

It's hard to specify how these changes, both personal and collective, work. They can affect us unconsciously, in our responses and inclinations, long before they become personal precepts. Speaking for myself - in terms of reading and evaluating work for AGNI - I can already identify a new mind-state. But I don't think it's just me. All of us, whether readers, editors, or interns, feel it and talk about it. The barometer has plummeted and the pressure drop is marked in our gestures and expressions - in everyday conversation and also our talk about the work we read for the magazine.

What do I mean? Again, it's nothing you can easily circle in marker and say "Here!" It's not that we're suddenly looking for expressly political content or assertion. There are plenty of media channels for that, and we all pick up the atmospheric agitation they generate. I'm talking more about a baseline shift, a change in the filtering mechanism - or, to say it more personally, in the reading sensibility. It was not something I imposed. Rather, I went on with my daily business here and almost immediately recognized it. It was obvious, not to be gotten around.

There is now a frame around my reading, and that frame is a question, and if the question is not itself political, it has been put into place by events in the world. To that extent it is political.

There are levels and levels, of course. Czeslaw Milosz famously asked, in his poem "Dedication": "What is poetry which does not save/Nations or people?" This is a gauntlet as much as it is a frame. It forces us to ask what kind of saving he means, for surely there is no literal way in which poetry, or any literature, directly achieves that aim.

I believe Milosz means us to think how expressions affect the soul, how they might hearten when there is loss of hope, or clarify when there is confusion - or expose rhetoric and cant and, as the adjuration has it, "speak truth to power."

Those are the considerations that I have felt reactivated, and they create the context - the frame - of my reading. I can't not ask myself: is this work telling me something I need to hear in this new order of things? I'm not saying it must directly protest abuse or injustice or mendacious opportunism. But do I feel that the words have been put to the page out of some recognition of larger human urgency? Do they - if only in their fresh or arresting placement - signal that this is not business as usual? Are they blowing the dust off all the things that matter?

I feel myself revving into speechifying rhetoric here, but I mark it with the editor's STET, the Latin for "let it stand." I want to emphasize the connection to that earlier spirit. Not that we can travel back in time to recreate what was. Of course we can't. Our model is a spiral: a circular momentum forward in time. These are not the days of the counter-culture; we are not back at that place of origins. But - and this is important - we do see the logic of certain repetitions. And these repetitions tell us that if nothing was gained once and for all, neither was it lost.

On the literary front, here at AGNI, we are drawing energy - not from what we scroll in the daily gazette, but from all that rises up in defiance. We know that the rectangular page is a small arena, but we also remember what Isaac Babel wrote: "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place."

AGNI 84 is here!
Electric, eclectic - AGNI 84 brings together the freshest, most challenging contemporary voices. The issue is international across all three genres, Marilyn Hacker's versions of Syria poet Golan Haji going side by side with new work by Cynthia Zarin, John Kinsella, Chad Parmenter and many others. In fiction, Brian Morton imagines an encounter with Saul Bellow, and Tamas Dobozy proposes a hair-raising retrospective of a scandalous film-maker's career. Essays by Kim Adrian, Shahnaz Habib, Michael Sheehan and others explore the legacies of trauma and the uncanny resourcefulness of the survival instinct.

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For over forty years, AGNI has brought its readers the best national and international writing from established as well as emerging writers. PEN America awarded Founding Editor Askold Melnyczuk its lifetime achievement award for magazine editing, saying, "Among readers around the world, AGNI is known for publishing important new writers early in their careers. . . . AGNI has become one of America's, and the world's, most significant literary journals" and "a beacon of international literary culture." Ha Jin (National Book Award), Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize), E. C. Osondu (Caine Prize for African Writing), Cynthia Huntington (National Book Award finalist), and Susanna Kaysen ( Girl, Interrupted) are but a few who appeared in our pages first or early on, alongside already famous names such as Rita Dove, C. K. Williams, Derek Walcott, and Sharon Olds. Housed at Boston University and edited by essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts, AGNI publishes two 240-page issues annually. We're thrilled to have you with us! Join the AGNI Community.