Friday, February 15, 2008

Ted Genoways at Columbia J-School

as if a scrappy farm team had demolished the Yankees in an exhibition game.

Genoways is not your stereotypical Southern litterateur (which I had half expected; but he is in the South, not of it). He has a lean skinhead look and not a hint of drawl. There was no talk of poetry or anything overtly political, which was strange, for he is a poet with strong political views. On the web site of Poets Against the War (, his poem Rural Electric appears with a statement, which says in part:

"In July 1917, Siegfried Sassoon composed his famous statement of conscientious objection "as an act of willful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." Here now, we stand at a still more dangerous precipice, because I believe that war is being perpetrated by those who have the power to avoid it. As poets, we are obligated to speak out against this prospect, even as it begins to appear an eventuality. Disgusted as I am by the reprehensible actions of our unelected leaders, I am equally appalled by the ignorance displayed by Laura Bush when she states that "it would be inappropriate to turn a literary event into a political forum." No doubt she would have found it inappropriate for Walt Whitman to speak out against the horrors of the Civil War or Wilfred Owen to decry the use of mustard gas in World War I or Miguel Hernandez to warn of coming floods of blood if no one opposed the Fascists in Spain. ... She is wrong, as this entire administration is wrong. A literary event is an ideal political forum, and we must not fail the generations of poets who came before us by falling silent now."

Genoways spoke of how he had "reconceived" the VQR, pushing the journalism at the front of the publication towards literature while seeking in the literary work at the back the "urgency of journalism." There were only three people on staff; he and a managing editor ("editorial meetings" consisted largely of their back and forth through the open door between their offices); and a P.R. person. The annual budget was $400,000, much of it coming from old endowments to the university. Of the $100,000 for each issue, $65,000 was for editorial use. With each issue running to 300+ pages, that did not allow VQR to pay writers anywhere near what they could get from commercial magazines; 20 cents per word, compared to the low-end $1.50 paid by the competition; the National Geographic paid $5 a word.

The questions from students focused on the journeyman issues of whether VQR welcomed young writers (yes!), and what he looked for in poetry ("reading a couple of issues will give you a clearer idea than anything I can say").

Professor Victor Navasky, the moderator of the Delacorte lectures (long-time editor, then publisher of The Nation), asked about the sources of financing of VQR; he recalled the Cold War era scandal of the CIA financing influential small magazines;* was Genoways concerned about the sources of his funding? The National Endowment for the Arts? There were "enough layers in the NEA" to protect recipients of its funding from political control, G said. The CIA had intended and exercised political control. It set firm ground rules, including who could write for the publications and who could not. That had led to the loss of influence of the publications they funded. Absent such political control, "I'll accept money from anyone."

I tried to get Genoway to speak more openly about political issues; how did he see the world and the large discontinuities that were taking shape? Democracy in America? But he refused to be drawn out.

[*Note for those too young to remember: during the Cold War, the CIA funded about 20 small literary publications in countries around the world. In the United States these included the Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review; in Europe the best known were Preuves in France, Encounter in the UK, Tempo Presente in Italy, and Der Monat in Germany. There were others in Asia and even in Australia. The magazines were able to maintain a radical image largely because they were vocal on human rights issues and supported avante garde movements in art and music that were anathema to the Soviet establishment.]

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