Frequent contributor and former SHR Editor R. T. Smith was unable to attend our 50th anniversary panel at AWP 2017 in Washington, DC, in early February, but he generously prepared the following remarks to be read in his absence. We were honored to receive them, and we are delighted to share them with you here.
My dissappointment at not being able to be in DC to celebrate SHR with you is amplified by my frustration at not being in Washington in January as the marginalized and assailed Americans in the sights of Alleged President Trump began the resistance to an administration which threatens women, minorities, dissidents, truth-seekers, and, most pertinently today, artists. I know you don’t want a sermon, but I just wanted to express my solidarity with Gwendolyn Brooks’s statement: “Fight first, then fiddle.”
Fiddling is what I’ve seen Southern Humanities Review turn to more and more since I began my nineteen years at Auburn in 1976 (if the archeologists have that date right). From the days in the late seventies when I was an untitled first reader of poetry to the magazine, writing comments on submissions cramped onto 3x5 cards, till my exit in 1995, I always hoped to see the day when the journal would lean more toward the artistic branch of its hybrid identity and away from its scholarly agenda. No doubt that was a result of my own appetite and mission; Tagore wrote that God respected him when he worked but loved him when he sang. I guess I wanted more love.
But SHR was wonderful even as it clung to its roots in Gene Current-Garcia’s Southern literature interest and the international awareness it displayed under Barbara Mowat, David Jeffrey, Dan Latimer, and Jim Hammersmith. I guess I was the first “creative writer” to be appointed as co-editor (though founding editor Norman Brittin was an elegant and erudite poet), and I’m pleased to see that the rebirth as literary journal is pretty much complete now, so there can be lots more wild fiddling and dancing, which doesn’t exclude the discipline of violins.
In my years on the staff, I wrote reviews, proofread, corresponded with authors, suggested revisions, and slowly evolved from poetry reader to Assistant Editor to Poetry Editor, Associate Editor, and then Co-Editor—it’s all a blur now, some of it residual optical fatigue from the reading of legions of poems and battalions of stories. But the rewards were great, and even when SHR was plain-looking and homespun, it was often an exciting and provocative journal to read, its contents as varied as Tranströmer translations, essays of the Bard’s comedies, critiques of Derrida, and a poem about nineteenth-century resurrection men. Whenever I try to recall the best days, I immediately return to receiving Denise Levertov’s poem “Caedmon,”which eventually reappeared in her books and Norton’s anthologies of modern poetry, including the current one. The paper was cheap, some letters smudged or punched as holes into the sheet by a zealous typewriter key, corrections made in pencil, but the real thing all right. It’s a testimony to the value of “that hand of fire / touched my lips and scorched my tongue / and pulled my voice / into the ring of the dance.” It blew me across the room. Still does. Read it right away.
I really learned my trade as an editor at SHR, came to understand what it means to give a fair and responsive reading to submissions, to conduct an accurate and hopeful triage with the bundles of writing from beginners and celebrity writers alike. I developed reservations about that term “submission,” which sounds like giving in, and I associate it more with combat than with religion. It made me feel—still does—like a petty tyrant, so I like to think more of my stewardship role in the editing hot seat, and I drill my student interns at Shenandoah(about 100 so far) on the litany of responsibilities a reader has: attention, receptivity and resistance, honesty, promptness, and so on.
From a never-objective distance, I have watched the journal grow, and many of my post-Auburn contacts have been with former editor Margaret Kouidis, whose editorial practices I have great respect for. She and Dan Latimer also worked to achieve something I never managed: a beautiful package to house the hard-wrought writing, from an essay on vultures to poems about classic paintings, racial injustice, and (my bailiwick) historical events and (revived and revised) historical characters.
Here’s a little secret about SHR, which is a testimony to how unusual has been its survival and growth. I don’t believe I was ever privy to anything resembling an editorial meeting. Decisions were made, adjudicated, and executed with a kind of discreet mystery that was sometimes frustrating and at other times liberating. It was never a routine, not a regular trellis but an unpredictable vine climbing by fits and starts toward moisture and light, rooting toward nutrients. In times of hard weather for journals—web frenzies and cash crunches, hostile departmental politics and winds of indifference--SHR’s improvisational, even mongrel qualities have served it well, and it continues to serve (stimulate, display, surprise, amuse, harrow, and salve) its community well.
Literary magazines? I too dislike them, in Marianne Moore’s winking sense of “disliking” poetry. Some days, I think I have seen too many, or maybe just the wrong ones. But other days, they are my meat and ale and pie. To raid Moore again, there must be something “important beyond all this fiddle,” but maybe it’s more fiddling.
And fighting. I am very proud to be associated with the journal that established the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake York. When Jake was an Auburn senior, he wrote his honors thesis of original poetry under my loose-reined guidance, and he was well on his way to developing an understanding that made his work an important strand in American poetry: some fiddling is not distinguishable from fighting, but no less lyrical and magical for that, and no less practical either.
So disappointed as I am at not being with you. I am proud to have spent my time poring over manuscripts and proofs in Haley Center, or at my little house in Opelika, where I learned something of the “sullen art and craft” of editing and the value of reading with heart, tongue, nerves, and mind.
If you ever make a bumper sticker that says HONK IF YOU LOVE SHR or SHOUT OUT FOR A MUSE OF FIRE, I’ll take a dozen.
Or just MAKE AMERICA VALUE WORDS AGAIN.
—R. T. SMITH
Rockbridge County, VA
January 23, 2017
R. T. SMITH is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he edits Shenandoah. In the fall of 2015, he was the Rachel Rivers-Coffey Distinguished Professor in Creative Writing at Appalachian State University; he has held similar positions at Auburn University, Converse College, and Virginia Military Institute. His sixteenth and most recent poetry volume is In the Night Orchard: New and Selected Poems. His forthcoming volume is Summoning Shades. Smith lives on Timber Ridge in Rockbridge County, Virginia, with his wife, the novelist Sarah Kennedy. He served on the masthead of Southern Humanities Review from 1983 to 1995.