Dear Paris Review,
I recently received a letter that you un-accepted my poems "Villianelle for My Pit Bull (who Died)" and "Rallying Against Feminism While the Moon is Full." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I talked to two other poets, JC and DN, who told me at first it might be a joke, that they didn't receive a letter and there was nothing to worry about.
As you know, they, too, soon received letters. Like me, at the time JC and DN were both dressed in their finest tuxedos, nervously standing at the mailbox waiting for the big day to arrive, for the mail carrier to grandly march up the walk, and to see our names joined for eternity with the name Paris Review splashed across the cover of the latest issue. Instead, the mail carrier grimly handed us a letter with black borders. "I'm so, so sorry," she said as she turned and walked sadly away. What could this be? Where was the issue that we had all dreamed was forthcoming? Our fingers trembled as we tore open the envelope. "It's not you, it's me," the letter read.
Oh, dear, dear Paris Review. I know you know that your magazine is one of (if not the) most respected literary magazines in the country. And here is the proof: even my father, who has always had bad eye sight and who would tell you that he never read an entire novel from cover to cover in his life, knows what the Paris Review is. It's right up there with the Saturday Evening Post. In fact, when my father was growing up, he always had to sit in the front rows of his single room schoolhouse grade school classroom, squinting to see the black board. His teacher, a true humanitarian, took him aside one day, and said that he could tell my father was struggling to take the notes.
This kind academic slipped my father the most recent issue of the Paris Review (my father still keeps it under his bed next to a well-thumbed copy of the Sears-Roebuck catalog) and said, "Even if it takes one full month, read this magazine from cover to cover and you will know all you need to know about the state of literature in our country." It took my father two full months. My father still says after all these years that what he learned still holds true today. I asked him what he meant by that, considering that he hadn't read a single piece of literature since that time. He winked and said it was a secret that I would have to learn myself one day (He also said that the aforementioned teacher told him not to worry, that he would, indeed, give him an A that year, no matter how wholly incorrect his exam answers were... this teacher is now a famous dean at a prestigious mid-American University).
So, dear Paris Review, I was shocked that I received that flimsy un-acceptance letter. Couldn't you at least send a singing telegram as you did for a friend of mine with the bigger reputation than mine? As you know, the job market is fierce, and I did put on my resume that I had two poems coming out in the Paris Review forthcoming. I don't have that many publications to my name --most people getting jobs these days have at least three books, I have only two full length-books, and I've even heard talk that some departments are now requiring three books, an "artsy" black-and-white author photo with your chin tilted at just-the-right angle, and your own reality television show, even to get a job interview.
Anyway, I called the university to which I applied; I wanted them to know that my resume had changed. The head of the department was out, helping to install the new, smaller cages in the adjuncts' office, so the secretary said that she'd relay the message. When I told her about me being de-accepted from the Paris Review, she gasped--literally, gasped-- "why, when I was in grade school, the teacher once slipped me a copy of the Paris Review and told me to re-write the whole issue in shorthand so that I'd understand the state of secretarial work in our country," she intoned. She also said that she didn't want to tell me this, but the job committee was currently taking notes at a meeting where they were discussing my application. "They want you, I think," she said. Guess what made me make the cut?
That's right: your magazine, the Paris Review.
She went on to say that nothing else really mattered in my case. Not my teaching experience, not my letters, not my other publications, etc. It was simply those three little words that every English department spends its formative years desperately longing to one day hear: The. Paris. Review.
So, Paris Review, and I really don't mean to belabor my distress, but, if I may, here is the thing that really bothers me: the poems had originally been accepted by RH. Did you know that he was editing the Western Humanties Review after teaching for a stint there? The backlog was four years, and, of course, weeks before my poems were about to be published in an issue, the editorship changed hands. RH tried to make it up to me by saying the poems would be published there. It was a three year back- log though for people who he had already told had a spot in the Paris Review. "Poets always commit suicide," I was told, "And I do give privilege to the living."
This made me happy. Not only because I was on two different anti-depressants, but because I knew I could actively eliminate some of my competitors. I found out who graduated from Columbia in the last few years--those were the only people who got into the magazine--and then sent them chain mail.
Ah, Paris Review, much like our own current torn-asunder relationship, in high school, my father once left my mother for a mystery woman. When we found out who she was, we sent her chain mail every other day until she refused to send it on and something bad happened to her. If I should ever be interviewed, the way they do in the Paris Review, I will claim that writing chain mail by hand is, in fact, what pushed me into the world of poetry. Chain mail needs to be explicit and concise and direct. Just like a good line of poetry. And in each letter, you're dealing with the theme of death. Which, as any college Freshman can tell you, is always the stuff of good poetry.
Sure enough, after a few weeks of sending chain mail to Columbia graduates, I would get a call, saying, "You're getting closer." I never looked at the obituaries. I didn't need to.
But, alas, I never got close enough.
A Forlorn Poet
Video: Poetry in the the time of coronavirus
1 week ago