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Morrow's Conjunctions: A View from Below.

My friend Bradford Morrow has written some beautiful prose, in particular the beginning of The Almanac Branch, where eldritch sexuality moves and shimmers in the foliage outside a young girl's window. But in this brief tribute I plan to pay homage to Brad as an editor, for a very good personal reason. His literary journal, Conjunctions, was the first paying periodical in which my words appeared.

I began sending out submissions to magazines when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. It wasn't until almost a decade later that my first book was published, through a lucky accident. My novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, had made the rounds of a number of commercial American publishers, not one of whom even replied. I suppose because it arrived unagented and typed single-spaced on both sides of the page. The English publisher Andre Deutsch finally took a chance. An American publisher purchased the book from Deutsch and made one or two weary attempts at selling the first serial rights, but the magazines showed the same lack of interest as before. I vaguely remember somebody at the New Yorker, for instance, writing that the violent language and subject matter of that book would be "absolutely unacceptable to Mr. Shawn," who was then in charge. And my first book never got serialized anywhere at all that I know of.

My second book, The Rainbow Stories, seemed even less capable of sending out pseudopods into the periodical world, and I was astonished one day while loitering in my illegal, pipe-smoke-reeking basement apartment, when the phone rang and I learned that Conjunctions (of which I'd never heard) would reproduce a long story, uncut--moreover, a story filled with violence, obscenity, and racism (it was reportage on neo-Nazi skinheads). A friend sent me a copy of this plump biannual anthology, each page of which was laid out as attractively as a California orchard. It offered works from the esoteric to the experimental to the extreme. Cerebral language-play appeared to be the common thread. A few days after I received this object, Brad himself telephoned me and proved very kind. Because I was an unknown kid possessed of little more than grubby blue jeans and greasy hair, I had quickly learned that the doormen in the offices of my New York publisher would usually direct me, not politely, to the service elevator, that at the readings it was the other author whom the audience had come to hear, that my credit, in short, was about as valid as a title deed to real estate on Neptune. It was almost shocking when Brad expressed such enthusiasm and graciousness. He made me feel that someone who'd never met me actually valued me on the basis of my sentences, that I might therefore have something to say. So that phone call meant a lot to me.

Many of my dealings with Brad over the years have been by phone. Brad is a homebody; he's the mountain to which merely aspiring Mohammeds must move. During my three years in New York I think he visited me once. The rest of the time, if I wanted to see him I had to take the number 6 subway down to his book-lined flat. Several times he drove me out to his house in upstate New York, on whose creeked, waterfalled, and wooded property I first conceived the idea of the Stream of Time as employed in my novel Fathers and Crows. There, too, one winter night I first tested some snowshoes and mukluks which I planned to wear on my trip to the Magnetic Pole. I remember Brad's house, like his apartment, as a book-lined dream. There was a biography of Baudelaire on my bedside table one time, and it sent me into a zone of opiated phosphenes. Brad and I rarely discussed books in and of themselves, however. I helped him with chores, or he took me walking amidst many trees, and we discussed the subjects of deepest gravity to any serious writer: food, sex, and money. I remember every season there, and in particular one autumn afternoon with Brad, the blood-colored leaves rustling and rattling about us: more good notes for Fathers and Crows, which is set in part in those upstate mountains, all references to Brad's place duly cited in the endnotes. But mainly I remember long chats with Brad on the phone. It's been almost a decade now since I lived in Manhattan, and yet he and I keep up as well as ever, thanks to that device. He's always full of good wishes, dirty jokes, and folksy cheer; he's a pleasure to gossip and backstab with, for his nets are cast and his antennae are long; call him the CIA of the literary scene; he knows everything about everybody.

That first conversation with him was briefer than it might have been, because I had somebody else in my bed with me at that moment, but I do remember that Brad agreed to gaze over my friend Ken Miller's photographs of the skinheads about whom I'd written. It's a simple, sensible thing, one might think, to publish texts and images together when they go together. And yet I have often had to struggle to make that happen, and in several cases the struggle did fail. Ken knew the skinheads far better than I did. He introduced me to them. Many of the scenes I'd witnessed and the stories I'd heard, notebook in hand, had been visually recorded by Ken within the 5" x 7" sheet film holders of his metal camera, which was sturdy enough to smash holes in Sheetrock walls without collateral damage. Not only did these photographs belong with the text ethically, they actually did illustrate it, and vice versa, for in several instances I'd written long riffs and descriptions based on these images. I sent a package of them off to Deutsch, where they were received without enthusiasm and promptly got lost. When my story ran in Conjunctions, along with a substantial number of Ken's photographs, I was very pleased. This was the way it should have appeared in my book, and didn't.

By that time I realized that Conjunctions could not pay very well, but on the other hand one's submissions to that journal rarely melted down like ice in a frying pan. Another simple thing! And yet in my professional journalistic career, it's rare that my pieces don't get "edited" down by at least 30 percent, with 75 percent reductions not uncommon. My skinhead story was the longest piece that Brad had ever published. If he had cut it down, I wouldn't have been surprised or hurt. How amazing that he kept it the way I wanted it!

As I said, that story contained some rather hard language. I have to confess that I'm continually shocked even now by the way the mainstream magazines so often seek to control one's words and point of view. During the siege of Sarajevo, one magazine attempted to edit out anything in an essay of mine which might be construed as pro-Serbian. A well-known New York publication was prepared to send me to Africa to write about female circumcision--but only if I promised beforehand to refer to that practice only as "female genital mutilation." Then, of course, there are the literary magazines who feel worried about allowing such graceful words as "cunt" and "fuck" to bask between their snow-white pages. With my skinhead story in particular, the language was truly offensive, and the portrayal of these neo-Nazis arguably even more sympathetic than anything I wrote about Serbs. I liked some of the skinheads as individuals. Two or three of them became my friends for a while. It is as sad a comment on the state of free speech generally as it is a compliment to Brad that I'm able to report that nobody at Conjunctions ever attacked me about this story or expressed offense.

Let's talk about length again, for here we touch one of Conjunctions' special qualities. Freedom of opinion is, let's say, necessary but not sufficient. Many's the political essay I've published elsewhere in which the point of view remains, but the expression has been reduced to shrillness and muddledness by means of editorial cutting and pasting. Such treatment seriously wounds an essay; it kills a work of poetry or literary fiction. Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" doesn't say anything profound; it simply says what it says profoundly. I seem to require large word counts to say whatever I say. So what made me happiest of all in my entire association with Conjunctions was when Brad allowed me to draw on that long novel of mine, Fathers and Crows, which is told like a chronicle, with various characters appearing and disappearing year by year over a half-century, and for the Conjunctions excerpt to gather up the time-scattered shards of one Huron Indian's life story so that I could present it uninterrupted by other stories. Amantacha had been a pawn of many strange changes before he died his gruesome death. While I am pleased with Fathers and Crows, the impact of his biography is necessarily attenuated in that volume. I had first been intrigued, then moved, by the original source materials, and after some labor had succeeded in bringing Amantacha to a kind of plausible life, at least to my own satisfaction. But it was only when I got to string that life's subchapters together as a longish short story in Conjunctions that I understood not only my own accomplishment, in which I felt and still feel pride, but, more importantly, the sadness and strangeness of the original historical events.

Almost any other magazine than Brad's would have told me that the tale was too long. When I read it aloud in Italy to some giggling, glassy-eyed students, I could tell that they certainly considered it so. But Brad let me restore my imagined Amantacha to himself.

We'd kept each other company one Manhattan afternoon when we went to a bookstore or two in Soho offering to sign our books, and they said no because it might be harder to return them! We both had to laugh. Later, Brad and I sent out a fistful of letters to colleges in states beginning with "A"; we offered to read together for cheap. After we'd made our killing on the "A"s, it was our plan to move to the "B"s. (Let's see, now, which state begins with "B"?) I think we did get one reply, from some professor who promised to forward our request on to another department. Evidently Brad's books, and my books, were not quite for everybody. And neither is Conjunctions, thank God.

And this brings me to a related point. Most book and magazine publishers are not only vandals, but careless vandals. One of my American publishers once misspelled my name on the spine of my own book. Another was all set to publish a novel of mine with the pages out of order, and only by a fortuitous accident did I find out about it (a puzzled fan showed up with a galley for me to sign, and showed me the weirdness; my publisher had never sent me a galley). I am happy to say that the only errors typographical and otherwise which have ever blemished my publications in Conjunctions are those I introduced myself. Brad has been so lucky in his choice of copy editors and typesetters that I believe there's more than luck involved. After all, not only are the pages typographically almost immaculate (which requires considerable pains when publishing the enigmatic "Tablets" of Armand of Schwerner, just to cite one of many examples), but they look beautiful. When Brad published an excerpt from my novel The Rifles, which is set in the Canadian Arctic, he arranged to have the type wrapped around some of my sketches in a truly delicious way.

If I talk so much about myself here, it's only out of shyness. There has been much to admire in Conjunctions over the years. I could talk about the "New Gothic" issue, which extended the life of a sensationalist art form in a manner both interesting and ambitious, or the "Radical Shadows" issue, my personal favorite, which collected previously unpublished writings by great authors of this and the previous century. But I'd rather just keep this simple and experiential. I'd rather just say: Brad, thank you for publishing me and for being my friend.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN is the author of numerous books of fictions and nonfiction, including The Ice-Shirt, Fathers and Crows, The Rifles, Butterfly Stories, and most recently, The Atlas.
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Author:Vollmann, William T.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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