Wednesday, October 9, 2002

Rough Cut


What I remember most about working on my college’s literary magazine The Stonefence Review is warmth and laughter. In the late spring and summer, a certain easy, languid light would stream in and warm us from the outside; the rest of the year, steam heat and tea would warm us from the inside. Monday afternoons, we would meet in Sanborn library, surrounded by shelves of old books and sitting in big comfy chairs, to read and discuss the latest batch of poems and stories that had been submitted to us. This cozy atmosphere created a literary and critical mood that made us more prone to jocularity than to passionate debate, or any other emotions you might associate with working on a literary magazine.

After we had read and discussed a piece we would vote on whether to hold it over or not. Since every piece, which remained anonymous until publication, would be reviewed and voted on a second time before making it into an issue of the Stonefence, the whole thing remained a pretty easy-going affair. The focus and discussion was always on the text at hand, never on the author or on The Stonefence Review as a magazine. And the discussion, though critical, was usually pretty good-natured.

I think we were all a little wary of becoming some sort of pretentious literary clique; the result being that we probably often fell short of hypocrisy, landing instead on the fartsy side of artsy-fartsy. For example, it never failed to get a giggle from us when Giano Cromley would finish reading another of the 'you broke my heart and left me love rants' and announce, "a poem, by Chris Ferry" or insert one of the other editor's names who happened to be present.

We weren't (overly) unkind, and we weren’t elitist about our 'art'; although that was something of the reputation that the Stonefence had inherited, and this despite the fact that the submissions and weekly meetings had always been open to anyone in the community and that everyone attending could vote. Quite the opposite, if some of the laughter was directed at, rather than with, the poems we were considering for publication, it is not that we were being snobbish, we had all written and would probably write several hundred kilobytes more of similar "angst" ridden love poems ourselves, so it was wise to have a sense of humor about it.

Everyone knows that one of the Ten Commandments of writing is "write what you know", and, frankly, what else did we know about life at that point. I mean we were all sitting there in the safe and warm comfy chairs of an Ivy League library working on a literary magazine 'fer goddsakes', right?

I shouldn't give the impression that the poems and stories were all terrible or that we were really that jaded. We took the Stonefence Review seriously; we just didn’t take ourselves too seriously. And most of the submissions had at least a glimmer of quality. If they lacked the same polish and perspective that we as writers and college students lacked, what could you expect?

The whole process of selecting pieces and publishing them was a little like going to skip rocks at the beach. There was never a shortage of rocks (submissions) from which to choose, but no matter how hard you looked, you could never quite find the perfect one. Like most rocks you find at the beach, the majority of submissions were rough or uncut, and generally unsuitable for skipping, or publishing. The really raw and uncut poems, intensely felt and written during a late night burst of creative inspiration, tended to fall short of the mark the morning after, making a dull, failing impression (kerplop!) when they were read aloud (perhaps for the first time) at one of our Stonefence meetings.

Many poems, or some, had different aspects of a good skipping rock: a phrase here, an image there, but most, as I said before, just hadn't been refined enough to go the distance (…across the great and timeless seas of literature and art…). The end result, though, after a bit of enjoyable searching and digging, was a handful of rocks of varying qualities that taken as a whole made for a good hour of skipping--or in our case, reading.

Basically, we were a group of people who got together once a week who truly enjoyed reading, listening to, discussing and finally publishing a journal of poetry and prose. Perhaps that warm light that in my memory (I'm trying to forget the longs weeks of waiting for winter to pass and spring to break) was always streaming in the windows mellowed our moods a little and helped us to take the Stonefence Review with pleasure and a certain healthy lightness. In the end, I think I got more from those meetings in the way of learning to enjoy and to appreciate language and literature than I got from any 'lit' class I took in college.

So except for one notable exception, I remember Stonefence meetings as being a good time and worth a guffaw or two.

That exception came about while we were working on putting together our summer issue. We were all sophomores (perhaps in more ways than one) on the editorial board at the time, and someone had submitted to us a short story that by all accounts was, well, rock solid. If most of what we read wasn't perfect, or far from it, this story certainly came the closest in my book. It had all the elements of great art: it was entertaining, beautiful and thought provoking.

It was the story of a college guy just like you or me (or James Joyce) out walking on Friday night, checking out the 'frat scene'. The whole story was basically a recreation or retextualization of a chapter of Joyce's "Ulysses". It was written in perfect Joycean style and in a setting that all of our readers were sure to recognize. In fact, if you had been to almost any college campus or fraternity row in America, you could have read and enjoyed this story.

I was told later, after we had read the story and voted to hold it over for publication in the forthcoming issue, that the author had submitted the story as a paper in an English class on Joyce and had been given a rare and coveted citation for it. So for what it was worth, a literature professor and Joyce scholar had apparently thought the story was pretty good too.

During a meeting of just the managing editors, I learned that not everyone shared this rosy opinion of the story. I can't remember exactly how it was brought up, but a couple of the editors questioned whether we, The Stonefence Review, should publish such a story?

This took me by surprise, as I saw no reason why we would even be discussing such a question. First, it would probably be the strongest piece of writing in the whole issue and I was proud of it. Second, the story had already been voted on and accepted during the regular review process. Third, we had made a clear editorial policy that the Stonefence would be a magazine that was open to all types of content and styles, and that we would publish submissions based solely on aesthetic and qualitative considerations, not political or other.

The story was at its core a satire of the college fraternity and social scene. Although the account was fictional and no real names were used, it had clearly been based on the writer's experiences and observations at Dartmouth. The geographic layout of the fictionalized 'frat row' was recognizably Dartmouth’s, and apparently the description of one of the fraternal songs overheard by the protagonist could be identified as belonging to one specific fraternity. Dare I even now mention which one?

As it turned out, the two most vocal proponents for not publishing the story were brothers of that same fraternity. Surprise?!? That being said, all the members of the editorial board, including myself, belonged to one fraternity or another.

The two editors in question felt the story was unfair and was a personal attack against them, or at least their fraternity. They even suggested that the story could be considered slander or libel and that we could be opening ourselves to a lot of trouble by publishing it. I believed the story, to its credit, exceeded the particular details of which ‘house’ it may have been based on and was at once describing and being critical of the fraternity system in general, and from there the college social scene as a whole.

I did some research and found that for something to be legally defined as libel or slander it had to be knowingly untrue and created with the express purpose to harm the reputation of a specific person or organization. I showed this to the editorial board and argued that the story failed to pass the test on both accounts, and that given our editorial policy we had no right to stop a story from being published that had already been properly and democratically voted on and accepted. This lead to some long discussions about whether a fictional story could be considered libelous and whether we would be effectively taking a political stance by allowing the story to be published.

The two opponents of the story made some good arguments about needing to be responsible for the content of our magazine and any harm that it could cause. What if it was a fascist oriented tract, or had been critical of Jews on campus? They also made some arguments that were not as good, like threatening to quit working on the magazine if we published the story.

I felt that the story was good and moreover that the criticisms leveled against the fraternity system or college social life were accurate. Although I was sort of the de facto editor-in-chief of the issue for having been doing most of the work on it, the decision was clearly going to be decided by the group, and the other three members of the editorial board were sort of divided or unclear about what they wanted. It seemed, as the meeting carried on, that the majority was swaying towards the path of least resistance, which would be not to publish the story.

The situation was made more difficult by the fact that I had known all of the other editors since our freshman (first) year, one since elementary school, even. I didn't want to disagree or be disagreeable and found it hard being the only one arguing in the story's favor. Even if I had had the ability or authority to just make the decision, I'm not sure it would have been the right way of dealing with the situation. Mostly, I guess, I wanted the other editors to like me and didn’t want to appear to be an asshole. I was trying to be reasonable.

We went back and forth for a couple of hours and finally left without coming to a resolution. I was confused and nervous. I couldn't believe that it would even be a question of whether we should publish the story in the first place, but now I didn't know what to do or what would happen. I was angry that I hadn't been able to convince the others that we should publish the story and felt I would be doing something wrong if I let the story be censored.

It was a true moral dilemma for me: I felt that I had to choose between hurting and possibly losing friends and doing what I thought was right. And all of this heavy stuff, over a short story that someone had submitted to our funny little campus literary magazine. Ha!

Back in my dorm room I started crying as I tried to explain the situation to my roommate, Blake. Blake was one of the all around smartest and coolest guys I knew, and I felt stupid to be crying in front of him. I wondered what he would think of me, but he listened carefully and didn't try to tell me what he thought was right or what he thought I should do. What he said was simply, "Kevin, I think you know what's right and what you have to do."

It was so simple, and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. It was empowerment. When I thought about it, or perhaps more accurately, when I felt about it, I realized he was right, I did know what I had to do, I was just scared to do it.

I regret that I cannot do the story or the situation justice in my describing it here. I also regret that I was not able to give the story the full justice that I felt it deserved at the time, because although I took Blake's advice and did what I felt I had to do, which was face the editors again and fight for the story to be published, I did compromise in the end, agreeing to ask the author to change the passages describing the location of the fraternity house and the words to the ritual song to make them less recognizable.

When I explained the situation, the author willingly made the changes (it wasn't a big deal to him) and the story was published without further ado, except that the two editors who had been most opposed to the story's publication slowly stopped coming to meetings.

Looking back, I think we found the best possible compromise to our problem, but I was and am still not completely happy when I think about it. I had always thought that compromise was desirable and ideal only in the world of politics, not in principles. Until then, however, I had never been forced to test my principles in the 'real world' where every decision has consequences and even something as seemingly harmless as working on a literary magazine can force you to choose between friendships and moral integrity.

Between A Broken Wall & Fallen Curtain -- A Post Script
I wrote this piece in November of 2000 while I was traveling with longtime friend and (rogue) photographer Jesse Long. I had received a forwarded email about the possibility of submitting something for an upcoming anniversary issue of the Stonefence. Apparently, they were inviting past editors and contributors to send something as part of a big issue they were trying to put together.

We were in Egypt at the time and were about to move on to Kenya where we were going to work a school and then take a week or so off to do some safari-ing. So I banged off a rough draft and sent it to the co-editors with a note explaining to them that I was traveling abroad and would be not be in radio contact for about a week, but would definitely send them a final draft when I got back into Nairobi.

Well, the next time I checked my email there was a message waiting for me from them saying that they were under deadline and had gone ahead and edited my story because they were trying to get the issue out before Christmas break. I was not happy to hear this. I felt my rough draft was just that, rough, and, what's more, I didn't like the way that they had edited it either. Hadn't I made it clear that I was going to send them a final draft? I had it right there, ready to go. I mean, had they even read my submission, couldn't they see the deontological irony in it all?

Anyway, I wrote them a very curt (maybe even nasty) email saying that I would rather have the whole thing pulled if they could not print my final edited draft. I had learned my lesson: "Once shame on you. Twice shame on me", right? This time I was making a stand for what I thought was right, no compromises.

As it turned out, they had some other printing or editing delays (blame it on the bluelines) and were able to make the changes for me, although I think a couple of errata still crept into the final version. The issue ended up coming out during the winter of 2001.<>

The Great Wall And Beyond – A Post, Post Script
This story took another bizarre (and perhaps final) twist this past summer when I was recounting it to my roommate at the Green Gulch Zen Center one day while we were seeding trays for the nursery. It turns out that this guy had been friends since high school with the author who had originally submitted the story to us in the first place. In fact, he had just gone on a road trip with him to a wedding in Arizona or something, and he was studying to become a rabbi. My roommate called and asked him about the story, but he also didn't remember thinking it was that big of a deal at the time.

It's funny how all these paths have diverged, submerged and then reconverged. And like the seminally misunderstood poem about the two roads that diverged in a wood, by Dartmouth's adopted great woods poet Robert Frost, this whole story may be more of a lesson about the way memory works then which path I took and why.

The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.