Heat 20: Plain Vanilla Futures

Ivor Indyk (editor), Heat #20: Plain Vanilla Futures (Giramondo Publishing Company August 2009)

heatJohn Freeman, of Granta magazine, had an excellent piece in The Australian in July (pretty much the same article as published in the Independent a month earlier, with a little Australian – and Australian – content inserted). The primary function of literary journals, he said:

is to […] promote gross miscegenation, messiness, conflict and disorder; to subvert the market; and to place writers in unexpected places, where they can create an unlikely community of readers. …

It is presumptuous of any literary journal to claim that it has discovered any writers — novelists and poets are hardly nickel deposits, after all — yet a good journal can make it far easier for readers to discover a new writer’s work. It can take a piece of writing, regardless of where it comes from and what unusual shape its story takes, and ask readers to smash into it. For these reasons the ideal reader of a literary journal is one who yearns for the lash of the new, the way a boxer needs to be hit.

I can’t say that I yearn to be lashed by anything, really, but Heat does offer the kind of discomfort John Freeman describes, and I suppose I read it as a kind of homage to the gods of literature. Every issue contains things by writers who are completely new to me. Admittedly some of them are also, to me, almost completely unreadable; but others are sublime. In this issue Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Privacy’ is in the sublime category, though I’m not new to her poetry. And there are a number of pieces that range from completely engrossing to callow, self-indulgent or academic-exercise-ish. I enjoyed and was instructed by Elizabeth Byer’s ‘Peru’s Heartbeat’, an essay on a Peruvian drum. I was glad to learn about Aileen Palmer, daughter of Vance and Netty, and Rosa Cappiello who wrote novels in Italian during her years as an immigrant in Sydney (though I’m deterred from reading the latter’s Oh Lucky Country by the fact that her translator’s article here includes more than one sentence as awkward as this: ‘The Italian original is written in a language that is precise and explicit and yet metaphorically complex, and which sometimes reflects the influence of Neapolitan syntax and lexemes, popular Italian and some elements of the Australian variety of Italian.’)

It’s two translations from the Chinese, though, that got me closest to a lashing and mashing experience, both of them being unsettlingly odd: ‘An Inexperienced World‘ by Sheng Keyi, in which an older woman/writer lusts after a younger man she meets on a train; and ‘1989: My Confession‘ by Ah Jian, which seems to be excerpts from a longer, gossipy account of events among Beijing intellectuals in and around Tian’anmen Square in that year.

Part of each issue these days seems to be devoted the literary equivalent of “The Making Of” pieces: this time Evelyn Juers writes fascinatingly about her recent Giramondo title House of Exile: The life and times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann, blending diverse elements including subtle self-disclosure, intriguing historical snippets, and tourist impressionism.

I share Pavlov Cat’s view that Ivor Indyk is a living national treasure, but the copy-editing of Heat often gives me pause. This issue is no exception: a supercede and at least one faux-gentility (‘a literary prize that enabled my partner and I to…’) have snuck past the editorial defences. Everyone makes mistakes. But there is one genuine puzzlement. In Ah Jian’s piece we read that the writer’s friend Zhao Yueshen wrote ‘about the ancient Greek [sic] poet Virgil’s Georgics‘. That ‘[sic]’ is not mine. It’s in the magazine. So someone – most likely the (uncredited) translator – made a note of Ah Jian’s slip (Virgil was actually Roman), and someone – most likely an editor or a series of editors and proofreaders –  decided to leave it there so the readers would see it as well. It looks as if the editors, being primarily academics, treated the text as if it were something they were quoting in a scholarly paper, distancing themselves from the error but taking care to quote it accurately. But such meticulous respect for the text ends up looking like derision of the author. For the record, I want editors, quietly and without fuss, to correct my stupid mistakes.

3 responses to “Heat 20: Plain Vanilla Futures

  1. Is it possible that the editors noted the factual error, but suspected that Ah Jian may have been making the slip for a poetic purpose?
    Perhaps the editors were suffereing from that common condition: poetry fear. This is where you read a poem that sounds good and you think you understand, but you’re mortally afraid that you’ve missed the point.
    This is why sitcoms have a great per-capita uptake than poetry; we simply don’t have as many heroic poetry readers as we used to …

  2. I know what you mean about poetry fear, franzy. Before I developed the condition myself, I once edited a poem to smooth out the scansion, to have it demonstrated to me by the poet that I’d completely lost his meaning and deprived the poem of its reason for being. But this one isn’t a poem. Maybe there’s a similar condition, fear of writers from cultures not one’s own.

  3. Pingback: Posthumous Tiptree Jr « Me fail? I fly!