Letter from the Editor

By Ben Dolan
May 9th, 2014

Back to Issue

One hundred and twenty-five years ago was 1889. Blue Mesa Review did not exist then. Nor did the founders of Blue Mesa Review exist. In fact, Blue Mesa Review’s terra firma, the University of New Mexico, wasn’t even a physical place just yet. It existed only as an idea, a hope, held most concretely in the mind of a zealous Albuquerquean named Bernard Shandon Rodey. He wrote the bill that would establish a university and argued its case until territorial governor Edmund G. Ross signed it into law. People did not want it. The residents of the territory—New Mexico was still a couple of decades away from statehood then—were too poor. In 1889, however, the bill was passed. There would be a University of New Mexico.

After that, a whole bunch of stuff happened in the 1900s.

Then came 1989 and the University of New Mexico was a hundred years old.

In that year, Rudolfo A. Anaya, author of Bless Me, Ultima, penned the first Blue Mesa Review editor’s note:

“We are proud of our first issue and happy that it comes during the year when the University of New Mexico is celebrating its centennial. This state and this university have always been a center for the creative arts, and we hope to grow in that tradition.”

Then some stuff happened in the ’90s and 2000s.

Now it is 25 years after the publication of that short note in the front pages of Issue No. 1. I recognize that though I am a sort of academic descendent of Mr. Rodey and Mr. Anaya, I can’t claim to have conceived of or succeeded in establishing anything as grand as a university or a literary magazine.

So where do I begin?

Blue Mesa Review publishes excellent poems, essays, and short stories” simply won’t work as an opening sentiment in this editor’s note. It’s boring. It’s unoriginal. It’s likely to adjure a perfectly intelligent brain to power down until it sounds like the editor has finished his perfunctory opening comments. This isn’t much better: “Here’s Issue #29 of Blue Mesa Review, and I’m certainly satisfied with the poems, essays, and short stories you’ll find inside.”

Even the last editor’s note I wrote, suggesting essentially that the reader was wasting her time by dwelling too long on my editor’s note, isn’t right, because now there is reason to dwell, to pause. And my writing isn’t the reason.

The problem with an editor’s note is that it’s not, really, anything much more than a waypoint, a gate through which (some) readers pass to get to the good stuff. And “there’s plenty of good stuff on the other side of this note: four poems, three stories, two interviews, and an essay that I’m sure will trap you and keep you for a time and release you into the world a bit changed. They’ll inspire your own creative process. They’ll be linked in emails to your friends and relatives.” Even this writing, though certainly more alive than the first two attempts, won’t work, because just saying these pieces are really, really, really good doesn’t do anybody justice—not the writers, not the artists, not the editorial board, not even the readers. In fact, over the last year as Editor-in-Chief of Blue Mesa Review, I’ve come to consider our publication much more than a product worthy of peddling.

I want to point you to the content of this issue, yes. The pieces we’ve published are wonderful. But I also want to recognize the rich literary soil into which these pieces are being sown. And it is rich.

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I was supposed to meet him at his office on the UNM campus, and when I got there, bumping around the pale blue maze of halls in the English Department, there was a long line up of young people in front of Rudy’s door. They weren’t only students, but political activists, a magazine editor, a newspaper writer, a poet, and an artist—wanting advice, a name, a place, approval, something. I stood outside his door and listened. […] When he was through, and I got to go in (books by other Chicanas and Chicanos all over his desk, and he praised them—it’s their turn, he raved), I wondered if all those requests weren’t too exhausting and distracting, worried about what time he left himself for his work. I can’t say no, he told me, as calmly as he spoke to them.

- from Dagoberto Gilb’s “Tribute to Rudolfo A. Anaya”

Blue Mesa Review #6, 1994

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I wasn’t predisposed to like, or even to benignly ignore, literary magazines.

When I first arrived at the University of New Mexico as an MFA student three years ago, as if being shown from a high ridge the dry, impossibly long valley through which I would have to walk to reach verdant writerly fame, I was introduced to the reality of the standard rejection. Our professors told us that, after laboring diligently on our writing, we would eventually have to send it out “into the world,” where it would inevitably be rejected again and again. After the hundredth rejection, or maybe the ten-thousandth, our names would suddenly crystallize on the tables of contents in several magazines, possibly some of the best. In other words, if we submitted ourselves to enough disappointment, then we’d eventually get our moment. Like so many aspiring Raymond Carvers and Henry Jameses and Joyce Carol Oateses, we had good stories to tell and a stack of paper rejections to document the telling. (Of course, we’d have to print the rejection emails to get a similar effect.)

I bristled. In a sort of preteen reactivity, I loved to get in conversations back then about the futility of literary magazines. I cited the rampant subjectivity, the crowds of hopeful writers storming the gates, the aloof editors choosing only their friends’ work. All of that paled, though, to what I thought was the saddest crime: the debasement of the artists who shamelessly submit their work to any and all magazines via the anonymous, impersonal mailbox or online submission system, hoping that someone, perhaps someone important, will like their work and publish it so they can—what? Well, so they can put the name of that magazine in a revised form letter submitted to other magazines of slightly better reputation and hope for publication there, and so on and so on forever.

Three years ago, that’s how I believed modern literature worked: like the slowest, most unprofitable, most nerve-wracking corporate promotion-from-within system that ever existed. The New Yorker, Random House, Penguin, Harper’s, I figured, were poised at the end of that crazy ladder, checking credentials.

I was not keen on beginning the process, myself. I was better than that, I thought.

Really, I was horrified. I was trying to be a writer. If I deeply considered this path, I would have concluded that perhaps there’s nothing more gloriously foolish. And even worse: I was not even yet the glorious fool. I was the obscure, the unpublished, the green fool. In other words, in the realm of literature, I was nobody.

And that’s scary enough to want to burn down the whole edifice.

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Why not be more

human, as they say,

more thoughtful,

why not try to care.

 

The bleak alternative’s

a stubborn existence—

back turned to all,

pathetic resistance.

 

- from Robert Creeley’s “Fools”

Blue Mesa Review #1, 1989

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I started reading for Blue Mesa Review thinking that, somehow, my perspective was needed—that the work of “serious writers” was just too good, too precious, too delicate to parade in front of a crowd of lit mags. It was a pathetic resistance, no doubt, but it served as a buffer between me and that frightening reality in which I was to rap on the iron gates of the literary canon with my newly minted personal essays, still moist from workshop.

I had a high vision of literature then. I thought it necessary, beautiful, capable of changing systems and upturning hatred and greed and malice. I still think that. I wanted to be involved in that activity, and still do.

But then I also thought that literary magazines were neutered books, parading under the literary flag, and doing nothing necessary, beautiful, or hate-destroying. Even as I became an editor—and, ultimately, the editor-in-chief—of a lit mag, I’ll admit I maintained a slightly softened jadedness. I mostly resigned myself to the process. I recognized that some writers did rise to notoriety through the traditional lit-mag slog; some found publishers for their books because publishers occasionally combed the pages of lit mags, or at least recognized the titles of lit mags upon inquiries from would-be authors.

So resigned was I to the process that, eventually, I even deigned to submit my own work to the system. And so began that particular irony of working at a literary publication: over a period of months, I received a handful of rejections from other magazines, even as I rejected pieces submitted to Blue Mesa Review. I slowly balled up. Rejecting others became painful, reminders of my own failures. Reminders that I was still nobody.

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He listened to a song about a nowhere man, sitting in a nowhere land, making nowhere plans for nobody. That’s who he was. Nowhere man. He could spend the rest of his life painting over graffiti and no one would ever know he was there.

 

- from Robert Flynn’s “Volunteers”

Blue Mesa Review #1, 1989

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Months ago, however, in preparation for our 25th Anniversary, I began doing some basic archival research on literary magazines. I descended into the university’s basement holdings—where the periodicals dwell like old forgotten gremlins—and began looking through the surprisingly extensive collection of literary magazines. I aimed for old ones. My purpose was to see what and whom other literary magazines were publishing fifty years ago, a hundred years ago. I figured, at the 100-year mark, there’d be only a couple magazines to look at. Perhaps Harper’s. Maybe The New Yorker. I’d then write an editor’s note that showed the relative longevity of Blue Mesa Review. Because we trust old things, it wouldn’t be hard, I thought, to argue for BMR’s legitimacy. (Even if I had lost any hope for literary magazines, I figured I wouldn’t pass the pessimism along to BMR’s readers).

First surprise down in the basement stacks: I found a lot of old literary magazines, bound into big library-issue hardbacks as if someone might actually use them. I found magazines that were not 100, but 200 years old. I now know that there are American lit mags older than this country, which isn’t technically possible—but you get the point. I discovered that the lineage of English literary magazines is even longer. I stopped myself there, though. I’d seen plenty. I was on the tail end of a centuries-old tradition in which BMR was a relative newcomer.

Second surprise: the tables of contents. Full of names I’d never heard of, probably due mostly to my ignorance and partially to their obscurity. I remembered how badly I longed to be a name on a table of contents and how miffed I was to be shoved out of what I thought was my rightful place there. I wondered how many names had clawed their way onto these lists. Then, just before I was going to mark this up as yet another reason to avoid lit mags, I found, in an English magazine from 1817, in the middle of a hundred names I didn’t recognize, one I did: “‘The Lament of Tasso’ by Lord Byron.” Lord, uh, Byron? Damn!

Third surprise: these old literary magazines, with folks like Lord Byron sleeping in their quarters, were not too terribly different from our own. I found within them many oddly constructed stories, many poems (with, certainly, a proclivity for rhyme pre-1950), and many other bits of nonfiction. I found roundabout letters to the editor and from the editor. I found obviously targeted advertisements on back covers. (Today they’d be in the sidebars and begging for a mouse-click).

Then, the last surprise: in the back of a mid-18th-century issue of The Southern Literary Messenger, I found this:

REJECTED MSS. — The following contributions are respectfully declined, and will be returned, upon receipt of the necessary postage. It is impossible for the editor to notify each individual contributor of the disposition made of the articles sent us. In no case can we mail manuscripts until we have received the requisite postage. We will retain communications for a reasonable length of time, and if not called for, we cannot be responsible for their loss or destruction:

“How to Flirt”; “Autumn”; “Elin,” or a “Love Poem”; “Risen”; “Never Surrender”; “Powhatan”; “Lines to Virginia”…

…and so on.

One hundred and fifty years ago, a legion of hopeful writers flipped to the back of The Southern Literary Messenger to discover that their beloved “Powhatan,” or whatever poem or essay or story it was they’d put on paper and mailed to Richmond, had not, to put it in today’s common lit-mag diplomacy, “been a fit.” They’d been rejected.

I read that list of shirked titles and I felt a connection with the past unlike any time ever before in my life. The rejections I’d received from the hands of lit mags had cut me to the core, though I had cultivated a writerly sort of stoicism. I wondered if, 150 years ago, the rejected writers had shut the book abruptly and, when asked what was wrong, said “Nothing,” like I did and do, even though everything, everything was wrong. I wondered if some of them shared the fear that rejection will instill in a new writer: that I am not worthy, that I am untalented, that I may as well learn to sell real estate.

People had been getting rejected for hundreds of years. And because I’m at times an egomaniac, this made me feel better. Even: important.

Something about the sheer longevity of this cultural phenomenon invigorated me. It was like discovering a long, noble family history, and with that discovering my own place in it. So many names and magazines—for what? Money? No. Fame? Perhaps, but one would have to be pretty thick (or nearly blind with optimism) to expect it. And if not for cash or notoriety, then what?

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She can’t not write it down. And when she does, she’s got to mail it. She has so far, and she can’t keep from it anymore than she can duck God who’s gone out for a walk, looking to dump that bucket of grace on somebody who needs it.

 

- from Mary Vanek’s “Ice”

Blue Mesa Review #1, 1989

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In the first number of the first volume of the The Southern Literary Journal and Monthly Magazine (not to be confused with the previously mentioned Southern Literary Messenger—OK, one more surprise: there existed thousands of magazines before 1900), Editor Daniel K. Whitaker begins his new magazine with a riff on “American Literature,” a canon which, at that point, was still struggling to shed the sticky pieces of English egg out of which it had hatched. “In a country like our own,” he writes, “where the sovereign power, in practice no less than in theory, resides in the people, it is necessary that the people should be intelligent. On this foundation only can the fabric of our institutions firmly rest. On this account, our country requires for its highest prosperity, a popular literature of a peculiar kind; a literature deserving the name of American, alike in its range of subjects, and its tone of feelings.”

That’s a brave way to introduce a magazine. I’d like to draw from Whitaker’s confidence here, while hopefully avoiding such a sloppy spray of commas. (He, of course, would probably object to my em-dashes and parentheses).

So, here goes, a creed written by a former unbeliever:

Blue Mesa Review, along with all of the other magazines like ours, is doing much more than simply selling (or freely providing, in many cases) good writing to hungry consumers. We’re participating in something trans-commercial. Something nearly religious.

By submitting to and publishing in and compiling and proofreading and disseminating literary magazines, we are participating in a particularly strange and often exhausting activity older than our country itself, and certainly older than the state of New Mexico, where each issue of Blue Mesa Review has been knit together from the very beginning, now 25 years ago.

To literature these hundreds of years of periodicals pay homage.

The pieces that you’ll find published in Blue Mesa Review’s Issue No. 29 are not only excellent, but also part of a tradition sustained for centuries in this and other countries, despite a tendency to yield meager profits and little renown for nearly all of its practitioners.

These pieces are literature.

That introduction, I’ll admit, seems a bit more appropriate.

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Sometimes she feels

herself waiting

for the click, the locking

of the spheres, the snip

across her optic muscle

that will turn her eyes

three degrees and focus in

the happiness that’s always

danced at her edges.

 

- from J. Mill’s “Visions”

Blue Mesa Review #2, 1990

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Blue Mesa Reviewis 25 years old this year. For 25 years it has been participating in the chorus of American literature. In that time it has published hundreds of poems and stories and dozens of essays.

And on this anniversary I’ve become suddenly aware, like any guardian might be, of the busy, living landscape in which our magazine dwells. And by literary landscape I mean this: there are thousands of literary journals publishing thousands of writers, thousands of publications inspiring and bolstering millions of dreams-of-becoming-a-writer. There are thousands of names in thousands of tables of contents. There are hundreds of years of contributors, of rejections, of worthy publications. There are shelves and shelves filled with magazines that lived and died and lived again.

It may look frightening to some. The vastness of it all is enough to make someone—me—want to hit the showers, look for an alternate route.

I’ve been working for Blue Mesa Review for three years, but only now do I see that it and all the other literary magazines are not some rickety structure of an era long gone. Instead, I’d like to believe that they are part of the ornament, the buttresses and frescoes of this elaborate cathedral we call Literature, a place where so many, from so many places, come to worship.

It is old, no doubt. But it is ours. We must keep it up and continue to serve in it. It has sheltered so many. And still they come.

Thanks to all of the submitters who continue to send us their work.

Thanks to those contributors published here for laboring to make something beautiful.

Thanks to the 25 years of readers who continue to come to us for a word.

Thanks to Mr. Anaya, who birthed this magazine and brought it through its adolescence.

Thanks to all of the editors who’ve worked on this issue—Christina Glessner, Jill Dehnert, Lucy Burns, Sarah Sheesley, and Michael Noltemeyer. Know that you’ve identified and published excellent work. And know, too, that by doing so you’re doing something excellent, something historical, something literary—in the weightiest sense of the term.

Thanks to all those who will contribute both writing and editing to this journal over the next 25 years. I hope this note will ring true then. I hope it rings true now.

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Though we are brutalized by our own gifts and

sensibilities, we are redeemed by them

as well. For you have loved the beauty

in all things and have shown me

that glimmer of the purest light—the possibility

of self-possession through arduous work.

 

- from Adele Dumaran’s “Elizabeth Rosetti, Self-Portrait”

Blue Mesa Review #3, 1991

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