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Casting a Light on Iconoclasts and Ideas


ISSUE:  Fall 2013

In the 1960s, poet W. S. Merwin decided to abandon the use of punctuation because he felt periods and commas merely affixed or “stapled” a poem to the page. He wanted his poetry to evoke the spoken word instead of adhering to a convention he felt better suited for prose. Because of his rejection of poetic formalism, Merwin was labeled an iconoclast. Now, many volumes of poetry later, it matters very little whether Merwin’s poems are punctuated. As critic John Freeman notes in this issue, it is not the sheer amount of poetry in Merwin’s collected works that transports the reader, but the “radical evolution arcing through its pages, like an explosive chemical reaction that is still ongoing.”

Being called an iconoclast today is more a badge of honor than it was half a century ago when Merwin chose to break with poetic tradition. For our fall issue, VQR features men and women, past and present, who jolted society with the shock of the new, advocated for social change, created a fresh musical sound, or stretched artistic boundaries. Our first feature is VQR contributing editor Jeff Sharlet’s fascinating profile of Harry Belafonte, a man who has broken the artistic mold numerous times. Fifty years ago, Belafonte was forever changed by his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., a relationship those close to the two men described as one connected by electricity. That bond, both infused with and propelled by sparks, eventually led Belafonte to use his fame and fortune to support the Civil Rights Movement that transformed America and American life.

Around the time Belafonte marched with King in Washington, and later from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, Berry Gordy set the foundation for a commercial and cultural empire known as Motown Records. Gordy took a tip from the automotive industry that was then the lifeblood of Detroit: Quality control is key to selling your product. Since most of the songs recorded at Motown would be heard for the first time on tinny AM car radios or cheap transistor sets, the first stage of quality control was to play a song through a speaker that was the same as one found in a car. Given Gordy’s obsessive tendencies, every element of the record had to be perfect, including the way it was manufactured. Gordy famously said, “If it ain’t in the grooves, it ain’t got it.”

The music of Motown endures because of Gordy’s unorthodox path to achieving a sound that would hook the listener, as Garret Keizer makes clear in his eloquent essay “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone.” Keizer looks at Motown without the veil of nostalgia that sometimes obscures the artistry of the music. Most important, there is a rhythm and a beat to the writing that fits with the spirit of the Motown sound.

Eudora Welty may not be considered an iconoclast to some, but, as William Ferris’s interview reveals, she quietly pushed the boundaries of writing and art. Welty believed that the writer must not crusade, yet she was indeed a crusader and trailblazer, though not in a conventional way. With powerful stories such as “The Demonstrators” and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” as well as her novels and photography, Welty left an indelible mark on American letters. The modesty Welty displays in her interview should in no way serve as a distraction from her significance as a writer. Beneath her self-​deprecation and lithe Southern manner lies a genuine breaker of artistic barriers.

Wider and wider perspectives have been a leitmotif in the art of David Hockney. Contributing editor Lawrence Weschler examines Hockney’s work over the past thirty years, a period of productivity and change for the artist. Hockney is renowned for using new technologies in his art, from Polaroid cameras to faxes, iPads, and iPhones. “Trying to depict the world as it is actually experienced, or more precisely to capture the experience of advancing into all that space” is the animating focus of Hockney’s current work, Weschler explains. The format or medium is less important than the sheer visual intensity of the art or the time when a work was created. That is why Hockney’s art may be best understood as “timescapes,” since it captures both the moment and passage of time.

Since this is my first issue as editor of VQR, I know that some might see the focus of this issue on iconoclasts as a not-​so-​subtle message of my desire to break a few sacred marble statues of editorial content. But it is more my style to improve upon tradition than smash things apart. After years spent acquiring and developing illustrated books of nonfiction for the Library of Congress, I know that editorial flamboyance means little to readers; it is the strength of the content that attracts them, particularly to a publication like VQR. That’s why our fall issue contains a stimulating array of content—contributing editor ​Elliott D. Woods on the Keystone XL Pipeline, fiction by Allan Gurganus, poetry by Linda Pastan and Rachel Hadas, criticism by Michael Dirda—​that grasp the reader’s attention because of the depth and thoughtfulness of the writing. We are particularly honored to include The Jacksonian, a new full-​length play by Pulitzer Prize-​winner Beth Henley.

Still, what you see in the pages of this issue of VQR represents what I want to do as editor: publish a range of writers with a diversity of voices on a broad number of topics. It is my firm belief that each issue must have content that is timely. With an eye toward the future, I also want to make sure that what we publish in the pages of VQR will stand the test of time. That may seem like a tall order, but it is clear that this was part of the editorial mission of my predecessors and is part of our tradition as a journal of literature and ideas. This tradition is a statue to keep and preserve rather than one to render into pieces. 

Putting together each issue of VQR is a bit like solving a puzzle. The poetry, prose, and photography must flow rhythmically for the reader, even if he or she is not reading the issue sequentially. For each issue, our talented staff examines how the issue’s content connects so that each piece fits as part of a whole. We don’t force the puzzle pieces into spaces where they don’t belong. As we expand to provide more online content to complement our print edition, we will be looking at making those two formats align as part of a whole as well.

In every issue of VQR there will be something that will capture the attention of our devoted readers. At the same time, there will be a few things that are new to these pages, starting with three standing columns. We open with “Amateur Hour,” in which an assortment of tinkers and zealots talk about their obsessions. In this issue, writer Jack Hitt interviews a thirteen-​year-​old inventor. “Talisman” will feature brief essays from writers about objects, places, or activities that inspire them, and this fall we feature Francine Prose on Ganesh, the writer’s deity. Finally, “Mapping,” by Reif Larsen, will offer an inventive exploration of concepts and places. 

The focus of the new will not be to shock; instead it will be to provide a perspective that may have been missing from our pages or needed to be brought into the light. As an editor, it is casting light on new ideas that motivates and drives my work. And I also hope that it is what will keep you coming back. 

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