Poets & Writers

Oftentimes, I prefer bad writing to good writing (and so do many of you, judging by the fact that this column's circulation has soared into the mid-double-digits). I'll take the chewing-gum-is-like-SO-totally-hard entries in Lindsay Lohan's journal over Philip Roth's 723rd Jewish-Identity-in-Modern-America tract. For poetry, give me Jewel's densely worded musings about yodeling and unicorns, or yodeling unicorns, over an Archie Ammons meditation on a fig leaf. Really, there are only so many shots of Pete Dexter one can knock back without a chaser of non-literary Juicey Juice, like "Chicken Soup For the Soul Patch."

Thus I dove into the July/August issue of Poets & Writers fully expecting to be bored senseless by the Long-Faced Literati showcased therein. This is not a group of professionals that takes itself or its work lightly. If a single item in the issue prompts a giggle, either you're one of them or your medication kicked in a bit early.

And yet I'd recommend Poets & Writers to anybody with even a cursory interest in the printed word--serious-writer types as well as folks who read casually. The mag doesn't attempt to explain the creative process so much as spotlight those writers who seem to have dodged many of its obstacles. Though decidedly (and intentionally, I imagine) short on charisma, Poets & Writers provides illumination of a sort found in few other titles.

"The Literary Life" offers a plainly but sharply observed first-person tale of a New Orleans writer who lost all her books to Hurricane Katrina; it runs alongside a borderline heartbreaking pic of the soggy remains of her library. "Two Books Are Better Than One," its clumsy title notwithstanding, does an equally precise job of framing the challenges faced by two writers, Emily Barton and Gary Shteyngart, coming off absurdly warm notices for their first novels.

The mag also serves as a resource, whether through its back-of-book grants/awards/conferences listings or the stories housed under the banner "The Practical Writer." In the July/August issue, the latter section contains two pieces on setting up a writer's Web site: one a how-to and the other a first-person tale of seeing it through. Given the unfortunate necessity of marketing one's work through the Web, especially for unestablished scribes and poets, the items render a daunting process quite manageable.

Poets & Writers also does pretty well on the news front, which is something of an achievement for a long-lead publication. A feature on the Poetry Foundation's report on American attitudes towards poetry delivers much more than the expected "these 'Lost'-addicted dolts don't know what they're missing" squawks, while a piece on the LibraryThing "virtual library" makes the online community sound like something more than a MySpace for well-read shut-ins.

Even the piece on a marketing hookup between Penguin Classics and the NBA--designed to "highlight the unique connection between basketball's greatest stars and literature's most enduring works," according to the Penguin Web site--somehow makes the program seem like something more than a well-intentioned waste of time. I, for one, can't wait for the day when Nuggets forward Yakhouba Diawara weighs in on "The Turn of the Screw."

Poets & Writers does, however, show its subjects almost too much respect at times. The questions posed to Feminist Press chief Gloria Jacobs and New Yorker editor David Remnick feel like something out of a Chris Farley "Saturday Night Live" interview ("You remember when you were with The Beatles? That was AWESOME!"). The kissy-kissy mini-profiles on five debut authors pale beside the excerpts from their work. And from a design perspective, the mag could use a bit more color, both figuratively and literally.

I was an English major as an undergrad and, as should be evident by now, generally prefer the company of the printed word to that of other human beings. I suspect most of the artistes featured in Poets & Writers, not to mention its readers, feel the same way. For anyone with even a slightly literary bent, Poets & Writers is a godsend.

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