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Pushing Envelopes

I wonder sometimes, as I stuff yet another perfectly innocent envelope with return postage, or tear one open to find my manuscript bearing the hoofprint of the paper clip holding a form rejection to its bosom, whether this is not a silly thing for a 53-year-old, supposedly professional writer to be doing.

It's been habit, of course, for a long time now. Like Baudelaire's vampire, whose bones after the metamorphosis go on creaking like a signboard in the wind. Or, again, as in Apollinaire:

    Their hearts are like their doors
    Always doing business

The doors swing to and fro with distressing regularity. Stories and poems and essays wrapped up warmly in their best new clothes and sent out the door like the boll weevil, jus' lookin' for a home come back bringing along unwelcome friends, sad little notes that read Try us again! or invitations to subscribe at special rates.

"Ah, another great Sallis story," a friend said just last year upon seeing something of mine in a magazine. I pointed out that the story had swum valiantly upstream 54 times before finally lodging in a bend. My record of submissions filled both sides of an index card. I'd spent $69.12 on postage alone, never mind the cost of manila envelopes, photocopies and paper. In return I received two copies of the magazine.

It doesn't even feel good when you stop, as in the old joke. Every few years I do stop. Tuck little orphan stories away in a shelter somewhere, find a nice spot for homeless poems under a bridge, and swear never again. But before long I catch myself sneaking to the corner mailbox with a plain brown envelope, or get caught slipping out of the house with a stack of submissions under my coat on a coolish 98-degree July evening.

Now, to secure all that money for postage, manila envelopes, photocopies and paper, I write books for which I get paid reasonably well, or reviews for the like of Book World and the L.A. Times. Those who read my books aren't likely to come across, even to know about, stories appearing in Straw Dog Quarterly or Dead Horse Review, or to care about poems appearing anywhere. Even my book editors have little interest in this other, subterranean life. Questioned by authorities they disavow all knowledge of the "second gentleman" staying with the good Dr. J. Luckily (thus far at least) I've always managed to get home, drink the antidote and change back in time.

So just why is it that I go on shoveling good money and fair-to-middling effort into such enterprise, sending out stories and poems to publications likely to be seen only by other contributors? (Note that I do not say read by other contributors.) Reputation? I've had mine, such as it is, for years now, like a pair of old jeans; it's unlikely to be much affected by a poem buried among dozens of others in Driftword or Wormturn, or by a two-page story in Elephant Hump stating that its author needs no introduction. But I do go on, like some out-of-control, perpetual-motion existentialist making his leap into faith, nostrils pinched shut with finger and thumb, again and again. When recently a friend offered his definition of crazy as "doing the same thing over and over expecting different results," I cringed.

Maybe more than anything (this just occurred to me, go with me on it for a moment) it has to do with getting the little buggers out of house and mind for a while. Ghosts, once-beloved pets gone blind and incontinent with age, bunions or heel blisters: choose your metaphor. They're always there; they don't go away. But if you work at it, you can get temporary relief. Hand the kids a few dollars and tell them to go take in a matinee, buying your ticket to a little peace.

Truth to tell (though I have to confess that my favorite title for a book about writing is Telling Lies for Fun and Profit), I don't even know what to call the things anymore. Little magazines? Well, lots of them make pretty good door stops these days. Literary magazines? Sure... if you're in the habit of calling your pants trousers and got reared instead of raised in which case the word is pronounced lit'ry. Increasingly, even among book readers and interviewers, I find myself having to describe these publications. Your basic show and tell situation. Remembering all the time Louis Armstrong saying of jazz that if you had to ask, you weren't going to understand the answer.

Not only don't I know what to call these publications, I have no idea where they fit in anymore, what function they might serve. Where on the bus of a nation whose conversation and very mythology come from last night's sitcoms and movies, does a magazine filled with knickknacks of poetry, essays and short fiction find a seat? Most nowadays seem vaguely proprietary, attached in one way or another to university writing programs, the intellectual-property equivalent of corporate newsletters. There's a sameness to them, never stronger than in those most adamantly transgressive, a flattening-out that admittedly may have as much to do with my own age as with intrinsic quality.

We thought we were doing important work. I remember. We thought literature was important and would always be, that it offered us maps to find our way to new worlds. Now we just go on overbuilding the world we have, and the maps lie in shreds around us. Publishing has become a kind of demi-intellectual garment district, with runners pushing racks of clothes everywhere in the street, obstructing traffic and getting in good people's ways.

And literature?

Years ago I wrote a piece for American Pen suggesting that, abandoned by mainstream publishing, our literature even then we'd begun to miss it, you see, and to go looking had fled to these magazines. Like those remote islands in science fiction upon which prehistoric life has survived into the present. Now I don't know where it's gone. I've looked. I can't find it. If anyone's seen it recently, please call. I'll pay for information, photos, confirmed sightings.

Always we believed, those historical magazines and historical me, in literature's adversary intent: that literature necessarily sets itself against prevailing currents the received wisdom and assumptions of our time. Frost might be right that "We can't appraise the time in which we act," but by God we were gonna try. We were meant, as writers, to be outlaws, hired guns, eternal outsiders, long riders. We didn't light out for the territory, we planned on hauling the territory behind us, right back to civilization.

Maybe these days when I slip these manuscripts, these stories and poems and essays, into envelopes, maybe, more than anything else I'm doing, I'm reminding myself of all that. What it felt like to believe that literature and the people who create it are important. That we might change things. Maybe it helps this one over-civilized, over-comfortable, housebroken writer sustain the illusion that he's still out there with dust and starlight in his face, far away from all the Aunt Sallies and all the compromises, out there where there are no fences and anything, anything, can happen.

 

First published in Gently into the Land of Meateaters (Black Heron Press, 2000). Previewed on this website in November 1999.

 

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