Editing THERMOS, Part 1: David Hamilton & the Assent of Friends

How do you assemble a magazine? Big tent, buzzing scene, modest assay, thumbed crumbs? THERMOS co-editor Zach Savich writes:

In the Spring 2009 issue of The Iowa Review, long-time editor David Hamilton reflects on his years with the magazine. His essay, “At the Fair II,” articulates an editorial philosophy—“everything else is peripheral to our saying ‘Yes’ to writers we do not know, writers who don’t emerge from our own circle, who may have sent their work from anywhere and who have found favor so far only where they were assented to by friends”—then examines the personal and literary procedures that support his “Zen of Reception.”

Like other pieces by Hamilton (such as his review linking Creeley to Hardy and Herrick in the Fall 2008 Iowa Review), the essay gains depth by extension, rather than hunkering. Hamilton does not hide out in one narrow, critical haunt but walks his reader around a hospitable expanse.

This approach seems right for anyone who wishes to live in the world, not just look at poems lodged in hard-to-reach places. It matches the receptive spirit of Hamilton’s editing.

I saw this spirit in action when I served as an assistant editor and volunteer reader with the review from 2004-2007.  It calmed and broadened me during graduate school. Like the Human Rights Index that begins each issue, editorial work at the The Iowa Review reminded me that poetry can be distinct from an MFA community’s exhilirating fashions and chatter.

I spent a lot of time in those years trying to make myself proficiently grotesque in modes that seemed on the cutting edge of poetic evolution. I’m grateful to have also spent time trying to decently read poems by people who sent their work to me, a 21-year-old with a dumb beard.

The spring issue of The Iowa Review serves me similarly.  There is work by writers whose books and lit mag presences I am familiar with—Thermos contributor Mark Leidner, Albert Goldbarth, G.C. Waldrep, Terese Svoboda, Hadara Bar-Nadav—alongside writers with fewer publications (Bobby Baker, Cecile Goding), alongside writers whose books I haven’t been familiar with (Joelle Biele, David Groff). Like other literary magazines I look forward to, such as The Denver Quarterly and The Laurel Review, The Iowa Review has coherence that becomes, as it does in Hamilton’s essay, more profound because of its variety.

I’m aware of a contrast between such a magazine, which makes me think things about literature and democracy that I’d often find overblown, and magazines, like Thermos, that seem transparently of a period, a style, a particular set of relationships—that offers the assent of friends (I know most of the people in our first two issues) and creates the appearance of a “circle,” even if one wasn’t there originally. How do I jibe these values: I don’t want our magazine to be provincial, self-absorbed, thin-blooded, but I also wish to thoroughly support a small number of poets whose work I love; to document the poetry that I think of as Contemporary, that composes my brain; to believe that intimacy makes the most happen.

Smallness of community leading to productivity, companionability; smallness leading to smallness.

Small like the head of a nail. Small like the small of a back. Like crumbs gathered by pressing them against a thumb. Hammer hitting a thumb?

“Every issue is an essay and I dream of someday getting one entirely right,” Hamilton’s essay concludes. This post will be of a series about editing Thermos, but his sentence seems like explanation enough.  Lots of magazines exist.  We’ve tried to get ours right—in-print and online—in ways that feel worthwhile to us, insistent on a kind of rigorous small stakes (do you prefer play for mortal stakes or mortality for play stakes?), victim to the foolishness of our business-sense and haphazard ambitions, that helps me feel that poetry is more than a table of contents people hope to get their names into.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by eachsmallthing on October 29, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    This is beautiful, Zach. Thanks for writing it.


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