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a worksong for the apocalypse: John G. Rodwan, Jr. Notes toward an Unrealizable Project That Will Never Be Attempted.

14 Nov

Notes toward an Unrealizable Project
That Will Never Be Attempted

This essential program
for the amelioration of conditions
for the realization of equality
for the alleviation of injustice
will not be implemented.

This crucial scheme –
due to previous results of
dissimilar initiatives,
due to predictions based on
failures of different plans –
will never be tried.

is more important.



John G. Rodwan, Jr.



James Baldwin: “Free and Brave” speech

19 Oct

The whole business of communication and communion, really, is to find some common term, to make something mean to you roughly what it means to me.

– Baldwin

notes on origins, curating, editing, and process

28 Jul

This is not really an essay but a continuation of an idea, another loop in a story I’m telling about origins and wishes and how they mutate when we enact them.
I wanted to gather resonant work. Would it be limited to my particular taste? Of course. That’s what curation is: a gathering and sifting of work according to a single aesthetic formed by both personal taste and long genre experience. And maybe the first flaw, or the first advantage, at Pea River was this: I was, am, a curator rather than an editor. I gathered work from an appreciation locus. I didn’t position myself as a judge after the fact but instead the keeper of the resonance threshold. It either fit my aesthetic and resonated or it didn’t. So my “editing” was never a worthy/unworthy, good/bad judgment as much as a gut-driven call on fit. It’s that simple.
So for the Burden of Home issue, for instance, the included work recreated and extended a set of burdens that mattered to me, whether I’d experienced them before the work arrived as a trigger or whether the work itself created those experiences and memories for me as I read them for the first time. As the work arrived, it attached to other pieces in unexpected places, in sometimes startling ways. The design for the print BoH issue was a sort of gallery I created for that collection of work. A context. Visual, aural, everything but the table in the corner with wilting noshes and plastic glasses for cheap wine. I never thought of the print issue as a book or as a literary journal like other journals, even earlier iterations of Pea River. It was its own thing, something created in response to the curated work. The issue as gallery on opening night, the issue as display case, the issue as alt experience. Something to resonate.
So when I’ve talked with editors who say they take accepted work and just roll it into their template and update the issue number, it’s helped me realize I’m not a journal editor. I’m a curator, and it just happens that our “show” is a bound print journal. I love editors and traditional literary journals; don’t get me wrong. But I’d thought I was an editor, and pretended to be as long as I believed it, and had to pause once I realized I might be unintentionally misrepresenting my larger project. If Pea River ends its hiatus, it will be because I’ve come to terms with it as a not-journal that calls itself a journal, and I’ll make that distinction clear to potential future contributors. I could not make that clear before because I did not realize what I was up to. (And what a beautiful moment when we finally realize what we are up to.)
When we hold a print artifact, we open it, admire it, read it. And maybe the process and backstory for the artifact won’t matter to most people. But for me, process is everything. The design of the theme. Reading the submitted work. The dialogue with contributors. The arranging of the selected pieces, like redesigning an animal that has somehow become dissembled in transit. The tugging on friends who can create a little image or music to make it cohere. The artifact design. The release. The release. A private thing.

This was supposed to be a meditation on hope and expectations and origins, but it turned the way all meditations turn. More, another installment, later.

the origins of Pea River Journal

21 Jul

So many of you have asked about our hiatus, the many whys, that I’ve decided to respond by explaining why I launched in the first place, what my expectations and hopes were back in 2012, the particular joys and sometimes confusing realities of running a small, independent literary journal, why I chose to go on hiatus, and why we are leaving the door open to some sort of future for PRJ that’s still undefined as I write this.

So this is just one part of all that explaining, an explaining that I hope will help me better understand what I’ve done and why.

I conceived Pea River Journal in a funk of have-not-ness. I’d subscribed to various lit mags over the years, followed and read many online mags, and studied the online presences that served as a complement to the print versions of established magazines. So many magazines are publishing so much really strong, really beautiful work. And, sometimes, I would find a story or poem that really resonated with me. However, what I more frequently found out there missed my particular spot. And when I say resonated, I should clarify and say shattered me, or echoed details or the spirit of details or moments imprinted and unforgettable, or created new memories and associations, or brought me to a new experience. Work that resonates gives us a new lens. Sometimes it’s a lens we have forgotten, lost, a lens that escaped. Resonant work returns the escapee lens to us. A gift. A new thing. A new way to see our own hearts.

Reading lit magazines had become a (frustrating) treasure hunt. I was an IT consultant at the time, traveling to a new city and a new set of faces almost every week. Literature was solace. I’d left tenure and comfort behind to chase a new lens. And while dislocation and new experiences gave me new things to notice, I’d mistaken noticing for seeing, the voyeurism of toy-shop goggles for an authentic lens.

The lens is within us, the collection of recorded experiences that trained our filters, the emotional responses that added color and music to our filters until we started confusing what we see with how we see it. The lens is within us. The lens is both trigger and receptor, the how for seeing and response.

And one day, in the middle of a city in the middle of the desert, parched past the bone to the soul that whispers in every dry fissure, I realized this. I was thirsty for resonance. How wonderful would it be to find a lit journal that curated only the resonant work, I thought. Not witty poems, not obscenely violent or pointless stories, not one more meditation on last night’s one night stand or a grandmother’s jonquils, lovely as those things can be. I wanted a lit journal that curated new work so resonant that it would be almost too much to read everything in a single sitting. Something unskimmable. Not sad, really. Not devastating in the usual or popular ways. And I could not find that sweet spot out there. So I started my own journal.

Timothy Kenny. Walt Whitman. The Prints Project.

19 Aug

Walt Whitman

The Walt is a rest stop along the New Jersey Turnpike, largely indistinguishable from its eleven brethren: squat, southbound, slightly forlorn, two up from Clara Barton, “angel of the battlefield,” one down from James Fenimore Cooper, famous for writing “The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel that few are steady enough in their reading habits to finish anymore.

Walt Whitman, American poet, would be amused at New Jersey’s naming of highway rest stops that include his own, along with Woodrow Wilson, president and (uncomfortably for us) a bigot; the poet Joyce Kilmer, who was not a girl; and Grover Cleveland, the two-term Democrat who lived in the White House for eight years but not consecutively. Each lived or slid through New Jersey for varying amounts of time, some more deeply involved in the state than others.

Take Walt Whitman. For one thing he is Walt, not Walter, his hard-drinking carpenter father. Teetotaler Walt in older age wore a crazy-ass, startling beard that color-matched gray hair, once-dark, offset by the dazzle of intelligent eyes, the lightest of blue, eyes we all wished we had. The Walt pictured in the first “Leaves of Grass” – right hand on hip, left hand hidden in a pants pocket, black hat cocked at an angle, neatly trimmed beard – that Walt, that thirty-five-year-old world-beater Walt, insouciant and posed, is not our rest-stop Walt. Early-poet Walt is a different sort of Walt from the one whose name graces a New Jersey wayside.

Walt worked in words from a young age, touching them as a printer, speaking them as a Long Island schoolhouse teacher, editing them as a short-tempered newsman who complained unceasingly about the unfairness of 19th century life as he swept through a string of New York newspaper jobs until he wore out his city welcome. He penciled words into compact notebooks to be opened later. They festered, flowered, flowed into big ideas that he turned into sentences, paragraphs, thoughts that filled thinking Americans with new notions about literature, life, perhaps love.

Walt had his troubles. His alarming, off-kilter poetry earned little praise in his lifetime, although there were moments. Walt — bearded, belittled, sometimes fawned over (Abe Lincoln was a big fan, although the two never met) — was fired from a bureaucratic government post that paid the bills, all because his best known song of himself was just that off-key to some. That workaday Walt eventually arrived in New Jersey.

The rest stop honor no doubt would please him. “God bless ’em, it’s better than nothing.” Maybe he’d say that. Walt had a common man strain about him, his psyche stippled with the usual anxieties and narcissism of poets, not to mention that the Revolutionary War hero Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, once picked him up, literally, when Walt was six, holding the lad aloft during a Lafayette visit to New York City. Walt took delight in telling the story, which may be apocryphal, but who’s to say facts should get in the way of a good yarn. Walt used to be a journalist after all.

Walt also had itches; he scratched.

“Leaves of Grass,” self-published in 1855 after years of the aforementioned journalism and some wandering through America’s eastern woods, was a constant, unremitting undertaking. Walt could not let it be. He tinkered ceaselessly, tweaked and altered, deleted and added and republished the damn thing until one day he up and died over the constant fixing of it; or maybe that’s just me. Really, it was a stroke that left Walt lifeless in Camden in 1892, age 72.

His stunning, flowing poetry was startling in his day; it remains extraordinary in ours. Few readers found a middle ground after reading “Song of Myself.” The poem moon-barks, crows at dawn, cowers, offends, transforms us. Still, Walt got fired for it; that led to a lesser clerk’s position for a while, until finally he packed himself off to New Jersey to care for his ailing, eighty-eight-year-old mother. Walt seemed okay with it; his family was not an easy one. Somebody always seemed to need something. Besides, despite a kind heart and a deep understanding of human foibles, Walt could be prickly.

Most poets are. Most are not Wallace Stevens, a man so outwardly stalwart, train-bound daily into the Big Apple, back again to Connecticut, selling advertising to the many, a man who could still look at blackbirds in a baker’s dozen ways and find much else to write about. But I digress.

Recognition came Walt’s way on occasion. He gave a commencement speech at Dartmouth College; the poetic Rossettis, Dante Gabriel and wife Christina, both liked Walt. Emerson called “Leaves” “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” So that was pretty good. Acclamation remained mostly modest, though. The New Jersey rest stop heralding came much later.

There are, by the way, three categories of New Jersey rest stops, which I have been remiss in not mentioning:

Helpers: Clara Barton, John Fenwick, Molly Pitcher, Thomas Edison, and Vince Lombardi (sort of).

Politicians: Richard Stockton, Woodrow Wilson, Grover Cleveland, Alexander Hamilton.

Writers: Walt and the aforementioned James Fenimore and Joyce.

Walt’s stop is south-bound-only. James and Joyce are both north-bound only. Those names not to be connected, by the way. James Joyce never stepped foot in New Jersey. Service provided travelers at all twelve stops include Public Rest Rooms, Travel Information, Vending Machines, Public Telephones, Food, Gas, and a Gift Shop. I say it’s a clear tie between the toilets and the non-self-serve/cheaper-than-usual gas as to which rest stop benefit is best. Who wants to pump her/his own gas? But who would not want to pull into a rest area that carries his/her own name?

How cool would that be?

Walt would be over the moon, if for no other reason than such a venue is wholly democratic in our modern America way: men of all ages, colors, costumes and cars driven head immediately to the rest stop’s innermost sanctuary to stand alongside their fellows and find visceral relief from the coffee-fueled agonies of the road. Women’s enjoyment of the Walt is similarly provided but with more privacy, dignity, and longer wait lines, what with the stalls and all.

If “Leaves of Grass” is Walt’s enduring prayer to America, the Walt is a paean in return to our greatest poet. Simultaneously it is a salve to our anxious American souls for not having read enough of his poetry, if any.

It is, in our own way, the highest of compliments: We love you Walt, honest.


Timothy Kenny is a former newspaper foreign editor, non-profit foundation executive, Fulbright scholar, and college journalism professor. His narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Gettysburg Review, Irish Pages, The Kenyon Review Online, Green Mountains Review, The Pea River Journal, and elsewhere. A collection of his narrative non-fiction essays is forthcoming in spring 2015 from The Milo Press.

what we’re reading

21 Jun

This week’s reading has been scattershot and project-driven. But the reading did happen. The three books on our weekly-reading list were Daniel Siegel’s Brainstorm, Michio Kaku’s The Future of the Mind, and Jane Wong’s chapbook Kudzu Does Not Stop (one of the poetry chapbooks from Jamaal May’s marvellous Organic Weapon Arts series).

When the Summer Reading issue of Tin House arrived, well of course we had to read it cover to cover. The interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard is wonderful, an overused word we know but oh well deal with it, and Nick Flynn’s “The Incomprehensibility,” with those last stanzas about the mother watching the sad particular worlds from an airplane, is a must find and must read.

Beyond that, it was scattershot and driven by our current writing projects. We returned to the essential “What They Learn in College” chapter of Elizabeth Losh’s important new book The War on Learning. We revisited Charlotte Brontë’s Roe Head Journal entries. If you haven’t read the Brontës’ Tales of Glass Town, Angria, and Gondal, please. We highly recommend it as an entry point to a stormcloud of imagination and world-making. We moved from world-making to world-noticing with a return to Kim Stafford’s “Pine, Fir, Cedar, Yew” chapter of Having Everything Right. Love that essay collection So Much. And say or think what you will about J. Hillis Miller, but we love the essays we read this week in Two Forms of Repetition. His “Between the Acts” chapter on Woolf’s last work works as a reflective piece on Woolf’s novel, but it is also a meditation on the looping nature of our lives and ways our mental casting and recastings create a sort of tense unity. Sigh. And finally, back to poetry. We love Burton Watson’s translation of Han-shan’s poems for the Cold Mountain collection. Tomorrow, we’ll feature several lines from one of those poems.


What are you reading? And what drives your reading (list)?


sometimes like lighting fires in snow

10 Dec

There is a happiness in creation that is not without its own pain and struggle, a sensation that feels sometimes buoyant and sometimes earthbound, sometimes like lighting fires in snow, sometimes like untying knots in which you have been bound. New questions, new problems — of shape, of strategy, of materials, and, yes, of purpose — unfold even as you unlock present difficulties. There is a happiness in finding what will work simultaneously with the discovery of what it works for, which has often been reduced to separate issues of “form” and “content.”

… This partnership of unconscious and conscious work can also happen in collectivity. And the happiness I’m speaking of, which knows itself as part of a continually unfolding process, which can never be complacent, is what I imagine true revolution would look like: subjectivity and objectivity, vision and technology, together inventing conditions for the spontaneous imaginative life of all of us.

— Adrienne Rich, from What is Found There


The gaze across the water at the islands of another place

9 Aug


We were always going to Montreal. By car, by train. We’d rent a room at the cheap, clean Armour Tourist Hotel on East Sherbrooke and go Christmas shopping there back in the eighties when we had a little money — the Bay, Eaton’s, the funky shops down by the river — in those years we lived in upstate New York. We were always going to Montreal but alone I was always going to Canada, the slow fade across the border, over the St. Lawrence by bridge or ferry, going on across into that deep geography: forms of land and water against which the national must, I’d think, define itself. And define itself also against the U.S. and what passes here for municipal culture or New World Order or whatever this country is selling now. Whatever’s being broadcast. George Bowering talked about “the antenna grope for Buffalo TV,” that in a poem written before cable. The gaze across water at the islands of another place.

— C.S. Giscombe, from Into and Out of Dislocation

“the translated image of the past creates a compelling imprint in the present”

1 Jul

“Whether memory serves to place a personal moment in historical context, fights to reconcile the present with the past, or seeks to transform, it serves.  And while many may believe that history demands a cool objectivity, divorced from emotion and coupled with uncompromising accuracy, history itself is bared as a construal, usually written by the pen of the victor.  For precisely this reason there is nothing more emotionally true, nothing more authentic than what you think you knew, what you think you saw, what might have been and what you know presently; the translated image of the past creates a compelling imprint in the present. ”

For all of us struggling to write (or read, yes, read) memoir, and maybe especially if we feel we are not struggling with the role of memory in writing, Airea Matthews’ essay speaks.

Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

5 May

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

— HD Thoreau, Higher Laws, from Walden

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