Open Letter to Open City
by Mary MillerPosted on June 29th, 2010 at 8:27 pm
Dear Open City—
Please publish fewer stories written by post-MFA academics living in New York City. I still love you, but I’m getting tired.
Open City is one of two literary magazines that I currently subscribe to, and it’s a magazine in which I’ve always dreamed of having my work appear. I have an Open City tote I carry around, feeling a little bit cooler than everyone else in Mississippi. But with each issue I receive, I feel a bit less so.
The magazine used to be better—more interesting, engaging, risk-taking, with more stories and poems I found myself rereading. I still read my back issues of Open City, particularly issues seven through nine, and I love them almost as much as I love my three issues of the defunct print version of Swink. Back then, Open City contributors were more likely to be nobodies (though, to be fair, they were disproportionately nobodies from New York) who had simply written a good story or poem.
According to Duotrope, Open City is ranked #7 on the slothful list (the markets with the slowest mean average response times reported). I can attest to this. I have yet to receive a rejection from them that fell under the 365-day mark. The last thin, inkless slip I received had to track me down in another state.
I’m done bitching. I want to say that Open City 29 is STILL far better than your average literary magazine, and worth picking up, if only for Terese Svoboda’s poems, Antonya Nelson’s “Hello, this is Bob.,” and Leopoldine Core’s “When Watched.”
I want to say something about Svoboda’s poems. Though I read quite a bit of poetry, I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know how to write it without using obvious metaphors. I don’t know what all the white space is doing. I can’t imagine people writing good poetry without being very, very messed up. All I know is if something works for me—and these five poems did. This is the final stanza in the first in the series, titled “Dove-Whirr”:
But smoke reaches.
I’m no one, we say, over and over,
though with oxygen. We slink, cocktail dress by
dress, into girl positions,
wearing black already.
Goof up now and the dryer
will tumble on in darkness.
While I don’t really understand what’s going on here, I can see the smoke reaching and I know I am also no one and I, too, am always trying to arrange my body into pleasing “girl positions,” even though it makes me kind of hate myself. These poems made me feel things that I can’t articulate; they made me want to reread them and try to make connections I missed the first time.
Another highlight is Antonya Nelson’s essay, which begins with Nelson sending copies of her first book to her relatives: her brother complained that she’d exposed the family’s secrets and her grandmother kept the book on her coffee table only to announce that it was “nothing but smut” to anyone who inquired (I love that). I think most writers have made this mistake at some point. Not long ago, I saw one of my father’s relatives at a party and she told me she’d read my story collection. Since there was nothing to do but ask what she thought, I did, and she said, “If I didn’t know you, I’d have thought you were the saddest girl in the world.”
Nelson’s essay explores the balance between writing what she wants to write about, while also staying in the good graces of her friends and family. She says, “I can only hope that I’ve interrogated the autobiographical sufficiently and arrived at the ideal: a fiction that can be made of no other configuration. Too much distortion can pull you, the author, away from your initial interest in the material. Too little tweaking can leave you open for losing friends or disappointing your children.”
Lastly, not only does Leopoldine Core have a really neat name, but this is her first publication, and—other than Svoboda’s poems—this is probably the only piece in the issue that I’d read again. The voice is strong, as are the images and details: “Theo felt buzzed. She sauntered past a long line of kids waiting with orange trays. Then past exhausted lunch ladies who leaned with big drippy spoons over vats of hot meat in sauce.” So many of the images are ones that we already have in our heads but they’re so vivid that they bring us back to this place—to our elementary schools with their tiny toilets and rectangular pizza slices and the girl who brought a tupperware container full of mayonnaise every day to slather on her sandwiches.