The International Issue

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Today’s reader review comes from one of our interns, Rhian Sasseen, who looks back on our Winter 1985 issue, guest edited by Stratis Haviaras with a focus on international writing.

Ploughshares Winter 1985, guest edited by Stratis Haviaras.
Featuring work by Italo Calvino, Raymond Carver, and Anna Akhmatova.
268 pages, $20.00.

At twenty-one we held dinner parties.

These were not the dinner parties of our parents, where the middle-aged held sway while pontificating about the sixties; rather, they functioned as an attempted stepping stone into adulthood, as though by donning threadbare blazers and drinking too much cheap wine, we could deny the sea of unemployment and endless adolescence that was sure to follow graduation. All of my friends did this: the neurotic Smithies, the art school crowd, the old set of high school chums – the common denominator for our generation had become not the computer nor the cell phone, but the dinner party.

I was deep into the throes of my internship of Ploughshares when the subject of poetry came up at one of these summertime parties. Amongst the four of us, I was the only literature student. Earlier that day, I had spent an hour thumbing through back issues of Ploughshares, finding excerpts for our Tumblr; one of these issues had been the “International Writing issue,” published five years before I was born.

One essay, by Michael Milburn and titled “The Habit of Affection,” had struck me so much that I had even written a few sentences down. They were on a scrap of paper thrust deep into my pocket, and I pulled it out to read.

“Listen to this,” I said. “‘My point is not that only conventionally spoken words and phrases should inhabit contemporary poems, but that language must do more than call attention to itself. It must affect a marriage between sound and subject such that the reader hears every line as if it had lived within him forever.’ See, that’s what I’m getting at – form without content is just navel-gazing bullshit.”

Another guest nodded his head. “It is bullshit.”

We continued on, drinking more than we should have and talking about anything but the jobs that we knew would not be waiting for us post-graduation. The next morning, back at the Ploughshares office, I found that old issue again and read the rest of it as I batched and sorted and performed all of the tasks that I had come to find enjoyable, especially for moments like these.

The issue was fat, grey-bound; I read poetry by Anna Akhmatova and excerpts from the notebooks of C. P. Cavafy. There was something electric to that afternoon, made possible only by Ploughshares, for even in the age of the Internet it can be hard to squabble through whatever’s popular and find something that touches you right at your core. I found it that day, lodged within those old pages.

It is times like these that we need our guardians of literature the most, and Ploughshares remains one of the best. Of all the old issues I’ve read, this is easily one of my favorites, for it so completely fulfills that central obligation of literature: to take us out of the body, and into the foreign territory of the mind.

Rhian Sasseen is a rising senior at Smith College in Northampton, MA, where she studies English literature and works on several collegiate newspapers and literary journals. She is a summer editorial intern at Ploughshares.