Editor’s Introduction

S. Tremaine Nelson

We made it. You did, too. It wasn’t easy, but we’re here. Now, get comfortable, freshen your drink, and let us tell you about Northwest Review. Some of you have never heard of us, but many of our editors and contributors have been reading this storied journal all their literary lives. And now we’re back.

Northwest Review towered over Oregon’s artistic landscape when I started submitting my fiction to its legendary editor, John Witte, back in the late 1990s. Ken Kesey had published a short story in the journal’s debut issue in 1957. He was a hero to many of us — fierce, funny, iconoclastic. He had coined that strange phrase which perfectly sums up the ornery Oregonian spirit: NEVER GIVE A INCH. That’s no typo, friends. That’s the point. It’s not never give an inch. It’s never give a inch. The phrase has a jaggedness that captures our state’s soul. It doesn’t have to be polished to be powerful.

In the years following the journal’s debut, Northwest Review published some of the leading poets and fiction-writers of the twentieth century. Louise Erdrich and Raymond Carver published their poetry here. William Stafford, James Dickey, and Charles Bukowski, too. Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula K. LeGuin, and George Saunders all published their fiction in these pages. And, now, we introduce to you a new generation of Northwest Review contributors.

I had submitted ten, maybe twenty different short stories to John Witte at Northwest Review — all summarily rejected — before he wrote me an email in the fall of 2007 with the subject line: This one, yes. It was my first fiction publication. I had recently moved to New York City because “that was what writers did, they moved to New York,” I thought. What strange ways of the universe, then, that the journal of my home state would find me, marking the distance of a dream. Borne exclusively from the slush, I realized that editors did actually read the work we submitted, in the way that we, now, are reading the work that you submit. We read it all, carefully, closely. In all of our careers, in all of our lives, we need and remember the individual who first tells us: yes, you’ll make it. This is a journal for writers and artists who need proof that their work still matters, that new literature and art can still crack apart the old canon, to make room for newer voices.

Our team is comprised of volunteers. We all have something else that we do, during the day, to pay the bills. From May to September of this year, we read more than 2,000 stories, poems, essays, and interviews to select the final few you’re now holding. Fourteen of our contributions came from the slush pile; the rest came from writers we solicited for their work, not knowing what we might get, but knowing we respected their art.

Our managing and non-fiction editor, Brian Michael Murphy, did more than anyone to bring this team together: he knew exactly what skills we needed, and what minds and personalities would coalesce and flourish in the context of virtual collaboration. Our fiction editor Tsering Lama has ensured the visibility of fiction from a global community: while the borders of the United States may be controversial, they are artistically immeasurable, porous, protean, and infinite. Some of the most enduring works of American fiction have come from writers who spent most of their lives working and writing in other countries. And likewise, our poetry editor Mike McGriff shared context for his own vision in shaping the poetry of the journal, especially in the context of a year — 2020–which saw horrifying racial violence and despotism; indeed, a presidential election and referendum on American Democracy will take place between the time this journal is published and the time it arrives in your mail. To that end, Mike posed and answered this question about the journal’s poetry:

What does it mean, in this moment of so many barbaric –isms, to serve as Poetry Editor for the re-launch of an iconic journal? In putting the poems in this issue together, my co-editor, Alyssa Ogi, and I decided to put our faith in collaboration and community. We solicited work from several contemporary poets and asked them each, in turn, to solicit work from yet another poet, with a particular eye on those early in their careers. We think of this process as a Community Core Sample. It’s our experience that the most important and exciting access to poets and their work doesn’t come from the opinions of tastemakers or the commercialized metrics of social media feeds, but from the individual saying, Listen to this! This simple gesture — this tradition of curiosity and enthusiasm — has shone a light on the work of invaluable, yet less-visible, poets like Christopher Gilbert, Roberta Spear, and Ernesto Trejo for decades. This act of giving and receiving is what keeps poets most alive in our country, in any country. Trends and awards and glamorous author photos come and go, but the earnest recommendations from one poet to another holds up a mirror to our culture. It’s what redefines genres and chips away at canons. We look forward to seeing how this editorial process can grow and evolve, reaching further into the wide-ranging, diverse, and daring corners of American poetry.

Read on, friends, and let us know what you think. My own preference when reading a literary journal is to skip ahead to the names and bios of the contributors, and then flip back through the pages. I like to see if there’s someone I know in the journal. I like to see if there’s someone who went to the same college as me, Vanderbilt University, where Destiny O. Birdsong (poetry contributor) received her M.F.A. and Ph.D. and where Stephen Saine (artwork contributor) received his B.S. in mathematics. I like to see if I’ve previously read any of the contributors’ earlier books, as in the case Hilary Leichter (fiction contributor) whose debut novel Temporary I devoured in one swift sitting, or Jay McInerney (nonfiction contributor), whose epochal Bright Lights, Big City afforded me a life-long love affair with The Odeon. You can also read our journal cover to cover, as you would any other book. Or you can flip blindly into the middle and, with a little luck, land on the searing lyrics of Jess Rizkallah (poetry contributor).

And while we strive to publish work that exists beyond the time and context of its creation, the persistence of COVID-19 made it impossible to publish this journal in a historical vacuum. It must be said, then, that behind the scenes of reading, editing, and designing this relaunch, hundreds of thousands of Americans were hospitalized and as of this printing more than 220,000 of them have died from the virus. And it was in the early days of our work to rebuild this journal that my dear friend Micah Nite, an emergency room doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in New York, sent me the email which appears in its entirety as our introductory message for this relaunch. As we go to press, the pandemic continues to rage, and we look forward to the dark winter ahead with a cautious eye and an open mind about what literature we might find for the next issue. So we say to you, friends: stay safe. Stay strong. And listen to this.

–Steve Nelson, Editor and Publisher