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Whatever Stars (1986): Everything New Is Old Again

Jocelyn Mary Sloan, Whatever Stars (Stereopticon Press, 1986)


photo credit: Amazon

Very little fish in very big ponds–but even the littlest fish have to fight like hell to get into these ponds.

I have pointed in a handful of recent reviews to a trend that I often halfheartedly link to the woeful state of poetry publishing in America: poets who publish in big-league magazines who turning to vanity-/self-/POD publishing for turning out their collections. It’s not a surprise that poets are doing this; there just aren’t enough dollars to go round, not enough American poetry gets published any more, no one buys poetry, you’ve heard all the arguments and yes, they’re all awful, and I truly wish I had a solution to offer. But I don’t.

However, it seems that this is not necessarily a recent trend. If you’re looking for a writer who was publishing with the big boys, you’d have to look pretty hard to find someone who was publishing higher than Jocelyn Mary Sloan. Among the publications listed in the credits to be found here: Lyric, Fiddlehead, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Shenendoah, Yankee, The New York Herald Tribune, and even the mighty Poetry. This is a woman who was published by the brightest, most popular, most competitive (in terms of number of submissions received per number of poems published) magazines of her era; many of those names would still rank very highly (and the others are gone or have stopped publishing poetry). And yet this book was published by one Stereopticon Press. For all the research I have done over the two months I have browsed through this book, I can find only four titles published by this imprint. All are poetry editions by women with some tie to New York state, and all three authors (they published Etta Ruth Weigl’s only two books, according to her listing in the P&W Directory of Writers) fit this description. It’s all circumstantial evidence, but I’m going to say it was a collaborative vanity effort by the three ladies. (The third of whom, by the way, is also by far the most famous: the late Eleanor McQuilkin.)

This is not to say the work involved ever appeared in any best-of editions of the magazines, at least not in Sloan’s case, and this, too, is something I have noticed about books in this trend. Which is not at all to say the work is not worth reading, and some of America’s very best editors over the past century have thought so, but here, for example, is a snippet of the piece she had published in Poetry:

“…Yet the lady saw
this place still polished, pruned,
in the fragment of a time
now unreal as a fairy tale.

While they drank from porcelain cups
filled at a sulphur spring,
its basin cracked, she spoke
as though she and the spa were young;
till the marveling child sensed ghosts
of all who had moved here once.”
(–”In at the Death”)

A quick gander over at Poetry‘s website reveals that this piece appeared in the January 1962 issue, and according to the editors, held its own enough to be presented with a feature poem-group by W. S. Merwin, Kay Boyle, William Meredith, and James Dickey (a selection that included his immortal “The Hospital Window”). It doesn’t strike me as work of that nature; I figured that when I looked it up I’d find it had been printed in the twenties or thirties, when some of Sloan’s more interesting (I don’t like the term “archaic”; it has a negative connotation I want strongly to not imply here) spelling and diction choices would have fit better, and the subject matter of the piece is, well, a little banal. (Compare to the breathtaking immediacy of the Dickey poem.) But it’s readable, and once again, we’ve come round to another trait that seems to cross generational boundaries when it comes to poets nibbling on the fringes of big-magazine success self-publishing their work. I’m sure it is very tough to find now, Pick it up if you do, but don’t necessarily go out of their way. ** ½


About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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