Potomac Review, located near Washington, D.C., in the river basin which lends it its name, is burdened and blessed with initials that stand for something very important here. In this city and its environs, where every decision, policy or otherwise, is scripted, polished, managed, and targeted for this or that interest group, this or that voting block, PR is king. No matter the import, everything is “spun;” policymakers, politicians, even presidents answer to “spin doctors” who grade, segment, and, some say, ultimately undermine the very decisions they are called on to explain.
The writing in our publication contains no message. It is not “carrying water” for some policy or point of view, as they say in this town, for any piece of writing that really means something different from what it “purports” to mean. When Walt Whitman was here, keeping what were to become known as the Civil War Diaries, the city didn’t know that he was the one recording the news that would stay news. The “news” he recorded was of the sort that would not be subject to today’s 24-hour news cycle because today’s 24-hour news cycle doesn’t go looking for it. Whitman’s “news” last appeared in May when a new American opera, “Crossing,” based on his diaries and described by the New York Times as “achingly beautiful,” opened at the Met. Whitman’s “news” keeps coming back, its human subjects resurrected by it each time.
The poet who said, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself,” did not mean that he was talking out of the two sides of his mouth – the diagnosis many Americans make about the politicians that serve here – but was offering, at least in part, we think, a definition of art, or at least literature, which does not exist in the service of a point of view but transcends all points of view. Points of view are what public relations are for, and you won’t find them here. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Whitman said in that same poem. We have no quarrel with subject matter of whatever kind or stripe, but that subject matter cannot be a stand-in for what all of us in the lit world should really be after.
Points of view are what public relations are for, and you won’t find them here.
Our Republic of PR has touched all aspects of our civic discourse, and therefore our culture has not been immune to its effects. In America, our social mores have always greatly informed our definition of literature. And if literature represents its time, we should not be shocked if our time produces just as much of what later times deem non-literature as we are surprised to discover dominated the times that came before our own. Our PR hype machine tells us that literature has never been better off. But mounting Mt. Helicon has very little to do, we think, with PR. Read literary criticism today, for example, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish it from the sound bites spun by the most transparent of spin doctors. There is nothing wrong with testimonials, but when you can’t distinguish one tribute from the next, does the tribute really mean anything? Literary criticism should itself be literary, and when it is not, it implies that the works reviewed are not complex or interesting enough to demand critical attention. This suggests, perhaps unfairly, that the higher and more generic the encomium, the more empty and vacant the work praised. Literature needs to stand athwart the culture, not sit comfortably inside it. Literature, whatever it means, should at least not be a Trojan Horse in service to something else, whatever that something else may be. And whatever literature is not, to paraphrase a former Supreme Court justice on another matter, you know it when you see it.
For with respect to her own country, the responsible writer’s attention never slips, she never makes a show of representing it by misrepresenting it, never slides over the inconvenient points of view in order to enforce one particular position or point of view, never mistakes — and, most importantly, never reports — what she is supposed to see in favor of what she really sees. And with respect to herself, she never ignores what she feels in order to enforce what she is supposed to feel. This is to say that she never spouts party lines, party lines of any kind, including her own, always allowing the mind’s mess to upset and upend the mind’s craving for certitude and rule. It is this negative capability that alone bestows her gift, terrible as that gift may be, both for herself and her readers, because to arrest attention, she must pay attention. Attention paid is indeed the point of our particular brand of PR (the italics mean us) and what sets us apart from the kind of PR that is predominant today. And since today’s dominant political trope is all about extending ourselves to reach the ideals on which this country was founded, let this be our small contribution to this belated reckoning, this most American of efforts — which is to say, for us — to love this country so well as never to disavow a single one of its contradictions. After all, we were believed to be “a city on a hill,” “a beacon to the world,” “a light among nations,” for, among other reasons, the self-criticism enshrined in and allowed by our First Amendment. Self-criticism, in fact, could be said to have been invented in this country, for we have a government of checks and balances, and in terms of enumerated powers, one could argue that our President is no more than a glorified clerk.
Attention paid is indeed the point of our particular brand of PR (the italics mean us) and what sets us apart from the kind of PR that is predominant today.
The Potomac River runs through the beating heart of our republic. In the finest tradition of public relations, and taking the best advice of spin doctors when a candidate presents with a personal indiscretion, we will “put a lantern on that.” We’ll even admit that our blog is now devoted to a serious review of two local authors every month. In fact, we’ve even redesigned our logo. So yes, in case you’re beginning to wonder, this mission statement itself is a kind of PR. And if you have been convinced by any of the points we have made, and therefore find this mission statement self-eliminating, then all the better. Let’s get to the literature, the real stuff of the Potomac Review, and leave the PR behind.
P.S. A word about our own particular and not-so-unique working environs – Montgomery College – something so important to us that we want no part of the PR hype machine attached to its name. We are one of the very few literary journals in the American Humanities Index that is housed in a community college. The last time we had an introduction to an issue, in 2011, our 50th and the “Best of” issue, that introduction, written by our editor Julie Wakeman-Linn, was devoted to our interns. It discussed their importance, not only in the usual gofer tasks often assigned to people like them, but in the actual editorial process. Today you’ll even find their end-of-semester essays on our blog.
The not-so-unique thing about us then is not so much that we are housed in a community college. The not-so-unique thing about us is that community colleges educate more than half of the college students in this country and, someday, the country will wake up (editorializing now) to the importance of places like the home of the Potomac Review. Our most important asset, in fact, and where we will drape our largest lantern, is the locus of our office, The Paul Peck Humanities Institute at Montgomery College, which is devoted, in part, thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, to preserving our disintegrating public square, standing athwart the current cultural tendency to substitute confrontation for civic engagement and community.
We are less than 20 miles from the White House but, more importantly, less than 20 miles from the place that Walt Whitman, an author who would produce the poems in Drum Taps out of his experiences keeping company with the wounded for three years here during the Civil War, wrote his diaries. Today we have many war vets living in Washington D.C., in group homes if lucky, or at Walter Reed Medical Center if not so lucky, and someone is going to write their “news,” which we hope could someday find a home in our publication.
And just like in our “Best of” issue, and just like our brothers and sisters in the literary magazine world all over this country, we want the best, wherever it comes from. And whether it’s an intern or an editor who we think encounters the American sublime, we’ll pass it on. And to paraphrase the brilliant (if misleading) PR slogan of a popular news outlet around here: We’ll Publish, You Decide.
-Albert Kapikian, for the editors and the interns