It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the U. S. Postal Service. Sending and receiving letters is one of the things I love most. Here at Ecotone we’re about to have one more reason for writing letters, and for going out with hope to check our mailboxes. This July, after six years on the North Carolina coast, Beth Staples will depart her post as senior editor of the magazine, editor for Lookout Books, and a member of the creative writing faculty at UNC Wilmington. She’ll head to Washington and Lee University, where she will become the editor of the venerable Shenandoah. We are thrilled for her, and for Shenandoah, lucky duck of a magazine.
But it is nearly impossible to estimate the size of the gap that will be left by her departure. Beth thinks alongside the writers she edits, helping them navigate big structural edits and subtleties of character and dialogue. Working on edits with her has afforded me a rare pleasure—that of thinking things through with a brilliant editor and writer whose sensibility is different enough from mine to offer useful insights, yet similar enough that my intuitions are amplified.
We’re losing not only a skilled editor but a fine teacher, colleague, and friend. Beth’s students, particularly the Publishing Laboratory teaching assistants, will tell you about her humor and empathy, her supportive feedback, her laugh. Her colleagues value her clear-eyed vision about not only editing, publishing, and writing, but the workings of sexism, racism, and other sources of oppression as they affect writers, teachers, and editors.
The questions Beth asks of the writing she edits and the people around her are inflected with a kindness that disarms old defenses.
In all these realms, Beth can put a finger on precisely the most difficult thing, the thing you knew needed thinking about. But she doesn’t poke meanly at those soft spots. It’s more like a kind, funny poke—sardonic, sometimes, but insightful, perceptive, attuned to the other person’s intentions. The questions she asks of the writing she edits and the people around her are inflected with a kindness that disarms old defenses, allowing folks to set aside what’s scary and do the good work.
Her efforts have not gone unnoticed in the literary world. Stories and essays Beth acquired and edited for Ecotone have been reprinted in the Pushcart Prize anthology, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and have received special mention in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essays. And that’s not to mention her work for Lookout Books, including, most recently, as editor of Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned, a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and the Young Lions Fiction Award. For this issue, she has found us even more stellar stories than usual: tales of woe and wonder from Bojan Louis, Chaitali Sen, and Renee Simms, and essays on sailing, evangelism, and a family home from Rachel Z. Arndt, Cameron Dezen Hammon, and Rafia Zakaria.
All these and more sit alongside the issue’s crop of poems, featuring bats, sparrows, hornets, and an elusive coywolf, from poets including Andy Young, Jan Verberkmoes, Catherine Carter, and Katie Hartsock. In Poem in a Landscape, Anna Maria Hong brings Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” into the present moment, and Keith Knight’s comic imagines what classic board games would be like if they included a more complete version of U. S. history. Stephanie Strickland offers this issue’s map, an ordering of texts generated by methods used in bell ringing. In Reclamation, which Beth has curated since joining the Ecotone team, Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds us of the vigor and glory of Edward P. Jones’s “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.” And Adrienne Elise Tarver, whose art is featured on our cover, talks about her series Eavesdropping, from which we’ve reprinted several more images inside.
I’m happy to write that Beth will remain on Ecotone’s masthead as a contributing editor. I can’t wait to read the new issues of Shenandoah she’ll edit, and I’m excited by the prospect that she may get a little more time at her own writing desk up in the Shenandoah Valley. I look forward, selfishly and impatiently, to reading her novel.
I predict that after this July there will be more traffic than there once was between those Virginia mountains and the Lower Cape Fear. It’s too bad the train won’t take us directly there. Of course there’s the Internet, and, in all its glorious civic modesty, the post office. (No pressure, Beth, but while you’re at that writing desk . . . )
This spring I was given a book that speaks to the need of both writing letters and just plain writing. Sister Love, a collection of letters written by Audre Lorde and Pat Parker between 1974 and 1989, was released this year as part of the Sapphic Classics series from A Midsummer’s Night’s Press and Sinister Wisdom. Half an hour after Julie Enszer, the book’s editor, placed it in my hands, I began reading it over lunch, and needed to keep reading. This slim volume bears vital messages—about poems, politics, black lesbian community and identity, and, toward the end of the correspondence, living with cancer. It’s a visceral reminder of the intersectionality of Lorde’s and Parker’s thinking, radical then and now. And it is evidence—intimate, funny, and moving—of a writerly friendship carried out from East Coast to West Coast and back, by typewriter and hand-written note and early word processor.
The letters clearly provided each poet with sustenance and strength, as well as a space for working out ideas that are still very much relevant.
The letters clearly provided each poet with sustenance and strength, as well as a space for working out ideas that are still very much relevant. As the book’s introduction notes, Lorde and Parker’s correspondence, like the most productive parts of their writing lives, coincided with the Reagan era, and their vision and determination in that political climate offer inspiration for the present.
When I first encountered it, I knew I wanted to share one part of the correspondence in particular with the Ecotone team, and with the magazine’s readers. Lorde sent the message on the following page in response to a letter from Parker dated November 13, 1985. In it, Parker wrote of her decision to stop working at the Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center, where she was medical coordinator from 1978 to 1987, in order to write: to “come home to my machine and do what I’ve always wanted.” Her partner Martha (Marty) Dunham would provide their main income for the year. Parker’s hope and nervousness will be familiar to anyone who’s risked their livelihood, or even a way of thinking about themselves, to devote serious time and attention to their craft. “Right now,” she writes,
I’m so pumped up from the excitement that my confidence is soaring, but still have the other voice that says ‘what if?’ Working full time at the Health Center has always been a built-in excuse for not producing. If I fall on my face, I’m not real sure how I’ll handle it. . . .
I know you know, but I’ll say it anyway. I’m going to need your help.
We are fortunate that Parker asked, that Lorde replied, that their correspondence has been maintained in archives and, now, reproduced. I’m thankful to be able to share these words—salutary whether the work you’re up to is writing, making another kind of art, or making a life.
For now, I’ll hand things over to Audre Lorde—the wisest course under most circumstances—and hand this issue over to you, reader. May you work, rest, read, and live well this summer. And if the inclination strikes, write someone a letter. It might be that a friend could use to hear what you have to say.
Lorde’s response to Parker can be read here.