“We have a new office. The staff is pretty much entirely new. The paper, the shape of the magazine, the printer, the distributor, the mailing house, the font, the typography are new. New designer, new poetry editors … we have a new format for presenting poetry,” said Philip Gourevitch, 43, the editor of The Paris Review.
Mr. Gourevitch was looking freshly scrubbed in blue-and-white-striped, rolled-up shirtsleeves, sitting in the newly inhabited offices of the magazine—a suite of airy, sun-flooded rooms with blond wood floors, cathedral ceilings and a Tribeca address (White Street between Broadway and Church) that could almost be described as swanky.
In addition to the vast amounts of light and space, the new office is awash in popsicle colors, shelves of carefully arranged old issues and framed Pop Art prints. The furniture has a vaguely Scandinavian feel; six slender desks house interns and editors tapping at computers or peeling bubble wrap off of posters and boxes, while Mr. Gourevitch resides in a commodious atelier in the back. There’s a fax machine and one of those office kitchens and talk of acquiring plants. It’s a long way downtown from the cramped enclave the Review used to occupy, practically for free, on the ground floor of the late George Plimpton’s far East Side townhouse on 72nd Street. Then, the magazine’s physical surroundings were at one with its identity as a center for emerging fiction and poetry—an entrenched culture of noble dishevelment.
“The old office was about this big—pretty dark and dingy,” said Mr. Gourevitch, gesturing towards the plush sitting area tucked in the front of the new space, a cluster of overstuffed loveseats around a square coffee table. “[This] is a place where we have some room to be a proper full-time office.”
Nearly everything about the rickety old Paris Review has been brushed off and upgraded to a shiny new standard as part of a summer-long restructuring led by Mr. Gourevitch that makes the new Review seem practically … corporate.
The new issue is larger than the old one, slim and elegant and more magazine-like, printed on buttery paper. Rather than featuring graphic artwork, the cover displays a sepia-toned photograph of a solemn little child in galoshes—the adorably plump Salman Rushdie as a boy in Bombay, looking serious beyond his years and cute enough to eat. Inside is an interview with Mr. Rushdie; three nonfiction pieces by Liao Yiwu, a Chinese dissident writer; three short stories (one a debut); two collections of poems by two poets; and excerpts from Elizabeth Bishop’s unpublished notebooks, among other things. The table of contents has been refashioned in numerical order. (“It was as if it was trying to keep you a little off-kilter,” Mr. Gourevitch said of the old thematic arrangement.)
Some of the other changes might be less apparent to the unprofessional eye, but are sure to be noted by the community of writers and editors who seem to regard the Paris Review as sacred literary real estate, and who tend to scrutinize the magazine’s every move. For one thing, there is the masthead, which has been completely erased and rebuilt. (Managing editor Oliver Broudy, the one hold-out editorial staff member from the previous regime of George Plimpton and his successor, Brigid Hughes, sent an e-mail to friends over the summer announcing that he was leaving the Review to freelance.)
“In the past, there were not a lot of job searches,” Mr. Gourevitch said, adding that for the first time they’d be employing a circulation manager. “We didn’t do vast searches and hire headhunters, but we cast a broad net when we interviewed people. We tried to find the right match. In the past, it was much more of a sense of who came along, who stumbled along. Somebody bright would appear, and you’d try to find some way to include them.
“The other difference is that on the editorial side, there was a tendency to be here primarily because they entered as unpaid interns and rose up by sticking around,” Mr. Gourevitch continued. “But many people who were here had not had substantial experience elsewhere in the business, in publishing and magazines and editing and what have you. And I favor that, partly because we’re such a small operation. I do not think that it should be a hermetic world or a kind of self-taught or autodidact magazine.”
Mr. Gourevitch said that he’d culled all the part-time positions that used to clutter the masthead, and that the Review was actually “paying competitively” for its full-time staff positions (although there’s still plenty of unpaid, Ivy League–style labor)—which, combined with the magazine’s plush new digs, suggests that the Paris Review Foundation Board of Directors has loosened the purse strings, allowing the place to function as an actual business.
Mr. Gourevitch’s first editorial hire was a fellow named Nathaniel Rich, (who happens to be the son of New York Times culture guru Frank Rich,) who holds the title of associate editor and who worked briefly at the New York Review of Books after college and has written a book on film noir. Mr. Gourevitch described Mr. Rich as “a natural” who discovered the current issue’s debut, a short story by Lisa Halliday, in the unsolicited submissions.
But for every Lisa Halliday, there are many less fortunate writers—and in this case, they are the dozens of mostly young poets who were part of the dreaded “poetry backlog.”
The most radical editorial change at the Paris Review thus far, which is likely to reverberate in the smallest of worlds, was Mr. Gourevitch’s replacement of the Review’s poetry editor of 11 years, Richard Howard, with two new younger ones: the established poet Charles Simic, who teaches at the University of New Hampshire, and Slate culture editor Meghan O’Rourke, who is a nascent poet herself. The co-editorship was one of Mr. Gourevitch’s signature ideas for the magazine (“I thought it was better to have a broader and less single-personality-driven approach,” he said), along with a transformation in how poetry is presented. Rather than single works by many writers, portfolios of multiple poems by one or two poets will appear in each issue.
Mr. Howard, 75, an esteemed old lion of the poetry world, the recipient of Pulitzers, Guggenheims and MacArthurs, the author of 11 books of poetry and countless translations of French literature, is both a feared and revered man of letters. He was also famous for accepting far more work than the Paris Review could accommodate, much of it from his students at Columbia University’s M.F.A. poetry program.
The result was that, at any given time, there were two or more years’ worth of work in the pipeline that had been accepted for publication. It was known among Mr. Howard’s Columbia students that he would pluck his favorites out of obscurity and put them into the Paris Review queue; then they would have to wait—sometimes for several years—for their work to make it into the magazine. But in the meantime, they could say that they had poems “forthcoming” in the Paris Review.
According to Mr. Gourevitch, he asked Mr. Howard to stay on at the Review as one of several poetry editors, but that Mr. Howard “basically felt that he’d done his time” and had decided to move on. Mr. Howard, reached by phone, said, “I didn’t leave the Paris Review; I was dislodged,” and that he had tried to hew to Plimpton’s vision of showing as many different poets as possible during his tenure.
In the aftermath of Mr. Howard’s departure, something had to be done with the extensive backlog of poems (possibly even five years’ worth, according to one person who saw the list) that were awaiting publication. So the controversial decision was made not to publish most of the backlog and pay kill fees to the affected poets.
One poet, a former student of Mr. Howard’s, said that some of the writers were first informed that the number of their accepted pieces might be reduced, and then, several months later, that they might be published on the Web instead, and finally that they wouldn’t be published at all.
“At first I thought they were doing something wrong by not even publishing them on the Web,” said the disappointed poet. “It would have been a really nice gesture to put the work online. But I don’t necessarily blame them.”
According to sources in the poetry world, one distraught poet came into the Poets House library in Soho about a month ago and inquired about any rights the backlogged writers might have, or whether they could try to band together and protest the Paris Review’s decision, although it’s unclear if any steps were ever taken.
“There were a lot of pieces, period, but most of it was poetry,” said Mr. Gourevitch, noting that Jesse Ball, one of the poets featured in the current issue, had been one of Mr. Howard’s choices. “Everything was reconsidered by the poetry editors; some of it will be published, some of it we can’t. I wrote to everybody and explained this. It was the most painful thing I had to do, to be the source of disappointment on that.”
While some poets said that Mr. Howard might have wielded too much power at times, and that he was regarded as very much of an established insider, he was also known as a dedicated champion of young writers.
“Richard is a principle discoverer of young poets, and wherever he migrates, he finds them,” said Alice Quinn, the poetry editor of The New Yorker. “He’s in on careers at a very early stage. My guess is that he introduced 100 new poets over the years.”
“There’s been no greater nourisher of emerging talent in poetry than Richard Howard,” said Stephen Young, the program director at the Poetry Foundation, who was an editor at Poetry magazine for many years and who also said that he welcomed the choice of new editors, particularly Ms. O’Rourke, whom he described as “a very astute reader and critic on a variety of topics.”
Mr. Howard’s departure seems to herald a different sort of approach to poetry at the Paris Review, one with less emphasis on young, unpublished poets, since those who will be featured will need a critical mass of publishable work to justify an entire portfolio.
“The downside is that we don’t get to introduce as many voices per issue,” said Ms. O’Rourke. “But the upside outweighs that. It really takes two or three poems to get inside a poet’s work. You really don’t get much out of just reading one poem, especially in a culture where poetry isn’t the dominant idiom of our time.”
While seemingly endless shelves of smaller journals publish poetry, the list of high-profile outlets still dedicated to the craft is dangerously short, making the Paris Review and The New Yorker even more important. A career in poetry progresses through the accumulation of credits—an agonizingly slow, often unpaid process that might begin at more obscure journals and, at one time, in places like the Paris Review. But it’s possible that the Review’s poetry portfolios will increase the chances that some poets—those lucky, published few—will garner a burst of desperately needed attention from the publishing world.
“I think if you’re a book publisher, or you’re in charge of a foundation that gives grants, and if you’re interested in poetry, you’re certainly going to be reading the Paris Review and The New Yorker,” said Ms. Quinn. “We published three poems [in The New Yorker] last week by a Louisiana poet, Martha Serpas. And of course poets and publishers have been calling and asking me who she is. I think it was clear that by publishing three of her poems, we felt very strongly about her work.”
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