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Editor's Notebook

Stalking Academia
Alan Ramón Clinton

During my tenure as a writer, there have been a few times when I have written a rejection letter to a rejection letter.  I'm not sure whether or not I invented this genre, since by definition it is not the sort of thing that ever gets published in any permanent form.  But, whenever I have shown one of these letters to friends or colleagues, they have always looked at me as if I were insane.  I don't know why that should be so.  Why do otherwise fascinating, freethinking individuals look upon such an act as the equivalent of assaulting a police officer?  After all, editors of journals are self-appointed guardians of the literary archive.  Whether they admit it or not, such individuals entertain the incompatible beliefs that literature is an important endeavor and that they should sanction this endeavor with an ill-defined notion of taste (usually referred to as "quality") that results in a current representative of the literary archive known as an "issue."  In short, editors are "The Man."
Now, if you're reading this, don't worry about the repercussions of receiving this mailing.  If you like the piece well enough, feel free to publish it.  If not, then kindly send it back in the self-addressed stamped envelope that I have provided without any rude remarks as to its "quality" (i.e. your taste).  As long as you make one of these two choices, you are in no danger.  But, if you choose to make snide remarks about this piece or, even worse, end up losing it and sending back nothing but a rejection slip in my self-addressed stamped envelope, then you are by no means immune to receiving a rejection letter to a rejection letter.  And, if you do receive such a letter, don't whine and moan about your work load or about some sense of noblesse oblige brut when it comes to receiving "inferior" (i.e. unrecognizable) work.  After all, you're the one who proclaimed yourself worthy of guarding the archive of literature, and if your greatest pleasure comes from humiliating contributors who have provided you a vulnerable opening, then you deserve every bit of what I can throw at you.  And believe me, that's quite a lot.
As you have probably guessed, I do not edit a journal.  And, while I recognize that many (if not most) editors are writers themselves, I consider them, as editors, thereby disqualified from representing the writer.  I, for my part, choose to side with the writer.  I have, as an individual, received enough unsolicited scorn and/or idiotic treatment from editors and their boards to know that this sort of treatment must happen on a fairly wide level.  Thus, every time I send out such a salvo, I do it on behalf of writers everywhere.
I think the first rejection letter to a rejection letter I wrote was to an editor in Ireland.  Not understanding the piece I sent him, he did what editors with an inferiority complex often do.  Finding what he felt to be an egregious spelling error, he rejected my manuscript on the grounds that I was a typically uneducated American whose reading material primarily consisted of fast food menus attached to the wall.  I do not lie.  Stewing for a few hours, I developed what has come to be my signature style of a rejection letter to a rejection letter.  While each one of these letters has its own unique beauty, they all usually have some variation of the following ingredients.  After opening with a moral condemnation of such unsolicited behavior, I proceed to scathingly review work that the editor has published.  Even for obscure editors, it is usually not hard to find something they have written.  Such individuals are extremely vain and attempt to publish themselves in every venue imaginable, including the web.  So, for this guy, a couple of keystrokes led me to the following lines from "Beyond the Form":

Beyond the form
of growls or barks
& all things mauled, devoured or bitten,
the sheerest poetry is composed by dogs,
the most shimmering symphonies by sharks.
The finest human poetry, says the worm,
is not just unpublished, but unwritten.

Well, well, well, I began, surely your arse poetica demonstrates the prescience of Francis Galton's 19th-century determination, in Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences, that the Irish people are barely civilized, apelike Firbolgs.  Recognizing your own tenuous membership in the human race, you have claimed that true poetic genius resides in animals, amongst whom you number yourself.  Even if the arse poetica were not a truly moribund form to begin with, your version proves that the Irish are insular in more ways than one.  Your poem proves the converse of its closing lines, that the worst human poetry, yours, has been both written and published.
I never heard from him again and suspect that, like the two Japanese women distraught over Rudolph Valentino's death, he ceremoniously dove into a volcano.  Another unfortunate editor, this time from the degenerate isle of Texas, actually left a four page suicide note (in the form of a letter of apology) after receiving the following salvo:

Well James,
You cop quite an attitude for a construction worker who
received his B.S. from East Texas State University. 
Perhaps this background explains your comparison (both
clichéd and archaic) of a writer to a carpenter.  And,
perhaps graduating from a university that has changed
its name more often than a con-artist has left you with the
sort of identity crisis that requires you to behave like
a complete dick (see enclosed letter) towards individuals
that submit work to your little rag.

I do not normally respond in this manner to unfavorable
critiques of my work, but your letter makes me question
your motives for running a literary journal.  What gets
you off more, the power of selecting work from amongst
an ocean of self-congratulatory authors or attempting
to belittle the work of those writers who threaten your
rather precious views of literature?

Obviously, you must find my work threatening in some way;
otherwise, you would not have bothered to respond in such
an insulting manner.  After all, you read and marked the
entire piece.  As Jacques Lacan once said in his seminar on
"The Purloined Letter," "I often say to you very difficult
things, and I see you hanging on every word, and I learn
later that you did not understand.  On the other hand, when
one tells you simple things, almost too familiar, you are
less attentive.  I just make this remark in passing, which
has interest like any concrete observation.  I leave it for
your meditation."

So, I'll leave this for your meditation.  If you really want
to be helpful with your comments, please limit them to
things the author can and would want to change.  For
instance, I obviously enjoy writing in "nonsequitir
sentences," so it makes little sense to criticizing me for
employing that style.  I also find it a bit hypocritical
from someone who writes in his poems of Caribbean
tourism,"Forget about cause and effect. / Forget your
logic--it will not serve / you here."  What, I ask, are the
former lines but a very transparent way of expressing the
idea of the "nonsequitur"?  God forbid that form should follow
content.  As for comments on grammar, I always welcome
them even if they happen to be the editor's banal reponse to
what he does not understand.  But, they should be for the
purpose of instruction (in either grammar or proofreading)
and not humiliation.

P.S. There is a sentence in your letter that doesn't have
parallel syntax.  Can you find it?

Now I know what you're asking yourself, and yes, there is a construction worker who received his B.S. from what was once known as East Texas State University and who, while editing
a journal that asks for "experimental" work, sends humiliating
rejection letters to those writers foolish enough to submit
"experimental" work.
But by far the most interesting rejection letter to a rejection letter I have ever written, at least in terms of its aftermath, was to a rag that calls itself Limestone.  The provocation for this letter is obvious in its content:

Dear "Meli,"
Perhaps you have been so busy "Using Film to Interrogate
Preconceived Notions of Place in the Ecocomposition
Classroom"  that you mis-placed the poem submitted to
your magazine (after having, might I add, practically been
begged to do so).   Or perhaps you thought that my
receiving a rejection letter in calligraphic font would be so
thrilling that I would not mind the fact that my return
postage/stamped envelope was not used for the purpose
intended--the return of my own submission. 

Whatever motivated this oversight, I am merely writing to
express my annoyance, not to reiterate some clichéd
argument regarding professionalism.  And, furthermore,
please don't reiterate this as the lament of some
disgruntled rejectee, for I'm pretty much resigned to my
poetry's 100% acceptance rate with avant-garde journals
and 0% acceptance rate with middlebrow literary journals.
Journals like Limestone, which amble onward in the name of
some inconsequential notion of "Southern" literature, have
never even been on my radar except in this unfortunate

So thank you for once again reminding me that, if I ever
want to print up a three page poem and consign it to
oblivion, I need not bother with a dollar's worth of
postage and supplies but can merely use the swivel
function on my chair and toss the poem in the garbage,
being careful not to smudge my hands with the fresh ink.

A perfectly adequate instance of a rejection letter to a rejection letter, even if not a milestone in the genre--unless one takes into account that it spawned my first ever rejection letter to a rejection letter to a rejection letter, which, in the interest of fairness, I will quote in full:

Your letter is completely unprofessional and whiny. I have
no idea why you think we needed your poetry and I am
positive that I never "begged" you to submit.  I do not
know who you are and certainly did not ask you to submit
or suggest that if you did so you would be automatically
published.  Further, the personal nature of your attack is
crossing the line.  What does my academic work have to do
with your submission?  Why did you address this only to me
when there are other editors on the staff as well?  Why
shorten my first name in such a childish and petty manner?

As to the matter of not returning your submission.  Our
policy is not to return a submission when there is not
adequate postage provided and I can only assume that
was the case with your submission (I have no memory of
you or your submission).  This policy is certainly not
one that only our "middlebrow" journal holds.

I do read this as simply "the lament of some disgruntled
rejectee."  If you think so lowly of our little "Southern"
journal you didn't need to submit in the first place, you
certainly didn't need to send this letter, and I hope
you will never submit to us again.  It is a PRIVILEDGE to
be published in a respected journal like Limestone (which,
by the way, is not a "southern" literary journal.  We
simply try to publish a larger number of authors from the
area in which we are located--again, a common policy of
many journals).  I encourage you to channel your aggression
into writing better poetry rather than wasting the time of
busy editors with your petty rants.

So the editor doesn't know how to spell "privilege," I'm not going to be a hypocrite and criticize her for that.  But the lack of self awareness, logic, and reading comprehension demonstrated is disturbing even for the minimum security position of Literary Journal Editor.  Why, for instance, does the first line criticize me as being "unprofessional" when I made it clear that I consider the notion of professionalism to be a cliché?  And how can she, in good faith, ask what her academic work (interrogating the notion of place) has to do with my misplaced submission?  Finally, is she really not aware that she signs things with only the first four letters of her first name?  Perhaps she unconsciously considers it a graphic "tu" form?  Does she really believe that she can sign something and not take responsibility for it?  Isn't the whole notion of the signature wrapped up in the issue of responsibility?  Paragraph 2.  If my letter reveals that my poem was three pages, how can it be possible that my postage was enough to return a rejection letter but not my poem?  Also, I did not refer to Limestone as "middlebrow," but as worse than middlebrow.  At least get your insults straight.  Paragraph 3.  If, as stated in Paragraph 2, the editor has no memory of me or my submission, how can she in good faith say that I should channel my aggression into writing better poetry?  BECAUSE, if my poetry was not accepted for publication in "her" journal, then it must be inferior.  And that is the infuriating hubris of the Literary Journal Editor.
I decided not to write a rejection letter to a rejection letter to rejection letter to a rejection letter, and not only because I was sure it would be destroyed without being read.  Primarily, I felt that continuing to correspond with such an individual would not be worth my time.  Even given the fact that her rejection letter to a rejection letter to a rejection letter was the first of its kind, it had too many flaws to justify pushing the envelope towards rejection letter to the fourth power.  Besides, what I was doing was not writing rejection letters for rejection letters' sake.  I like to think of it as violent reeducation.  And if the initial battery of shock therapy does not result in any signs of progress, it is futile to continue.  Instead, I toyed with the idea of submitting, under a pseudonym, W.H. Auden's poem "In Praise of Limestone" to the editors of Limestone.  I had reason to believe that they might not recognize the poem, and I thought it would be interesting to see whether or not they deemed it worthy of publication.  But in the end, I just got busy and forgot about it.
Until a week or so later when I received a memo from the chair of my department: "I need to speak to you right away."  From past experience, I knew that this was not a good sign.  No one, especially someone in power, "needs to speak" unless he is ready to use his position in the most intimidating manner he knows how.  It was easy what I had to do.  All I had to do was when the dinner was over and I came out in my turn to go on walking but not out the corridor but up the staircase on the right that led to the castle.  I had to do nothing but that; to turn to the right and walk fast up the staircase and in half a minute I would be in the low dark narrow corridor that led through the castle to the chair's office.  And every fellow had said that it was unfair, even the fellow out of second of grammar who had said that about the senate and the Roman people.  What would happen?  I heard the fellows of the higher line stand up at the top of the refectory and heard their steps as they came down the matting: Paddy Rath and Jimmy Magee and the Spaniard and the Portuguese and the fifth was big Corrigan who was going to be flogged by Mr Gleason.  That was why the prefect of studies had called him a schemer and pandied him for nothing: and, straining my weak eyes, tired with the tears, I watched big Corrigan's broad shoulders and big hanging black head passing in the file.
But he had done something and besides Mr Gleeson would not flog him hard: and I remembered how big Corrigan looked in the bath.  He had skin the same colour as the turf-coloured bogwater in the shallow end of the bath and when he walked along the side his feet slapped loudly on the wet tiles and at every step his eyes shook a little because he was fat.
The refectory was half empty and the fellows were still passing out in file.  I could go up the staircase because there was never a priest or a prefect outside the refectory door.  But I could not go.  The chair would side with the prefect of studies and think it was a schoolboy trick and then the prefect of studies would come in every day the same, only it would be worse because he would be dreadfully waxy at any fellow going up to the chair about him.  The memo had told me to go but it would not  take me there.  The fellows had forgotten all about it.  No, it was best to forget all about it and perhaps the prefect of studies had only said he would come in.  No, it was best to hide out of the way because when you were small and young you could often escape that way.  The fellows at the table stood up.  I stood up and passed out among them in the file.  I had to decide.  I was coming near the door.  If I went on with the fellows I could never go up to the chair because I could not leave the playground for that.  And if I went and was pandied all the same all the fellows would make fun and talk about young Dedalus going up to the chair to tell on the prefect of studies.  I was walking down along the matting and saw the door before me.  It was impossible: I could not.  I thought of the baldy head of the prefect of studies asking me twice what my name was.  Why could he not remember the name when he was told the first time?  Was he not listening the first time or was it to make fun out of the name?  The great men in the history had names like that and nobody made fun of them.  It was his own name that he should have made fun of if he wanted to make fun.  Dolan: it was like the name of a woman who washed clothes. 
I reached the door and, turning quickly up to the right, walked up the stairs; and, before I could make up my mind to come back, I had entered the low dark narrow corridor that led to the castle.  And as I crossed the threshold of the door of the corridor I saw, without turning my head to look, that all the fellows were looking after me as they went filing by.
I passed along the narrow dark corridor, passing little doors that were the doors of the rooms of the community.  I peered right and left through the gloom and thought that those must be portraits.  It was dark and silent and my eyes were weak and tired with tears so that I could not see.  But I thought they were the portraits of the saints and great men of the order who were looking down on me silently as I passed: Saint Ignatius Loyola holding an open book and pointing to the words Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam in it, saint Francis Xavier pointing to his chest, Lorenzo Ricci with his berretta on his head like one of the prefects of the lines, the three patrons of holy youth, saint Stanislaus Kostka, saint Aloysius Gonzaga and Blessed John Berchmans, all with young faces because they died when they were young, and Father Peter Kenny sitting in a chair wrapped in a big cloak.
I came out on the landing above the entrance hall and looked about.  That was where Hamilton Rowan had passed and the marks of the soldiers' slugs were there.  And it was there that the old servants had seen the ghost in the white cloak of a marshal.
An old servant was sweeping at the end of the landing.  I asked him where was the chair's room and the old servant pointed to the door at the far end and looked after me as I went on to it and knocked.
There was no answer.  I knocked again more loudly and my heart jumped when I heard a muffled voice say:
"Come in."
I turned the handle and opened the door and fumbled for the handle of the green baize door inside.  I found it and pushed it open and went in.
I saw the chair sitting at a desk writing.  There was a skull on the desk and a strange solemn smell in the room like the old leather of chairs.
My heart was beating fast on account of the solemn place I was in and the silence of the room: and I looked at the skull and at the chair's face.
"Are you stalking someone in Lexington?"
"Stalking someone in Lexington?  No sir."
"I have a letter on Transylvania letterhead that says otherwise, says you've been doing research on someone and sending her offensive letters."
"Did you ever think, sir, that it might be her who is stalking me?  After all, it is Transylvania University."
"No, surprisingly, I never thought that".
"Well, look at it this way, an army or band of schizophrenics would look like scared ants, or startled bees.  However, if you follow one, follow another, follow another, until it escaped into an elevator, you may detect that each one is working by a simple geometric rule. Once, while I was at a lecture that promised to be profound, I noticed a man talking to himself, well dressed, nervous, schizophrenic, manic, or simply in a trance of sorts.  So I began to follow him.  I could not hear his mutterings, but noticed he stopped at a point with intensity, like a popping breakdancer, seemed to be counting, considered that he may turn in one of four directions, paused, then moved with decisiveness in the chosen direction.  Now, it has to be remembered that the maze of square buildings may have been what confused him in the first place, at such corners.  In the forest he might move quite naturally.  I tried to be subthreshold, because I realized that such people sometimes suffer what we call the paranoia of being followed.  There is a joke, "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean there isn't someone after me."  As an act of mercy, I did not want to be caught following the man.  That's not paranoia.  If you are peculiar, in particular moving about or speaking with a peculiar geometry, there is a high possibility that a mathematician or linguist may have become attracted to you, and you are being followed.  All schizophrenics are being followed, by curious people, who go undetected by psychiatrists.  Had this man's shrink some video of the situation, he would see me distinctly, following the schizophrenic, trying feverishly to remain undetected by my victim.  He wobbles like a rolling egg, and I am a snake, but he escaped into an elevator before I could be sure enough of his pattern to strike."
"Listen, as usual I don't know what the fuck you're talking about, and I'm not sure whether it proves your point, hers, or nobody's.  I know you're not stalking her, but just lay off the rejection letters to rejection letters, they're not going to get you tenure.  Jeez, why can't you do something normal for a change like sleep with your students?  You always have to rock the boat, even when it comes to misconduct."
"Very well, but you know as well as I that the very things you despise about me are part and parcel of my greatness.  Contrary to popular belief, not all bromides are water soluble."

He was right about one thing.  Rejection letters to rejection letters would not earn me tenure.  Still, something I had said got me to thinking, as that is the normal cognitive pattern for me.  Sometimes I'll blurt out something like "I can give you a one-piece system so you won't need a boom mike at all. The sound can come through the bones in your head," and in one weekend I'll have revolutionized communications technology for the astronauts at NASA.  Or what I feel to be the humanities equivalent.  Great thing about the humanities, really, you're rewarded for the elaboration of your scheme, not whether it could ever be implemented.
Peculiar geometries.  I couldn't blame the editor of Limestone for her ramshackle paranoia, nor would I want to.  The bravado, the very unbelievability of her stalking charges had given me new respect, not for her, but for the peculiar geometries that had produced her.  The imminent summer vacation had whetted my appetite for adventure.  Like Laurie Anderson who decided one hot summer, on a whim, to see if she could hitch-hike to the North Pole, or Sophie Calle who, upon hearing that a virtual stranger would be vacationing in Venice, followed him there and stalked him for two weeks straight, I knew what I had to do.  A few keystrokes gave me the information I had hoped for.  Transylvania's spring semester ended a week after ours did.  Literalizing Paul Feyeraband's insistence that all legitimate knowledge requires a gamble, I bet that a week in Lexington, at my own expense, would show me the tensegrity of madness.
The layout of Lexington itself revealed little.  As far as I could tell, it was like any suburban metropolis, populated by individuals concerned with keeping poop off their lawns and antiques in their living rooms.  The only visually unique contribution was an "arts project" that involved lifesized sculptures of horses painted in Austin Powers colors and scattered about town.  Only Lexington, I thought, would elevate lawn ornaments to the status of high art.  Perhaps the most promising detail about the city was its designation as the hometown of Sybil, the made-for-TV woman with multiple personality disorder.  Saturday morning yard sales turned up many examples of her "art."  For the most part the paintings were unremarkable, although the more valuable specimens came with a printed doctor's analysis insisting that the otherwise innocuous shading, brushstrokes, and subject matter betrayed the telltale signs of schizophrenia.  But I wasn't really that interested in the population at large, or even Sybil for that matter, but in that subculture known as the Transylvania Department of English.  They were having an end of the year get together that night, and I was going to be everyone's student but the person I was talking to.
As far as I could tell, from a given evening's sidelong questioning and eavesdropping, the geometry works like this.  The chair of the department, who looks like Ted Nugent and writes about Westerns, finally divorced his wife who wrote scathing critiques about plastic surgery even as she had work done every summer.  Apparently, even surgically enhanced, she couldn't match the gazongas of one of his students.  Rumour had it, this new love battered him with her boobs in the office, sometimes knocking over a lamp or pencil sharpener.  His connoisseurship of the female bust was matched only by the Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies, who was writing a book on strip clubs and masochism.  Although brilliant, his tenure was in doubt due to his tendency to do "field work" with his students.  Not that it ever went any further than bringing them to strip clubs with him, because he was dating a local dancer named PlentyUpTop who, as the club advertises, could literally surround a man with her boobs.  His best friend, however, a scholar in African-American Literature, was another matter.  He pretty much exclusively dated undergraduates, and could tell a woman's age by the condition of her feet, the tautness of her skin, and her smell.  If one of the objects of his affection responded, "I don't know, I've never dated anyone over 25 before," he could respond with Hugh Hefner's famous retort, "That's all right honey, neither have I."  He would date one of these coeds for awhile, not until he tired of them sexually, but until he sufficiently deemed they were insufficiently versed in "theory."  As far as I could make out, he never put two and two together, never figured out that their theoretical inexperience had something to do with their age.  Or maybe he didn't care, the semiotics of language having nothing on the semiotics of smell.  And he certainly didn't care about the unrequited love of the Assistant Professor writing a book on anal eroticism in Victorian women.  Did Victorian women have anal eroticism?  No one could be sure, as she was generally tight lipped about her work.  She was less tight lipped about having sex with the geography professor in his carriage house while his wife washed dishes in the very house I was now stalking.  But the wife didn't go unsatisfied.  According to the Renaissance scholar, she had a basement dildo collection of medieval proportions.  A brilliant full professor in American literature, she had tried unsuccessfully to leave many times by applying for well endowed chairs across the nation.  Presumably, she found Lexington's lawn ornament art program as distasteful as I did.  But her reputation precedes her.  About a decade ago, she began writing scathing letters after unsuccessful campus interviews.  More antisocial than even myself, she wrote them regardless of whether she was treated fairly or unfairly.  Now, despite her brilliance, she rarely made the first cut for the kinds of positions she was after.  No one wanted to work with her, and it's not like she was Werner Von Braun, there is no Werner Von Braun in the humanities, just an endless succession of vaudeville acts.  Besides, with the buffoon leading the department now, the person to replace her would be an unpublished graduate student from Arizona.  He would be fooled by a recommendation letter stating that she was the most promising student in the last 30 years.  That, and from hearing that she had hired a baby sitter just so she could hear his conference paper on the existential politics of the Western.  No, she had to stick around so the department wouldn't go completely to hell.  And no, this scholar maudite was not the editor of Limestone.  This is not that kind of story.  The editor of Limestone, as far as I could make out, was not there that evening.  But who cares.  I wasn't stalking her, I was stalking academia.

About the author...
Alan Ramón Clinton currently lectures at Santa Clara University in California and is the author of a scholarly monograph, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang: 2004) and a volume of poetry, Horatio Alger’s Keys (BlazeVox: 2008). This fall he will appear as guest editor for a volume of 2nd Ave Poetry
(2ndAvepoetry.com) entitled New Poetics of Magic.
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