Dear Friends and Readers,by Phong Bui
so much depends
a red whee
glazed with rain
beside the white
“The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams
Like clockwork, the last four days of every month become an intense period of collective concentration at the Rail. I spend these days energetically working with the two field marshals, Managing Editor Laila Pedro and Managing Director Sara Christoph, along with our excellent Art Director Maggie Barrett, and Digital Art Director, Yasaman Alipour, until the issue is put to bed.
However, it’s always at night that I get to work on the portraits for the featured interviews in the Art section. I am often asked whether I have a favorite and respond that I don’t actually. I regard them as a handmade equivalent to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962); taken together they embody my idea of imminent democracy. In other words, while all portraits are of distinguished individuals, each particular facial expression not only enhances the warmth of the newsprint but also amplifies the life’s work to which each is committed. I’ve learned to admire how these individuals cultivate their differences in order to make a unique contribution to our culture.
Readers will know that this has been a significant year for the Rail. In addition to our fifteenth anniversary and successful Benefit Auction, we have yet another tremendous milestone to announce: this issue marks the first in which we are able to compensate all of our writers for their contributions. This watershed moment is the product of years of collective work and focus, and we are immensely proud to have reached this level, which, I feel, represents the Rail’s incredible momentum and upward trajectory for the next fifteen years. I would like to extend, on behalf of the Rail, the deepest thanks to all the writers who volunteered their time, energy, and passion for so many years.
While reflecting on this editorial in light of our current social and political condition, I was immediately reminded of both Walt Whitman’s 1871 Democratic Vistas and Horace Kallen’s 1915 Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot. Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, written in the somber period of Reconstruction after the Civil War and the death of Abraham Lincoln, addresses the “democratic individual” intense, even conflicting relation to the “democratic nationality.” Whitman offered literature, and poetry in particular, as an armature to steady and alter society’s values—democracy then, is a process of eternally becoming, as he wrote in Leaves of Grass: “It is not the earth, it is not America who is so great/It is I who am great or to be great, it is You up there, or any one.”
I can’t help but think of Vincent van Gogh’s admiration for Whitman in the letter the former wrote to his sister Wilhelmina in 1888:
Have you read the American poems by Whitman? I am sure Theo has them, and I strongly advise you to read them, because to begin with they are really fine, and the English speak of them a good deal. He sees in the future, and even in the present, a world of healthy, carnal love, strong and frank-of friendship-of work under the great starlit vault of heaven a something which after all one can only call God and eternity in its place above this world. At first it makes you smile, it is all so candid and pure; but it sets you thinking for the same reason.
The admiration is understandable given their mutual aspiration toward a deep compassion that finds equal worth in all things. Similarly, in Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot, Kallen extracted the ingredients of the American melting pot to expose its inherent contradictions as the premise of American democracy. He wrote that “Democracy involves, not the elimination of differences, but the perfection and conservation of differences. It aims, through Union, not at uniformity, but at variety, at a one out of many […] and a many in one.” I admire his comparison of cultural pluralism to a “symphony” in which each instrument sounds on its own, in harmony with but not in imitation of the others.
Often accompanying my time as I draw these Rail portraits are various poetry readings on PennSound—“iTunes for poetry,” as our friend Charles Bernstein once described it. Just the other night, though, while applying the 5H pencil layer to the portraits of our May Guest Critics, Huey Copeland and Hannah Feldman, I stumbled upon a lively and delightful interview on YouTube with William Carlos Williams from 1950. In the interview, Williams said:
If an artist is sufficiently accomplished he brings relief to others, quite unsentimentally, by presenting to them, putting before them, something which they may not understand but gives them a secret satisfaction. And they look at a work of art. Otherwise, why should we have museums everywhere? And why should the greatness of Greece have been perpetuated and saved by the people? Except that it was a tremendously valuable thing and took them out of that thing which is supposed to kill them: frustration. You know, deep frustration. For God’s sake, let’s get over that idea and get to work! And make things! Put them on paper! Paint paintings! Write poems! That’s what culture means, and that’s what it means to us. And that’s why America should have a culture.
And about “The Red Wheelbarrow,” resting quietly without comment at the beginning of this editorial, Williams said, “It meant exactly the same as the first [line] of [Keats’s] “Endymion,” ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.’”
Onward my friends,
This issue is dedicated to Prince, whose eclectic, flamboyant stage personality is as fluidly free and ecstatic as his unique ability to fulfill his musical appetite for funk, rock, R&B, psychedelia, and pop. His spirit soars far beyond this earth. Also, to Harriet Shorr, whose paintings of monumental still lifes in unexpected settings are as invaluable as her contribution as a teacher and indispensable member of the artist advisory committee of the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program. And to Daniel Berrigan, the anti-war protester, priest, and poet. The Rail would also like to send our congratulations to our friend the legendary musician/composer Henry Threadgill on his recent Pulitzer Prize in music, and to our good friends Brian Flanagan and Julie McGinnis Flanagan on the birth of their son Wyeth Henry Flanagan.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.