Jellyfish, it seems, are what our oceans are becoming: capitalizing on the warming temperatures, the acidification, the decreasing oxygen, they are reproducing so fast they clog shipping lanes, rudders, nuclear power plants; they are eating all the plankton and the eggs of their own predators, starving even the whales. What to do about this, an interviewer asks a marine biologist, and gets no simple answer; instead a discussion of legacies, and choices, and responsibilities.
I’m not interested in facile answers to questions like these, though I know that’s what many seek: I’m interested in what will awaken us to care that we are hurtling through, not toward, catastrophe, and perhaps get us to take responsibility for ourselves in this world as surely as we take pleasure in what is left to us. To engage the stakes as they actually are, as fully vulnerable as we actually are.
To be an artist in this historic moment is to be a eulogist, whether it is one’s intention or not: it is too late, in more cases than we can count, and that is where we live now. But it is also, as it has always been, to be a creator. Word by word by experience by risk by urgency: we make.
And so, for me—as writer, editor, teacher, human being—few words resonate more than onomatopoeia. Ask most teenagers about this word and the auto-response is comic-born: biff! splat! pow! they cry, and laugh, and turn Joker on you. Break open the etymology, though, and the nature of the conversation changes: now Joker becomes a primal archetype, a trickster god we can instinctually recognize. Poïesis (ποίησις), to make, to create. Onoma (ὄνομα), name. To create by naming. To summon forth: to call into being by the magical principle, or pointed power, or conscious risk, of calling something what it actually is. Now our conversation is taking place in the cave of Lascaux, in which the wall paintings carried real, literal, survival-based catharsis, one of the other most-resonant words for me: visceral change actually effected in actual ways in this actual world.
It doesn’t get more concrete than this, or more salient. Catharsis is as essential to us as oxygen, survivable temperatures, food, water we can use. We are not jellyfish, whose new multitudes exist simply because we have created a space in which they can thrive (and nothing else can): we are human beings whose sense of our own vulnerability and impact has become severely impaired in this urban, industrial moment. Catharsis is something we have never been able to live without. It is as surely what we seek as food, mates, betterment of our individual or collective conditions. Sometimes, we even do it truthfully. Sometimes, we recognize that naming our worlds and what is happening in them—and calling forth something better—is not politics: it is biology, chemistry, ethics, responsibility, reality. Sometimes, we even do it generously, with openly passionate love of this world and our vulnerability in it.
Onomatopoeia is also a fundamental expression of the human condition. Every one of us calls things into being; we summon them forth. We are responsible for them. Stories. Lies. Beauty. Jellyfish. Artists do this intentionally, or the ones I’m interested in do, anyway: they bring into being something that was not, and set it loose to effect catharsis in communication with their audience. When this is conscious, and consciously risked, and skillfully executed, the person on the receiving end is gripped by the viscera and confronted, in a life-transforming moment, with their own soul-key by words on a page. Or they are shifted so slightly and incrementally by the composition of an image that they aren’t even consciously aware that they will never again see the same way.
People hunger for this necessary sustenance and transformation.
Often, it is an editor or curator or publisher who decides what to share with a wider audience than the artist alone could reach.
Many years ago, someone talked with me about how at certain moments in our lives, all of us will find ourselves with a hand on a gate, and that is a privileged position. A moment of power. We choose, in that moment, how we’re going to use it. Do we hold it open to only those like us, or our friends, for exploitation or advantage, for power over, to get over on those we feel got over on us and prove something we’ve got to prove, for lateral competition and fighting for scraps? Or do we intentionally, carefully, consciously hold it open for those against whom it is usually shut, with generosity, curiosity, celebration of risk?
Editors in general are gatekeepers. We decide what you read in our journals. You can find other stuff other places, so in that sense, the stakes are low. In another, they don’t get any higher: art is life or death stuff, sez me, and language—creation—is a live animal, playful and dangerous.
Here in Tupelo Quarterly, that live animal of language and creation is ravening and beautiful, ferocious and well-muscled, curled into your side asleep and stalking you from behind those trees. Here, we presume abundance. We look for catharsis created by artists brave enough to remain unguarded as they summon what they name. Here, we hold that gate open for the work that is standing skinless in this historic moment, saying something necessary and true.
In this launch issue, we bring you powerfully empathic photographs from the civil rights movement, poems ranging across oceans of tone and style and creating persuasive wakes to pull you in and move you miles from shore, collage marrying word and image in ways that circumvent the conscious and speak quickly and urgently to what is underneath, prose that opens doors to new possibilities for prose, and Editor’s Features that give you a sense of who we are, what we love, and why it matters.
Come inside. We want you here with us.
– Jessamyn Smyth