Michael S. Begnal (#1)

“New Magazines for Old”: Some Brief Thoughts on the Aztecs, Poets in Protest, and The Burning Bush 2

James Liddy wrote, ‘I have always wanted to exchange new magazines for old, for I know that magazines can alter the shape of a literary landscape’ (qtd. in Tyler Farrell’s essay for Liddy’s Selected Poems).  The Burning Bush 2 is in a way not a new magazine, being partly an online revival of a print magazine that existed from 1999-2004.  But given the distance in time between the old print journal and this one, as well as the different context, it is indeed new.  Many of the aims of the old Burning Bushhave now been achieved with the simple passage of the decade (it can’t really take credit).  There is room in Ireland now for poetic modes or practices (at least I think so) that were maybe previously thought to be squelched under the weight of entrenched interests.  But then there are always entrenched interests, whatever their character.  These must constantly be unseated, for every entrenched interest, however poetically or politically desirable it may initially be, will eventually become conservative.  We must demand a more or less ongoing revolution (even if it’s never fully realised).  By this I don’t necessarily mean simply the invention of new ‘styles’, but rather the revising of our aspirations and frames of mind.  Perhaps at some point, though, this very state of continual change will become institutionalised and people will then demand a new state of stability.  But then that too will sometime become the norm, calcified, and a new revolution will inevitably occur.

In thinking about revolutions poetic or otherwise, however, I would make a further observation.  In Aztec poetry there was in the period immediately preceding the colonial Spanish devastation a split between two different schools of thought.  One was the school of the war cult, which was the expression of the dominant ruling class, and the other was the Toltec school.  As Edward Kissam and Michael Schmidt note, ‘The Toltec culture was highly civilized and humane….  To the mind of Aztec and vassal princes who felt dissatisfied or disgusted with the war cult, Toltec tradition represented an alternative, a humane vision’ (Flower and Song: Aztec Poems).  We don’t know how these two opposed schools would have continued to develop in relation to each other and to Aztec society.  It’s possible that the era of widespread blood sacrifice practiced by the war cult would eventually have come to an end as Toltec poets rose to the fore.  But Aztec society ceased to be through brute colonial force.  It is also noteworthy that Neil Young’s song ‘Cortez the Killer’ was banned in Spain in 1975, a good 450 years after the conquest of Mexico (at least Young himself claims so).  The upshot is that, while some kind of change will happen anyway (it is the unavoidable state of existence), it is still desirable that the right side comes out on top.  What Cortez and Franco represent is not, to my mind, the ‘right’ side.

But Alan Jude Moore, the editor of The Burning Bush 2is on the ‘right’ side (I put the word in inverted commas because I know that its precise meaning will always be up for debate).  He is the only writer to appear in every issue of the original TBB, aside from myself and perhaps Kevin Higgins (TBB’s co-founder, who continued to appear in the magazine even after splitting as editor).  So when Alan said he wanted to revive TBB, but to do something new with it, I said great idea, do it!  He and I have in common a vision of poetry which is liberatory, anti-dogmatic, and anti-hierarchical (and fun).  How that translates into politics, or how politics necessarily translates into poetics, is an essay unto itself, but we are now living in an age when armed police attack unarmed poets in the name of protecting their banker masters’ economic interests (as they recently did to Robert Haas at Berkeley).  I don’t know what exactly Alan has planned for The Burning Bush 2 in the future (possibly there is no concrete plan, which is probably a good thing), but at the very least, to paraphrase James Liddy, let this ‘new’ magazine alter the shape of the literary landscape(s) if it can.

Michael S. Begnal is a poet and critic of dual Irish and American nationality. With the Galway poet Kevin Higgins, he co-founded The Burning Bush magazine in 1999. He edited the magazine until it was discontinued in 2004. His publications include Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007) and Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005). His next collection, Future Blues, will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2012. He was also the editor of the James Liddy festschrift, Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006). He lives in Pittsburgh and teaches at Duquesne University.