AGNI, BU’s elite literary magazine, celebrates its 50th anniversary | UB today
The latest printed edition of AGNI hit subscriber mailboxes and bookstores a month late, thanks to a ransomware attack on its Pennsylvania printer. The bi-annual literary magazine – stuffed with essays, poetry and reviews – battled cultural headwinds even before this delay: While pandemic isolation has induced an increase in reading, other research suggests that nearly 60% of Americans never decipher a book in any given year; the pleasure of reading literary fiction is particularly breathtaking.
If it seems fate has it for AGNI as it celebrates its 50th anniversary among the nation’s elite literary magazines, co-editor William Pierce makes the case for the glass half full: “I’m skeptical there’s ever been a time when 40% or even 20 % read literary works. In Wordsworth’s time, most English people were illiterate. That even 40% of Americans actually read books “runs counter to the narratives of decline. To me, that’s an outrageously high number.
Produced at BU since 1987, where founder Askold Melnyczuk (GRS’78) taught composition, AGNI was born in 1972 amid the high tide of the counterculture. (The magazine is named after a Hindu fire god.) At 50, he has become counterculture, going against contemporary penchants for tweets, celebrity coverage and online ephemera.
Over the decades, the magazine inspired literary craze, turning heads by publishing gifted writers who had yet to win their Nobel Prizes: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott (Hon.’93) and Louise Glück among them . (The magazine’s prestige also attracted contributions from Joseph Brodsky and Odysseas Elytis after they were Nobel Prize winners.) Interpreter of diseasesby Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), first published in AGNI before becoming the centerpiece of his collection of short stories awarded by the Pulitzer in 2000.
“Is it a bit David and Goliath we do?” co-editor Sven Birkerts reflects on publishing serious literature. “It’s kind of staking, representing, and hopefully influencing in some way, not just by reading, but by paying attention to certain values in the world that are often overlooked.”
These values ? “Pay attention,” says Pierce, in a world where online reading truncates attention spans.
AGNI has teamed up with Brookline Booksmith for a one-year anniversary celebration of virtual conversations between editors and various contributors. (The next one is today, Monday, June 20; register here.) The cornerstone will be a November event at a location yet to be determined; Robert Pinsky, a former three-time American Poet Laureate, William Fairfield Warren Professor Emeritus and Professor of English at the College of Arts and Sciences, will be the emcee. Other participants confirmed so far are author and poet Victoria Chang, writer and scholar Teju Cole and essayist Jo Ann Beard.
In a cultural moment where everything is political and everything political is polarized, AGNI thwarts the culture.
“We are not polemical,” says Birkerts. Which does not mean that the magazine is detached from the world. Pierce points to “Everything and More” in the current issue, an article on gender by trans writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and “A Boy’s Story” from 2020, Hananah Zaheer’s short fiction about quarantine and the violent death of a child, which “feels like a play that could only have been written during the pandemic.
AGNI’s website reposted old articles on Roe vs. Wade after the potential overturning of the abortion decision leaked last month. And in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, AGNI publishes works of Ukrainian writers. “We’re not a news organization,” says Pierce. “But where we see opportunities to connect what we already do with the world as people experience it, we make those connections.”
Ukraine joins the magazine’s DNA. Melnyczuk, who founded AGNI while an undergraduate at Antioch College, is the son of parents who fled the then Soviet-controlled country in 1944. Melnyczuk, who will appear with Birkerts, Pierce and others on one of the panels birthday, October 17, befriended the leading Ukrainian writers and had his own books published there in translation. “What we are able to offer [in AGNI] that you won’t find in the newspapers,” he says, “are precisely the voices of these writers, whose responses to war seem singularly urgent and intimate.”
asked if he is surprised AGNI lasted this long, says Melnyczuk: “Frankly, I’m surprised I have lasted so long. AGNI has remained true to its mission to help bring to light the best writing publishers can find, by writers of all ages, races and cultures.
It’s kind of staking, representing, and hopefully influencing in some way – not just by reading, but by paying attention to certain values in the world that are often overlooked.
“Sven brought his sophisticated literary tastes to the work he publishes, and now Bill Pierce has reconfigured the editorial process to include a large number of voices that so beautifully reflect our cultural moment. The journal continues to feel vital, even young .
The origin of its name? Borrowed from the underground high school newspaper he co-founded, says Melnyczuk. Pondering the name of the future renegade newspaper while returning from a Shakespeare festival in Greenwich Village, he and his friends stopped at a second-hand bookstore in Manhattan. One of them “said he would find us a name. He opened a book at random and dropped his finger in it. He landed on the word “Agni”. We had never heard of Agni, but we were intrigued. We thought others might be just as curious.
Pierce, 56, and Birkerts, 70, lead a team of about 20 writers who are dispersed across the country and the world and paid by stipend. The walls of their office common room are lined with bookshelves containing copies of AGNI and other publications (including partisan magazine, which also published iconic writers, BU offices, until it closed in 2003). The magazine survives on subscriptions; Fund raising; writers’ submission fees to pay publishers; royalties from JSTOR, the Digital Library of Academic Journals and Books, which pays to put the magazine in its database; and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mass Cultural Council. The University covers the salaries of Pierce and Birkerts and provides the office space.
This budget covers, among other expenses, 2,600 hard copies of each issue – for subscribers, bookstores and others – while the website attracts 140,000 visitors a year. “The question is always who [reads online], how committed are they, how long do they stay? said Pierce. “We have subscribers to the print issue…many, many, many people who have been subscribing for decades. We’re here to make a statement about what’s worth reading. And many readers think we do it well.
What if fewer people read literature and books?
“I don’t think we’re going to kill Goliath,” Birkerts said. “But we’re going to kick him in the nuts.”
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