On “Quality”

by Elise Hempel

Pizzas1It arrived today in the mail – a certain poetry journal I've been waiting for and wondering about, a journal I've been rejected by several times, that I've come to imagine, because of those rejections, as sophisticated and discriminating, a journal now containing a poem of mine nearly a year and a half after the poem was accepted. It's not uncommon for print journals to take that long, the time between acceptance and publication often being a full year, and I know that the editor of this journal was struggling with some personal difficulties during the publication of this particular issue, and had lost some of her production staff to boot. But still … though the journal looks good, professionally made – no stapled spine or cheap paper – the glossy cover sports a rather underwhelming photo, and my now-outdated bio in the contributor notes maintains the future tense for the publication of my 2016 book. Someone else's bio ends with a comma instead of a period, while several others are missing the italics on a journal or book title, sometimes randomly within a list of other, italicized titles. There are both missing and misused commas, and one poem title is, inexplicably, in all capitals amid its upper/lowercase neighbors. And though I've barely begun reading, I've already spotted some surprisingly awkward lines of poetry, not to mention a sonnet that's merely titled "Sonnet."

How can I be so tough on a poetry journal from a small press, one that most likely has limited funds, on a poetry journal that I know has just a small audience anyway? My displeasure with typos, errors, and general sloppiness springs perhaps from a perfectionist type of personality, a personality that won me a job as a proofreader in the Chicago area in the 1980s, that prompted a friend to say to me, as I pointed out a "grocer's apostrophe" on a bar sign one downtown Saturday night, "Relax, Elise, you're off the clock now." Perhaps. But my cluttered desk and dusty bedroom say the opposite about my personality. And I know I'm not alone, with many more of us throughout the world, including the "grammar vigilante" (or the "Banksy of punctuation") who secretly corrects the punctuation of business signs in the dark of night in Bristol, England.

And I truly don't believe that my standards are unreasonably high. I recently spent a month and a half with my sister and her family in the Minneapolis area, and I often did the cooking, or I'd make suggestions for recipe additions or alterations. My sister is my fraternal twin, and she has high standards when it comes to being a mother, when it comes to her job as a neuropsychologist. But for some reason, some difference between us other than our separate eggs in the womb, cooking is a different story, and when I talked to her on the phone after I was back, she expressed her relief at my leaving – so nice to cook again with just a few ingredients, to slap a meal together in ten minutes instead of half an hour, to not have to season the cornmeal coating for the fish….

Quality. Is it so bad to desire and expect it, to even sometimes demand it? To pay, every once in a while, more money for it than you should? To enjoy a good dark chocolate or a complex and oaky dry red wine, admire the precise joinery and intricate decoration of a 19th Century handmade wood cabinet? To love and long for craftsmanship? Or to be disappointed, disheartened when it's not there?

Lost, it seems, amid the daily march of Trump-news and the deaths of celebrities like Mary Tyler Moore, Don Rickles, and Chuck Berry, was the death this past April of Robert M. Pirsig, author of the 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I came typically late to this book, having read it just last year, but I appreciated and understood its exploration of the concept of "quality," and its ideas have lingered with me. It's quality writing that deserves to be read. And I'm confident that Mr. Pirsig would have been appalled to know that my paperback copy of his book changes typeface midway through and is riddled with typos.