In 1982, the poet Seamus Heaney delivered the commencement address at Fordham University. He sat on the stage in the pouring rain between two honorary degree recipients: Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War, and Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. “I looked to either side of me,” he told an audience later, “and I thought, well, between the puppeteer and the politician sits the poet.”
The world of literature likewise sits adjacent to both the gravity of politics and the levity of puppets, as the writers in this special issue of The Yale Review demonstrate. In its pages, you will find new work by this year’s recipients of the Windham-Campbell Prizes at Yale University—prizes that we at The Yale Review admire for elevating international work (in poetry, in drama, in fiction, in nonfiction) that pushes the boundaries of contemporary literature. Like Heaney, the Irish writer Darran Anderson animates what it was like to spend his childhood in a country torn by violence, raising crucial questions about the damage that colonial power inflicts on individual lives. Susan Williams, who has done extraordinary work on the West’s covert war against African decolonization, builds on her earlier book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? (2011) with a piece that looks at recent developments in the investigation into the mysterious 1961 plane crash that killed the second secretary-general of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld. Alexis Pauline Gumbs explores the influence of twentieth-century painter and educator Alma Thomas on her own work, thinking about how the art of puppetry can uniquely render the horrors of the Jim Crow South.
The work here is not just thematically bold but also formally playful. Percival Everett’s story “In Medias Res” begins—yes—in the middle; the result is a visceral reminder of the thrill of encountering stories that disarm us. The narrator of Jasmine Lee-Jones’s dramatic monologue “black pain redux” lives in the painful gap between the two poles of IRL (in real life) and OAT (online all the time). In her story “Winner,” Ling Ma’s narrator haunts her old apartment, only to find that things are not as she imagined; the ordinary becomes alienating, as Ma uses tone to enact the slippages of identity in late capitalism. The Iñupiaq Inuit poet dg nanouk okpik, who spent her childhood living with an adoptive white family, offers poems that celebrate the icy landscapes of her ancestral home, punctuated with the cries of animals and tender plant life. In “The Emcee Inquisition,” Dominique Morisseau channels characters whose verbal pyrotechnics evoke both the ravages of racism and misogyny and the vivifying power of Black joy. We have also included an essay called “Why I Write” by Greil Marcus, whose keynote lecture at this year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes festival was a rousing reminder of how mysterious yet precise writing can be.
Between the politician and the puppeteer sits the poet—or sit the writers, in this case. We think you will find, as we have, that in this space that Heaney evoked are writers who shake us out of complacency and into new forms of attention.
—MICHAEL KELLEHER AND MEGHAN O'ROURKE