AGNI, BU’s Elite Literary Magazine, Celebrates Its 50th Birthday | BU Today | #malware | #ransomware

An eye for great writers has kept it going from the counterculture 1970s till today

The latest print edition of AGNI hit subscribers’ mailboxes and bookstores a month late, thanks to a ransomware attack on its Pennsylvania printer. The biannual literary magazine—crammed with essays, poetry, and reviews—battled cultural headwinds even before that delay: while pandemic isolating induced an uptick in reading, other research suggests that almost 60 percent of Americans never crack a book in a given year; pleasure reading of literary fiction especially is nosediving.

If it seems that fate has it in for AGNI as it celebrates its 50th birthday among the nation’s elite literary magazines, coeditor William Pierce makes the glass-half-full case: “I’m skeptical that there was ever a period when 40 percent or even 20 percent read literary work. In the era of Wordsworth, most in England were illiterate.” That even 40 percent of Americans read books actually “cuts against narratives of decline. To me, that’s a shockingly high number.” 

Produced at BU since 1987, where founder Askold Melnyczuk (GRS’78) was teaching composition, AGNI was born in 1972 amid the counterculture’s high tide. (The magazine is named for a Hindu fire god.) At 50, it has become the counterculture, standing athwart contemporary inclinations toward tweets, celebrity coverage, and online ephemera.

Over the decades, the magazine has inspired literary rubbernecking, turning heads by publishing gifted writers who hadn’t yet won their Nobels: Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott (Hon.’93), and Louise Glück among them. (The magazine’s prestige also lured contributions from Joseph Brodsky and Odysseas Elytis after they were Nobel laureates.) Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri (GRS’93, UNI’95,’97), first appeared in AGNI before becoming the title piece in her 2000 Pulitzer-winning short-story collection. 

“Is this kind of a David and Goliath thing that we’re doing?” coeditor Sven Birkerts muses about publishing serious literature. “It’s kind of staking out, representing, and hopefully exerting influence for a certain way—not just of reading, but of paying attention to certain values in the world that are often neglected.”

Those values? “Paying attention,” says Pierce, in a world where online reading truncates attention spans. 

AGNI has partnered with Brookline Booksmith for a yearlong birthday celebration of virtual conversations between the editors and various contributors. (The next one is today, Monday, June 20; register here.) The capstone will be a November event at a still-to-be-determined venue; Robert Pinsky, former three-time US poet laureate, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English, will emcee. Other confirmed participants so far are author and poet Victoria Chang, writer and scholar Teju Cole, and essayist Jo Ann Beard.

In a cultural moment when everything is political and everything political is polarizing, AGNI counters the culture.

“We’re not polemical,” Birkerts says. Which isn’t to say the magazine detaches from the world. Pierce points to “Everything and More” in the current issue, a piece probing gender by trans writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and 2020’s “Story about a Boy,” Hananah Zaheer’s short fiction about a quarantine and a child’s violent death, which “feels like a piece that could only have been written during the pandemic.”

Slaying Goliath?

AGNI’s website reposted old pieces about Roe v. Wade after the potential overturning of the abortion decision leaked last month. And amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, AGNI is publishing work by Ukrainian writers. “We’re not a current events organization,” Pierce says. “But where we see opportunities to connect what we’re already doing with the world as people are experiencing it, we make those connections.”

Ukraine connects with the magazine’s DNA. Melnyczuk, who founded AGNI while an undergrad 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 anniversary panels, on October 17, has befriended leading Ukrainian writers and has had his own books published in translation there. “What we’re able to offer [in AGNI] that you won’t find in newspapers,” he says, “are precisely the voices of those writers, whose responses to the war feel singularly urgent and intimate.”

Asked if he’s surprised AGNI has lasted this long, Melnyczuk says, “Frankly, I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long. AGNI has stayed true to its mission of helping to bring to light the best writing the editors can find, by writers across the spectrum of ages, races, and cultures.

It’s kind of staking out, representing, and hopefully exerting influence for a certain way—not just of reading, but of paying attention to certain values in the world that are often neglected.

Sven Birkerts

“Sven brought his sophisticated literary tastes to bear on the work he publishes, and now Bill Pierce has reconfigured the editorial process to include a great number of voices so beautifully reflecting our cultural moment. The journal continues to feel vital, even young.”

The origin of its name? Borrowed from the underground high school paper he cofounded, Melnyczuk says. Pondering the renegade paper’s name-to-be while returning from a Greenwich Village Shakespeare festival, he and friends stopped at a used bookstore in Manhattan. One of them “declared he’d find us a name. He opened a book at random and dropped his finger. It landed on the word “Agni.” We’d never heard of Agni, but we were intrigued. We figured others might be similarly curious.” 

Pierce, 56, and Birkerts, 70, manage a team of about 20 editors who are scattered around the country and world and paid by stipend. The walls of their office common room are lined with bookshelves holding copies of AGNI and other publications (notably Partisan Review, which also published iconic writers, from BU offices, until it folded in 2003). The magazine survives on subscriptions; fundraising; submission fees from writers to pay editors; 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 workspace.

That budget covers, among other expenses, 2,600 hard copies of each issue—for subscribers, bookstores, and others–—while the website racks up 140,000 yearly visitors. “The question always is who [reads online], how committed are they, how long do they stay?” Pierce says. “We have subscribers to the print issue…many, many, many people who’ve been subscribing for decades. We are in this to make a statement about what’s worth reading. And a lot of readers feel we do that well.”

And if fewer people are reading literature and books?

“I don’t think we’ll slay Goliath,” Birkerts says. “But we’ll kick him in the nuts.”

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