Mark Pawlak and Dick Lourie are editors of Hanging Loose Press, the longest continuously running independent literary magazine and small press in the United States, with offices in Boston and New York. Hanging Loose Press has published nearly 200 book titles by such authors as National Book Award winners Sherman Alexie and Ha Jin; Barnard New Women Poets Prize winner Kathy Park Hong; and acclaimed jazz poet Jayne Cortez, among many others. On the occasion of Hanging Loose’s 45th anniversary and the hundredth issue of Hanging Loose magazine, Mark and Dick spoke to Breakwater about literary publishing; about the history of Hanging Loose and its UMass Boston connection; and about recent trends in American poetry.
Mark Pawlak’s seventh poetry collection will be published in 2012. Mark is the Director of Academic Support Programs and teaches mathematics at UMass Boston, which, he likes to say, is how he supports his poetry habit. Dick Lourie is the author of five poetry collections. He is also a blues saxophone player—though in his case he does not claim that music supports the poetry habit. Dick’s second CD of poems with blues band accompaniment and his own saxophone playing is forthcoming. It has the same title as his most recent book, If the Delta Was the Sea.
Breakwater: Breakwater Review is the flagship literary magazine of the UMass Boston MFA program and Hanging Loose is an independent magazine and press; yet, surprising to most, they are closely related. How have Hanging Loose editors, including the late Ron Schreiber, been involved with UMass Boston?
Mark Pawlak: The connection stretches back to nearly the beginnings of UMass Boston. Ron Schreiber, one of the co-founders of Hanging Loose, joined the English Department in 1967, shortly after the campus was established downtown in Park Square. Hanging Loose was in its infancy back then, and this harbor campus was still a city landfill. Ron arrived filled with the spirit of the “mimeograph revolution” in small press publishing that was resulting in a proliferation of “underground” literary magazines, many of which, unlike HL, lasted only one or two issues.
He was also an ambassador for the poetry and poetics of William Carlos Williams, about whom he’d written his doctoral dissertation at Columbia. When Ron taught undergraduate creative writing courses or Introduction to Poetry here at UMass Boston, he frequently included as texts some work from the latest issue of Hanging Loose magazine and from the new poetry collections published by Hanging Loose Press. This largely accounts for the Healey Library stacks holding a nearly complete print run of HL magazine and numerous HL press titles. Ron was committed to introducing his students in this way to fresh writing by contemporary authors of a kind they wouldn’t find in the Norton anthologies of that time or in academic literary journals.
In later years, Ron regularly taught two popular English courses that he’d created. One was titled “Visionary and Prophetic Modes,” a course devoted to the poems and prophetic books of William Blake. The other, which he first taught in 1973, was a survey course on the homosexual in Western literature. (Ron was openly gay. He had come out before he came up for tenure at UMass.) This was the first, or among the first, gay and lesbian literature courses in the country. Whenever Hanging Loose published new poems by a gay or lesbian author, Ron made sure, again, that they found their way onto the course reading list. So, once more, his students were exposed not just to historical gay literature but also to contemporary work, “hot off the press.” Before Ron retired, he served for several years as chair of the English department. After his death, his academic papers and course materials were archived in the Healey Library.
One other important thing about Ron and the Hanging Loose connection to UMass Boston is that he was very influential in the Boston poetry community. The poets he encouraged were not just young beginning gay and lesbian writers, but also straight poets and Vietnam veteran poets, both on and off campus. Some of the Vet poets later became associated with the William Joiner Center. Ron offered them all an inclusive, nonconformist, nonacademic approach to poetry based in the poetics of The New American Poetry: in particular, the Black Mountain, New York School, and San Francisco Renaissance poets. This approach to poetics was something he held in common with the other HL editors.
Dick Lourie: The kind of poetry that Ron brought to his students was what we at Hanging Loose have generally championed, poetry that had begun to emerge in the mid-fifties from the places Mark just mentioned, and also the Beat scene in New York—most of these being influenced by William Carlos Williams and the Walt Whitman tradition. The growing divide in the poetry community of the time, between formalism and a freer approach, was characterized succinctly, if broadly, by Robert Lowell as “the raw and the cooked,” in his 1960 speech accepting the National Book Award. Ron exposed his students to the energy and freedom of this “raw” kind of poetry. For many at the time, as Mark has noted, it was an exciting and invigorating way to experience literature.
BW: It seems a much larger community and a whole, younger, generation were all heavily influenced by Ron and deeply saddened by his death.
MP: In testimonials given at his memorial service one poet after another, many of them UMass Boston grads, came forward to say how refreshing and enabling they had found his teaching.
BW: How about your own involvement with UMB?
MP: My own relationship with UMass Boston dates from the mid-1970s. I first set foot on campus in the company of Denise Levertov, who had been invited to give a poetry reading and afterward visit an English class. She brought me along and introduced me to an overflow audience in Lipke Auditorium as a new poet to watch out for. It was my first big public poetry reading. I found it thrilling and terrifying. Although I had had poems published in the magazine (thanks to Denise, as I’ll explain later), I wasn’t yet a Hanging Loose editor. That came about five years later, coincident with my accepting a staff position at UMass Boston. Denise, I should note, was my teacher and mentor. She had also taught Dick and HL co-founder Emmett Jarrett, and she served as contributing editor to Hanging Loose for almost 25 years.
Throughout my more than 30 years working at UMass Boston as an Academic Support professional and mathematics instructor, I have also been a Hanging Loose editor. In this capacity and as a published poet in my own right, I have been a guest speaker on numerous occasions in Pamela Annas’ English courses in Literature of the Working Class and in Askold Melnyczuk’s MFA course on literary publishing. I’ve served as judge on several occasions for the Mary Curran Doyle Scholarship, given annually to one or more undergraduate creative writing students. I’ve been a panelist on literary publishing for the summer Writers’ Workshop co-sponsored by the William Joiner Center and the Creative Writing Program. I’ve offered internships in literary publishing to both undergraduate creative writing and to MFA students. And over the years, editors of The Watermark, Breakwater Review, and Consequence have sought my advice on editing and publishing their journals.
I’ve also had a number of opportunities to read my own poems publicly on campus. Ron, Dick, and I gave a memorable reading of our work some years ago under the sponsorship of the English Department and Creative Writing Program. Another time, Hanging Loose, the Joiner Center, the English Department, and The Watermark jointly sponsored a poetry reading by undergraduate creative writing students of selections they had made from Present/Tense: Poets in the World, an anthology of contemporary political poetry that I had edited. And when Joyce Peseroff and I each had a new poetry collection published a few years back, we gave a book-launch reading together in the Campus Center ballroom.
BW: Where do you fit in here, Dick?
DL: I guess I was fated to work at UMass Boston. Kismet. I gave some readings for Ron’s classes when he was still teaching at the Park Square location. Later, after I had moved from Ithaca to Boston, I did some adjunct teaching in the Academic Support Program that Mark now directs. Then, in 1985, pretty burned out from a long life of part-time work, I applied for and got a full-time staff job as editor with the Publications Office, working on the university’s various catalogs and brochures. Interestingly, I’ve always thought that my years with Hanging Loose had honed my editing skills to a degree that helped me get the UMass Boston job (from which I’m now retired). Over the years I have continued to give readings, presentations, and workshops at various times at the university—most recently to the newly formed Poetry Club. When my latest book came out in 2009, UMass Boston was the first place I set up a reading to celebrate its publication. I seek out these occasions with some eagerness, as they allow me to maintain my relationship with the UMass Boston community.
BW: Hanging Loose magazine has never had a themed issue. Since it seems themed issues are growing in popularity with literary magazines, why has HL not felt the need to go in this direction?
MP: First: I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the idea of themed issues. I’ve seen many other magazines do a fine job of putting together issues on a particular theme or targeted to a special audience. Plus, if done well, this can be a way for a relatively new journal to gain attention for itself. It can also serve as a marketing vehicle, attracting readers who might otherwise think, “Ho-hum, yet another poetry magazine.” At HL, however, we have simply never felt the need to do one. It has a lot to do with our magazine’s origin in the 60s, with the ethos and aesthetics of those times that just naturally informed our editorial practice.
DL: It could be said that our unwavering commitment—to the ethos and aesthetics and politics of the times in which the magazine was born—that this commitment has been and remains in a sense our “theme”. That’s all we feel is needed both to sustain the identity we have established and to present our readers with a coherent body of work in each issue.
MP: What Dick refers to as the “ethos” and “politics” of those times includes opposition to the military draft, Vietnam-era antiwar protests, civil rights, gay liberation, and women’s liberation. These were all more or less coeval with Hanging Loose’s early years. We have always responded to poems that show awareness of or engagement with current social or political issues in a natural, non-didactic way. Writers know that about us and so don’t hesitate to send us such poems. We have always published women in roughly equal proportion to men, as well as poets of color, of varied ethnicities, and the full spectrum of sexual preferences and identities. Ron made sure that HL was active in encouraging emerging gay writers, and we were always grateful to him for those efforts. Because this openness and variety is on display in virtually every issue of HL, we have never, as I mentioned, felt that need for an occasional issue that focuses attention on a single theme.
BW: How else has this 60s ethos, which HL grew from, influenced your aesthetic direction?
MP: From the start, HL has never been about publishing poetry intentionally crafted to be “for the ages.” Terrific if the poems we publish have lasting value, but first they must be “of the moment,” with something necessary to say, fresh in language and outlook, formal innovation preferred.
And related to our ethos and our aesthetics: The order of appearance of poems in each issue is alphabetical by author’s surname and, for about the first 35 years, our table of contents included authors’ addresses. We editors, individually and collectively, are constitutionally opposed to hierarchies of status (such as whose poem gets to be on page one) and in favor of creating a sense of community among writers.
DL: Before Facebook, before the Internet, before directories of poets and writers, we published authors’ addresses, which enabled fellow poets and HL readers to correspond with one another, quibble, send fan mail, suggest a get-together, etc. Several partnerings and marriages have resulted. At its core, Hanging Loose is as much a community of poets and artists as it is a literary magazine. It’s a social network of sorts. Maybe besides our literary longevity, we can claim to be among the first “social networking sites,” as well.
BW: Hanging Loose has made an explicit commitment to publishing high-school-age writers in every issue; effectively including them in your poetic social network. Why has this been such an important part of HL?
MP: Our commitment to publishing high-school writers also goes back to the 60s, to ideas that were percolating in the minds of poets on both the East and West coasts, primarily in Berkeley and New York City. The reigning pedagogy for teaching poetry to schoolchildren back then focused on scansion, and on identifying figures of speech and traditional forms in the poetry of mostly dead white male poets. What this produced in most kids was boredom if not a strong dislike for poetry. The new idea was to have live poets of both genders and of varied races and ethnicities visit classrooms with the intention of turning kids on to the pleasures of hearing poems read aloud and even trying to write poems of their own modeled on those that they had heard and enjoyed. This bright idea can be traced back to Ezra Pound and his protégé Louis Zukofsky who believed that “a measure of poetry is the pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.” Emphasis on the word pleasure.
BW: Have HL editors been involved in teaching or otherwise working with teenagers? Is that how your emphasis on encouraging and publishing high school age writers came about?
MP: Except for Ron, who had always taught at the college level, the rest of the HL editors were involved, in one way or another, in introducing children and high school kids to the pleasures of contemporary poetry. Among HL’s co-founders, Dick helped create a group of New York poets working in New York City and in schools all over the state. Both Emmett Jarrett and Bob Hershon, the one editor who has remained in New York City over the years, taught for a period at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, which to this day continues to be a breeding ground for terrific young poets. I taught poetry, math and science throughout the 70s at the Group School in Cambridge, an alternative high school for poor and working class kids; also, for a couple of years, I was poet-in-residence for the Worcester Public Schools, visiting classrooms at all levels, K–12, across that city.
BW: So it was a natural extension of your work as teachers to want to encourage young writers of high school age through publishing their poems and stories, introducing them to the world of professional writers.
MP: Right. We knew from our own experience in the schools that teens have a lot to say. We also found that many of them were serious about learning the craft of poetry. We like to say that the mission of HL is to provide an audience for older writers who we feel deserve wider recognition, and to promote the work of new writers, including those in their teens.
DL: As to high-school writers, I’d say their consistent inclusion is not exactly a theme, but a reflection of, as Mark put it, our emphasis on “openness and variety.” And with high-schoolers, the openness works in both directions, exposing these young writers to the wider poetry audience to which they would not otherwise have access; and, on the other hand, exposing the wider world of contemporary, living poetry to the work of teenagers in the dubious clutches (with some notable exceptions) of high school English classes.
In the mid-sixties, along with our work on the magazine, I was doing poets-in-schools work—at the time a very new idea—for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City and, as Mark notes, I established along with others the New York State Poets in the Schools program. Miguel Ortiz, who in the late 60s and early 70s was with us as associate editor, then full editor, worked for Teachers and Writers as well. Emmett not only taught but also for a time chaired the humanities department at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn and Bob, besides teaching there, did many readings and short-term residencies at area schools. So we were all well aware of what was going on in high schools as well as on the literary scene.
I also recall that, just before Hanging Loose #1 came out, a cousin of mine in Philadelphia showed me a poem by one of her high school classmates, Deborah Deichler (now a pretty well-known painter). This is astonishing, I thought, and I wanted it right then for our first issue. After that, we just kept finding equally astonishing high school work, and soon decided (starting with issue #9 in 1970) that we needed a regular section. Since then, we’ve never run out of terrific high school poems (and some amazing fiction), and the section remains in every issue. I’m very proud of that record, and of the four volumes we’ve published over the years anthologizing the very best of that high school work. (Now of course, as I look back over this long history, I can see that some of our first high-schoolers may soon be collecting Social Security—but I try not to dwell on that.)
BW: Have any of the high-school poets you’ve published been inspired to pursue literary careers?
MP: Writing and publishing poems when a teenager doesn’t mean that one is destined to continue to write and publish work of high quality as an adult. But for many alums of our magazine’s high school section that has been the case. Joanna Fuhrman (first published as a high-schooler in HL #58, 1991) went on to get an MFA and has published three full-length collections with Hanging Loose. Her fourth book recently won the Kinereth Gensler Award which included publication by Alice James Press. Evelyn Lau, who first appeared in HL #49 (1986), is the best-selling author of Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid. She has gone on to publish two story collections, a novel, and two poetry collections, one of them short-listed for Canada’s 1992 Governor General’s Literary Award.
Some, like Meghan O’Rourke (#64, 1994) and Rebecca Wolff (#49), in addition to writing and publishing collections of their poems, have become editors and publishers. Meghan is culture editor at Slate and poetry editor at the Paris Review, and her elegiac book-length memoir about her mother, The Long Goodbye, was excerpted in The New Yorker and published to wide acclaim last year. Rebecca is the founding editor of Fence magazine and Fence Press, as well as a published poet and novelist.
DL: And others like Laura Secor (#55, 1989) have distinguished themselves as journalists. She is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Republic, writing about Iran’s democracy movement. Sam Kashner (#11, lost in the mists of prehistory) and Donovan Hohn (#55) are contributing editors to Vanity Fair and Harper’s Magazine respectively. Sam (who also authored the first book of poems from Hanging Loose Press) is a novelist (Sinatraland) and a memoirist (When I was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics); and has co-authored two Hollywood biographies, one on Oscar Levant and the other about the marriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Donovan’s Viking Press book, MOBY-DUCK: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, was greeted last year with rave reviews in The New York Times, among other places. And the list goes on.
BW: In the history of HL there has only been one permanent change on the editorial board, and that was when Mark joined 31 years ago. Mark, how did you get involved with HL?
MP: Between 1966 and roughly 1978, Bob, Dick, Ron and Emmett, the four founding editors, remained at the helm. Two or three others joined the staff at various times during that period, some for shorter, others for longer durations. Sometime during the mid-seventies, Emmett began preparing to enter the Episcopal priesthood, becoming gradually less involved in the day-to-day editing and publishing. Eventually he stepped down, leaving a vacancy the remaining editors soon felt the need to fill. I was invited to join the editorial staff in 1980 and I’ve been on board ever since—31 years.
I am convinced that the principal reason for the longevity of HL—while so many other (as we used to call them) “little” magazines fold after just a few years—is that we always had, till Ron’s death in 2004, a staff of at least four editors, among whom the responsibilities of editing and publishing HL magazine and books were distributed. (Now we are three.) All the editors decide together what to publish, by reading the magazine and book submissions; but, of course, beyond choosing what to print, there are many other aspects of publishing a journal and books. Our individual areas of responsibility take into consideration each of our strengths in such areas as copyediting, production, marketing, order fulfillment, bookkeeping, etc. Also, whenever one of the editors cannot shoulder his share of tasks because of personal or health issues, the others are able to step up and take over until the crisis passed.
DL: Another reason we’ve lasted 46 years is that we trust one another’s editorial judgment. And that’s not simply a matter of shared taste—because there are plenty of times when, sitting around the editorial table, there’s a two to one vote on accepting something for the magazine. If I’m the one “No” vote, I am nevertheless content to go along with the other two. Why? Because I trust that, despite my opinion in this particular case, despite my personal taste and judgment on this one poem or story, they will not be ruining my magazine by including some piece of awful writing.
And if, in the opposite situation, I’m the lone “Yes” vote against two “No’s”, I’m content to think: well, I lost this round, but I know the issue will still be a strong one. And when Ron was with us, in the case of a tie two–two vote the ayes still had it—benefit of the doubt going to the yeses—again, because we all sustain such a high degree of confidence in one another.
MP: Our most acute and most wrenching crisis, of course, was Ron’s death. Ron did the bookkeeping and fulfillment of magazine and book orders, packaging and mailing both individual orders and large boxed shipments to distributors. His basement in North Cambridge served as the warehouse for active HL titles. He maintained our mailing lists for magazine subscriptions and for annual catalog solicitations. Along with me, he also shared the responsibility of doing first readings of magazine submissions, which meant culling the slush pile.
After his death, many of Ron’s duties were gradually shifted to Bob’s territory in Brooklyn. Marie Carter, a former HL intern there, became the first ever paid employee of HL (for the editors it has always been a “labor of love”). She brought bookkeeping and order fulfillment into the 21st century by computerizing them. Donna Brook—poet, long-time HL author, and Bob’s spouse—offered to help with first readings, a task the editors had hitherto never felt comfortable entrusting to anyone else. Soon Marie’s and Donna’s roles were formalized; they became associate editors. Some of their responsibilities have changed slightly in recent years, but that’s more or less how we operate today.
You asked about how I got involved with HL, how I arrived at that invitation to actually join up. I started out at the periphery of the HL vortex and, over a period of 10 years, spiraled closer to the center. In 1970, my very first published poem appeared in HL #12, thanks to Denise Levertov. In her role as a contributing editor, Denise had gathered poems from her MIT poetry workshop students, of which I was one, for a supplement published in that issue. Over the next several years, in addition to helping me get readings like the one at UMass Boston I mentioned, she included several more of my poems in a couple of additional HL supplements.
Ron was the first HL editor that I met. This was at a dinner party at Denise’s Davis Square home in Somerville. Ron, by then, was established at UMass Boston and living in a collective household on Winter Hill. I frequently ran into him at poetry events around town during the 70s. Then in 1978, I was invited to join a men’s consciousness-raising group that had started about 6 years before among a group of faculty and staff at UMass Boston. Ron was a founding member of the Men’s Group, as we call it. (We continue to meet to this day, and it is one of the oldest continuously running groups of its kind on the east coast.) That’s when Ron and I became close friends. We also lived around the corner from each other in North Cambridge, so proximity cemented the friendship. As Ron got to know me better, he began to advocate for me to join the editorial staff of HL
It was also at Denise’s house that I first met Dick. He was living in Ithaca at the time, but had remained close to Denise and was a guest at her house on those occasions when he visited Boston. Dick moved to the Boston area in 1980. Shortly afterward, he was invited to join the men’s group and I was invited to join HL as an editor. By then, following Emmett’s departure, the other editors were dearly feeling the absence of a fourth. It seemed a natural fit.
BW: I’ve heard the founding editors have given you a nickname.
MP: Yes, about my nickname. Even though it feels like I’ve been editing HL for a long time, the others had already been at it for 14 years when I joined the staff. Dick was born 10 years before me. Bob is 12 years older than I am, and Ron, were he still alive, would be 14 years my senior. So, when we appear at public events such as our recent 45th anniversary reading sponsored by the New England Poetry Club, the other editors jokingly refer to me—at 31 years on the job—as the “junior” editor.
DL: I’ll jump in here after “Junior” to make an observation about HL’s longevity. When you are in any kind of group working together, how long you can stay together in part depends on the way relationships are formed and nurtured (or destroyed or allowed to wither). For Hanging Loose, what goes along with the professional relationships and the assignment of tasks according to individual skills are our deep and long friendships. We’ve been fortunate in that the professional and personal relationships have in a sense melded. We work well together partly because we are friends. As Mark mentioned, three of our four editors were in our men’s group (as Mark and I still are), and Bob would probably be in it as well, if he lived in Boston instead of Brooklyn.
Again, as Mark noted, Emmett left the press in 1980. But Bob and I had known him since the mid-sixties; in Emmett’s role as priest—and in his most elegant priestly garb—he presided over both our weddings. We visited him frequently at his home in Connecticut, and remained friends till he died last year. When we all knew Emmett was terminally ill, Mark and I videotaped an interview with him, to keep memories alive. We were there at his funeral; we miss him. Miguel Ortiz was there as well, who had not been with the press for more than twenty years. Miguel is someone with whom our friendship has continued long past his official involvement with Hanging Loose.
And as for Ron, we talk about him every time we meet to discuss HL business and manuscripts. His death left a big hole professionally and personally. How did we feel? To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, “We can’t go on. We’ll go on.”
BW: Mark once told me that HL was spawned from another literary magazine called Things—a namesake from the William Carlos Williams’ line “no ideas, but in things.” How did Hanging Loose start, and where does the name come from?
DL: I’m not sure about the term “spawned”—I’d go for “hatched” or “propelled” or maybe “immaculately birthed.” Anyway, the story is that when Emmett was studying at Columbia University in the early sixties, he met Ron, who was then working toward his PhD. They soon bonded (I envision it happening over many cups of the wickedly strong coffee Emmett used to brew) through their mutual admiration of Williams and Blake.
Being young and ambitious, they embarked on the project of a magazine that would be true, as you note in your question, to the Williams dictum. In 1963 they brought out the first issue of Things—an impressive (and expensively printed) magazine. By the time the second issue came out a year later, Emmett and I were both participants, as Mark mentioned, in a poetry workshop led by Denise Levertov at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YMHA. We were also both denizens of the East Village in its exciting (and cheaper) days. As we became friends, Emmett asked me to send poems for the third issue of Things, and also to become a co-editor. He needed help because Ron was spending a year in the Netherlands, which meant much more work for Emmett.
One of the consequences of Ron’s absence, and the general labor and expense of putting out the magazine, was that many contributors were experiencing long delays before seeing their work in print. One of them was a Robert Hershon in Brooklyn—Emmett assigned me to phone him and explain the situation. Bob was flabbergasted: Editors generally, he told me, don’t just call you to explain their delays.
BW: Well, this kind of attentiveness is part of what still defines HL, to those who know and respect you.
DL: In fact, nor has this changed much over the years, some editors will just completely ignore both you and your polite inquiries. Anyway, at that point we all became friends and, soon after, we took the next step.
Things had predictably been breaking the bank for Ron and Emmett. When I came on board, they had already decided to kill it and start a magazine that would be cheaper to produce. About then, we enlisted Bob as our fourth editor. (“How much time,” he said to his wife, “could it take?” Ha ha.) One of the other students in Denise’s workshop was an irrepressible young prodigy named Gordon Bishop. It was Gordon who actually came up with the name “Hanging Loose,” meant to signify informality and the kind of immediacy Mark referred to earlier—poetry for now, not for the ages.
Young and enthusiastic, we carried that idea pretty far: We decided that our new project should in fact literally be “hanging loose.” Pages were not bound; rather they were simply stuck into a 6×9 envelope with a cover picture printed on the front. You could, we told people, edit it yourself—lose the poems you didn’t like and pin the others up on your wall. And the earliest issues were typed by Ron—who was very fast—directly onto mimeograph stencils. Collating was a matter of editors, volunteers, and younger siblings walking in a kind of slow parade around a long table, stacking one loose page on the next.
At some point, as printing became more affordable and we all had fairly reliable jobs, we began to change our methods. And with issue #25, we could no longer resist the disapproval of bookstores, which had been finding that customers sometimes exercised their “hanging loose” editorial preferences without buying the magazine, instead simply lifting their favorite poems out of the envelope to carry home and put on their walls. For the first time, the magazine was bound, and we became “hanging loose” only in spirit—which, we believe, we have remained.
BW: Aside from the HL magazine, HL Press publishes book-length collections of poetry each year. Has that process changed as well?
DL: Yes, during these early years, another decision we made was to publish books as well as the journal. We’ve continued to do that, with now more than 170 titles—all still in print. And though the books didn’t have to go through exactly the same evolutionary process as the magazine, there have been changes there too, in the way production is carried out. Thus today, in preparing both the magazine and the books for publication, we’re more likely to be looking at a screen than a piece of paper. So at this point we sometimes say that the development of printing technology over the last forty-plus years can be illustrated simply by tracing the history of Hanging Loose.
BW: What current, personal projects you are working on now? I know Mark has a Denise Levertov memoir, and Dick likes to write twenty-page poems. Is there a muse out there that you are currently listening to, or an aesthetic direction you’re pushing for—and will there will be a surprise in the 100th issue of HL magazine?
DL: As for my own projects: My most recent collection, If the Delta Was the Sea, built on the framework of my music and my poetry, was a book of poems about the small city of Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta, which I began visiting fifteen years ago as a blues musician. I soon started researching the wider history and culture of the Delta, both connected to and beyond the blues. (And, as you mentioned earlier, Peter, I’ll soon have a CD to accompany that book.)
I really liked working on a focused, large project, many poems around the same broad theme; so I’m going to do the same again, and continue the fusion of poetry with music. This next book will be focused on the urban rhythm and blues, black music of the 40s and 50s. The broader cultural moment has to do with one of the periodic splits among jazz musicians; with stark, open segregation and the burgeoning of what would become the civil rights movement of the 60s; with the cultural and musical roots that would soon grow into rock and roll—plenty of material to work with, and I’ve started some intense reading to provide background for the project. How long will it take? No predictions.
MP: Personal projects… yes, my Denise Levertov memoir continues to move forward. I’ve completed drafts of four substantial chapters—nearly 200 pages. It starts in 1969, when I first met her while a student at MIT, and will conclude with her death in 1997, and say something about her legacy. It mostly focuses on the nearly 20-year span when she lived in the Boston area, when she was both my mentor and my friend. Several excerpts from the memoir have appeared in journals and anthologies.
I’ve also recently completed a new book of poems and I’m nearly finished with a second one. Both books continue my exploration of the poetic journal as form that began with “Hart’s Neck Haibun” in my collection Official Versions. Plein Air editions, an imprint of Bootstrap Press, will bring out Go to the Pine in 2012. The setting is Downeast coastal Maine. The title comes from Basho, the 17th Century haiku poet, who invented the poetic travel journal. James Schuyler’s poems and journals, along with Fairfield Porter’s paintings, were contemporary influences.
The second book is a collection of urban poems, including a series of journal poems about commuting to work on the Red Line. Recently it occurred to me that these poems have an affinity with Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which someone once described as “I do this, I do that” poems. Mine are more like “I saw this, I overheard that.” But the line of influences leads back through generations of quintessentially urban (New York) poets from Harvey Shapiro through Charles Reznikoff to Walt Whitman.
As for issue 100… we’re in the process of filling it right now. Nothing has changed in the way we go about doing that. We are as always simply choosing the best work that has been made available to us. There will be old friends represented as well as new voices. No big surprises, but perhaps a couple of departures from past practice. One is a long interview conducted by Mark Hillringhouse with the marvelous, wildly imaginative poet Paul Violi. Paul passed away earlier this year. Hanging Loose published four collections of his poetry and one of his prose. The other departure is a collaboration between artist Toni Simon and poet Joanna Fuhrman, consisting of staged photographs and poems inspired by them.
BW: Last thing. We’ve heard a lot about the history of HL, but what does being a part of Hanging Loose, with such passion and fierce devotion for so many years, mean for you as we approach the 100th issue?
MP: Our 25th anniversary anthology issue (#50/51) was clearly a milestone. So was our 40th anniversary issue (#89). In each instance we all felt that it was an occasion to pause a moment, celebrate, but then keep on keeping on. I feel differently about issue 100. A century of issues! That number, for me at least, has a different, weightier significance. I know that we will keep the magazine and press going for as long as we are able to sustain the effort, but now the thought has crept into my consciousness that sooner rather than later, this enterprise we call Hanging Loose will come to an end. It is not so much foreboding as it is an awareness of mortality that comes with age. It’s not just that we have lost two of our founding editors to cancer, but that in recent years we have lost so many of the poets and artists we have counted as members of the extended Hanging Loose family. In addition to Paul Violi, gone are Helen Adam, Karen Brodine, Jim Gustafson, George Mosby Jr., Robert Peterson, Rochelle Ratner, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Morton Marcus, Stephen Beal and John Jones, who had poems in issue #1.
I once wrote, in an essay about what it meant to me personally to be an editor of Hanging Loose, that I thought of our magazine as an informal symposium on what might be possible to accomplish in poetry at any moment. I think of HL as an ongoing exchange among many different voices in which some writers participate briefly, offer what they have to say, then exit the stage; others return year after year keeping up their end of the conversation. Old friends reappear after long absence, much as old friends are wont to do, and new voices are always joining in, some of whom stay around. Among the ones who stay or keep coming back are unmistakable voices that I never tire of hearing. Unfortunately, some of those voices have now gone silent. I feel a loss for what they would have had to tell me, the things they would have observed or commented on, their always-fresh insights. Those conversations have sustained me as both poet and editor. I’m saddened by their absence from the conversation, even while, at the same time, I’m eager for new voices to chime in.
DL: I agree with Mark about the way it feels to be approaching issue #100. It really does make one pause and reflect. I also like the terms Mark uses to describe HL as a “symposium” and an “enterprise.” (Speaking of the Enterprise, sometimes I think of our beloved Ron as a combination of Spock and McCoy—don’t get me started.)
Another word with meaning for me is “community.” HL itself is part of the larger community of poets in this country. We have a presence, of course, in New York City, where Bob is very active at The Poetry Project as both an editor of HL and a poet. But for me HL has also been a tight community in and of itself. We editors, along with some of the poets we’ve published frequently and become close to, are the permanent residents, so to speak, and welcoming many others to join us as they come along.
And in my life—where I’m constantly dealing with the twin passions of music and poetry and, it seems, eternally reading manuscripts and editing HL books and copyediting the magazine—I don’t get out much to readings, or to hang out with other poets at maybe a literary festival or some poetry event. And—I’m not proud to say it, but this is how it is—I am not good about sending my own work out, and I don’t keep up with other journals, don’t know a lot of what’s going on in the larger poetry world. So in an important sense my own poetry community consists largely of Hanging Loose. Of course I have other poet friends outside HL, but my sense of community is focused on this enterprise, this symposium, this—if I may say so—small world of poetry activism that we have created.
PP: Anything else?
DL: I’d like to close with something that’s not a direct answer to any of your questions, but which I think might be of interest to some readers: Our method for selecting manuscripts, which I’ve referred to above as a process of voting. It’s actually a process of voting twice—perhaps like primary and general elections—that has developed, evolved, for both practical and aesthetic reasons.
The practical: since about 1970, we’ve never had all our editors living in the same city. Hence, we had to do a lot of mailing stuff around: all the submissions to be either accepted or rejected, along with a written record of what the last guy thought before he passed them on. This practice led to the evolution of an actual printed form that we call a “routing sheet,” with everyone’s votes recorded (yes, no, or maybe) on each poem or story in the particular batch being submitted.
The aesthetic reason: We have always believed in the primacy of the poem heard rather than read in silence. Those of us who studied with Denise Levertov have always remembered the impact of those sessions with participants, at her insistence, reading their work aloud to the group. So this idea doesn’t necessarily mean only what’s referred to as “spoken word”: It does mean one person reading a poem aloud so others can listen and respond to it. We view this as the crucial test—how the poem enters your ear.
Thus, we meet four times a year around a table, for one long Saturday; piled in front of us are all the pieces submitted in the previous few months on which any one of the editors has voted “yes” or “maybe.” Next, we simply take turns reading them to each other—and we vote again. We treat our previous votes only as “qualifiers” that have served to get particular pieces to this table. So we disregard all previous preferences; we vote again based on how we hear the piece this time. More often than one would expect, an editor will reverse his vote—the equivalent of dumping the candidate you favored in the primary.
I have no idea if anyone else does it this way, but as in so much else with Hanging Loose, we developed and invented as we went along, and I guess it worked because it’s been forty-five years, as we head now toward issue #100, and we’re still around.
BW: I hope you stay around for a while longer, so you can keep enjoying your successes—you deserve it. Thank you, Dick and Mark, and congratulations on issue 100!
MP & DL: Thank you too, Peter. It was a pleasure; we’re glad for this opportunity to highlight Hanging Loose’s current and historical connections to the UMass Boston community.