This piece originally appeared in Boog City 109, Sept. 2016.
Celebrating 50 Years of
Hanging Loose Press
In Conversation with
Co-editor Robert Hershon
Interview by Joanna Fuhrman
I have known Hanging Loose Press’ Brooklyn-based editor Robert Hershon almost all my life as a poet; he first started publishing my work in Hanging Loose magazine in the 1980s, when I was still a high school student. In addition to being a groundbreaking publisher, community builder, and witty raconteur, he has written 13 collections of brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking poems. In honor of Hanging Loose Press’s 50th anniversary, Boog City asked me to conduct a short interview with him.
Boog City: When you first started publishing the journal, it was composed of loose pages in an envelope. Who came up with that idea? How many issues did you publish in that form? When did you stop?
Robert Hershon: In 1963, Ron Schreiber, a young instructor and Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, and Emmett Jarrett, an undergraduate just out of the army, started a handsome letterpress magazine called Things, as in [William Carlos Williams’] no poetry but in things. They got out three issues and went broke. They decided to try again, with a much cheaper format: unbound mimeographed pages in a printed envelope that served as the cover. If you liked a poem, you could tack it to the wall. If you didn’t like a poem, you could scribble a grocery list on the blank side.
At about this time, Dick Lourie came along and I followed soon after. Dick and Emmett had met in a Denise Levertov workshop at the 92nd St. Y, the first she ever taught. The late Gordon Bishop was another young poet in that workshop and, as Dick recalls, he was the one who came up with the name Hanging Loose. Gordon was briefly associated with HL but soon drifted away from the poetry scene.
We ran off the pages wherever we could use a mimeo. One issue we printed at Saint Ann’s. The covers were printed at a small shop Dick had found on 14th Street, run by a woman named Virginia Admiral. Many years later, I discovered that she was a close friend of Robert Duncan’s. And a while after that, I discovered she was the wife of Robert De Niro, Sr., the painter, and the mother of the actor.
Libraries and bookstores hated the loose-page format. Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart would only carry the magazine if I hand-bound a sample copy. Nevertheless, we stuck with it for the first 25 issues. After that, we wanted a bigger page and a binding.
You are known for having poems by high school students in the magazine? When did that start? How did you come up with the idea?
In 1968, Dick Lourie, one of the earliest people to work for Poets in the Schools, suggested that we have a regular section of the magazine devoted to writing by high school students. I thought it was a terrible idea. I lost the vote and have been glad I did ever since.
Right from the beginning, we began getting remarkable work, from all parts of the country. In those pre-computer days and with Hanging Loose hardly a fixture on neighborhood newsstands, I don’t know how the young writers found us; they probably found each other first and traded information. What we were looking for were people who really wanted to write. We didn’t want to see warmed-over school assignments or tired imitations of famous poems. And we wanted to be in direct touch with the poets so we didn’t want submissions from teachers or parents, a rule that still applies. It may have been the Sixties, but there were still many strictures in place regarding content, especially for young writers, and that battle continues in high schools today. There were no restrictions on what HL would publish; sex, dope, death, anguish, love, and hate were all fair game.
Most of our young poets have gone on to other fields, but we’ve had a fair number of lifers—Meghan O’Rourke, Rebecca Wolff, Donovan Hohn, Alissa Quart, and a certain interviewer for Boog, to mention a few. We’ve published four well-received anthologies of work that first appeared in the HS section. After all this time, I’ve grown used to being approached by gray-haired people who don’t seem all that much younger than the editors. Hi, they say, I was one of your high school poets.
When did you start publishing books? How did that come about?
By 1972, we had been publishing the magazine for six years and since everything was done by the editors in their spare time, we had no wish to expand. But Ron Schreiber, a bit of a late starter, put together his first collection, Living Space, and badly wanted HL to publish it. We gave in. The book was a simple saddle-stitched affair with a cover drawing by Michaeleen Hershon. Ron wanted to call it a Red Dot book, with said red dot to appear on the title page. Ron, who never learned anything much about production, didn’t understand that we could only print in one color: black. We gave him a red pen and he had to add the dot to the title pages by hand in all 300 copies. That was the end of Red Dot Books.
We didn’t think about books again until 1975. We’d been publishing Jim Gustafson, the wild man of Detroit poetry, and we thought someone should do a book of his. Then we thought: Hell, he’s our guy; we ought to do the book. So we published Bright Eyes Talks Crazy to Rembrandt. We quickly realized that it made sense to publish books in groups, so we added a book by a marvelous young California poet named Katy Akin and chapbooks by Emmett Jarrett and Jacquelyn Lapidus.
We’ve done about 240 titles since then, discovering along the way that books are easier to publish than a magazine, something that surprises many people. With books: No constant submissions, no subscriptions, no renewals, and no readers insisting on the latest issue as though the poems that were a few months old had grown stale. This is why so many small publishers who started with magazines killed them after they moved on to books. But we’ve kept doing the magazine, because we still really enjoy it and because it keeps us in touch with new writers. Most of the writers we publish first came to us through the magazine, including half a dozen or so who actually started in the magazine’s high school section. We consider supporting new writers and older writers who deserve more attention to be what small press publishing is all about.
Ideally, we have a first book on every list. We’ve published the first books of Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, D. Nurkse, Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, and you, to name a few, and the first poetry collections by writers with much experience in other genres, such as Hettie Jones, Michael Cirelli, and Jack Agueros. At the same time, we try to stick with the writers we love, so we’ve done seven titles by Sherman, six by Paul Violi, four by Wilma McDaniel, five by Charles North, three by Sharon Mesmer, three by Steve Schrader, etc. Considering that we publish only six titles in the average year—we’ve done as many as nine—some juggling talent is needed.
Most of our books are poetry, but we’ve also published short fiction, plays, art books, memoirs, and a collection of letters. Whatever the form, we’re always looking for the same thing: energetic, non-academic, non-pompous, non-cluttered, writing that knocks us off our chairs. So far, if I say so myself, so good.
How has being a publisher affected your own writing?
I sort of backed into poetry, in my mid-twenties. I never took a poetry class, was never part of a workshop. For the next few years, I published poems here and there and tried to figure out what I was doing. I was working as a newspaper reporter, then a trade magazine editor. Along the way, I got married, became a father. I didn’t know any other poets beyond hello.
So in 1966, when Dick Lourie and Ron Schreiber invited me to join them in editing a new magazine (co-founder Emmett Jarrett was living in Greece and joined us later) it was all news to me. We had so little to do at first that we held our editorial meetings in McSorley’s, scribbling yes and no on envelopes between glasses of ale. I realized quickly that I was no good at articulating why I made my choices: I don’t know, I just like it, and that that wouldn’t do. I began teaching myself how to analyze poems more carefully, how to argue my points, how to listen carefully to what the others were saying.
That process has been going on for 50 years now and it remains a lively part of my life. I like to think it’s also affected my own work. We have published thousands of poems by hundreds of poets and it’s hard to pick out just a few who have influenced my work. I like to think I’ve learned from many.
There is another aspect of this that has nothing to do with being literary and that’s keeping up with the unglamorous work that must be done if a press is to survive—packing books, writing invoices, answering correspondence, doing grant applications. In my younger days, I could pound a typewriter all day, turning out articles and speeches and other junk for a living, come home and work on my own poems for a few hours and still have the energy for Hanging Loose tasks. I rarely write for money these days, but my energy is not what it once was. The HL work is heavier than ever. Too often, I go to my desk intending to work on something of my own and realize hours later that I’ve created a small tower of HL mail and never even looked at my own stuff. So be it: I’ve written 14 books and I hope I can squeeze out at least one more. I suppose if it weren’t for the press I’d have had more time to promote myself , do more readings, etc. But the majority of people I love in this world (including Donna Brook, my wife) I met through poetry, frequently through Hanging Loose, and that’s very rich compensation.
You are known as being “a funny poet”? Were you born funny? What do you see as the relationship between humor and poetry?
Years ago, following the end of a love affair, I wrote a poem called “The Fifth of July.” I had to pause from time to time because my eyes kept tearing up.
I didn’t read the poem in public for a long time, but finally did at a large benefit in Park Slope. About midway through, the audience burst into laughter, which took me totally by surprise. Oh, you heartless bastards, I thought. But later, thinking on it, I realized the line was funny, that when I write that’s the way things often come out. I never set out to write a funny poem, but humor is apparently part of my DNA.
There are a number of drawbacks to being known as funny. If you’re introduced that way, there are two dangers. One is that the audience will take up the challenge: “I’d like to see the son of a bitch make me laugh!” The other is that people will start giggling at everything, including poems about your mother’s death, the Bubonic Plague, and undergoing chemo. I remember Kenneth Koch scolding an audience: Don’t do that damn Poetry Project thing and laugh at every poem. On the plus side, people new to and/or terrified of poetry often come up to you after a reading and say: Gee, I never knew poetry could be like that. That’s pleasing but also troubling, a reminder that most people think of poetry as difficult and boring, if they ever think of it at all.
“Funny” is not a good adjective if you’re trying to build a reputation. Wonderfully funny poets like Kenneth and like Paul Violi, beloved by many, still never received their due from critics who demand solemnity and belaboring the obvious. “Funny” is equated with “light” and written off as minor. (By the way, whatever became of the superior light verse turned out by people like Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker?)
Subject matter does not dictate tone. I think of a series of poems by Jeni Olin (now known as Truck) that were very lively, very funny. Each one was about a different antidepressant drug she had endured.
JOANNA FUHRMAN (http://www.joannafuhrman.com/) is the author of five books of poetry, including The Year of Yellow Butterflies (Hanging Loose Press) and Pageant (Alice James Books). She is a former poetry editor at Ping Pong and Boog City. Her poems have appeared in various journals including The Believer, Volt, and New American Writing, and various anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize 2011 and Litscapes (Steerage Press). She teaches poetry writing at Rutgers University, through Teachers & Writers Collaborative, Poets House, and in private workshops.
ROBERT HERSHON is the author of 14 books of poetry, the newest being Goldfish and Rose and Freeze Frame. His work has appeared in more than 40 anthologies and in such journals as American Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, The World, and The Nation, among others. Some awards include two Creative Writing Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three from The New York Foundation on the Arts. Hershon also serves as co-editor of Hanging Loose Press (http://hangingloosepress.com/), one of the country’s oldest independent publishers. Hershon has taught for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and Saint Ann’s School, as well as fulfilling shorter residencies at the University of Michigan and the College of William and Mary. From 1976 to 2010, he served as executive director of The Print Center, Inc., a non-profit facility which provides printing services to literary publishers, schools, and colleges, and other arts and community organizations. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Donna Brook, a poet and children’s book author. Star Black photo.