Hanging Loose with Robert Hershon

When poet Robert Hershon greets me, we shake hands without my noting he’s a lefty. I learn this later, following his confession that he’s “come to the computer late.” Is he hunt and peck? I ask. “No,” he replies, “I’m the world’s fastest one-fingered typist.” He tries to be good to his left forefinger, which bears the full workload. This is how he taught himself to type years ago, and he still clips along at 40 or 50 words per minute. Once a copy boy for the Herald Tribune, Hershon majored in journalism at NYU, and wrote stories on the side. He didn’t share the Herald’s Republican stance, but the work was exciting, and the paper boasted such talents as the sportswriter Red Smith. A magazine called Quixote published Hershon’s first story. Eighteen and delighted, he was unaware at the time this acceptance would mark both the beginning and the end of his fiction career.

Born and raised in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Hershon left New York for San Francisco, arriving the day of the Howl obscenity trial. The year was 1957; he knew little of poetry. He moved in with a friend living in North Beach, into a place his poem “Poster” describes as “kandinsky posters scotch-taped to walls / and a table made from a door / and a brick-and-boards bookcase / and a mattress on the floor / and everything was painted / flat black except for the little yellow / desk I bought from good will.” Seated at the yellow desk, he wrote his first poems, and began to seek out the company of other poets. “Everything took place in the bars,” he says. He recalls Jack Spicer holding court in Gino and Carlo’s, younger poets grouped about him. Once, when Hershon received a rejection note from W. S. Merwin, Hershon mentioned Merwin to Spicer, in hopes of eliciting more information. “Merwin?” Spicer replied, “he’s some kind of fuckin’ priest,” for he had confused Merwin with Thomas Merton.

At the time, Hershon says, there were very few magazines around, and most of these were university quarterlies: The wave of independent and mimeo-magazines was only beginning to break. Prominent on the scene were two anthologies: one edited by Donald Allen, spanning 1945 to 1960, another compiled by Donald Hall, Robert Pack, and Louis Simpson. No duplication existed between their contents: the lines between left and right had been sharply drawn. Hershon met such poets as Robert Creeley, James Schuyler and Kenneth Koch: “I was on their side of the fence. But it never occurred to me that I would actually meet them.” His first acceptance came from the Antioch Review in 1961, just before he left San Francisco (a six-month visit had lasted for five years) to return to New York. Back in New York, he supported himself editing trade magazines, and later, writing sales promotions. His first book, Swans Loving Bears Burning The Melting Deer, came out in 1967, and over the next five years he would publish six more works. The mid-60s also brought on the flowering of small press magazines, and from that time forward Hershon began to wear many literary hats.

Since then, Hershon’s life has been a weave of three strands: poet, book and magazine editor, and director of the Print Center. A pivotal moment for him came at the Gotham Book Mart, when he happened upon Things, a small press magazine. Hershon sent the magazine a submission, and received a phone call some time later. Poet/editor Dick Lourie informed him that Things had died, but asked whether they could consider his work for a new magazine called Hanging Loose. In 1966, Hershon gave his first public reading with Lourie. Invited to join co-editors Lourie, Ron Schreiber, and Emmett Jarrett, Hershon accepted, and his name has been synonymous with Hanging Loose ever since. “What’s the average life of an independent literary magazine?” Hershon queries, the answer generally being just a few issues; he then tells me Hanging Loose has stuck around for 36 years. Its original format—loose pages in an envelope—sparked the uniform hatred of bookstores and librarians, but was adhered to for the first 25 issues before Hanging Loose became a bound quarterly. Of the original four editors, Schreiber, Lourie, and Hershon remain, joined by Mark Pawlak; Garrett now functions as a contributing editor. Over the years, the late Denise Levertov edited special editions and helped build the magazine’s reputation.

Hanging Loose refreshes with its “can do” list of facts. It has no angel nor any institutional support. It possesses no office and none of its editors takes a salary. It features a section for high school age poets—a rarity among literary magazines—which Hershon initially opposed but later came to endorse. For young writers, few thrills can compare with publishing alongside professionals. The journal has also survived despite the advent of Hanging Loose Press. Sensing my unspoken question on the press versus the magazine issue, he says, “The norm is to kill the magazine in favor of the books.” Here again, the norm has been thrust aside. Magazine and press function in a healthy give-and-take: some authors published in the magazine have later had collections put out by the press.

“My secret egomania,” Hershon confesses, “is to control the cover art and design of the books. It’s not a democratic process.” Perhaps not, but the books seem to have benefited. Each sports a beguiling cover, with text inside set for maximum reading ease. Visual aspects aside, it’s also a press willing to gamble. “If you don’t take a chance on first books, what’s the point?” asks Hershon. The press is supportive to subsequent books as well, and its overall choices offer an interesting mix. A look in the catalogue reveals writers such as Ha Jin and Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, Harvey Shapiro, Hettie Jones, and Paul Violi. One also discovers within those pages this heart warming credo: “Every title has been kept in print. Good literature stays good.”

Hershon serves as executive director of the Print Center, a non-profit facility for literature and arts-related publications. Hanging Loose is but one of the Center’s clients, which include high school and college magazines, books of small presses and individual writers. Budgets fat or frugal convert to literature here, in clean and spacious quarters. The Center’s life began in a State Street storefront in 1971, when small presses were still nearly non-existent. Its roaming history has taken it to Jay Street, then to Tillary, before moving to Manhattan at 225 Varick. Why to Varick? I ask. Hershon responds with a dose of city history, explaining how the lower West Side once housed an enclave of printers. Trinity Church, he adds, is one of the area’s biggest landlords, with holdings harking back to Queen Anne’s time.

Like the magazine, press, and Print Center, Hershon has endured, continuously writing poetry. Author of 11 books, he says another is in the offing: a book of selected poems, drawn from a 40-year span. Since the late ’70s, he has been married to the poet Donna Brook, his “shrewd and tough critic, who’s not the least competitive.” Brook has published four collections, and is just a room away when Hershon needs an objective reader. Reading Hershon’s work, one finds constancy in it: his wit has not dulled and he’s still as serious as he is funny. Life’s tragicomedies parade themselves touchingly and honestly; questions are launched without smug answers trailing. Some display jack-in-the-box intensity, others find the mark quietly. The poems resonate with the face of the man who wrote them, which is remarkably open, genial, stamped somehow with wonder.

“One of the reasons the press has lasted so long is that we get a kick out of it,” Hershon says, choosing an armful of books to give me before I leave. “And one of the pleasures of a press is to be able to give books away.” He hands me two volumes, The History of the Invitation: New and Selected Poems, 1963 – 2000 by Tony Towle, and Ed Friedman’s Drive Through the Blue Cylinders. Then, glancing through the pile, he adds a book of his own. “There’s my old head,” he quips of a younger-looking jacket photograph, “I don’t know how I lost it.” He introduces me to Marie Carter, the press’s former intern who has become an editorial associate, and tells me of upcoming projects. Later, he mentions how the press’s life will one day outstrip those of its editors. But who could wind it down, or deal with the details of dispersal? From all I’ve heard, it sounds like a dubious proposition. So much experience and enthusiasm, such all-out generosity, it would be like trying to brake a Mack truck, going 80, on ice.

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