Pamela Uschuk is the author of five books of poems, including the award-winning Finding Peaches in the Desert (followed by a CD of the same title with musical accompaniment by Chameleon and Joy Harjo), One Legged Dancer (2002), and Scattered Risks (2005), published by Wings Press, San Antonio, Without Comfort of Stars: New and Selected Poems (2007) from Sampark Press,
and Crazy Love, published by Wings Press.
Several chapbooks of Uschuk’s poetry have also been released, including the award-winning Without Birds, Without Flowers, Without Trees (Plume Press Chapbook Award, 1990). Her work has appeared in over two hundred and fifty journals and anthologies, such as Poetry, Parnassus Review, Agni Review, Ploughshares, and Beloit Poetry Journal.
Uschuk, who graduated with honors with an MFA in Poetry and Fiction from the University of Montana, has been a featured writer at the American Center in New Delhi, India, as well as at the University of Pisa, at International Poetry Festivals in Maimo and University of Lund, Sweden, and Struga, Macedonia, and at the International Scandanavian Book Fair, to name a few.
She was Honored Guest at the 2004 and 2006 Prague Summer Programs, and in the fall of 2008, she read in the Distinguished Writer Series at Arizona State University.
Currently, Uschuk is a Professor of Creative Writing and Eco Texts at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. She has been the Director of the Center for Women Writers at Salem College, where she was an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. She is Editor-in-Chief of CUTTHROAT: A JOURNAL OF THE ARTS and is also Director of the Southwest Writers Institute.
Derek Alger: Let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born and raised?
Pamela Uschuk: I was born in Lansing, Michigan on the hottest day of the year, my mother delighted in telling me. She said that mine was an easy birth.
I grew up on an 80 acre working farm 7 miles from the village of DeWitt and 12 miles from Lansing, close enough for my Dad to drive to the Oldsmobile factory to work. The farm was lush, green and beautiful, our yard studded with leafy maples and elms, a hickory tree and flower gardens where roses, Canturbury bells, snap dragons, sweet Williams, lilacs, tiger lilies and more flourished, all tended by my mother. She was an excellent gardener. We raised black angus cattle, chickens, pigs, wheat, corn, oats and we grew a gigantic vegetable garden. Even though we were poor, we always had plenty of good food to eat, what they would call organic now.
DA: Food for thought is always good.
PU:As I grew older, I felt increasingly isolated on the farm. Because I wasn’t allowed to have a car, I was stuck there. Having a mother who was severely bi-polar compounded my agony. She was hospitalized in psychiatric wards every couple of years for paranoia and wild, but not fun for us, hallucinations. She underwent electric shock treatments and psychotherapy. There was no real cure. In those barbaric psychiatric days, the drug of choice was thorazine, which made her a zombie. My mother was very smart, sensitive, an avid reader and she played the piano and organ, but her delusions immobilized her and terrified us.
And, she could also be manipulative, deftly playing the martyr. The older I grew, the less I was able to communicate with her. When my mother was ill, I, being oldest, had to take care of my brother and sisters while my father was at work. Her disorder affected and traumatized our entire lives. Our family spun on the tilt-a-whirl of her frequent psychotic episodes.
Ironically, after my father’s death, I ended up being the prime caretaker for my mother for much of the last five years of her life. My anger and resentment slowly turned to compassion for her, for her terrorizing delusions, her isolation, loneliness, and the box canyon of sadness she couldn’t escape. Almost too late, I learned to love my mother. Sometimes taking care of her constant needs felt like an imposition, but I’ve come to understand that it was also a huge gift I’m still unwrapping. I’ve written about her in poetry and prose, and I continue to untangle the web of my knotty childhood.
DA: You also have a deep love for animals.
PU: As for my relationship with animals, I had and have today a deep respect for and love of animals. I’ve always had pets. They’ve saved my sanity, if not my life. Animals, both domestic and wild, are trustworthy and are mainly without guile. A lot can be learned about the behavior of people by studying the behavior of animals. My childhood companions were rabbits, white tail deer, foxes, raccoons, oppossums, skunks, frogs, snakes, snapping and painted turtles and toads. As a child, I loved roaming our farm with my brother, John. We had free run of our eighty acres and the ponds nearby. As over-protective as my father was at times, it was astonishing how much latitude he allowed us in terms of mobility on the farm and in its local environs. This was liberating and made us self-sufficient. We had to rely on our imaginations to invent games to amuse ourselves. Out of necessity, we became acute observers of the natural world. We lived it.
There is no doubt that being such an intimate part of and enjoying so deeply the natural world fired a life-long passion for wilderness and
DA: Your father was quite an influence on you.
PU: My father was a large man, the son of a Russian immigrant who was also a gangster. My grandfather was a member of the Purple Gang and was sent to prison for murder. He was a member of the aristocracy in Byelorussia, but his family forced him, because of his bad behavior, to leave home and to emigrate to America. My father bore the brunt of my grandfather’s wrath and so reacted against him. Early on, my father instilled in us the importance of telling the truth and obeying the law.
When my grandfather committed suicide, my father had to drop out of the 10th grade to go to work to help my grandmother support the family. He was a decorated hero in World War II in the Army Air Corps, a tail gunner who fought in Northern Africa and Italy, then re-enlisted and was sent to the South Pacific. In Australia, he went AWOL and hopped trains all around the country. He was especially fascinated by the Aborigines. Because the Air Corps lost his paperwork, my father spent two years on New Guinea in the jungle, where he started a jewelry business and where he survived typhoid fever, among other things. He had a lifelong interest in Indigenous peoples. As a child, I loved hearing about his adventures, which included him and a pilot friend of his hijacking a shipment of Johnny Walker Scotch meant for MacArthur’s headquarters. They passed the bottles of scotch out to every soldier they saw in Port Moresby. My father was busted for that, but he said it was worth it. My mother disapproved of his telling those stories. My brother, sisters and I begged to hear more.
To say that my father had a profound effect on me is understating it. I was terrified of his temper. He could yell louder than anyone I knew, but he also actively played with us. He was fun. He drew pictures with us. He took us to movies, he hiked with us, picked berries with us, played football and baseball with us, and drove us to Lake Michigan for all-day family outings at the beach. We did everything as a family, complete with cousins, aunts, uncles and my grandma & step-grandpa.
My father taught us to love the woods, taught us not to kill anything simply for sport, and he taught us to fight injustice. At the Oldsmobile factory, my father was a Union Steward so he wasn’t popular with the bosses. One of his crusades was fighting for the right of black women to use the bathroom at Oldsmobile. One thing he absolutely insisted upon was that his children get a good education. After all, his education had been rudely curtailed. He was a reader–he consumed two newspapers a day, and he read history books. My father
was complex so it’s difficult to pigeon-hole him in this small space. He had a great and deep laugh, was as warm and loving as he was spiteful and intolerant of stupidity. It was hard to gauge when he’d explode into inexplicable anger, which made life very tricky for us. Extremely quick-witted, he often used his wit to denigrate his enemies and, unfortunately, us kids and my mother.
When I was three, my father made me memorize the entire poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” which I recited without a glitch in front of relatives at Christmas. Some of my earliest memories are of me sitting on his lap while he read the newspaper to me. He taught me to read very early. As a child, I loved rhythms, loved words. I remember carrying around a small tablet to write words and their meanings on — I was fascinated by them. I read books as if they were food, and the dictionary became one of my favorite volumes. Because I was so isolated in high school, I read 5th Century Greek plays, Shakespeare, all of Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.
My life was further complicated because our household was multi-lingual. My father & his siblings were fluent in Russian. My beloved grandmother, Anna, and my step-grandfather spoke Russian and Czech in their home. Their friends spoke Polish, Armenian, Rumanian, Bulgarian and other Slavic tongues. The music and rich textures of these languages resonate in my poems today.
DA: Where did you go to college?
PU: I earned a B.A. in English from Central Michigan University. My high school grades and my SAT scores were high so I received a four year scholarship that paid all the tuition and fees to attend CMU. I could have gone to any school in Michigan, like the University of Michigan.
Maybe I should have. I was scared that the U of M was too big. After all, I was a farm girl and attended a very small high school. I attended CMU because my cousin went there. In college, I was very poor and ate a lot of macaroni & cheese and Ramen because they were cheap.
As an undergraduate, I was an art major for my first two years, but I was frustrated by the ambiguity of the art professors. They didn’t know how to explain technique. Their vague, “You know, just do it,” left me befuddled. My childhood dream was somewhere between Paul Gaughin and Mahatma Ghandi — I wanted to be a great artist and to change the world. I decided that if I wasn’t going to be a great painter, I’d be a great writer.
I adored literature classes, especially because I loved to read. In literature classes, we discussed books critically. That was a treat. I was propagandized by my family into becoming a public school teacher. It was a safe profession for women. Since I admired some of my teachers, I thought that it could be a career that would fulfill me.
During high school, I was placed in accelerated writing courses because of my writing ability, so I thought an English degree would be a good fit. Those accelerated writing classes and my science classes kept high school from being a total bore. After graduating with honors from CMU, I received a full Graduate teaching fellowship to study Comparative Literature with a concentration in Russian Literature. Although, I loved my classes, I was restless. One year into an unhappy marriage, I felt like my life was belted into a straight jacket. I needed something, but I wasn’t sure what. Then it struck me. I’d been in school most of my life. I moved to the woods outside of Traverse City to learn the names and habits of the birds, the animals, plants and trees. I needed survival skills I couldn’t get in academia.
DA: But you did end up teaching.
PU: Yes, I did. After substitute teaching for a bit, I signed a contract for my first teaching job at Elk Rapids Middle School. Like every public school teacher, I was overworked and underpaid. I taught six classes a day, everything from English to Oceanography (because they had no one else to teach it!). I was a very popular teacher and worked not only with regular students but with juvenile offenders that were sent up from Detroit to get them out of their bad environments. They brought crime to our community. I remember one 6th grader, a cute little blonde who brought me a photo of her teenaged brother dead in a casket. She’d taken the photo. Her brother had been shot to death by police. Anyway, although I loved my students, I was exhausted. I’d plop down in front of the TV every night after school and turn into a turnip. I wanted simply to write, so I quit my teaching job mid-year during my fourth year. My students protested and marched around the school with big signs, trying to get me to come back. It was touching. As much as I was flattered, I was adamant. Following Rilke’s admonishment, I looked to “change my life.” For the next two months, I wrote 16 hours a day and finished a 365 page novel I called FLIP SIDE MEMORIAL. I revised it twice, then put it into a shoe box. It was my breakaway work.
DA: And where’s the novel now?
PU: Still in the witness protection program, living under an assumed name in the shoebox.
DA: I walked into that one.
PU: While I was working on the novel, I continued to write poems. I just didn’t feel they were good enough for public consumption. They weren’t, but my illusions kept me writing poem after poem. The novel compelled me, but I couldn’t give up the poetry. She was the seductress that won my heart.
DA: A change of career really convinced you that you were meant to write poetry.
PU: There was nothing else that made me as happy, as ecstatic, as excited or as miserable as writing poetry. Of all genres, for me, poetry is the most difficult thing to write. As corny as this sounds and is, writing poems gave my life depth and meaning. My poetry came out of my best self, not the self that whined and blundered through life. Writing was power. It was a way for me to smash the walls of my small existence, to find my way out of my own head and to fly along this journey.
DA: You ran into some major influences along the way.
PU: When I moved to Northern Michigan, I met Jim Harrison, who my next husband, Jerry Gates, knew and we ended up hanging out with him and the Lelanau County version of the Merry Pranksters. Through Harrison, I once met Thomas McGuane, who was the most handsome man I’d ever met. I liked his smile and his stories. Harrison was a smart ass, cynical, glitzy with a gritty, rebellious sort of fame. In the Hemingway macho tradition, he flirted outrageously with me as he did every other young attractive woman. We drank and played pool and partied too much in Dick’s Bar. I was young and enscorseled with Harrison’s wit and humor, and mightily admired the multiple intelligences, the pathos in his poetry. I read everything he wrote, and I wanted to write as well as he did. No, I wanted to write better than he did.
DA: Another poet had a profound influence on you.
PU: Yes, there were many actually – Theodore Roethke, Richard Braughtigan, Sylvia Plath were some of my models. It was Galway Kinnell who actually took an interest in my poetry. After quitting my teaching job, I became a bartender and I wrote a lot of poems during that time. I attended all the poetry readings I could — Joseph Brodsky, Diane Wakoski, Gary Snyder, Marvin Bell, Harrison. When Galway Kinnell came to Interlochen Arts Academy to read, my life changed. I was mesmerized by his poems and the way he read them as if he were standing in a cathedral reciting secret texts. Somehow I got invited to a private after-reading party for him. We talked intensely. Galway invited me and my friend, Mike Masley, to sit in on his poetry workshop at Cranbrook Institute. Mike, my sister, Judi and I drove downstate for that. Kinnell’s workshop was great, and he asked me to send him more poems. Among others, I sent “Waiting for Nighthawk in a Snowstorm” and “Elk Camp.” Kinnell wrote back that my poems were intelligent, the imagery fresh and vital and that I should keep writing. Those were words I needed to hear.
DA: And then you were fortunate to find a great husband and poet in one.
PU: When William Pitt Root came to Interlochen as Visiting Poet, I had given up on men and relationships. My second marriage had long been in shambles. None of my lovers worked out. Although I was still bartending, I was teaching occasional writing workshops for Pathfinder, a private school, and I was traveling back and forth across the country alone. I was running a small monthly reading series in Traverse City with a tiny bit of money from the Michigan Council on the Arts. Anyway, Bill came to Interlochen, and I wanted him to read in my series. I was also commissioned to write an article on him for the Traverse City Record Eagle. When I called Bill and asked him to read, he asked me how much I could pay. I told him, “$50.” He said, “That isn’t enough, but would you like to go to a movie.” Needless to say, this caught me totally off-guard. I also laughed, “Okay, I’ll go to a movie with you if I can bring some of my friends.” I asked him how I’d recognize him.
He said he’d be wearing a Panama drifter. I told him I would wear a black rose.
I brought 12 of my friends with me to the theatre. We saw “A Little Romance.” After the movie, my friends abandoned us, so I took Bill to a colorful local Traverse City bar to play pool and have a beer. We had more fun than I imagined and we couldn’t stop talking. We became friends. I read Bill’s work, loved it, and then I did my interview with him. We shared poems. He did read in my reading series without charging a thing. It wasn’t until the next month that we became more than friends. I found my muse in Bill, who shared, with equal intensity, my love of dogs, thrift stores, chocolate, wilderness and a gypsy appetite for adventure. When I moved from Michigan to Oklahoma City to live with Bill, my life broke open like a ripe plum. We’ve been lovers and friends ever since.
When Bill left Northern Michigan for Oklahoma City, it wasn’t long before I decided to leave also. I headed for Colorado. While living there with my brother, Bill invited me to visit him in Oklahoma, which I did. The rest is history, as they say. Fate wouldn’t allow us to stay away from one another. A month later, we moved in together. During those first three years, we lived in Oklahoma City, Port Townsend, Washington, Missoula, Montana, Oracle, Arizona, then back to Missoula, where Bill was hired to replace Richard Hugo after Hugo passed away.
DA: You received your MFA in Fiction and in Poetry from the University of Montana.
PU: I received my MFA in poetry and fiction from the University of Montana in 1986. While I was a graduate student, I was also a Poet In Schools.
I volunteered to work on Indian reservations, and ended up working for three years with students from the Assiniboine, Sioux, Salish, Flathead, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne, Nez Perce and Crow tribes. It was a tough job because I had to drive so far for my week-long residencies. I stayed in cheap motels, where I created poetry lessons and I wrote many poems myself. I was also Editor-In-Chief of CUTBANK, the literary magazine out of the University of Montana. One of the wonderful things about attending the U of M was the exposure to and close contact with well-known writers that graduate students had. So many writers, editors and agents came through Missoula — that was great. During graduate school, I had short-term workshops from Donald Hall, Denis Johnson, T.C. Boyle, Leslie Silko, Stephanie Vaughn, Tobias Wolf, among others, and I studied with Patricia Goedicke, William Kitteridge, Bill and Joy Harjo, who held the First Richard Hugo Chair in Poetry.
DA: Your teaching experience can be described as one with extensive variety and many geographical stops.
PU: I’ll try to condense this. My husband took a position teaching creative writing at Hunter College in Manhattan, so in fall 1986, we moved to New Paltz, New York. I applied for several entry level positions and took an adjunct job at Marist College across the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie. I volunteered to teach composition in their prison program, thinking that it would be a worthwhile experience, that prisons like reservations are places where I might effect the most positive change and make a difference, a sort of a giving back to society. I’ve always believed that I need to be socially responsible, to do what good I can in the world.
That adjunct job last six years, and was one of the most intense teaching experiences of my life. I taught in Greenhaven, a maximum security prison for men in upstate New York. Half my students were convicted murderers. A Puerto Rican woman gave me good advice the first night I went to teach there. She told me to never show fear. I remembered that. It served me well, even when I was threatened by an inmate who ended up in the psyche ward.
I got a good reputation, teaching poetry and short fiction. I built the Creative Writing program in that prison. John Cheever had taught Creative Writing there, and he set his novel, FALCONER, in that prison.
I had a legacy to uphold, but teaching in prison erodes the soul in many ways. I lasted six years, and I am proud of what I did there. My students were serious writers, and they wrote amazing pieces, some of which found their way into print. They felt safe in my workshop. Those students ranged from an ex-Black Panther to an Afghani diamond smuggler to an Israeli mercenary soldier who was fluent in five languages to criminals in prison for drug-related crimes. It was interesting, but I could never let down my guard. Speaking of guards, the guards resented us and the program. The inmates were getting educations the majority of these guards had no access to or intelligence for. My supervisor was a chauvinist plus. After six years, I said goodbye.
DA: This interview is more about you than your poetry, so I’ll just recommend readers buy your work, but we should touch on it a bit.
PU: My poems usually begin in the natural world, somehow, or with natural imagery, but then they expand outward and encompass things like politics, wilderness preservation, preservation of the wild within us, compelling stories of people fighting for justice, the interconnectedness of everything in the universe, human relationships, land, spirituality, etc. It’s important to me to write about what moves me so I have often told the stories of those people or creatures who have no voice or whose voice/s have been suppressed in some way.
Exposing injustice for the evil it is is utterly important to me. There is so much corruption, hatred, greed, brutality and mistrust in the world, that it is utterly important for poetry to hold out truth, to hold out compassion, to hold out light and especially love to all of us.
In this way, it is a balance or songs of balance. As Joy Harjo said so brilliantly, “We must turn slaughter into food.” The past eight years, I’ve been consumed with injustices arising from our own government’s corruption and it’s many abuses of power. The Bush administration has been a disaster for families, for health care, for the environment, for the economy, for every day Americans, and I’ve written a lot about that.
The Iraq War was an invasion conducted on misformation, at best, lies, at worst. It has nearly bankrupted us as a nation, created enemies for us all over the globe, not to mention caused the deaths and maimings of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. All these things happen to real people and are grounded in real stories. They are not just a matter of statistics or political maneuvering. As a poet, I don’t think I have any choice but to address these issues.
DA: That’s quite a compliment that your collection, Finding Peaches in the Desert, was made into a CD of the same name with musical accompaniment by Chameleon and Joy Harjo.
PU: As I mentioned, I met Joy in 1985 at the University of Montana when she held the first Richard Hugo Chair. I took a graduate poetry workshop with her. Joy was a unique and remarkable teacher, the best teacher of poetry, beside Bill, that I’ve ever had. She and I became very close friends and remain so today. We believe in each other’s work and in each other.
DA: Shifting back to your childhood, your grandmother was also a great influence.
PU: No, she was central, an axis that kept me from flying off into the abyss. My Grandma, Anna, was the only adult who did not judge me.
She let me be, laughed with me, walked in the woods with me, picked wild strawberries, raspberries, plums and wildflowers with me, took me to movies, and rocked me in her front porch swing while telling me stories about her life.
I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, who I absolutely adored. She was a strong woman, independent, smart and with a razor-edged sense of humor. Although she stood at 4’10”, she never seemed small. Everyone, even my giant father, deferred to her.
My grandmother came to this country in that great turn of the 19th Century wave of Eastern European immigrants. She was only 16, and she spoke no English. When her two brothers, then her brewery owning father died, it sent the remains of her family into chaos. My great-grandmother believed in streets paved with gold, so she took a chunk of money and sent it to a cousin in New York, who was supposed to take that money to set up my grandmother. When my grandmother arrived on a boat from Czechloslovakia, that weasel cousin sold her to a sweat shop in Philadelphia. She rolled cigars 16 hours a day, six days a week, until she ran away with a circus.
Yes, my grandma sang and danced in the circus, and I wish I could have seen her. My grandfather saw her perform in the circus and fell in love with her. When my grandfather committed suicide in the 30s, my grandmother took in laundry and worked as a maid in Lansing to keep the state from taking away her children. She was a fierce defender of her family.
My grandmother remains one of my most powerful role models.
DA: It must have been very special being a featured writer at Prague Summer Workshops.
PU: It was and is a great honor. I have Richard Katrovas, the dynamic and wonderful Director of the program, to thank for that. The program brings in top-notch writers of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and playwriting to work with highly-motivated, accomplished graduate and undergraduate students from the U.S. and Europe. It is a joy to participate in this program.
There is also the draw of my Czech heritage. To walk the same cobblestones as my grandmother reconnects me with her indomitable spirit. I hear her speak in every shop and restaurant I enter. The elegant architecture, the beautiful bridges, the proliferation of culture, the Pinkus Synagogue, the Jewish Cemetery, Kafka’s old haunts, the Terezin Concentration Camp, the Communist Museum, the square where Jan Palka incinerated himself in protest of the Russian occupation of Czechloslovakia, all have a profound effect on me. I’ve been an Honored Guest twice at the Prague Summer Workshops, and I am grateful to be teaching poetry there in July 2009.
DA: Tell the truth, did you ever picture yourself one day standing 12,000 feet in the Himalayas of Tibet with a group students and your husband?
PU: No, I didn’t picture myself standing with students in the Himalayas, but I long dreamed of going there. I can see the way that path evolved.
When I was a senior in high school, I began reading about and studying Buddhism. I read and was affected by the novel, SIDDHARTHA. Tibetan Buddhism still holds a great amount of wisdom and appeal for me. I took students to Northern India, to Ladahk (Little Tibet) to study Buddhist sacred scripture, art and culture. We climbed to monasteries at dizzying heights, met with monks and shaman and common Tibetan people who had the most amazing serenity and happiness. Going to Dharamsala and twice seeing the Dalai Lama was astonishing and changed me in unending ways. I’ve written some long poems from that experience, as well as two articles that appeared last year in PARABOLA and in TERRAIN Magazine. I will be digesting that trip, those experiences for the rest of my life. That I could share them with my husband is an incredible blessing. I am a traveler, by nature, and so is my husband, and I hope that we can continue to see and explore and learn the world together.
So far, we’ve been to nearly every state in the U.S., to many countries in Europe and Eastern Europe, all over Mexico, to Hawaii, in South Africa, India and the Himalayas together. We are very lucky.
DA: You can be found these days, among other things, teaching creative writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.
PU: Yes, I have a Creative Writing tenure-track teaching position. This semester, I teach a beginning poetry workshop, a senior poetry workshop, and a screenwriting class. My students are intellectually curious, enthusiastic and many are as obsessed with writing as I am.
Fort Lewis College is located at 7000 on top of a mesa that overlooks Durango, the entire La Plata Range of the Rockies and the Animas River valley. Physically, this is one of most breathtaking campuses I’ve ever walked. The college is a 4 year undergraduate liberal arts institution.
The students are independent-minded, resourceful, tough and are here, for the most part, because they love the mountains and the natural world. On the downside, when it snows and there is new powder in the mountains, students skip classes en masse to hit the slopes with snowboards and skiis. Because Fort Lewis is the only four year college in the United States where Native American students attend without paying tuition, we have a high Native American enrollment — 125 tribes are represented. There are also Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American students, plus foreign exchange students from various places on the globe. I love this kind of rich cultural diversity in the classes and at public school functions. A Ute Medicine man often gives a blessing at such affairs as Convocation and Graduation. Walking across campus, I have stopped to buy fry bread, then indulged in a green chili burro. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch a glimpse of our resident mountain lion.
DA: And finally tell us a bit about CUTTHROAT and how it came into being.
PU: That’s another big question with a long answer, but I’ll try not to enter a wind tunnel. When I was a graduate student at the University of Montana, I was Editor-In-Chief of its literary magazine, CUTBANK.
Although this job was time-consuming and entailed big-time responsibility, including fund-raising, I liked reading other writers’ work and publishing good stories and poems. I was fascinated with the process. Being a bit OCD, editing, with its endless details work, called me.
After grad school, I harbored a dream to publish a magazine. My husband, Bill, had plenty of experience editing, too. He and Gurney Norman started the PENNY PAPERS in California, and that was a great success. We both thought it would be as much fun as a mare’s nest to run our own magazine. So, when Bill took early retirement from his teaching job at Hunter College, and I quit my teaching job at Salem College in North Carolina, we moved to Colorado and plunged in the literary river. We had no funding, but we did have a credit card. We came up with the name CUTTHROAT, A Journal of the Arts after Colorado’s beautiful endangered trout. Since we know a fair amount of writers, we solicited work from some friends and enlisted others to be our Contributing Editors. We took out ads in Poets & Writers and AWP Chronicle, and we began receiving submissions for our first issue. To date, we’ve published work by Marvin Bell, Joy Harjo, Michael Blumenthal, Richard Jackson, Fred Chappell, Kelly Cherry, Rebecca Seiferle, Michael Waters, Cynthia Hogue, Rick DeMarinis, Linda Hogan, Wendell Berry and many other fine writers. And, we’ve published many unknown and talented writers.
I instituted national writing competitions at both CUTBANK and the Salem College Center for Women Writers (I directed that Center from 2002-2005), and so we ran our first contests, naming them the Joy Harjo Poetry Contest and the Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Contest. These continue to be very popular contests, and our magazine’s reputation keeps growing, so far without groaning. In our forthcoming issue, we are publishing a story by writer from Kazakhstan, poems by a Maori poet, by an Australian poet, a story by a Japanese-American as well as new poems from Elise Paschen, Wendell Berry, Linda Hogan, Richard Jackson, Dennis Sampson, and a new story by Karen Brennan. No matter this bad economy, we intend to keep CUTTHROAT alive.