This year for National Poetry Month Farley's Bookshop is interviewing some of our favorite poets and publishers. We begin the interview series with Robert Hershon of Hanging Loose Press and Hanging Loose Magazine. We have been working very closely with Hanging Loose since 2008 and are always filled with a wonderful eager anticipation when we know their new releases are coming out or a new issue of their magazine. They are the press that discovered Sherman Alexie and they have since 1963, discovered and supported a pile of fine writers from Ha Jin to Jayne Cortez to Helen Adam. Mr. Hershon, a fine poet himself who has read at Farley's, graciously took the time to answer our questions via email. Enjoy.
Hanging Loose has been publishing for 46 years now, a phenomenal run for a small, independent press. Can you talk about the press' origins, its aims and its future?BH: In 1963, Emmett Jarrett and Ron Schreiber, student and young instructor at Columbia, respectively, started a handsome letterpress magazine called Things. They did three issues and went broke. With Dick Lourie and me joining them, we re-grouped as Hanging Loose, the name deriving from the format, loose mimeographed pages in a cover envelope. The format was very cheap (much hand labor by the editors) and was also meant to express a point of view: that poetry is for today, not for the Ages. We wanted to find energetic work by young writers. We still do -- plus we want to stay with the people we've been publishing for years. For the immediate future, we want to keep doing what we're doing, publishing two issues of the magazine and 6-8 books a year. That's a comfortable schedule for us. Beyond that, if one or more of the editors dies or can't go on, the press will either continue organically or pass into history. We have no formal plans. I wouldn't want strangers taking over HL. We are who we are -- and 47 years so far is a hell of a run.
What is the role of a good small press? What should it be doing? What should a press be avoiding?BH: Someone was praising a small publisher to my friend John Gill once and John said "Tell me how many first books he does." I think that's a duty of small press. It's also where the fun is, discovering good new writers. Presses that beg the leavings of famous writers soon pass into oblivion and are not missed.
How vital a role do the small presses play in keeping poetry alive? Why?BH: Small presses keep poetry alive in this country. A few trade publishers, still playing at being gentlemen, continue to print some poetry, but it's often just so they can look a little literary. And when you look at the trade lists, see how many of the authors started with small presses.
What is the role between the editor and the writer? And how does a good editor cultivate and aid a good writer?BH: The editor-writer relationship has virtually disappeared from trade publishing. HL has the reputation of doing a lot of editing. Sometimes a book needs very little help, sometimes a great deal. When we accept a book, we assign one editor to it and that editor doesn't get second-guessed. Obviously, first-book writers usually need more help than veterans and we'll give them as much time as they need.
What differentiates Hanging Loose from other presses? Besides longevity of course.BH: I recognize that there are HL-type poems -- humorous, political, non-traditional and so forth -- although I hope we can spring some surprises, too. I realize I've been talking about poetry, but the same points, of course, apply to the prose we publish. We have affinities with the New York School/St. Mark's Poetry Project/San Francisco writers, but I don't think we could ever be that neatly labeled. There is general agreement among the editors about what we don't want, but some vigorous disagreement on what we do want and I think that tension is what keeps us lively. One of the things I discovered long ago is that having co-editors forces you to articulate what you do or don't like in a piece; I still enjoy that process.
With the proliferation of MFA programs across the country, and the drive of creating writing studies down into the undergraduate level, how have you seen American poetry change? Where do you see it going?BH: I think there are a handful of very good MFA programs and they produce some talented writers. I also think a huge number of them con people who really haven't much to say and flood the world with third-rate, stillborn work. I was amazed by the number of low-residency MFA programs advertised in the AWP catalog, so many of them from schools I've never heard of. Still, if these programs give a lifeline to a few really good writers, the bad ones will just drop away.
One of the most distinctive features of Hanging Loose, both the press and the magazine, is your support of high school aged writers. The anthologies you've put out of their writing are remarkable, to say the least. How did you get involved in doing this? What are some of the great surprises and highlights you've seen in doing this?BH: We started the high school section in 1968, so our first young writers are now nearly as damned old as we are. I was skeptical at first: Let these kids publish in their school magazines. But right from the beginning, we began getting exciting work, often work the writers couldn't show their teachers, and that's never let up. Most of these kids go on to do other things in their lives, but some of them are lifers -- Joanna Fuhrman, Donavan Hohn, Sam Kashner, Meghan O'Rourke, Rebecca Wolff -- not that we take credit for their careers. Unfortunately, I think most HS teachers fear and loathe poetry and get that message across to their students only too well. We also have a small network of wonderful teachers who are always on the lookout for us.
Hanging Loose has remained independent---free from university or corporate backing---this whole time. Talk about how this has affected the press. How has it freed you up? What have been the disadvantages of this? Are presses and magazines suffering from university sponsorship?
BH: I'm very proud of our being independent and not subject to the whims, fears or demands of college officials, rich angels or even disagreeable boards of directors. We do what we goddamn like! The down side? Less financial support, less marketing help, not being members of the club. None of the HL editors has ever taken a salary. I don't know what pressures universities bring to bear on magazines except for what I see on the CLMP listserv and that's sometimes not very pretty.