Friday, January 31, 2014

Dryad Magazine and Dryad Press

Dryad magazine and Dryad Press -- Merrill Leffler

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
    In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
                --John Keats

I have before me Dryad #1, Winter 1968. I don’t think of myself as a nostalgist but I can almost call up the uncontainable excitement I felt the afternoon I drove to the printer in Virginia and held the new 40-page issue and its scent of pressroom ink in my hands. I mailed this first sentence to Neil Lehrman and asked what he remembered. “Oh, that afternoon holding copies of Dryad in my office,” he said, “and the emotion I felt at what we had birthed. Off I went to show our accomplishment to my work friends, none of who had any interest in poetry. Still, I did force them to subscribe!”
Aerobee launch in Fort Churchill
            Neil and I were an unlikely pair to start a poetry magazine – not just because of our work lives. He was a newly-minted CPA and had returned to Washington – he grew up in Silver Spring – to work as a financial analyst for the Securities and Exchange Commission. I arrived in Washington in 1963 with a physics degree and a position at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight as an aerospace engineer – all of a sudden in my early 20s I was coordinating scientists, engineers, and technicians for launching scientific experiments aboard a two-stage rocket, the Aerobee, designed to reach orbital altitudes. I was on the road regularly to oversee launchings at White Sands Missile Range, Wallops Island, and a Canadian Army Base in Fort Churchill, Canada, midway up the Hudson Bay. Heady – at least for a time.
            It’s not that one’s work life is incompatible with one’s poetry life – I think of the Yiddish poet Mani Leib and the last lines of his Whitman-like “I Am,” wonderfully translated by John Hollander. To all but his literary friends, Leib was a shoemaker – know this, he wrote, “I am not a shoemaker who makes poems/ But I am a poet who makes shoes.”
We were an unlikely pair because neither Neil nor I had any literary experience – no “creative writing” classes or anything resembling them; nor had we published anything, though I had been collecting a sizeable number of form rejections. Neil had had a revered English teacher at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School, Miss Casey, who introduced him to poetry, which spurred him to take a course in college in which Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense was a major text. He was far ahead of me: I had one modern lit class and remember our professor bringing in a record of T.S. Eliot reading “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which I was entranced by – its laconic music alone – I had no clue about understanding it, at least in the way I thought I was supposed to. My interests were in fiction and I imagined myself writing stories and novels into the night – I had come on Thomas Wolfe at the right time. But I wasn’t finishing stories or when I did, they felt static. It turned out I wasn’t interested in plot or conflict but I lingered on sentences themselves, on images, and metaphor. I soon found myself turning to poems, the style and forms based on what I knew from high school and the little I had learned in college.
            Though my days at NASA were initially exciting, the excitement thinned: I did my work well enough but engineering just wasn’t my passion – I didn’t love it. I co-authored a book on the history of NASA’S Aerobee launchings and I was much taken by the research and writing itself. I had begun keeping a journal, thinking about where I was going, what I wanted to do – I thought of writing as a career, though “career” was not part of my vocabulary then. In addition to filling the journal with sentences and paragraphs, I was also writing poems there, or what I thought were poems. But except for Neil, who I had met a couple of times in North Carolina – we had been at different colleges  and met through my cousin – and Ann Slayton, who later became my wife, I didn’t know anyone else who wrote poems, or anyone who thought that poems mattered, or anyone who even cared. I think of Witslawa Szymborska’s “In Praise of My Sister”: “My sister doesn’t write poems / and it’s unlikely that she’ll suddenly start writing poems. /She takes after her mother, who didn’t write poems . . . / and also her father, who likewise didn’t write poems. . . . /my sister’s husband would rather die than write poems . . . / the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.”
             I would give Neil pieces I was writing – he would try to give me some comments, until one day he said, if you’re going to write poems, you ought to read a book about poetry and learn something! Of course, he recommended Sound and Sense. I must have bought a copy at Discount Books on Dupont Circle – I pored over it for weeks, maybe months. What a revelation – I had been writing lines that looked like poems but I began to comprehend why they were coming back in my SASEs with their mimeographed sorrys. But couldn’t the editors at least send a note, I thought? Something!
            One spring day in 1967 Neil and I were driving in Rock Creek Park and must have been talking about poems or poets – the top was down and maybe birdsong was in the air – when one of us (who?) said, we should start a poetry magazine. From what deep recesses did that come? We were both instantly hot with the idea. Hot? In a fever! How would we print it? At first we thought of a mimeograph machine in the basement of his uncle’s CPA firm and that we could probably use. Great! That first idea lasted a couple of days.  By the time we drove up to Rosemary Apartments in Silver Spring where Ann and I were living, we had the name – Dryad. Neil gets the credit. I had only begun to read Keats – he had begun long before with Miss Casey.
            So why a poetry magazine, when we knew nothing and knew no one? The explanation is ex post facto. It wasn’t to publish ourselves, which we agreed we wouldn’t do unless we were first published elsewhere. We must have been looking to connect with others who had our interest. But was this the best way? We didn’t explore that – we were still fevered with doing it. This wasn’t a rational undertaking after all. But how would we even get poems? We decided to advertise and ran a few classified ads in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Meanwhile, we knew nothing about the mechanics of publishing – nothing about design, nothing about typography or paste-up or cover art, let alone printing itself. I spoke with a graphic artist at the company I was now working for – I had left NASA – and she took me through the process; she then showed me pasted-up copy on her table and said I could use blue graph paper to make sure my paste-ups were aligned. Blue doesn’t show up in printing, she said. I trusted her but not enough – a few days later, I typed a poem, pasted it up on graph paper, and brought it to an Instant Print Shop. Sure enough!
            Meanwhile poems began to trickle in – how to convey the thrill when one arrived at Rosemary Hills Drive that just floored me! Leonard Garzotto’s “Etude: The Morning” was the first. I was home with a fever when the mail came. I opened the envelope, read the poem, and was jumping! I rushed to call Ann and then Neil to read it to them. I loved its newness, its surprises, even though I couldn’t say I understood it all. I didn’t feel that way about many of the poems that began coming in – but it was important to me to write poets in returning their work, probably because of my experience. No doubt I wrote some dumb letters – I’ve never gone back to look at the copies archived at the University of Maryland – but I realized years later that this was my apprenticeship: I was trying to find ways to speak specifically and concretely about my reactions to poems. And I could write those letters then because the trickle of envelopes had not yet become a stream, let alone a river, which in the next few years it was.
            I mentioned that I had left NASA – it was about the time we started Dryad. I wanted to find a job with much less travel, so that I could go to school at night and take literature classes. By now I had decided I wanted to be a writer. I’m not talking about poetry here – that was becoming a given for me; I wanted to make a living as a writer, though of what I couldn’t say, and felt I didn’t have the literary knowledge that a writer must have and that I desperately wanted (this is not hyperbole) for its own sake. So by day I worked for a firm on contract to the Navy on sonar submarine systems; and by night I took courses over the next two years in Chaucer, Shakespeare, 17th century literature, Victorian poetry and prose, and the History of the English Language at Maryland’s University College. I went to school with a plan – the first time ever! If I did well and loved it, I would leave engineering and go to graduate school. I would get to read and study in order to prepare myself. In 1968, I left sonar submarine systems and became a teaching assistant in the English Department at Maryland. I was now in my latening 20s. Through all of this, Ann was an unquestioning supporter.
            Over the next few years, Dryad published the work of many poets in the area – it’s where I first encountered the poetry of Linda Pastan, Ann Darr, Myra Sklarew, Roland Flint, Philip Jason, Siv Cedering, Primus St. John, Susan Sonde, Barbara Goldberg, among so many other poets from the area and around the country.
            What we had begun as a quarterly came out irregularly after the first three issues, especially since Ann and I left for England in 1969 for what turned into three years of study there. I continued to publish an issue a year from England – my sister Michelle would forward manuscripts that were filling our post office box in Washington. The issues
also included English poets – probably the most unique piece at that time was in Dryad 7/8 by an Oxford University graduate student in math at St. Catherine’s College, Richard Forsythe: “Sense and Sentences: On Getting a Computer to Write Poems.” I included the printout of the poem, rather than retyping it – I like having done that even more today! And Dryad 9/10 featured Siv Cedering’s poems and photographs, an issue that I was able to have set in linotype in London. Terrific!
            Neil, meanwhile, had moved to San Francisco, not too long after our first issue of Dryad – so we had two addresses, and he produced a couple of special issues, one of them a boxed set of poems on cards that included a recording of two poems by John Logan set to music.
            Returning to the U.S. in 1972, I found it nearly impossible to keep up with all the manuscripts now coming in – we had two sons, teaching, comprehensives to prepare for, and more, and I could no longer write to everyone. In truth I was tiring of the magazine. That’s when I thought of books, a literary press: numbers of poets whose work had been in Dryad had not yet published collections and so Dryad magazine gradually became Dryad Press and began to publish them – a couple of issues of the magazine first appeared as books, e.g., A Tumult for John Berryman, edited by Marguerite Harris, the doyenne of avant-garde poets in the East Village.
            What came first was Rod Jellema’s Something Tugging the Line (two more books by Rod followed); Myra Sklarew’s From the Backyard of the Diaspora, awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry; Roland Flint’s And Morning and then his second, Say It; Roger Aplon’s Stiletto, followed by By Dawn’s Early Light at 120 Miles an Hour; Rodger Kamenetz’s The Missing Jew, then Nympholepsy; Philip Jason’s chapbook Thawing Out, then Near the Fire. Neil oversaw Roger Aplon’s books and an oversized book by John Logan, Poem in Progress. We had grant money from the NEH, which enabled me to do a beautiful book of long-lined poems, so-called prose poems, Moments of the Italian Summer by James Wright and paintings by Joan Root.
            These are all books of poetry of course – Dryad Press was a poetry press (then) – and are still only a sampling; there were books by Ann Darr, Herman Taube, two books by Paul Zimmer – The Zimmer Poems and With Wanda: Town & Country Poems – Denis Boyles’ Maxine’s Flattery, a 12” x 12” box of poems in various sized papers, and chapbooks by Linda Pastan, Ann Slayton, Moshe Dor, Henry Allen, and most recently, Lily Herman’s Each Day There Is a Little Love in a Book for You. But if you were to look at the list, you would find:
            Fiction – for instance, Joyce Kornblatt’s The Reason for Wing and Jack Greer’s Abraham’s Bay & Other Stories, and a long while ago, Sidney Sulkin’s mix of fiction and poetry, The Secret Seed.
            Translations – among them, Charles Simic’s rendering of the Macedonian poems of Slavko Janevski’s The Bandit Wind; Harry Rand’s translations of the first seven days of Genesis, The Beginning of Things, with watercolor paintings by Mindy Weisel; the books that Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg, brought together, with Moshe’s extraordinary literals, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War & Peace; a translation of Ronny Someck’s The Fire Stays in Red, and Moshe’s The Fullness Thereof: The Hebrew Bible Homeland, poems Barbara and he translated.
            Holocaust memoirs – among them Ephraim Sten’s 1111 Days of My Life Plus Four that Moshe translated from the Hebrew and Irene Awret’s They’ll Have to Catch Me First: An Artist Coming of Age During the Third Reich, which Irene originally wrote in German.
            Anthologies – Philip Jason’s Shaping: New Poems in Traditional Prosodies and Barbara Goldberg’s The First Yes: Poems about Communicating.
            Biography and Memoirs – I’m thinking especially of Reed Whittemore’s Against the Grain: The Literary Life of a Poet, but also John Russell’s affectionate book about his sportsman father, Honey Russell: Between Games, Between Halves, Neil Lehrman’s Mindful Journey: A Traveler’s First Safari, and recently, a smaller, “interrupted memoir” by the late Sarah Blacher Cohen, The Junk Dealer’s Daughter.
            It is no afterthought to speak here of three people I depended on at various times: Roland Hoover, who set and printed two letterpress chapbooks by Linda Pasta, On the Way to the Zoo and Setting the Table – Roland also designed the cover for Reed Whittemore’s The Feel of Rock and the man I went to for advice in the early years of Dryad Press. The late Susan Foster, artist and designer, who did numbers of marvelous covers and designed Ann Darr’s Clearing for Landing and Harry Rand’s The Beginning of Things. And Sandy Rodgers, dear friend and designer: for fifteen years we’ve worked together on Dryad Press books.
                                    *                                    *                                    *

            I wrote earlier that I came to believe the impulse Neil Lehrman and I originally had in starting Dryad was “to connect” with other poets. I’ve come to realize that over these years in publishing books especially that connecting is what Dryad Press has been for me. Whether or not you believe in the soul literally, it is the source of a writer’s literary work – by taking on a book that brings the work together, I am not merely a publisher – anyone can be – but I am a collaborator, collaborating with the soul of another. This is the deepest form of what E.M. Forster meant by “only connect.” I think it’s the main reason I haven’t been able to retire from making books. It is the gift I give and the gift I receive – there’s no separation between the two.

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