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Literary Landscape: Hanging Loose Press

April 17, 2012
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Introducing a new series on the Last Light Blog: Literary Landscape profiles small presses and literary magazines. Some have been established for decades, while others are virtually brand new. The series kicks off with Hanging Loose Press.

Hanging Loose Magazine publishes non-traditional, distinctive poetry, fiction, and art. It started as a poetry magazine in 1966, taking its name from its format: a collection of loose pages. Though it has since dropped that in favor of bound copies, Hanging Loose is, as always, committed to publishing work that takes readers by surprise. Based in Brooklyn and Boston, Hanging Loose also puts out poetry collections and novels as well as its biannual magazine.

I spoke with one Hanging Loose’s founders, Robert Hershon, about the history and focus of the press.

Hanging Loose’s original format was a collection of free pages, rather than a bound book. What was the idea behind that?

The original impetus was cost. The mimeograph machine was a cheap way to run off pages. Back in the 50s and 60s there was one in every school and church; they were ubiquitous. In the 60s there was an explosion of magazines in the Lower East Side and especially St. Mark’s Church because with the mimeograph is was easy and at little cost. We didn’t bind it, and we put the magazine together ourselves.

But besides money, we also wanted the format to say that these poems are for right now, not for the ages. We didn’t care about what would happen a hundred years from now. If you liked a poem you could scotch tape it up somewhere, if you didn’t you could do something lewd with it.

Why did you switch to a traditional format?

In the early days, we mimeographed and collated all the issues ourselves. I learned that the editors couldn’t talk and collate at the same time. I would pay my daughter, who was about eight at the time, and her friends slave wages to collate. They would pride themselves on how many pages they could get done.

We did twenty-five issues with the loose pages. First of all, we had a little money and were able to afford and outside printer. Bookstores and libraries hated the format. I wanted to go to a bigger page size and to start using art. The loose pages– it was very limiting.

What tone and style of poetry do you prefer? 

I guess, if you thought of traditional and formal work as the right, we’d be firmly to the left. We look for work that has a lot of energy, strong language, and takes us by surprise. We look for new writers: I think that is the mission of a small magazine. I’ve never understood editors who start a magazine and then beg for work from established writers. We’re very proud of the people who we’ve published from the beginning: Sherman Alexie, Kimiko Hahn, Dennis Nurkse, and later Cathy Hong and Maggie Nelson.

Internet publishing aside, do you think there are more opportunities for new writers now than there were forty or fifty years ago?

Yes, certainly. When I first started writing poetry in the late 50s there were very few publications. It was mostly college things, university quarterlies, or the Hudson Review. New writers rarely had a chance. The number of publications has exploded. And of course there’s stuff all over the internet. If all you want is a stack of magazines you can have it. In terms of publishing where it counts, where it means something to you– well it’s still hard. But each person’s definition of that is different.

Hanging Loose is also known for publishing poems by high school age writers. How did your work with high school age authors grow?

One of my co-editors in 1968 said “Why don’t we publish work by high school age writers?” I said “I think that’s a terrible idea. I don’t want to read that crap, let them publish in their high school magazines.” But I lost that argument, and we found some amazing work. It wasn’t easy back then to find stuff, before the internet, things weren’t connected. We’d marvel because we’d get a poem by a kid in Montana and say “How does he know about this?”

What we were looking for, and it’s still the same today, were kids who were writing for themselves. We didn’t want teachers to submit. We wanted kids to care enough to be in direct touch. At that time the average english teacher would drop dead at a William Carlos Williams poem, saying “What? How is this a poem?” We still publish stuff that would probably make the average school administrator gasp.

We’ve published four anthologies of high school work. Many of the kids have gone on with writing. I’m thinking of Meghan O’Rourke, Rebecca Wolff. That’s really pleasing, and we continue to get exciting work from all over the place.

Hanging Loose’s 99th issue is out, so it’s next will be the 100th. How do you feel about the magazine’s position now?

The 100th issue is actually coming to me from the printer, it’s on its way, it exists!

At this point the magazine has a pretty established personality. We try not to be too predictable, but I can imagine how a dispassionate critic would describe a typical Hanging Loose poem. We still avoid formal work, but we’re about to do our sixth book with Sherman Alexie, and he’s recently been playing a lot, and doing well with, traditional form. So I wouldn’t say there’s something we won’t do. But if you send us a villanelle, it can’t sounds like the villanelles in every other magazine.

Also, most of the editors are of a certain age. People have said to me “What will you do when you all get old and drop dead? You have a responsibility to train younger editors and keep the magazine going.” So I tried talking about it with everyone and we were off the subject in thirty seconds. It’ll go along and something will happen organically. There’s no predicting. Right now we publish two magazines a year and six to eight books, which is a good constant for us both in terms of work load and finances. With that and with some help from friends, the magazine has kept its head above water. We don’t want to try to leap up and be on every newsstand in America.

Hanging Loose 100 is available now at hangingloosepress.com
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