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Red Weather Redux

January 28, 2011

Cover art by Colin Wheeler '11

In October 2010, Nin Andrews (H’80) and I gave a poetry reading in the Wellin Atrium of the Science Center at Hamilton College. During our visit, Nin and I also met with students in Jane Springer’s Advanced Poetry Workshop and some members of the current Red Weather staff. (One staff member said happily, “I’ve never met real Kirkland women before!”) What struck me most was that today’s staff faces the very same issues with Red Weather that I did: apathy, budget constraints, worries about layout and typos.

Afterwards, Hamilton senior Olivia Wolfgang-Smith wrote:

As the current Editor-in-Chief of Red Weather, Hamilton’s literary magazine, I was lucky enough to interview the magazine’s founder, Jo Pitkin K’78, earlier this year.  Pitkin met me and other current RW staff members with folders full of artifacts and memorabilia from the magazine’s history, from copies of the first issues to caustic early reviews clipped from The Spectator.  Hearing about Red Weather’s early life and production, and Kirkland’s vibrant literary community in general, inspired us as we worked on the fall issue.  It was wonderful for our generation of students to connect with our shared history, and we hope to continue to produce a publication that honors its enthusiastic and innovative roots.

And here is the full text of the interview that appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Red Weather.

What prompted you to found Red Weather?  Why did you choose the Stevens line for the title?

Hamilton has had a number of college-funded literary magazines. I recall both Wintersetl and Watermark, for example. In my freshman or sophomore year at Kirkland, I joined the staff of Dessert at the Plaza, the literary magazine at Kirkland and Hamilton at the time. In the spring of 1976, the outgoing editor persuaded me to run for his position. After I was elected, I decided the magazine needed both a new name and a new look.

To me, Dessert at the Plaza had a connotation of urban life: breakfast at Tiffany’s, rush hour, taxis. I wanted something more relevant to Clinton and the Mohawk Valley. I talked about the search for a name replacement with my writing professors. At the time, Michael Burkard was reading Wallace Stevens and suggested “red weather” from the final line of “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” , as a possible title. My staff deliberated on a short list of favorites and voted on Michael’s suggestion.

To us, this title seemed to better reflect life on the Hill. Our instincts must have been on target; Red Weather has lasted nearly continuously for the past thirty years!

What was the magazine like in its early days?

I edited six issues of Red Weather from fall 1976 to spring 1978. We produced three issues a year. Not only did I change the magazine’s title, but I also reduced its trim size from 8½ x 11; created separate editorial, production, and art staffs; contracted with a different area printing company; and introduced the use of blind submissions. All these changes were designed to make the process more democratic and efficient and to create a more aesthetically pleasing magazine.

Jo P on pasteup

Jo Pitkin working on publication layout (from Roots in the Glen yearbook, 1977)

Our early issues were rough but gradually improved as we got comfortable using The Spectator’s photocomposition equipment and doing page layout with pica rulers and X-acto knives. Remember, this was before computers! The layout was done by hand. We typeset the magazine from manuscript in room that smelled like vinegar from the fumes of film developer.

Despite an obvious shift in technology, RW then and now are pretty much the same. My issues included student art, photography, poems, and fiction, just as RW does today. Much of the work was created on campus as a result of workshops and studio art classes; some of it was created independently outside of the classroom.

Like you, I tried to get a diverse sampling of submissions. I advertised with posters and ads in The Spectactor. I tapped whatever sources I could. But I never thought of holding a launch party to celebrate the arrival of an issue. All I remember is waiting for the printer to arrive with boxes of freshly minted copies of the magazine. Then I ran around campus with some of my staff to distribute it in obvious places: the libraries at Kirkland and Hamilton, Bristol Campus Center (which at the time was a central gathering spot), and so on.

Once I started writing articles for Kirkland’s new interactive archive (www.kirklandalums.org), I delved into some of the history of RW. After all these years, I suddenly realized that I had most likely been the first woman on the Hill to edit the student literary magazine. At that time, it was unusual for female students to head campus organizations at Hamilton. It was so unusual, in fact, that several of us were interviewed about the experience for an article entitled “Women in Charge.” After I graduated from Kirkland, a number of Kirkland women succeeded me, including Barbara Berson, Vicki Kohn, and Francesca Richardson.

Could you describe Kirkland’s creative writing program?

Kirkland had one of the earliest undergraduate programs in creative writing in the nation. It was housed within the Arts Division (rather than in the English Department where it is at most other colleges). When I was a student, there were only two dozen colleges in the United States that offered a B.A. in creative writing, so it was fairly distinct.

I took the Intro to Creative Writing class with Bill Rosenfeld, and later studied poetry with Michael Burkard and Tess Gallagher. I also took an Advanced Fiction workshop with Bill. There were other writers who taught creative writing at Kirkland prior to my arrival, including the poets Naomi Lazard and Denise Levertov.

Many of us went on to earn MFAs. A few years after Kirkland, I attended the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where I studied with Larry Levis, Donald Justice, Jane Cooper, and Sandra McPherson. I had to write a book-length poetry manuscript for my MFA thesis. Believe me, this was easy compared to doing my Senior Project in creative writing at Kirkland. I felt so well prepared for graduate school as a result of my Kirkland training. Our Senior Project was an independent, self-designed project that was intended to reflect the culmination of our studies. The skills I learned from my Senior Project (which primarily focused on the writing of a sequence of poems based on Russian literature and the producing of a broadside) have been invaluable, especially in the work world.

One thing that has stayed me all these years is the wonderful sense of community that developed among the writers at Kirkland. We supported one another, celebrated one another’s accomplishments. We still do. I regularly look for and read work by my Kirkland classmates. I just did a reading on the Hill with Nin Andrews, who arrived at Kirkland in 1977, and I’m editing an anthology, Lost Orchard: Prose and Poetry from the Kirkland College Community. To date, I have approximately fifty submissions from Kirkland alumnae as well as from former faculty and members of the administration.

You have worked extensively in educational writing and editing in addition to writing poetry.  What are the challenges and rewards of working with both technical and literary writing at the same time?  Do you have a favorite form or genre?

I credit my work on Red Weather with my interest in the field of book publishing. I enjoyed the feeling of producing something and working collaboratively. Six months after I graduated from Kirkland, I was working at Houghton Mifflin in Boston. I eventually became an editor there.

Now I earn a living as a writer. That’s a huge reward—and a relief, too. I can use what I’ve studied and worked hard at in a most practical way. I primarily write educational materials for K – 12 students, so I apply what I’ve studied to writing grammar and composition, literature, and reading textbooks.

I find that the discipline of writing every day under a deadline helps me be more disciplined about my poetry. On the other hand, I have less time than I would like to devote to my creative work. This is a challenge, though, that I would face if I worked as a professor, a plumber, or a psychotherapist. It doesn’t bother me that I juggle two distinct forms of writing at a time. I just wish I didn’t have to work so much to earn a living!

In recent years, I’ve had the experience of writing something for a textbook that stuck in my mind. In particular, I wrote a short story about luna moths. I later turned some of the imagery from this reading passage for kids into a poem, which will be published next year in a terrific magazine, Little Star.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

There are many! Favorite poets include William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, H.D., Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Francis Ponge, Tomas Tranströmer, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück, Gillian Allnutt, Ahkmatova, Tsvetayeva. Of course, I read the work of my many Kirkland and Iowa classmates and teachers.

My short list of favorite fiction writers includes Stephen Crane, John Banville, Willa Cather, Bruno Schulz, Edith Wharton.

What projects are you working on now?

Projects I’m doing for money: I’m currently writing a children’s trade book for a new history series called Once in America, and I’m writing online instructional materials to give students extra help with state-based reading tests. In 2011, I’ll be writing several biographical sketches for a trade series called Notable American Women.

Projects I’m doing for love: Besides the Kirkland anthology, I’m also working on two chapbook-sized series of poems. I have a new full-length manuscript of poems in the works, too.

by Jo Pitkin K’78 and Olivia Wolfgang-Smith ’11

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