KEITH TUMA | early 1980s


[Poetry Staff, 1980; Poetry & Politics Non-Committee, 1984; Editor Emeritus 1985]


In October 1979, I was the least prepared student in Robert von Hallberg’s PhD seminar on the poet-critic, the only MA student in the course, new to the University of Chicago. I was in way over my head. Others in the seminar were starting or completing dissertations—including Alan Golding, Lynn Keller, Ellen Stauder, and Harvey Teres, impressive scholars then as now. We met in the Regenstein Library near the poetry collection. We read and discussed poems and essays by Ezra Pound, Yvor Winters, and Donald Davie, and our conversation spun off to other recent poet-critics, including Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Robert Pinsky. Though Wayne Booth was still teaching at Chicago alongside several others associated with the glory days of the Chicago School, literary theory and new modes of literary history were the new thing at the university. I was to get a healthy dose of those discourses in other courses, but for von Hallberg the poet-critics offered a model of literary criticism that emphasized evaluation and engaged with contemporary writing for how it changes our view of the writing of the past. Pound’s “The Renaissance” was useful backstory: the university would sponsor literary production, criticism, and scholarship as one enterprise. That was exciting. I was almost twenty-two.

That same fall another member of the poet-critic seminar, Maggie Hivnor, co-editor of Chicago Review, invited me to attend a meeting of the poetry staff. If she hadn’t done so I might have never come back for the PhD after a year teaching at a city college in Uptown, though von Hallberg had a lot to do with that decision. I came back to study with him; I continued with CR during the year I was out of school. In those days the English department had no graduate courses in creative writing, and I think that the English department’s limited interest in contemporary literature is one of the reasons many of the people who were part of CR in those days never finish their PhDs. Literary studies seemed headed somewhere they didn’t care to go. Some of those who didn’t finish the PhD were among the brightest and most creative people I knew in Chicago. As for me, I didn’t want to teach at a city college forever, so I thought I’d go back to do the PhD and continue to volunteer at CR to see if the two worlds could be made to coexist.

In one of the first meetings I attended of CR’s poetry staff, the poem discussed was John Taggart’s “Not This Not That.” I was impressed by the intensity of the comments for and against this strange poem as the group argued about whether they wanted to give over sixteen pages of the magazine to it. “Not this lily no not this no not this lily no” it begins, establishing its minimalist trance music. The poem appeared in CR 31: 3 and was the subject of an angry letter from a reader who awarded the staff “Ten Moron Points” in the next issue. Michael Sells and Marjorie Pannell were poetry co-editors; they were incredibly erudite. I see that Sells is now the John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. Poet and editor Molly McQuade, then an undergraduate, must have been at this meeting, along with the late Michael Donaghy, who had already abandoned his degree work and several years later moved to London, where his poems, some of them written in Chicago and workshopped informally at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap, are still read. Maybe Fred Gardaphe was there, too, or he was there later; he’s now a Distinguished Professor of English and Italian American Studies at Queens/CUNY. I learned as much about poetry from these people as I did from coursework.

Later, after I became poetry co-editor with Tom Bonnell (32: 4–33: 3) and then general editor (33: 4–34: 2), others who became close friends joined the staff. Alan Waters came on as nonfiction co-editor. He was pursuing a PhD with the Committee on Social Thought. For one question on his PhD qualifying exam, Saul Bellow asked him to write about the ways that Marx is a comedian. Alan was passionate about African music and played drums in a West African band fronted by the Ghanaian singer Harry Preacherman, who trained to become an airline pilot. After Alan, Steve Schroer, who wrote sketches and one-act plays as well as poems, joined the magazine. He had started an improv comedy group that performed at Jimmy’s and tiny theaters in Lakeview; Mark Hollmann of Urinetown fame was briefly part of it. With Steve Heminger, he took over as general editor after my three issues in that role and generously allowed me to put together a tribute to J. V. Cunningham and take part in conversations about content proposed for their issues.

When I think about my own editorial contributions to CR, I’m happiest about that little Cunningham tribute (35:1) with its several essays and epigrams by Thom Gunn and Raymond Oliver. It is the right size for a tribute to Cunningham, who is not read much these days, sadly. The poetry I published had a lot to do with studying with von Hallberg. He introduced me to the poetry of Turner Cassity, and I wrote Cassity to ask for poems. I’d read that, according to Hugh Kenner, one is supposed to reach out to the writers one admires, and so I did (and still do). When Donald Davie came to town to give a talk I asked him for his essay on Cassity’s work. Other post-Wintersian poets appeared often, including Alan Shapiro, John Matthias, and Ken Fields. Jim Powell, whose work is not read as widely as it should be, wrote CR on the advice of Robert Pinsky, and we published a number of his early poems. He was already a first-rate translator of Sappho, Horace, and Catullus and the author of an important essay about Pound’s prosody in Paideuma. I learned from my correspondence with him, and the magazine was better for his work. We published translations of a number of quasi-canonical poets and should have tried harder to find more work in translation, as I recognize in hindsight. We also should have worked to find some of the experimental poetry then emerging. Ed Dorn came to town to read Gunslinger, and I was part of a one-off afternoon workshop with him that von Hallberg arranged, but didn’t think to ask him for poems or contacts. I was reading a little Language poetry while writing my dissertation, though friends who’d met this or that Language poet were put off by the self-promotion of some among that group. That mattered to me.

It was the early 80s. We were scared by Reagan’s presidency and rhetoric and tried to do an issue on poetry and politics, but the essays we gathered were academic essays and the issue lacked focus. The essays included Kenner’s on the making of the modernist canon and Marjorie Perloff’s on the manifesto, which became part of The Futurist Moment. Lawrence Rainey helped with the issue, though he didn’t have a sustained relationship with CR. Kenner visited campus as part of that. I drove the great modernist around in my disintegrating Oldsmobile Omega, which required me to enter via the passenger’s door and had a glovebox that would not close.

We struggled mightily to get the magazine into the world. Apart from von Hallberg, Richard Stern, Ralph Johnson, Richard Strier, and one or two others, the faculty had little interest in it, and those who did kept their distance. Meanwhile the university looked for ways to save a few thousand by trimming our funding. We were moved into Wilder House and allowed a rundown basement office beside the offices of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I was awful at the business and managerial side of things and, owing partly to limited funds, very slow in producing issues. My first issue as general editor came to eighty-three pages. When we didn’t publish fast enough the post office came around and threatened to change our status. I forget what that entailed but remember a scary basement meeting with its representatives. Meanwhile the piles of empty mailbags grew in mildewed corners. When CR later became more functional in terms of its business operations and production I was pleased, and I think my happiest memories of CR are not of my own time editing there but of conversations with, and publications made possible by, several more recent editors. I’ve tried to stay in touch.

Looking back, I think I was lucky that the magazine didn’t go under during my days with it. I don’t think of my issues as poetry co-editor or general editor as among the finest that CR has published. I am nevertheless proud of them. And I am especially proud of the people who helped put them together. The faculty were busy with Critical Inquiry. The students and former students who were running CR published what they managed to find and wanted to publish, as it should be. The administration might have had the notion that we were a scandal waiting to happen, given the magazine’s history and the nature of the staff—us. So much for scholarly and creative worlds collaborating. They were collaborating, in their way. Not that much has changed.