Spotlighting a press for older writers – Baltimore Sun
By any standard, Henry Morgenthau III has led an extraordinary life.
His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was secretary of the treasury under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. His grandfather was the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
And Morgenthau himself worked in television for decades, producing documentaries on historical figures from Eleanor Roosevelt to President John F. Kennedy.
But in his early 90s, Morgenthau says, he realized that the responsibility of living up to the name of his distinguished family had constrained his personal growth. He began writing poetry to process what that meant.
The result is his first book, “A Sunday in Purgatory”, an 88-page collection issued by Passager Press, the University of Baltimore-based publishing house that has been putting out the work of writers age 50 and older since 1990.
Morgenthau, who turned 100 in January, will read from the well-received work at the university’s student center Monday night.
“I’m looking forward to sharing these pieces in Baltimore, particularly since it was a Baltimore press that first published me,” he says. “People do seem to be interested in an active codger like me.”
Passager’s top editor says Morgenthau is more than just the first centenarian the not-for-profit press has published: He’s a formidable talent and a model of Passager’s mission to “bring attention to older writers to and encourage imagination throughout our lives.”
“What impressed us when he first submitted work to [our] magazine was his ability to startle us, to say something we’d never heard before,” says Kendra Kopelke, who is director of the university’s graduate program in creative writing and design arts and Passager’s founding editor. “His wit and his care in crafting the poems didn’t hurt.
“Henry is part of a famous family, but he’s now a man who’s really exploring who he is, who he was. He’s wrestling with issues of relationships with people, his sexuality and more. He’s different from anybody we’ve published in terms of the kind of wrestling he’s doing. It’s amazing.”
When Kopelke founded Passager 27 years ago, it was to encourage exactly such outcomes.
In the 1980s, the Baltimore native was a shy young poet looking for opportunities to teach when she reached out to local senior centers for work as a creative writing instructor.
An official at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens on Cathedral Street told her there was bad news and good news: The center’s beloved writing teacher had just died, and they needed a replacement.
“When I showed up they were all crying and looking at an album of photos [of the late instructor],” Kopelke recalls. “They had been with her for five years. But I fell in love with them, and I guess they also fell in love with me.”
She had never been “in a room full of older people,” and the prospect daunted her at first. But she soon realized that senior citizens who might at first have appeared quiet or distant came amazingly to life when sharing and discussing poetry.
“You see an old woman sitting, and she might look like she’s dozing off, like she can’t even say much,” she says. “And you put her in a room and talk about poetry, and ask her to write something, and you can’t get over the fire.
“To me it was kind of like the fire a teen has, but it was different. And the laughter. Everything was so intense.”
Then teaching a class on small literary journals at the University of Baltimore, Kopelke was inspired to try harnessing that energy — and sharing it with a broader audience — through a journal for “new older” writers, which she and her comrade-in-arms, writing teacher Mary Azrael, defined as 50 and up.
They drew on the talents within the university’s publishing arts department to develop the striking, square-shaped design the journal still uses, and put out a call for entries. On the strength of a $500 grant from BGE and a free reading upon the magazine’s launch by former poet laureate of Maryland Lucille Clifton, they sold enough subscriptions to make Passager a going concern.
With the University of Baltimore providing office space, a business manager and talented students as editorial staff for Kopelke and Azrael, Passager became a quiet mainstay, appearing a little more than twice a year, sponsoring an annual poetry contest and emerging as a source of inspiration for older individuals who want to develop and showcase their writing.
“These are wonderful people with an interesting cause,” says Vermont poet Jean L. Carroll, 97, whose work Passager has anthologized in two books. “Passager gives older people an open door to keep going at something that could otherwise be kind of closed, and when older people see that others like them have succeeded, it’s inspiring.”
Carroll, who is retired from the New York State Library, took up poetry in her late 70s. Her submissions to the annual Passager contest in 2003 included “Of Some Renown,” a 12-line meditation in which she compares a quiet, solitary egret “at the marsh’s edge” to older people, individuals she suggests have more substance than they might appear: “In his own pond he is/ of some renown, a stalker,/ a catcher of fish. Watch him.”
She won the competition. Her submissions inspired the editors to gather her work into a book-length collection, then-U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser included the poem in his syndicated newspaper series on poetry, and Carroll, who lives in a retirement home in northern Vermont, found herself traveling the state for readings and interviews.
Her case is not unusual for Passager, which publishes the output of everyone from individuals who have been writing poetry, fiction or memoirs for years, often appearing in prestigious journals, to those who didn’t start writing until later in life.
Passager has shared the work of more than 1,000 writers in its 62 issues and 21 books, gaining a reputation for durability in a field in which few magazines and journals last more than a handful of years.
Among the editors’ favorites are several from Maryland, including Moira Egan, a Baltimore poet who hit menopause at 50, wrote a book called “Hot Flash Sonnets,” and now lives in Italy; Larnell Custis Butler, an Afro-centrist feminist and author whose book, “Improvise in the Amen Corner,” collects vignettes and drawings of Baltimore faces, and Shirley Brewer, a retired Baltimore speech therapist whose “A Little Breast Music” was her first book.
Now in its 28th year, Passager — its name, a blend of “passage” and “passenger,” is meant to suggest transitions among life’s stages — still subsists on direct sales.