RTC Passager takes readers on delightful, quirky journeys through life


July 24, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

In the daunting world of high-brow literary magazines, Passager stands out like the guest who winks across the formal banquet table. Down-to-earth and unconventional, this Baltimore-based publication explores the latter stages of life through quirky insights, bittersweet reflections and surprising levels of passion.

Entering its third year as a mostly subscriber-supported magazine -- a rare feat in today's literary scene -- the quarterly celebrates the wisdom and reveries of such older "new" writers as Thomas Driscoll, retired sailor, submarine and ambulance designer, Jane McCray, an Arizona mystic who is writing 80 sonnets to celebrate her 80th birthday and Marion Arenas, who volunteers as an AIDS counselor in New York City.

Passager calls itself a journal of remembrance and discovery.

"Passager is a feeling of gathering up, of bringing the past forward," says editor Sally Darnowsky. "It's a summing up. . . What we're doing is not so much for older people, but for what they stand for as a metaphor. Older people are repositories of their whole lives."

Ms. Darnowsky, a 40-year-old writer whose first play "Twilight, With Roses" was produced by the 1991 Baltimore Playwrights Festival, founded and edits the magazine with 35-year-old poet Kendra Kopelke, director of the creative writing program in the University of Baltimore's Department of English and Communications Design.

"This is a way of giving older people a voice," says Ms. Kopelke. "Older people are invisible in our society. I know it's a cliche, and I hate to resay it, but nobody ever hears it."

Although it also prints the work of young writers, the magazine has gained critical attention for attracting "new" older writers as well as such prominent poets as Josephine Jacobson and Lucille Clifton. Most issues present poetry and short fiction, but the editors sometimes select a single theme. The current issue, for instance, is devoted to the results of Passager's first national poetry competition for new writers over the age of 50. A future issue will examine the art of journal writing.

"The writing is as professional as the editing," notes Bill Katz in Library Journal. "The whole is a counterbalance to the sometimes maudlin comments and fiction found in national journals for seniors."

Take "The Dutiful Daughter," a poem by Virginia Wilson in which a woman lashes out at her abusive father even as she cares for him.

Or Randallstown writer J.M. Reuter's "Lallophobia in New York," the story of attending a school to correct stuttering.

"We're looking for someone with a rich imaginative life and all that experience to draw from, and that's not easy to find," says Ms. Kopelke. "In the first issue we wrote this great clunky sentence that we still think is true: We want you to wish you had written what you read in Passager -- and we want Passager to make you want to write."

Contributors think the magazine adds an important dimension to the literary landscape.

"Poetry is going through a big ferment, as our culture is. If there are not healing voices, we're going to be in bad shape," says poet Will Inman, a contributor from Tucson. "I think it's time to make new syntheses."

Mr. Inman directs writing workshops for prisoners, for people suffering from mental illness and for the homeless. His poem "7 March 1991" links vivid imagery of the Arizona desert to visions of Desert Storm.

"I see Passager as wonderful antidote to the cynicism which has become rampant in our country, but neither is it a Pollyanna magazine," he says. "It deals with real issues."

It is also doing well. The average life span of the roughly 1,500 literary magazines in the United States is less than two years, according to the Council of Literary Magazine Publishers in New York.

Passager began in 1990 with 50 subscribers and has expanded to 400 -- a respectable showing in a medium where a few thousand subscribers makes the Top 10 list. A yearly subscription costs $10. Neither the editors nor the contributors are paid for their work.

A sympathetic university environment can prove crucial to a literary magazine. In 1983, the University of Baltimore helped Wayne Markert, now dean of the university's liberal arts college, and writer Andrei Codrescu launch Exquisite Corpse, an iconoclastic periodical still in circulation. The university supplies Passager with similar in-kind services such as an office, a graduate intern and funding for special events.

In addition, the magazine has received grants from Baltimore Gas and Electric and the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture.

But the survival of small magazines depends mostly upon the energy of their editors, according to Michael Anania, professor of literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago and past president of the CLMP.

"Some days Sally and Kendra seem to stumble through this, looking like they are reinventing the wheel with each issue," says graphics designer John Wilson who has served as a guest editor. "But they are following their hearts. They're following a vision. And because they're true to that, the product is true, it's professional and it carries great honesty."

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