Saturday, August 28, 2010
The kayak passes on
George Hitchcock has passed away. It's hard to explain, in these days of easy experimentalism and general vapidity, how daring and exciting - and above all fun - his magazine kayak was.
Here's how Hitchcock introduced (there were some variations) each issue:
A kayak is not a galleon, ark, coracle or speedboat. It is a small watertight vessel operated by a single oarsman. It is submersible, has sharply pointed ends, and is constructed from light poles and the skins of furry animals. It has never yet been successfully employed as a means of transport.
KAYAK will appear at least twice a year.
KAYAK will print what its editor considers the best poets now working in the United States and Canada.
KAYAK is particularly hospitable to surrealist, imagist and political poems.
KAYAK welcomes vehement or ribald articles on the subject of modern poetry.
KAYAK does not pay its contributors.
(I suppose that last bit would outrage today's careerists, but one wanted badly to be in kayak.)
Robert Bly once wrote an attack on the magazine's first ten issues - which Hitchcock himself published; but the piece also allowed that kayak offered "nourishment," that it was against "crystalized flower formations from the jolly intellectual dandies... against the high-pitched bat-like cry of the anal-Puritan mandarin... [and against] trapped, small-boned, apologetic, feverish, glassy intellectualist fluttering."
Here's a brief write-up from the kayak collection at the University of Buffalo:
A teacher, publisher, poet, actor, novelist, and playwright as well as an editor, George Hitchcock produced 64 issues of kayak in San Francisco and then Santa Cruz, California. Describing itself as being "particularly hospitable to surrealist, imagist and political poems; prose poems and vehement articles on modern poetry," the magazine featured over its twenty-year span a fairly consistent group of writers including Robert Bly, Philip Levine, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, David Ignatow, Hayden Carruth, and Wendell Berry, as well as figures like David Antin, Kathleen Fraser, Paul Blackburn, Gary Snyder, and Anselm Hollo who are usually associated with other literary communities. kayak also published occasional English translations of influential writers such as François Villon, Rafael Alberti, Paul Eluard, and Georg Trakl. Distinguishing the magazine visually are its covers and numerous illustrations featuring eclectic nineteenth-century drawings and engravings as well as contemporary collages. In 1968 kayak was awarded $10,000 by the National Council on the Arts for its contributions "made in advancing the cause of the unknown, obscure or difficult writer, and in the publication of books visually and typographically distinctive."
kayak was visually and typographically distinctive, alrighty - funny, too: a late issue was, according to Hitchcock, "printed on rifle and small-arms target paper rejected as substandard by the U.S. Defense Department."
Nothing conveys the texture of kayak like the original issues, but you can sample some of his own work, and read about kayak, in One-Man Boat: The George Hitchcock Reader.
Other obits can be read here and here.
Hitchcock was an original off the page, too, as famously demonstrated when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1957. Citing the First Amendment, he declined to answer questions about his politics, though he did say that he was from Hood River, Oregon - "where the delicious apples come from" - and when asked what his profession was, replied:
"My profession is a gardener. I do underground work on plants."