Saturday, May 20, 2006

Mark Pawlak is a longtime editor of the respected small press “Hanging Loose,” , and the author of the poetry collection “Official Versions.”
His poetry and prose have appeared in The Best American Poetry 2006 (Billy Collins, ed.), New American Writing, Off the Coast, Pemmican, and The Saint Ann’s Review, among other places. In addition, he is editor of four anthologies, most recently, Present/Tense: Poets in the World, a collection of contemporary American political poetry, featuring work from some of the country’s best-known writers. Pawlak is Director of Academic Support Programs at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he also teaches mathematics. He has been the recipient of two Massachusetts Artist Fellowship awards. He lives in Cambridge with his wife and his teenage son. Mark was a guest on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder: Marc, you have been at Hanging Loose Press for some twenty-six years. Tell me a bit about the press and your involvement.

Mark Pawlak: Forty years ago Hanging Loose was literally loose sheets of paper inside of an envelope with a cover on it. It literally hung loose. We used to advertise that if you wanted to edit the magazine, you could throw the pages you don’t like in the garbage, and the ones you like you can tack on the wall. Over the years it has evolved to perfect bound.

Doug Holder: What is your press run?

Mark Pawlak: 1500.

Doug Holder: How did you get involved with Hanging Loose?

Mark Pawlak: I got involved through the poet Denise Levertov. She was a contributing editor. She taught a poetry class at MIT, when I was a student. She published a supplement to issue No. 12 in 1970 that included her students’ work. That’s how I was introduced to “Hanging Loose,” through her. Subsequently, I met Ron Schreiber, another of the founding editors, at U/Mass. Later the editors invited me to join them, when on member stepped down.

Doug Holder: This is the 40th Anniversary of Hanging Loose. What keeps the press together?

Mark Pawlak: This year is our 40th. Many small presses are one person operations, and it is a labor of love. We have four different people editing Hanging Loose so when one of us is ill or doesn’t have the energy, we just pick up the slack. That has helped us through the difficult years. Presses with only one or two people might have folded.

Doug Holder: You say this is a labor of love. You don’t make much or any money from your efforts. What keeps you keeping on?

Mark Pawlak: I am a “holy fool.” It has become a community of writers for me. There are people I have never actually met who I consider dear friends. It does distract me from my own work. It took me three years to complete “Official Versions.” The press distracted me.

Doug Holder: You teach math at U/Mass/Boston. How does this fit with the art of writing poetry?

Mark Pawlak: It does and it doesn’t. It does in the sense of the esthetic of math—getting to the solution, much like knowing you finished a poem. There is a formal precision in poetry and math.

I was a math geek as a kid. I did read some poetry on my own. I discovered Whitman one summer and fell in love with him. I am from Buffalo, NY—a really provincial, working class place. I wasn’t until I encountered Denise Levertov at MIT; during my final year at college did I try my hand at poetry.

Doug Holder: I know I use the newspapers as fodder for my poetry. How about you?

Mark Pawlak: I read The Boston Globe and The New York Times. I pick up the METRO on the train, and if I am really bored I read The Boston Herald. I am always foraging. The language, human interest stories interest me, as well as the political pronouncements of the government, all sources of my poetry. I also have used Billboard’s Best Song titles. I did a poem that involved Hallmark greeting card clichés. I am interested in language out in the world and how it is used and abused.

Doug Holder: It has been said that your poetry cuts through “political doubletalk.” Do you consider yourself a political poet?

Mark Pawlak: I do. In the sense I want to empower people to think critically how language is used. I would like them to understand the disinformation of the headlines. I want to speak plainly.

Doug Holder: Some people say that political poetry is no more than polemic disguised as poetry..

Mark Pawlak: It certainly can be. Political poetry has been accused of being too much of the moment. But what’s more permanent than war, oppression and injustice?

Doug Holder: I characterized you as a “lyrical junkman,” in that you sort of forage through newspapers, ephemera, etc… for words and phrases to flesh out a poem. Is this fair?

Mark Pawlak: Poetry can be conservative. I want to take what’s around me—basic language, and put it together in informative ways.

Doug Holder: Is being an editor drudgery?

Mark Pawlak: It can be drudgery. As you get more practice, you are able to read a few lines—by the energy and language—you can decide where a poem is going or not going. So you can minimize drudgery. There is always the excitement of finding unexpected things. It happens a lot. The thing I am most proud about is that we have a special section in our magazine for high school writers. They are not jaded. High school students are very open to experience and language.

Doug Holder: Is it necessary to have a higher education to be a poet?

Mark Pawlak: You have to be able to read and read deeply. I don’t think a PhD is necessary. Denise Levertov said that poets who became grad. students needed a number of years to shed their skins to get back to their “work.”

Doug Holder

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