Wednesday, July 20, 2016

DeWitt Henry Reminisces on the 45th Anniversary of Ploughares Magazine

DeWitt Henry

DeWitt Henry Reminisces on the 45th Anniversary of Ploughshares Magazines

***Ploughshares Magazine, based at Emerson College, is a much lauded literary magazine that was founded at the Plough and Stars Pub in Cambridge, Mass. some 45 years ago. I asked DeWitt Henry, a founder of the said journal, to write a small memoir piece about his life and times with the magazine. I had Henry as a guest on my Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer show on Somerville Community Access TV, and  as a visiting author at Endicott College where I direct the Visiting Author Series. Henry proved to be a fascinating conversationalist, full of  anecdotes about the literary world in Cambridge in the 60s and 70s, and his own development as a writer and editor.--Doug Holder/Ibbetson Street Press /Somerville, Mass.

I’ve just received the fall issue of PS, edited by Claire Messud and James Wood and marking 45 years of publication. Meanwhile, I’m still savoring last spring’s issue, edited by Alan Shapiro and Tom Sleigh, not to mention the series of “Solos,” begun by editor-in-chief, Ladette Randolph, three years ago—long prose works first published in digital form then collected annually in a print “Omnibus.”

Co-founding Ploughshares with Peter O’Malley, in 1971, began the adventure (along with marriage, parenting, and my own writing) of my youth, mid-life, and then some. The original volunteer group met in the Plough and Stars pub, as outsiders to what we thought of as the literary establishment, namely people who were paid for writing and editing. We believed in common readers, especially those of our own generation, who would explore the different aesthetics and passions we debated. Our mission was to discover, showcase and cultivate “tomorrow’s classics today.” In time, more and more writers and critics rallied to our cause and helped to broaden our network, and to build our reputation and readership. And some of the writers we discovered or published early on have, in fact, continued to grow in career and their contributions have become classics. 

The idea of such a magazine, and especially of its editorial democracy, has so far engaged three generations of editors, writers, and readers, and led, if not to the world we had dreamed of (where poetry, fiction, and non-fiction would thrive outside of the mass-market system and where all readers would respect the role of literary magazines), then to a world vastly more hospitable to both emerging and established writers, one in which they are served by many literary magazines, small presses, reading series, writing programs, and institutions. The limitations of commercial publishing are better understood today, and with new technologies (social media, the internet, blogs, digital and on-demand publishing) and more independent presses, more writers than ever seem to find audiences and sustain careers.

During my twenty-four year tenure, Ploughshares grew from a local to a national base and from print circulations of 1000 to 3000. Support from grants gave us operating capital, which I turned into renewable earnings, enough so to start paying staff. The workload outgrew volunteerism. We found office space and support at Emerson College, which was starting an MFA program and where I had been hired full-time; and when I became chair of the writing department, I negotiated a full-scale affiliation, making Ploughshares an Emerson publication in 1988. My teaching and administrative duties then pulled me away, and I relied on our first MFA graduate , Don Lee, to manage the magazine. He was a gifted writer and computer-savant , who had grown from intern to Editor, who secured a major development grant from the Readers’ Digest Foundation for promoting the magazine, and then took over entirely in 1992, while I continued as an advisor. He ran the magazine for the next 15 years, computerizing operations, tripling our circulation by direct mail campaigns, broadening the guest editor pool, and increasing Emerson’s support. In 2007, having published his own story collection and first novel to critical acclaim, he left to teach and write full-time (his fourth novel is due next spring). I returned for an interim year-plus and led the search that brought Ladette Randolph from the University of Nebraska Press as our new editor-in-chief. For eight years so far, Ladette has shaped and connected Ploughshares to new generations, new readers, and an even wider community. I was proud to guest-edit the 40th anniversary issue at her invitation. She has also flourished with her own writing: a story collection, two novels and a memoir. If the past is prologue, I hope Ploughshares proves to be a never-ending story. 

I retired from teaching last winter in order to write more. I’ve placed work recently in Brevity and the Massachusetts Review and have work upcoming in the Wilderness House Literary Review (I’m also rejected by other places I admire). My two memoirs were published by small presses, Red Hen and Hidden River Press. My writer’s website ( has registered some 9000 hits. I’ve published my first story collection, Falling: Six Stories, with Create Space. Meanwhile, I send around my third memoir and a novel. I review books I love. Would I start another magazine or press at this point? No. It doesn’t seem as culturally necessary as it was in the 1970s, if only because there are so many good ones. However, I have joined two on-line magazines as a contributing editor: Solstice, edited by novelist Lee Hope ( with a mission to promote diversity, and Woven Tale Press ( edited by novelist Sandra Tyler and vested in showcasing graphic as well as literary arts. I still have opinions. I still find writers and writers find me. Literature is a living process and I am passionate about “what I will not willingly let die.”

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating article by a writer and editor I deeply admire. Loved hearing about the grass roots beginnings of the iconic Ploughshares.