LINDY HOUGH: wild horses lassoing wild dreams

(Evan Karp)

I met Lindy Hough almost immediately after moving to the Bay Area, in July of 2009. She was co-founder, with her husband Richard Grossinger, of North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, and served as co-publisher there until this past July, when she retired. Lindy and Richard founded North Atlantic Books as a consequence of their groundbreaking literary magazine Io, which they and friends started in 1964. Richard was a student at Amherst College and Lindy at Smith College, in Western Massachusetts. North Atlantic Books became a press-proper in 1974, two years before they moved to the Bay Area from Vermont (you can read this fascinating story in its entirety here).

But these publishing pursuits sprang from the pure and earnest need to write, which Lindy began as a child and has continued these many years, despite establishing and overseeing the successful non-profit niche-publishing house and raising a wonderful family (I can vouch for these, having both interned at North Atlantic for 11 months and met their very talented and kind children Robin Grossinger and Miranda July).

This month, North Atlantic Books will be releasing the 3rd in its Io Poetry Series: Lindy’s new and selected poems Wild Horses, Wild Dreams. This interview was conducted in conjunction with a profile to be published soon by SF Weekly; what follows is the first of two parts.

Evan Karp: Why do you write or when did you start writing?

Lindy Hough: I wrote as a child. My dad was involved in poetry, was a journalist, and ran a poetry column for the Sunday supplement of the Denver Post that he wrote for, and so—

EK: Is that where you grew up, in Denver?

LH: I grew up in Denver, and he reviewed tons of poetry books. So I looked at them: modern, contemporary poetry. So by the time I got to college I was thinking about writing, but I was actually also involved in ballet and dancing. And at college I began to understand that I couldn’t just switch from ballet to modern—that that wouldn’t work really well.

EK: When you say modern you mean—

LH: Modern dance. You know with this incredible undulating torso and Limón and Martha Graham. And I actually just sort of dropped dancing and thought, Well there’s always writing. And then I realized that that was going to be my identity and I would bring just as much discipline and kind of aggression to it as I had the ballet.

EK: Wow. Do you ever regret that you stopped dancing?

LH: Well, I was able to … if you happened to ask How did you get to the Bay Area, the answer would be that I was working in Vermont with the Vermont Council of the Arts, and I was beginning to do criticism—art criticism, and my best friend ran the arts council, and she said Lindy we can not get dance companies here enough—she knew I had a dance background—and she said You could review them if they would come, but they won’t come to Vermont. And this was way up far, you know, North Central Vermont. I was probably in my very early 30s when this happened.

EK: You moved out there for school, or—

LH: No, I went to Smith in Massachusetts, a woman’s college, and then Richard and I went to Ann-Arbor to do his graduate work and I taught and also did graduate work at Eastern Michigan University. And then we went to Maine to do his fieldwork for a winter and then lived in Portland for three years—

EK: That was the lobstermen, right?

LH: The lobster fishing stuff was, he did a PhD. thesis on that, and that’s where we have a house now. But we then moved to Vermont, and my friend who ran the arts council said Guess what? There’s a training course for dance critics in California, and how about I send you there, and would you like to do that? And I said Yeah! I would love to do that. It would mean I could be all over dance without having to do it [laughs]. And she said Fine, well go. And so I did go with Robin [who] was about 4 and Miranda was like 1, and so Richard took care of them and it was 3 weeks at Mills College. So the answer to Do you ever miss dancing is I’ve had long years writing dance criticism. And when I was done with that training I wrote as a freelancer for as many places as I could find that wanted to review dance then. Among them were The Berkeley Barb, which existed then and had really good arts coverage … it became infamous for running a lot of adult prostitution ads early on, but and Francis Ford Coppola ran a magazine, City Magazine, for a while. There were probably 8 places that I wrote for—Mother Jones.

EK: Wow. And so this is well after you guys did Io. You must have had North Atlantic established at that point already.

LH: We did, yeah. But we needed money from the outside, and North Atlantic wasn’t paying a salary for quite a while. And then it was only paying one salary, and then [paying] editors and I was just doing jobs outside to make money.

EK: Right right. Well it’s been a slow labor of love I guess, starting a publishing company.

LH: Well it’s been interesting the way … the question might be How does it dovetail with writing. For me it was fun to work in publishing and to develop this company, and I kept writing all the time but I didn’t publish a whole lot in those years, the years of what—my  40s and 50s, maybe late 30s—partly because I was somewhat cynical about sending pieces into literary magazines, and because I was reading and writing things that didn’t seem relevant to literary magazines. When I graduated from college the MFA programs were just being created, so … I kept writing, wrote a great deal—at Goddard, a whole novel that remains unpublished.

EK: Is that because … you said you were cynical about it. Is that because you were too busy …

LH: Well certainly when you raise kids and have a family and are supporting the family by working that makes you busy, but the poetry group that I was affiliated with was just tremendously male, and it takes a level of hustling and traveling that I saw then as  incompatible with children. I simply made a decision, just as with the dance criticism, which became an all-or-nothing thing: either go every night—I came close to writing for The Chronicle as a dance critic—or be home at night to put your kids to bed. It just didn’t add up. I think it’s no big deal for people to take a hiatus from being very very public. It’s hard to bring up kids when you’re only focused on your career. So it seemed to me that these other things were equally important and interesting, as long as I kept writing, which I did.

EK: The writing that I’ve read deals directly with raising a family and having kids.

LH: Right, well the four books of poem that are selected from in Wild Horses Wild Dreams are a mix of what I was writing about then, and the techniques and the styles are very influenced by the Olson/Duncan/Creeley New American Poetry world that I was in and that Io was in. And Io did get somewhat prominent in the culture, partly because it was interdisciplinary, and partly because the poets it published became very well-known. The Whole Earth Catalogue picked it up in many issues and it became one of the “tools” of the Counter-Culture. I actually edited only one issue of it myself; we had many guest editors–

EK: What issue was that? Was it early or—

LH: It was called “Mind Memory and Psyche.” It actually came out at the same time that Psyche did, 1974. The same year Miranda was born.

EK: There’s a lot of stuff I want to talk to you about! How did you guys start Io? Was it just a whim, or was it like a bold statement, like we want to—

LH: Yeah. It was in reaction to the literary magazines of the time on the campuses that were in the pioneer valley: UMass, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, which is another woman’s college, Smith and Amherst—and as I met writers around there I began to realize I wasn’t alone in realizing that the college literary magazine was kind of stuck in a 50s confessionalist model of decorous poems, and seemed to be unaware of the vibrant you know new writing and experimental film, and we decided to make an interdisciplinary magazine that would not separate poetry from history, visual art, geography—and that was partially the teaching of Olson and Duncan, you know, that poetry isn’t a rare thing that should be all separate. And I agreed with that, and so I was the person from Smith that was helping to make the five. It was a four-college magazine because Hampshire hadn’t yet been created.

EK: And you met Olson because he taught there?

LH: No no. We never actually met Olson—he died right before we were to meet him. Because we were in a group of young poets associated with Robert Kelly at Bard College. So Richard and I once we became friends we would go down and go to Bard and visit Kelly and go over and visit his [Richard’s] family in the Catskills, he ran Grossinger’s, this hotel—and it just became sort of clear what to read. It was almost like taking a course, but none of these people were taught at Smith. And that’s how I first discovered Olson and Duncan and Creeley and Blackburn and Diane Wakoski.

EK: Through Kelly?

LH: Yes. But it’s also true that one of Richard’s best friends from high school, Chuck Stein—Charles Stein—was very tight with this group, and so many of the people that we published in Io and North Atlantic Books came out of these writer friendships and contacts. And it was very rich—we invited the poets that we liked to come and read at the places we were teaching, whether it was in Maine, in Portland, or in Vermont at Goddard College. Like I had Joanne Kyger come to Goddard and Robert Creeley, and that’s sort of what one did to enrich the local community and help make more happen.

EK: Wow. … And how did you guys do Io?

LH: Well Io was started in 1964 and it continued in many years as the anthologies that North Atlantic Books did. It had standing orders in libraries, and the libraries didn’t particularly just want to stop. We’ve stopped it now. The last issue was 69. There’s a complete list of them and its history on my website. … I doubt that anyone would be able to start a publishing company like this from a pure literary magazine, although plenty of people have started literary publishing companies… like McSweeney’s, or a lot of other non-profit literary presses. The multiplicity of subjects is what made both the magazine and company unusual.

EK: Oh I gotcha.

LH: But it wasn’t really a magazine; it had become so book-like. It was always a one-subject magazine, so it took a topic and explored it fully, in many different kinds of writing. If you go to the Io page on my website you can see the whole run, they’re available from rare book dealers. The whole idea of “interdisciplinary” was new then—that you know the department shouldn’t control everything, that you could have an article about Buddhism in a literary magazine. So. … Mm. Yummy.

EK: I made some pea soup the other night; it’s one of my favorite things in the world.

LH: It’s creamy, very creamy soup. Wonderful. … But my book is part of something called The Io Poetry Series, which we created about four years ago to draw the attention of North Atlantic as a publisher to its roots. It wasn’t always a Mind/Body/Spirit publishing company, which is how it’s more known today. It’s always had a … it was founded completely as a literary press in its early years. And only realizing that we couldn’t just forever keep getting grants, you know, once we moved out here, that we needed some earned income did we sort of face the music and understand that those books weren’t going to be literary; they weren’t going to be poetry or fiction; and that coincided with us moving here and being delighted and sort of inspired by the bodywork here, the homeopathy, the martial arts—the first books were Tai Chi books—so the aspect of North Atlantic as part of the counterculture and part of the personal growth movement, started wonderfully early. 77 was when we got to the Bay Area, to Berkeley. And then Publishers Group West we joined in 1981.

EK: For those 4 years in between you guys were just using your house right, pretty much? I remember you telling a story of having just boxes of books in your house maybe, or that there was like a warehouse situation …

LH: Well it was a money-making situation to be without a major distributor like that. The regional distributors were all over the country and very strong. There were like 6 or 7 of them, including Book People, which was very strong, and was the initial reason we wanted to move out here, because they said It looks like people are buying your books, and you could probably make it, you know, make a living out here.

EK: The distributor told you that?

LH: Well because the alternative publishing industry was beginning to be built up, and once there were good distributors all around the country, whether regional or these for-profit distributors that started up—well they were all for-profit, but—the ones like PGW were just on a business model that was very industry-current. The good thing we learned about publishing by having PGW—we learned more about publishing than we had known before.

EK: It seems from what I know that … it was very organic, like Io kind of became a press and then you learned by doing, you know, how to run a press and how—

LH: Right. And the NEA is very important, which the republicans want to cut now—by two hundred million—they want to bring it to its knees, you know, because NEA was giving money in these years for small presses to get on their feet and begin to try to earn an income themselves. And that was very helpful.

LH: So let’s get back to the book a little bit.

EK: Yeah let’s talk about the book. So it’s new poems and selected poems, from what 71, is that right, to 2010. Is that right?

LH: Right.

EK: Talk to me about the process of putting that together. You must have been kind of I don’t know, you tell me [both laugh]. Going through all your stuff…

LH: Well, right. It was hard to choose which were the best 20 poems from each book. But I was bound and determined that the page count not be more than what I wanted, which was about 325 pages. The Io Poetry Series pays tribute to North Atlantic Books’ literary roots in Io. I’d actually like to read from the last page of my book, which describes the series and shows the books of the three poets who we published in it before me. The Io Poetry Series honors “the career work of poets who express the depth, breadth, and scope of subject matter of Io and North Atlantic Books.” The poets in this series “either appeared in the journal, were working concurrently, or preceeded and inspired Io.”

… We came to needing a woman poet and the ones that we had in mind weren’t quite ready yet, and I thought I had been trying to get these four books republished by various small presses, and I suddenly thought a new and selected would help me tremendously. I mentioned it and people said, Yeah, why not—that’s a great idea. So it’s a nice segue into just being completely involved in the second career of only my work, you know, rather than working at North Atlantic. Because I retired in July.

[Read part 2]