Spotlighting a press for older writers

The Baltimore Sun
Centenarian poet: "People do seem to be interested in an active codger like me."

By any standard, Henry Morgenthau III has led an extraordinary life.

His father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was secretary of the treasury under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression. His grandfather was the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I.

And Morgenthau himself worked in television for decades, producing documentaries on historical figures from Eleanor Roosevelt to President John F. Kennedy.

But in his early 90s, Morgenthau says, he realized that the responsibility of living up to the name of his distinguished family had constrained his personal growth. He began writing poetry to process what that meant.

The result is his first book, "A Sunday in Purgatory", an 88-page collection issued by Passager Press, the University of Baltimore-based publishing house that has been putting out the work of writers age 50 and older since 1990.

Morgenthau, who turned 100 in January, will read from the well-received work at the university's student center Monday night.

"I'm looking forward to sharing these pieces in Baltimore, particularly since it was a Baltimore press that first published me," he says. "People do seem to be interested in an active codger like me."

Passager's top editor says Morgenthau is more than just the first centenarian the not-for-profit press has published: He's a formidable talent and a model of Passager's mission to "bring attention to older writers to and encourage imagination throughout our lives."

"What impressed us when he first submitted work to [our] magazine was his ability to startle us, to say something we'd never heard before," says Kendra Kopelke, who is director of the university's graduate program in creative writing and publishing arts and Passager's founding editor. "His wit and his care in crafting the poems didn't hurt.

"Henry is part of a famous family, but he's now a man who's really exploring who he is, who he was. He's wrestling with issues of relationships with people, his sexuality and more. He's different from anybody we've published in terms of the kind of wrestling he's doing. It's amazing."

When Kopelke founded Passager 27 years ago, it was to encourage exactly such outcomes.

In the 1980s, the Baltimore native was a shy young poet looking for opportunities to teach when she reached out to local senior centers for work as a creative writing instructor.

An official at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens on Cathedral Street told her there was bad news and good news: The center's beloved writing teacher had just died, and they needed a replacement.

"When I showed up they were all crying and looking at an album of photos [of the late instructor]," Kopelke recalls. "They had been with her for five years. But I fell in love with them, and I guess they also fell in love with me."

She had never been "in a room full of older people," and the prospect daunted her at first. But she soon realized that senior citizens who might at first have appeared quiet or distant came amazingly to life when sharing and discussing poetry.

"You see an old woman sitting, and she might look like she's dozing off, like she can't even say much," she says. "And you put her in a room and talk about poetry, and ask her to write something, and you can't get over the fire.

"To me it was kind of like the fire a teen has, but it was different. And the laughter. Everything was so intense."

Then teaching a class on small literary journals at the University of Baltimore, Kopelke was inspired to try harnessing that energy — and sharing it with a broader audience — through a journal for "new older" writers, which she and her comrade-in-arms, writing teacher Mary Azrael, defined as 50 and up.

They drew on the talents within the university's publishing arts department to develop the striking, square-shaped design the journal still uses, and put out a call for entries. On the strength of a $500 grant from BGE and a free reading upon the magazine's launch by former poet laureate of Maryland Lucille Clifton, they sold enough subscriptions to make Passager a going concern.

With the University of Baltimore providing office space, a business manager and talented students as editorial staff for Kopelke and Azrael, Passager became a quiet mainstay, appearing a little more than twice a year, sponsoring an annual poetry contest and emerging as a source of inspiration for older individuals who want to develop and showcase their writing.

"These are wonderful people with an interesting cause," says Vermont poet Jean L. Connor, 97, whose work Passager has anthologized in two books. "Passager gives older people an open door to keep going at something that could otherwise be kind of closed, and when older people see that others like them have succeeded, it's inspiring."

Connor, who is retired from the New York State Library, took up poetry in her late 70s. Her submissions to the annual Passager contest in 2003 included "Of Some Renown," a 12-line meditation in which she compares a quiet, solitary egret "at the marsh's edge" to older people, individuals she suggests have more substance than they might appear: "In his own pond he is/ of some renown, a stalker,/ a catcher of fish. Watch him."

She won the competition. Her submissions inspired the editors to gather her work into a book-length collection, then-U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser included the poem in his syndicated newspaper series on poetry, and Connor, who lives in a retirement home in northern Vermont, found herself traveling the state for readings and interviews.

Her case is not unusual for Passager, which publishes the output of everyone from individuals who have been writing poetry, fiction or memoirs for years, often appearing in prestigious journals, to those who didn't start writing until later in life.

Passager has shared the work of more than 1,000 writers in its 62 issues and 21 books, gaining a reputation for durability in a field in which few magazines and journals last more than a handful of years.

Among the editors' favorites are several from Maryland, including Moira Egan, a Baltimore poet who hit menopause at 50, wrote a book called "Hot Flash Sonnets," and now lives in Italy; Larnell Custis Butler, an Afro-centrist feminist and author whose book, "Improvise in the Amen Corner," collects vignettes and drawings of Baltimore faces, and Shirley Brewer, a retired Baltimore speech therapist whose "A Little Breast Music" was her first book.

Now in its 28th year, Passager — its name, a blend of "passage" and "passenger," is meant to suggest transitions among life's stages — still subsists on direct sales.

At 100, Morgenthau says his health isn't what it used to be. He just had his pacemaker replaced after 15 years, is hard of hearing and battles macular degeneration. But he expects to enjoy his trip to Baltimore, where he hopes to make new friends and inspire some sales.

His book has already made an impression.

It's the end product of a process Morgenthau says began when he moved into Ingleside at Rock Creek, a retirement community in Washington that he says is full of exceedingly friendly and active people who share one chief preoccupation: an awareness of "how near we all are to the end."

People deal with that in their own ways, he says, but most are driven by a desire to make the most of the time they have left.

For Morgenthau, that meant taking up an art form he had long pondered and enjoyed — he was a friend of the American poet Robert Lowell, and remains familiar with poetry dating back to ancient Greece — and immersing himself in a discipline that allowed him to bare parts of his soul he had rarely exposed.

As a boy, he says, he had a learning disability that hampered his intellectual development, and as he grew older, he found that while being a member of one of America's most distinguished families gave him a front-row seat on some of the 20th century's most compelling characters, it it also brought responsibilities and a mindset that discouraged self-expression and intimacy with others.

The poems in "A Sunday in Purgatory" offer personal glimpses of such giants as FDR, a man the poet remembers as a vivid storyteller during his frequent visits to the Morgenthau home in Washington.

"A Terrific Headache" recalls Morgenthau's father dining with the 32nd president in 1945, the night before he died: "He steadied/ the trembling hand/ of his long time boss and friend/ as he mixed Bourbon Old Fashioneds and nibbled/ caviar, a gift from the Soviet ambassador."

In other works, Morgenthau turns inward, reflecting on affairs of the heart, aging ("anticipation of death is like looking for a new job") and our tendency to conceal what shames us ("to those who would love me,/ there are secrets I cannot bear to share/ that I confess to strangers, who do not care.")

The author has given readings at several arts venues in Washington, has been interviewed on NPR and in several newspapers, and has seen Amazon spike its order of copies from five to 400.

Peter Balakian, the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, has raved about Morgenthau's debut.

"His poems are crisp, elegant forays into memory both personal and cultural," Balkanian writes in a jacket blurb. "His surgical examinations of self and his unflinching stare into mortality define the unique and honest voice of this remarkable first book of poems."

Morgenthau says writing has given him purpose as he has aged, and he plans to keep doing it for as long as he can.

"It is stimulating to me. I think the fact that I'm productive has a lot to do with the fact that I'm still going," he says.

That's no surprise to Kopelke, who says her staff has come more and more to appreciate "the depth of [Morgenthau's] thinking, his seriousness of purpose, the intensity with which he wrestles with his family, his history and his inner demons."

Besides, even at the century mark, he may be helping Passager grow.

"He's our oldest so far," Kopelke says. "Now the door is open for all the 100-year-olds out there."

An earlier version misstated the last name of poet Jean L. Connor. The Sun regrets the error.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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