Without fanfare, on the slimmest of budgets, the Baltimore literary journal Passager leads its readers into rich creative terrain as it explores the borders and heartland of old age through poetry, fiction and memoir.
This year marks its 15th anniversary, a noteworthy feat in a field where publications last about as long as Hollywood marriages. Passager has not only survived into the 21st century but also is expanding its reach: This summer it will publish its first book: A collection of poems by Jean Connor, one of the older writers it has helped nurture.
The 85-year-old Vermont poet exemplifies the kind of emerging voice for which the literary journal is known - surprising, honest, spirited and with the perspective and refinement that comes from knocking about on the planet for a half century or more.
It's a variation of what founding editor Kendra Kopelke first discovered in the late 1980s when she taught poetry to seniors at Baltimore's Waxter Center.
"I was 27," she says. "It was this unbelievable group of people in their 80s and 90s. I don't think I'd ever been in a room with that many people of that age! ... I was so overwhelmed by that experience of the passion that was there, so invigorated by it, that my whole orientation about old age shifted.
"I left there thinking 'Nobody knows about this. If it's going on at the Waxter Center, it's going on all over the country ... the world!'"
At the time, Kopelke was also teaching publications design at the University of Baltimore, encouraging students not only to write but also to create and produce their own publications. She became fixed on the notion that a new literary journal might actually alter stereotypical views about aging.
"Literary journals were responsible for a lot of the artistic changes in writing, such as helping move from rhymed verse to free verse," she says. "I began to think 'What if we created a journal for older writers? Could we make the power that's inside the Waxter Center more visible?'"
In 1990, she published the first edition of Passager, perhaps the country's first literary magazine dedicated to the work of older writers. Featuring the work of prominent Maryland poet Lucille Clifton, Passager also introduced its first crop of unknown seniors into an artistic universe usually focused on developing those in their 20s.
Thirty-nine issues later, Passager is still housed at the University of Baltimore and remains a volunteer endeavor - neither the writers nor the journal's staff members are paid. (The magazine has received small grants and contributions, Kopelke says; however, fund raising remains difficult.) Although it contains pieces by younger writers, it continues to emphasize creative works by writers age 50 and older.
And it's managed to become its own symbol of longevity.
Of the roughly 1,000 literary journals published in the United States, more than half will last only one or two issues, says Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York.
"Out of the rest, it's very unusual to see one last five or 10 years," he says. "Starting a magazine is very much like opening a restaurant having had no business experience. The success of a magazine relies on one thing only: finding the audience and the audience finding you."
Passager appears to be filling an overlooked niche, he says.
"It's wonderful to deal with a magazine that has an open mind and is working with older writers," poet Connor says. "It's great to see what other people are up to."
Editors Kopelke and Mary Azrael are sitting in Kopelke's office at the University of Baltimore, a warm, quirky place that serves as home to the magazine and 15 years' worth of memories. The women discuss the pleasures, and challenges, of trying to make their magazine thrive.
"No one understands its name," Kopelke says. "I know that 'passager' is a French word, but this title was intended as a made-up name, a combination of 'passenger,' meaning 'traveler,' and 'passages.' It's traveling through life."
Published twice a year, Passager benefits from the use of university equipment as well as the talents of its graphic design students. Roughly 50 pages, it sports handsome color covers of photographs, prints and paintings, many provided by Maryland artists.
The current issue includes the customary rich mix of voices: One older poet devoted her career to classical singing, another wrote ad copy. A contributor from Massachusetts is a retired college president, another, from Florida, is a "semi-retired clinical mental health counselor."
Like many contributors, Connor began writing only after she retired from her job as director of library development in New York state's department of education. She now lives in a continuing care community in Shelburne, Vt., where she remains one of those rare published writers without a computer or an answering machine.
Passager first published her work in 2001 when she entered, and won, its annual poetry competition for writers age 50 and older; one issue each year is dedicated to publishing the contest's best submissions. In addition, the journal has explored such themes as old letters, journal writing and immigration stories. An issue concerning "the five senses" brought heightened awareness of life in a post-Sept. 11 world.
Kopelke directs UB's master of fine arts program in creative writing and the publishing arts. Her publishing partners are Azrael, another local poet and writing teacher, who has co-edited the journal for the past 13 years, and Christina Gay and Jessica Schultheis, former and current students of Kopelke's.
Passager costs $18 for a two-year subscription and has roughly 750 subscribers throughout the United States and Canada.
The editors hope to gain a wider audience with the help of a new feature "Pass It On," a collection of personal stories from readers. For the next issue, readers are invited to send in up to 250 words of informal prose on the topic of "stealing."
"Tell us your experiences, musings, stories: What have you stolen? What was stolen from you? What would you like to steal?" the query reads.
"Everybody has a story about stealing," Kopelke says. "Passager has always wanted to find the writers inside people rather than people who are 'writers.' This feature lets us ask people who in no way consider themselves writers to tell us a story."
They just might receive a piece that's sheer gold. Both women recall the day when they opened the mail and discovered Connor's poem, "Of Some Renown."
"The poem is so quiet. It's in a language we don't speak," enthuses Azrael.
"That poem is the poem I'd been wishing for," says Kopelke. "In some ways, we're always looking for one poem and one story. You publish a lot, but you're looking for that one thing. I never thought we'd find it."
Have they found their perfect story?
Azrael mentions an "amazing" piece of fiction by John Michael Cummings about a teenager who discovers his sexuality through an encounter with an older man.
"It was a big risk for us," she says. Later, however, a 92-year-old subscriber called to rave about the story, saying that not only had she read it three times herself, but that she had also read it aloud to her 87-year-old boyfriend.
Such reactions remind the editors of the unexpected nature of "old age" and reinforce their sense of mission.
"I once thought that publishing a literary journal was something young people did in rebellion against the controlling order," Kopelke says.
"But we're really rebelling against the anti-aging, ageist philosophy that young is good and old is bad," Azrael says. "We're still putting out this idea that you can begin this creative life when you're older."
Facts about Passager
Where it's sold: By subscription or at Borders Books & Music, 415 York Road; Clayton Fine Books, 317 N. Charles St.; Minas Gallery, 815 W. 36th St.
General submissions: Open to writers of all ages, but aimed at those 50 and older. Visit http://raven.ubalt.edu/features/passager (deadline for submitting material to the new "Pass It On" feature is Feb. 15).
Poetry contest: Passager's annual poetry writing competition is open to writers 50 and older. Submissions (due by Feb. 15) may contain up to five unpublished poems under 50 lines each. Also required is a brief biography, a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a $15 fee (which includes the cost of a one-year subscription).
The winner (of a $300 prize) and runners-up will be announced by June 1. The winner and honorable mentions will have selections from their work published. Submissions should be addressed to Passager, University of Baltimore, 1420 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21201-5779.
Of Some Renown
For some time now, I have
lived anonymously. No one
appears to think it odd.
They think the old are,
well, what they seem. Yet
see that great egret
at the marsh's edge, solitary,
still? Mere pretense
that stillness. His silence
is a lie. In his own pond he is
of some renown, a stalker,
a catcher of fish. Watch him.
- a poem by Jean L. Connor in Passager