by Francine Ringold
Old age compels us to speak. It is our destiny and may be our privilege—if we grab on to it. With the publication of Old People: A Season of the Mind, Spring/Summer 1976, Nimrod was once again (as it was with the issues Arabic Literature: Then and Now, New Black Writing, and so forth) on the leading edge of what was to be an international trend: people were living longer, and the productive life of the mind was one of the reasons for that longevity. This ’76 issue brought together writers’ responses to aging and, most importantly, featured writers 65 or over (65 was considered old at that time), including well-known authors Jorge Luis Borges, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Archibald MacLeish, and visual artists Alice Neel, 76, photographer Consuelo Kanaga and painter Wallace Putnam, both 82, and famed painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a mere 88 at the time. The better-known writers were included not only to spice up the issue but also to provide distinguished company for the newcomers.
Yet, as always with Nimrod, it was the unknown or little-known writers that we sought out—and these were the stunners. “I am eighty-six and I’m proud of it!” said Argentinian editor and writer Victoria Ocampo, well known among readers in Spanish but less widely known in the U.S. at the time. Retired librarian Pearl Minor marked this issue as her first publication at the age of 66. (She visited Nimrod’s offices to meet the editors in person 15 years later). Fiction writer Mildred Hirsch Arthur, poets Ruth Feldman, Ivy Dempsey, Joseph Langland, Nina Nyhart, and six writers from the Artists and the Aging program in St. Paul, Minnesota, all displayed the craft, talent, yeastiness, and zest that are ageless. And Judith Johnson Sherwin, who was a mere snippet of 40 when she wrote so convincingly in the voice of a mad old woman, redirected her energy and talent and went on to win Nimrod’s fiction award in 2012, at the age of 76.
Nimrod also went on to exemplify Isaac Bashevis Singer’s statement that “The instinct to create remains as long as one breathes.” With a title taken from a line in W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” (An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress . . . ), 1991’s issue, Clap Hands and Sing: Writers of Age, includes fifty-six writers and visual artists: three in their 90s; six in their 80s; twenty-three in their 70s; twenty-three between 65 and 69. And all the work included was written within the three years previous to its publication. The cover painting from esteemed American landscape painter Alexandre Hogue’s Big Bend series was completed in January of 1991, Mr. Hogue’s 93rd year.
The cover letters sent with submissions were, in three individual cases, written on yellow lined paper and by hand. Mildred Greear, one of my favorites in this issue, not only published two marvelous poems (“In Storage” and “Remainder”) but also sent a glowing letter of thanks to the editors for not only the acceptance but also the “concept itself.” May Stevens (“For My Loves, Lost and Leaving”) and her miraculous drawings that opened the issue took the reader by the hand, led them to more and more discoveries.
William Stafford, former Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, who first published in Nimrod in 1956, submitted four poems in 1991. He wrote in his cover letter: “I’d like very much to qualify for the Clap Hands and Sing issue: my bids at this time are enclosed.” Such humility makes one proud of the human condition—and indeed is cause for handclapping.
Nimrod’s 2013 Lasting Matters: Writers 57 and Over, at least in part, is another issue that focused on age—among other things. In it, Henry Morgenthau III, age 96, published two poems. His volume of collected poems was published last year and reviewed on NPR, where, at the age of 100, he held forth with thoughtful answers in a clear, steady, and even voice.
I draw attention to these few past issues of Nimrod and the hundreds—or is it thousands—of writers of age in other books, not just because I am 83, nor to sell books, since I believe the aforementioned are sold out. It is rather that they remind us all, myself included, that writing, selecting, shaping, revising, as F. Daniel Duffy, M.D., said, “keeps the neurons transmitting, keeps us alive!”
Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms. Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.