Issue 69 |
Spring 1996

About Marilyn Hacker: A Profile

Award-winning poet and renowned editor, lesbian activist and literary formalist, native New Yorker and expatriate American in Paris -- Marilyn Hacker, who is all these identities and more, gloriously defies all attempts at easy categorization. "It's not a question of an issue," she says in describing the relationship between her art and her convictions, "but a question of the people I know who are close to me, who are health-care workers or living with illnesses, or the neighbors, housed and homeless, I pass on the street, or the grocery store that goes out of business where I've bought my salad and broccoli every day for the past five years. All of those may be reflected or transformed in my work."

Marilyn Hacker was born in 1942 and raised in the Bronx, the only child of working-class Jews who were the first in their respective families to go to university. Her mother had earned a master's degree in chemistry, which, according to Hacker, "entitled her to work as a saleswoman at Macy's." It was the midst of the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce. Even as the economy improved, opportunities could still be limited. "She was told she couldn't go to medical school because she was a woman and a Jew. So she became a teacher in the New York City public school system." Meanwhile, Hacker's father was only occasionally employed as an industrial chemist, leaving her mother with the responsibilities of the breadwinner; after finally finding professional satisfaction as a teacher at City College, he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of forty-eight.

Despite the many difficulties and discouragements her parents faced, Hacker enthusiastically took on academic challenges. Her formidable intellect propelled her through the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, and she skipped her senior year. She enrolled at New York University at the age of fifteen. She says of her own precocity, "I wouldn't recommend that anyone go to university at fifteen. It really is like giving a fifty-dollar bill to a child and turning her loose in a Godiva chocolate shop." Existentialism and French literature competed with calculus for her attentions, and she read widely and voraciously.

With one year left before graduation, Hacker married her high school alter ego, science fiction writer Samuel Delany, and they settled in New York's East Village. She had fallen in love with writing, and a writer. "I worked at all kinds of jobs, mostly commercial editing," she recalls. Eventually, she returned to NYU, edited the university literary magazine, publishing poems by Charles Simic and Grace Schulman, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in Romance languages. In the next decade, she and Delany (soon separated) would both become known as outspoken queer writers.

Informed by the rigorous science courses she had tackled in NYU's laboratories, and yet peopled by the rebellious and flamboyant characters she encountered in the corner bars and pool halls of her neighborhood, Hacker's poetry began to flourish. "I started to send my work to journals when I was twenty-six, which was just a question of when I got the courage up," she says. Always a passionate reader and supporter of literary magazines, she quickly adds, "They were mostly journals I had been reading for the previous six or seven years." Her first publication was in Cornell University's venerable
Epoch. After moving to London in 1970, she found a transatlantic audience through the pages of
The London Magazine and
Ambit. Her greatest breakthrough came when Richard Howard, then editor of
The New American Review, accepted three poems for publication. The excitement still bubbling in her voice, she remembers, "I didn't know him, I'd never met him, nobody or nothing in common except that I loved his work, and I got a transatlantic letter saying not only thank you for sending these poems, I'm taking three, but also, are there more?"

She did have more. When she was thirty-one, with her new mentor having helped her circulate a manuscript,
Presentation Piece was published by the Viking Press. The response to the work was electric: the book, a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, also received a National Book Award. Since then, she has published seven additional volumes, culminating last year in the release of both
Winter Numbers and her
Selected Poems: 1965-1990 from W.W. Norton. She continues to attract prizes: most recently,
Winter Numbers garnered a Lambda Literary Award and
The Nation's Lenore Marshall Prize, and her
Selected Poems received the 1996 Poets' Prize.

Such success has not come without a price.
Winter Numbers details her experience of the loss of many friends to AIDS and breast cancer, and her own struggle with the latter epidemic. Months after she completed chemotherapy, she lost her influential job as editor of
The Kenyon Review, after a four-year tenure whose tremendous impact on the literary landscape is still being felt. She says of her time there, when she joined the emerging voices of gays and lesbians, women, and people of color to those of the country's literary elect, "We sometimes received -- and I would read -- two hundred manuscripts a week. Some of them were wonderful, some were terrible; most were mediocre. It was like the gifts of the good and bad fairies. There were rich rewards that came to me: discovering new writers like Aleida Rodríguez, Rane Arroyo, and Carl Phillips. And there were established writers whom I came to know through working with them, like Herbert Blau, Adrienne Kennedy, and Hayden Carruth."

Hacker acknowledges that there is some tension between her own writing and the editing work through which she has also distinguished herself. "For me, editing can be frustrating, but invigorating -- something I love to do. Until I was editor of
The Kenyon Review, it was mostly something I did without pay, a habit I had to feed by doing other work. When I edited
Thirteenth Moon, a feminist literary magazine (now at SUNY Albany), I basically supported it myself with an essential grant here and there . . . There can be a conflict, because of the constant influx of other writers' words and preoccupations." Still, she has consistently managed to do both, serving also as editor of
The Little Magazine, the science fiction magazine
Quark, and as a guest editor once before of
Ploughshares. When asked directly about the impact of her own editing work, she modestly deflects the question towards encouraging young writers to read more of the literary magazines to which they often send their work. "I've been an inveterate reader of literary magazines since I was a teenager. There are always discoveries. You're sitting in your easy chair, reading; you realize you've read a story or a group of poems four times, and you know, Yes, I want to go farther with this writer."

Just as she avoids crediting herself for the mark she has made as an editor, Hacker is reluctant to accept what might be called the healing power of her poetry, which has been a source of inspiration to many struggling with their own experiences of illness. "I don't think that's something a writer can claim without a sort of hubris. I have experienced healing through other writers' poetry, but there's no way I can sit down to write in the hope a poem will have healing potential. If I do, I'll write a bad poem." However, she does recognize the importance of the imagination and self-expression in dealing with suffering. "Another artist's perceptions can incite your own. Last week, I was visiting an extraordinary young woman writer and critic who is HIV-positive and in the hospital with PCP and suspected TB. I noticed
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann atop all the other books on her shelf. I can see why it was there."

Given the immediacy of the themes in her work, it is understandable that Hacker has little patience for those who would make an issue of differences between so-called "formal poetry" and free verse. She puts it bluntly: "I think it's a non-issue. There are other struggles in which I would much rather be engaged." Of her own affinity for received forms, she blithely says, "It's not a statement of my politics or an aesthetic I'd impose . . . it's purely hedonistic." The books on her own bedside table reflect more her concerns as a writer and activist than her prosodic mastery, from Lucy Grealy's
Autobiography of a Face and the biography of Paul Celan,
Poet Survivor Jew, to Julia Alvarez's
The Other Side and Mark Doty's

Marilyn Hacker lives in Paris and in Manhattan, with her life partner of ten years, physician assistant Karyn London. Wake Forest University Press will soon publish
Edge, her translations of the French poet Claire Malroux. She will teach at Brandeis this fall and at Princeton next spring. Her words about this issue of
Ploughshares epitomize what she herself stands for, and what she will continue to do for many years to come: "Good writing gives energy, whatever it is about. But the fact that writers are dealing with essential issues, that some are themselves implicated as HIV-positive or writing with cancer or AIDS, or as health-care givers, legal advisors, teachers, outreach workers, witnesses -- I think that's a necessary integration of literary writing with what's actually going on in our world."

Rafael Campo's work appears in this issue of Ploughshares
and Best American Poetry 1995
, and is also forthcoming in Parnassus
and the AIDS-related poetry anthology Things Shaped in Passing: Poets for Life II,
due out from Persea Books this spring. Marilyn Hacker, while at The Kenyon Review,
was the first editor to publish his work.