Hilda Raz enjoys retirement after leaving Prairie Schooner with national reputation

2011-06-11T23:35:00Z 2011-06-22T17:18:36Z Hilda Raz enjoys retirement after leaving Prairie Schooner with national reputationBy JEFF KORBELIK / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

You can tell Hilda Raz is enjoying her retirement. Her demeanor has changed.

During a phone interview to discuss her distinguished 23-year career as editor of the Prairie Schooner, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's literary magazine, she joked and laughed, even relating a humorous story about her first encounter with a roadrunner in her new New Mexico home.

She was sick and thought she was hallucinating when she saw a giant, bizarre-looking bird peering in at her from her back door.

"It's an incredible place here," she said. "It's not wild here exactly, but it's so much wilder than 960 South Cotner street."

She laughed again.

Raz was far from a taskmaster while at UNL, but she was serious about her job and about the magazine she helped build into one of the most respected in the country.

In her tribute to Raz in the fall 2010 issue of Prairie Schooner, author Ladette Randolph, editor-in-chief of Ploughshares at Emerson College in Boston, wrote of her first encounter with Raz.

"Unsmiling" was the first word she used to describe her mentor.

"We were so intimidated by Hilda that when, still unsmiling, she asked what we were currently reading, we froze," Randolph wrote, recalling when she and her friend applied to become volunteer readers for Prairie Schooner. "Neither of us could think of a single book we'd read. We stuttered and grasped for titles. We left her office feeling very silly, certain she had seen through to the imposters we were. Hilda has that effect on people."

Raz's no-nonsense style is what Cody Lumpkin appreciated about his teacher. Lumpkin, who recently earned a doctorate in English from UNL, called Raz a major influence.

"As a teacher, she was enormously supportive," he said. "But she also would tell you if you were being lazy, being a slacker and not doing the work you needed to do in your own writing. She would call you on your BS, often challenging you."

Prairie Schooner is in the midst of a transition. Raz retired as the magazine's fifth editor in September 2010. Kwame Dawes, a poet and English professor at the University of South Carolina, will take over this fall.

Raz and her husband, Dale Nordyke, a local artist and co-owner of The Mill coffee shop, moved in December to Placitas, N.M.

"You know when you're writing a story and you know when you've come to the end of it?" she said, explaining her departure from the UNL. "That's the best way I can tell you. I came home one day and said to Dale, ‘I'm going to retire.' And he said, ‘OK.' That's exactly how it happened."

But why leave Lincoln, where she's lived since moving to Nebraska from Boston in 1965?

She fell in love with New Mexico after visiting a friend there. The state originally intrigued her after reading Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop."

"That caught my interest," she admitted.

She and Nordyke bought a house in the shadow of the Sandia Mountains. They walk every day, picking up stones and materials that Nordyke uses in his art. And she writes, putting pen to paper in bound journals before transferring her poems to computer.

Since her son Aaron's well-publicized journey to a transgender identity, which resulted in a book collaboration between the two -- "What Becomes You" (2008) -- she's been writing about transitions.

"With Aaron's transition (from a woman to a man), I became interested with that liminal space between one thing and another," she said.

Raz also has a new job. Once the University of New Mexico Press learned she was nearby, it asked her if she would be willing to consult on a poetry series. Then it invited her to serve as editor for the series, which will publish three to four books a year. All the books will be connected to the West.

"When I asked what West meant, I was told that the spirit of the West as metaphor is more important than anything else, and I liked that answer," Raz said. "Bernice (former Prairie Schooner editor Bernice Slote) used to talk about the title of the magazine Prairie Schooner, which is not a very forward-looking title, as representing the spirit of the frontier, and I like that."

Raz has not regretted her decision to leave, not for one second, she said. She left the magazine in great shape, fully endowed in perpetuity, with a new contract in place for a book series and an esteemed national reputation.

"It's one of the classic small magazines in America," said Morgan Speer, editor of The Missouri Review at the University of Missouri. "Many would point to Prairie Schooner as one of the best edited and run little magazines in the last century."

"While I worked there, I loved it," Raz said. "Now I know it's absolutely secure. Its new editor is very distinguished and brilliant. The magazine will change radically. The Web presence is ensured. I'm ready to resume my private life."

Raz never planned to stay at Prairie Schooner as long as she did.

"Oh no, never, never, never," she said.

She came to the magazine as a poetry reader in the early 1970s during Slote's tenure as editor (1963-80). She served as a staff assistant, contributing editor -- her first piece was a review of Robert Lowell's "Near the Ocean" -- and poetry editor before becoming the magazine's fifth editor in 1987.

She was a logical choice to run the magazine. She stepped in when Slote became ill and again when Raz's predecessor, Hugh Luke, who ran it from 1980 to 1987, also became ill.

"This is often the story in literary institutions," she said. "Whoever is there serves the institution. It's part of the deal, and I did just that."

Only once did Raz make a career plan -- in 1980.

That's when she decided to accept every professional opportunity to come her way for five years, be it editing, writing and/or attending conferences.

It prepared her for what came next.

When UNL named her editor in 1987, she had her work cut out for her.

"When I took over, Prairie Schooner was deeply in debt," she said. "The red ink just flowed. The warehouse was filled with unsold copies. It was a big job, and I like a big job."

She rolled up her sleeves and went to work. To her credit, she didn't hesitate to ask for help, often seeking guidance from George Core, the longtime editor of the Sewanee Review at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and the late Stanley Lindberg, editor of the Georgia Review at the University of Georgia.

Raz said they were always there for her, taking her calls when she was filling in for the ailing Slote and Luke.

"I would be sitting at my desk, without a title and with a magazine to run, and I would call one or the other of these very distinguished, eminent men of letters and say, ‘I have to put out a bid for a printer. I have no idea what that even means.' They would tell me.

"Why they did that ... who knows?" she added. "I have to say I've done that in my own turn."

Indeed, she has.

"Whenever I had issues or things that I felt that I needed advice on as an editor, Hilda was one of the people I would call first," Speer of The Missouri Review said. "She is knowledgeable, creative and trustworthy."

Trust is why writers, especially new ones, came to her with their short stories, essays, reviews and poetry.

"She was very savvy about the whole publishing market," said Stephen Behrendt, interim Prairie Schooner senior editor, who worked with Raz for 30 years. "She had a way of establishing new writers, of finding them out, getting them published and getting them what they needed."

Raz credits those skills to Slote, who sent her to two conferences early in Raz's career: the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. There Raz made connections -- many of them.

At Bread Loaf, she rubbed shoulders with the likes of John Gardner, John Irving, Rosellen Brown, Francine Prose, Tess Gallagher and Harry Crews.

"These were the sort of influential writers who were publishing at that time, who then became very famous and had their own students and influences," she said. "There I was with them and with other writers who were just beginning as I was, and I made fast friendships as you do at camp. It was kind of a writer's camp, and I liked that."

Raz began soliciting young writers she met through Bread Loaf. As she did at AWP, where she became an organization board member, vice president and, eventually, president.

"These two organizations really put me in contact with the people I came to serve," she said. "That is the group we call writers. As an editor, that's what we do, we serve writers."

And in doing so, she gained a reputation for it.

"Hilda is viewed as one of the most accomplished and trusted editors in the country," Speer said. "It's an intriguing fact that due to people like Hilda Raz, the Midwest, along with the South, have been the heartland of American literature -- in some ways the cradle, since it is with magazines like Prairie Schooner, Poetry, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and The Missouri Review that many young or new writers get published."

She may have become so revered as an editor because she was a writer, too. The magazine, of course, came first, but she struck a balance between it and producing her own material.

"It was not a conflict for me," she said. "I didn't expect to write (as prolifically) as Linda Pastan, for example, or Alicia Ostriker or Charles Bukowski," she said. "These were all regular contributors to Prairie Schooner. I was just going along, doing my own necessary music. That wasn't a problem."

Now, she has more time to focus on her compositions. More time for daily walks and more time to discover the new creatures in her new home.

Still, she will be missed.

In her essay, Randolph noted Raz never did anything by half measures.

"She has been as fierce in her watch over the magazine as she has been in choosing each word in her exquisite poems, understanding always she is part of a distinguished legacy," Randolph wrote. "She set a high standard for what it means to edit a literary magazine."

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 402-473-7213 or jkorbelik@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSjeffkorbelik.

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