In a cramped office in the heart of Mount Vernon lives Passager, a journal and press publishing only authors over the age of 50. Run by a part-time staff of four, Passager is an anomaly among literary journals: Whereas many such publications fizzle out after two years, notes co-founder and co-editor Kendra Kopelke, Passager is now celebrating its 26th anniversary.
Published twice a year, one issue is dedicated to an annual poetry contest, and the other runs poetry alongside memoir, short stories and experimental pieces. The one thing Kopelke vows never to publish is what she calls “rocking chair poems,” explaining that, in her opinion, “old age is not for cowards.”
Passager began in 1990 when Kopelke, then 33, wondered why older authors are routinely marginalized. She and her longtime friend, co-editor Mary Azrael, both workshop leaders at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens in midtown at the time, recruited a designer and put out a call for writing submissions, specifically soliciting “late-bloomers.”
“We’d never use that language today,” laughs Kopelke, sitting in her Mount Washington home where a coffee table is piled high with more than 50 editions of the thin, square paperback journal. “I’ve always wanted to publish new writers—first-timers.”
That’s Passager’s m.o.: Give new creative life to an older person; give them the space to pursue ideas. An opening of doors, of sorts.
The first issue and its attendant launch reading, also in 1990, featured the poet Lucille Clifton, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and former poet laureate of Maryland whose celebrity helped the fledgling press raise funds. Since then, Passager has been self-sustaining, housed at the University of Baltimore, where Kopelke directs the master’s program in creative writing. Autonomy suits the Passager editors, who are able to make decisions that may seem unconventional.
“We’ll never go fully online,” Kopelke says of the growing trend of online literary journals. While excerpts from certain issues are available on the Passager website, Kopelke stresses that “we’re not convinced that our audience reads journals online—as long as they value and read print, we’re going to stay in print.”
Such dedication to the book as an artifact drives the Passager aesthetic. Designer, poet and artist Pantea Tofangchi has served as its art director since 2008. “I love her eye and the depth of her commitment to the work,” Kopelke says of Tofangchi, who has photographed, created delicate illustrations and made collages for the journal and its book division. “She’s an artist in so many ways.”
The book branch began in 2005 when then-85-year-old Vermont poet Jean Connor hinted to the editors that she had a manuscript that they ought to consider. They responded by publishing her first book, A Cartography of Peace, anchored by the popular poem “Of Some Renown.” Now in her 90s, Connor is assembling her third book for Passager‘s consideration.
Passager holds a reading party for its newest book, Little Miracles, by Maryland poet James K. Zimmerman, on April 9 at 2 p.m. at the Village Learning Place in Baltimore.
Published in the April 2016 issue of STYLE.