A Literary Life
Leaving a mark on peotry and prose
By Bradley Morris
Twice a year, it comes out quietly. Most Tulsans have no idea what it is or why the literary world -- the actual, literal world -- is excited about it.
It's the University of Tulsa's Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry, a bound work of fiction, poems, and visual art by (mostly) unknown or little-known authors and artists. It has become an internationally known and eagerly anticipated collection of literature, and one woman has been at the helm of it since before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Forty-seven years ago, Fran Ringold was working as an adjunct professor at TU when she was approached by a fellow professor who was working on the then-10-year-old Nimrod. It hardly had the cache of literary journals like Cornell's Epoch, or Prairie Schooner, or The Paris Review. It wasn't monthly (and still isn't), even though others like The New Yorker and The Atlantic were and remain so.
It was still a small book, little more than a brochure, bound with staples.
"I was very young and very stupid," Ringold said. "And a professor, Winston Weathers, asked me. I was an adjunct at TU at the time, teaching two courses. He asked me if I would like to help."
She says she told him she didn't know anything about it or what she was doing, but she accepted anyway. And then her love of reading was put to the test.
"He presented me with two filing cabinets taller than I that were filled with unread manuscripts that had been submitted and needed to be appraised," she recalled, laughing.
Calling it "quite a task," Ringold said she worked as an assistant on Nimrod for two editions before it was thrust upon her, and she became the editor of the whole shebang.
"He was so delighted to get rid of it, so I took it over," she said. "If you're stupid and you're young, it's a new adventure. And I didn't have anything else to do. I just had four children at home."
Listening to Ringold speak about the journal, its history, the past, and myriad authors and poets, you get the sense that she has just fallen into the job, that she is chugging along, working as the editor of an internationally recognized literary journal by faking it, just a girl who grew up in New York.
But you shouldn't believe that. She may be retired, and she may be relinquishing the editorship of Nimrod after 47 years, but Ringold is smart. And quick. And fascinating.
After all, remember that Nimrod wasn't an internationally recognized literary journal when she took over.
Granted, there was a little bit of luck involved, but for the most part, the popularity of Nimrod has grown through calculated moves.
"The first issue that wasn't international, but certainly had a more ethnic focus, was the American Indian issue, which was a fabulous issue, if I may say so," she said. It was this idea of themed issues of Nimrod, perhaps cultural or ethnic themes, that began to make people notice.
"The Latin American issue in, I think, '73 had Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and all these people," she recounted.
Pablo Neruda. The greatest love poet of the 20th century. That Pablo Neruda. Submitted to Nimrod. Holy crap.
"How did we get them? Well, I was in New York, where I'm originally from, and I had read an article in some journal by Ronald Christ," Ringold said. "And he worked for the Center for Inter-American Relations. I got on the pay phone, because at my aunt's apt, you could never use the phone, because it was always tied up. I called, and I explained very hesitantly where I was from and what we were wanting to do."
Christ asked her where she was, assuming that since she was from Oklahoma, she must be calling from Oklahoma.
"I said, 'I'm around the corner.' And he said, 'Come up! Come up!' So I go into this absolutely beautiful mansion on Park Avenue," she said, and you can still hear the wonder in her voice. "I go into his office, and he's this young guy in white sneakers. I left there with a pile of books, and he became our advisory editor for that issue, and that's how we got all those people for that issue. He knew who to write to and who their agents were."
Getting Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz to publish -- for no compensation -- in a literary journal out of Oklahoma, well, that's just really impressive. And that began to put Nimrod on the literary world's radar.
"Since then, we've done an Arabic issue. Can you imagine doing that today?" she said. Other themed issues have included literature from Australia and an African-American themed issue in the late '70s. Again, she portrays her decisions and the journal's progress as mostly just dumb luck, but many of the decisions she and the Nimrod staff have made over the years can only come from being highly informed about the literary world.
"We've been very fortunate, because we've always seemed to hit that culture that's just coming up -- that was on the edge and just coming into focus as far as being a dominant literary culture," she said. Again, the literary rise of a culture isn't something you just happen upon. It's something you learn and see coming through years of reading, of studying, of editing, of observing.
Leading an informal tour through her house, Ringold occasionally refers to a shelf of nearly 50 years' worth of Nimrods, most especially when trying to remember a specific author or one tiny poem published at any point since the Eisenhower administration.
"If we did this somewhere else, I would die," she said of being interviewed at her home. "When I can't think of something, I can go here and look it up."
There's a glorious set of plantation shutters, and classy artwork, and there's a very happy dog -- Pete -- who follows Ringold around and jumps up to lick the face of journalists who come to the house for interviews.
When asked about the journal's name, one of the first things Ringold said was, "It's been a plague."
Nimrod, in the Bible, was "a mighty hunter before God" and Noah's great-grandson. The name is also associated with the Tower of Babel.
"I didn't name it," Ringold said. "It was named by the first editors. There are two Nimrods in the Bible, and one is a despot, so that's why I had problems. The other is a mighty hunter."
It's the hunter that the editors were naming the publication for. The name is confusing, as "nimrod" is also slang for a stupid person.
Still, it's a literary journal that, as has been demonstrated, people respect (respect so much that they endure the rather difficult path one must take in order get a copy: either through utulsa.edu/nimrod or by snail mail at 800 S. Tucker Dr. in Tulsa), so it hasn't been that terrible a plague on Ringold, or so it would seem.
Several times, while recounting her own history and that of Nimrod, Ringold referred to the delight she takes in discovery.
"The really exciting part is all the people who are no-names, so to speak," she said, reaching for a copy of Lasting Matters, the latest edition of Nimrod. "There are four people in this one who are in their 80s, three of whose cover letters were hand-written on yellow-lined paper. One man is 96, and he wrote about Mrs. Roosevelt."
While Lasting Matters does not have winning poems and stories in it, the upcoming Awards 35: Hunger and Thirst will boast contest winners, and the judging process is daunting.
Ringold and a group of literary-minded judges here in Tulsa peruse all the submissions for each issue of the biannual publication before submitting a list of finalists to the final judge -- a different judge for each contest issue.
"The final judge each year is new, but those here who narrow it down to 20 or less in each category -- most of the editorial staff have been doing it for 20, 30 years," she said. "It's incredible the devotion, and their excitement is finding and discovering a really good piece."
She recalled a few works this year that surprised her, as well.
"When submissions come in, we don't know their names," she said. "We read it blind. We narrow it down to 20 in each category."
That doesn't seem that difficult -- finding 20 good poems and 20 good short stories -- but it is, and for different reasons: in terms of poetry entries, the panel is often reading more than 1,000 submissions. Picking 20 is difficult because there are so many to go through.
"But we don't get as much fiction," she said. "We only sent seven this year. We're not going to send anything that we wouldn't be willing to publish, so that's sort of an automatic selection process."
However, Ringold admitted that she doesn't always agree with the final judge, and this year's awards issue is an example of that.
"We don't always agree with the final judge," she said. "If I had been final judge, I would have made a different story the winner. But that's not our choice. That's another reason we're not going to send anything we wouldn't publish."
Lasting Matters contains the work of unknowns, but also that of prestigious writers, many of whom are decorated.
"There are Pulitzer award winners, there are National Book Award winners," he said.
The issue's subtitle is Writers 57 and Over, in honor of this being Nimrod's 57th year. Writers who have been writing their whole lives and have made it past 57, then, are pretty acoomplished.
"They saw the announcement -- 57 and over -- and they sent us things," she said, still speaking with the aw-shucks tone as if she has no idea why anyone would want to be in a little ol' literary magazine from Tulsa. "Ted Kooser was Poet Laureate of the United States in, I think, 2004. When he was appointed, I read about it. He was in Nebraska, and we were just about to have our awards a week later. I didn't know him, but I called him up and congratulated him and asked him if he would come just as a guest."
He couldn't come that year, but Ringold kept in touch with him. When the 57 and over theme came up, he submitted.
"He sent us three poems and said, 'Perhaps one of these is good enough for you,'" she remembered. "I read them, and I said, 'I'm greedy. I like them all.' He said, 'Oh well, I would like to publish three poems.'"
So that's a poet laureate in addition to a Pulitzer winner. Not too shabby.
Perhaps the most endearing thing about Ringold -- and there are quite a few endearing things about her and her stupid dog that's too sweet for anyone to dislike -- is her passion for the literature. One even launched her into a reverie about her days teaching poetry in another country.
"What I consider the best thing in the issue is a few poems by a man named Ron Wallace," she said. I've never heard of anything like this -- it's a series of poems that are based on Japanese poems. The end words of each line of the poem, if you read them vertically, are a poem by Basho or Buson or Issa."
It's the kind of poem that word nerds love because of its structure and the, for lack of a better word, gimmick, but at the same time, the poems are funny, and even if you have no idea about the relation to haiku, you can still enjoy them.
"He wrote the lines to do what I call reaching for those words, and it comes out to be a sonnet, and they're all funny," Ringold said. "I love it. There have been all sorts of wonderful experiments come alive for this."
The Wallace poems reminded her of teaching workshops. She taught a particularly stringent form of poetry called a sestina in which the last word of each line of the first, six-line verse, must be used as the last word of each line in the following stanza, and used in a different order, according to a prescribed pattern. It's on par with writing a villanelle.
"When I saw Ron's poems, I thought about when I taught a couple of years ago with all these people who had been to a million workshops," Ringold said. "I felt like I was running out of things to teach them. I was desperate one day, and I said, 'Let's just go out into the courtyard, and I'll just do my sestina exercise.' And when I do my sestina exercise, I'm very physical. I make them stand up and say, 'Okay, you're an end-word, and you're an end-word.' I move them around. They were so excited."
Listening to her tell the story, it's a good bet she was excited, too. Literature is a living, breathing, wonderful thing to this woman.
That said, she doesn't publish her own work in Nimrod, nor does she even submit it for consideration.
"I think that would be nepotism," she said, scratching behind Pete's ears, which prompts her to state an exception to that rule.
"The only thing is, in this issue -- because I am clearly 57 and older -- somebody else had a poem about a dog. I just couldn't stand it," she said, flipping quickly to page five of Lasting Matters to show the picture of Pete published under her poem "Declan IV."
But make no mistake: Ringold is a writer. And a rather busy one, at that.
"I have almost completed another book of poetry," she said, "and I've been writing a memoir for three years. It's in the form of a teaching device because I can't get over that."
Still, she considers her writing to be a sideline, at best. Even editing Nimrod falls aside in the face of what she thinks of herself as.
"I have always considered myself a teacher, even though I've done a lot of writing and different kinds of writing," she said. "I'm just a dilettante. One day, someone asked me that question, and I said, 'Oh, I'm a writer,' but I still don't really believe it. I think that also has to do with being a mother and a woman who's used to doing four things at any one time, so to consider yourself just one thing doesn't really feel right."
She briefly addressed her origins as a writer and how her output was influenced by the life she was living.
"When I first started writing poetry, I was taking the kids all around town to all these horrendous things like baseball and ballet," she said, laughing yet again. "I was always in the car. I could write a poem in the car, or the beginnings of a poem. I started out as a playwright, but that's just impossible. There are these entrances and exits you have to worry about in the play, but in your life with four kids, you've got people running in and out all the time. It's just too much."
Passing the Baton
"This is my last issue as editor in chief," Ringold volunteered. "We do this neat transition thing with the issue where Eilis was the co-editor."
Eilis is Eilis O'Neal, who, for the 58th and following years of Nimrod, will ease into Ringold's chair.
"She will be taking over as editor in chief, and I'm going to stay on as senior advisory editor. It means that I can do whatever I want to do, sort of like a grandmother," she said.
Even though she's stepping down, Ringold still has ideas for the journal--setting goals for things like publishing more and more copies and exploring the creation of an online presence, but she has not (and likely never will) forgotten the mission of Nimrod.
"Our goals, as far as nurturing writers, are maintained from the first," she said.
That literary excellence is something to strive for at the University of Tulsa shouldn't be a surprise. After all, TU's McFarlin Library holds an enormous collection of works and other artifacts from James Joyce, even publishing the James Joyce Quarterly for the last 50 years. There have also been some literary giants in the employ of the school, perhaps most notably Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. And Nimrod itself is involved with an annual, eponymous writers' workshop: the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers, offering classes in writing poetry, fiction, finding a literary agent, and much more. This year's conference, to be held later this month, will offer one-on-one editing sessions with experienced editors and presentations by more than thirty established, published writers of fiction and poetry.
Nimrod is just one prong of the school's far-reaching literary import. As such, it will carry on, but even when Ringold isn't doing whatever she wants to do, sort of like a grandmother, the journal will bear her imprimatur for years to come.
All Things Nimrod
A Skype Call That's Actually Important.
Cristina Garcia, a judge for Nimrod's upcoming awards issue, will answer questions and lead a discussion of her newest book, King of Cuba in this event that serves as a precursor to the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers. The event is free and will be held at the Martin Regional Library, 2601 S. Garnett Rd., on Monday, Oct. 7 at 7pm.
Congrats on the Award, Now Pass The Salt.
Garcia comes to town for the Nimrod Awards Dinner on Friday, Oct. 18th, starting at 6:30pm in TU's Allen Chapman Activity Center. There will be food, since it's a dinner, but the main attractions will be readings and presentations by Garcia, as well as live music and the chance to mingle with like-minded literature lovers. Tickets to the awards dinner are $60. For more information, call 918-631-3080 or email Nimrod@utulsa.edu.
The Conference This Has Been Leading Up To.
Saturday, Oct. 19 will see the kickoff of the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers. A huge day of workshops and presentations by and for writers of fiction, poetry, fantasy, and many other genres.
Panel discussions at 10am will center on interpretation of literature, as well as the ins and outs of publishing and editing.
Master classes throughout the day will cover subject like epistolary poems, ways to enliven your written work, the value that music can have on poetry, even for those who aren't musicians, finding a voice, excising the parts of your work that don't really need to be there, and even a class on Young Adult literature and how it doesn't necessarily have to have a paranormal creature and a doomed love interest.
Hopefully, Stephenie Meyer will attend.
Registration forms and information can be found at utulsa.edu/nimrod/conference.html
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