After many years with the San Francisco Review, and tired of editing by committee, George Hitchcock started Kayak in the fall of 1964, with himself its "single oarsman."  Over the next twenty years, his vision changed the landscape of American poetry, publicized and even launched poetic careers, and resulted in one of the most influential poetry journals in the last half of the 20th Century.

Born in 1914, he was already well-read in the works of older writers, and published many that he admired, particularly out of Europe.  He published his contemporaries, too, including his own poetry mentor, Kenneth Rexroth.  Most of all, he became known for championing the work of new and emerging writers, impacting significantly the early careers of such writers as Ray Carver, Philip Levine, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Kathleen Fraser, Mark Doty and Robert Bly, a generosity that has never been forgotten by those who feel he helped shape their creative and sometimes personal lives.  

Some of the famous poems that first appeared in Kayak: 

Margaret Atwood's "This is a Photograph of Me" (the first woman to appear in Kayak).
Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion"
Sharon Olds' "Satan Says"
Albert Goldbarth's "A Week on the Show"
Wendell Berry's "Testament"
Hayden Carruth's "I Tell You for Several Years of My Madness..."

Kayak was an unusual looking magazine, printed on whatever stock that George could get cheaply, sometimes several different stocks in one issue. (Once, it was target paper rejected by the military.)  George published his magazine on a vintage hand-press formerly used to print the menus on an ocean-liner.  The collating parties -- actual events in which students, writers and others worked together to bring about the finished issue are legendary.  As poet and Hitchcock student, Robert McDowell describes them: 

"Directed by George, they put together, stapled, and trimmed the magazine, addressed and stuffed envelopes, affixed postage and updated subscription cards, and replenished themselves at huge tables of wine, breads, salads, pastries, cold cuts, soda and beer. The day hummed with work and spirited gab. People talked politics, poetry and writing,baseball and tennis. They talked about love and travel, music and theatre. They swapped jokes, shared the scoop on jobs and court cases, told stories about kids and pets, and debated the growing of healthy roses and fruit trees. The poet Morton Marcus said once that the kayak collating parties were the closest he ever came to experiencing the atmosphere of a European salon. Over the last thirty years, I’ve attended thousands of literary gatherings, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like those perfect days in Santa Cruz, California when the collating parties stretched from early morning to early evening. At the end, there was the new issue of the magazine we could not wait to take home and read."

Writes Philip Levine: "All you had to do was look at the magazine to know it was something new.  (It's been copied so often today someone first stumbling upon it might not recognize how striking it was in 1964).  Bound in heavy cardbord and voluminously illustrated, it sold for only a dollar or $3 for a two-year subscription of four issues."

Early runs were only about 1000-1200 issues -- at its peak, it only numbered around 7,000-8,000, going mainly to private subscribers and libraries.  After that, however, the "pass-along" was significant, with one reader writing that he'd given his latest copy to a Tunisian tour guide who wanted to impress English speaking tourists.  In this age of "hits" and "viral media," it is hard to imagine how a magazine with such a small run could possibly have had such an enormous impact on modern poetry.

But in early 1968, less than four years after Kayak was founded, George's independent press was recognized with an entirely unsolicited grant from the NEA (then the National Council on the Arts) in recognition of the contributions "made in advancing the cause of the unknown, obscure, or difficult writer, and in the publication of books visually and typographically distinctive."  With this money Hitchcock quickly established a competition for the best poem about Che Guevara, and published key books by Kathleen Fraser, Charles Simic and others.  

Everyone interested in poetry read Kayak.  Even people who didn't LIKE Kayak read it, as borne out by the arguments appearing in the famous Letters section.  In one letter, Elizabeth Bishop fumes at Robert Bly, and he stands his ground in return.  An article by Robert Peters, criticizing a major journal for its aesthetic complacency, brings an avalanche of supporters and detractors.  "At last someone got after the Great Stone Face and took a hearty swing at it with an ice-axe."  Another scoffs that the piece "begins with a holler and ends with a squeak."  The subtext to all of this, of course, is that some editor somewhere (namely, Hitchcock) was open enough to the literary fisticuffs that he published all comers -- as long as they had something to say and said it well.  Again, one must remember that these are pre-internet days -- letters to the Editor weren't posted in a moment, but required paper, an envelope, a trip to the mailbox and the long wait for the next issue.  Kayak's Letters section was the "steampunk" chat room of the literary world.  

And there were the illustrations.  Hitchcock, who spent the last fifteen years of his life a painter under the name Jorge Hitchcock, was always drawn to image -- in poetry, in theatre, and certainly, in the vivid, roller-coaster pages of his  journal.  

Collages formed the bulk of Kayak illustrations, sometimes done by Hitchcock himself -- but also created by a range of contributors, including the imaginative English collagist John Digby, internationally-known visual poet Luciano Ori, cut paper print-maker and artist Phillip Kuznicki, and poets such as Mark Doty, Marjorie Simon, Laura Beausoliel, and Nanos Valaoritis. 

20 Years of Kayak Covers!
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