Humble Inheritance: Reflections on My Internship with Phyllis Walsh by Trish Stachelski

In 1979, I moved from Milwaukee to Richland Center to pursue a degree in education. I was drawn to the farms, the cows grazing in the coulees and an opportunity to attend the friendly, supportive environment of the University of Wisconsin, Richland Center. I remember walks along streams looking for deep pools where trout dwell and labrador tea, the ancient medicinal plant that grows in bogs. I remember a swimming hole accessed by jumping off a train trestle and long walks in the snow to get to school.

At the University of Wisconsin, Richland Center, Phyllis Walsh was my instructor for Library Science and Children’s Literature. I knew Phyllis was a poet, as I had seen some of her poems in the local publication The Ocooch News. Later when I transferred to the UW-La Crosse, I was delighted that Phyllis enrolled in the same poetry class taught by John Judson, editor of Juniper Press. Years later as an MFA student at Hamline University in St. Paul in 2006, I applied for an internship to work as an editor with Phyllis on Hummingbird, The Magazine of the Short Poem. This was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Phyllis the editor and Phyllis the poet.

My responsibility as an intern was to help with the decision making process for the June issue of Hummingbird. Phyllis published haiku and nontraditional forms. We read 54 poems out loud and evaluated them for sound, imagery and meaning. Most importantly, we considered how each line contributed to the whole. Subjects of poems included animal and human activities with objective, critical, humorous, playful and satirical tones. She believed the short form was the truest form because it captured the moment. Long poems were not poems, she said. They were stories.

Hummingbird Press is considered one of several fine small presses that fills a niche in the publishing world. Publicity is based on word of mouth. “It’s a plum to be published in Hummingbird,” Phyllis said. Dedicated followers include poets living overseas on a shoestring who devote their lives to writing poetry.  Phyllis often published H.F. Noyes of Greece, “the barefoot priest.”  Phyllis was proud of him for not being part of academia or any formal organization in the mainstream literary scene. Hummingbird Press also published chapbook collections such as Charlie Mehrhoff’s  A Farewell of Sorts, a high quality publication using the Heidelberg Windmill at Swamp Press. 

Cid Corman (1924-2004) poet, translator of Basho, and mentor for Phyllis lived in Japan for many years. He provided advice and encouragement for her as an editor, and he sent many poets her way. The letters between Phyllis and Cid are personable and engaging. On July 6th, 1991, he writes to Phyllis:  “[I am] always delighted when one of my people connects with you...I’ve steered someone in your direction. He is hopelessly bad mannered. Don’t take his palaver too seriously.  But his shorties, as I call them, have a little jump to them and are worth letting others see” (Letters of Phyllis Walsh).  Many poets have praised Phyllis for her sharp editor’s eye. She was the kind of editor that would return work with cryptic comments. “Keep writing!”  She often told me.  Though I sent her many poems, it was years before she published any. I asked Phyllis why she named the magazine Hummingbird. She told me it is not that she knew a lot about hummingbirds or particularly liked them. Once while putting out a sugar feeder, one attacked her. “They are feisty!” She said.

Phyllis’ love of poetry began when her aunt gave her a small collection of poetry when she was 12. Growing up in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, Phyllis would occasionally see the mysterious poet Lorine Niedecker. Phyllis admired Niedecker’s work and later became influential in bringing recognition to her work in her chapbook Lorine Niedecker: Solitary Plover, published by Juniper Press in 1992.  Phyllis recalled her impressions of the poet Niedecker: “Townspeople whispered that Niedecker wrote poetry, but I never knew anyone who read any of it” (Solitary Plover 1).

In college, Phyllis studied elementary education and library science.  She was a librarian at Milton College in Wisconsin in the 1970’s when she learned that the librarian was retiring from the University of Wisconsin, Richland Center.  In the 1970’s Richland Center was known for its counterculture hippy communities. 

While living in Richland Center, Phyllis experienced a ruptured cerebral aneurysm.  She had to have surgery to have it clamped. The surgery caused a slight stroke which temporarily affected her speech and caused her temporary paralysis of one side. It was a difficult and long recovery. After this life-threatening experience, Phyllis vowed to put poetry first. In her hospital bed, she began writing all kinds of poetry. Emily Osborn, publisher of the Ocooch News in Richland Center, was the first to publish Phyllis’ poems. Phyllis’ work also appeared in Frogpond, Haiku Quarterly, Inkstone, Ko, Modern Haiku, Northwest Literary Forum, tel-let, White Hero, Windless Orchard,  and Woodnotes. Midwestern Writers’ Publishing House published Like a Dream on Waking in 1981.  Hummingbird Press published the collections To Find a Rainbow and Center Stillness.

During my internship with Phyllis, she repeatedly admonished me to never tell anyone I was a poet. What an odd thing for an editor of a poetry magazine to tell a poet friend, I thought as I drove up and down the hills and coulees of Richland and Vernon counties journeying from my home to her home. I considered my identity as a poet.I considered the influence of the natural world and the medium of the short poem for expressing this poetic vision which draws from the ancient verse of China, Korea and Japan. There is an understanding that the job of the poet is to discover the inner voice of its subject. Phyllis’ Hummingbird acts as a medium for this voice. The image of the hummingbird suggests vulnerability and surety, the unselfconscious bird going about its life.