Primipara: a Magazine by Women Poets (1974-1984)

by Jeri McCormick

It was a memorable meeting—my second with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.  A member from Oconto, Diane Nichols, stood up and issued an invitation to women poets:  why not get together and share our poetry?  The women’s movement was well under way (1973), I’d been attending “awareness” groups aimed at advancing women’s causes, and I’d taken part in my first poetry workshop—a weekend with acclaimed Wisconsin poet, Edna Meudt, in Spring Green—where my skimpy drafts brought the encouragement I needed.

So I went to Diane’s meeting, along with a small group of other women, each of us focusing on the dual purpose of exploring our feminine lives and advancing our writing.  Our host, Diane, an English major and former high school teacher, proved to be knowledgeable and stimulating.  Gathered at her country home north of Green Bay, we’d brought our own writing (very little published by any of us) and shared our personal backgrounds.  Sitting in a large, comfortable living room with its enormous hand-built fireplace, we talked about our shared interest in writing; what it meant to us and what we hoped to accomplish.

We’d read Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan; Gloria Steinham and Robin Morgan; Erica Jong and Denise Levertov; Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, among others.  And some of us had heard Adrienne Rich in Milwaukee.  Through these authors and others, we learned that we didn’t need permission to write; we could just go ahead and do it.

Most of us were middle-aged—thirtyish or fortyish—with young families and busy lives. How to fit writing into those lives was proving difficult, but we were determined to do it.  Over time, we found that sharing our stories and staying connected helped.  As did group writing, often with timed prompts that Diane provided, using freewriting techniques outlined by author Peter Elbow and others.  We offered gentle peer critiques based on what we knew of successful writing and no one worried about instantly shaping those initial drafts into finished poetry.  We could do the polishing at home.

After a few such sessions, seven of us began to talk of widening our circle through editing a poetry publication.  We all had acquaintances who would welcome this reach toward community.  A women’s poetry journal seemed a novel and needed project, one we would keep statewide in scope, since we knew we had an audience here and our goal of making connections was more likely achievable if limited.  Our founders’ group of seven included women from Eagle River, Green Bay, Fort Atkinson, Oconto, and Madison.  In addition to Diane and myself, Diana Anderson, Marcia Fischer, Donna Cole, Jane Farrell, and Nancy Breitsprecher participated.  Diane would remain our ‘fearless leader’ throughout  the decade to come.

We arrived at a name for the magazine quickly and effortlessly. Jane Farrell, a nurse and nursing textbook writer in Green Bay, suggested we use the medical term for “first birth”—Primipara.  With that idea, we soon had a symbolic cover, designed by Lee Bock of Appleton, which we used on all issues by simply varying the color of the stock.  Our subscription rate was $2.50 per year for two issues.  Our first issue contained work by the seven founders, each represented by poems and a biography, plus an introductory poem by Wisconsin’s well-known Zona Gale (1874-1938) of Portage. 

Work on the magazine took place in the pre-computer era, which meant that we worked with typewriters, doing tedious re-typing of each submission, cutting and pasting, and laying out the master for a commercial printer.  Eventually, the participants nearest Oconto took on most of this work, joined by an early contributor of art and writing, Ellen Kort of Appleton (who later became Wisconsin’s first poet laureate).  And we found a friend indeed in Nancy Rose Sweetland, a poet in Green Bay, who accepted the job of assembling the “pieces” of our choosing, working with the printer, and turning each batch into a finished magazine, complete with binding. 

But the selection of poems for print required the help of all of us, although we lost Marcia and Donna along the way when they turned to other projects.  Meeting in each other’s homes, we were kept busy reviewing the mailed-in poems.  Wisconsin’s women poets seemed hungry for outlets. Reading the submissions silently and then aloud to each other, we required majority approval for inclusion.  We typed personal letters of rejection and acceptance, giving careful thought to each, with no pre-set forms to rely on.  When we needed breaks from work, we often had Diane’s beautiful wooded acreage to walk in.  One memorable weekend included tubing on the Oconto River and an overnight stay at the Nichols’ family cabin on its banks.
The magazine led to other community-promoting activities for writers.  Among them were summer weekend retreats at Diane’s home, attended by any contributors or subscribers who wished to come.  These gatherings included writing sessions similar to our own founders’ get-togethers, complete with prompts and critiques for drafts.  We slept all over the house, wherever we could find space, and some overflow attendees brought tents for the spacious grounds.  These get-togethers were heady times as we became acquainted with each other and shared our reading lives, especially the poems of acclaimed women writers around the country, historical and contemporary. Among our favorites were anthologies such as No More Masks, Psyche, and Rising Tides.  And we learned about other feminist magazines—Iowa Woman, for example, and Calyx on the west coast.  The meals for these retreats were excellent, as they had been at our meetings all along, prepared in Diane’s kitchen Friday evening through Sunday morning.

Thus we came to know many of the writers whose work we’d opened in the mail.  We printed their poems about creativity, giving birth, coming of age, growing old, gardening, music, abortion,  spouses, children, loved ones, memorable places, animals and birds,  losses, the seasons, illnesses, domestic abuse, the war in Viet Nam—myriad subjects a reader might expect to find in a dozen years of  published poetry.  Joy and sorrow, fear and comfort—all were there.  It was a pleasure to meet such creative women as Phyllis Walsh (who became editor of Hummingbird); Peg Lauber and Joan Rohr Myers of Eau Claire; Helen Fahrbach, Dorothy Dalton and Laurel Mills of Menasha; Sue Silvermarie and Randy Arnow of Milwaukee; Kay Saunders and Estella Lauter of Appleton; Loretta Strehlow of Cedarburg, Leslie Dock of Madison, Jo Madl Gross of West Bend, and many others.

Primipara launched and conducted an annual writing contest, and the editors met to choose the winners. This meant assessing approximately a hundred entries for each contest and soliciting donations for prizes.  And we sponsored a Saturday symposium at UW-Green Bay, which attracted dozens of subscribers and contributors for a day-long program of sharing through panels and readings.

These activities took a great deal of coordinating time, all of it volunteer work.  And eventually the editors who had been most involved began to foresee a time of winding down. We agreed that after ten years of putting out Primipara we had accomplished a great deal, served state poets as a connecting and publishing hub, and we were ready to turn our sights elsewhere.  Possibilities of going back to school, entering or re-entering the job market, starting a business, or simply concentrating on family needs, were starting to take attention away from publishing and its attendant activities.  Diane, especially, was shouldering too much of the burden as the years went on.  And, besides, costs were rising, for both production and postage.  Dropping the page count helped somewhat, but mailing out the issues became increasingly expensive.  It was time to admit that we had realized our dream, and we’d have few regrets about moving on.

But we had one last project in mind.  We would compile a ten-year anthology, featuring new work by the founders plus selected poems from all of the decade’s issues. We met in Appleton to make our selections and assemble the book, entitled Words Reaching Between.  It appeared in 1984, a fine achievement we felt, bringing together many of the voices we had had the pleasure of showcasing in the course of Primipara’s publishing life.  As Diane wrote in the anthology’s introduction, “our memories of the magazine will be good ones. . . we’ve watched poets develop in their writing, as well as come to grips with problems in their personal lives—from boyfriends and lovers, to abortions and grown-up children.”

And so Primipara was closing shop, but would not be forgotten.  We believed that little magazines and small presses would necessarily come and go, their lives and deaths contributing a fertile medium for new ventures by others.  Ours was a “first birth” for women poets in Wisconsin.  We hoped it would not be the last.