October 20, 2016
Amidst the astonishing total of 180 events that took place during Fallcoming weekend, the Literature and Creative Writing Department hosted a poetry and fiction reading to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the campus’ literary magazine, Red Weather’s inception. The event featured readings from award-winning current student writers Pascal Dafinis ’19 and Nora Silva ’19, as well as readings and comments from Kirkland and Hamilton alumni who worked on Red Weather during their time here.
The festivities began with two moving student readings before the stage was turned over to Red Weather’s founder, Jo Pitkin K’78. Pitkin read some of her own poetry, including “The Lake House.” She expressed her gratitude in being able to celebrate the magazine which has served as a “great vehicle for students to share their creative work.”
Following Pitkin, two more female editors of Red Weather also shared their memories of working on that publication. Barbara Berson K ’79 and Victoria Kohn Michels H ’80 each agreed that Kirkland’s dedication to writing and art, as well as their own involvement in Red Weather, had strongly influenced their individual abilities and careers.
Renowned novelist Peter Cameron H’82, who served as editor of Red Weather his senior year, also joined in. Along with a reading of his short story “Homework,” originally published in The New Yorker, he discussed his transition from a poet to a fiction writer. Cameron attributed his transition in part to his work at Red Weather.
The event allowed students and faculty the opportunity to speak to alumni who had worked on Red Weather when the publication was in its infancy. Pitkin passed out old issues so that members of the humble crowd could feel the publication as well as see the evolution of the magazine. Michels and Cameron discussed the publication’s effect on their careers. All the alumni showed how much the magazine means to them and maintain that Red Weather serves as an important resource for students and their art.
In my interview with Pitkin, I learned more about the evolution of Red Weather, the publication’s effect on the writer as well as her career and her experience in the writing field at Hamilton and beyond. When asked about how the name “Red Weather” surfaced, Pitkin said, “I decided to change the title from Deserted the Plaza. I asked a few of the teachers I had for ideas... one of our poetry teachers Michael Burkard said he was reading Wallace Stevens and [suggested],‘How about this little phrase red weather?’” She described a staff meeting during which the final decision on a new title was made; that was simply the phrase everyone liked best. “What’s ‘red weather’ actually?” Pitkin mused. “I couldn’t even tell you why that struck a chord except I think we were looking for something...it sounded somehow right.”
Aside from renaming the publication, Pitkin kept many of the same elements that Red Weather’s predecessor had had. Pitkin explained that contents like photography and other sorts of visual art were always in the magazine: “We kept that pretty much the same in proportion because it was expensive to reproduce anything. We didn’t have a lot of art but we had art that we thought was complimentary.”
Pitkin also used her high school literary magazine background as well as her knowledge of national magazines to change the 8” x 11” size of the paper to a size that allowed readers to hold the magazine in their hand––a much more personal experience.
Pitkin is also responsible for changing the way in which contributors submitted their work to the publication. “Everybody had their name on their work and of course this was before email and computers,” she said. But she quickly realized that knowing the contributors made members on the staff judge each submission differently. “If you see someone’s name and think, ‘Oh he’s my friend. I eat with him at Commons. I like him,’” said Pitkin, “it might make you judge his work differently.” Thus, to be fair, as well as to encourage more submissions from shy individuals, she decided to create blind submissions.
Pitkin also discussed her relationship with her staff members, especially how her role as the first woman editor impacted her interactions with her male counterparts. “Because I was the first woman editor of a literary magazine,” expressed Pitkin, “the men weren’t so crazy about me telling them what to do.” She went on to divulge,“I’m shy so it was a little hard for me, but they were great guys. I think they accepted that better than maybe some would have. I was tentative about how it was going to go. They were used to listening to male editors.”
Pitkin spoke about some of the less glamorous aspects of being editor as well. Production was the hardest part about creating the earlier issues of Red Weather, which are stored in the Hamilton Archives. “I’m the one who decided in what order things went—I don’t remember us discussing that as a group—but I wanted to have some poetry, some prose, some art balanced to look like an interesting magazine… and a student had to input it all,” Pitkin explained. She also noted that the whole room they worked in had “this horrible vinegar smell because that’s the solution of photography.”
The next step in the process involved taking “ every individual poem, [which] had to be cut and pasted onto these boards...it was such a long process. No one would know how to do this anymore. I had all the staff cutting with this knife and measuring and trying to make things straight. It wasn’t a simple process like it would be on a computer. I’m hoping today’s staff focuses on content and the quality and don’t have to worry.”
Having produced six issues in the two years she was editor serves as one of Pitkin’s cherished memories of Red Weather’s early years. “I had to deal with a lot of negativity and not everybody was thrilled with the magazine,” Pitkin said, “[but] I kept my cool and I did have a vision...about how it could be a better student magazine and how it could reflect some of the good writing that was happening here. That’s a fond memory that it actually worked out, it came about.”
Thankfully, all that hard work in production and working at Red Weather positively impacted the award winning poet’s career after graduation. “I had to learn how to proofread,” Pitkin mentioned. “For a while, I freelanced as a proofreader. I proofread for Harvard University Press, Twain Literary Series, etc. I kept thinking, well I learned how to proofread doing Red Weather. I was making money two years later, proofreading. All my skills came in handy.”
After leaving the Kirkland/Hamilton campus, Pitkin went into book publishing and had a series of editorial assistant jobs. “I have to say every job I’ve had I have learned something at it,” said Pitkin with a smile.
Eventually, Pitkin worked at Houghton Mifflin in a variety of capacities. She worked on a grammar and composition textbook series grades 6-12. She was asked to do different kinds of writing for the language arts department. She created unit tests, practice questions, testing different parts of speech. After working there, she realized that she wanted to be a freelance writer. “I thought to myself maybe that would be the way I could have a successful life as a poet and also work,” Pitkin shared. “It was hard to come in at nine o’clock and work till five. I didn’t have enough energy at the end of the day for poetry.”
When asked what led her to share her writing with others, Pitkin named Red Weather as a source of inspiration: “I gained skills and an awareness of how it’s all put together,” Pitkin said. She continued, “For my senior project here, I did a poetry reading. I wrote a whole series of poems around a theme and then I produced a small pamphlet of those poems. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t worked on Red Weather.”
When I asked her to comment on how she feels about submitting her own original work given her experience on the other side of things as an editor, Pitkin assured me, “I’m still polite. If an editor writes me or asks me a question, I respond immediately. I am always thankful that there’s somebody there who’s working with my material and putting it out there.”
She continued, “Publishing for a college newspaper like Red Weather as a young writer—that gives you confidence when you’re not afraid to see your work in print and have students or faculty read it than thinking of a bigger audience isn’t so scary.”
Pitkin reinforced Red Weather’s importance not only in her professional career and personal life but here on campus: “Red Weather is just for students at Hamilton...It’s really important to look at how that fosters someone’s self confidence.” Pitkin then went on to discuss writers such as Peter Cameron who name Red Weather as the first place they published. “There are many people I can point to that had started publishing in their college’s literary magazines,” Pitkin said. “It’s an important step when you start to realize people, my friends my family, are reading my stuff. You start to take yourself more seriously. It fulfills a good function and Hamilton has tons of creative writing now. It is so established and so successful. You want to have a good, strong campus literary magazine.”
Pitkin expressed her gratitude and appreciation for the current members of Red Weather, noting that she is “glad the staff today is so good.” She pointed to the current staff’s initiative in creating launching parties for the magazine to get people excited about each new isue. She pointed to this change in particular because she had always felt a certain degree of apathy about the magazine among the student population during her time on campus.
Considering how far the publication has come and hearing past members read their work and share their stories, it seems imperative to maintain Red Weather’s place on campus. The magazine bridges the gap between past and future generations of artists and writers. Most importantly, Red Weather allows students to share their creative work with an environment set on fostering their confidence, talent and passion for their craft.