KCAC Forum Magazine Nov/Dec 1989
MAGAZINE EMPHASIZED THE OVERLOOKED ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF WOMEN
by John Mort
The avant-garde may be a hopeful note to end on; but, just now, there doesn’t seem to be much avant-garde out there.
Th fall of 189 marked the end of Helicon Nine, Kansas City’s “journal of women’s arts and letters.” Helicon Nine lasted for 10 years, a longer life than most little magazines enjoy. From the start, though it was not really a little magazine as we ordinarily conceive of them. It was much more ambitious, more handsomely produced and more widely read. One felt the editors had a sense of mission.
In her introduction to the first issue, Editor-in-Chief Gloria Vando Hickok noted that the magazine intended to “provide a genuine cross-section of the finest in women’s arts and letters,” with an emphasis on the past as well as the present. Women’s studies programs and a larger awareness of women’s literature on the part of female and male editors alike had dusted off the reputations of a number of writers, but the public was “less aware of women architects, composers and sculptors.”
In retrospect, Helicon Nine‘s real contribution was in publishing detailed articles on the lives and work of visual artists from the past. Some issues read almost like an art-history journal, except that we were reading of the art of women neglected by a male establishment. Particularly effective was Therese Schwartz’ “The History of Women’s Art: Sins of Omission and Revision,” an embittered survey piece that even speculated that much of Paleolithic art was female. The article, like every issue of Helicon Nine, was lavishly illustrated with reproductions of a number of neglected paintings, including, in full color, Rosa Bonheur’s magnificent “Buffalo Bill on Horseback” (1889).
Such loving production values are expense, but they were part of Helicon Nine‘s distinctive look. One issue reportedly cost $20,000, but Editor Hickok says they were always in the black. several issues – notably the first, ad the “multi-cultural” issue of 1985 – sold out. At its peak, the magazine had a press run of 5,000, and single-issue costs would range up to $12; but costs were otherwise kept low because contributors are paid little and the fairly large staff was mostly volunteer.
For the most part, Helicon Nine emphasized the positive, often-overlooked, accomplishments of women. The journal published men with some frequency; but as a class, men often took drubbing. In a 1985, interview with poet Maxine Kumin, for instance, the interviewer asked her about female groupies:
Most of the women writers I know are terribly married or monogamous… I certainly don’t see the kind of flamboyant, carrying-on that you see in the male poetry mafia where the man is a service station and the women are just standing in line…
Kumin also predicted, and hoped for, a time when “men will be put in the same position that the WASP novelist was put when we had that enormous spate of Jewish novelists.” There would be mmore women editors publishing women writers, some of them extraordinarily fine, speaking to women’s concerns, and to universal concerns. Five years later, to many editors, Kumin’s remarks would seem not prophetic, but descriptive.
Midway through the run, the magazine doubled up some of the numbers into theme issues: the multi-cultural issues, which featured a gorgeous section of Puerto Rican artists; an issue on peace, which Hickok says remains her personal favorite; and a fat issue on Southern womanhood, guest-edited by the historian Robert Erwin. The latter included pieces on women strikers at a Tennessee textile plant, on the no-longer-neglected black writer Zora Neale Hurston, and on the “Southern Belle,” meaning Scarlett O’Hara and such. Most Helicon Nine issues contains a phono-record insert, but the one for the Southern-womanhood issue was particularly delightful: a recording from 1946 of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the “hottest all-women’s jazz band of the 1940s.” The article on the band, with its accompanying photos, was also instructive; the band was the first racially integrated women’s band, but playing mostly for black audiences and was virtually ignored by white newspapers. How could a magazine have done its job any better? Here was an article about an obscure black band that should not have been obscure, illustrated not only with photographs but with recordings.
After the Southern-womanhood issues, there were two more: number 19 celebrated Marianne Moore, while the last issue is devoted to “The Avant-Garde.” This is another solid, issue, with Hickok’s essay/interview with Yoko Ono, and some extraordinary photo-collages from Ruthe Thorne-Tomsen. Thorne-Thomsen’s work experiments by turning the human head into various forms, suggesting “Views form the Shoreline”; in one, a woman’s head twists upward into a conch shell. Perhaps this is avant-garde, but the rest of the magazine seems in line with what went before.
This is a period of stagnation for the nation, and its arts, too – the avant-garde may be a hopeful note to end on; but, just now, there doesn’t seem to be much avant-garde out there.
In 10 years, Helicon Nine published a great deal of poetry and fiction, articles on dance, animation, sculpture, filmmaking. It held with great devotion to its original intent, to seek out female talent in the arts, both in thepresent and the past. it never had the popular success Hickok hoped for – it was pitched a little too high for that, and wasn’t quite safe enough – but it was far more successful than an outside observer would have thought possible. it has the great advantage over other magazines, it must be said, of being able to plunge into the past, which for woman has been new territory these last several decades. It was the past that thrust Helicon Nine into the avant-garde, not the present.
And if that’s the case, the magazine did its job, and Hickok is right to move on. She will be bringing out The Helicon Nine Reader in mid-1990, the best from the 10 years in 500 pages, including 32 pages of color plates. The pre-publication price is $20; send to Helicon Nine, PO Box 22412, Kansas City, MO, 64113. There will be other books down the line.
For now, imagine a woman in her early 20s coming of age in this time of vexed relations between the sexes, about to begin her career. Maybe it’s too much to hope for, but she could sit down with Helicon Nine‘s 10 years of work, and perhaps a stack of the Women’s Review of Books as well, and educate herself splendidly, at something short of a radical consciousness. in a culture where the mainstream alternative is “Three Men and a Baby,” and Jackie Collins and George Bush, all we can do is hope that that young woman exists. If she does, then Helicon Nine will not only be missed, it will live on.