Elevating new writers over 50
Did you know Baltimore is home to the only national literary journal and press dedicated to writers over 50?
Launched more than 30 years ago, the journal Passager was the brainchild of Baltimore writing instructor Kendra Kopelke. Then 28 years old, Kopelke was inspired to launch Passager while teaching older writers at the Waxter Center, a senior center in Baltimore City.
Their work impressed her, Kopelke said in a recent interview with the Beacon, because older writers “have a very different sense of time than someone in their 30s, and they have a very different sense of who they are.”
Spellbound by their stories, she wanted to share her students’ work with the public.
So Kopelke worked with a graduate student at the University of Baltimore, Sally Darnowsky, to establish a journal and bring their voices to light.
“It creates power, putting these voices together,” Kopelke said.
She and Darnowsky wanted to show that older people can still evolve. There is an idea in American culture, Kopelke said, that “when you’re 50, it’s too late to figure it out, and then when you’re 60, you can’t start anything new.”
Challenging that idea and giving people over 50 a venue, she said, “was what we really wanted to do.”
Creating a literary journal
The first issue of Passager was published in 1990. It was well designed and printed on quality vellum paper.
To save money, the journal was square-shaped, printed in black and white, and stapled. Former Maryland poet laureate Lucille Clifton appeared on its cover. Inside was an interview with Clifton, a few of her poems, and poetry, fiction and works of memoir by local writers over 50.
To launch the first issue, Clifton gave a free reading at the University of Baltimore Law Center. Two hundred people attended the reading and purchased enough copies of Passager to pay the printer — retroactively.
“It’s that kind of generosity that really makes things possible,” Kopelke said of Clifton. “Such a great friend to the poetry community.”
Kopelke has kept Passager going with the help of people who are just as passionate about the project.
“Passager has a strong cast of characters, which keeps the show going,” Kopelke said of her staff of four.
One of those characters, Mary Azrael, 80, has been co-editor of Passager for 30 years.
The author of four books of poetry and an opera libretto, Azrael has led poetry workshops for people of all ages through Maryland’s Poets in the Schools and the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program.
Azrael and Kopelke worked together to establish another publishing arm, Passager Books, in 2005.
“It’s a very deep bond Mary and I have,” Kopelke said. “And also, a very deep commitment to Passager and what its mission is.”
No upper age limit
Passager writers, all age 50 or older, explore connections with nature and family from the vantage point of experience as well as topics like ageism and dementia through a creative lens.
Passager Books publishes anthologies, short fiction, poetry and memoirs by writers who have been published in the Passager journal.
“[Older writers] are continuously saying [to us], ‘I’m surprised by what I have to say now.’” Kopelke said. “One of our writers is 104,” she added.
Poet Sarah Yerkes, for instance, was surprised to discover a late life love of poetry. Yerkes was in her 90s when she had to give up her career as a sculptor because she could no longer weld heavy pieces of metal.
She attended a poetry workshop in a retirement community, which led to her first book of poems, published by Passager when she was 101.
“Now she has a new creative medium she discovered,” Azrael said.
Some Passager writers teach writing, and others take writing classes. Many have been working hard at home. All are dedicated to writing and write to heal, to connect with others, and to explore their feelings and process their experiences.
“We publish work by people who really consider themselves serious writers,” Azrael said. Writing is a major part of their identity.
Every Passager writer has “a real commitment to writing,” Kopelke added. “Craft is really important to us.”
Getting creative during Covid
Like everyone else, the literary press encountered upheaval when Covid hit. Passager staff had just moved from the University of Baltimore to a cozy office in the library at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
After just several months there, everyone had to isolate and work from home. Creativity came in handy, helping the editors and writers navigate the twists and turns of turbulent times with new ideas and endeavors.
To keep in touch with readers, Passager started sending out a weekly email with a poem and commentary.
“It was interesting looking through old journals and finding something for the week,” Kopelke said. “I think it grounded me.”
Meanwhile, her husband — fellow writer and professor emeritus at University of Baltimore, Jonathan Shorr — began producing a Passager podcast every week. Called “Burning Bright,” the podcast featured Passager writers.
“I think he’s having some fun behind the microphone again,” Kopelke said in 2020. “And his voice is wonderful, as are his selections.”
In addition, Passager developed “Pandemic Diaries.” People all over the world sent in journal entries starting in March 2020 that were published on the Passager website until July 2022.
A new poetry prize
Also during the pandemic, Passager began awarding the Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize for a first book of poems by a writer 70 and older.
The award was created by Morgenthau’s children to honor the award-winning public television writer and producer — one of the first American TV producers to bring a film crew into apartheid South Africa.
Morgenthau’s 1963 program “The Negro and the American Promise,” featured interviews with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin.
Morgenthau began writing poetry in his 90s while living at the Ingleside retirement community in Washington, D.C. and taking classes at a nearby writing center. He published his first book of poetry just before his 100th birthday. Morgenthau passed away in 2018.
The first recipient of the Henry Morgenthau III Poetry Prize was Dennis H. Lee, in September 2020, for his book Tidal Wave. A U.S. Navy veteran and computer software engineer, Lee has been a poet for more than 25 years.
His Delaware Valley Poets Reading Series in Princeton, New Jersey, which he co-founded with his wife, Donna, ran for more than a quarter century. Lee’s poems have been published in many literary journals over the years.
Tidal Wave was “a serious achievement of growing up and growing older,” said David Keplinger, a published poet and teacher at American University, on the Passager website.
Public readings return
The second winner of the Morgenthau Prize was Mark Elber for his book Headstone, in 2022. Originally from New York, the rabbi and poet currently leads Temple Beth El in Fall River, Massachusetts.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Elber gave a live reading at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Passager’s first in-person event since March 2020. The room was packed, and an enthusiastic audience lined up after the reading to get Elber to sign copies of Headstone.
This year’s winner of the Passager Poetry Contest was George Drew, who was born in Mississippi and lives in New York state. Drew wrote his first poem in 1963, following JFK’s assassination. That poem led to another and then another.
Now 76, Drew has published multiple poetry collections and won several awards. The September issue of Passager features an interview with Drew.
Passager Press’ most recent release is Mothernest, a book of poetry by Sandy Longley, published in June 2023. Longley, a former English professor now in her 70s, received awards from the Robert Frost Foundation in 2020 and 2022.
Passager is taking even more risks these days. Its winter issue explored the theme of ancestral trauma. It contains writings from a generation of people who were raised not to tell their story.
“For some people, it was the first time they ever wrote it down,” Kopelke said. “It was a huge act of bravery.”
Many people sent in their stories, she said. “There were twice as many submissions…it was an incredible experience.”
Kopelke’s advice for older writers?
“It’s never too late. We know your imagination is really on fire right now.”
To subscribe to Passager or learn more about its titles, visit Passagerbooks.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Passager, 7401 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21208. Passager is also on Facebook and Instagram.