[You need to get down to the 9th paragraph to find that Hitchcock was a reporter for the west coast version of the Communist Party newspapers, when the papers were daily and really influential. You need to read further to find out what Hitchcock said when called before HUAC in 1957. I won’t spoil the punch lines. They are worth reading the story to find, if for no other reason! Thanks to Chris Mahin for calling it to our attention. — Lew Rosenbaum]
George Hitchcock, whose poetry magazine, Kayak, born in the cultural ferment of the 1960s, was one of the most distinctive, eagerly read literary journals of its time, died on Aug. 27 at his home in Eugene, Ore. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by the poet Robert McDowell, an editor of “One Man Boat: The George Hitchcock Reader” (2003).
Mr. Hitchcock, a former actor, playwright and political organizer, founded Kayak in 1964 and for the next 20 years ran it as a one-man show. He designed the magazine, edited it, printed it, illustrated it and organized the collating parties where its pages were stapled together, slipped into mailing envelopes and stamped.
With great ingenuity, he created Kayak’s archly cruel rejection slips: Victorian engravings depicting a beheading, or a mountain climber slipping into a crevasse, with a brush-off caption appended.
He was, as he liked to say, Kayak’s dictator. “A kayak is not a galleon, ark, coracle or speedboat,” read the motto printed with each issue. “It is a small watertight vessel operated by a single oarsman. It is submersible, has sharply pointed ends, and is constructed of light poles and the skins of furry animals. It has never yet been successfully employed as a means of mass transport.”
Although he leaned toward surrealism and the dreamlike style of the deep imagist school, Mr. Hitchcock included a wide variety of poets, publishing the early work of Philip Levine, Raymond Carver, James Tate and Charles Simic.
“He was the pre-eminent maverick independent magazine publisher,” said Howard Junker, the editor of Zyzzyva: The Journal of West Coast Writers and Artists. “He was open in his tastes, unflagging in his energies, knew everyone and kept the thing going against all odds.”
George Parks Hitchcock was born on June 2, 1914, in Hood River, Ore. He attended the University of Oregon, where he was a reporter on the school newspaper, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1935.
After school he worked as a reporter for The Western Worker in San Francisco and as the sports editor of The People’s Daily World, for which he wrote a sports column under the byline Lefty. He also became friends with Kenneth Rexroth, who encouraged his interest in poetry.
When the United States entered World War II, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine, which sent him to the South Pacific and put him to work as a cook and waiter.
After the war he traveled throughout California trying to organize dairy unions. He later taught at the California Labor School.
In the 1950s, while working as a landscape gardener, he began writing plays and acting with two San Francisco repertory companies, the Interplayers and the Actor’s Workshop.
During the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1957, the House Un-American Activities Committee summoned him to testify in San Francisco, where he delivered what may well have been his finest performance.
When asked to state his profession, he answered: “I am a gardener. I do underground work on plants.” He then refused to answer questions about membership in the Communist Party, “on the grounds that this hearing is a big bore and waste of the public’s money.”
The director of the Shakespeare Festival demoted him to spear-carrying roles.
Physically imposing — a hefty 6-foot-4 — Mr. Hitchcock cut a flamboyant, dandyish figure. “He reminded me of those bigger-than-life character actors in Hollywood movies, like Wallace Beery and Charles Laughton, or like Vitamin Flintheart, the ostentatiously dressed and extravagantly posturing character in Dick Tracy comic books,” the poet Morton Marcus wrote in his memoir, “Striking Through the Masks.”
In 1958 Mr. Hitchcock became an editor of The San Francisco Review, which had published his two-act play “Prometheus Found.” Soon after the review ceased publication in 1963, Kayak was born.
It made an immediate impact. Mr. Hitchcock had a strong personality, visual flair and keen eye for writing talent. The long list of poets and writers who found a home in his pages included W. S. Merwin, Anne Sexton, Robert Bly, Margaret Atwood and Hayden Carruth. Criticism, reviews, the occasional prose piece and Mr. Hitchcock’s collages rounded out the content.
Kayak enjoyed fights. It set up in opposition to revered publications like The Kenyon Review and The Hudson Review, and nourished a spirited contempt for what it saw as the overly intellectual poetry of writers like Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur.
Creatively frugal, Mr. Hitchcock acquired an offset press from the Pacific Steamship Line that had been used to print menus and learned to run it himself. He printed one issue on paper that the Army had rejected for target-practice use.
Kayak operated outside the world of foundation grants and government support, although the National Endowment for the Arts, unsolicited, gave the magazine two grants. Mr. Hitchcock used most of the money to publish books by Mr. Simic, Carver, Carruth and others. He used $500 to create a prize for the best poem about Che Guevara.
In 1970 Mr. Hitchcock moved the Kayak operation to Santa Cruz, Calif., where he had been hired to teach playwriting and poetry at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1984 he rang down the curtain, and Kayak ended its run after 64 issues.
“Any more, and it would risk seeming an institution,” Mr. Hitchcock said. “After that, ossification and rigor mortis.”
An early marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his longtime companion, Marjorie Simon; a sister, June Harman of St. Helena, Calif.; a son, Stephen, of Carbondale, Ill.; two grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
Mr. Hitchcock was rather cavalier about his creative brainchild and its influence. “In 1964 I found most American poetry magazines extraordinarily boring,” he told the magazine Caliban in 1986. “I thought that Kayak might relieve the tedium, c’est tout.”