Joanne Randall: Remembrance and a Poem

Joanne Randall, a longtime friend of Ploughshares, passed away this February at 81 in Kansas City. Along with her husband, Emerson professor Jim Randall, Joanne was a full partner in Pym Randall Press, and helped create a community that includes many of Ploughshares‘ early contributors and guest editors. As Ploughshares founder DeWitt Henry writes, “For years, she and Jim turned their Cambridge apartment into a salon, which was where I first met her. Jim had agreed to edit Ploughshares 1/3, and I recall gathering there in the company of Paul Hannigan, Bill Corbett, Fanny Howe and some others, whose sense of cultural irony and aesthetics leaned heavily away from traditional poetry and fiction.”

Kim Dower, poet and author of Air Kissing on Mars, remembered some of those early meetings, and sent us a lovely poem about Joanne:

It was the early seventies and we were young poets and writers.  Many of us were new to Boston and college. We’d never sat around with adults and “real writers” talking about poetry. No one had ever asked us our opinions about literature until Dr. James Randall, head of the Creative Writing Department of Emerson college, and his wife, Joanne, opened up their apartment just outside of Harvard Square where books and ideas were all that seemed to matter and where, over the years, they created a community of friends, writers, and stories. Jim and Joanne’s living room was the place for writers and poets to gather and where students were nurtured encouraged, revered.

On any night they might be there — James Tate, Thomas Lux, Stratis Haviaris, Bill Knott, William Corbett, Russell Banks, Paul Hannigan, William Matthews, Anne Bernays, Justin Kaplan, Fanny Howe, Dewitt Henry, and so many others — all young, all at the very beginning of their careers. Those of us, like myself, who’d just entered this amazing world, would feel shy and simply unable to open our mouths, but Joanne would make it okay.  “Jim tells me you’re a really good poet,” was the first thing she ever said to me on my first night at their “salon,” and  “I love that coat you’re wearing.” I was 18 years old, a freshman in Tom Lux’s Introduction to Creative Writing class, and until that moment had never felt so good about myself. Always chic with her auburn hair cut stylishly short, long bangs dipping into her black lined Cleopatra eyes, and wrapped tight in her striped turtleneck, she smoked her cigarette with sexy intensity, and I can still remember her taking a drag that seemed to last a full minute.

Joanne was our hostess. She was Jim’s sidekick, caregiver, talented editor and designer of their Pym-Randall Press, brilliant reader, and mother to us all. By day we were students and learned in classrooms overlooking The Charles River, but in the evenings, anytime after 5pm, and on into those freezing Boston nights, our educations would continue and the real life dramas would unfold, as we squeezed together on couches and oversized chairs, drinking, chatting, and eating from the generous buffet that Joanne lovingly prepared — the meal we knew we’d get to enjoy  — often our first meal of the day — Joanne’s rare roast beef, (just like at a restaurant), her quirky salads (ahead of their time), her roasted vegetables (before people were roasting them).  Joanne, our mother away from home, had spent the day cooking — between reading books and manuscripts and writing her own secret novel that she kept stashed in a box up in the attic. The spread existed as if by magic, and somehow it would all be cleaned up by the end of the night.  When I think back now, all these years later, I feel terrible – how could we leave her with all that cooking and cleaning?  I don’t think I ever even saw their kitchen.

Joanne created the environment that helped Jim accomplish his dream and vision of developing a community of writers.  She made a point of knowing us, including us, asking us questions. We allowed her to intrude in our lives in a way our own mothers were never let in.  Joanne was the motor that kept the Randall machine running smoothly.  Or as smoothly as was possible.  She was Hepburn to Jim’s Tracy, Gracie Allen to his George Burns.  “Goodnight, Gracie,” Jim would say after one of her outlandish remarks and non sequiturs.

When Jim passed away, Joanne moved back to her hometown, Kansas City, but she always felt most comfortable in Cambridge, going to restaurants and movies with Jim, the two of them trying out the new flavors of coffee, visiting bookstores.  I imagine them now having a meal together in the Afterlife Diner where only the writers go, sharing a grilled cheese, Joanne worrying about the calories, and Jim telling her, “for God’s sake, Joanne, you can’t gain weight after you’re dead.” “Well, that’s true,” she’d probably say, “pass the fries.”


Joanne Is Least Quiet in the Morning

She speaks quickly, each thought
dodging the next.  Her laughter
flies out at me, annoys the cats

who watch her with spike like claws,
feathered ‘n furred, they like her better
quiet as does Jim,  but me, I listen.

I want her to talk, want her laughter
to travel as far as she wants, to all the places
she’ll never go, but her laughter’s not

in her eyes, eyes of drain soap as she floats
under.  Her skin is so white!
I love the way she holds her coffee cup,

pinky out, and I wonder if Joanne
really enjoys house work. She longs for
an oak hutch filled with secrets,

an extra closet, tiled bath, so I listen.
She tells me she’s not afraid of the hereafter,
UFOs do exist, that she can’t keep the couch

clean no matter how hard she . . .
that when Carrie was a kitten she’d never
hiss and certainly not like this, never at her,

that roast beef should be cooked at whatever,
and if only Jim would rinse out the tub
just once, though she does love washing

his hair in the sink, it’s so thick, her fingers
get buried, and now I’m uneasy.  Afraid
something will slip I don’t want to hear,

afraid of how much I don’t understand
about marriage, about love. Jim wishes
her clothes would fall off.  He wishes she’d sit

on wet paint.  Jim’s reading, and each time
I look over he’s reading something different.
Jim is most quiet in the morning.


Kim (Freilich) Dower grew up in New York on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and received a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College in Boston. Upon graduating, Kim stayed at Emerson where she taught Introduction to Creative Writing: Poetry for two years before moving to Los Angeles where she pursued other writing projects and began her own literary publicity company called Kim-from-L.A., the name for which she has become famous in the world of book publishing. A few years ago, “like magic, like a dream,” poetry re-entered her life and the poems have been rushing out as if a 25 year dam had broken, and she’s been writing three or more poems a week. Kim’s first collection of poetry, Air Kissing on Mars, was published by Red Hen Press in October of 2010.  Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, The Seneca Review, Rattle and in the on-line video magazine, Guerilla Reads. She lives with her family in West Hollywood, California.


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