Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Hilda Raz: A Celebration

Exquisite Hilda by Ladette Randolph
From Prairie Schooner, Vol. 84, No. 3 (Fall 2010)

I recognize some people as much by their lexicon as any other aspect of their personality. Although there are many words distinct to Hilda, "exquisite" is the word I most closely associate with her. It's Hilda's expression of highest approval and the word that best describes Hilda herself. She's a writer of exquisite poetry, a woman of exquisite taste, an editor of exquisite sensibility, and a listener with exquisite insight. But I've degraded the word with overuse, and that's something Hilda would never do.

It seems like a long time ago that my friend Dana and I met with Hilda Raz, a necessary first step to being approved as volunteer readers for Prairie Schooner. Unsmiling, Hilda greeted us that day from behind her desk in Andrews Hall. Dana and I were both enthusiastic readers of contemporary fiction, eagerly discussing each week the new books we were reading, but we were so intimidated by Hilda that when, still unsmiling, she asked what we were currently reading, we froze. Neither of us could think of a single book we'd read. We stuttered and grasped for titles. We left her office feeling very silly, certain she had seen through to the imposters we were. Hilda has that effect on people.

Despite our childish behavior during the interview, Hilda must have seen something in us, for she gave us her approval to be readers. It was the first step in what would become my own career in publishing and the beginning of one of the most important mentoring relationships of my life.

As that early interview taught me, Hilda expects the best of herself and those around her, but she's also generous. When after a few years as a volunteer reader I was hired as managing editor for the magazine, I was brought fully into the fold of the Prairie Schooner family. Under Hilda's watchful eye, I learned the need to pay attention. I studied her responses to authors, watched how she conducted herself with faculty members in the department where we both worked, observed how carefully she prepared the magazine and her own manuscripts for publication, and how professionally she presented her work, both as an editor and as a poet. Over the years since, Hilda remains a trusted advisor and someone who has actively promoted my work and career.

She plays many roles, of course: writer, teacher, supporter of other writers on a national level, loyal friend, fierce mother, devoted grandmother, an editor who loves the work of others. In fact, that's her definition of an editor, "someone who loves the work of others." It's as good a definition as I've ever heard. She does nothing by half measures, and she has been as fierce in her watch over the magazine as she has been in choosing each word in her exquisite poems, understanding always she is part of a distinguished legacy. She set a high standard for what it means to edit a literary magazine.

With Hilda as only the fifth editor of Prairie Schooner, there seemed to be a direct line from its founding editor, Lowry Wimberly, to her. She spoke of the magazine's history with an impressive familiarity, telling often the story of the influence of "Wimberly's boys," a group of talented young writers (which included one woman, Mari Sandoz) whose success after graduation from the University of Nebraska and early publication in Prairie Schooner brought national attention to the magazine. Until then, it hadn't occurred to me that institutions could have histories as warmly human as any family history.

One of my favorite memories is of sitting in Hilda's office in the late afternoon—surrounded by the book-lined walls, the many paintings and odd little gifts she'd been given over the years, the well-used Rolodex on her desk, the overflowing file cabinets, the many photographs of the writers she's known over the years—as she is telling some story from the magazine's history. The stories she told weren't from a musty past; these were foundational stories, still meaningful, essential to the ongoing life and spirit of the magazine. What she hadn't experienced herself, she knew from her mentor, the first female editor of Prairie Schooner, Bernice Slote. She frequently quotes Bernice, and I often find myself quoting Hilda quoting Bernice. Prairie Schooner's rich history was always present, even as Hilda reinvented the magazine many times during the years of her editorship. She helped me understand the paradox of what is owed to a venerable institution: keeping it fresh while remaining loyal to the founding mission.

Among the many insights Hilda shared with me over the years, I am especially grateful for one. We were on an editorial panel together. In my introduction I had failed to mention my own work as a writer. She understood immediately what was going on, correcting the omission and saying to the audience, "editors who write suffer." I knew what she meant, but I hadn't realized until she said it this was perhaps a universal condition and not merely a personal failing. She knows this suffering well as an editor who writes. How I have depended on her instruction, wisdom, and advocacy through the years.

While working for the magazine, I finished my PhD, and as I struggled to complete my dissertation Hilda turned her intense scrutiny to my work. It was an epiphany for me. She saw through to the core of my stories in a way no one else had, grasping immediately what I and others had failed to see. I have never had a more insightful, laser-like mind attentive to my work. I don't use these modifiers lightly. Hers is a fine and focused intelligence. I've never encountered a better reader than Hilda.

Although it's almost impossible for me to imagine Prairie Schooner without Hilda, the magazine is much better for her attention. I know already that future editors will speak of her influence, just as she spoke of the influence of the editors who came before her. The truest test of her tenure is that the magazine is stronger at her leaving than it was upon her arrival. Three large endowments ensure its well-being into the future. Many prizes and accolades under her watch have kept Prairie Schooner among the country's leading magazines. The ongoing discovery of new talent and space for the risk-taking of established writers has kept its pages fresh. It's true, Hilda's day-to-day work for the magazine has ended, but her presence in the magazine's history will continue.

Most important, for all of us, her work will continue as a writer. That work will flourish. I look forward to seeing what she will have to tell us in the years to come as she continues her close scrutiny of the world, giving us, as she always has, the gift of the perfect, the exquisite detail.