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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

John Mella was in charge of the light verse brigade

Posted By on 06.13.12 at 06:16 AM

John Mella
  • John Mella
One of my favorite publishers died a few weeks ago. And the magazine he created in 1992 and managed to keep going ever since is now close to folding. Would that be for the best?

I speak of John Mella, founder and editor of Light: A Quarterly of Light Verse. Mella's quarterly gave light verse a place to stay after it had been run out of all the joints where it once held court—tony establishments like the New Yorker and ma-and-pa hangouts like the Saturday Evening Post. Mella knew why it happened. "I blame a whole generation or two of academics and the grist they produced—the cheerless, obscure, and finally forgettable muck that serves no other purpose except to oil the engines of their pointless professions," he once told me.

Supported by Mella's pension from his three decades with the Chicago Post Office, Light enjoyed a national circulation in the high three figures and the devotion of its contributors and subscribers. Its website asserted that it "discards what is obscure and dreary, and restores lightness, understandability, and pleasure to the reading of poems"—a worthy mission if ever there was one. But although light verse survived in Light, it didn't regenerate itself there. The populist insurrection that pried the fingers of the academics off the throat of poetry emerged from a much rougher neighborhood. "Poetry slams simulate Light Verse in their utter rejection of academic obscurantism," Mella allowed eight years ago in an e-mail. "The difference comes in the way each worships the Goddess Claritas. Light Verse does it through polished lenses, and through a kind of delicate approach that would be destroyed by the smoke, cymbals, war dances, of slams."

Name a chronic physical condition and Mella probably suffered from it. Yet last December he was still riding his bicycle through the streets of River Forest, where until recently he lived. His brothers and sisters pleaded with him to stop, for he couldn't pedal in a straight line—not surprising given his Parkinson's. He couldn’t stand up straight either, and a neurologist recommended surgery to alleviate the spinal compression that had him bent over and in constant pain. His friend Lisa Markwart says Mella never really recovered from the surgery in March, and he died April 16 in a north-side Chicago nursing home. He was 70.

"I really didn't think he was ready to die," says Markwart. "He had ideas for books and essays."

Light was his biggest idea and he willed it to survive. In 2007 a faithful reader and contributor, Joyce La Mers of Oxnard, California, made a gift to Light of $500,000. It was both a staggering amount and utterly insufficient to endow the magazine and put it permanently on its feet. La Mers wired the money to a Chicago investment house, and when the economy collapsed the bequest became $360,000, and then even less. Markwart, who was Mella's managing editor as well as executive director of the not-for-profit Foundation for Light Verse he established at La Mers's direction, says she's spent the money on small salaries and on holding "wordplay workshops"—"We go into libraries and schools and facilitate kids' playing word games for an hour and show them concepts like palindromes and anagrams."

About $75,000 is left, says Markwart. "A lot of people think it's a lot of money, but it's not that much for running a magazine." A spring-summer, 20th-anniversary double issue that says farewell to John Mella will be out soon, and there's talk of a DVD loaded with as much of the contents of Light's 20 years as the magazine can acquire reprint rights to. Readers and contributors have been asked to help find someone to take over Light, and the idea of Light continuing on strictly volunteer labor is being bruited about. But these initiatives sound pretty desultory. No future issues are being planned.

La Mers, who's 91, "wants to do everything she can to keep it going," says Markwart. "But she says she doesn't have a lot more money. Sad." Is it possible, I ask Markwart, that it would be best if Light simply died with Mella? "Sure," Markwart replies. "I remember talking to him about it myself. I remember saying that if the culture doesn't support it it's a natural thing for it to die out, and it doesn't seem like this country supports it enough. He agreed."

So the small world of light verse says good-bye to Mella and most likely to his magazine as well. The next issue of Light offers several tributes to its founder. One is by Bob McKenty, and it begins:

He left the Light on for us:
The Muse's Motel 6—
A refuge to restore us
Where wordsmiths turn their tricks;

A venue for the cranky;
A trysting place for lovers
Of verbal hanky panky
Indulged beneath its covers . . .

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