A Windfall for Light Verse | Media | Chicago Reader

A Windfall for Light Verse 

Its years of genteel want were splendid / But no one at Light Quarterly is sorry they ended.

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Poet and patron Joyce La Mers
  • Terry Walsh
  • Poet and patron Joyce La Mers

Money changes everything even when it changes nothing. When there's money no challenge is too great. As the beast must have reminded himself showing the beauty around the castle, "Give Cupid his bow and his arrow! I've got a lot of dinero."

And speaking of light verse, it's amazing how little money finds its way into that industry. Labor of love is the technical term for the product. John Mella, a retired postal worker, began publishing the journal Light Quarterly in 1992, and it hasn't earned him a dime. "My subscribers are very faithful," Mella told me back in 2004, when I first looked in on his publication. "There are about 750 to 850 of them. That's not great, but not bad for a literary magazine with absolutely no funding but my retirement check."

Subscriptions brought in $8,000 to $9,000 a year, pleas for support another $8,000 to $9,000. And if the year ended with a deficit, which almost every year did, Mella made up the difference out of his pocket. He paid his managing editor, Lisa Markwart, as little as $75 a month. "That was part-time," says Markwart. "I did hundreds of other things. Piano lessons, lawn mowing—and my husband worked." She was a music student in the late 80s when she met Mella—through an ad in the Reader, Mella recalls. He would lay out his dream of publishing original light verse over beers at the Green Mill. "We dated for a little while and it didn't go anywhere," she says, "but I'd have to be crazy not to stay his friend."

In 2006 Mella's mother died, and he faced a harsh new set of financial circumstances—he'd lived with her in her Wilmette apartment for most of the life of the journal. Now he'd have to find his own place and pay rent on it. Not in the best of health himself, he began to talk about shutting the quarterly down. "People begged him not to," says Markwart.

Mella and his brother were cleaning out their mom's place when the phone rang. It was Joyce La Mers calling from Oxnard, California. La Mers had contributed three poems to the first issue and been a regular ever since. Now she offered him $15,000 to keep going. "Which was incredibly generous," says Mella. "We do a begging letter twice a year, but basically the high end was about a thousand dollars—which isn't to be sneezed at either."

Before long La Mers sent him another $10,000.

La Mers, 89, is a widow who lives with her cat. Herbert La Mers, her husband, was a businessman and inventor who came up with a process used to attach labels to fresh fruit in the supermarket. She's been publishing light verse since she was seven, when an aunt sent one of her poems to a church magazine. In the 50s she sold her verse to the "slick magazines"—the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Good Housekeeping—for $5 a line, "but then those markets all dried up." And it's a shame, she says. "Everybody likes light verse and enjoys reading it. If you go to a poetry reading, everybody's half asleep, but if it's a light verse they listen." I asked for a sample of her work and she said, "Here's one that's been quoted a lot lately, a two-liner I call 'Fleeting Thought for 6:30 AM': If I were dead / I could stay in bed."

And here's another I like: "My candle lies with both ends burned, / A pool of melted wax. / I should be dead by now. Instead, / I owe more income tax."

She tells me, "I think the salvation of the world lies in humor. Everybody is so tensed up lately."

In 2007 La Mers called Mella and pledged her third and final gift to Light Quarterly: half a million dollars.

"It's one of those things," says Mella, who sounds as if he still can't quite believe it. "Answered prayers, and all that stuff."

Yet not exactly. Reflect on half a million dollars, on what it is and isn't. In the short run, Mella could barely imagine so much money. In the long run it changed nothing but his sense of the possible. La Mers wired the amount directly to an investment house in the Rookery, the economy collapsed, and before long the nest egg was worth only $360,000. Markwart did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and concluded that to guarantee its existence in perpetuity, Light Verse needed to raise an endowment of about $6 million.

The ultimate effect of $500,000 on Mella's wispy operation was to make $6 million thinkable. He made various moves that would help him chase this kind of money. Complying with the terms of La Mers's gift, he secured not-for-profit status for Light Quarterly in 2008 ("The IRS put me through the agonies of hell," he says) and established the Foundation for Light Verse, an event he announced in a "begging letter" written in rhyme. It ended: "And we'll still print verse that's ineluctable / And all your donations will be tax deductible."

Last year Mella hired Markwart's husband, Tom Gorman, a graphic designer, as his operations manager, and he put Markwart in charge of—forgive the weary argot of our time—growing the brand. She has big plans and big motivation: "We both earn our living from Light Quarterly. And we don't have benefits, so we're hoping to expand Light Quarterly so we'll have benefits."

Markwart runs the journal out of Mella's new apartment in River Forest, which he chose to be close to her home in Oak Park. "She's the brains and talent behind the operation," says Mella. "Tom's the computer guy. She's the one who basically is moving Light Quarterly to a different level. She's good at this stuff though she's never done publicity in her life. She wants to get us into hospitals and set up workshops in grade schools."

"I'm kind of amateurish, but I'm giving it a shot," she demurs. "Our most urgent need for Light Quarterly is for more people to know we exist at all, and there are so many levels at which to increase awareness. One of the fun things is a lecture series to talk about light verse going back to the 14th century. Another thing Light Quarterly wants to do is help kids be educated about poetry a little, so we'll go to schools, talk to principals. I called up the school I went to as a kid in Oak Park and the principal was kind of lame about it and he said he'd pass my information over to a teacher and I never heard back."

Gorman created a handsome Web site and launched a Facebook page, and he also composed the foundation's new bumper sticker: LAUGH MORE. Markwart paid a visit to Oak-Leyden Developmental Services in Oak Part and organized a team of developmentally disabled residents that stuffs envelopes for mailings. "Astonishingly enough," says Mella, "they don't charge anything."

"Lisa dreams big," he says. "Some of her ideas sound pretty wacky, but she's basically what I need. I'm not very good at this. She compares Light Quarterly to the Paris Review. Their publisher for many years was Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan—he picked up the bills."

Markwart is drawing up a list of celebrities, Mella explains, because the quarterly, likewise, could use "a rich, literary, and generous patron of the arts. It's basically going back to the Renaissance model of the Borgias. Noble people—rather ruthless, of course."

Mella observes that "love goes out the window when money comes in the door" and adds, "Love hasn't really gone out the window yet, but there are disagreements with Lisa. Certain things." He thinks back on the day when there was no money and no expectation of money and tells me, "I don't recall it being this stressful.

"It's a different ballgame," he says. "Basically, even though my business capabilities are lousy, I have a fair sense of how things are doing. The magazine is doing better. I could take a walk now—which I don't intend to do—because I'm not needed."   

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