Tendril: A Brief History

Mari Lonano | February 1984

Mari Lonano

"I eat, drink, and sleep Tendril. It's my life," says George Murphy over coffee in the AWP offices in Norfolk. Murphy is here to talk about Tendril, the magazine that has grown from the orange cardboard-covered thirty-page first issue (Winter 1977–1978) to the identifiable grey covered 208 page issue number 17 (Winter 1984). He started Tendril on a whim. Tired of the materialistic Christmases around him, he decided to print a small book of his poetry as a gift for his family. He discovered that it was fun arid fairly easy so he enlisted the help of five fellow teachers at the high school which employed him, and they started working on a small magazine of poetry "for what we might learn about writing (from the other side of the editor's desk)." The six people involved contributed one hundred dollars each, sent out notices for submissions, and with the use of the high school compositor, typeset the first issue of Tendril. Included were William Stafford, Marge Piercy, Don Johnson, and others who had never seen print before.

While his fellow teachers considered Tendril a "hobby," George started to think of it as a vocation. Over the six years of Tendril's existence, the magazine has gone from the small, orange cover to a consistent format including the Tendril logo, from a circulation of 300 to one of 1800, from a small magazine to one well recognized to the readers of literary magazines. And it is because of Murphy that it has grown to the extent that it has. Over the last few years the others involved in Tendril have chosen not to continue, for lack of time, and other reasons. They loved the magazine but didn't feel the need for expansion that Murphy did, so one by one they left the magazine to Murphy.

Does Tendril still stand by its dedication to publish unknown writers? Murphy says, "It is important to publish unknowns. Ninety percent of our magazine is unsolicited manuscripts. We are proud and happy to publish unknowns. It's a joy! They're so tickled!" There is no doubt that Tendril is Murphy's magazine. He's "crazy" for it to work.

Murphy, dressed for the Norfolk heat in blue jeans and a t-shirt, looks the young entrepreneur, a title he is not too comfortable with for fear people will think him a "huckster." While he says, "we are real proud of the fact that every issue we have published includes the work of unknowns," he is also a businessman and admits that "known writers sell the magazine because people buy what they know." He also believes that the physical quality of the magazine is an important aspect of selling it to the public in a world inundated with small magazines and journals. Tendril is now published three times a year, and has added Wampeter Press to its list of accomplishments. Murphy says that Tendril has grown to a point where "it is us and Ploughshares, and all the rest."

In addition to the 17 issues of Tendril, Murphy's Wampeter Press has also published Matters of Life and Death, a contemporary anthology of short fiction edited by Tobias Wolff, and The Poet's Choice: 100 American Poets' Favorite Poems, which is also a contemporary anthology. He does not stop there, though, there will be another special issue called Poetics, due out this spring, a second Poet's Choice, and individual books to be published by Wampeter.

Tendril has an impressive list of contributing editors, including Raymond Carver, William Matthews, and Lisel Mueller. When asked just what do these people do, Murphy replied that they scouted the field for him. "They are all out there in writing programs, teaching writing, seeing new writers every day." Occasionally they send him the work of their students or recommend that students send their work to Tendril. Does he automatically accept something that is recommended by a contributing editor? "No, only if I like it. Because it is my magazine, I publish what I think is good and good for Tendril." Murphy likes to take risks, believing in "the risk of the gamble." So far his instincts have paid off. Tendril is firmly settled in the literary market place. His press will have "forty-six books, ostensibly, that I've published in five years. That ain't bad for a one man operation."

As for his own work, Murphy has a little time for it. He has worked at least one full-time job along with managing Tendril and the Press. Afraid of being accused of backscratching, he sends his own work out seldom, and then only to people he trusts will look at the work alone, not the name behind the work. Instead, he feels, "Each issue of Tendril is a poem I wrote. I made it, it feels good and it looks good."

When asked about plans for the magazine, there are many. The future promises grants from the NEA, IBM, CCLM, and other funding organizations. He is currently working on an agreement between Bread Loaf, Middlebury College, and Tendril, to offer month-long fellowships for writers, perhaps limiting it to writers published in Tendril. He is constantly searching for funding for the magazine and the press, and has no qualms about investigating corporate funding. He believes that if the magazine is going to continue to succeed, it is going to have to sell. He pays himself no salary, has no help other than his wife who does all the typesetting, and hopes someday to make Tendril his only occupation.

Tendril receives from "10 to 20 thousand submissions a year." And Murphy is the final voice on what goes in the magazine. He says, "I get tremendous satisfaction from publishing Tendril, I believe I am helping writers get published, and that makes it all worthwhile."

While Tendril started as a poetry magazine, with the 16th issue Murphy added fiction, because as he says, "It seemed like a good idea, and then it seemed inevitable." Poetry, however, is still the magazine's mainstay, and in the spring Tendril will carry the winners of the AWP Anniversary Awards in Poetry.



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