Interview with Kaleidoscope Editor Gail Willmott

WG: We first interviewed you back in 2008 when Wordgathering was a new journal and Kaleidoscope was one of the handful of journals publishing disability-related literary work. It is hard to believe that almost nine years has passed since that time and that you are now in the process of stepping down as Kaleidoscope’s managing editor. What brought about your decision to retire from the journal?

GW: I joined the staff of Kaleidoscope in May 1982 as an editorial assistant, then in 1986, beginning with Issue 12, I was appointed senior editor under Darshan Perusek who had recently taken a position as Kaleidoscope’s editor-in-chief. When Darshan left in July 2003 I was asked to assume the position she held. I did so with considerable trepidation. Would I be able to maintain the excellence of Kaleidoscope holding to the standards that had already been achieved?

I have loved this work for 35 years – working with talented and supportive colleagues and having the opportunity to, however briefly, enter into the lives of many exceptional writers and artists through their work. However, I feel strongly that the time has come for someone else (yet to be found) to take over the editorial leadership of Kaleidoscope and make it their own, in concert with the mission and vision of our sponsoring agency, United Disability Services.

Truthfully, my energy level, physically and mentally, is waning, like it or not and I am getting tired. While I will miss the interactions with contributors and the other staff who help create the miracle of Kaleidoscope every six months, I will not miss the weight and responsibility of editing Kaleidoscope. I plan to retire at the end of August 2018 by which time I will have entered my seventh decade. It is time for a new chapter in my life.

WG: Gail, thirty-five years is quite a run in any job, but it is especially true in the case of producing a journal. You are in the unique position of having been in on the ground floor of the first disability literary journal in the country. Can you talk about some of the changes you have seen over the years? What are your thoughts about what the future holds for the direction that journals like Kaleidoscope might take?

GW: In one sense Kaleidoscope began as a happy accident. If it wasn’t for the desire on the part of the agency’s academic enrichment specialist to create an outlet for adult clients to express themselves, telling their stories through writing and art, there would be no Kaleidoscope today. Beginning with the fifth issue of the magazine, a decision was made to begin reaching beyond the confines of the agency’s program. In those early issues we were fortunate to be able to publish the poetry of Larry Eigner and Vassar Miller who wrote powerfully and without apology about living with a disability. Truth be told, becoming acquainted with their work allowed me to think about my own experience in living with cerebral palsy in a much deeper way. It was very empowering. As we put out calls for submissions for Kaleidoscope, more and more incredible work came to us in the form of prose, poetry and visual arts. Sifting through material looking for the very best has been difficult for me because in the back of my mind I’m always thinking about the amount of effort that the writer or artist put into telling his or her story. However over the years, there have been those magic moments when I read an essay or a piece of fiction or view works of art and I know immediately that we must publish that work.

As to changes that I have seen over the years, Kaleidoscope itself has grown. In the early days, we generally published pieces that concentrated on overcoming disability. Society still prefers "hero" stories. Perhaps that is because those stories tend to make the average non-disabled individual feel more comfortable. Over the years, we have broadened our choices of submissions to include works which emphasize both the positive and negative realities of living with a disability, as seen in the unflinchingly powerful works of Andre Dubus, Reynolds Price and Lucy Grealy, for example. We have come a long way in telling the stories of living with disability but we still have a long way to go. I believe the current expression is "keeping it real" –that is exactly what writers and editors working in the field of disability studies must do. We have an obligation to choose work that reveals the complexity of living with a disability, while at the same time actively challenging incorrect and inappropriate assumptions. In this way, our journals provide readers with new insights in different ways of viewing the experience of disability. Hopefully readers will turn away from thoughts like, " I could never live like that," or "Thank God I am not you."

Ultimately we want to arrive at a place where disability does not represent "otherness," but just a variation of the human experience. In seeing a whole person, there is a realization that those with and without disabilities have similar needs and aspirations. Differences become less important with the understanding that disability is just one aspect of a person’s life and identity. Also for many of us, there is no need for a cure–no need to be "fixed," or rehabilitated. We are who we are. When we peel away all the superficial layers, we are surely more alike than different.

WG: As those of us at Wordgathering know, even a journal of modest size depends upon more just than one person – the editor – to be able make each issue a reality. Who are some of the other members of your staff that are essential to getting Kaleidoscope out and what are some of the ways as individuals they have impacted or left their imprint on the journal?

GW: You are absolutely right – producing a journal is definitely not a one-person enterprise. I am extremely fortunate to work with some outstanding people, who in addition to their full-time responsibilities with United Disability Services, are dedicated to making each issue of Kaleidoscope the best it can be. I also am supported by four very generous volunteers who work directly with me to accomplish much of the work such as correspondence with contributors and editing tasks.

Lisa Armstrong, is now the director of communication for United Disability Services. As managing editor of Kaleidoscope, she has been responsible for the layout of the magazine for the last 21 years. She is the one who makes everything gathered for the pages of Kaleidoscope look so visually appealing, drawing readers into the magazine. (I am always encouraging or pestering Lisa, depending on one’s point of view, to use her "magic" to make space for as much material as possible in each issue.)

Sandy Palmer, who is the full-time graphic design specialist for UDS, is also Kaleidoscope’s amazing art coordinator. She scours the internet searching for incredibly talented artists for whom disability is also a part of their lives. Sandy is a magnificent storyteller, weaving together something of each artist’s personal story along with explanations of artistic techniques. When you finish reading one of Sandy’s artist profiles, you come away knowing something of what drives the artist to create their amazing work.

We have an excellent support person in Reneé Pieronek, who when crunch time hits, does clerical tasks such as sending out biographical requests and contracts to contributors for the current issue. She also makes many of the editorial changes resulting from the proofing process on final manuscripts.

I addition to the excellent group of people that I am currently working with, there are two particular past staff members who had a major effect on the development of Kaleidoscope. Darshan Perusek, was our editor-in-chief from 1986 through 2003. Her knowledge of literature and her passion for the mission of Kaleidoscope lead to raising the standards for material to be included in the magazine. She always encouraged us to look farther and wider in our search for intriguing writers, and their stories. She insisted on the prompt publication of two issues a year (January and July) and was instrumental in bringing about a consistent look for the magazine. Darshan now holds the title of editor-in-chief emeritus.

After her retirement, Phyllis Boerner was given the title of honorary editor of Kaleidoscope. Her editorial skills are excellent–she saved me from myself innumerable times. Phyllis always said that she wished she had more time to invest in the magazine, but her responsibilities as community relations director took precedence. As the supervisor of Kaleidoscope, Phyllis did insist on excellence–even perfection. She was determined that every aspect of the magazine reflected the highest professional standards. As an example, I wanted to use Mark Twain’s "The War Prayer," as the introduction to our issue focusing on war. This particular piece can be found everywhere–it is all over the internet, but without any proper attribution or publication credit. The temptation to simply lift it from the internet was great, but Phyllis rejected that choice as being unprofessional. There would be no shortcuts as far as she was concerned. Obtaining the correct copyright information involved a protracted search at which she was eventually successful.

When I inherited the editorship of Kaleidoscope from Darshan Perusek in July of 2003, it was with considerable trepidation. Could I really fill those shoes and maintain the excellent standards the magazine had attained? Phyllis was a wonderful mentor, offering large doses of encouragement and sometimes caution, reminding me that I did not have to fill Darshan’s shoes. Instead, I needed to discover how to make Kaleidoscope my own. And this is what I truly wish for the next editor of Kaleidoscope whomever that may be.

Our two reviewers provide yet another set of eyes. Sandra Lindow from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, who assists in reviewing poetry and Mark Decker from Bloomsberg University, Pennsylvania, who helps with reviewing fiction. Their feedback has been invaluable and occasionally saved me from myself.

WG: Most people who know about Kaleidoscope are aware that your journal was in the forefront of publishing the literary work of writers like Larry Eigner, Nancy Mairs, and Irving Zola. in fact, as you know, at this year’s AWP conference a panel was dedicated to readings of the authors Kaleidoscope has published over the years. What people may not know is the extent to which Kaleidoscope has featured and supported visual artists – with much credit, as you pointed out, going to Sandy Palmer. Can you talk just a bit about the disabled artists that the journal has featured?

GW: We at Kaleidoscope have had the privilege of publishing the work of some wonderfully talented and intriguing visual artists. While we accept writing from those without disabilities who have a strong connection to issues surrounding disability, all of our visual artists do have some form of disability.

When Darshan Peruseck first became our editor, we published an interesting selection of well-known artists such as Monet, Matisse, Mary Cassat, Frieda Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, Paul Klee, and Charles Wildbank. We soon learned that the cost of securing permission and reproducing their art exceeded our staff time and budget limitations.

So we began searching for other established, but less well known artists. For a long time, we were very dependent on referrals from the national office of Very Special Arts, now known as VSA. One of the first people whose art we received was that of sculptor Michael Naranjo early in his career. Naranjo lost his sight and the use of one arm and hand as a result of being wounded in Vietnam. (With my first look at his incredible sculptures, I knew we had to publish his work and tell his story through an interview.) Today he is an internationally recognized sculptor of work relating to Native Americans and he refuses to show his work in galleries that will not permit patrons to touch his sculptures. Other artists that we published at that time included Joni Eareckson Tada, Western theme artists Clayton Turner and Paul Schlueter, David Sampson (drawings of human figures), Paul Andrew Bean (environmental paintings inspired by Rousseau) and Riua Akinshegun (African American themed art).

With the addition of Sandy Palmer to our staff as art coordinator, she began to look for artists through internet research and she, because of her own background in art, was given the responsibility of writing artists’ profiles. Some of her favorites include Garry Curry, Alistair Green (Canadian sculptors), Tommy Hollenstein (paints using his wheelchair tires), Christopher Voelker (Hollywood photographer), Julie Cohn (painter), Mariam Paré (mouth painter), Doug Landis (endangered species series, drawn and painted by mouth), Kevin White (digital, computer artist) and John Bramblitt (paints uses his sense of touch).

Over the course of 35 years, Kaleidoscope has published the work of over seventy artists. The majority of these artists acquired their disabilities later in life as the result of trauma or injury (car and motorbike accidents, diving, gunshot wounds, medical accidents). Disabilities include paraplegia and quadriplegia, blindness, polio, cerebral palsy and deafness. We have tried to show readers that having a disability does not limit artistic expression. For the artists we have published, art has subordinated and transcended disability.

WG: Gail it has been a privilege to interview about your work with what is widely acknowledged to be the pioneer journal for disability literature. We at Wordgathering want to wish you the best in your retirement from Kaleidoscope and good luck in all your future plans. Before ending, is there anything else that you would like to add?

GW: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about the evolution of Kaleidoscope and for all your good wishes. It has been a privilege to be a part of Kaleidoscope for these years with one more to go. I would also like thank everyone who has been a part of Kaleidoscope, the former editors and supervisors, each of whom put their stamp on the magazine, as well as staff and volunteers who worked so diligently on each issue and of course, all writers and artists, without whom there would be no Kaleidoscope.