Rod Clark ’71: Literature in Bloom

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As the editor of the literary magazine Rosebud, Rod Clark has published nearly 50 issues, despite the lack of a parent foundation or university to provide funding. Photo: Andy Manis.

As the editor of the literary magazine Rosebud, Rod Clark has published nearly 50 issues, despite the lack of a parent foundation or university to provide funding. Photo: Andy Manis.

Love of literature and disdain for most literary journals propelled Roderick (John) Clark ’71, a graduate in English and philosophy, to nurture an unconventional magazine called Rosebud. The experiment has lasted seventeen years and is still going strong.

After graduating from the Writers’ Workshop at San Francisco State University in 1975, Clark worked in the Madison area as a magazine writer and editor. He also wrote and directed experimental theater. One of his actors was ad man, writer, and poet John Lehman.

One day Lehman complained that his writing students had no place to publish. He broached the idea of a literary magazine. “And you have a half-million dollars?” Clark recalls asking. No, said Lehman, but surely they could do it. Says Clark, “It was as if someone had asked you to invent an antigravity machine.”

Nonetheless, they began brainstorming. “We started out talking about what we hated about most literary journals,” Clark recalls. “There was the stuffiness. There was the preoccupation with taking themselves too seriously. We wanted something that would be intelligent but not stiff. … We wanted to create a new kind of magazine that would appeal to readers as well as writers.”

Launched in 1993, the magazine (www.rsbd.net) was named with the mysterious word in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane. “The name suggests both innocence and worldliness,” says Clark, who took over nine years ago as Lehman moved on to other projects.

Rosebud always leads with Clark’s column and ends with a cartoon. In between are poems, stories, and essays arranged, as Clark says, by “tonal groups” that share a theme or more nebulous quality. Most Rosebud writers are relatively unknown, but the magazine has published pieces by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Alice Walker, Norman Mailer, and other literary lights. The publication is “beautifully edited and designed,” says Ron Wallace, a poet and a UW-Madison professor of English. “I think it’s a terrific magazine, one of the best around.”

Among Rosebud’s hallmarks is a blurb accompanying each story or poem describing the origin of the piece or the author’s intention for it — “like a window into the interior landscape of the writer,” says Wisconsin poet Shoshauna Shy, whose work has appeared in the magazine. “I am always interested in the ‘backstory’ behind inspiration.”

Rosebud has been a shoestring operation since its inception. The nonprofit manages to break even through lots of poorly paid labor by Clark and art director Parnell Nelson, and by accepting donations. Clark must wait for the income from previous issues before he can print the next one, but despite the challenges, he manages to send four thousand copies of the triannual publication to eight hundred subscribers and nine hundred stores in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Clark has retired from other “magazinery” but continues to produce Rosebud from his one-hundred-twenty-year-old farmhouse near Rockdale, east of Madison. In the spring, he’ll publish his fiftieth issue.

“I get to sit out here and be a rural hermit, and at the same time have a connection with a much larger world,” he says. “That’s a lot of fun.”

Published in the Winter 2010 issue

Tags: Alumni, Humanities, poets

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