The first time I sat at Margarita’s desk was the first time I began to appreciate what a true force of nature she was. It was late summer, and while Margarita had ostensibly been retired for a year and a half, she was everywhere in the office she had run for 35 years. A true stereotype of a creative mind, she worked from piles, files organized by memory, and an incredible Rolodex in her head. Finding your way around the CALYX office meant you were, by default, entering the annals of the history of CALYX—a place and an idea inextricably linked with Margarita Donnelly.
CALYX Journal and its younger sister CALYX Books are, in their own way, an oxymoron. It was only after the brainstorming was done and the plans all agreed upon that someone mentioned that the poppy chosen for the design is one of the few flowers without a true calyx. Inconsistencies of iconography aside, CALYX to this day has remained true to the early editorial and activist vision: a place that protects and nurtures the ‘bud’ of women’s creative work, a collective model in an era when ‘thoughtfully considered’ has taken a back seat to speed, and a home for voices rarely heard above the din.
Margarita once told me that when CALYX was founded in 1976, she and the other founders thought they’d be around for 5 years or so. There was so much momentum and so much optimism in the women’s movement that they truly thought there would be no need for such a specialist press by the early 1980s. When she told me that story, 36 years later she was so obviously tickled by their youthful naiveté you almost missed the slightly rueful note in her voice as she recounted the years spent developing a myriad of talented women’s voices—years that eclipsed her own time for writing and creative work. As part of a program sponsored by the NEA in the early 90s, CALYX was given organizational structure and business advice consistent with its non-profit mission—Margarita cried the day they told her she would have to stop editing and focus full time on administration if CALYX was to survive. Teeth gritted, she knuckled down, but never stopped editing, and the next decade were the most lauded years of CALYX’s publishing: an American Book Award, a lambda shortlist, reviews in the Times, and movie deals (Into the Forest, starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood is due out this fall!). Accolades in place, CALYX hired more staff and published more books, but stayed grassroots in the truest sense—they believed in the words, the authors, and the power of women’s voices rather than market trends or clicks and ‘likes’.
At the last editorial meetings Margarita was able to attend, for an anthology book of CALYX’s 40-year history, she was much as I imagine she would have been at the first. Piles of books spilling across the table, handwritten (mostly decipherable) notes, a tendency to veer from decade to decade, story to story. She held us spellbound with her remarkable storytelling ability, whether it was the hysterical—being in the bathroom when they were trying to present her with the American Book Award, or the seemingly mundane—hauling 200 pounds of books up narrow European stairs to a book fair. Story flowed into story and suddenly any agenda we had paled in comparison to soaking up the wisdom and joy of her remarkable spirit. To this day we still haven’t covered everything on that agenda, but the editors at that meeting, many of them relatively new to CALYX, accomplished far more than the crossing off of line items that day; we all became a part of CALYX in an indefinable way.
Margarita took the best of her lineage and history, combining the Irish gift of storytelling—not to mention an appreciation of the tragi/comic—with a true passion for social justice born of a childhood in Venezuela, and brought them not just to CALYX but to her life and, by lucky extension, to the rest of us. Though behind the scenes she left her indelible mark on the feminist landscape, her remarkable legacy deserves a name and a face, an enduring story in the limelight. CALYX was one of a multitude of those small feminist presses that came out of its era, but, due largely in part to Margarita’s passion and grit, it is only one of a handful to survive with such continuity of mission and editorial strength. And now, as we are planning our 40th anniversary, I still feel honored every time I sit down because, wherever CALYX goes, it will always be Margarita’s desk.
Alicia Bublitz Director, CALYX Press