The walls of Margaret Randall’s tiny Nob Hill house document a life spent breaking and living beyond borderlines.
Photographs she took in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua hang near portraits of Randall by the abstract expressionist Elaine De Kooning. Her bookshelves groan with titles on Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and Spanish verbs.
A poster from a San Francisco reading looms over her office across from a photograph of a female Sandinista soldier, pen and emery board peeking from her pocket as a gun pierces the sky behind her back.
Stacks of the small poetry magazine Randall edited sit on the coffee table. Their contents include works by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the surrealist André Breton, Charles Bukowski, Hermann Hesse, Octavio Paz, Robert Nichols and poetry by the painters Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Klee, Francis Picabia, Jean Arp, Oskar Kokoshka and Salvador Dali, as well as the architect Buckminster Fuller.
The Albuquerque poet was the founding filament of the influential Mexico City-based bilingual quarterly El Corno Emplumado, or The Plumed Horn. Launched in 1962 with her second husband and poet Sergio Mondragon, it provided a forum for vanguard writers and artists.
SITE Santa Fe has dedicated an installation to Randall in its current biennial “SITElines. 2016: New Perspectives on Art from the Americas,” on view through Jan. 8, 2017.
The Plumed Horn was on the cutting edge of independent publishing. The bilingual quarterly, which ran from 100 to almost 300 pages per issue, published some of the best new work to come out of Latin and North America – with occasional sections from Canada, Finland, France and other countries. Its 3,000 copies were distributed worldwide. The name referenced both an Aztec god and jazz, the rhythm of its time.
Born in New York, Randall moved to Albuquerque with her parents when she was 10. Her cellist father taught in the schools. Her mother had been a sculptor until she took Spanish at the University of New Mexico and became a translator.
Randall remembers her father coming home from work and plopping into his lap in front of a large book.
“From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a writer,” she said.
A reading of Ginsberg’s iconic poem “Howl” at a party in the East Mountains jolted her into poetry.
“I think it was the hypocrisy, the stagnation of U.S. society,” she said. “There was such a double standard for girls and boys. We weren’t even expected to take math and science — only boys. Ginsberg’s poem helped me articulate that.”
A journey started
After her first semester of college, she took off to Spain with a boyfriend, studied the language, got married, then returned to New York because she thought it was where all writers lived. Soon divorced, she waited tables and worked in a feather factory for women’s hats, then had a baby out of wedlock. Then she hopped onto a bus to Mexico City, where she translated comic books and penned dance and music reviews.
“I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I had the sense that Mexico was a kinder place than New York.”
She met Mondragon at a poetry salon, where the idea for a magazine gestated. North America knew nothing about Neruda; South America knew nothing of Ezra Pound.
“We needed a vehicle for translation,” she said.
She was just 24. They had no money. But the secretary of state, himself a poet, donated 1,000 pesos, an astounding amount at the time. Then the Mexican government kicked in some cash.
“We were always worried,” Randall said. “But it worked. We had a few ads from publishing houses.”
The first issue featured a drawing by De Kooning, a piece by the well-known French anthropologist Laurette Sejourne and a work by the surrealist English painter Leonora Carrington. Soon the editors were fielding 30 submissions per month. Randall rejected 75 percent of them.
The former Cassius Clay submitted some haikus about the Vietnam War.
“I rejected them, for which I am forever ashamed,” she said.
“Norman Mailer, whom I knew, sent me some poems I didn’t like,” she added. “He was very gracious about it. He sent me $5. He was a sweetheart, despite his fame.”
In 1967, Randall applied for Mexican citizenship to be eligible for a better job. The U.S. Consulate refused to grant her dual citizenship, so she renounced her American passport.
Student unrest, along with the magazine’s support of the protesters, unraveled it all. The young were rallying for university autonomy and for the rights of the electricians’ and farmers’ unions. Mexico City was readying for the 1968 Olympics, and government officials bore no patience for disruptions.
In 1968, paramilitary troops began shooting at a peaceful protest. For years, the Mexican government maintained that 26 died; later revising the body count to 300. Randall maintains it was more than 1,000.
“People just disappeared,” she said.
El Corno soon lost its government subsidies. Randall divorced her husband and fled to Cuba with her new lover, Robert Cohen and four children. She had visited the island as a writer.
“To me, it was very exciting what was happening in Cuba,” she said. “I had never been to a socialist country.”
She stayed 11 years.
“I loved it,” Randall said. “It was an absolutely wonderful place to raise children. I feel that Fidel (Castro) at that time was an extraordinary leader.
“There was some support of writers; there was so much support from the government,” she said. “Writers were paid to be writers. Artists were paid to be artists. My kids could play in the streets. There was universal health care.”
She wrote about Cuban women.
But by the 1980s, the Castro government began suppressing homosexuals and anyone else who didn’t adhere to the party line. Randall lost her job at a publishing house. Her friend the poet Ernesto Cardinale had become the first minister of culture under Nicaragua’s Sandinista government; he invited Randall to write about women involved in the struggle. She produced books about feminism in Nicaragua and documented the testimonies of women involved in the struggle.
Randall left after four years with the rise of the U.S.-backed Contras. Years of constant war eventually left 50,000 Nicaraguans dead.
“I was exhausted,” she said. “My parents were getting elderly.”
She returned to New Mexico in 1984 on a tourist visa, planning to apply for a green card.
“They called me down to the federal building,” she said. “They had seven of my books opened to different passages marked yellow with magic marker.”
The denial was based on a 1952 law called the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, sprung from the vestiges of McCarthyism.
“I didn’t really give up my citizenship,” she maintains. “It was taken from me. I wasn’t a communist and I wasn’t a member of any communist party.”
She regained her citizenship in 1989 – five years later, with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a group of well-known friends and acquaintances that included the writers Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, Arthur Miller and Alice Walker.
Today she still works 18-hour days, rising at 3 a.m., her favorite hour because of the silence. She lives with her partner and wife, Barbara Byers, a painter. She turns 80 in December.