On the State of Poetry Publishing in the New Millennium:
A Roundtable by Free Verse
In the English-speaking world at least, publishing single-author poetry collections remains a challenging enterprise—whether the challenge is a matter of finding funds to support book publication or locating the audience to support a given poet. At the same time, there are multiple new technologies for reading poetry and for publishing it—online journals and blogs, digital publishing, e-books, free downloadable books, and so on. All of these modes of publication co-exist with the once-dominant mode of offset publishing and the older technologies of printing. At a moment in the history of literary publishing that is both vexed and promising, I thought it would be interesting for Free Verse to offer a roundtable-style discussion on the state of publishing poetry in the new millennium. In order to give a cross-section of what is happening in the world of poetry, I have brought together a diverse array of presses so as to represent the different modes of literary production taking place at the moment. These interviews—discussions really—were conducted via email during the spring and early summer of 2010. My thanks to the editors below for generously making their time available to me. I have presented the editors in alphabetical order.
Interviewer: Jon Thompson, Editor, Free Verse and Free Verse Editions
Tony Frazer, Editor, Shearsman Magazine and Shearsman Books ( U.K.)
Anna Moschovakis, Editor, Ugly Duckling Presse
Randolph Petilos, Managing Editor, Phoenix Poets series, University of Chicago Press
Michael Wiegers, Editor, Copper Canyon Press
Tony Frazer, Editor
Tony Frazer edits Shearsman magazine and is publisher of Shearsman Books, a press devoted mainly to poetry, and based in Exeter, England. More information is available at www.shearsman.com.
Jon Thompson: Could you describe the literary orientation of Shearsman Books? It appears to have a particular orientation, but then your list also seems more open than some presses I can think of that inhabit a certain zone on the literary spectrum.
Tony Frazer: The question of where Shearsman sits on the literary spectrum is a vexed one. My basic interests have always been lain with what might be easily termed the “New Americans” (with a nod to Donald Allen), or, rather, with them and with their British, Irish and Australian equivalents. Things are then complicated considerably by the fact that I like a lot of Ted Hughes (well, up until Moortown Diary, anyway), Geoffrey Hill, Christopher Middleton and some other poets who might be described as “high literary” writers, if one had to select a pungent epithet. Looking back at my student days, when all this was new, names such as Williams, Dorn, Snyder, Niedecker, Oppen, Eigner and O’Hara were very, very important to me. Over here, Roy Fisher, Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood. Matters are further complicated by the fact that I read quite a lot of non-anglophone work, and I find that my world-view is considerably altered by the fact that I read in German and in Spanish, in particular. Paul Celan may well be more important to me than any anglophone poet of the 20th century; Huidobro and Vallejo mean as much to me as Eliot and Pound, and they do not lose by the comparison. You’ll note that I’ve mentioned only one woman poet so far: for years Niedecker was the only one that really had an impact on me. Things changed later and most of my favourite living Hispanic writers are women.
I think I was a hard-core pro-Avant reader for a very long time, until I began to realise that I was being too blinkered, and was losing out on a lot of good work being written by people who were supposedly “mainstream”, but did not actually fit that uncomfortable grab-bag definition. There are quite a few poets over here whose work I admire and who would be looked at askance by my more committed avant friends. I see no reason to apologise for liking a wide range of work and I’ve been encouraged by developments in some quarters, on both sides of the Atlantic, which suggest that the divide between “mainstream” and “experimental” (or whatever it’s called) is eroding, or at least becoming less of an unbreachable gulf. The fact is, there is rubbish on both sides of the divide, and there is also good work on both sides. I like more things on one side, but try not to be blind to the other. I don’t expect Bernstein and Schnackenberg to start having long heart-to-hearts, but there’s nothing wrong with having opposing poles: there’s a whole universe between them, and some parts of that universe are interesting. Finally, I’m a very awkward cuss. When someone tells me that I can’t read something because it’s unacceptable, my hackles rise. I’ll check it out for myself; sometimes they’re right of course, but sometimes they’re just blinded by preconceptions and the fog surrounding their own literary politics.
JT: Yes, I see an eclectic cosmopolitanism—a winning unpredictability—in your poetry list. It sounds like your list is driven by your own interests rather than by any other considerations. Has this had the effect of attracting more readers, or at least a more diverse readership, to the books Shearsman publishes?
TF: I think your summation is probably about right, and the reason why it might look odd is that, despite some appearances to the contrary, this is still a small press driven by one person’s sensibility, as distinct from a publisher trying to make it as a business in the big bad world. I’d like to grow the press to a higher sales level, partly because this would further underpin its ability to survive, but I’m not going to publish things I don’t like and nor am I going to publish things just because they might sell, in defiance of what I regard as intrinsic quality. I should add that I take the business side of the operation very seriously, and one aspect of that seriousness is that I know what has to happen in order to, say, double current sales — I would need staff, and current costs would more than double. I’m not convinced that the gamble would be worth it. In fact I know it wouldn’t be, and I see no reason to jeopardise a good smaller operation by trying to grow it into something that is probably unsustainable without some kind of external funding. I dislike Arts Council funding (the only really viable option over here) because I believe that being in hock to such a body — which does good work, by and large — would inevitably mean that the press would collapse at some point in the future if the funding were withdrawn. Some US presses and magazines in the past have managed to move into academia (I’m thinking of Sulfur, and, more recently, Fence), but that could never happen here, where the universities are mostly strapped for cash, and, in my experience, operate under the not-invented-here syndrome.
So, although I expect to bring in some people to assist in the next, say, 2-3 years, and perhaps get an intern or two, that will be the limit of the physical expansion, and costs will be held down as firmly as possible. The corollary is that sales might not grow quite as quickly as they otherwise might, but I’d like this press to exist in 10 years time, and I rather suspect that overly rapid growth is not the way to ensure that. 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the first issue of Shearsman magazine…. I’d like to see it hit 40, or at the very least 100 issues.
JT: The economics of publishing poetry is a question that I’d like to touch on. The threat of jeopardy seems to be an inescapable part of it. My experience as editor of Free Verse Editions suggests that selling five hundred copies of a book of poems is a very respectable publication record—so consequently, publishing poetry is a very low profit enterprise. Given that, the way that poetry collections often get published is through the effective subsidizing of a poetry series by integrating it with a larger, more profitable publishing enterprise or by integrating a press or poetry series with an academic institution (Fence) or foundation.
Yet Shearsman Books seems to have worked out a viable model that can work within these constraints—and without external support. If I could summarize it quickly, Shearsman seems to be taking advantage of advances in digital publishing (small batch publishing of paperback editions with the ability to print more copies as needed) using the “long tail” business model (publishing limited numbers of books annually but accumulating these publication numbers over a long number of years). On this side of the Atlantic, literary publishing by independent and small presses is largely publishing books using this new technology rather than relying on the traditional and expensive “off-set model” (publishing a big batch of books in the hope of recouping the costs of publication down the line). Using the marriage of computer technology with publishing appears to be the only way now to make publishing books with “niche” markets viable. I’ve also noticed in the past few years that an increasing number of distinguished university presses in the U.S. are making their backlists available now through digital publishing and indeed, most have abandoned the off-set model altogether and are using the “short run digital publishing” (SRDP) model I mentioned earlier. The Association of American University Presses just released a 2009-2010 survey of member presses called “Digital Publishing in the AAUP Community” that reported that 91.5% of member presses now have backlist SRDP/POD programs and 69.5% have front-list SRDPD/POD programs. Given that books published using SRDP are physically virtually indistinguishable from books produced via offset printing, and that these books can remain in print as long as there is digital technology, it appears that, despite everything, there are also some encouraging developments and promising possibilities in publishing when it comes to poetry.
TF: I’d agree that 500 is a good total, and in the British market, which is about one-fifth the size of the US market, I’d be content with 200-250. With such tiny sales, the key however is to keep a hammer-lock on costs. I’ve eliminated just about every unnecessary cost I can find — the sole extravagance is running a reading series in London to give launch platforms to a number of Shearsman authors. I used to advertise, but found that it had no impact on sales. In fact, when I cut advertising completely, sales went up by 25%. This suggests that the only kind of marketing that works is the targeted variety. Reviews generate very little sales, although a generous notice in the TLS will have an impact that is immediately noticeable. The same holds for Ron Silliman’s blog. I digress….
Shearsman uses a mix of SRDP and POD, with the latter more prominent in the US market, where I’ve developed a good list of (mostly) new authors. The traditional offset model just does not work if you can’t sell about 750 copies, and, even then, sell those 750 quickly — within, say, 12 months. The aspect that most people miss is the cashflow-impact of the large upfront print-runs, followed by slow trickle sales. That fact is that we tend to need a bunch of copies initially, and then there’s a kind of dead zone in which nothing much happens. After that sales pick up (hopefully), and then they die away again. So, if one bets the inventory levels right, the press maximises its cashflow. And it’s negative cashflow that kills off most companies. I’m also watching the development of e-books with some interest, but the readers I’ve seen so far aren’t flexible enough for anything but pain-vanilla left-adjusted short-line verse. For prose they seem ok to me, and I can see enormous advantages for textbooks and anthologies, where one might not want the entire book.
The one thing I have not mentioned in terms of the costs is that I don’t charge for my own time; thus there is effectively one full-time employee on zero salary. I see this becoming more sensible in the next 2-3 years, and my personal input reducing somewhat.
JT: Shearsman is clearly committed to publishing poetry in translation. I know that you’ve lived in a number of different places in the world: did this experience spur your interest in poetry written in other languages or does your interest in this poetry predate these experiences? I’m also curious as to how the poetry in translation sells—about the same as English-language poetry? More? Less?
TF: My interest in non-anglophone poetry goes a way back. I did French and German at school, read classics then in each language, albeit with more success in German. The first book of poems that made me really sit up was the Penguin Modern European Poets volume called Four Greek Poets (the 4 were Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis and Gatsos); shortly thereafter I found myself utterly captivated by Paul Celan and Yves Bonnefoy, both newly paperbacked here, ca. 1970. I was interested in Russian verse, when studying the language, but my language skills there didn’t grow sufficiently to allow me to read the originals well. So, in essence, I’ve read German poetry since the very beginning of my interest in poetry, have dabbled in French, and have been reading Spanish poetry ever since my ability in that language reached the point that I could actually read it well enough. I learned Spanish because I went to work in Latin America, so in that case it was the travelling that started me off.
Poetry in translation does not sell very well at all, unless the names are of the household variety — so Lorca, Neruda, Celan would all sell well, for instance. From my list, I’m happy with the sales of Pessoa, for instance — those would be on a par with the English-language books. Quite a bit of my translation list is a proselytising mission on my part: I just think the authors are important and need to be read, and if people here haven’t heard of them I’m going to do my best to make sure that changes.
JT: You’re clearly interested in different traditions within Anglophone poetry as well as non-Anglophone poetry. As an editor, do you see much cross-language fertilization in contemporary poetry? Or is it your sense that, by and large, Anglophone poets work largely within the world of Anglophone traditions? In writing that, at the same time I wonder if Anglophone poetry exerts an asymmetrical pressure on foreign-language poetries…
TF: I don’t see much cross-language fertilisation. If it’s there it’s been well processed and lies well beneath the surface — and here I’m avoiding cases where, say, French literary theory has informed both French and Anglophone poetries. I think the last time I was aware of it would have been with Ted Hughes, surprisingly enough — it seems to me that Crow acquired new impetus from Hughes’ readings of Vasko Popa, especially from the latter’s use of myth. It’s been suggested that he was also much taken with Amichai, though that’s less obvious to me on the surface of his work. Both Popa and Amichai were featured in that Penguin Modern European Poets series which opened many eyes at a time when English poetry was really pretty dull. So, yes, I think Anglophone poets do work within their own traditions; if they do go beyond their borders, it tends to be a bit of literary tourism, or cherry-picking certain things they can use. There are things in Hispanic poetry, for instance, which just can’t be done in English, or so it would seem, and that’s more cultural than linguistic — there’s a comfort in Spanish writing with the bardic, with the oracular, with the poet as speaker-for-the-tribe, which seems to me to be alien to the Anglo-American tradition, Whitman notwithstanding. Also the fact that, in the Latin cultures, surrealism was a major factor when it wasn’t in English, means that the immediate past tradition is really very different. Our modernisms, our avant-gardes, are not the same.
On the other hand, the spread of English as a second language throughout the world does possibly lead to some asymmetrical pressures, but I can’t judge whether that is detrimental. From what I can see of German, French and Hispanic poetry, the art seems to be alive and well and not beholden to Anglo-Saxon examples.
JT: We’ve touched upon the economic challenges to publishing poetry in the new millennium. These are certainly formidable—are they the most decisive ones when it comes to publishing poetry? Are there any silver linings? How would you assess the prospects of publishing poetry in the next ten years or so?
TF: The economics of publishing poetry are the same as any other marginal, or narrow-focus product. As far as I can see there are exactly two ways of doing it, if one avoids discussing the subsidised, or underwritten model:
1) Keep costs to an absolute minimum, keep minimal stock, and eliminate all the overhead that you can. If you do all of that you should be able to break even before dealing with people costs; i.e. you might conceivably be able to pay yourself or your “staff” some wages. But don’t bet on it. (This where Shearsman sits, but the situation is complicated by the fact that I take no money out of the firm: it is thus effectively subsidised by me, in kind.)
2) Go for market share with higher-visibility names, without any particular emotional investment in the work itself. This is the publish-what-sells model. The additional costs that will go with it (higher inventories, greater advertising spend, advances, higher royalties, etc) mean that there are greater risks and much higher sales are needed. There is room for one or two new presses of this kind every generation, usually driven by a single person. (Think Carcanet & Bloodaxe in the UK; Graywolf or Copper Canyon perhaps in the US? These are quite different animals. I realise.) I would point out though that the two British examples given here have substantial public subsidies and one of them has a wealthy backer in addition to that. They are thus not quite “in the market”, and can afford to take certain risks that a purely market-driven operation would not be able to take on. They did have to prove themselves before getting the kind of assistance they now get, however.
The caveats above indicate the nature of the problem. To what extent does subsidy — actual external subsidy, or hidden internal subsidy — play a role in publishing poetry? University presses in the US are effectively subsidised. Mainstream poetry publishers (Farrar, Norton, etc) no doubt cross-subsidise their poetry lists from elsewhere in the operation. Is anyone actually genuinely making money out of publishing poetry without compromising on the books that they publish?
I’d guess that we’ll see a rise in high-value editions done in very short runs, together with DTP chapbooks and short-run digital editions for larger books. I would expect offset editions of new poetry to disappear unless the author is a major prize-winner or is on school curricula.
JT: Do you find the fact that contemporary poetry has only a coterie audience disturbing—or is it, as some poets and critics have suggested, beneficial to literary expression and experimentation that publishing poetry is not a money-making enterprise?
The reaction of some readers / enthusiasts often strikes me as being very similar to that evinced by devoted followers of obscure rock bands (or jazz, blues, whatever). This is a male thing, by and large, and has a lot to do with preening and showing tail-feathers. I’m sure we can all recall male students, from whatever era, who were convinced that there were the only ones possessed of the absolute truth and it was, ta-da, Flaming Youth. Eh? Come again? What I’m suggesting is that a devotion to resolute minority-appeal art-work (and that includes poetry, of any kind, but some kinds more than others) is a social signifier, and some of these devotees would abandon their love of Poet X, if the latter ever won a major prize or secured substantial sales. This would upset the uniqueness of their grasp of the poet in question. Things work a bit differently in the classical-music world, but it has parallels: there it’s the people who are convinced that Beethoven’s status is the result of a conspiracy, and that, in fact, [Johann Nepomuk] Hummel was the great genius of late-classical/early-Romantic era. Shakespeare mavens who think the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays are in like territory.
On the other hand all art-forms attract weird devotees, and it’s possible that, the less there is to play for, the more coterie-like the behaviour becomes. If poetry had a genuine mass audience, with J H Prynne being, say, its Lou Reed, it would be a little easier to see what was going on, and classify it. My typecasting here is not intended to denigrate such behaviour patterns, but, rather, to understand it. There may be no money in it, but there is status, there is kudos, and there are jobs and funding to be had if you’re in the right place at the right time.
JT: What has been Shearsman’s best-selling title in the last three years ?
TF: Best-selling depends on definition. Let’s just say that the best-selling title of all is Lee Harwood’s Collected Poems; last year’s best-seller was George Economou’s Ananios of Kleitor; 2008’s was Peter Robinson’s The Look of Goodbye. Right now, both Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat and the Infinite Difference anthology are selling better than the rest.
JT: You obviously read a lot of contemporary poetry. What do you find most dismaying about it? What do you find most promising about it? (I’m assuming you find something of promise in it!)
TF: What dismays me most is the sheer boredom that British mainstream poetry tends to cause me. My definition of “mainstream” might not be yours or anyone else’s, though, as I regard poets such Geoffrey Hill and Alice Oswald, both of whom I like, as writers who don’t really run with the expectations of that amorphous construct which we classify as “the mainstream”. I’m also a bit depressed by the lack of much interesting new experimental writing here, although there are valiant exceptions here and there, often not in the obvious places, and, equally often, not with a name in those circles that might be described as “opinion-forming” (i.e. those who shout loudest).
By contrast I find a lot of work by younger poets (let’s say, under the age of 45) in the US very interesting, in the way that they’ve thrown off the older generation and are forging new paths. I don’t like calling this “hybrid” as that recent anthology would have it, but if one casts out the new formalists & their heirs, as well as the Language School and its heirs, then there are some poets around who have interesting things to say, and in new ways. They may have taken on board some lessons from those polarised schools of yore, but they’re in a new time and place. I don’t get the sense that this is happening in the UK, alas, and this may have something to do with the absence of interesting new magazines staking out new territory. I hope things will change here.
Ugly Duckling Presse
Anna Moschovakis, Editor
Anna Moschovakis is a poet, translator, and editor based in Brooklyn and in upstate New York. She is the author of the poetry books I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone (2006) and the forthcoming You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake, and is translator, most recently, of The Jokers by Albert Cossery. She edits poetry and translation for Ugly Duckling Presse and is the founder of its Dossier series.
Jon Thompson: Could you tell me how Ugly Duckling Presse got started?
Anna Moschovakis: Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP) formed gradually, in fits and starts. In 1993 Matvei Yankelevich started a xerox ‘zine (with fellow Wesleyan student TristraNewyear), which they dubbed the Ugly Duckling after a used-car lot they’d pass by near the Wesleyan campus. The first chapbook imprinted “Ugly Duckling Presse” was a collection of Matvei’s poems, published in 1995. For the next 5 years the ‘zine and presse names followed Matvei around (through Boston, New Haven, Dublin, and Moscow) until he landed in NYC and, in around 2000, found a handful of other young artists and writers who wanted to make something happen. What they made happen was Ugly Duckling Presse, Ltd., a vision of creative mayhem and fast-and-furious poetic production — mostly handmade books at the beginning, sometimes one-of-a-kind, sometimes multiples to be distributed by any means necessary to whomever would willingly consume them. The original members (Matvei, Yelena Gluzman, Julien Poirier, G.L. Ford, Ellie Ga, Marisol Limon Martinez, Filip Marinovich) were soon joined by others (Ryan Haley and James Hoff of Loudmouth Collective, myself, Genya Turovskaya), got a bit more organized, completed our application for nonprofit status, and started printing Emergency Gazette, 6×6 magazine and chapbooks to be distributed far and wide (1,000 copies for Emergency Gazette and 6×6; up to 300 for the first chapbooks). We were off and running with something resembling what UDP is today: On the one hand a small press, with a growing list of invigorating poetry, surprising lost literature, necessary translation, and uncategorizable printed matter, and on the other, a studio-cum-clubhouse with a revolving door open to a constant stream of forward-thinking lovers of the book who come into the fold as interns and, more often than not, leave to start their own DIY presses — or stay on to join UDP’s editorial gang (as did Phil Cordelli, Garth Graeper, David Jou, Linda Trimbath, and Nick Rattner). Somewhere along the way we learned how to print letterpress covers, manipulate design software, write grant applications, publicize books, and survive as a bootstrap-powered, volunteer-driven enterprise dedicated to (as our mission states) creating spaces in which people can have an experience of reading free of expectation, coercion, and utility. [ A more detailed history of UDP can be found at: http://www.uglyducklingpresse.org/about/udp-story/]
JT: You refer to UDP’s “vision of creative mayhem.” Once UDP based itself in New York, was it self-consciously following the lead of earlier avant-garde traditions or institutions or was it making up its own practices as it went along?
AM: I wasn’t there at the beginning of the New York iteration [that was Matvei, Ellie Ga, Yelena Gluzman, Julien Poirier, G.L.Ford, Filip Marinovich, and Marisol Limon Martinez], so I can’t speak to that moment. I came along in early 2002, when the press was quickly becoming more public — on the heels of the first issues of 6×6, which were printed in an edition of 1,000 and assembled and distributed mostly by hand. Around the same time, UDP and the now-defunct Loudmouth Collective (James Hoff and Ryan Haley, who both subsequently became involved with UDP) were hosting Anti-Readings, carnivalesque literary events often held in the basement of the (also now-defunct) music venue Tonic on the lower east side, which resembled Happenings in their diffuse energy and insistence on blurring the line between audience and performer. I think there are some movements and people who are important to all or at least most of UDP’s editors — John Cage and Fluxus, for example — and then there is, via Matvei, a deep connection to early-20th-century Russian avant-gardes (the design of 6×6 is modeled after a 1914 publication of a concrete poem, Tango with Cows, by Vasily Kamensky) and the tradition of Samizdat publishing. I think all the avant-garde gangs, especially those who published things — the Dadaists, Futurists, and Lettrists, and the later mimeograph and zine movements closer to home — are part of the soil that UDP (and so many other small and micro presses active today) grows in. Possibly the Samizdat tradition plays a more important role for us, one that is reflected not only in our preference for owning our own printing equipment and history of distributing through underground channels, but also in the editorial decisions that we make, which focus (especially in the case of our translation titles) on books that would never be published by mainstream houses, or that have been suppressed in their own countries. All that said, UDP has definitely always made up its own practices as it goes along: We have an old commitment to remaining “Junior Artists,” which is a commitment to experimentation, discovery, fruitful mistakes, and generally not seeing ourselves as professionals. What we are trying to create and maintain — a very active, volunteer-edited, non-hierarchical, ever-expanding but sustainable group endeavor — is not the kind of thing that can be accomplished by following the examples of others. I honestly think that, despite all the time we have spent re-inventing the wheel, we would never have survived this long if any of us had known what we were doing from the beginning, or if we’d had a 5-year plan.
JT: How does UDP balance its commitment to a non-hierarchical group model with its editorial decisions regarding what it will publish?
AM: It’s surprisingly simple. Or, rather, it became surprisingly simple once we abandoned any attempt to make unanimous or even democratic editorial decisions. We do have feisty conversations about manuscripts, but they are generally on an informal basis (the exception to this is 6×6, which has a rotating editorial team and does attempt to select the contents of the manuscript as a group). Other than that, we have a sort of organically developed unspoken policy: if one editor is very enthusiastic about a project and can take on the tasks of finding funding for it and seeing it through production, even if other editors don’t like it, the book can go on the schedule. Generally, because we respect each others’ opinions, we do consult with each other — in twos or threes — before taking something on. But there is no formal vote, for instance. The one time we had an open reading period with anonymous submissions and the whole nine yards, it was too complicated to be enjoyable (though the book that came of that, Brent Cunningham’s Bird & Forest, is still one of my favorites). I’d say that the editorial component is the simplest, most problem-free aspect of the collective; if I had to name it, I’d say it’s collegial anarchy.
JT: How does UDP fund itself? You’ve mentioned that it owns its own printing equipment and uses a volunteer work force to help produce books, but even so, there are all kinds of “invisible” expenses associated with printing, especially traditional printing practices.
AM: I don’t have the exact numbers at my fingertips, but roughly speaking, I believe we get about a third of our funding from grants, a third from sales and subscriptions, and a third from contributions. We do try to keep production costs down — by doing as much printing as we can on our own equipment (covers for many of our books on our letterpresses, and guts for many of our chapbooks on our laser printer) and taking advantage of donated material, especially cover paper. We also keep costs down by volunteering our time and, yes, by running a very active unpaid internship program. We don’t work our interns to the bone, though; the typical internship is one day per week doing editorial, promotional, design or administrative work plus Saturday “Presse Days,” which is when we’ll get much of the printing, binding and assembling of our chapbooks done. Most interns stay for just a semester, but a few will hang around longer — and in some cases, through a very unscripted process of showing consistent commitment and spearheading a book or two from start to finish, become editors. (Others go off and start their own presses, often returning to print their first books at the UDP workshop.) So those are some of the ways we try to keep costs down. But we do have a lot of overhead. We pay rent on a relatively large studio workshop in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, which is a significant expense but worth every penny, since such a big part of what we do requires hands-on bookmaking and personal interaction. Also, we love being at the Can Factory because it keeps us in proximity to other arts organizations, artisans, and creative entrepreneurs — it’s a way to keep the borders of the small-press universe porous. So, there’s rent, bills, insurance, mailing costs, distribution costs, office supplies, marketing costs, fundraising costs, travel to book fairs….the list goes on and on. Recently we’ve added a significant cost in the person of James Copeland, a onetime intern whom we hired, after receiving a windfall from a sale to a collector (more on that in a minute), to “manage” us part-time. Now, for the first time, someone is paid to have a birds-eye view of everything that is going on at the press editorially, administratively, financially. It makes a huge difference. (The theory behind hiring James was to separate out some of the non-fun stuff from the more-fun stuff, with the idea that many of us could go on indefinitely doing the more-fun stuff – like editing, producing and promoting books — for free, but that burnout could be imminent for those doing the more tedious chores like keeping up with the IRS, managing wayward editorial schedules, grant-writing, and the like.) So, our expenses are getting up there: our annual budget recently climbed above $150,000. To recoup that, we apply for federal and state grants and to foundations; we sell books directly from our site, through our distributor, SPD, to our subscribers (on a kind of a CSA model, wherein the subscribers pay up front for some of the production costs of the books and other overhead), and to libraries; we raise funds through individual contributions; and we throw fundraising events. On top of that, we have now been around long enough that some collectors (rare-books librarians in particular) want to purchase our out-of-print titles and ephemera, so we’ve sold a few valuable boxes of stuff in the past couple of years. I’m not sure we’re exactly “funding ourselves” just yet, as some of the contributions that make up a deficit always come from the editors themselves. But we’re getting closer to sustainability, and at least we aren’t in debt…Plus, we’ve got a lot of assets in the form of heavy19th-century machinery, and books.
JT: So “collegial anarchy” with a bit of management savvy to keep things moving forward; an innovative way of doing things—in fact, arguably a reinvention of early twentieth-century avant-garde practices. Where did UDP find the “heavy 19 th-century machinery”— and how did you acquire it? That sounds like a story in itself. And where do you get your interns? From colleges and universities in New York or elsewhere?
AM: The first letterpress came to UDP through Ellie Ga, who bought it, with a bunch of mostly un-sorted lead type, for a couple hundred bucks from a couple who were about to go to prison, I think for minor drug dealing or some other petty offense. It’s a 5×8 inch Kelsey tabletop press — from what I remember, the couple used it to print business cards on the spot at traveling fairs. That was probably in 2000. We used that press to print covers for a number of chapbooks and at least one issue of 6×6. It wasn’t perfectly calibrated, and our skills were pretty poor back then, so the covers are very uneven looking for the most part. There was one cover —for Mark Lamoureux’s chapbook, City/Temple — that we printed at our first workshop, in Dumbo. We were printing with yellow ink on white, and we didn’t know that yellow is notoriously hard to print with. We kept adding more ink, and there was also a component of the cover that had hand-rolled ink on it — anyway, I remember those covers strung across the workshop like christmas lights, drying, for weeks. Other machinery has come our way more or less fortuitously. As we were about to move out of the Dumbo workshop, we noticed a sign in the elevator about a Vandercook flatbed press for sale. It turned out not to be a Vandercook, but a circa 1970s Italian press that was made for fine artists. It has an enormous printing area — bigger than 26 x 30, I think. We bought it and have been using it ever since, though once again, our skills were acquired on the equipment, not before its acquisition. We definitely put that press through some trauma, breaking its motor twice. Now we operate it manually, with good results, but it’s a real workout. We inherited a beautiful guillotine-style paper cutter from another letterpresser, Patrick Masterson, who housed it with us for a while and then moved to the South. (Actually, it might just be a long-term loan rather than an bequest…but we use it every day.) One of the best finds was our giant, 6×6-foot board cutter. It’s like a giant paper cutter, with a weight on the end of its 6-foot blade that could knock you dead. It belonged to the clothing designer Ann Taylor, who used it to cut leather; we were lucky enough to find it for free at Materials for the Arts, which is also where we get a lot of our paper and oddball binding materials. We were given a manual proofing press by Don the stamp guy from Stampworx2000 (we order rubber stamps from him, he’s old-school). And the estate of Pequod Editions recently donated a beautiful Kelsey to us — replacing that first, more beat-up one — and we bought a Thorp platen press (those are the beautiful upright treadle-operated standing presses with the circular ink plates). They’re the image of the letterpress you see on a lot of old engravings. That’s about it for the old stuff; we’ve also got some laser printers and the requisite Macs.
Our interns come from all over. It’s one of the most remarkable things, to me, about UDP; even before we had partner bookstores (independent stores that carry all our titles) or an active subscription program, somehow our publications (especially 6×6) made their way around the country, and college kids on summer break or recent grads would literally just show up from Ohio, Kentucky, Oregon. In recent years we have posted specific calls for specific internships (publicity, web, design, editorial) on our website, and we’ve selected from a pool of increasingly impressive applicants. We also got better at arranging to offer school credit. Somehow, many of the interns come from Wesleyan, but we also get a lot of people from local schools — Pratt, Columbia, NYU, the New School. And we get a fair number of international students too, probably in part because of our interest in translation. And then there are people who aren’t students, but writers or artists who just want a low-key way to learn about publishing or printing.
JT: More than anything else, it seems to me that UDP has been able to succeed by creating its own culture—a culture of book production and a culture of books that promote the kinds of writing UDP is interested in. You obviously have to contend with the marketplace, but it appears that you have developed a number of different strategies for working with it, against it, and around it.
AM: Well, I’d say that as some of the earlier participants in what seems to have grown into a loose-knit cultural movement of sorts (these words — culture, movement — make me nervous) we have evolved following a kind of negative strategy: by not trying to emulate any one kind of (or specific) small press or collective, we of necessity invented our own ad-hoc way of doing things, and even of seeing things. It seems to me that getting people to pay attention, to respond to what we were doing, was never the biggest challenge — there was a real receptivity to new energy in the New York poetry scene at the time (I wonder if the timing, the receptivity of that moment, might not have something to do with the fact that UDP went more in the direction of a small press than, say, a more performance-focused group). I think of Lungfull!, and the Zinc Bar poetry readings, and Anselm Berrigan’s reinvention of the Poetry Project…there was just new blood everywhere. Lately, some younger people involved in newer presses have approached us and said things like “you guys were there at the beginning of all this” or “we wouldn’t have started our press if it weren’t for UDP.” The funny thing is that most of these newer endeavors are way more streamlined and better-thought-out than UDP ever was. I was just on a panel at the CUNY chapbook festival with Jen Hyde from Small Anchor press and Nathaniel Otting (who does Minutes Books and is involved in the brand-new Agnes Fox collective). In both cases, the books are beautiful and the organizational models are much more sound than ours was, especially at the beginning. I was a little envious, in that “If I knew then what they know now” kind of way. Who knows—maybe all those panel discussions and school visits UDP editors have done over the years have actually saved some incipient publishers some headaches and mistakes!
As far as the market is concerned, we really do take received notions about marketability with a grain of salt. We run our finances based on a hand-to-mouth habit (the wisdom of which I make no attempt to defend), and we think of the market as a writer-to-reader-via-book process. What I mean is that we are not bothered by the fact that some books will naturally find fewer readers than others, or will find their readers at a different pace. We do our best to expand the audience of each title and of the press in general, but we think of a book like a big informal dinner party. You invite a bunch of people and hope they bring friends. You do your best to cook the right amount of food. But if more people than expected show up, you just keep cooking. It’s a little hectic, but the spontaneity adds to the fun. (Then, to continue my goofy metaphor, you have a big enough freezer for any leftovers, because you never know when you’ll need then.) This has worked well enough for us, and I do think that somehow we have managed to find new readers for books without the expenditure associated with traditional book marketing. I really think that the diversity of our titles and the ways we bundle them together (through our subscription, our partner bookstores, and our many multi-book events) work to get our books into the hands of people who don’t know they want them. Matvei and I once gave a talk about finding the omnivorous reader (we’d been reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’sDilemma) — that’s the reader who, like a rat, doesn’t have preconceived notions about what it wants to consume but tests out everything that comes into its path. We’ve focused on trying to put the books in the paths of those rat-readers, which means not focusing on things like buying tiny overpriced ads and competing for space in chain bookstores, but using more intuitive means.
JT: Why do words like “culture” make you nervous? I didn’t mean to suggest that UDP had transformed the making of books in New York or America or anything, but was just using the term to refer to a local culture. I’m interested in that nervousness—and how it coexists with UDP’s interest in “creating spaces in which people can have an experience of reading free of expectation, coercion, and utility.” The latter seems like a much bigger claim, but no nerves there. Why not?
AM: Almost everything makes me nervous! And I didn’t think you were making such a suggestion. But, yes, I have a hard time with “culture” unless it’s really precisely defined in the conversation. In this case, I’m actually fine with “culture” if you look at its roots in agriculture — the tilling of the land. I’m very happy to see the parallel with publishing, and I often do think of UDP as a kind of many-headed workhorse. I also like the idea of “society,” which came up at a recent press fair (I think it was Brian Henry and Andrew Zawacki of Verse Press who were deliberately choosing to use that word in lieu of the ubiquitous “community.”) Anyway, it’s true that that line you quote from our mission statement could seem like a big claim – and mission statements are supposed to be ambitious, or at least idealistic — but it’s also very mundane, in its way. It’s really just a fancy way of describing the feeling you got when you were a kid reading with a flashlight under the covers, or just staring out a car window at a scene going by. Then again, I am only 1/14 of UDP and I don’t remember who wrote that sentence — though I seem to remember it was Yelena. So who am I to be saying what it means! One of the things I love most about being a part of UDP is that each of us is so passionate about the endeavor but each of us, at times anyway, probably has a completely different idea of what that endeavor is.
JT: What have been some of UDP’s most popular titles in the last year or so?
AM: It’s hard to say offhand, but a few that have sold through their first printings quickly are Jen Bervin’s Nets, Aram Saroyan’s Complete Minimal Poems, and Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks/Two Talks. Among the chapbooks, the two Oberiu titles Matvei translated, Daniil Kharms’ The Blue Notebook and Alexander Vvedensky’s Gray Notebook, both went into several printings, and Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto, Lewis Warsh’s Flight Test, Christine Hume’s Lullaby, and Peter Gizzi’s A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me also disappeared quickly.
JT: What do you see as UDP’s greatest challenges?
AM: We have the same basic challenge as any nonprofit — to stay afloat — and of any group that mixes friendship with creative collaboration: to keep the relationships that are the core of the project vigorous enough to keep on track and flexible enough to change over time. In my estimation, the things that might seem as if they could become our downfall (the utopian vision of a non-hierarchical structure; the deep intellectual and aesthetic diversity among our editors; our commitment to having a bustling workshop despite the increased overhead; our collective allergy to doing things in the tried-and-tested ways) have saved us, because, I think, of the sense of possibility generated by those working conditions. So maybe the greatest challenge is not to question the things that are working, even if they seem like they shouldn’t, while focusing on the things that we need to improve (like our fundraising skills).
JT: Is UDP charting any new emphases or directions in the future?
AM: Editorially, we will just continue to follow the whims and obsessions of the editors (which have recently driven us to include new series of playscripts and prose in our list, for example). But we are constantly re-thinking our production models, especially with respect to digital availability. We are not rushing to produce Kindle versions of our books (don’t get me started on Amazon), but we are interested in how the distribution of texts is changing, how texts are morphing into multi-platform works, how the role of the publisher is shifting and intellectual property in general is being re-envisioned. So, one thing on (at least some of our) minds is working toward a balance between the physical bookmaking and distribution that we love, and a more fluid, renewable dissemination of the work that we love.
University of Chicago Press
Randolph Petilos, Managing Editor
A native of the fiftieth state, Randolph Petilos was educated at Harvard University and the University of Chicago before joining the University of Chicago Press in 1989. A roving humanist by nature and profession, and a performer of late medieval and early modern sacred choral music, he has managed the Press’s Phoenix Poets series since 1995, the Press’s Other Voice in Early Modern Europe series since 2002, and is responsible for the Press’s lists in poetry, poetry in translation, and medieval studies.
Jon Thompson: Could you tell me about the genesis of the Phoenix Poets series at the University of Chicago Press?
RP: Phoenix Poets turned twenty-five in the Fall of 2008. Originally conceived as a modest contribution to contemporary poetry in Britain and the U.S., it began with two books, David Ferry’s now-classic Strangers and Alan Shapiro’s acclaimed The Courtesy, both published in Fall 1983. Although the Press did publish volumes of poetry in a less deliberate way prior to 1983, notably books by Howard Nemerov, and, before that, even some of Thom Gunn’s early poems, it wasn’t until Robert von Hallberg joined the English department here on the campus of the University of Chicago that the Press had someone knowledgeable, willing, and, crucially—in those distant, pre-email days—nearby to help organize and focus the series . Except for 1985, when the Press didn’t publish any books in the series, there has been a steady offering of at least one book a year, up to five or six books in more recent years, but averaging four annually, which is Press management’s preference. As I said earlier, the original plan was to feature poets on both sides of the Atlantic, and the couple of books by Donald Davie in the early years represents an effort to do just that. As time went by, however, and more and more poets in both England and America began writing and publishing, it became impractical to continue to publish British poets. Indeed, keeping a cap on just four series books a year continues to be a challenge.
JT: Apart from a focus on American rather than British poetry, how would you say the Phoenix Poets series has evolved? How would you characterize the aesthetic evolution of the list?
RP: Evolution’s probably not the right word, Jon. From the beginning, indeed, going back to the original series agreement signed way back in 1982—I found it in our contracts vault!—the series mandate is to publish original works of poetry of the highest quality. There’s nothing in the official language of the contract that specifies poets of American or British citizenship, country of residence, or ethnic background (although, since Chicago publishes books in English, I suppose “English-language poetry” was understood). As far as aesthetics, that was never stipulated in the original agreement or intent of Phoenix Poets either. I suppose you could say that the new formalism was what many American poets at the time were doing (whether conscious of it or not), but even that’s too narrow description of what the series ended up doing. The early years saw books by Jim Powell and Eleanor Wilner, two poets that I wouldn’t necessarily think of as having a similar approach to poetics, let alone subject matter. David Ferry continues to publish his original poetry in the series, but more recent series poets, Atsuro Riley, Randall Mann, and Liam Rector among them, seem to me to be a fairly far stretch from the kinds of things that preoccupy Ferry. Even in terms of men and women, although the early years of the series seem to be dominated by male poets—I wonder if more men were simply writing poetry at that time?—the last ten years or so have seen about as many female poets in the series as male. I guess if I had to draft some kind of statement on what the series has become known for over its twenty-seven-year life, it would contain phrases like: “the poets in the series are aware of the history of poetry in English and use that history to create new poems”; or “the poets in the series use forms when a given form allows them to best explore a given perspective, emotional state, historical event, philosophical point, &c.”
JT: A number of university presses in the U.S. have discontinued their poetry series or use poetry competitions instead to cover the cost of publishing a single volume of poetry. The Phoenix Poets series has been able to maintain a very robust list. What are the advantages of being supported by a university press and what are the limitations?
RP: Yes, it saddens me that some presses, in order to make ends meet, have had to change to competitions/prizes instead of the traditional acquisitions and editorial review process. Don’t get me wrong: Chicago’s struggling like everyone else, and we are having to adjust annually, sometimes from season to season, to changes in the way people buy poetry books. When the series began in 1983, a simultaneous library cloth (unjacketed edition) and paperback for individual buyers was the right thing to do. But as the years went by, and libraries stopped buying the “library” edition, opting instead to purchase the inexpensive paperback and rebind it in-house, we stopped doing library editions in most cases. At a certain point—I believe the first instance was with Susan Stewart’s book, Columbarium (2003)—we thought we might try a different strategy and publish a cloth-only jacketed edition first, for selected poets, to see how poetry buyers responded to that format. It worked for Stewart, and the book went on sell very well, and to win the National Book Critics Circle poetry prize. We’ve since tried it a couple or three more times—to mixed results. So we’re now back to scratching our heads—again—and trying to figure out who the majority of poetry buyers are, what kind of poetry they like, what kind of format (cloth or paper) they prefer, and what they’re willing to pay for a book of poems. Our most recent strategy has been to try paperbacks only. We’ll see in about a year’s time how that turns out.
But the most difficult thing for Chicago—and this goes for all of our books, not just poetry, literary studies, or humanities, but across the social and natural sciences as well—is that, unlike the other large American university presses, we don’t have an endowment to dip into if a given book doesn’t meet expectations. So each editor here needs to make an effort to ensure that each book pulls its own weight. There’s also the faculty Board of Publications, which is made up of selected scholars from the different divisions of the university, as well as representatives from our provost’s office and the acquisitions staff. Every book we publish must be approved by the faculty Board. Commercial, trade, or small presses that specialize in poetry don’t have this additional hurdle in the way of signing a contract for a given manuscript.
JT: I know Columbarium well and think highly of it (http://english.chass.ncsu.edu/freeverse/Archives/Spring_2004/Reviews/J_Thompson.html)—others did too!—so I’m delighted that it also fared well in the marketplace. Though it is counter-intuitive in some ways—it is a demanding book. Perhaps Susan Stewart had created a following of sorts with her earlier books and her critical writing. What other titles in recent years in the Phoenix Poets series have fared especially well?
RP: No doubt about it: Stewart is unique in contemporary American poetics, at home in both traditional and experimental forms and able to speak to various audiences with her creative and scholarly work. As well as writing (and translating) poetry, she is a noted literary critic. Her most recent critical study, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, was twice honored for its contribution to our understanding of literature and aesthetics (the Christian Gauss award of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, and the Truman Capote award, administered by the University of Iowa for the Capote estate). Stewart also has a following in art and aesthetics (see her collection of essays on art in The Open Studio), and she is starting to develop ties to the music community as well (the recent premiere of Songs for Adam, a song cycle from the book Red Rover, which was set to music by composer James Primosch as a commission for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra).
Other recent books of note are by Gail Mazur and Bruce Smith. Mazur’s Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems (2005) was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times book prize and the Paterson poetry prize, and won the Massachusetts Book Award. Her previous book, They Can’t Take that Away from Me (2001), was shortlisted for the National Book Award, as was Bruce Smith’s book The Other Lover (2000). And also another poet, one who goes back to the early years of the series, Anne Winters, had some success with her most recent book, The Displaced of Capital (2004), which was twice honored, first by the American Academy of Poets with its Lenore Marshall award, and then by the Poetry Society of America with its William Carlos Williams prize.
JT: Do the more critically successful books tend to sell better? That is, are the better-selling books in the last few years generally the more critically-acclaimed titles or are there some in the Phoenix Poets series that are more popular with readers than critics?
RP: Interesting question, Jon, but I don’t think there’s any formula. Reviews in prominent places help, of course. Even negative reviews have the potential to encourage people to find out for themselves what the fuss over a poet or a book of poems is all about. Recognition through major, national awards also helps. And I’m a firm believer that poets who take an active role in promoting their work, the ones who aggressively set up readings, signings, book events, and in general make appearances on campuses to do talks, lectures, and workshops, especially in the year following the publication of a book, can make the biggest difference in the success of a given book. But even these three things combined aren’t a guarantee that a book will sell. Going back over the last five years, I see that the four best-selling Phoenix Poets books have all been by women, but that seems to be the only thing besides being published in the same series that they have in common. One is a first book, two are second books, and one is a fifth book, and their styles and interests couldn’t be more different from one another. Not all of the books have been widely reviewed or reviewed in major publications, not all of the books have been shortlisted or won major awards, not all of the poets have made an effort to promote their books, and not all of the poets also publish literary criticism. As I said, there’s no formula, but being lucky enough to get reviewed, winning an award, and doing readings and appearances can help.
JT: How do you go about deciding on a manuscript? For me, for example, when I’m editing manuscripts under consideration for Free Verse Editions, I need to make notes in the margins to “get” a manuscript and the record of those notes or marks is useful to me in thinking about how I want to proceed, or not, with that manuscript. Also, has your own taste in poetry changed since you first began editing the series or has it remained pretty constant?
RP: Ah, yes, nuts-and-bolts, “pencil editing,” and word/line editing. What a luxury that must be! Seriously, I wish I could spend time doing that, and I do try, when I catch something that sounds or looks odd, to make a note of it, but most of the “notes” I make go directly into an efile that I then use as the basis for constructing a statement about the book in preparation for the monthly meetings of our faculty Board of Publications. Basically, since the series has been around for so many years, we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, and I, myself, don’t need to spend lots of time chasing after new work. More often than not, I’m reading fairly polished manuscripts by poets already active in the series, or poets who know the kinds of books that are published here at Chicago. It’s rare that I pick something myself that hasn’t come as a recommendation from one of Chicago’s readers, or from one of the Phoenix Poets, or from one of the other authors that I work with as part of my acquisitions in the humanities. So I generally read for the larger contours of a manuscript, and am reading between and among poems more than within poems most of the time. Like all good university presses, we use outside readers (“peer review,” it’s called by some) to do a lot of the line-by-line work, for which I’m grateful. Otherwise, the other books I acquire, in medieval and early modern studies, in poetry-in-translation, just wouldn’t get done. I also assist—in my spare time!—our editorial director in the humanities with his acquisitions projects in literary and religious studies, so I do rely heavily on outside readers in many ways. As for whether my own taste in poetry has changed since I began managing the series in the mid-90s, well, I’m probably not a very good judge of that. The series established its character long before I arrived in Chicago, so I just hope I’ve been able to maintain the high standard set in the early years by von Hallberg and Shapiro, and, really, I’m just grateful that series poets continue to send me their new work—even if I may have had to reject one of their manuscripts because of negative readers’ reports in the interim. For example, I declined Doreen Gildroy’s and Greg Miller’s third books, but ended up publishing Miller’s fourth. I hope to publish Gildroy’s fourth as well (fingers crossed).
JT: Actually, I was referring more to thinking through the manuscript’s “larger contours” by annotating it as I go along: the perils of email communication! But a quick follow-up on the peer review system as practiced by the Phoenix Poets series. Does the series prefer to rely on a fairly stable set of reviewers over and over again, or does the series try to bring in new reviewers on a regular basis? I ask because the former approach would seem to be organized around the premise of maintaining a certain kind of consistency while the latter approach would seem to be looking for variation within a certain range.
RP: Yes, as I look back through the series named editors, first Robert von Hallberg in the 1983, then Alan Shapiro in 1995, to Tom Sleigh’s short tenure, 2001-2002, and the pool of anonymous readers that each of those editors chose to advise them, and the small group of anonymous readers that continue it read for Chicago, it does seem to me that the series has been rather stable and consistent.
JT: Many university presses are turning to “short run digital publishing” or “print-on-demand” publishing for their backlist and a 2009-2010 survey conducted by the Association of American University Presses reports that 69.5%of member presses have front-list SRDP/POD programs. Is this shift away from offset publishing something the Phoenix Poets series is embracing? How do you feel about this change? Do you see it as a positive development for poetry publishing or not?
RP: I know that a lot of publishers are having to economize, and Chicago is doing its fair share in that respect. Through our BiblioVault we do print on demand, and, for certain backlist books, produce short-run digital paperbacks. But poetry books here at Chicago continue to be very much objets d’art, and we will continue to insist on the highest production values for our books—in all areas, not just poetry or poetry-in-translation—as long as we can afford to publish poetry at all.
JT: What do you see as the biggest challenges to the series or, for that matter, to publishing single-author poetry collections at the present moment? Are there comparable opportunities? As the editor of the series, how do you see things going forward?
RP: Check back with me at the end of July and we can talk about the future of Phoenix Poets here at Chicago, Jon. I should know by then whether Press management and our faculty Board of Publications has agreed to renew the poetry series for another five years. As for me, as managing editor of the series, I wonder if the buying habits and taste of readers these days can sustain series like Phoenix Poets. As the preference for e-books rises—or not—and on-screen reading in general evolves—or devolves—perhaps the notion of a book of poems, something that is designed to be read as hardcopy and pondered more deeply than mere flashes of light across a screen, may also need to change. One way of looking at this is to go back to the beginnings of “books” of poems, back to the Troubadours and remember how they first put together their collections of poems or songbooks, how oral performance—a kind of oral “publication”—came to be written down and stitched together into something resembling what we’d recognize as a book in a medium meant to be preserved, not just the poems themselves but the order in which they occur, and the eventual development of a set of poems into a literary object that serves the needs and interests of other poets and readers of poetry. Are poems in book form still serving the needs of those who read and consume poetry? Ezra Pound, speaking of the long history of the lyric, said that renewed interest in poetry after the classical period only came about because it was paired with the stringed instrument, that is, poetry sung with viol or lute accompaniment. Maybe what we’ve witnessed is that “lyric” poetry has gone as far as it can, divorced from its original performed, string-accompanied component parts. We shall see….
Copper Canyon Press
Michael Wiegers, Editor
A veteran of nonprofit literary publishing for two decades, Michael Wiegers is the Executive Editor of Copper Canyon Press. Among the collections he has edited are award winning books by poets such as CD Wright, W.S. Merwin, Ruth Stone, Ted Kooser, Arthur Sze, and Alberto Ríos, as well as major works in translation by Pablo Neruda, Taha Muhammad Ali, and Ho Xuan Huong, and books by emerging authors Michael Dickman, Matthew Zapruder, Valzhyna Mort, and Brenda Shaughnessy, among many others. He additionally serves as Poetry Editor for Narrative Magazine, is the editor of two anthologies, This Art and The Poet’s Child, and is co-editor, with Mónica de la Torre, of Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry. His translations have been published in Connecting Lines: New Mexican Poetry, Five Points, The Great River Review, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, and he has published work in The American Poetry Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Publishers Weekly, and Rain Taxi, among others. He lives in Port Townsend, WA.
Jon Thompson: Could you tell me how Copper Canyon got started and how it came to be located in Port Townsend, Washington?
Michael Wiegers: Copper Canyon Press (CCP) was started by Sam Hamill, Tree Swenson, William O’Daly, and Jim Gautney after they had won an award for a literary journal they were editing in the late sixties/early seventies. They used the prize money to buy letterpress equipment and started making books by hand in Denver. A year after it was founded, they were invited to Port Townsend to be the press in residence for Centrum, teaching book arts workshops via the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference. At the time, Centrum was created to help convert Fort Worden State Park into an arts conference center, so Centrum invited artists of various genres to set up shop on the fort grounds. Copper Canyon became the visiting press in residence. Centrum also created various annual festivals and gatherings, primarily around music. CCP has been here since 1973.
JT: Copper Canyon has specialized in different kinds of poetry over the years, almost had different incarnations. What have been its different directions? How would you describe its different aesthetic orientations?
MW: Like most small indy presses, I’d say that the different incarnations at CCP are somewhat personality traits of the editorial staff, and somewhat intentional, but there are certain threads that run throughout—including a moral urgency backgrounding most of our books, as evidenced in the works of poets like Pablo Neruda, W.S. Merwin, Hayden Carruth, and Tom McGrath. If you are to look at the early books of the Press, you’ll see a number of books written by Press founder, Sam Hamill, alongside work by friends of the staff at the time. Like many presses today they were a small supportive group of friends who believed in each other and wanted to get the work out into the world. As the Press matured, they expanded their reach and started adding poets of greater national prominence, less regionalism. The books also moved from letterpress limited editions to offset trade editions. The reach expanded and started including more translations, especially our Neruda series and Asian translations. Once the Press became a nonprofit, the expansiveness increased because it was driven less by the personal contacts of the founders and more by its public mission. You can also see other editorial hands at work, such as when Tree Swenson took on a more prominent editorial role, with books like Lucille Clifton’s Book of Light. When Tree left the Press and I was hired you’ll start seeing some variation in the poetics, with the introduction of poets like CD Wright, Arthur Sze, at the same time that we maintain a very strong commitment to poets like Neruda, Carruth and Merwin. In recent years I’ve tried to expand the range of younger poets and the types of languages we publish out of. During the past few years we’ve moved beyond Spanish and Chinese and Greek to include Arabic, Norwegian, Belarusian, Vietnamese, etc. Ultimately I see our list operating in several different areas of focus: a commitment to our backlist; a commitment to master poets, including under-recognized masters; midlist poets who could use a boost in their profile; translations; younger and emerging poets. Within each of these areas I try to mix it up and not be predictable. I believe that most of our readers, would get bored if I were to publish in only one area—I know I would too—if we published only narrative poems it would get uninteresting, the same if we published only elliptical lyrics, or only translations from one language group. I avoid any schools of poetry, but try to understand them so that we can create some creative tension in relation to such schools. Jean Valentine is a different poet than Dean Young or Kenneth Rexroth or Valzhyna Mort–but they all have a place on our list.
JT: I’m interested in your reference to the press’s commitment to a “public mission.” Partly you seem to have in mind a mission to expose the public—or the poetry-reading public—to a diversity of poetic traditions in world literature. But I’m wondering if there are other implications in that term…
MW: I agree with what you say about a mission of “exposing the public…to a diversity of poetic traditions…” but it’s more than that. That’s perhaps both the surface and the underlayer. I think there is an element of that “exposing”, but we’re also being exposed to the public, to a larger poetry beyond CCP. I’m thinking as well in terms of what it means to be a nonprofit arts organization. We are not here to serve individual whims or monetary gains, and then foist our beliefs upon a reading public. I don’t believe nonprofits should be built around an individual director’s/founder’s/curator’s/editor’s whims. As a nonprofit, Copper Canyon is held in the public trust—it’s not a vehicle to serve my editorial caprice (even while I think a good editor will reserve some space to be capricious and unpredictable.)
Differing somewhat from Professor Bloom, I enjoy influence in the arts—I’d argue that no, not even poems exist sui generis,but that they are autochthonous to an environment of influence—and ultimately we have to look beyond the individual self if we are going to support vital, necessary poetry, rather than simply propping up a gathering of egos. My hope is that by looking to a mission that supports and sustains poetic influence–or otherness—that says there is a diversity of poetic tradition, Copper Canyon will both sustain and remake those larger traditions beyond the self. Look at the root of the word publishing: isn’t that what publishing is about? Coming out of and going beyond the self to a public? We’re not privashing or selfishing books, we’re publishing them. So why not make them public from the get go?
Also, from a strategic viewpoint, I’m thinking in terms of organizational sustainability. Most small presses are built upon the underpaid, tireless work of a few individuals. It’s not a sustainable model and a quick look at presses like the original North Point or Kayak or Ecco or, more recently, Curbstone, will show that when a press becomes dependent upon a single individual, a single vision or personality, their books will risk being abandoned or left out of print or languishing once that personality is no longer a part of the scene.
The world of poetry provides for a world of poetry. So I’m always trying to balance my personal experience and tastes as a reader and editor, against the larger idea of serving in the public interest—and I hope this balancing act provides some necessary, interesting tension. It’s like Lu Chi’s recommendation (translated by CCP founder Sam Hamill; cited famously in Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles”) to pay attention: the model is close at hand. The public, the world of poetry provides the model to serve a world of poetry.
JT: Could you talk a little bit about how Copper Canyon has worked toward “organizational stability”? That sounds like a crucial element of the press’s infrastructure. How does that work in practical terms? What are the elements that go into it?
MW: Most nonprofits start out with a charismatic leader, who has a strong vision of how the world might be changed or how a problem may be addressed. Some nonprofits may start in order to address a specific immediate problem—say a war or environmental disaster—but they may actually outlast that problem. If the reason for the organization’s nonprofit status is ongoing, its existence as an organization should be an ongoing concern as well. In order for those changes to happen, for the problem to be addressed, the organization must look to how it keeps addressing the issue. Nonprofit literary publishing exists because, we as a nation, decided that literary culture is important, and should be supported outside the regular marketplace.
We took intentional steps toward organizational stability years ago, with programs funded by the Mellon Foundation and the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Foundation, as well as the NEA’s Advancement programs. Each of these, in their own way encouraged nonprofits to truly look at themselves as organizations in service to a public good, with recognizable life cycles. Via Mellon, we looked to our board structures, our governing structures, leadership, and staffing, we looked at organizational charts, and personnel policies, at employee benefits policies–the sorts of things that help any business/organization function as an organization and survive over the long term, while thriving in the short term. This work has continued through various leadership transitions, which have allowed us to look beyond individual personalities and toward structures which create opportunities for individuals to thrive and be creative even while they are in service to a larger cause beyond that individual. The Lila Wallace program encouraged us to look beyond the self-congratulatory aspects of making great books to the idea that great poets need great readers—again this idea of looking outside to a larger community. And then NEA helped us look at real nuts and bolts things like office space, and staffing, and computers—infrastructure—as well financial management and self-assessment. All of these programs require organizations to track their activities, which becomes very instructive to the organizations themselves. The org starts seeing its strengths and weaknesses through such tracking.
We learned from these programs that one obvious way in which an organization can achieve stability is to look beyond the founders—or any given leader for that matter—and recognize founder’s syndrome. We needed to recognize as well the larger notion that we are serving a community and that starts with the internal community: take care of those who seek to serve the org mission. There’s a tendency to become enthralled with charismatic leaders, but they can’t do everything necessary to ensure that a nonprofit addresses its mission fully. A good leader will immediately start cultivating toward his or her successor—I know I want to look toward my own. Most nonprofit employees are underpaid and overworked, and the founders/leaders often put in excessive blood, sweat and tears—resulting in burnout and high turnover, which in turn means the organization is often attending to issues of transition rather than to its core mission. In our particular case we went through a number of disruptive changes in leadership which took a lot of focus away from the work of publishing poetry; by stabilizing our staff we can also stabilize our attention to mission. We addressed our own issues of leadership by instituting a management team structure, which not only ensures representation of all the important areas of Press activity and relieves some of the stress burnout, but also allows the Press to continue to work effectively even when there is a change in that team of leaders.
None of this is the sexy part of publishing, or being a mission-driven nonprofit–but it’s, in my view, extremely important.
JT: Earlier you spoke of the kinds of interests Copper Canyon has in terms of different poets, different poetries and traditions of poetries. Whatever the organizational infrastructure of a press (or lack thereof), it appears that most presses have a straightforward editorial procedure: a lot of manuscripts are directed at an editor and he or she selects the one or ones that seem most compelling, depending on that press’s resources. I know there are exceptions to this modus operandi—a few university presses involve more than one editor or have an editorial board that must grant its imprimatur before a manuscript can be accepted for publication—but my sense is that the single editor system, if one can call it that, remains the dominant model. Has Copper Canyon worked out any different system for selecting manuscripts?
MW: While we can’t afford to have several editors any more than we can afford to have several publicists or several accountants, I have tried to create a forum wherein there’s representation of different sensibilities.
We have several editorial systems in play here at CCP that help us get to a book–both in the acquisition and the actual editing of manuscripts—but I guess it ultimately simplifies as another form of management. Again, this press doesn’t exist to serve my personal whims, but I try to bring to it my personal experience as a “professional reader” who is committed to its mission as standing above my own tastes. I acquire books largely by keeping an ear to the ground and by always keeping myself open to other sensibilities beyond the “self-as-reader” with individual tastes. I believe we should be expansive in our aspirations for poetry, to go toward what we don’t know, rather than just what we know. For example I ask all of our authors: “who should I be reading?” I ask staff, and volunteers, and reviewers, and interviewers (tell me Jon: who should I be reading?), plus I read literary magazines and blogs and reviews and keep an eye out for different work that fills some role in the CCP list—and yes, strikes my interest, or that of other readers within the CCP community. I cast the net wide and see how what I catch fits into the traditions already established by the Press or pushes productively against them.
And then we have a submissions policy in addition to the proactive work we do. While the transom brings in a surprising number of books, it is also a lot of work, the great majority of which doesn’t bear fruit.
However, everything comes to my inbox, in a variety of ways, and once manuscripts arrive I’ll usually make some editorial snap judgments while also trusting the established support nets: I have a crew of volunteers, ranging from college professors to younger interns who help with the reading and reporting. And I always ask other staff to weigh in—even though they have their own overflowing, demanding jobs.
I have a basic framework I use: 18 books a year, comprised of an interesting, variable mixture of younger poets, establish masters, overlooked masters, translations, reissues and oddballs.
But this is just the acquisitions part of editing—the artistic direction. There are other editors who may work more directly on the manuscripts themselves—and by work I mean not only introducing marginalia, but serving as the book’s primary advocate after the author. For example, while I have a good relationship with Jim Harrison and offer him editorial feedback on his work, his editor is really Joseph Bednarik—our eagle-eyed marketing director. They are longtime friends and have a great working relationship. A large part of Jim’s being with CCP is Joseph, I think. And the work is sustaining for Joseph, he’s good at it, and it’s good for Jim. He knows the intricacies of Jim’s work, so why not help him shine in that capacity? Joseph will edit other poets, as well. Similarly, we have a big anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, and Alison Lockhart is taking the lead on that one. We can’t afford to hire a bunch of editors, but Alison is hired for two days a week to work specifically on this enormous project. That’s her baby. (And I know she works much beyond her clocked hours.) Similarly, she has been one of my trusted readers and has been instrumental in pushing the acquisition of several books on our list.
And last, but in no way least, David Caligiuri has been copyediting our books for years and there is no better copyeditor. It’s beyond copyediting. He has an incredibly delicate touch and makes each of our books so much better. I know he has our authors’ best interests at heart and alerts me to weaknesses he spots so that I might become better as an editor.
So yes, while there’s “single editor” here, this editor seeks to incorporate many ways of looking at the list. My hope is that our books will most often be met with a certain amount of surprise, at the same time they are received with recognition at its quality. “Wow! This is a Copper Canyon Press book??!” followed by “Oh yeah, of course it is…”
JT: Well, since you ask, one poet who I think is flat-out great—and who does not get the recognition he deserves— is the English poet, Peter Riley. Free Verse Editions, the poetry series I edit, published a book of his four or five years ago—Map of Faring and Shearsman just published his most recent collection, Greek Passages. His is poetry that I think will be remembered for a long time….but back to Copper Canyon. At one time, I think it is true to say that its list was more homogeneous. From an outsider’s point of view, now it is, I think, a list of surprises, which this reader, at any rate, appreciates –and it sounds like the different ways of thinking of poetry and its audience that you’ve described may be contributing to this. I’d like to connect this discussion to homogenization in the poetry world in general. Many of the debates about American poetry in the last 25 years or so have been conducted around the claims of New Formalism or New Formalism versus avant-garde or post avant-garde (or Language) poetry. There are many complicated issues involved here—and some not so complicated!—but one point often under-acknowledged is that stultifying orthodoxies and stultifying poetry can be found in the ranks of every camp. I’d suggest that the true enemy of poetry is not formalism or avant-garde poetics but homogeneity and predictability—a soul-destroying sameness that lacks verve, intelligence, risk-taking and drama. Yet—to my eye anyway—homogenized poetry fills many journals and lists. Your thoughts?
MW: I guess I tend to fall on the Romantic Keatsian side of things in what I aspire to with our list (and my role in it), preferring to embrace those mysteries, uncertainties and doubts. Is that possible, particularly in this age of smart phones and the need to know immediately? I don’t know. I also fade toward Rilke’s and Suzuki’s ideas of beginners: I’m no expert and seek amazement over a dogmatic need to make a point. I see those now-passé poetry camps—neo-formalism, language poetry, flarf, [insert trend here]— as little more than marketing campaigns, attempts to have one’s voice heard over the fray. They are, to me, attempts to commodify what CD Wright refers to as “non-taxable matter.” Even poetry’s practitioners try to rein this thing in, call it their own, colonize it. MFA programs and workshops are obvious targets, because they have seemingly brought on a commodification via the big business of education, but I see this as an effect, not a cause. Meanwhile, I’m just hoping to practice and cultivate a little wildness.
That said, I also am distrustful of the all too common stance of the wild outsider/maverick vs. some perceived, established majority. I just don’t think it exists, and this bad-boy/girl tendency is just another version of the above. To my mind and my reading, there is no homogenous poetry culture. I will differ with you about homogeneity in poetry: I believe that’s an overly reductive view of things. Poetry matters little to mass culture–or at least mass culture doesn’t recognize how much poetry does matter— so any emergent camp that we in the literary world identify is ultimately negligible and ostensibly operating in isolation. Yes there’s a numbing sameness to the submissions we receive over the transom—be they the retiree settling in to recollect the narratives of his life or the college student’s admirably arrogant lyricism or the workshops careful ellipticism—but if we look at poetry as a whole, relative to the larger McCulture, it’s pretty impressively varied. Would the film equivalent of Rae Armantrout win an Oscar? Where is the indy rock equivalent of Sherwin Bitsui? Does dance have its Sarah Lindsay?
Each day that I come to work, or browse a bookstore’s poetry shelf, I may not find what I’m looking for, but I’ll certainly find something else. I went into a store just yesterday looking for some Beckett and a Rothko biography and walked out instead with Deborah Digges’s beautiful last book. (A heartbreaker: that blowing sheet music in her title poem will stay with me for life.)
JT: I meant that I think that there are various homogenized poetry subcultures that have colonized different parts of the poetry world; I certainly don’t believe in monolithic homogenization. But I also think it is true that a lot depends upon where and how one looks at the poetry world: while there is the valley floor, there are impressive peaks, perhaps all the more impressive due to not just McCulture, as you put it, but the poetry biz world itself.
Whatever about that, you rightly note that “poetry matters little to mass culture”; at the same time, you earlier made the passionate argument that “The public, the world of poetry provides the model to serve a world of poetry.” I’ve been wondering about that. In one sense, I think I understand you; in another sense, I wonder inasmuch as most of the public doesn’t read poetry or buy much of it. This marginalization has certain compensations to my mind—certain freedoms—but given poetry’s relatively small audience in the US, I’m interested in your thinking on how the public provides the model of support.
MW: I think what I was trying to get at about the public providing a model is like that Wen Fu axe handle: the model is at hand; the variety of the world provides an innovative variety in poetry. Poetry sustains us so that we sustain it and vice versa—I believe that both at CCP and in the poetry culture at large, and hell yes, the world at large—even though some might seek to destroy it like the Buddhas of Bamiyan. If poetry didn’t exist someone would invent it. Consider the importance of poetry to Eli Wiesel and Jacques Lusseyran: the very act of poetry kept some alive.
Now poets and poetry publishers—and other vehicles for broadening its reach and influence—are not well supported. The market avoids poetry because poetry is so hard to commodify, hard to wrassle into singularity. Meanwhile poetry avoids nothing; it is necessary, to my mind and—if you point out its unrecognized occurrences in their lives—I trust that most people will likely agree.
JT: The Association of American University Presses recently released a 2009-2010 survey of member presses called “Digital Publishing in the AAUP Community” which reported that 91.5% of member presses now have backlist “short run digital printing” and/or “print on demand” (SRDP/POD) programs and 69.5% have front-list SRDPD/POD programs. Does Copper Canyon use an offset model of publishing exclusively or is it availing of this new technology? I was interested to see that just a couple of weeks ago, when I ordered a title from Farrar Straus & Giroux,—Peter Handke’s Across—that it was printed by Lightening Source, a prominent SRDP company.
MW: POD/SRDP started off almost as a pejorative and that seems to be changing. Copper Canyon does use SRDP technology for some of its books, but we always prefer offset. Digital printing is still expensive and I’ve seen some terrible production values on books printed this way, so I’m not terribly fond of it, but there are cases where we may need to bridge a gap, or the technology may make the difference toward keeping a book available. We prefer working with Bookmobile because of the quality they provide—it’s very comparable to offset—and the years of attention they bring to traditional book arts. Just as early letterpress books from Copper Canyon were often very unappealing and later work became lovely, so too will the early SRDP books be imperfect. As designers design to the technology, and producers push it into new possibilities, I hope we’ll find that it will become better, and the reading experience more appealing. (The same may be said of ebooks…)
Having said this, I’m very concerned about the art of the book and how we continue to value the sensuous experience of reading from a well-made volume. As we look to future technology, I also want to look at creative book arts—the way New Directions has done with Anne Carson’s new book or McSweeney’s has been doing for years. People still value that sort of experience, and I really want to encourage it.
JT: It is interesting that at a moment in history when publishing poetry is economically challenging that there are perhaps more ways of publishing poetry than ever before—traditional off-set publishing, digitally-produced book publishing, e-books, hand-press books, free downloadable books, and so on.
MW: I don’t know if publishing poetry has ever not been challenging economically, first of all. However, I believe poetry will always push against the boundaries to get itself out there into the world. By any means necessary… I happen to still believe that the human voice and the book are the two best ways of bringing it to the world, however.
JT: What are some of Copper Canyon’s more popular titles in recent years?
MW: W.S. Merwin’s Shadow of Sirius as well as Migration: New & Selected; Taha Muhammad Ali’s So What; Heather McHugh’s Upgraded to Serious; CD Wright’s Rising Falling Hovering ; Michael Dickman End of the West ; Matthew Zapruder The Pajamist ; Brenda Shaughnessy; Human Dark With Suga; Ted Kooser Delights & Shadows ; All of our Neruda translations.
JT: Where will Copper Canyon go from here? Does it have any new directions or new plans in the works? Or is the press more interested in consolidating the publishing program you sketched out earlier ?
MW: This is a tough one, particularly during these times of digital change, et al.
First of all, we’ll consolidate our publishing program, attending to and serving poets in their various aesthetics, languages, sensibilities, etc. We can continue to improve and publish the best in poetry, and serve poets well.
Toward that end I think it’s important for us to look to be more expansive, which may mean more digital work. While it’s a bit of the tail wagging the dog, I would like for CCP to be at the forefront of poetry’s digital publishing. We don’t have the resources to guide this, but we do have the influence and attention to craft. Currently the market share for poetry isn’t enough for Amazon to consider line breaks and cascading stanzas for the Kindle. Maybe CCP can play a role in how poetry finds a home in that world.
Ultimately, I think the Press will need to engage more collaborations, using its strengths alongside those of others as we engage innovation on behalf of poetry. So I hope we’ll be working with others to bring our know-how forward on behalf of poets. Perhaps we can be something of an incubator for poetry readers, or those who may not yet know they like poetry. I like to think in the model of W. S. Merwin’s palm forest and home there: CCP could cultivate a verdant inconvenience that acknowledges something special in the world and reclaims a sacred space for the undervalued.