Part 2: Start Your Own Press
For years, I dreamed of starting my own press that would bring out the work of all these gifted writers along with my own and get our shows on the road. Despite my initial success in contests, interest in my work diminished as my fascination with the poem as a visual life in space increased. Once I abandoned the more traditional long line that started and returned to the left margin for a form that flowed from the emotional logic of the voice and used the whole page as canvas to bring this voice to life on the page, I was ‘out there’ on my own. Clearly, the more inventive I became, the more I reduced my already slim chances of winning a competition. I had stepped over the line. Journal editors remarked on the interesting form that would be a ‘typesetting nightmare’ to publish. Others found it too distracting. With each submission I offered to have the poem typeset myself if it interested the journal editors. (Those who accepted my poems did not ask me to do that.) Clearly, if I was ever to see my poems collected in a book, I would have to publish my own.
Other friends were coming to the same conclusion about their own books. Either bite the bullet and risk castigation by the literary elite for self-publishing or abandon the work to the bottom of a dusty file cabinet. Neither solution was attractive: inviting public criticism or disappearing. Of the two, I chose the first; the latter was unthinkable. I would give myself one more year to find a way to start my own press, but if unsuccessful, I’d publish my book myself despite the fact that my preference was always to publish other work beside my own. The dilemma was more than personal; it was and still is universal.
I had no training or experience with publishing but that seemed very surmountable. I knew the books I wanted to print. I had a clear vision of what books should look like. I had ideas. Lots of ideas. Which I shared freely with anyone who would listen– Alan, my husband, Molly Peacock, my mentor, my friends, other poets, other mentors. I talked and talked…and talked. Interestingly enough, especially given my complete lack of confidence during the first three-quarters of my writing life, I had full confidence that I could create this dream press of mine. I had come through a Ph.D. program with a concentration in research, and those skills taught me a bit about how to explore more than human behavior. I would follow the same logic to learn about publishing. What I didn’t have was money. More than a minor problem.
I continued to talk. I continued to dream.
My mission became all the more urgent as I heard more and more stories about friends without publishers—in some cases after three or four books (maybe all with different presses). It had always been my assumption that once you found a publisher for your first book, your problems were solved—you could count on them to publish subsequent work (provided of course that the art remained at the highest level.) Discovering that one cannot assume one has a home with a publisher at least until one has published several books and developed a significant name in the literary community, was devastating. Publishers for the most part only supported poets whose careers were already made.
My concerns were broadening, crystallizing. Given the paucity of publishing venues for poetry, the absence of opportunities for first book publication (other than those supported by fee for entry competitions), an apparent bias against older writers, as well as one against psychological and emotionally daring work, I dreamed of a press established, first, to provide publishing opportunities for gifted writers under-recognized or rejected by the literary mainstream, and secondly, to create a community of and for writers: a home where writers could share their art and the products of that art with each other and with the greater community of readers. My childhood living in a small blue-collar community which took on each other’s burdens as their own as well as my early years at The Frost Place Center for Poetry and Arts in Franconia, New Hampshire formed the bedrock of my commitment to a community of writers. A community of writers and a community or readers: I wanted to do my part to make that happen.
Along the way it became clear that to sell poetry, publishers needed to expand its audience. Since marketing and selling books will only be as successful as is the product/literature desirable, the way to sell poetry is to increase both its availability and relevance to general audiences. But poetry isn’t discovered in book stores. One doesn’t happen on a great book of contemporary poetry displayed on front tables; these are reserved for Stephen King, John Grisham and self-help. Poetry tends to be hidden on back shelves and must be searched out. But only by those who know it’s there—poetry enthusiasts, not the general reader.
Poetry can often overwhelm and intimidate the general reader; in fact, many believe they aren’t smart enough to understand it, that it’s more intelligent and more important than they are. It stands apart from them—several steps above them. It makes them feel small.
I knew first- hand how intimidating poetry can be based on the way it was taught to me in college (it was never part of my grade or high school curriculum)—day after day dissecting word after word after word of The Wasteland. Alas, that experience was a wasteland for me and turned me away from poetry for many years. Not surprisingly, readers like me, diminished by the arcane ways that poetry was presented would not turn to it for pleasure or solace as those who love it do. It follows that to sell books of poetry, publishing’s challenge would be to create a readership that cares about it and believes it cares about them. Fortunately for me, many years later, having experienced the endless bliss one finds in the simple but profound brilliance of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman, I returned to poetry and fell very deeply in love.
In my subsequent fantasies of my dream press, I vowed that it would increase poetry’s relevance to a general readership by publishing fine art that centered on real people living real lives and written in fine but accessible language. Ours would be a poetry of heart and emotion rather than exclusively intellect and ideas. Our challenge (and that of the broader literary/publishing community), would also include bringing that poetry to its readers rather than waiting for the audience to come to it. That would require an outreach program that brought the poems and poets to people where they live— in their homes, community centers, offices, hospitals, prisons, schools, geriatric centers, shelters. I was dreaming. I was planning. I was ready. Where would the money come from?