NEW YORK CITY has seen plenty of ruin over the last two decades, from the ash and debris of 9/11 to the flooding and wreckage of Hurricane Sandy. But for over 20 years, Four Way Books has also been building something of its own, a city within a city, something cognizant of — but also impervious to — that ruin. Founded in 1991 by a group of friends from graduate school, Four Way Books has evolved into a thriving small press, publishing some of the most interesting, aesthetically diverse collections of poetry and fiction in the country.
Everyone seems to agree: the press' director, Martha Rhodes, is at the heart of the enterprise that is Four Way Books. Of her initial dream, Rhodes, one of the press' four founding editors, remarks: “The mission was simple: create more publishing opportunities for writers of merit. I wanted to focus on poetry, and eventually, create openings for short fiction, as well.” She had had some experience in publishing. After college, she’d worked at Viking Press for a few years, and she’d worked in her husband’s graphics studio. “I saw the need for more publishers,” says Rhodes, who these days also teaches in the writing programs at Sarah Lawrence and Warren Wilson Colleges. “A lot of my friends were sending work out — I was sending work out, too — and it was hard going. I thought I could help the situation by publishing a few books a year.”
Tragedy struck early on, when Beth Stahlecker, one of the original group of graduate school friends, died from cancer. Four Way's founding editors — Rhodes, Jane Brox, Dzivinia Orlowsky, and Helen Fremont — later honored her memory by publishing her collection of poems, Three Flights Up, as the first in a series of books named for her. Brox recalls that the biggest obstacle early on “may have been the logistics. We worked with hard copy manuscripts. Martha was living in New York, I was north of Boston on my family's farm, Dzvinia, with two small children, lived south of Boston. We didn't have the help of the Internet, so we were constantly traveling to each other's houses, hauling manuscripts, conferring, reading together, discussing.”
Rhodes agrees that the going was tough those first years. “Doing all the work from standing in line at the post office, to licking stamps, to bringing material back to the post office to mail. No email. No cell phones. No database system. No knowledge of grant writing. In the earliest days, it seemed at times, when the work was most demanding and exhausting, that Four Way Books was running solely on tenacity, honesty, good will, and excitement.” The press released its first books in 1995: Sue Standing’s Gravida, Lynn Domina’s Corporal Works, and Stephen Knauth’s Twenty Shadows. These books — as well as other early releases, such as the book-length poem Eye of the Blackbird, by Mary Ann McFadden — aren’t perhaps as well-known as they should be. “We weren’t as much on the radar then as we are now,” Rhodes admits. “These are terrific books.”
Eventually, Brox, Fremont, and Orlowsky left the press to pursue their own creative projects, leaving Rhodes at the helm of the project she had pioneered. “After a few years of publishing one or two books a year,” recalls Brox, “[Martha] wanted to grow the press (rightly so), and I was a bit scared of being overwhelmed by that commitment — not sure I could keep up with the obligations it would entail, or the time, when I was also trying to find time for my own work. I was working on my family's farm then, and also was involved in the complexities of that. So, the parting was mutual. And I feel absolutely it was the right thing not only for me but for the press. My hesitancy would have held things back.” Brox has gone on to publish four books, most recently Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light. Orlowsky teaches in the MFA program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts; her fifth collection of poetry, Silvertone, will be published in 2013. And Fremont published a memoir, After Long Silence, in 2000.
Four Way, meanwhile, continued growing by leaps and bounds, increasing both its presence and visibility. The press connected with the University Press of New England, which now distributes its books. It developed a residency program that each year sends writers to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. It began building an Internet presence and launched another book contest. “Martha has always been the visionary behind Four Way,” Brox says. “I see that especially in hindsight. I look at Four Way now and I can't quite believe it: its endurance and quality, and its innovations. That's all Martha; it’s a far different press than I ever imagined it would be back when we first began.”
But the evolution of the press hasn’t been easy. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, posed a serious threat to the survival of the press. The weeks after the attack were chaotic, restless, and filled with uncertainty for Rhodes and for Four Way Books — as they were for most New Yorkers and for many other Americans, too. The press’ close proximity to Ground Zero — its offices are located just a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site — heightened the anxiety and complicated the return to any sense of normalcy. “Four Way Books had to shut down business for about three weeks,” Rhodes recalls. “Our NYC staff could not get into work, the area was cordoned off, the smell was terrible, staff was afraid to come into the area, and, frankly, I needed to gather my wits.”
It took about a month for their phone service to be restored. Voicemail, however, took a year, and when it was finally restored, it brought “messages from that day to us twelve months or so later.” The first fax they received after plugging in the fax machine was a book order. "We danced around the office. We were back in business.”
After the initial shock of 9/11, there were many challenges still to come for Four Way Books, and for Rhodes, both personally and professionally. “In the early days following 9/11,” she recalls, “I felt very detached from Four Way Books and pretty much went through the days glued to the television, replaying footage of what I had witnessed over and over and over again. My husband and I fell asleep with the TV on, in case there were emergency alerts, and slept fully clothed, ready to run.”
Other challenges arose and obstacles mounted. Rhodes had lost her mother in 2000, and now her father’s health was failing. Inevitably, donations to the press dropped after the attacks, by 30 percent. Her husband’s business, located just two blocks from the WTC site, had been directly affected, and the looming possibility of foreclosure on both their home and business made for many sleepless nights and anxious days. “We stood to lose everything,” Rhodes remembers. “But as it became easier to travel into our area, work resumed and with that, my spirits — truly — lifted. I was able to compartmentalize my anxiety, my grief for the victims and victims' families, my fear for the neighborhood, the city, other cities, my worry for my own future. I do believe, to this day, that having to rise every morning and work on behalf of my authors and staff, was something that made me stronger and made the press stronger.”
Then, “out of the blue,” Four Way Books received a $25,000 gift from the Carnegie Foundation in support of nonprofit organizations in New York City. They were the only press to receive such a gift. “We went into high(er) gear. Even with the ‘lost’ weeks, we didn't skip a beat. Didn't miss a deadline or an order. We approached more donors, held events, and scheduled new books.” The press was back on its feet, and it was growing. “The gift from Carnegie helped us financially, of course, but more important, it helped our morale. We were amazed that someone out there flagged us to receive the grant, that our work was deemed that important, that essential.” The grant also had “a profound impact” on Rhodes personally: “It made me realize that what we do is noble work.”
That “noble work” is probably best told through the work and the words of the authors who call Four Way Books home. When New York City was thrown into chaos by the events of 9/11, for example, Tina Chang’s first poetry manuscript was nearly complete. “It is the story of the eve of my beginning,” she writes in “Origin & Ash,” the opening poem of Half-Lit Houses, which Four Way published in 2004:
I hear the cries of horses, long faces famished, the night the barn burned.
God and ashes everywhere.
For Chang, 9/11 sparked a creative crisis. “Initially,” Chang writes, “September 11 felt like the end of my creativity. I found it difficult to focus on anything other than Ground Zero, news reports, and the recovery of the individuals who were lost there. I didn’t know those individuals but, like everyone else, I found comfort in knowing something about them. Small details of their lives would anchor me to the earth.” During those difficult days, Chang felt “quite distant” from poetry. “I wasn’t asking how the magnitude of that loss could be processed into poems. I thought it might be the end of me.”
It wasn’t, of course. She submitted the manuscript of Half-Lit Houses to Four Way’s Intro Prize contest in 2003. Her book wasn’t selected, but she was excited when Rhodes contacted her to say she’d like her to read at the Bowery Poetry Club anyway. “I was disappointed that I hadn’t won the competition,” Chang recalls, “but excited to read at such a respected venue and to work with Four Way so I agreed.” After the reading, Chang received an email saying Four Way wanted to publish the book as part of their 2004 series. “You can imagine the excitement, rush, elation I felt,” says Chang, who has since served as Poet Laureate of Brooklyn and taught at Sarah Lawrence and Hunter Colleges.
Many of the poems in Half-Lit Houses had “found their footing at Columbia,” where Chang had received her MFA in 1997, but the years between graduate school and her first book publication had been hard. After Columbia, she booked a flight to California for a change of scenery. “Leaving New York gave me the solitude I needed to write intensely, though after a few years I found myself missing Manhattan so I returned.” Back in New York, Chang found herself “living the life of a fledgling poet, bouncing around from home to home” as she continued to write. Four Way’s publication of Half-Lit Houses changed everything for Chang. “I received opportunities to read, travel, teach, mentor in the United States and abroad,” she says. “I was welcomed by organizations and venues I only dreamed of collaborating with before. Being introduced by Four Way, it felt, gave me concrete opportunities but it also gave me the confidence I needed to move forward as a poet.”
Out of that terrible crucible of 9/11 came a second collection: Of Gods & Strangers, which Chang says began as a dream: “I was riding the L train and as the train passed lower Manhattan, I glimpsed the Twin Towers. I was overwhelmed, grateful that the Towers hadn’t been destroyed. As the train moved closer I pressed my face to the glass and realized the Towers were not made of steel and concrete but of pages of paper. The wind blew fiercely until, page by page, the buildings disappeared and I was left bereft once again.”
For a long time, Chang tried to understand the significance of her recurring dream about the train and the Twin Towers. “I wrote and rewrote my interpretation of that moment in my journals. It ultimately became one of the final poems of my book in a section called ‘Author’s Notes on Imaginary Poems.’ And, in this way, it’s as if the book works backward. Throughout the entirety of the book, I am working through the mystery of those fluttering pages until, on page 1, in a poem called ‘Unfinished Book of Mortals,’ I realize that the pages in my dream were ledgers of the living. All of our names were there: Yours and mine. I could mourn those lost on 9/11 but I could also honor everyone who continues to live.”
Of Gods & Strangers is, in many ways, Chang’s attempt to reinvent herself. “I could make a book of it, out of ash,” she says in “Book.” “I want what is beyond my reach,” she admits in “Possibility.” In “Charlatan, Self-Styled,” she writes,
I have nearly boiled myself in a brew to start again,
had my girls mix up a tincture of new me
in a new era. I shine having risen
from the bottom, the soles
of my feet still smoldering.
“Poets are resilient beings,” Chang notes. She cites her work (along with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar) on the international anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) as one of several things that led her back to her own poetry after 9/11. “I was particularly interested in poets living and writing in the Middle East. Through reading their work, I embarked on an imagined conversation with them. Their poems and the poems of those living in places like Tibet, Burma (or Myanmar), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan struck a chord with me. I began writing poems in response to their work. In this way, they guided me back to writing.”
The other key element in Chang’s poetic self-reinvention was her relationship with Four Way Books. It was that relationship, she says, “that kept me thinking about voice and the importance of communication. If poetry was the vehicle, Four Way fueled me by asking, ‘How is your work coming along? What are you writing about these days? What are you thinking about?’ When someone takes it upon herself to ask about your creative process, the immediate reaction is to respond. As I worked on my second collection, I felt excited to show the manuscript to Martha. I valued her opinion and I was excited for the exchange between writer and editor.”
One reason that Four Way is so deeply invested in their authors’ work — not just as a product to sell but as a process to nurture — is the fact that everyone involved in the core operations of the press is also a writer: its founding editor, its associate directors, even its current publicist. Rhodes, the author of four books of poems, most recently The Beds (Autumn House Press), understands intimately the struggles a poet experiences during that final stage of putting a manuscript together. She draws on her own experience to offer advice. For some authors, that means pushing them through revisions in order to see their poems in a new light; for others, it might mean rethinking the book’s organization. “It's important,” she says, “to challenge the manuscript. Make it bigger, make it smaller. Start here, end here. Start there, end there. Sections, no sections. 80 pages? 45 pages. 60 pages, 79 pages. 52 pages. Start hot? End cold? Start hot? Stay hot? What's the temperature at any given point in the book. Is cold indicative of distance, of remove? Or could cold be a cover up for extreme intensity, heat? What does the temperature indicate? Too much first person? Too much in the present tense? Any stylistic mannerisms that are becoming annoying?” As for form, repetition, and other devices, she asks, “Is there too much? Is it effective? What does it bring to the work?”
While Four Way’s authors “have generally already gotten to this point by the time they submit their work,” Rhodes advises her students (and, in her own work, reminds herself) “to look for the most essential poems in the collection — the poems they feel the book cannot live without, and to start to build from there — usually twelve to fifteen pages.” Working out from that core group, she looks for poems that “make sense when put into proximity with the other poems.”
Victoria Redel praises the “tough-ass enthusiasm” the editors at Four Way showed her work. Woman Without Umbrella, published by Four Way this fall, is Redel’s third collection of poetry; her first book, Already the World, won the Wick Poetry Prize in 1995, and Swoon was released by the University of Chicago Press in 2003. Four Way will also be publishing her next work of fiction, and Redel, who until now has “had a different publisher for every book,” says it’s “kind of wonderful” to have two works — fiction and poetry — with the same publisher for a change. Four Way’s editors, she says, had “a pretty remarkable way of getting me to revisit some of the poems — in one case, entirely rewriting a poem so only one line remained from the original and the form of the poem entirely changed.” And, Redel insists, that careful attention to detail has made Woman Without Umbrella a better book.
Some of Redel’s poems even seem to hint at the poet’s process. In the book’s first poem, a boy asks, “Can you even remember the way it began?” “Are you listening?” asks the speaker of another poem. “If you are, save me from this story.” “Nevertheless,” Redel writes in one of several poems entitled “Woman Without Umbrella,” there were accidents/ and other misfortunes.” The poems of that titular sequence — all of them short, breathless, gnomic lyrics — read like an oracle not only of what Redel calls “the sweep of the lived life,” but also of the creative struggles of the poet: “It went like this:” she writes in “Woman Without Umbrella, Tarot,”
disaster, disaster, ridiculously bad disaster,
until she somehow woke into a calm easy every day
that her friends tried, to no avail, to convince her might actually be love.
In one of the few poems in the book that relies on short, sharply broken lines, “Ungodly,” Redel seizes on the powerlessness of the imagination — and, by association, of poetry — to change reality, to produce a desired result:
…I woke only mortal
with mortal terror
that my sole power
was this imagination
which, reckless or calculating
as all the esteemed
medicines and gods,
would not help you
live till morning.
Nevertheless, she writes in “Prayer For the New Year After Reading the Newspaper,” it is possible to “[begin] to forget” our “capture and shock” in the face of the things we can’t control: war, death, and the changing of the seasons. “There was much / we agreed, that must be done,” she writes. “We began to do it.”
Redel says she doesn’t “trust too much what we all say about process, especially in hindsight,” though in fact she comes across as very clear-sighted about her own process. “In Swoon,” she writes, “I hoped that the cumulative effect was simultaneity: a this and this and this. In Woman Without Umbrella the passage of time is significant to the book.” Redel makes expert use of a long line and the white space between lines to manage that passage of time. But time operates askew in this book, despite starting with “The Way It Began” and ending with “The Way It Ended”: poems with titles like “Suddenly,” “First,” “Later Still, Then,” “And Then,” and “And, Finally,” help coordinate our sense of temporal dislocation.
Redel “scribbled” many of the poems in Woman Without Umbrella while she was working on her novel, The Border of Truth. “I was barely aware that I’d even written them but as I came to the close of the novel I wanted nothing more than to write poems. I longed for the compression and speed of the poem after the big bulky unwieldy novel form. So after the novel came out, I tucked in and starting making poems. Of course I immediately saw that ‘speed’ was a fantasy, and that to achieve the illusion of speed — to find the shape of each poem and of a book of poems — was actually slow going.”
“If I wanted,” she says, “for Swoon to have the intensity of the fullness of one life — mind and body, daily and spiritual — in an instant, then Woman Without Umbrella has, I hope, more of a narrative arc, and not the narrative of one individual but of one and many individuals. Though ‘Woman’ is a singular this is not a book about one woman.” A woman in one poem asks, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Another one, later on, confesses, “I wanted to be the one to tell you there is nothing / too small in this world to love.” Yet another laments, “We are each pieced of sadness. / I stand with her in messy darkness.”
Time and again, Four Way’s authors praise the meticulous editorial feedback they receive as one of the press’ most distinguishing characteristics. “I think readers might be surprised,” writes Kevin Prufer, “to know that aggressive editing of poetry books often doesn't take place at other presses.” Prufer, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and is also editor-at-large of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing, has published two collections of poetry with Four Way, with a third in contract. “At most presses I know about, the author turns in the book and, if it's accepted, it winds up being published in pretty much the version the author sent. This might sound luxurious, but it's really destructive to the art. Like novelists, memoirists, and historians, poets need editors. Good editors are vital to helping to turn a stack of solid (or not-so-solid) poems into a coherent book.”
Prufer’s first collection with Four Way, National Anthem, came out in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. Its setting (“even the post-apocalyptic, science-fictiony stuff”) is ostensibly Warrensburg, Missouri, “a very small town about an hour’s drive east of Kansas City.” Prufer lived and taught there for 15 years. “There’s a Wal-Mart out by the highway that has sucked up most of the business that, thirty years ago, would have taken place downtown. The train rumbles through the middle of town several times a day. Down the road is Whiteman Air Force Base.” Despite the rural location, and the distance from major urban, literary, centers, Prufer “felt a very strong connection to world affairs in Warrensburg; stronger, I think, than I'd have felt in L.A. or New York.”
In poems such as “What We Did with the Empire” and “Dead Soldier,” Prufer “poured [his] anxiety, horror, embarrassment and anger about American international politics in general and the Bush administration in particular.” In “Apocalypse,” the landscape is haunted by “the dead float[ing] in their coffins like sailors,” and the moon falls “like a bomb.” “Every day, the B2 bomber flew over my house,” Prufer recalls. “Students in my classroom often wore military fatigues and some went off to fight while others had recently returned from the wars.” But it wasn’t just a sense of outrage over “George Bush's wars” that drove these poems. “There's something about living in a place along Highway 70 and the train tracks that made me feel, strangely, in the middle of an enormous economy through which goods and people were constantly passing.” Something of that optimism is captured in poems like “We Wanted to Find America”:
And all night long, the nation reconstituted itself
so by dawn the light played its ringed fingers over the dashboard and said,
fellow Americans, wake up and see what I have made for you….
Prufer’s second collection with Four Way — his fifth book of poems — appeared in 2011. He considers In a Beautiful Country “the third book in a trilogy,” after Fallen From a Chariot and National Anthem. All three books, he says, are concerned with:
the idea of empire. The questions I imagine them wrestling with are these: What does it mean to say an empire has borders when those borders are less clearly geographical, when they are cultural, virtual, electronic, and ambiguous? And what does it mean to be an American in a time when America's behavior in the world (if an empire can be said to "behave") has been destructive (and arrogant) in so many ways? How complicit are her citizens in this? Can America be likened to Ancient Rome and, if so, is it falling? And how is a failing empire like a failing human body? Can one write elegies for both?
Prufer does just that in the poem “Late Empires,” whose title is appended by the words, “a dead girl by the road.” The girl, apparently killed by a man who is now “far away / sleeping on a hotel bed, / singing to the radio,” is equated with empire throughout the poem:
the girl fell when he hit her hard.
The girl cried out
and, like Rome, fell on her broken arm
on the roadside.
The girl cried in the sun
on the gravel,
and a knife
to the baths, a knife to the libraries,
knife to the Palatine, knife to the slums,
knife to the throat
that wanted only
to keep its voice inside it.
Poems like “Patriot Missile” (“I’ve forged a metal face / to cover up my face. / My brain is made of coils, my heart of wires.”) and “Near Whiteman Air Force Base” (“when the bombers / rise from the night-lit base, they say Hello, children!”) recall the war-driven angst of National Anthem, but in some ways, In a Beautiful Country is more an elegy for the innocence that was left behind one beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001. “The New Century” and “What I Gave the 20th Century” (“I gave it thirty years. It wanted more.”) are reminders of a world we no longer have access to, but these poems also seem acutely aware that the events of the first decade of that “new century” are the fires in which this poet was forged. As Prufer writes in “Citizen,”
Late in the twentieth century
and for many years had nothing
Still, he wastes little time on nostalgia. “Kiss its cheek, then smooth its sad, gray hair,” he writes in a brutal little sonnet called “The 20th Century.” “And if it finds no comfort from your visit,/ put a pillow to its mouth, and, so, be done with it.”
Prufer’s sixth book, the tentatively titled Churches, is forthcoming from Four Way. These new poems “see the world kaleidoscopically,” he says. In one of them, “a man who lives beneath the wing of a giant bird observes the wars taking place among the villages in the valley below him.” In another, “a surgeon keeps losing objects — scalpels, sponges, wedding rings, shot glasses — inside the bodies of his patients. Or a bomb in a suitcase imagines what it's going to do to the train. I came to poetry through storytelling — and I began as a fiction writer — so this book marks a return to my original interests.”
Prufer credits Sally Ball, one of Four Way’s two associate directors, for “helping me see trouble spots in my poetry, big and small.” Sally Ball started working with Four Way Books in 1996, after meeting Rhodes at a gathering of Warren Wilson MFA alumni. “I was working then at the International Writers Center at Washington University in St. Louis (back when it was run by William H. Gass), where I'd been learning the ins and outs of grant-writing. I approached Martha, who'd made a presentation about having started this new press, and offered to help with grants in particular, which felt to me like doubling down on the usefulness of the grant-immersion.” Later, Ball also took on the task of editing manuscripts that had been accepted for publication, and eventually she took on the role of scouting talent herself.
Ball, who is also an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University, calls her “long-distance intimacy” with the press’ New York-based editors “pretty congenial”: “Even if I lived in New York,” she says, “I suspect we'd still do the majority of the work we do via email from different offices.” Besides, Ball also teaches full-time; and when asked how her teaching undergraduate and graduate students impacts her role as an editor for Four Way, she jokes, “I've most often been asked to answer this question in reverse: how does my work as an editor affect my teaching?” which, she says, is “easier to answer”: “There's the obvious time clash, the vortex of not enough, which all writers know: poems, jobs, family, life [...] I'm a poet who teaches, and I get to see both the aesthetic side and the business side of literary publishing. It's all pretty humbling, and the demarcation of influence must necessarily look like a Venn diagram. All three require me to be an open, intense reader.”
Four Way’s other associate director is Ryan Murphy, author of Down With the Ship and The Redcoats. When Murphy first started working with Four Way about eight years ago, he was helping around the office and screening submissions for the press’ two book prizes: the Intro Prize for a first book and the Levis Prize. But when “the wonderful poet and filmmaker Cynthia Lowen decided to move on” sometime around 2006, Murphy says, “Martha invited me to take over her position.” Working with Four Way, he says, has given him “the opportunity to see almost every aspect of the business, from picking up mail at the post office, stuffing envelopes, reading manuscripts, and fulfilling orders, through overseeing design and production, creating ads and catalogs, managing a database, and perhaps most rewarding, working directly with authors as an editor.”
For Murphy, who also works on design projects (including book covers and typesetting) and manages the press’ donor database, “structure and dedication and trust” are at the heart of Four Way’s ethic. He acknowledges that “Martha, Sally and I certainly write differently, and may talk about poetry in different terms, but I think by and large we actually have a great deal of overlap in terms of the work that we find compelling. Which is to say that I don't think that any of us are dogmatic in our tastes, and try to be as democratic as possible in our reading.”
When it comes to articulating what he’s looking for when he’s reading manuscripts, Murphy insists, “I can only say that what appeals to me in poetry, of all kinds and of all aesthetics, is a sense of inevitability and yet at the same time surprise, be that in terms of syntax, metaphor, structure, or narrative. This may sound like a simplistic answer, but I think it remains the foundation of not only what appeals to me as a reader but what I strive for in my own work. And such qualities, regardless of the formal aesthetic background they may arise from (if any), are always a pleasure to discover.”
That sense of aesthetic openness is something many of Four Way’s authors admire, too. Prufer, for example, cites it as one of the things he loves most about the press: “[Four Way] really doesn’t have a particular ‘aesthetic’ that anyone I know can point to. This, I think, is ideal for a small press, because the output reflects both the high standards of their sensibilities and the breadth of their interests.” Tina Chang feels that the press has been “quite fearless when it comes to publishing new poets and has been at the forefront of introducing emerging voices,” while C. Dale Young credits the “Catholic” tastes of Four Way’s editors and their commitment not to a particular aesthetic but to “work they feel they can stand behind 100 percent.”
Young, a radiation oncologist living in San Francisco, spends most days in the clinic. “I don’t really lead a double life,” he insists, saying that the two worlds he inhabits — poetry and medicine — “don’t interact much with each other. The reality is I get precious little time to devote to my writing. But when I get time, I try to use it well. For the vast majority of my time, I am simply a doctor. I have long resigned myself to that fact.”
“Simply a doctor” is something of an understatement for a poet who is keenly aware of the body, its potentialities and its limitations, its capacity for caring, but also for violence and lust. In “Sotto Voce,” from his second book of poems, The Second Person, Young’s speaker and a friend
[roll] around in bed fully clothed,
mimicking one of a dozen sordid scenes:
always the imitations, the assignments
to be fulfilled — each verb precise, each
adverb filled with practiced lust —
our sin rehearsed until it was flawless.
There wasn’t anything simple about getting that second book published; in fact, its history is a bit convoluted. Young eventually published The Second Person with Four Way Books in 2007. But the book almost didn’t get published at all. “Within months of finishing the manuscript,” Young recalls, “it was accepted by Neil Azevedo at Zoo Press. The book was to be released at the 2005 AWP in Vancouver. It entered production but never got any further. Neil wouldn't answer emails. At AWP, no book. Then, I discovered the press had folded. I wasn't surprised considering for months and months no one at the press seemed to know what was happening. It was a really terrible experience.” Young decided to send the manuscript to Four Way Books, and the rest is history.
Young published his next book with Four Way, too. “We try to follow our authors, book-to-book,” Rhodes says, “but can't always do so. Sometimes, the new work just doesn't feel like a good fit for the press.” Torn was obviously a good fit, and it garnered quite a bit of critical attention. When David Orr mentioned it on NPR as one of “2011’s Best American Poetry” books, Young found it “very surprising”: “The poems in Torn were, like my other books, written over an eight-year period. I really had no idea what the book looked like until I put together the first draft of it at Yaddo in late 2007. Once the draft was in front of me, I could see some of its concerns, and it took me another year to get the manuscript into its final shape.”
Young’s medical practice and the metaphysical, existential questions it raises are inevitably a central concern of the book. “We want to fix things,” Young writes in “Deux ex machina”:
Is that not
what calls some of us to the “healing arts,”
that strange desire to fix the human machine?
In the poem from which the collection takes its title, a young gay man has been beaten, his face slashed with a knife. Young’s speaker, working in the ER, is ordered to “Stitch up the faggot / in Bed 6”:
And even though I was told to be “quick and dirty,”
told to spend less than 20 minutes, I sat there
for over an hour closing the wounds so that each edge
met its opposing match. I wanted him
to be beautiful again….
Of course, Young acknowledges that “all things broken cannot be fixed”:
Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe
in that town. There would always be the bat
and the knife, always a fool willing to tear me open
to see the dirty faggot inside.
Young’s emotionally wrenching work offers a stark diagnosis and no easy palliatives. In “Self-Portrait at 4 AM,” Young places himself on the examining table and concludes, “The mirror / is of no use. It lies…”: “That man staring at me is not my friend.”
Paul Lisicky's Unbuilt Projects shares Young's unflinching examination of the self. “The book was written during the years of my mother’s final illness,” Lisicky says. “Dementia shook up everything I knew about time, identity, character, narrative: all that found its way into the work.” Unbuilt Projects is a collection of stories that veer sometimes toward poetry (“Bamboo Speaks”), sometimes toward memoir (“Bear Week”). Some of the stories are very personal. In the story “The Bracelet,” his mother, hospitalized, cracks an awkward joke about the ID wristband the nurse has just placed on her. “You’re not allowed to take this off,” the nurse says; his mother replies, “Even unto death?” Mother and son try to “laugh away [their] shock,” Lisicky writes, “which is to say the truth the living can never get behind.”
His mother’s impending death seems to have had a definite effect on the compressed form these stories take. “It threw me in ways I couldn’t even see at the time,” he recalls. “I was just trying to make things, short things, as a way to keep some kind of footing.” There also seems to be a lot of building, a lot of architecture, in Lisicky’s titles; not only Unbuilt Projects, but also his 2002 memoir Famous Builder, and last year’s The Burning House, a novel. “On the content level,” he says, “I’ve always been interested in what home is.” Unbuilt Projects is no exception. “What is home when the center of the home has lost all her coordinates?" he asks. "What’s left? What’s unrealized?”
With his most recent collection, Lisicky says, “I was interested in seeing how much I could accomplish in a small tight space. Some of the pieces are narrative, some are impressionistic. Some move like lyric essays, some like parables, some like poems.” In one story, the narrator recalls a high school science fair project in which he imagines life in the 21st century. The project fails, partly because it was thrown together the night before it was due, and partly because it doesn’t set about to prove “what’s already known [by] finding the evidence to support those claims.” He remembers his mother’s disappointment when she meets with the “cruel” science teacher “who saw no future for the likes of me.” The narrator’s teenage self, of course, cares little for the humdrum strictures of the present. “What was the point,” he asks, “of saying the here-and-now was good for us?” As for the future, “So what if it ended up letting us down? I was ready to get there.” But when it finally comes — the story is told from that future vantage point, our own present — “the city was already ruined.”
Lisicky describes Four Way’s “cosmopolitan range” as “the diversity of a big city reflected in one press.” When Lisicky first finished the draft of the manuscript of Unbuilt Projects, which Four Way published this fall, he felt “a little protective” of it, and was reluctant to send it out to potential publishers. “I don’t think I was in a mental place where I could deal with it being turned down,” he says, “or with any well meaning person giving me the usual expected advice: make the transitions smoother, make it linear, make it longer, more friendly, blah, blah. The work meant too much to me. I didn’t want to write a lie, or something in which compromise or good taste took the life out of it.” Lisicky — who has taught at Cornell, NYU, and Rutgers, among many other places — had heard that Four Way was interested in publishing more fiction, and finally decided to send the manuscript. Where many presses, both large and small, have “a pretty tight aesthetic window,” at Four Way “there’s a place for narrative, a place for experimentation. More established writers, brand new writers. Gay poets and straight poets.” In the end, Lisicky says, “Good writing is what counts. I wouldn’t want to be in a world where everyone wore the same outfit.”
Indeed, Rhodes has said she never wanted the press “to be pigeonholed into one aesthetic,” and it seems clear that they’ve succeeded. “I don't strive to be set apart,” she comments. “I just hope, always, that Four Way Books grows in expertise, year-to-year. We are able to offer more in 2012 than we could in 1995. That's not to say that we didn't offer a lot in 1995. We're just more seasoned now with more support and more experience.”
One new offering from the press is a recently launched online project, Four Way Review, an electronic literary journal edited by Rachel Patterson and Dara-Lyn Shrager. The first issue, celebrating the press’ 20th anniversary year, features works by Cornelius Eady, Maria Hummel, Cynthia Cruz, Rajiv Mohabir, and C. Dale Young. According to Shrager, the review incorporates “a dynamic format that pairs text with audio and video content, interviews, art, and other media. Many of the pieces featured in the journal are accompanied by audio recordings by the authors and, in some cases, artwork about or relating to the poems and stories.” The idea for an online review seemed like a natural fit for a press that views writers as “artists whose ideas connect to the ideas of others and to the human experience as captured through art.”
The editors’ admiration for the authors they publish is apparent, and the writers appreciate the time and attention their work receives. “Every single person there knows me and has read my work,” says C. Dale Young. “I have friends published by big commercial publishing houses who joke when they call their press the people don't know who they are. That would never happen at Four Way.” For her part, Sally Ball speaks of being drawn to authors whose works “offer a mind in motion on the page. I am hooked when the poem's intelligence, whether it's enacted via image or articulate perception or some surprise in the point of view, when that intelligence emerges delicately or bursts forth.”
Rhodes, too, admires the mastery of Four Way’s writers, from Monica Youn, whose collection Ignatz was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award, to Patrick Ryan Frank, whose How the Losers Love What’s Lost was selected by Alan Shapiro for Four Way’s 2012 Intro Prize. “These are authors,” she says, “who collaborate with us in order to get their work out into the world. They do what they can do to make the work pay off for us all — author, publisher, and ultimately the reader.” In the end, of course, it’s the reader who matters most. In an age of volatile changes in how we read and access texts, Four Way continues to invest in the quality of what we read. And a press that can consistently offer works that are “imaginative, compelling, edgy, original, and therefore surprising” has a good chance of sticking around another twenty years.