"It's moving, but you can't predict where it's going to be next."
JOE WENDEROTH WAS AT a Cape Cod wedding without anything on which to write some lines. In his motel he found a cheap romance novel titled The Endearment and began to write a story above the story, a line in the white margin at the top of each page. The story was about God, and his dog; God impregnates the dog, and gives birth to two divine puppies named Think and Touch.
Wenderoth included the allegory in a new book of poems, which he sent to his publisher, Wesleyan University Press, who followed academic protocol by sending it, in turn, to an outside expert. "This anonymous reader was concerned that if I included that section in the book, it would ruin my career," Wenderoth recalls. "And I was working third shift at a convenience store at the time, so I was like, I don't see how that's going to interfere with my work. But I took it out anyway."
The Endearment had Wenderoth thinking about a new way to write poetry. A little while later Wenderoth found himself ordering a cheeseburger at Wendy's and "noticed one of those cards that said, 'tell us about your visit.'" Wenderoth did, and enjoyed it; he began regularly visiting Wendy's to write obscene, lustful, meditative epistles to the redheaded muse on customer comment cards.
"I didn't ask Wesleyan to look at it because I took it as a given that it wasn't in their ballpark, so I sent it to a few places like Black Sparrow Press and City Lights Books," says Wenderoth. "None of them took it. Wendy's, it's related to poetry, but it's different. It was provocative. I wasn't writing 'poetry' so much as I was trying more to entertain. The premise of writing seriously with deep Nietzschean angst to Wendy, that was funny."
In Plymouth, New Hampshire, two ambitious poets with new MFA degrees from the University of Massachussetts were teaching writing classes at Plymouth State University. Brian Henry had brought Matthew Zapruder up from Northampton to ride the "desk jockey circuit" that entraps so many MFA graduates, teaching as temporary adjunct professors for low pay. Henry had recently taken over the editorship of Verse magazine, and Zapruder was also interested in publishing poetry. The "eureka moment" came in the form of the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of American Poetry Review landing in the mailbox.
Zapruder flipped through the pages and found some of Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's." After failing to find any takers for them, Wenderoth had resorted to publishing chunks of the letters in literary journals and using the contributor's biographical note to announce that the poems came from a manuscript in need of a publisher. "There was a note at the bottom that said he needed one," Zapruder says, "and Brian and I just decided that we had to start a press and publish this stuff."
"Matthew had begun talking about starting a press in maybe 1999, and it just made sense to start a press out of Verse magazine, since I was the editor," remembers Brian Henry, now professor of English at the University of Richmond, "because we already had the readership and the distributor."
"I switched to them because they weren't academic; I got to know them, and it was more of a personal element. That was no fault of Wesleyan, I just happened to not know those people. And Verse was the only one who was interested," Wenderoth says on the phone from Davis, where he's professor of English at the University of California. "It's not like there was a line of publishers waiting to take it."
Henry, designing the book on his computer at home, decided to produce a book that looked slightly illegal. To be able to produce a professionally designed book from home was then a new phenomenon. Software such as Adobe's PageMaker (later renamed InDesign) was available and affordable to the individual for the first time, allowing anyone to publish from their desktop. He settled on a design that looked somehow contraband, with a minimalist cover reminiscent of mimeographed 'zines of the sixties: no page numbers, no blurbs on the back cover, no images anywhere, no biographical author note.
"I think they chose the square trim size in honor of Wendy's square patty," says Wenderoth. "And I wanted it to look like a Bible. You can open the Bible to any page, and each page tells its own story. But it tells the same stories over and over again — I mean the New Testament is the same story from various points of view, but claims to be the source. So I wanted it to work as a text for bibliomancy, where you could tell your fortune by opening it up to any page."
Letters to Wendy's became a minor pop culture phenomenon, a burger-shaped bible reviewed in magazines from Boston Review to Rolling Stone, and eventually anthologized widely as a work of experimental fiction even more than as a work of poetry. Encouraged by its relative success — even very successful poetry titles usually sell much less than ten thousand copies — Zapruder and Henry began making plans to publish friends in Massachusetts who were struggling to place their work.
Then as now, prizes and contests for first collections were the traditional means for poets at the beginning of their careers to break into the market. Book contests, however, have a checkered history, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses code of ethics, which established clear separation between contest judges and entrants, is a recent innovation. "The contest racket was this little feudal system of kings and queens and princes and princesses, and we hated that. All these books our friends wrote had been finalists," says Henry. "Matthew Rohrer's book did win the National Poetry Series (Hummock in the Malookas, chosen by Mary Oliver in 1994), but Norton declined to publish his second book — which we thought was even better — and Joshua Beckman had a really hard time publishing his first book, and Peter Richards wasn't having any luck, so we thought 'fuck it, let's just publish your books.'"
But Verse Press needed money to publish new poets, and so they inaugurated a Verse Poetry Prize to collect contest fees. Henry had met the esteemed Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun briefly at the University of Massachusetts in 1997 and again in 1998 at an Australian poetry festival. In Australia, Henry interviewed Šalamun for Verse magazine and the two quickly became close friends. Šalamun agreed to serve as the judge for the Verse Prize, which created a problem; Šalamun had already met several of the poets Zapruder and Henry wanted to publish, creating a conflict of interest.
In fact, one of the books Henry hoped to publish was with him in Australia when Šalamun agreed to help Verse Press. He took Peter Richards's manuscript of Oubliette "into the rain forest for a few weeks and sort of edited it and came back out, and that's pretty much what the book became," says Henry. Rather than enter it in the contest, Henry and Zapruder asked Tomaž to write an introduction and published it separately. "I think it's the most seductive book of poetry ever written," Henry says. Oubliette, which Verse Press published in 2001, begins with Šalamun's opening remarks:
It is better to be a new young god in American Poetry than to be President of the United States. It is the only divine and democratic position available. There are not many such places in human history.
"Poetry is not exactly at the forefront of popular culture," laughs Brent Cunningham, operations director at Small Press Distribution, the country's largest non-profit distributor of literary small presses, "but anybody who gets into poetry realizes there's actually a lot of activity. There's a fervent bubbling of people writing and publishing, and that's our community." According to Cunningham, the nineties witnessed a doubling in the number of small literary presses in the United States, a fact Cunningham ascribes to the digital desktop publishing revolution.
Jeffery Lependorf, executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses, the only national non-profit organization in the country to provide assistance and advocacy for independent literary publishers, agrees. "I think this is the most exciting time in small press and magazine publishing since the nineteen-sixties' DIY movement," says Lependorf. "The sixties saw a tremendous surge in great literature, in an era of great literature magazines produced on mimeograph machines, stapled, and circulated. Today, for the price of lunch, someone can buy a domain name and create an excellent literary magazine with free software, if one is a good writer with great curatorial skills."
Verse Press started out of Zapruder's Northampton apartment, where Lori Shine often let herself in to ship orders. Lori Shine was still a poet in the University of Massachusetts MFA program when she asked to volunteer as an intern for Verse Press after seeing the high caliber of work they were publishing by Wenderoth, Rohrer, and Beckman. "It seemed an audacious thing they were doing," writes Shine in an email, "just starting a press and learning along the way. They didn't seem to need anyone's permission to decide that their vision for poetry was underrepresented."
Verse Press soon arranged to share office space with Shine's husband's graphic design studio, in the corner of a former hairbrush factory, where they threw parties, held band practices, and staged readings when they weren't publishing books. The warehouse was ancient, and drafty. Shine wore fingerless gloves while working at a metal desk that had been salvaged from the loading dock, and kept a thermostat by her computer "because if it got below fifty-five degrees we weren't supposed to have to pay the rent," Shine recalls.
In the early days of Verse Press, Shine and her editors were "figuring out the whole publishing thing — trying to get our books in bookstores, trying to get paid by distributors, guessing what a royalty statement should look like, screening manuscripts, working with printers and designers, corresponding with the authors and consulting with other presses. It seemed like an audacious thing that Matthew and Brian were doing, just starting a press and going for it, learning along the way."
In starting Verse, Zapruder and Henry had the advantages of talent and serendipity. They had the "curatorial skills" that Lependorf defines as essential, they began at a time of growing public interest in poetry, and they established the press in the overgrown college town of Northampton, which boasts such an unusually high concentration of poets that it can be rightfully called an epicenter of American poetry.
The percussive publications of Wenderoth, Beckman, Rohrer, and Richards established Verse Press as an important poetry publisher in the United States in short order. Between 2002 and 2004 Verse continued to publish four to six books a year, becoming the responsibility of Zapruder, Shine, and their interns (including Heidi Broadhead, who eventually replaced Shine as managing editor) when Brian Henry left to spend more time with a growing family and a new job. Then Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer, who were producing a series of collaborative pieces, relocated to New York City, and it was there that Beckman met Charlie Wright.
Wright was the director of the Dia Art Foundation, one of the world's most influential arts institutions, and he had a lifelong love for poetry. Wright had established Dia's first poetry reading series early in his tenure, drawing luminaries such as John Ashbery and Seamus Heaney (even convincing the legendary and reclusive poet James Schuyler to give his first public reading) and publishing chapbooks to commemorate the events. A devotee of contemporary poetry, he admired Beckman's work, and, after learning of the young poet's background in bookmaking, revealed his desire to establish a poetry press.
"It was something I'd wanted to do for a long time," says Wright from his offices in Seattle, where he works today as the executive of a private company. "I always knew it would be difficult economically, but I got to the point in my life when creating something that had a certain kind of integrity and ambition and certain focus was more meaningful to me than profit."
"There was a chance in poetry to do something unique and focused," he continues. "You can't compete in visual art — with the contributions made by major museums, what could I possibly add? Poetry is a hard thing to do, it needs help, it needs support, and I didn't see presses occupying the field the way that I wanted to, so it was opportunistic — it was my best opportunity to contribute to the arts."
Beckman was far from the only person Wright consulted for his project. For years Wright met with various presses, distributors, and poets like Fanny Howe, Susan Stewart, Robert Hass, and Jorie Graham, among others, to craft an effective strategy for supporting the poetry community. A conversation with Consortium Distribution led to his investigation of Verse Press.
"I think he bought one copy of every book we'd ever published," says Zapruder. "That's just the kind of guy Charlie is." By 2005 Verse had expanded its stable of poets to include Eric Baus, Gillian Conoley, Caroline Knox, and Dara Wier, among others. But no one at Verse was getting paid; Zapruder supplemented his income by writing for a urology magazine, among other means. Lori Shine's husband JJ, a freelance graphic designer, designed the book covers at a steep discount, but even then some Verse poets were forced to design their own books. Book sales hardly covered the rent they paid to keep a desk in the warehouse, only a couple hundred dollars a month. Wright didn't know it, but Zapruder was at a crossroads.
"I started with the idea of forming a new press," says Wright, "and then the idea of possible collaboration or merger came up. Verse was the only press I seriously considered. Because of my interest in certain writers, I thought maybe it made sense to get Verse into the fold, get Matthew Zapruder aboard as an editor in the process, and take in some of their authors."
Verse sold its assets to Wright and ceased its operations in 2004. In 2005, Wright hired Zapruder, Beckman, and Shine to run a new publishing venture called Wave Books, charged with the mission of delivering freedom and support to mid-career poets and the aim of defining nothing less than a generation of American poetry. "It always seemed to me," says Wright, "that the successful presses in history were the ones who were able to corral a list of writers in their own time that, for one reason or another, were able to endure." Wave Books moved operations across the country, into a spacious office with central air and heat and wall-to-wall shelving, on the shores of Lake Union in the Eastlake district of Seattle. They had ambition, talent, and the rarest bird of all in poetry publishing: funding.
"I couldn't estimate the lifespan of a small press," says Lependorf, "but starting a literary press is like opening a restaurant. Those that die usually do so after the first year, and most won't be around in a few years. If you make it two years you'll probably have some longevity." While having survived, and even thrived in terms of the quality of poets they had published as Verse Press, Wave Books had a new challenge: to convince more established poets to come aboard.
Eileen Myles, who had previously published with legendary publisher John Martin at Black Sparrow Press, says "it was really a leap of faith to decide the press was as good as it was purported to be." Because Myles knew Joshua and Matthew as poets, and Charlie from his work at the Dia Foundation — "radiantly good people," she calls them — she decided to sign on.
When pressed as to what convinced her to go with Wave, Myles says, "Well, I'm an idiot about language, and the word wave seemed right. I liked all the connotations. And I knew Charlie's past in the art world, and making the choice to move to poetry — someone who leaves the art world for poetry is taking quite a leap. It's exciting and profound, like a leap in which someone decides to be a poet — a fool's choice, and yet a great one."
Wright says that "it's not just about publishing the poems, it's about putting the poets in touch with one another." A sense of community is built into the fabric of Wave's business model, and they often undertake large-scale projects to bring poets together. One such project in Wave's infancy was the Poetry Bus in 2006.
Maggie Nelson had met Zapruder and Beckman socially but was unprepared for what showed up in Los Angeles at midnight. She boarded a converted Green Tortoise bus and found "Joshua, Matthew, and some other people all wild-manned up," with the rear of the bus full of sleeping passengers. Zapruder and Beckman had organized fifty readings in almost as many days, running from Seattle through Minneapolis, Toronto, Amherst, New York, New Orleans, and Texas with pants on fire. Nelson, a Wave author and current professor of critical studies at California Institute for the Arts, was one of perhaps hundreds of local poets recruited by Beckman and Zapruder to join them in readings around the country.
Beckman and Zapruder drove through the night to Santa Cruz, where sixteen poets read the next morning in a church. Beckman booked a reading in a jazz club in Haight-Ashbury for the next day. "There's just not many times in your adult life," remembers Nelson with a smile, "where you get to sleep on recliners side by side like sardines with other poets."
Wright's hometown of Seattle has also benefitted from Wave's presence. In 2009, when Beckman decided to publish Noelle Kocot's translations of the French poet Tristan Corbière, Wave Books temporarily moved operations out of their Eastlake offices and set up shop in the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. Beckman offered free bookmaking workshops for the public, who pressed and hand-stitched five hundred copies of what became Poet By Default. "We build projects around the books," says Beckman. "The poetry bus, the readings — the publicity that goes into a book, into a reading, is really the conversation that happens afterwards."
If you're getting the sense that Wave has a different idea of what constitutes a "book" or a "publication" than other publishers, you're on to something. That aesthetic is embodied in everything from how Wave supports its poets, through and beyond the editorial process, down to the way Wave books look, and it's a stance Wave authors buy into. The books themselves seem to be conceptualized as curiously isolated moments in a sustained lifestyle of creativity.
"The only difference between a publication and a performance is the format," says Myles. Myles sees the book as "a trailer of the performance. When you do a reading you stand up and you read these seven poems, the event is constructed just like a book is.
"When you're writing a poem or an essay or even a novel, it's improvisational; you're opening your mind up and making choices, and so the book and the performance resemble each other. The only difference is the form, the accommodation to time. When I have people in front of me in a room, I only have so much time, and I have to make choices; some of them are even predetermined. There is a downpour of language we exist in. And a writer just makes different choices for different occasions, which is what literary form is, finally: a kind of occasion."
Wenderoth, who continues to publish with Wave, also thinks of publication as a kind of performance, and of genres as different relationships toward time. Like Myles, Wenderoth writes fiction and essays in addition to poems, and has some fine points to make about the distinctions of genre. "In a book of poems," Wenderoth said, "the hinge that connects every poem to the book is a moment in time, some kind of moment, some kind of disease, some unsettling. But in a work of personality the hinge running throughout the book is different, it's constant, it's that personality."
"If the poetic moment is a recognition of the limits of the autonomy of the will," Wenderoth continued, "and one's agency becomes undermined, one becomes passive; one has to simply allow language to work on one's self. But if you keep a personality when you're writing you can maintain some degree of agency. That's kind of the joke of the Wendy's thing: if this guy is going through a profound poetic moment in a Wendy's, of all places, it forces the reader to grapple more explicitly with the fact that every poetic moment is followed by having to eat. You can't be still, unless you go to a monastery."
Myles echoed that sentiment when she described Wave's aesthetic: "Corny as it sounds, it's actually like a wave, which is how I describe great poetry; it's moving, but you can't predict where it's going to be next. There's more than a touch of surrealism, and looniness, and an elegance. I would say that none of Wave's poets are without theory, but the press is geared more towards embodiment and play."
The idea that poetry is not comprised of instances of what poetry should be but is instead a continuation or extension of something that's already happening is critical to CAConrad. His latest book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon — New [Soma]tics, is an instructional guide for heightening the creativity in one's life ("Wash a penny, rinse it, slip it under your tongue, and walk out the door," begins one exercise) with poems framed as exercises put into action. "That book comes from me not wanting poetry to just be in my life, but to be my life," said CA. "I want it to be my life, and I found a way to make anything into poems."
When CAConrad read from A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon in Seattle recently, Beckman had something of an epiphany. After the reading, when he saw people carrying copies of the book out the door, he realized that they were going to "take them home with them, it's going to blow their minds, and tomorrow they're going to be standing in buckets of cold water trying to write poems. That's what this is all about for me."
The sense of an embodied voice is at the heart of the way Wave designs their books. Wave implemented stylistic uniformity a few years ago. In the same way, Black Sparrow titles are instantly recognizable by the felt paper covers and block-print fonts, Wave titles never feature artwork on the cover, and are manufactured with off-white, one-hundred percent recycled paper. (Those simple aesthetic choices remind CAConrad that, for many reasons, he believes Wave is "the Black Sparrow of our generation.") The material emphasis on poetic voice — leading the reader's attention to the poetry, rather than the object of the book itself — makes sense when reading someone like Dorothea Lasky's work, the only poet whose first collection has been published by Wave Books.
Lasky first met Beckman at a reading in New York, where she was the last of several poets to read, and because the venue was outdoors, it had been difficult for Lasky to hear the other readers. "So I was just like, 'I'm going to scream these poems so that people hear them,'" says Lasky. "That was the first time he saw me [read], and it was the first time I had screamed my poems in public. I've since tried to control the screaming, but when I was first starting to read in public, I read really loudly — really loudly."
"Dottie, like CA, has a big voice, and it can come as shock the first time you hear it," says Beckman, describing the poetry even more than its delivery. Beckman's ear for individual voices informs the way he designs books, which are simple, uncluttered, and based on simple design choices that elegantly echo the voice or aesthetic of the poet. Beckman designs "the interior — book size, font, paper — out of the poem itself, and then I build the cover, which is the last thing we design. We hope that brings the reading experience closer to the poem.
"Right now we're in a situation where a ton of reading happens on screens," Beckman continues, "but a book of poetry should be something you want to read more than once, something to continue to engage with over time. And so to have an object that is attentive to how it's being read, and held, seems really necessary right now."
Wave Books's commitment to a poet's visions is easily beheld in their most recent publication. Eileen Myles's Snowflake/different streets is built in an unusual book form that combines two facing manuscripts bound by a single binding, sometimes called a tête-à-tête or dos-à-dos (square dancing's do-si-do, or "back-to-back," is a corruption of the term).
Myles had been reading about the sculptor Oscar Tuazon, and wanted to design something more intense and even sculptural for a book that was comprised of two distinct manuscripts, reflecting her experiences living in California and returning to New York City. "Tuazon said he felt like he was fucking the building when he did these incredibly intense sculptural commissions," explained Myles. "They practically take the building down. And I asked myself, how can I build something where one book really hits the other one, and maybe even has sex with it. That was the kind of statement I wanted to make, two books just hitting each other at really high speeds."
Nelson, who has also published with Simon & Schuster, Norton, and Soft Skull, was stunned to receive an author questionnaire from her new publisher asking her to close her eyes and envision a typeface and font for her book. "You almost can't believe that they care so much about what you think, said Nelson. "I remember going to the Brite Spot in Los Angeles and going through all of Joshua's copious notes for Bluets until the waitress told us we had to buy something else or go, and I looked up, and it was completely empty."
It's the commitment that sets them apart, say Lasky, Conrad, and others. Wright's mission for Wave to provide the same latitude to poets Dia provides for visual artists is especially valuable for Lasky, who says that an artist is only genuinely uninhibited when they are secure in their environment. "For me Black Life is such an ugly book. I still can't believe the way some of those poems turned out, you know? Not ugly in the way it looks — there's a real ugliness in it, and that's a good thing that can only happen if a press is committed to you and you feel safe."
There is often a sense of danger, or an aesthetic sense that isn't always pleasant, when reading Wave books. Wenderoth recalls reading John Berryman's Dream Songs before starting Letters to Wendy's because "I could feel the energy there, and the way the language moved, the kind of writhing, mutilated power."
There is something else about Verse Press's first title that meshes well with Wave's current aesthetic: the way in which performed personalities often appear in a genre deeply informed by academic critical theory. Wenderoth found that "you could take this suffering and instead of routing it into silence and stillness and listening for a kind of Celanian radio station or something — Paul Celan says "listen in with your mouth," that's this subtle, serious, still thing — persona poetry was the opposite strategy, routing that into a raucous sort of person on display."
"At a time when people are being very wild and playful," Myles declares, "mainstream presses aren't really doing that. And it's not that Wave positions itself as wild or outlandish, but in the context of the poetry that they like or we like, people go where they want sexually, and the both the body and the book are part of that freedom, and I don't see that happening in larger presses. So the choice to be with an independent press in so many ways is a choice to keep making the work you make, and watch it go into the world with banners waving."
If university and academic presses are very much on the decline — when schools lose funding, long-standing literary institutions such as Tri-Quarterly and the New California Poetry Series are the first to go — even more has been said of the decline of the traditional publishing houses, the Justice Department's anti-trust lawsuit against the "big six" publishers and Apple over e-book pricing being only the latest example of the difficulties they are facing in a rapidly changing marketplace. At the same time, literary small presses are flourishing by adapting in the marketplace. "A mouse," Lependorf says, "can change direction much quicker than an elephant."
"Wave is putting out fantastic stuff," Lependorf adds. "CAConrad, Beckman, Eileen Myles, Anselm Berrigan — those are great poets. And if I tell you I just bought a title from Wave Books, if you've read another book from Wave, you already know what kind of reader I am. And you can spot a Wave title a mile away."
Perhaps an indication of just how well Wave has implemented Wright's mission to provide support for mid-career poets, and an indication of how far Wave has travelled from its inception as Verse Press, was the success of Timothy Donnelly's book, The Cloud Corporation, published in late 2010. The New Yorker named it the poetry book of the year, and John Ashbery hailed it as "the future of poetry, today" in The Times Literary Supplement. Donnelly subsequently received a pair of presitious mid-career prizes: the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a cool one hundred thousand dollar purse given to "a mid-career poet of promise," and a Guggenheim fellowship.
Successes like these help the bottom line, but the editors at Wave have perhaps even more pride in the work they publish than the accolades it receives. Like your favorite record label, says Beckman, "what we hope for is that we don't ever give you any shit. We don't ever publish anything because it will sell. Of course we try really, really hard to sell books, but we never talk about how a book will sell before we decide whether to accept it." Zapruder says the thing he's most proud of regarding The Cloud Corporation is the amount of time — over six years — that Donnelly put into it.
That ideal stance is not without its challenges, of course. "I don't know how much more I can afford," says Wright, who is the owner of a for-profit business that doesn't make a profit. More than twenty percent of Wave's annual budget, for instance, goes to producing limited-edition pamphlets and ephemera that aren't even sold; Wave only gives those materials away to subscribers. But Wright continues to believe that being supported by charitable contributions as a non-profit enterprise would endanger the integrity of the list that once Verse and now Wave have spent more than a decade building. In the long run, Wright believes, a non-profit publisher doesn't control their list, since elected directors come and go, rendering non-profit publishers vulnerable to a drifting aesthetic — something he doesn't want to happen to Wave.
"I am extremely proud of what Joshua and Matthew have done," he says. "We get along well, and there is aesthetic agreement among the principals. And that's just luck. The best thing that's happened to us so far is the fact that we've endured. And if we can endure for another ten years, that will be the highlight."