What in your own experience as a poet has led you to want to start your own press?
Who was it that said, "Trying to publish poetry in America is like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear it hit bottom"? Most anyone who has or is trying to get a first--or second or third or more--book out can tell you, it's very difficult. The big publishing houses avoid all but a tiny handful of poets because they believe there's no market for poetry. And they're right, so far. I remember when PC's were new, and some company--maybe Apple?--tried to make them a household item by selling them as kitchen appliances on which women could store recipes. That sounds ridiculous now -- I laugh just saying it -- but they did become household items, didn't they? The point is, the market had to be created through a public education -- marketing -- that addressed not the current market, but the potential market.
I am convinced and have always been convinced that there is a much larger audience for poetry, one that is largely untapped because most people haven't been exposed to more than the few poems they had to study in high school and maybe college. I am not alone in this -- obviously Robert Pinsky believes this, and others, too. Isn't that what Poetry in Motion is about? As I say in my website, a lot of people spend good time writing down song lyrics, choosing greeting cards (spending millions, maybe billions of dollars, by the way) and even making them themselves,because -- I believe -- they are searching for the deeply meaningful language of poetry. And look at Rap -- rap is street poetry. Why is is it so wildly popular? I think because it's wildly powerful to its listeners. It's passionate and audacious, saying what would otherwise be left unsaid. That's what poems do. My point is that the impulse toward poetry is there in all of us. Poetry's expression is part of the human condition, not an academic credential.
I know I personally don't write poems so I can roll them up in a ribbon and put them in my dresser drawer. I want them to be read and heard, and I think most other poets want the same thing. To me, a poem that's unread is incomplete. It lacks something, the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen that it needs to stay alive. But everyone in the publishing world is so adamant that there's no market for poetry that a lot of good poets can't get their work into circulation.
According to Daniel Halpern (in an article in Publishers Weekly; March 31, 2003), in Russia, new books of poetry have been known to sell 100,000 copies and people stand in line to buy them. I once heard Richard Jackson say that eastern Europeans are so enthusiastic about poetry that they fill auditoriums and get into arguments, at readings, about the meaning of various poems. So when people say there's no market for poetry, I'm sort of patiently insulted. What they're saying, unwittingly perhaps, is that there's something deficient about the American imagination. But our brains do not function differently than other people's brains. We may not, on the whole, be as well educated about it--I don't know--but I don't believe for one minute that our ability to love poetry and our impulse toward it is any less than anyone else's.
I do ask myself, how did this happen? How did Americans become so alienated from a basic, ancient art? Are we alienated from it, or only insulated from it, distracted by television and acquiring stuff? Or is it insulated from us, trapped in academe? I'm not entirely sure and I'm not sure it matters. What matters is giving it back to people. Whether they know they want it or not!
First books are particularly tough to get published. Mind you, first books do not necessarily mean first manuscripts. All you aspiring-to-be-published poets out there: Stuff your first manuscript into a suitcase, put it in the attic, and begin writing your newer more mature work. You'll be glad you did.
Anyway, many presses won't even look at a first book unless it is submitted to a contest. On the other hand, there are a lot of contests, so many more poets do have a chance, now. But let's face it, there aren't nearly as many contests as there are good manuscripts and most of the contests will publish only one book from all those manuscripts. And after awhile there are going to be so many contests that winning one won't be that meaningful anyway, so why not take another approach and create better odds?
A few years back, realizing the contest mill was like gambling in a casino, where of course, the anticipation is fun but most everyone knows the odds are always for the house, I decided to send my work to independent presses that don't require one to enter a contest in order to be considered. Happily, the editor at a small poetry publishing house wanted to publish a collection of mine.
I did the revisions the editor asked for, and then when the owner of the press -- the apparently moneyed but untutored publisher--finally looked at the manuscript, she asked "Where's the joy?" I guess she wanted happy poems, so that was the end of that. As much as I wanted a book out, I knew I couldn't revise my work for someone who doesn't seem to understand that good poems celebrate life without saying so directly. The funny thing is, I didn't feel angry, only exasperated. I knew then I wanted to start my own press, create some better odds. I won't be publishing my own work, but I'll at least get some relief and make a contribution by publishing other people's work.
What sort of writing is of interest to Manifold Press, in terms of style, form, and content?
My tastes are quite eclectic. I love Louise Gluck's intense private lyrical observations and I love Richard Jackson's great big worldly observations. One of my absolute favorites is Li-Young Lee's The City in Which I Love You. I listen for an authentic, sincere voice. I like the intensity that arises from authenticity. I don't often like end-rhymed poetry because it sounds like an inauthentic voice to my ear, so I listen for a musicality that doesn't rely solely on rhyme. I don't like preaching, posturing, name dropping, and academic showing off. If your mission is to reform someone, or to show the world how learned you are, don't send me your stuff. I want to be moved. I want to need a poem for personal reasons, not professional reasons.
This does not mean I want superficial. I like accessible work, but I also like difficulty, and I want both. In other words, I believe someone should be able to read a poem and feel it viscerally, understand what it's getting at on a first level. But the poem should also invite more readings, suggest layers that can be accessed as revelations.
What is going to be the job of the poets, after their volume of work is in print?
Other than what I say in my website? Unabashed happiness and enthusiasm for the work.
Do you plan on making editorial suggestions for the revision of a manuscript that you may feel is worth accepting, but not in its current form?
I'm already receiving good manuscripts. I'm sure many of them show enough strength that they could be made publishable, but I'm not going to be able to publish every manuscript like that -- there are many, many; so, competence with some bright spots won't work. A manuscript has to be sound in all respects, except for minor changes I might ask for. By not accepting work that still requires quite a bit of revision to suit Manifold Press, I'll avoid becoming the teacher of authors and instead form productive, author-editor relationships.
What are your reasons for charging a reading fee? What have been some reactions to this editorial practice?
Actually, I've not received any complaints since I started the press, and only one person who knew about the plan ahead of time, objected. Most people know that poetry presses are just trying to keep on keepin' on, I think, and believe that charging the fee is an honest approach.
Rather than wonder about who's judging a given contest, when you submit your work to a fee-charging press such as Ausable, Carnegie-Mellon, Arkansas, Illinois or Manifold Press, you know up front that the press is obviously going to choose works that suit its editorial tastes and needs. I like lyric, free-verse poetry. But I don't care for Language poetry. I'm not interested in publishing haiku, either. If you write it well, I might be interested in your formal verse. But if you don't, save your $20; I'm allergic to mindless end-rhyme."
Do you think that promoting poetry will change the poetry itself?
No, not really. There's already a lot of bad poetry out there. And a lot of good poetry, too. It's true that promoting it more aggressively could lead to a popularization that will encourage a lot more bad poetry to be published, but a lot more good poetry would likely be published, too. When I was a teenager drinking in the alley behind my friend's house, I liked Boone's Farm apple wine. Now I like Chateauneuf-de-Pape. People's tastes evolve with them. Who knows where I'd be if I had never tasted Boone's Farm?
Why do you think more poets don't already promote their poetry in the manner you suggest?
You mean more aggressively? Oh, I think poets do promote their poetry! I just think that too few of them ever have the chance. It's true, obviously, that I want to see more readings outside academe, but my guess is that a lot of poets are probably shy about approaching the local gourmet shop to host a reading of food poems. That's because the poet believes that asking for that is asking for a favor, never realizing that the gourmet shop owner would profit by reaching new customers, selling food-stuffs to them, and taking a percentage of the books sold. I don't claim to have all the marketing answers, but I've thought a lot about it. For example, I'd like to try an experiment with some willing poet in which Manifold Press will publish one book, but with two different titles. Half will be the control group, with the usual nice title. The other half will have a more commercial (but not completely undignified) title that would appeal to a wide audience, using the other title as a subtitle. I'd like to see if sales other than those at readings are affected. If they aren't, nothing's lost because we can still plug along selling the books in the ways poetry books are always sold -- primarily at readings.
I also think that equating poetry with making money is suspect, the fear being that money taints art, and it most certainly can. But it doesn't have to. I can name any number of fiction writers who write good literary works and are paid well for it. It's also true that the market for literary fiction is also already lively and awake. But what are poets to do? Sit around wringing our hands, the victims of the literary world? No, we need to work at waking the market.
So, how many poets would you ideally like to publish per year?
Ideally? As many as there are that have fabulous manuscripts. Realistically, I'm aiming for four a year after the first year. To tell you the truth, it depends on the number of submissions I get. The more submissions I get, the more books I can publish -- and will. It would be fantastic to have a book a month coming out. In any case, I sincerely hope to balance publishing unknown or relatively unknown poets with those who have established reputations.
What can you tell us about the Revolving Chapbook on www.manifoldpress.com?
The Revolving Chapbook (which I'm re-naming The Manifold Chapbook), and some of the other pages, and the art, on the Manifold Press website, are a public service. No one pays a reading fee to be considered and no one gets paid. But knowing how many good poets there are, I'd like to give more poets than I can afford to publish the chance to showcase their work. Having your work appear in The Manifold Chapbook doesn't mean I'll publish your manuscript, but it does mean that I want to give you some exposure. Readers, then, too, can have the pleasure of seeing good poems.