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Journal, Day One

By Bill Zavatsky

1: ON PUBLISHING MY FIRST BOOK OF POEMS IN THIRTY YEARS

Well, thirty-one years, to be precise. I brought out my first book, Theories of Rain and Other Poems, in 1975 with SUN, a literary press that I had started that year. I knew nothing about sending books out for review, and mailed or handed copies to friends or to a few poets whom I admired. Through various small press distributors (or through giving away a lot of copies), I was able to take the book into a second printing a year or two later. Theories got three or four reviews in small press journals, I think, and some nice letters from people who had liked it. The book represented about ten years of trying to learn how to write poetry, and I was happy enough with it.

From there I went full tilt into publishing books, bringing out about 35 titles before I closed up SUN in 1985. (I also now and then published a literary magazine of the same name, but the press activity was much more gratifying. I would labor intensively on a 250-page issue of the magazine, get it out, and people would say, “Gee, this is great. When is the next issue coming out?”) Books seemed more permanent, and that is where I put my energy.

Of course, I still had to make a living, even though SUN flourished and won grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. I never did figure how to write a salary line into my endeavors as a publisher. My wife Phyllis worked full-time (and helped out plenty on the work of the press) and I taught freelance for poets-in-the-schools programs, especially the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and also taught as an adjunct at colleges and, as a visiting writer, for two years at the University of Texas at Austin. Later I worked for five years with old people. My career summation used to go: “I’ve worked in elementary schools with little kids, in junior high for three years, in high school, in colleges, and for five years with old folks. The only population groups that I haven’t served are the unborn and the dead, and there must be ways for a poet to get to them!” All in all, it seemed as if we were doing okay financially, so why should I burden the press with my own needs?

After Theories of Rain I kept on writing poems and occasionally publishing them, but it was other writers’ words that I wanted to see in print. Everybody knows how hard it is to find a publisher, and I was burning to see the best work by the best poets I knew get between covers. I thought that I knew enough first-rate writers to keep SUN going as long as it could last. I adopted a policy of “solicited work only” to insure that I wouldn’t be bombarded by manuscripts that I had no time to investigate, but hopeful authors sent them anyway.

What had begun to happen, I realized, was that I was burying myself as a poet in the work of putting out books by other writers. From the editorial point of view, SUN was pretty much a one-horse operation, although I did have a steady stream of helpers supplied to me by a wing of the New York State Council on the Arts, mostly smart young aspiring women writers who pushed the operation forward with dedication, skill, and good humor. These were the days of working closely with professional typesetters and graphic designers—an endless back-and-forth of corrections to proofs and the making of “boards”: the cut-and-paste days. It was drawn-out process that gobbled up enormous amounts of time, though there was nothing like the thrill of tearing open the package from the printer with the first finished copies of a new book. I didn’t have a computer until the last couple of years of SUN’s existence, a Kaypro (remember “the writer’s computer”?), and once I got it I began to keyboard manuscripts myself, which saved money but took up even more time.

By the time SUN was eight years old or so, those who congratulated me—“Wow, the books look great! You’re publishing terrific stuff! Gee, you’re getting all those grants!”—would often hear my standard response, and I am not a dour person: “Yes, the press is going great guns. I started life as a poet and I’m ending it as an accountant!” Grants had to be filed and then reported on, budgets had to be drawn up. Orders had to be packed and mailed. Books had to be kept. As the press grew, there seemed to be tons of paperwork where once the only paper work I had before me involved the reading and editing of manuscripts.

By then I began to realize that I was becoming a member of an elite comprised of poets who had started presses and who suddenly didn’t seem to write poems any more. I wasn’t so happy about this development, but in 1985 I had the opportunity to publish a little hardcover chapbook of 26 pages of poetry. A editor friend in the world of “big” publishing, Ian Gonzalez, was involved in a program for young people in publishing at the Cooper Union. The previous year he had asked me if I knew anybody who had a manuscript that they could “do.” The course offered these neophytes an opportunity to create a book from start to finish, something that they could rarely do on the job, and I was happy to recommend a friend whose poetry admired. The second time that Ian came to me, I not so modestly suggested another poet who needed a new book—me. Pretty soon out came For Steve Royal and Other Poems. (The bulk of the poems in it are also in Where X Marks the Spot.) But the Steve Royal book had no ISBN and no distribution. This book, too, I gave away to friends until I only had a few copies left for myself. Thus I am fudging slightly when I say that I haven’t published a book of poems in 31 years, but this is a book that precious few saw, produced in maybe an edition of 300 copies.

Another bolt of lightning hit in 1985, but of the horrifying kind. My wife, who had been ailing since the fall of 1983, suddenly became very ill and had to be hospitalized twice. For a time her recovery was in doubt, and as a consequence I had to take a tough-minded look at what I had been doing and the amount of money that I had been bringing in. She had carried the full financial load while I, in comparison, was making peanuts. What if she didn’t recover? What if she were too ill to work? As luck would have it, she did recover. and found a new job about six months later. But I had made the decision to close down the press and find full-time work. I continued to do freelance teaching, and would do so for the next year as I job-hunted and worked to find other publishers for the seven books that were in various stages of production. I also had to dispose of the thousands of back-stocked books that were in storage at my printing plant. The press had no income any more, and I couldn’t afford the monthly warehousing fees. With the cooperation of my wonderful writers, who took a lot of the stock off my hands for a pittance, I was eventually able to clear out the back stock. I also found publishers for all the books that were in preparation, and while these arrangements didn’t bring in very much money, I was proud that none of the authors would be left high and dry.


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, August 14th, 2006 by Bill Zavatsky.