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Indie Publishing: Two Questions and Several Answers

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Thank you to Eileen Tabios, Francisco Aragón, Reb Livingston, and Rusty Morrison, for answering a couple of very broad questions regarding indie publishing for me. Below are their responses.

Question: Why did you start your small press/why did you become an independent publisher? What need was not being met by the existing presses?

Answer (Eileen Tabios, Meritage Press): I started my press Meritage Press to publish the historic and necessary tome PINOY POETICS: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino American Poetics, a long-time dream that came to be edited by Nick Carbo.  I had anticipated that it would be difficult for PINOY POETICS to find a publisher in a timely manner because of its subject matter and (Filipino) authors. At the time the book was created, most of its poets were not well-known, though many of these poets since have come to receive numerous international and national-U.S. poetry prizes.  Moreover, reflecting a long tradition of Filipino grassroots activism that overlaps with what’s become the DIY (Do It Yourself) small press movement, I thought that creating a press to present this project was an apt reflection of its underlying poetics.  Having said all that, I did not want to start what looks to be a Filipino-only press because I wanted to reflect the (oft-ignored) reality that, as Filipino poet-novelist Eric Gamalinda once succinctly stated, “The history of the Philippines is the history of the world.”

Thus, while releasing titles focused on or by Filipino authors & artists, Meritage Press’ larger vision is simply to expand fresh, multidisciplinary ways of featuring a wide range of interests and artists from around the world. Multiple aesthetic concerns allow Meritage to address a variety of disciplines — politics, culture, identity, science, humor, religion, history, technology, philosophy and wine (I do also concede that without wine, I wouldn’t have pressed on with a small press effort). Reflecting how poets make instead of inherit language, the press is named after “meritage,” a word created to describe the Bordeaux-style of wine-making that uses California-grown grapes. Meritage style combines the grapes of cabernet, cabernet franc and merlot to create a wine characterized by robustness in flavor, bouquet, color and body – symbolizing the passion underlying the vision of Meritage’s artists.  Proof to date?  Well, Meritage Press began by presenting an etchings-based collaboration between artist Archie Rand and poet John Yau, encompasses first poetry books by Tom Beckett, Jean Vengua, Barry Schwabsky, and Bruna Mori, presents a poetry-kali martial arts book by Michelle Bautista, enables the first children’s poetry collection by Geoffrey Gatza, offers the unique and popular STAGE PRESENCE: Conversations with Filipino American Performing Artists edited by jazz musician-scholar Theodore S. Gonzalves, and presents three unique anthologies of the 21st century Filipino diasporic poetic form called the “hay(na)ku” (Vol I, Vol II and the forthcoming THE CHAINED HAY(NA)KU are all co-published with the radiant Finnish avant garde publisher xPress(ed), further attesting to Meritage Press’ international scope).

Answer (Francisco Aragón, Momotombo Press): On the heels of publishing in Gary Soto’s Chicano Chapbook Series, I conceived of Momotombo Press in the spring of 2000. I’ve said it before: it was empowering to have my chapbook published; it served as a calling card and led to readings and a couple of anthology publications. I wanted to replicate that experience for my peers—that is: poets without a full-length book. Also crucial was studying with Gary Snyder: in his workshop and seminars at UC Davis, it was instilled in us time and again that starting local and small was one way to go. That was the case, we learned, with Riprap; that was the case with Jack Spicer and White Rabbit Press. In this sense, taking in the literary landscape of San Francisco, my native city, in Poet, Be Like God, was a seminal experience in my formation as a small press publisher.

And yet Momotombo Press didn’t settle into its true skin until its fifth volume: Steven Cordova’s Slow Dissolve marked the moment Momotombo became a place for new voices in Latino literature. It made sense, especially since the Chicano Chapbook Series had ended. Since Cordova’s volume, some memorable titles, in terms of sales and classroom adoptions, have included Brenda Cárdenas’ From the Tongues of Brick and Stone and Paul Martínez Pompa’s Pepper Spray. Our only title to go into a second printing was Malinche’s Daughter, a collection of nonfiction prose by Michelle Otero. Our chapbooks also distinguish themselves in that they are introduced by more established voices. These have included, among others, Luis Alberto Urrea, Helena Maria Viramontes, Terrence Hayes and, most recently, Rigoberto González, who penned the Intro to the forthcoming This Book of Ours by Octavio R. González. Finally, my particular role has evolved into that of Publisher only while early Momotombo author Maria Melendez has assumed the post of acquiring and managing editor.

Answer (Reb Livingston, No Tell Books): I always wanted to be involved in poetry publishing.  Connecting readers to poems and poets always seemed an important and noble cause.  Considering that I live in Northern Virginia, my options were limited.  Not a lot of poetry publishers in these parts.  Limited options turned out to be a gift and worked out well because it happens that I enjoy running my own press, operating as I want, choosing which rules to follow and which to disregard.  I think it’s really important for all poets and publishers to regularly reevaluate the rules and guidelines we follow.  Are we doing something because it’s a legacy?  Why did we begin following a particular process in the first place?  Is it beneficial today?  Is it still necessary?  Is it holding us back? I’m reminded of when my grandmother became too elderly to hold the annual family 4th of July picnic.  My father took over and the first thing he did was to nix the two lunch tradition.  The whole family was up in arms.  Only one lunch!?!  We’d been serving two lunches for over 40 years.  How dare he!  My father’s decision was sound.  The tradition began because once upon a time all the men worked different shifts at the steel mill.  Serving two lunches made sure everyone was fed.  It was a good idea from 1950-1975.  But when my father took over, nobody in our family was working at a mill, in fact, the mills had been torn down for 10+ years.  We didn’t need to do double the work.  One lunch was more than enough for everyone.  There were better ways to use our time and energy.

In poetry, I think the need not being met is enough good outlets for poets to share their work.  I imagine many people disagree.  There are thousands of poetry magazines and presses.  Why do we need more?  Why would we need anything else or different?  I would respond that my anecdotal evidence is that I personally know of many wonderful manuscripts without a publisher.  I can’t publish them all.  I can’t publish more than a tiny percentage.  I can’t even read them all.  Most indie publishers I know are in similar situations.  Also, I’m really opposed to the concept of a small group of people controlling what poems and poets make it to readers.  Come to think of it, I’m kind of opposed to the idea that sharing one’s own work with an audience is out of her own power or somehow beneath her.

Answer (Rusty Morrison, Omnidawn): We started Omnidawn in 2001 because we wanted to involve ourselves in small press publishing. Both Ken and I feel that one of the most important things we can do with our time and our resources is to participate in the work of bringing to the reading public books that are exciting, thought-provoking, enlivening — books that may not find a home with larger publishing houses.

When you asked why we started, you added to that question: what need was ‘not’ being met by existing presses.

We do feel that we fill a particular need, which I’ll say more about in a moment. But we don’t think we are the only ones to fill it. Rather, we believe there is always a great need for many different small presses, and that this need MUST be met by a widely diverse variety of small press publishers. Without them, the unifying, stifling, benumbing drone of the large, for-profit-only publishing houses will crush variation in literature and language and thought.

We started Omnidawn because we wanted to be one of those presses — we wanted to participate in that diverse, vibrant, vital community and, in so doing, help that constantly evolving conversation flourish.

But, having said that, I should add that we do see ourselves as one of the presses that fulfill an important need that readers have: Omnidawn is especially interested in works that invigorate the reader, that infuse the reader with new possibility, that leave the reader refreshed, or challenged, or charged with heightened attention
– whether because of the work’s ability to let readers experience ‘language’ engaging with ‘meaning’ in newly expansive, enlivening ways;
–or because of the frame-shifting dimensions of the content, which might test, stretch, challenge those beliefs and attitudes that can too easily grow restrictive;
–or because of the ways that the work is itself a constellation of difference that coheres in ways that illuminate new potentials to the reader.

Of course, each Omnidawn book will achieve its ends in its own uniquely different ways, so each one teaches us how to read it, and how to expand our perspective on the kinds of books that we want to publish. As our name suggests, we are interested in “all” and “every” “dawning.”

Comments (5)

  • On October 28, 2009 at 11:39 am Glen wrote:

    This is fascinating, Barbara. Thanks. In some ways I feel like there’s too much poetry being published right now and not enough filtering, so it’s interesting to hear from people who feel the opposite.

  • On October 28, 2009 at 12:32 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Hi Glen, thanks for this comment, which leads to the question of filtering, the criteria for filtering, and who determines the criteria for filtering.

  • On October 28, 2009 at 4:17 pm NEG wrote:

    All publishing is polemical!

    What I mean is: http://www.lettermachine.org/

  • On November 2, 2009 at 10:42 am Jessie Carty wrote:

    Loved hearing these responses. I, at times, feel there is too much being published (even though I publish a lit mag myself) but I like this idea of filters and I’ve been thinking a great deal more about getting my work to the places and into the hands/eyes of the readers who fit best with my work.

    It is a journey!

  • On November 10, 2009 at 10:02 am Jonathan wrote:

    Too much being published?! Never!

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Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.