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Los Angeles Review of Books Launches “Portrait of a Press” Feature. First Up: Wave Books
In what promises to be a great series of reads, Los Angeles Review of Books introduces “Portrait of a Press,” a lengthy feature on book publishers. They kick things off by exploring the long and colorful history of Verse Press, which is now Wave Books.
The piece begins with an anecdote on Verse’s first book, Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, before relaying the press’s birth:
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.
A bit later we learn of how Zapruder and Beckman crossed paths with Charlie Wright, which set the course for what is now Wave Books:
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.”
Then, a bit on Wave’s aesthetic, and seeing a publication as a performance:
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.”
For more, including insight from a number of current Wave authors, make the jump. You won’t be disappointed.