New Poetry Series Finds Independent Bookseller Fans in New England

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When Cicely Buckley of Oyster River Press set out to publish the entire Walking to Windward chapbook series in one fell swoop, it was a major undertaking. But she couldn't resist adding 11 titles to the original group, ending up with an extraordinary enterprise -- 21 poetry chapbooks encased in four box-set volumes each containing four to five individual titles.

"I don't know of any other series like this," she told BTW, about publishing more than 600 pages of poetry in six months for a December 31 publication date.

Based in Durham, New Hampshire, Buckley coordinated the works of a score of poets from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine into a cohesive publishing project, even as she arranged readings and signings of three to five poets at a time.

At Jabberwocky Bookstore & Cafe in Newburyport, Massachusetts, owner Susan Little said, "We've been carrying some of Oyster River Press books for a long time." (Buckley also publishes titles on Paul Eluard, Lao Tsu, social psychology through poetry, guidebooks, and anthologies.)

Selling poetry can be difficult for any bookstore, but, said Little, "We've been in business for 30 years and we've been building up our collection. We now have a great poetry section -- we sell a ton of poetry," including, she added, 40 copies of Poetry Speaks (Sourcebooks) at $50 apiece. "But it's taken me years to build up that audience. Once you've built it up, it's there."

At Jabberwocky on April 5 and April 12, she is hosting readings by five poets from the Oyster River series.

Buckley points out that although the Walking to Windward series features titles by New England poets, their subject areas range from Ossabaw Island off Georgia and the Southwest Anasazi to the Philippines, Japan, and other distant landscapes. Noted Buckley: "We're not restricted by borders."

She emphasized, too, that the series features both recent prize winners (Rhine Espaillat won the Richard Wilbur Poetry Award in 2001; Julia Older, the Daniel Varoujan Prize in 2001) and other veteran poets (Jean Pedrick, J. Kates, Robert Dunn, Catherine O'Brian) as well as newly published poets.

At Stroudwater Books in Dover, store manager Kim Merrigan said that the store was carrying all the titles in the series and is hosting five poets for a reading April 17.

Displaying chapbooks is difficult, she said, "But what we've done is to put the individual books in a big basket on a table. It's definitely important for independent bookstores to get behind them."

Michael Herrmann, owner of Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, New Hampshire, discovered that the box sets weren't working for him: "I think people want to choose their own and group them themselves."

Since chapbooks can't be displayed spine out and poetry is one of the biggest categories in the store, he said, "We've tried to give them a little bit of shelf all their own and scatter them face out, cascade them so that people can leaf through them and know there are different authors."

In January, Herrmann displayed all the titles in anticipation of a reading by five of the series poets: "There was pretty good activity for the whole collection. We're more believers in the individual artist. We're not believers in schools of poetry. We're always interested in having group readings, but we view it as a collection of individual poets rather than as a school." He added that the series "is an interesting project and gets a great bunch of poets published."

Because the national bookstore chains have not as yet listed the series titles in their databases, Buckely noted that independent bookstores have become "more important. The independents are the only ones who are approachable."

At Owl & Turtle Bookshop in Camden, Maine, store manager Joseph Barber stocks both the individual chapbooks and the boxed sets, displaying the series on store endcaps face out. "We've sold out of the boxed sets now," he said. "They've done quite well." Describing Owl & Turtle as "a big little bookstore" with two crowded floors of small rooms and space enough for only an occasional event, Barber does wall and windows displays of poetry during National Poetry Month, in April.

At Concord Bookshop in Concord, Massachusetts, general manager and adult title buyer Dale Szceblowski said, "We sell more poetry than science fiction." In fact, the store has doubled the shelf space devoted to poetry in the last five years.

"As a consumer of poetry in the past," he said, "I always liked chapbooks. But displaying chapbooks is a challenge because there is no spine to spine out." So, Szceblowski displays both individual titles and box sets under a glass-top in the cash-wrap area and, during April, in the front window.

Szceblowski maintains that most independent bookstores have a natural inclination to support the worthy work of independent presses. "In this case," he said, "the work certainly is of good quality. You want to do what you can for the books, and it reinforces the image you're trying to project as an independent bookstore carrying something that the chains aren't. That alone is not the reason for carrying them, but it doesn't hurt."

[For more information on the Walking to Windward series, contact Oyster River Press; 20 Riverview Rd.; Durham, NH 03824; (603) 868-5006; [email protected].] -- Steve Sherman