Special Report: Independents Make Up Half of Book Sense Poetry 76 Top Ten List

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In a notable achievement, independent presses carved out five of the 10 slots for books nominated by independent booksellers for the Book Sense Poetry 76 Top Ten list, released late February in advance of April's National Poetry Month. The presses include Seven Stories, Holy Cow! Press, BOA Editions, Copper Canyon, and Graywolf. "This is a time of great interest in poetry, and there is no question that the independent presses are hugely responsible for creating a vibrant poetry culture in America," said Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets.

Independent booksellers, the oft-times lone champions of hard-to-sell poetry collections agree. "Poetry doesn't make money, and it won't get published by those whose main concern is the bottom line," said Susan Ramsey of Athena Book Shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. "You have to credit the small presses-that do it for love -- for bringing poetry to the bookstores. "Ramsey was one of many independent booksellers who nominated Plus Shipping by Bob Hicok for the 76 list. The book was published in 1998 by BOA editions. "Hicok is the Minnesota Fat of poetry," said Ramsey. She noted that the National Book Critics Circle recently nominated Hicok for his latest book, Animal Soul. "But they were a book late," said Ramsey. "It's sort of like Liz Taylor winning the Academy Award for Butterfield 8 when everyone knows it should have been for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Steven Huff is the managing editor of BOA Editions. "Plus Shipping is a terrific book," said Huff. "It is so fanciful and imaginative. We knew it was terrific when it came in." Huff is surprised that a book published in 1998 would make this year's list. But Plus Shipping, which originally sold through, is back at the presses due to the demand generated by its placement on the Poetry 76 Top Ten List. "Hicok just has a broader imagination than 99 percent of what comes across our desk," said Huff.

Like Swenson and others in the poetry business, Huff sees a rise in interest in poetry. However, he admits he can't put his finger on any one reason for the trend, nor can he quantify it in any concrete statistical sense. "It's unmistakable that there's been more interest since 9/11," said Huff. "And poetry festivals like Dodge are flying high right now." But Huff also believes that distribution has improved for independent presses that have been putting more efforts in getting their books out to readers. And he believes that there's more "crossover" poets like Lucille Clifton, whose book Blessing the Boats (published by BOA) won the National Book Award for poetry in 2000.

"There are some poets, starting way back with Allen Ginsburg, who make it on TV or become the subject of magazine articles that attract readers who might not otherwise read poetry," said Huff. In addition, Huff thinks that U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has done a lot to garner this crossover appeal. "Billy Collins' work is so accessible," said Huff. "Just like Pete Seeger can make a song for any occasion, Billy Collins can give you a poem for any occasion."

Accessibility may be a dirty word to some when it comes to talking about poets, said independent bookseller Mike Lindgren, but for him, accessibility means that poetry will keep up its public appeal. Lindgren, of the Tudor Bookshop in Kingston, Pennsylvania, believes that the public's interest in poetry is on the rise, and he attributes much of that to independent publishers, whom he cited as the mainstay of poetry publishing. "It's good when Random House publishes Billy Collins or Harper does Doty, but the impetus for all great poetry publishing comes from the indie press," said Lindgren.

He ranks New York-based Seven Stories as one of the best indie presses. Lindgren was among several booksellers who nominated Seven Stories' publication of Poems 7 -- New and Complete Poetry by Alan Dugan, which won the 2001 National Book Award for Poetry. "This is a fantastic book," said Lindgren. "And it's sold amazingly well considering the fact that we're a small independent bookstore in a community that doesn't really value poetry."

For Dan Simon, publisher and founder of Seven Stories press, everything about publishing the book -- from collecting four decades of Dugan's work to putting them in one mammoth and expensive volume -- was risky. "You try to do everything for the right reason, and sometimes out of the blue you get rewarded," said Simon. "[Publishing Poems 7] was totally impractical, but it turned out to be a smart thing."

Seven Stories is publishing 40 new titles a year and supports itself on its occasional breakout bestseller. "Every three years we seem to make a profit," said Simon. "Then we pay off our debt and everything looks good -- then for two years we don't make any profits at all, and it becomes a struggle again." To this he added, "Anyone in independent publishing who follows the rules loses. To stay alive, you have to find idiosyncratic models that work for you. It's a bit of a gambler's mentality."

Jim Perlman, editor and publisher of Holy Cow! Press would definitely agree. The press, which normally publishes regional Mid-western poets and writers, stepped out of its niche to publish Star in My Forehead by German poet Else Lasker-Schuler. This month the book, first published in 2000, made the Poetry 76 Top Ten List. "It definitely represents a departure for us," said Perlman. "It's quite a unique book."

Perlman was particularly moved by the quality of Janine Canan’s translation. "This book is imagistic and lyrical," said Perlman. He also notes, "It has a bilingual German and English presentation, a translator's note, biographical essay, and artwork that the poet drew over the course of her lifetime." Since its mention the Poetry 76 Top Ten List, Holy Cow's "unique book" has done brisk sales: The press estimates that more than 300 have already been sold due to nomination of the book and the word of mouth that's followed.

Perlman, like his colleagues, relies heavily on the independent bookstores to carry and sell Holy Cow! Press's books. He credits what he calls the "passionate" handselling of indie booksellers with much of the rise in poetry sales recently. Perlman also believes that small press publishers have become much more savvy about marketing their work and producing high-quality, visually appealing books. "Indie presses have a vital role to play because our orientation is nonprofit so we are likely to take a risk on lesser-known poets," said Perlman. "There's more mutual loyalty between small presses and the poets they publish because there's less concern for the bottom line."

In addition to loyalty, Perlman also believes that other variables have come into play recently to raise awareness of poetry's cultural value. He said that such initiatives as Billy Collins' "Poetry 180 Project" (designed to create appreciation of poetry in high schools), National Poetry Month, and the Book Sense 76 are all responsible for helping to turn skeptics into poetry lovers. He also believes the events of September 11 galvanized people, naturally turning them toward poetry for ways to explain the unexplainable and find reassurance in the face of great uncertainty. "The thing I've noticed since 9/11 is that people come to poetry to find comfort and clarity, and to have their internal life renewed in the face of stressful and unforgiving times," said Perlman.

Karen Wallace, a bookseller at Dutton’s Bookstore in Brentwood, California, agrees. She was one of many who nominated Star in My Forehead, and she, too, believes that a potential readership for poetry is growing. "We have always had a great interest in poetry here at Dutton’s," said Wallace, who added "I think that independents create a nest for people to discover poetry."

This seems to be the common thread among all independent booksellers to nurture what they perceive as a small but thriving audience for poetry. And, according to the Academy of American Poets’s Swenson, it is the small press industry that can take most of the credit for keeping poetry on the shelves. "It's the growth over the last several decades of the indie presses, and the love they have for their work, that plays such a large role in supporting the voices of poets who will be read for many, many years to come," said Swenson.

Other independent press titles on the Book Sense Poetry 76 include Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey (Graywolf, 2000) and The Roads Have Come to an End Now by Rolf Jacobsen (Copper Canyon, 2001). For a complete list of the April 2002 Book Sense Poetry 76 Top Ten List, click here. --Leslie Schwartz

[Reprinted, with permission, from The CLMP Newswire -- A Biweekly E-mail News Dispatch on Independent Literary Publishing; a Project of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.]