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Seattle Poetry Publisher Finds Method to Adapt to Changing Cultural Times

October 22, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, from our occasional series on poets and poetry, the ups and downs of the poetry publishing business. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s no surprise that there’s not much money to be made in poetry, so how in a commercial culture like ours does so much of it get published? One answer can be found here in a beautiful setting at an old fort a few hours outside of Seattle, where Copper Canyon has been putting out books for 35 years.

MICHAEL WIEGERS, Copper Canyon Press: When the press first started, we would do all the printing by hand, the binding by hand. And there was even — the sales were done out of the trunks of cars.

JEFFREY BROWN: They don’t sell books out of their cars anymore, but Michael Wiegers and his colleagues still have one thing in common with their predecessors: It’s all about the poetry.

MICHAEL WIEGERS: The poem is something to be shared. It’s a gift from the poets to the reader. And so we wanted to make certain that that gift was being received.

POETRY PRESS STAFF MEMBER: The poems are all listed and all marked up to be in lower case.

JEFFREY BROWN: With a million-dollar budget and a staff of eight, Copper Canyon relies on foundation and government grants and private donors to publish about 20 poetry books a year. In this business, 5,000 sales is a bestseller, but every so often, there’s a blockbuster that brings in real money.

MICHAEL WIEGERS: Ted Kooser, “Delights and Shadows,” is probably one of our best. But to give you an example, I think the initial print run on that book was around 2,500 copies. Then he was named the poet laureate, and we had to go back and print 20,000 copies. And then he wins the Pulitzer Prize, and suddenly we’re getting closer to having printed 100,000 copies.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those kinds of sales allow Copper Canyon to publish lesser-known names, as well. It brought to a wider audience Taha Muhammad Ali, a Palestinian poet we met in Nazareth earlier this year.

MICHAEL WIEGERS: Has everybody seen Valerie’s mock-up?

Publishing poetry in Seattle

JEFFREY BROWN: And on the day we visited, over some end-of-the-week wine and cheese, the staff talked of doing the same for a young Belarusian poet named Valzhyna Mort, whose first book Copper Canyon will publish early next year.

MICHAEL WIEGERS: "God tossed a heart like a coin inside of me."

When I read it, I have to admit that I thought, "OK, a Belarusian poet and it's her first book in this country, this is going to be tough." But then I read the poems, and I was charmed by them. When I read a poem, something happens that I don't get anywhere else in the world. And to be a part of that making is terrific, you know? I've got, I think, the best job in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wiegers, in fact, is exceedingly fortunate to make a living, even a modest one, from publishing poetry. According to everyone we talked to, Seattle is a great city for books with a vibrant poetry scene.

But most everyone involved is struggling to survive, presses like Floating Bridge, for example. Thirteen years ago, Jeff Crandall and five other Seattle poets put up $50 each to start their own press.

Three hundred dollars is enough to get going?

JEFF CRANDALL, Floating Bridge Press: Oh, you can get going for $300 and a lot of hard work, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea was to sponsor a contest to publish one local poet a year.

JEFF CRANDALL: We founded the press in order to give local poets a chance to get published and have successes here in Washington state without having to compete on a national level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone involved volunteers his or her time and has a separate day job to survive. Crandall is a glass artist. The press now operates within a $10,000 budget, most of which comes from grants.

The future is far less certain for editor Phoebe Bosche at Raven Chronicles, a literary magazine published in Seattle for the last 10 years.

PHOEBE BOSCHE, Raven Chronicles: The most important mission that we have, and most small presses, is to show the work or give a voice to people whose work would never be published.

Giving poets a voice

JEFFREY BROWN: Some writers will never be heard from again, but some go on to larger careers. Bosche says Raven was one of the first to publish work by Sherman Alexie, who later became a well-known author and screenplay writer.

Bosche says escalating costs for postage, and office space, and problems with distribution may signal the end of her journal.

PHOEBE BOSCHE: More and more publications that have been publishing for decades are no longer going to be able to financially make it.

CHARLIE WRIGHT, Wave Books: In every case, the poets that we've approached are the ones that we believe deeply in.

JEFFREY BROWN: Across town, Charlie Wright doesn't worry quite so much about money. A Seattle businessman and philanthropist, he founded Wave Books two years ago as a for-profit business, even though he doesn't expect any profits. That way, he says, he answers to no boards or grant organizations.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: We asked ourselves the question, "Can we afford to lose this many dollars every year for 20 years?"

JEFFREY BROWN: That's quite a business plan, 20 years of losses.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: Yeah, it definitely doesn't get any better than that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wright, who hasn't dropped his day job, can afford to subsidize his press, but is realistic about the prospects.

CHARLIE WRIGHT: I don't think it's possible to make money as a pure poetry press. I think it's possible to make money if you mix in other kinds of publishing. I think it's possible to lose less money if you're willing to publish material that you know will sell well, because there are poets that sell well. But I think if you're committed first to the aesthetic, whatever that aesthetic is, I think that you are doomed to some subsidy every year.

Competing with the culture

JEFFREY BROWN: Our final stop, a bookstore, but a rather unusual one. Open Books is one of just two poetry-only stores in the country, no cushioned chairs, no lattes, not even any employees.

CHRISTINE DEAVEL, Open Books: Do you want to clear a space for them somewhere?

JEFFREY BROWN: Just the owners, husband and wife John Marshall and Christine Deavel.

What do people say when you tell them what you do?

CHRISTINE DEAVEL: They usually say, "Oh, that's brave." And I usually say, "You mean 'that's foolish.'"

JOHN MARSHALL, Open Books: We do have people stick their heads in the door and say, "Is it really all poetry?" But we do know that the subtext means, "You people are nuts."

CHRISTINE DEAVEL: She's most well-known for "The Wild Iris."

JEFFREY BROWN: Marshall and Deavel had run a general bookstore for seven years until a Barnes & Noble opened not far away.

JOHN MARSHALL: And I know I just saw it.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two then did something that does sounds nuts: Rather than fold their tent and find a new business, they went into an even smaller niche, all poetry, all the time.

CHRISTINE DEAVEL: You do best selling something you love; it's a worthwhile transaction. Yes, there's money involved, but I'm also happy if you're happy with this book and that I've introduced you to someone or you've introduced me to someone. I mean, that's the other thing. The store goes both ways. And maybe that's why the energy is in the poetry section. That's where the dialogues were happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marshall and Deavel actually make money on poetry, not much, but enough to have the life they want for now.

JOHN MARSHALL: I don't want to shy away from the economic model, because we do make money. I mean, it's not -- this is not strictly a labor of love.

CHRISTINE DEAVEL: It needs to support itself. If it can't, we'll move on. The culture will have told us something. It can't sustain this kind of endeavor. All right, then we'll do something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: But a lot of people would have thought that the culture's already said that.

JOHN MARSHALL: Well, the culture whispers it to us every now and then.

JEFFREY BROWN: In spite of all the difficulties in getting poetry published, Deavel and Marshall, like everyone we talked to, say they're convinced that art will find its way, that poets will keep writing, and, they hope, the public will keep buying.

JIM LEHRER: Again, on our Web site, you can read poems by Copper Canyon authors, see and hear other poets, and sign up for our poetry podcast. Go to PBS.org.