For a poet, that first book deal with a major publisher is a career milestone, a ticket into academia, a potential pathway to immortality. It’s also next to impossible. Farrar, Straus and Giroux lists just three books of poetry in its latest seasonal catalog, all by well-established authors—including Grace Paley, and she’s dead.
But technological advancements like print on demand—which allows publishers to run off individual copies of books when they’re ordered, instead of investing in a large, costly print run—make it easier for poets to move from unrecognized bards to small-time publishing-house bosses. “In D.C., a lot of presses either started in the 1970s, or they started a few years ago,” says Kim Roberts, editor of local poetry quarterly Beltway.
But these upstarts encounter other hurdles: establishing a reputation, figuring out which poets to pluck from obscurity, and hanging on in a low-profit industry. According to Rod Smith, who started his own experimental poetry press, Edge Books, in 1989, “this gets more complicated now because there are just more people and more poets, and it’s harder and harder to feel that one has a purchase on what’s coming out.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he adds. “If these presses connect outward and develop into a community or communities, then they pass the bullshit test. But it’s not important for every press to pass that test.”
Three upstart local presses described their attempts to make connections—and avoid being bullshit.
Vrzhu (pronounced VER-zhoo) is the District’s youngest poetry press: Just more than a year old, it’s published two books by locals, Hiram Larew’s More Than Anything and Roberts’ The Kimnama . “We ran a poetry series for about five years and noticed a lot of great poets who weren’t able to get any books out,” says Michael Gushue, 52, who launched the print-on-demand outfit with Dan Vera, 40, last November. “We were just sitting around, and we thought, ‘Hey, why don’t we do it?’ So…we did.”
Sample Line: “James was the first person around here/Who got those kind of glasses/(And when he votes he whistles)/And when he smooches ice cubes swirl/Like they’re on another planet.” —“Go Rouse James” from Larew’s More Than Anything
You’re Either In…: Gushue says he and Vera have received roughly 50 submissions for 2008, and they’ve selected two to publish this year. “The winnowing down is fairly severe,” he says. To get your book printed by Vrzhu, “we just have to like the stuff a lot. I don’t think it’s more analytical than that. If you read lots of poetry, you know you like it and you know it’s good.”
Or You’re Out: If you can’t get in with the DIYs, well, DIY. “Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass, and if someone was doing that today, the validity of it would be questioned. But there are 1,000 rivers that go to that sea, and certainly each one is valued,” says Gushue. “So find a friend, sell your car, start a press.”
Where You’ll Stand: “There’s a slight bias against print on demand,” Gushue admits. “And that’s because anyone can do it. It requires a commitment of time, but not a lot of money. It’s considered less of an investment.” So far, Gushue estimates he and Vera have moved about 600 books. “We haven’t broken even,” Gushue says. “I don’t know if we will break even. Poetry isn’t profitable, and it has always had to find alternative ways of getting out there.” But, he says, “value is what comes afterwards. For a long time, Edgar Guest was the most popular poet in America. He was awful. His whole shtick was like, ‘It takes a heap of lovin’ to make a house a home,’ or something like that. Now, we’re just waiting for someone to say that he’s so awful that he’s actually brilliant.”
Reb Livingston, 35, has been running her print-on-demand press out of her Reston home for two years. In that time, she’s released 10 books. Livingston claims no particular aesthetic: Past collections have included Bruce Covey’s absurd, list-heavy Elapsing Speedway Organism and Jill Alexander Essbaum’s erotic-religious Harlot, the cover of which features a watercolor rendering of a naked woman embracing a giant phallus.
Sample Line: “Jawing,/Jaw dropping, we watched the teeth falling/And shuddered at the sound they made/When they landed on the marble floor./It’s expensive in here.” —“The Rent in My Mouth” from Shafer Hall’sNever Cry Woof
You’re Either In…: Don’t call her, she’ll call you. Livingston, a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet who runs the online poetry magazine No Tell Motel in addition to No Tell, doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. “Since I’m only inviting people, not taking submissions, I have control,” she says. “You might be surprised at some of the people I reject. I publish only the work I’m excited about, and I’m not interested in climbing some little poetry ladder or making some little empire like a lot of people are.”
“I’m not looking for a book that’s going to sell a lot of copies, because that’s kind of silly in poetry,” she adds. “I’m looking for a book that I’m willing to give up a year of my life to work on.”
Or You’re Out: If Livingston doesn’t fancy your collection, stop bitching. “I’ve had people writing to me, telling me about all the ‘cultural capital’ that I have, and the responsibility that comes with it. I just have to laugh at that,” says Livingston. “These days, it’s so much easier to just start your own press. You can get worked up about how such-and-such a contest wasn’t fair, and you can sit there trying to connect the dots in your conspiracy theories. But why waste your money and time?”
Where You’ll Stand: “Even if it’s a successful book, it’s not going to make me rich, and it’s probably not going to make me famous,” she says. But you’ll have a more hands-on role with how your book is made: “We make decisions together regarding layout, typography, cover design, and other stylistic concerns.” And you’ll be spotlighted by a press that prides itself on avoiding the herd. “Every single one of my books would have been ignored by mainstream publishers,” she says. “I’m not going to get a review in the New York Times, but there was no chance I was going to get that anyway.” She adds, “There are people who will judge a book on how a press prints it. These people are kind of idiots.”
Maureen Thorson, 29, started Eastern Market-based Big Game Books in 2006, looking to get hands-on with making books. “I was interested in bookbinding,” she says. “The first books I did were tiny little chapbooks of my own for friends, and I thought I’d like to do it on a somewhat larger scale.” Big Game specializes in “Tiny Sides,” small, eight-poem books featuring poets like Tom Orange and Michelle Detorie.
Sample Line: “Rome? Great, starts with attempted murder, then perpetuated by gang rape, great. That’s just the beginning of history.” —“Wondrous Things I Have Seen” from Brandon Brown’s Mediumside #2
You’re Either In…: Bots? Yes. God? Probably not. “I have a real love of post-New York School poetry,” says Thorson. “I like things with a sense of humor, especially if it has robots in it. I’m a real sucker for robots and pseudo-post-Eastern European realism and stuff.” Don’t bother with John Ashbery impressions, though. “If I want to read John Ashbery, I can read John Ashbery,” she says. “He already exists. I also shy away from the religious stuff, unless it’s very odd.”
Or You’re Out: “It’s just me running the press, so I try to let people know there’s not some objective panel of experts,” says Thorson. “Whether you get a book or not is whether or not I like it enough to make five little copies with my own little hands. If I take it, that’s a fun thing for you. If I don’t, I’m just one person, and I’m going to have my own weird quirks and tastes.”
Where You Stand: Big Game Books offers limited distribution—50 to 100 copies available on Big Game’s Web site—but craft-world cred. “I’m into the DIY, hand-made-bookery niche, which has a sort of noble counter-culture history for poets,” says Thorson. “In the ’60s, people would have binding parties made up of coteries of well-known poets. People look at these small editions and appreciate the care and camaraderie that went into it.”
Bartenders Abdul Kayoumy and Haile Berhane, formerly wetting whistles on U Street at Local 16, began managing Velvet Lounge “about a week ago,” says Kayoumy; the official sale of the venue is pending approval from the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. “I’ve always had a dream of starting up my own rock ’n’ roll bar,” says Kayoumy. Once the bartender’s officially running the show, what are his plans for the space? “Basically, we’re going to keep Velvet Lounge the same as it is,” he says: same name, same style, same booker, and same sound system. But he notes that Velvet Lounge’s downstairs bathrooms will see a bit of a face-lift once the liquor license goes through. “It’s already a little bit cleaner down there,” he says.
Chris Connelly, who owned the club for just shy of a decade, sold the joint to free up time for surfing in Costa Rica, kayaking in Montana, and despair-free snow days in the District. “Now when it snows, I can celebrate,” says Connelly. “It doesn’t mean I’ll be losing hundreds of dollars.” Still, Connelly’s not ready to give up the bar business just yet; he says he’ll serve as an informal consultant to other area bars and venues dealing with neighborhood protesters and city issues. “And sometimes, I’ll put on a tie and become a formal consultant,” he says. Even when endless summer beckons, breaking up is hard to do. “We have a great sound guy, a great sound system,” says Connelly. “I guess I can’t say ‘we’ anymore, huh? It’s been hard to disassociate myself from it. I haven’t gotten used to it yet.”
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