Monday, July 9, 2007

Back from the Bay: some thoughts

I"ll continue here.

I have a vague recollection of hearing Roberto Vargas read his poetry in San Francisco in the early 80s when I was first getting interested in the art and, perhaps more importantly at the time, the events unfolding in Nicaragua. Vargas ended up joining the Sandinistas, if I'm not mistaken, in their struggle against Somoza and, after that, resistance to the US and President Reagan's meddling.

But what drew me to Primeros Cantos wasn't the politics of the work, but rather the circumstances of its publication: the idea of it: a small press product that, over 35 years after the fact, found its way into my hands in a used bookstore in Berkeley!

(I should note that the volume is two works in one: if you turn the book over you had the second title: This Side and Other Things por Elias Hruska y Cortes)

Here is what the colophon says:

"Who did what

Rupert Garcia. This side & other things (19, 26, 39, 45.)
Primeros Cantos (9, 12, 15, 18) covers

Alejandro Stuart. This side & other things (4, 9, 18, 38.)
Primeros Cantos (21, 37 & 38) center pages

This book was a collective effort of various people
others who helped Alfred Garcia Geraldine Kutaka
Alejandro Murguia

No material can be reproduced without permission.
c 1971 by the artist & poets and by Ediciones Pocho-Che
Finished Dec. 1971 Terminado Dic. 1971
First Printing Primer Ejemplar
This book was printed in an edition of 2,500
at Garcia Litho & Printing Service 657 Mission Street San Fra
Este libro fue publicado en una edicion de 2,500"


These thoughts on small press publishing aren't surfacing in a vacuum. Barbara Jane Reyes, last Friday, in a post she titled, "The Sin of Impatience and Other Publishing Issues," talks about what I took to be her ambivalence about wanting her third book to be published by a particular press soon---I say ambivalence because she seemed to be questioning why it meant so much to be on this particular press' list. And it got me thinking along those same lines.

There is, of course, the prestige factor of being published by this or that press. I guess the question I would add to the mix is: given the small audience that exists for poetry, what, in the end, does it mean to be published by Publishing House A in New York, who may have your book remaindered after a couple of years, or Publishing House B in Arizona or New Mexico who, while perhaps not as "prestigious" in the eyes of some, will keep your book in print for much longer. And with the advent of the internet, which can provide many more readers than a book in print (what do most poetry publishers print? 1000 - 2000 copies?), is being overly concerned about which house prints our work worth the energy---particularly when considering the number of readers one hopes to reach?


I remember there was a time when publishing a book with a place like Bilingual Press didn't especially appeal to me. This would have been back in the late 80s. But since getting to know more about their and Gary Keller's trajectory (in contrast, say, to Arte Público's) and their track record with keeping decently produced books in print; and there friendly attitude toward poetry in the first place (in contrast, again, to Arte Público's), I could envision publishing with them again. Barbara Jane Reyes has mentioned, I believe, distribution as a factor to consider. But I wonder if, in the age of ordering books online so easily, this is even as crucial a factor as it may have been years ago.


A shift: there is something very gratifying about holding in my hands a somewhat fragile handmade, or modest book or chapbook---an edition, say, that may only have 300 copies. I think of Charles Reznikoff and the Objectivist Press that only printed 300 or so copies of their titles in the early part of the 20th Century. Or my edition of Juan Felipe Hererra's book Facegames, published by As Is/So&So Press back in the mid eighties. Or August Kleinzahler's first book, A Calendar of Airs, published by Coach House Press in Toronto and blurbed by Guy Davenport and Christopher Middleton in the late 70s. Or his small press title, On Johnny's Time, published by Pig Press in England in 1988.


The only real reason for concern about who publishes you, in my mind, is if you hold an academic post that requires you to publish in a certain way. Even if you don't buy into this scheme, it's a valid concern if your livelihood (tenure) depends on it. But if that isn't the case which, I imagine, is the situation for many poets, what is behind the concern (and I include myself) or interest about which house publishes us? It may point to a more fundamental question which, perhaps, isn't addressed as often as it should be. Why do poets write in the first place? Is if for the prestige of being associated with particular houses, or something else? How important is it to have a "large" readership? Octavio Paz once said that he would rather have a handful of attentive readers, than hordes and hordes of casual ones.


Robert Pinsky, in the current issue of The Threepenny Review, has a very interesting essay that is sort of related. In it, he talks about what he calls a "fake yet pretty widely accepted 'crisis'" in American poetry. He writes:

"This notion appeals to those who (to paraphrase Randall Jarrell) say they 'don't get modern poetry,' with an implication that in the evening they curl up with a volume of Blake or Paradise Lost."


All this, necessarily, prompts me to ask myself why Letras Latinas is even concerned with enhancing the visibility of Latino/a poetry. Aside from the fact that it's my day job and, thus, my livelihood, why bother? Or rather: why bother with being overly concerned with where or how Latino poetry gets disseminated?

Let me think about it. I welcome your thoughts, as well.

1 comment:

barbara jane said...

Hi Francisco, thanks for your thoughts on my publishing 'issue.' I do agree with you re: distribution and its key importance, though I go back to my original argument about the hypothetical Filipino American reader who shops not at or City Lights, or even at amazon, but at suburban Barnes and Noble or Borders locations. As distribution of Filipino American titles on university and indie presses currently goes, our books realistically don't reach this reader. And it is quite important for me to figure out concretely how to reach this reader.

So there's that. Interested in your thoughts.