The following article contains references to sexual assault.
Writers, like hobos, are mavericks by and large: a bit at odds with society in one way or another, unconventional in their hearts and minds, whatever their clothes, job, income or style of living might suggest. Fairly early, I realized that when you publish, you don’t just publish the work, you publish the writer. You don’t just go through someone else’s orchard picking the best specimens; you feed the tree, you prune, you worry over the harvest; and only then, when all you’ve worked toward matures, do you get involved in selling the fruit, persuading other people that this writer is going to be important to their lives.
I didn’t have any idea, when I was in my mid-20s, that I would end up the publisher of a small Southern press, the Carolina Wren. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but when I was ready, around 1967, at 30, to send off my poems to magazines like the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Review of Books and some of the more established university quarterlies, they consistently returned them with the standard rejection slips. In 1969 when a writer friend, Paul Foreman, suggested that he and I start a literary journal, I still had nothing published, and I knew of many other writers who were infrequently published, if at all, and who wanted as much as I did to have more than a rejection-slip relationship with an editor. Paul and I decided to confine ourselves to poetry in the beginning and to write at least a note to everyone who sent us poems.
At the time we began Hyperion, we were scarcely aware of the “little magazine” movement, which had taken off in the ’60s, fueled by the protest literature and mood of the time. We had planned to do Hyperion’s first issue on my ditto machine, but Paul (then in Berkeley — I was in Evanston, Illinois) found an “underground printer” to do the work for us. Paul gathered some friends to help staple it, and Hyperion, 500 copies costing us about $300, was born.
I loved magazine publishing because I could encourage, reinforce and get out the word about a large number of new writers. As I go along, though, I find book publishing even more rewarding. I take the most satisfaction in finding and helping the most gifted, the very best, keeping them flourishing and helping to allay their cynicism, bitterness and despair. If a book doesn’t get published fairly soon after it is written — and I’m assuming it’s a good book — something happens to the writer. He or she can get very bitter. Finding these good books and helping them Find their audiences then becomes, perhaps, an even more crucial role than magazine publishing.
For instance, I know one writer — Curt Johnson, from Chicago — who published in the 1950s a solid and very appealing novel, Hobbledehoy’s Hero, through a commercial house called Pennington Press (one which has since folded or been gobbled up by a conglomerate). He wrote in the ’60s a second very human, very small-town story called The Morning Light, and was unable to publish that through a large house. Enter cynicism and despair. Around 1973, he published Nobody’s Perfect through a very small press in Ohio: Carpenter Press. It’s about a truckdriver who wanders the country, traveling in and out of the literary and political gatherings of the late ’60s. The human vision is still here, and the appeal to a wide audience, but the humor has turned bitter and is focused particularly on the follies he has come to know too well of the “lit” world. Eventually, Carpenter Press also brought out The Morning Light, around 1977. Another small press, Vagabond, in Washington state, published a shorter and more cynical Johnson novel, Lace and a Bobbitt, in 1978. And none of these small-press novels sold especially well. I asked to see his newest novel when he had completed it, in 1979. He tells me he has an agent and is again trying the larger houses. This novel is about as cynical as they come. I felt like crying. What happened? Mostly, I think, it is that his human, loving vision of life never found its audience, and that ate away at him. His vision grew very dark.
It is to prevent this sort of thing’s happening to other good writers that, when I can do something about it, I take up whatever weapons I’ve got. It is what guides my work as a publisher.
I had not been in North Carolina long before I realized there were taboos against some Southern poets. In 1974 I was told by the woman who coordinated the arts program for the Hillsborough schools — I lived in that school district and my children attended those schools — that I was not a “safe poet.” I was too closely identified with “prison poets,” meaning, I supposed, poets like T.J. Reddy, one of the Charlotte Three. She said, as a consequence, she’d let me teach in the grade schools, but she wasn’t going to risk my rocking her boat at the high school level.
Experiences like this deepened the intensity of my commitment to publishing. I soon discovered that certain writers never made it onto the official state arts council lists of writers available to do readings, go into the schools and so forth. (This has changed, fortunately — perhaps in part because some others and I made a fuss.) Yet the healthiest writers I have known usually come at culture from an angle, with both insight and criticism. In the words of Ezra Pound, “The writers are the antennae of the race.” Poets usually aren’t the defenders of a culture. They don’t usually hide behind its taboos and habits. And poets with a persistent appeal down through the ages have rarely been either “safe” or “established.”
So I found a role, with a vengeance. I began looking for the writers at the edges of the universities and the more established cliques. And as I was beginning to look around more thoroughly, the women’s movement was having some interesting poetic side-effects. I began to gather the work of these new writers into a book which eventually became the special women poets’ issue of Hyperion, which became my way of saying, “Here’s a whole new kind of poetry by a group of writers no one in the history of literature has ever really taken seriously, saying simply and without fanfare some of the most meaningful things about our human experience that you’re likely to find anywhere.” This anthology, called Black Sun, New Moon, with its 300 pages of poetry, isn’t the only one of its kind, but I like to think of it as one of the best and purest collections of a new, direct poetry by women writing in an open, clear way about their feelings and uncovering a whole new “deep imagery” to articulate experiences which simply hadn’t been expressed before.
A telling example is the poem by Jenovefa Knoop which leads the book and lends it its title. Where does the image of a “black sun” come from? And why, in the same poem, a “new moon?” The poem is about the ecstasy of a man and woman making love. Jenny’s poem uses eclipse imagery — but of the sun. And what is an eclipse? A balancing of two energies, sun and moon. Jenny was expressing through her imagery her power as a woman to balance that of a man.
I realized that, once the drama and shouting of the women’s movement had quieted a little, women were speaking in a newly released way. A wide world of developed feeling and perception was unlocked. Few of the writers had ever taken “creative writing” classes; some had never rewritten their poems. Many had not been among the fighters who produced the changes that released them to write down and share their real feelings. So they didn’t have — or had passed through and beyond — the angers and postures of warriors which might have kept them from opening the doors on their quietest and deepest feelings. But they were part of a large social change.
It was exciting to be as close to this new world of feeling and to see it as it was happening — at open readings, at women’s readings, in small classes and groups, many of which I had initiated. But what was happening was much larger than anything I did. I picked up anthologies in California in 1975 and found the same open, simple, articulate writing. I found poets in the Northwest in 1976 whose work was akin, in expression and clarity, to poets I knew in the South. And poems came through the mail. It’s one thing, though, to participate as teacher, editor, fellow writer or moderator of a reading; it is by far the more important social and cultural act to put the best of these poems into print. But this requires patience.
It took me six years to edit and find the money for Black Sun, New Moon. I kept myself going with the reminder that I’m a tortoise, not a hare. I’m slow to get through the piles of manuscripts because I read them all myself and write answers to everyone. It used to be hard for me to tell a writer he or she still had a lot of work ahead, but it’s easier now. I know that, though we all balk at it, crossing the technical bridge is well worth the effort it takes. And so I urge writers onto it. I remind them that strong feelings and the desire to write are the main things, that anyone who’s willing to go to some trouble can learn the necessary techniques.
Beyond this I look for and care most about writers who are developing people, who get wiser as they get older, not more corrupt and/or egotistical. I believed in T.J. Reddy’s writing and was willing to go a long way to help him partly because of the injustice of the Charlotte Three case, but mostly because I felt he had the inner wholeness and order, the integrity and wisdom, that so few American writers have. I met him in the Albemarle prison yard in 1975. We sat at the visitor’s table and talked for about 45 minutes. He told me you couldn’t use words much in prison; you had to live poems, by fasting, doing yoga, painting, meditating. I had met few people as authentic, as willing to extend themselves to another human being in trust. I knew his innocence, as I knew his greatness of spirit, at an instinctive level.
This year I am turning over all the editing of Hyperion — which Paul, his wife, Foster Robertson, and I have taken turns at over the years — to them and their Thorp Springs Press in Austin, Texas, because I feel I can do the most good by putting my major efforts into book publishing at Carolina Wren Press. I want to give Carolina Wren more and more of the energy that’s left after I fulfill my own commitment to write and my responsibility to my three children.
My goal for the press is to bring out six books a year — fiction and plays as well as poetry — and to distribute them as widely as I can. I am always looking for new ways to distribute them. And I would like for this eventually to be my main means of support. The publishing, editing, sell ing and promoting I do now is almost entirely volunteer work. I envision a day, though, when sales will mean a small salary for me, the money to reprint, and never having to delay production because there’s no money in the bank.
Beyond that, I want to help my writers stay whole and sane and productive.
Carolina Wren came into existence in 1976, partly to fulfill my obligations to the writers whose books of poems I’d promised to see published and partly because I had been bitten by the book-publishing bug. I had been separated from my husband for a year and was living on food stamps in federally subsidized housing. My income, for four of us, including child support, was less than $6,000. It is still less than $10,000, but I have managed to lend or contribute an average of about $500 a year to Carolina Wren. She owes me $2,000 now, which I probably won’t get back for some time. Although the writers have sometimes helped by finding some money — contributions or loans — there hasn’t been much in the way of grants until very recently, nor have there yet been dramatic sales.
My three “best sellers” — meaning that the print runs of 500 to 1,000 sold out in about a year — have been Jaki Shelton’s Dead on Arrival, T.J. Reddy’s Poems in One-Part Harmony and Black Sun, New Moon. Two black writers and the women’s anthology. It’s discouraging to see other fine books I was sure would find their audiences still in boxes. Poetry, especially, takes time. Reviews help generate interest, and so do readings by the poets. If the book itself is put together attractively enough, people find they must pick it up and look and read.
The two books most frequently picked up at a recent Washington, DC, book fair were Black Sun and Rituals of Our Time. Rituals has an arresting four-color cover of a naked man holding a rose in his teeth, in a position suppliant to an old man and an old woman. But the best seller turned out to be Black Sun. The buyers (all six of them) became enthusiastic on the spot because of what they read when they picked it up. First, of course, you have to get them to pick the book up, and you have to get it out there where the browsers are.
Though I have sold just about all of the books’ print runs over three or four years, the sales are never quite fast enough to keep pace with the expenses, no matter how careful I am. Grants make a big difference, even small ones. In each of the last three years, Carolina Wren has received about $1,000 from the North Carolina Arts Council, making four new books possible. I have just received my first National Endowment for the Arts small-press grant for books, and NEA’s literature panel also gave a generous $5,000 to Hyperion for two special issues (Black Sun and Focus: South, an anthology of Southern poets). And I earn my living under a small-press review project funded by NEA.
I know I’ll continue publishing and helping writers I believe in, whether grants come in or not, whether the sales match my expectations or not, whether or not these writers come into their own and are recognized, as they deserve to be, in my lifetime. Some of the books I’ve been surest would sell still fill my hall or are used for chairs in my kitchen. Others have surprised me, and I’ve run out, and then not had the money to reprint. There’s always a gamble, and I always believe the book will come into its own in time. Some good things take longer than others to be recognized for their real value.
If you wonder why I keep doing it — why I’ve dug my heels in even more deeply — I guess I’d have to say I do it because my desire to do something that is both for the world and in the world can be best expressed by publishing. I’ll write myself and hope to see my work in print. But publishing is a very social act — an act, for me, of social change.
I like a term from accounting lingo: accrue. Little by little, good things accrue. You keep a fire going long enough, and people will come to you. The word spreads, when the news is good, by all sorts of methods that defy the big media and their pressures and their increasingly heinous tactics. We are here — the small, independent presses and the “little magazines” — in such large numbers because of the failures of conglomerate publishing. Once it was possible — and not so long ago — for a good writer to be published by a major house, for the publisher to make money and for the writer to earn a living doing what he or she loved best: writing. Now that happens only rarely.
The hype and the failing economics of the big New York publishers have all but destroyed their usefulness to readers. A recent comment by Christopher Lasch in the New York Times cites the effects of their failure: “Today the censorship of ideas has entered American life through the back door. The economics of centralization and standardization threaten to achieve what could not be achieved, in a country officially committed to liberal principles, by governmental repression: uniformity of thought.”
People want words that help them live and understand their lives. And that’s the main reason the large publishers are failing, because they’ve lost touch with that. They’ve become cynical about their audience, and now that new tax rulings are forcing them to clear out even more inventory, they’ll probably go even more to cookbooks and diet books, coffee-table extravaganzas, and the sensational, oversold novels like Jaws.
The small presses are ready to take — and in many ways already have taken — up the challenge. But they still don’t “exist” for most readers. It is no easy matter getting small-press books into bookstores and libraries. The Chapel Hill library, for instance, won’t buy a poetry book unless it’s by a famous author, because “poetry doesn’t circulate” — though the librarian herself paid me on the spot for the copy of Black Sun, New Moon I’d brought to show her. She wanted one.
Yet the library journals, the American Library Association, even the American Booksellers Association, are buying, are attending small-press book fairs, are reviewing small-press books. And consequently, more libraries and bookstores are ordering these books. The dike has a hole, but probably only a spreading awareness on the part of American readers will let the dam break as it should.
I remember, around 1964, seeing my first anti-Vietnam War march and thinking, “Those people are crazy! Even if they’re right, who will ever listen, or believe them?” Only four years later, Lyndon Johnson backed away from running for re-election to the presidency because of that war. Pretty swift change, all told. And I wouldn’t be surprised if our cottage industry small presses suddenly came into prominence and reached a mass market in the 1980s.
I don’t count on it. I just say that’s the way we’re moving. Small outfits like Carolina Wren are doing more and more of the real work that keeps a culture’s life alive. We’re working with the writers, helping them pick their best work, keeping them writing — in a period when there’s seldom an opportunity for new writers to make much money from their writing. We’re getting the new work into print: almost all the important new poetry and fiction is coming out of the small presses. By 1990, all of it may be. We’re not going to be beaten down by tax rulings or loss of grants or lack of immediate sales success.
I chose the name Carolina Wren because that bird –– who always seems feminine to me, maybe because she’s so near and so nurturing — persists in her cheerful call (“Cheer ing, cheering, cheering you”) all year long. Because she likes people and nests near them, the way I like writers. And because the male (yes, he exists) is said to make four or five nests and let his mate choose the best one. I also try to choose the best and then put everything I can behind those books. And I’m very sure that time is on my side.
Readers can order Carolina Wren Press books from: Judy Hogan, 300 Barclay Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
Dead on Arrival
By Judy Hogan
This story begins about nine years ago when I received in the mail a postcard from Jaki and Sherman Shelton. It read: “We are two black writers and would like to know whether you would like to see our work.” I wrote back: yes. In due time, the poems came, and I accepted a few from each writer for publication in Hyperion.
The following spring Jaki came to see me. She drove alone down the little dirt road to our old farmhouse, across the land of a farmer I was later to learn wasn’t very happy about blacks and whites socializing. I felt that first visit was a kind of test of me — to see how far I went with my life; to see if I could deal with a black writer face to face, or if I kept my role purely editorial, via letters and behind stances. We became friends. Through thick and thin, through my divorce and hers, through emotional crises in both our lives. I felt always, after that first visit, that I had been seen and accepted, both as a friend and as the one she had chosen to help her as a writer, the editor she trusted.
Dead on Arrival finally emerged in 1977, after Jaki made generous contributions to its publishing costs: a first book of poems by a completely unknown black woman writer who had spent most of her life in Efland, North Carolina. The book sold out faster than any other Carolina Wren book and is soon to be available in a new, revised edition. Again, all we need is money. But we’re printing up, as a pamphlet, her new poem “Masks” and selling it for two dollars, hoping to raise the production costs for the new DOA.
It has been gratifying: to know she was good; to see her get better; to have other people, people I had never met or talked to, drawn to her poetry because of the book or a reading she had done; especially gratifying because her poetry emerges from a deep place and “flows” out - and isn’t easy to understand. Jaki’s is a quiet rather than an obviously revolutionary voice — but in that quiet imagery is a potency for upsetting applecarts and stereotypes: “The moon is a rapist/peeing in my window.” Who but a black woman growing up in the South would see the moon as a (white) rapist? It has been gratifying, too, in a more personal sense. For in her poem “dead on arrival,” written for me, she articulates as simply and as well as I could ever hope to what I’m trying to accomplish. It embarrassed me at first — it was such a large tribute. She wanted it to go first in her book. I talked her into last. What more, for reward, could any editor or publisher ask than this?
the leaves smiled and gathered
close to the water;
the black birds flew too high
and became air.
hand fell limp
beside the stretcher
and they all asked
they asked me to identify
the style of her art.
they asked for identity
i could only give them
the time of birth
her astrological chartings
and the names of her lovers
but they wanted
a stock number
a style symbol.
i could only speak of her
and her sisters
and her daughters.
they dressed the hand
in a white glove
and sewed it
inside her womb
with the names
of all the people
Poetry by its very nature is hard to hang a lifetime identity on. It comes and goes, especially with writers like Jaki, who write from a deep place or not at all; who don’t practice, try or rewrite. Poems emerge whole, like dreams. One Sunday morning about 11 o’clock, for instance, she called me up. “I want to read you something. I don’t know whether it’s a poem or not.”
She read me “Night Queen,” which she told me she had just written while still lying in bed, keeping her husband and two young children waiting for their breakfast, behind a locked bedroom door.
I could tell it was good; it had intensity and integrity; it was mysterious and baffling to the logical mind, but it went somewhere; it did things. I said, “It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s probably a poem — a prose poem — but it’s good!” A few months later, she read it at a reading, and I could tell by their stillness as they listened to a very long poem, that the audience felt its power.
Jaki’s poetry taught me that people — ordinary people, untutored in literary tradition — can be spellbound by poetry they don’t understand, just because of this authority of the dark vision rising from a deep place: it feels meaningful) it stirs the imagination; it takes us somewhere new.