Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Presses and Poets 1: Alice James Books

[N.B.: Four Poets and a Publisher -- the Kingdom Books celebration of and salute to Alice James Books -- is scheduled for Saturday July 14 at 3 p.m. in the air-conditioned comfort of Catamount Arts, Eastern Avenue, St. Johnsbury. Open to all, and free, it features AJB publisher April Ossmann and poets Ellen Doré Watson, Nancy Lagomarsino, Lesle Lewis, and Amy Dryansky. Hold that summer afternoon on your calendar! Kingdom Books is bringing treasures of AJB poetry, too!]

It's easy to see why a poet or group of poets would want to found a press: to get published, of course. But reasons reach far beyond this simple start, and for Alice James Books, the determination to publish the good work of others -- especially of women -- propelled the press into collaborative structure and its early years of woman-focused outreach. There's a concise description of its genesis at www.AliceJamesBooks.org :

Alice James Books is a nonprofit cooperative poetry press, founded in 1973 by five women and two men: Patricia Cumming, Marjorie Fletcher, Jean Pedrick, Lee Rudolph, Ron Schreiber, Betsy Sholl and Cornelia Veenendaal. Their objectives were to give women access to publishing and to involve authors in the publishing process. We remain true to that mission and to publishing a diversity of poets, including both beginning and established poets, and a diversity of poetic styles. The press is named for Alice James—the sister of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James—whose fine journal and gift for writing were unrecognized within her lifetime. Since 1994, the press has been affiliated with the University of Maine at Farmington.

Women are still prominent on the AJB list, but hardly isolated. Recent "big names" have included the Nebraska poet B. H. Fairchild and the "embedded poet" writing from the war in Iraq, Brian Turner. Steering the press at the moment, in addition to its board of directors, is publisher APRIL OSSMANN. Author of the collection ANXIOUS MUSIC, which is being published by Four Way Books this fall, Ossmann has written poetry since age 7. (Hear her description of her "start" at the remarkable oral poetry site www.fishouse.com -- click on Authors and she's in the A's.) She also brought out a small and intense chapbook through Four Way in a limited edition for her friends (THE MUSIC WE TRAVEL BY, 2006).

Ossmann writes about the experience of managing a poetry press at http://poetryfoundation.org and, with her permission, I quote some of her description here:

My favorite task as a publisher-poet is editing our books. Editing is really a kind of Ur-reading for me, a process where I am both reader and writer, and I love it for what it teaches me about both. In the past when I hadn’t been writing new poems, I thought I’d be embarrassingly rusty when I wrote again, but I’ve been surprised to learn that I’m most often not. I finally realized why. It’s because good editing, for me, is writing: to get far enough into another poet’s sensibility and technique to effectively suggest edits is to operate from the same creative impulse as I do when writing new work.

The wide range of poetic styles we publish, from Liz Waldner to Frank Gaspar to Anne Marie Macari to Donald Revell to Lesle Lewis to Brian Turner, et al, has meant that in some sense I have had to teach myself to write like all of these authors. My goal is always to try to edit poets the way they would edit themselves if they could see their work more objectively, and this means finding a way to fall in love with each author’s work, if I’m not in love already. Sometimes it means overcoming my own resistance, sometimes my affinities.

On a technical level, I am less able to allow myself to excuse or ignore weaknesses in my own work, because I’ve so often criticized the same weaknesses in others. I have also learned that despite being an editor, I continue to benefit from having editors. Perhaps it’s possible to get outside one’s own head, but I can’t claim to have done it.

On a more spiritual level, I’ve learned to appreciate not just poetry, but poets I might not have befriended otherwise. Learning to appreciate a sensibility seemingly alien to my own has taught me an old lesson: that no one is as alien as I might think at first. It’s also made me both more sure of who I am as a poet and more willing to experiment. It gives me regular glimpses of who I might be, or am…as Lynda Hull wrote in “The Window”: “If each of us / contains, within, humankind’s totality, each possibility / then I have been so fractured, so multiple & dazzling / stepping towards myself . . .” a regular reminder for me to “dwell in possibility” (Dickinson).

Ossmann will introduce four current Alice James Books poets at our celebration on July 14 (see top of this entry). She probably won't be reading her own work that day -- but we'll present some of it later. More on the other poets soon.

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