Second in a series on New England presses

This is the second of a series of articles on New England presses. Our goal is to help serious writers determine the best match for their work by looking at the editorial and publishing criteria of each press. Perugia Press is now accepting manuscripts for its annual publication.

For this article we interviewed Susan Kan, founder and director of Perugia Press, which publishes first and second books of poetry by women. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College and offers individual manuscript reviews.

 When and why did you begin your press? What drove you to create a new press?

Perugia Press is a nonprofit poetry press publishing one collection of poetry each year, by a woman at the beginning of her publishing career.  Our mission is to produce beautiful books that interest long-time readers of poetry and welcome those new to poetry. We also aim to celebrate and promote poetry whenever we can.

I began Perugia Press when I saw that many of the poets I knew had fantastic poetry manuscripts that they couldn’t get published.  Around the same time, a good friend of mine self-published a book about the UMass basketball team.  His book looked like a “real” book, and he encouraged me to make books.  It’s funny that a sportswriter inspired this poetry press!

When I made our first book—Gail Thomas’ Finding the Bear—I wasn’t really thinking I was starting a press.  However, I loved the process so much that I published a second book and formally launched the press.  This was in 1997 after I finished an MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson.

It took a few years to arrive at our current mission—publishing first and second books of poetry by women—and to create the national manuscript contest, apply for and receive nonprofit status, and establish ourselves as a literary organization with clout. Read more about the press here.

How many books have you published?  What are you looking for in the books you publish?

The 2011 Perugia Press Prize winner—Gloss, by Ida Stewart—is the 15th book we’ve published, marking our 15th anniversary!  Excellence comes best this way: one book at a time.  I can spend a whole year with undivided attention on the project.  And the one-book-at-a-time strategy has created a buzz: people want to know who will win the Perugia Press Prize each year.  We have resisted the pressure to expand, and that has paid off.  We’ve had three books in a row win national book contests, including Jennifer Sweeney’s How to Live on Bread and Music, which won the James Laughlin Award.

Part of our mission is to publish books that are welcoming to new readers of poetry and interesting to longtime readers.  So that’s one thing we look for when screening manuscripts. We look for really good poetry—obviously!  I’d say that of the 500+ manuscripts we receive each year, 15% of them are outstanding, and what distinguishes the winners usually has to do with confidence of voice, unity of the manuscript, a discernable project of discovery, levity, and originality.  Poems with self-esteem stand apart.

As someone who also offers a manuscript review service, in addition to administering the Perugia Press Prize, I see that many poets early in their careers struggle with voice and thematic integrity.  Another way of saying this is poets have a hard time walking the fine line between unity and repetition, as well as avoiding sentimentality and abstraction.  Too many poets get mired in telling the facts of a memory or story or event to the detriment of the art of the poem.

Do you select outside judges to choose the manuscripts? If so, why?

 

Our judging process is unique, as far as I know.  The manuscripts are screened by volunteers (poets, scholars, fiction writers, teachers, professors, students—all lovers of poetry) and winnowed down to 16.  The semi-finalist 16 are read by a panel of eight judges, often previous Perugia Press Prize winners, teachers, scholars, sometimes a bookseller, and always one undergraduate poetry student.  The idea is that I want our books to be welcoming and compelling to an array of readers.  The eight judges discuss and rally for the manuscripts.  At the end of the day, we have two or three finalists which are read again and slowly by two more judges.  The winning manuscript is read by at least a dozen people before the final decision, which I make, taking into consideration all of the valuable feedback I’ve gotten from readers.

I’m proud of this process because it’s fun for the readers, fair to the poets, and has an amazing track record.  Many of our books have gone on to win national book prizes.

Check out the Perugia Press Prize guidelines. This year for the first time we’ll also be accepting online submissions during our regular submission period, August 1 till November 15.

Besides yourself, are there others involved in the press?

Yes!  The most important people involved in the press are the poets themselves who become ambassadors for Perugia Press.  They go out with their books and read and sell and talk about the press.  I have maintained relationships with all the poets over the years.

Also involved in the press are book buyers, some I know, most I don’t, who buy and enjoy our books, and occasionally send fan mail.

There are the 500 poets each year who believe in the press’s mission and send their manuscripts in for consideration.

We also have a board of directors that has fiscal responsibility for the press.

And I have a posse of volunteers who step up especially during the contest judging period, but also come forward to help with readings and book fairs.

Lastly, we have donors.  The press could not survive without these people, near and far, who send a check every year.  Ideally we would find more, a patron or group of patrons willing to establish a fund to publish a second book each year, an editor’s choice or possibly subsequent books by our most successful poets.  If you are interested, please contact me.

Approximately how many person hours does it require to take a book from acceptance to publication?

 

Funny, no one’s ever asked me this, and yet I know a boat builder who gets this question all the time.  And she doesn’t know either.  Making a book is a hurry-up-and-wait process.  And the waiting I’ve come to see as important, too.  Time to proof and proof again and then proof once more.  Patience waiting for an acclaimed poet to decide whether to write a back-cover blurb, and then waiting for him or her to do it.  This year’s book, Gloss, has Terrance Hayes on the back cover.  Natasha Trethewey endorsed Beg No Pardon; Marie Howe on Two Minutes of Light; Mark Doty on Red.  These kind people and the many others take time to read the manuscripts and write up comments.  It’s impossible to quantify those hours.

But one of the unique features of Perugia Press is that we have no backlog.  Once a manuscript wins our contest, we begin right away on editing and designing the book.  That means a poet could send in her manuscript in November and have her book in hand the following summer.  It’s very exciting to be able to turn things around that fast.  I know poets who have had manuscripts accepted by other presses and then wait years to see the book.

What have you enjoyed most about the press?

What motivates and inspires me are the poets!  I have totally lucked into meeting and working with the smartest, most talented, most congenial group of poets—the Perugia Press poets.  Each individual has been alert to and interested in the editing, designing, and publicizing of her book.  I have learned so much from listening to each woman describe her writing and editorial decisions.  Their poems slay me.  Often, I go back to books I published years ago.  Catherine Anderson has a poem (from The Work of Hands, 2000) that has been anthologized in dozens of textbooks.  Recently, I reread Almitra David’s book, Impulse to Fly (1998), because I was working on a manuscript review that was structured much like Almitra’s book.  What a treasure!  And I have become close friends with some of the poets through working together, and a good friend is invaluable.

Why should writers look to your press as a potential publisher?

Any woman who is looking to publish her first or second book of poetry should visit our website, and enter our annual contest.

I also want to stress that readers should look to Perugia Press as a potential source for books.  I’m on a little campaign to call on readers.  Why is audience an endangered species?  Where are the people who enjoy reading and listening to poetry without feeling moved to write it?  Where are the folks who attend readings not because they are poets themselves, but because they read it?  Perugia Press is for you, too.

How to Start and Nourish a Poetry Reading Club

 

The Author

 J. Kates, the author of the following article, has been running poetry reading clubs for the past four years.

 Here are a few tips for starting and continuing a community-based poetry-reading group, based on my experiences with three entirely different kinds of gathering: one, a spontaneously gathered bunch of young professionals (mostly in technological professions) who meet weekly in an urban living room; another a spin-off from a rural library-based book club of primarily middle-aged  men and women, meeting once a month at a public library; and third, a workshop inside a state prison, which met weekly some years ago.

Choosing poems:

The person directing the group should be familiar with and choose from a wide variety of styles from all eras of English poetry. We have moved from anonymous border-ballads to John Ashbery and May Sarton successfully. Even when participants did not like the particular poem, that did not inhibit a lively discussion; and the variety keeps people from dropping out if they don’t enjoy one particular selection. It helps to mix comfortable chestnuts (“Dover Beach,” “Ulysses,” “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”) with more idiosyncratic selections.

It is helpful not to choose poems in translation from other languages. This adds an extra dimension of complication into the conversation. A separate, special discussion of literary translation can be its own subject, in a slightly different context.

Conversation is most lively when when there is a reasonably clear thematic (not stylistic) connection from one poem to the next, from one meeting to the next. Weekly meetings have worked with a whole string of poems built around bear imagery (Kinnell, Schwartz, Frost, Kumin, et al.). But even looser connections work well. Readers can easily make a connection between Muriel Rukeyser’s “First Anniversary” and  Louise Glück’s “At the River.”

Usually, the choice of each selection is determined by the conversation the week before. One of the director’s most sensitive jobs is to listen to what might go well, to follow up. A rigid “syllabus” is stifling. On the other hand, democratic voting on the next poem is often chaotic, and I’ve found it works only rarely.

Formatting the presentation:

We make poems available in advance (three or four days for weekly meetings; a couple of weeks for monthly ones)  in photocopies or by e-mail attachments, in a consistent presentation: only the title, the author and the text. Nothing more, and as uniform in presentation as possible. This encourages participants to bring their own close reading to the meeting and not to rely on scholarship or apparatus.

Setting and time:

We meet in as neutral a setting as possible: whether a living room or a library room, in comfortable chairs or sprawled on the floor or around a table. With once-a-week meetings, we can explore thematic resonances from poem to poem much more intensely, without being heavy-handed. Once-a-month meetings establish a slower rhythm, with more discretion on the director’s part. For example, throwing aside thematic considerations, I have noticed that our next library meeting is scheduled for October 25; and therefore I have chosen Henry V’s St. Crispin Day speech to honor the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt.

We meet as rigidly as possibly for one hour. We don’t push the time further — better to leave off wanting more  than to run out of steam. Very often, there will be a lag in the conversation after about thirty-five or forty minutes, but then it picks up again, often far more lively than before.

Method:

Each session begins with the director reading the poem aloud in as sensitive but neutral tone. Conversation then opens with people’s initial feelings about the poem — do you like it or not?   The director then leads a conversation, without teaching  or lecturing — avoiding analysis and academics. Some participants may have done their own research, but the emphasis should be on response.

The group draws on the individuality of each reader. One young woman, a specialist in hydraulics, is particularly sensitive to water imagery. Another young man, an aspiring actor, is particularly alert to the dramatic underpinnings of a poem.

Silence also is an element of conversation, not to be despised.

The director and the group should not set expectations too high, and be willing to build slowly over time. This is almost always experimental for the participants, and they should be encouraged to think of it as such, to let things go wrong and right. A group will not usually hit its stride until at least the fourth meeting. But there should be no “membership” or exclusivity. People should feel free to drift in and out — and new people always bring a new perspective. The meetings I have directed range —depending on alternate commitments, weather, and other variables — from three to fifteen participants at a given time.

**

I’d be happy to meet with and even run a workshop on directing such groups. Meanwhile, anyone interested is welcome to drop by my living room at 8 p.m on almost any Sunday night; or to the Fitzwilliam (New Hampshire) public library at 7 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month.

* * *

J. Kates is a poet, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry in 1984 and a Translation Project Fellowship in 2006, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts in 1995. He has published three chapbooks of his own poems.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 314 other followers