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For the love of poetry
Why one tiny press carries on

Pressed Wafer is a five-year-old press that has published poetry books, poetry chapbooks, two issues of the magazine Pressed Wafer, broadsides, and postcards. Pressed Wafer is Joseph Torra, Dan Bouchard, Jim Behrle, Nelly Reifler, designers Cris Mattison and Christina Strong, and me. Pressed Wafer is hundreds of books and chapbooks in the basement of my Boston home. If the money is available, it is easy to publish these books; yet it is all but impossible to distribute them. And since they are seldom reviewed — for 20 years, a poetry blizzard blowing across America has obscured the poetry landscape — it is difficult for those who might be attracted to these books to learn of them. Most of these pressed wafers will be given away, but that will take years in which more books will accumulate. Woe is us. No wonder America’s National Poetry Month begins on April Fools’ Day!

The question at Pressed Wafer and throughout the poetry publishing world is: why bother?

For the love of the art. This is the first answer and perhaps the best one, but does poetry need this sort of love? In the Nixon years, during the federal government’s Coordinating Council of Little Magazines, the answer was emphatically yes. Money poured . . . no, government money, be it federal or state, never pours into any of the arts, but it did drip into hundreds of little poetry magazines. Today, the National Endowment for the Arts, as chaired by poet Dana Gioia, believes that what poetry needs is productions of Shakespeare’s plays in American towns and cities. Oh, the largesse of the Bush government in an election year, even as editorials wail that strapped municipalities are struggling to keep their libraries open! The NEA’s attitude may be that no congressman will quarrel with the Bard, and anyway, love is being taken care of by Pressed Wafer and other private providers. But is it love to add more books to the glut that goes unread?

For the love of poets, then. Kenneth Rexroth enjoyed pointing out that there is no place for poets in America, no place for any sort of poet at all. This may have been true in the early 1950s, when he made the remark, but since the 1970s, poets have found a home and a patron in America’s college and university creative-writing programs. In what resembles a pyramid scheme, poets teach poets to become teachers of poetry to poets. Hence the blizzard of poetry that’s been published. To be accepted as professionals, these new poets need the credential of a book. The pressure is intense. If books are not a step on the ladder, then the scheme is threatened. This may be why Poetry magazine thought to use some of its Lily millions to publish books by new poets. Love of poets is in danger, it seems, of being undermined by career necessities.

So the situation for poetry, at least the part of it covered by presses like Pressed Wafer, is bleak and not because of an indifferent nation. The fault is in the poets, whose demands for attention have outstripped any possible audience. Perfect. Poetry and poets in America love a state of siege. Pressed Wafer persists precisely because all of the above is true.

The NEA does not love poetry? How could we expect it to at a moment when our president neither reads anything other than the Bible nor listens to music nor watches movies? After all, this is a first family who cancelled their planned celebration of American poets and poetry because they feared they’d be embarrassed by the political opinions of their guests. But Laura Bush leads the charge against illiteracy. A good woman, no doubt, who will leave behind her 100,000 flowers, like Lady Bird Johnson, the last Texan to be first lady. Poetry exists in spite of the philistines who come and go in Washington or at the New York Times, whose new editor, Bill Keller, thinks there are but three worthy novelists writing in America — but that’s another story. One response to our present degraded culture is to publish more poetry.

A glut? Yes. It is impossible to keep up with the poetry that appears today, impossible even for a dynamo like Ron Silliman, whose daily blog (ronsilliman.blogspot.com) records more poetry read and reflected upon than could possibly be good for a working poet. But the glut will sort itself out. Ezra Pound figured that there is a 20-year lag between the appearance of new poetry and its acceptance. Pressed Wafer believes in every poem that it has published, but we have no illusions about the future. The chips will always fall where they may, and good poetry should have at least as hard a time of it as anything else of value in our society. William Carlos Williams asked the drugstores he frequented to carry a few copies of his early books, books that he paid to have published. Imagine how useless these must have seemed. Poetry is not now and never has been in America an art for the faint-hearted. To disdain the marketplace seems too, too Percy Dovetonsils.

Writing programs? Careerist poets? Noxious as these may be, there are no rules about who can or can’t write a poem of value. The T’ang Dynasty’s Li Po folded his poems into little boats and sent them sailing away on the river near his home. He was, in his way, a professional poet, like so many of the Chinese masters. His act recognized that no matter who writes a poem, that poem is not complete until it has readers. How many? This is not something that can be measured. Yes, all poets want the paradise of doing what they love and getting paid a living wage for it. In America, this dream always translates into numbers. All that Pressed Wafer can do is send out the little boats of Del Ray Cross, Darlene Gold, Sean Cole, Brenda Iijima, Karen Weiser, Mark Lameroux, and Fred Moten. This is our complicity in their freedom to do as they please, and it is our pleasure. It is a pleasure to publish their work because it is a pleasure to sweep aside the problems poetry faces. It is a great pleasure to open the cartons delivered by Eagle Graphics and other printers to see the fresh books. Something made for the joy of its making and now as alive as any other struggling thing. How will it fare? May we live long enough to get an idea. As William Blake, who published his own work to almost no response, wrote, "If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise."

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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