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Do-It-Yourself Poetics

Bay Area Poets Building Small Presses

Some Bay Area poets paper their offices with rejection slips; others endure the cost and stigma of self-publishing to see their work in print. Meanwhile, a few local writers are building small presses that give poets hope in a market glutted with chain bookstores and mega-publishers.

In 1999, seven women writers formed Sixteen Rivers Press, named for the sixteen rivers that empty into San Francisco Bay. Valerie Berry, one of the founders, says she and her partners were frustrated with the expensive and unrewarding contest system, whereby poets pay entrance fees for a chance to get their work published.

The press is organized as a collective, an unusual structure for a publishing house. To launch the effort, each member contributed $500, committed to four years with the group and then the women discussed ground rules. They decided that each poet would publish a book, reinvesting proceeds into the press. Then they had to figure out who would publish first.

"They asked, 'Well who has a manuscript ready to go?'" Berry says. "I raised my hand, which was a flat-out lie."

Berry's name was thrown into a hat with a few of her partners' names, and her book, Difficult News, was one of the first two published. Since then, the press has published Translations from the Human Language (Terry Ehret), After Cocteau (Carolyn Miller) and Snake at the Wrist (Margaret Kaufman), and attracted an impressive editorial advisory board, which includes established writers such as Ursula K. LeGuin, Marie Howe, Carolyn Kizer and Kathleen Fraser, among others.

About a year before the Sixteen Rivers crew began picking names from a hat, Jocelyn Saidenberg founded San Francisco-based Krupskaya Press, also a collective, with some money her grandfather had left her.

"I fixed my teeth, bought a new computer and started the project," Saidenberg says. "I wanted to run it as a collective, because of my background working as an activist. It was really important that it not just be me publishing my friends.

Saidenberg works with two other editors to read submissions through fall, choosing four manuscripts for publication. Since its inception in 1999, Krupskaya has published sixteen books of poetry, including works by noted Bay Area poets Laura Moriarty, Kevin Killian and Sarah Anne Cox.

Starting the press helped Saidenberg come into her own as a part of the local poetry community. Because she didn't start writing poetry until she was almost 30, she felt a connection with an emerging group of writers who were a bit younger than her; at the time, older poets ran many of the area presses.

"We wanted be our own bakers in a way, publish ourselves instead of waiting to be chosen by a group of more established writers," she says. "We didn't feel shut out by them, but we wanted to feel that we were also making those kinds of decisions, not just producing work."

Like many small-press operators, the Krupskaya editors shepherd every aspect of publication. They read through manuscripts, work closely with authors, design, do typesetting and even register a book's ISBN.

"It is a hundred times more work than I ever thought it would be," Saidenberg says. "It's gratifying for me, but I think it might drive a lot of other people crazy."

C. B. Follett, who runs Marin-based Arctos Press, agrees.

"If I had realized the amount of work involved in publishing a book," says Follett, "I probably would have closed the door on the whole idea and huddled in the closet."

For Follett, who calls herself the "founder, owner, sole employee and chief dogsbody" of Arctos, much of that work is in responding to poets. Arctos reviewed over 6,000 poems this year, and unsuccessful submitters received short personal notes on their rejection slips. The hardest part, Follett says, is turning down friends.

"Saying no to friends is horribly difficult, and we have had to do a lot of it," she says. "The worst thing is saying no to friends more than once, and perhaps knowing that their future poems are unlikely to meet a happier fate."

Krupskaya's Saidenberg notes that cash-flow problems are another downside. Most small presses remain solvent, though just barely, through personal funding, book sales, donations and an occasional grant.

"We all have other jobs, and we all put in our own money," Saidenberg says. "I think that's true of all the experimental writing community -- we fund it, we subsidize it."

Ed Smallfield of Berkeley's Apogee Press, puts it more bluntly, "You really wouldn't want to do this to make a lot of money. That would be about the worst reason to start a small press."

Smallfield founded Apogee in 1999 with business partner Alice Jones. The duo produces about three books per year and has no plans to expand offerings.

"I think we both like the size of the press," Smallfield says. "For us, any level of growth would change the way we work; we couldn't do things at the hands-on level."

With all the labor and expense, it seems logical that many of these small-press operators would simply publish online. But for book lovers who are nostalgic for the smell of paper and the heft of a new volume, a poetry website wouldn't be nearly as appealing.

"We all had a shared value that we liked a good book in hand," Sixteen Rivers' Berry says. "We wanted the real thing, not the virtual thing. It was about making beautiful books."

Printing those books isn't cheap. Sixteen Rivers budgets $3,500 for each volume, a miniscule sum in larger publishing circles, but no small amount when you're scraping the money together on your own. Fortunately, what these presses lack in funds, they've gained in friends.

"I can't imagine trying to do this outside the Bay Area, where there's such a supportive poetry community," Smallfield says. "It's absolutely the right place to start an endeavor like this."

Sixteen Rivers Press
P.O. Box 640663
San Francisco, CA 94164-0663
[email protected]

Krupskaya Press
P.O. Box 420249
San Francisco, CA 94142-0249
[email protected]

Arctos Press
P.O. Box 401
Sausalito, CA 94966
[email protected]

Apogee Press
P.O. Box 8177
Berkeley, CA 94707-8177
[email protected]