The Often Too Short, Unpredictable, Yet Glorious
Life of An Independent Small Press Magazine
By Charles P. Ries
When I heard that Linda Aschbrenner, The God Mother of All Wisconsin Poets was stepping down from her beloved Free Verse, I felt like a jilted lover.” Free Verse was one of my first small press dates. My earliest published poems appeared in Free Verse. And when I decided to try my hand at essays, reviews, and interviews, it was the place I sent my work to first. I recently heard that HazMat Review and Blind Man’s Rainbow were closing shop. Bath Tub Gin and Latino Stuff Review are on “hiatus”. The list goes on. Over the ten years I have been active in the independent small press I have seen many publications come and go. With the effort that goes into creating a magazine being so great and the return being so small, why do little magazines keep pooping up? To help me answer this question I invited four small press editor/publishers to guide me work through my separation anxiety. They are: Linda Aschbrenner of Free Verse, Michael Hathaway of Chiron Review, Leah Angstman of Propaganda Press, and Rob Cook of Skidrow Penthouse.
RIES: What is your circulation?
ASCHBRENNER: 465 individual copies of Free Verse 97/98 were mailed in October 2008. In addition, bulk mailings are sent to a few Wisconsin book stores. Not everyone on the Free Verse mailing list is a paying subscriber, unfortunately. I usually had a pressrun of 600 to 750. I distributed free copies at poetry workshops and conferences throughout the year.
The first issue of Free Verse appeared in March 1998. Free Verse turns 11 in March 2009. However, poetry years are like dog years, so Free Verse is actually much older. Fortunately, it works in reverse for poetry editors. I became 15 years younger in the process. Another perk.
HATHAWAY: It is currently at about 100 paid subscribers, less than it was before I quit in 2005, by about 50%. Obviously, that doesn’t bode well for the future of Chiron Review, but it may take awhile to get back to where it was, and I have no plans for throwing in the towel again, unless the money just runs out completely. Usually about another 100 go out to contributors and reviewers, and another 500 or so I distribute locally for free, or mail in bundles to people elsewhere who distribute them.
COOK: We’re about to publish our tenth issue. Stephanie Dickinson and I started SP back in 1998. I would rather not reveal the circulation. Just that it’s pitiful. Again, that practicality thing.
ANGSTMAN: My current circulation is about 500 domestic, 100 international. I am just starting the second issue of Poiesis as she exists today, due out January 2009. She existed in several forms and other titles before this recent incarnation, but this is her current and future shell. My press, Propaganda Press, started back in 1994, with the very first poetry litzine — ridiculously and appropriately titled Crackrock — being published in 1996. The first issue of Poiesis as she stands now came out in July 2008, and is published twice a year in January and July.
RIES: What was your motivation for initially creating your magazine?
ASCHBRENNER: I never intended to start a poetry journal. Eleven years ago I collected and typed up poems from my writing group because I wanted to preserve our poetry. The first issue of Free Verse was three pages, six poems. I handed Free Verse to three poets. Other poets discovered this publication, submitted poetry, and Free Verse grew to 12, 18, 24, 32, 40, 72 pages. My last issue, #99/100, will be about 80 pages.
HATHAWAY: What prompted me to start Chiron Review (then titled The Kindred Spirit, 1982) was to see my cousin Connie Edwards’ poems in print. I had sent them to many publishers for a year or so and they were always rejected. Of course, I had no experience in submitting manuscripts at that time, at the age 17-19, so I probably did it all wrong. Anyway, after I began working as a typesetter at a daily newspaper out of high school, I realized I could just publish Connie’s poems myself, and that’s what I did. I guess I created it for myself and other poets. I never thought about money or subscribers until subscriptions started coming in and I thought that was pretty cool.
COOK: I started Skidrow Penthouse because of what I perceived as a very black-and-white literary landscape. It seemed to me that journals featured work that was either overwrought and precious—most mainstream places like Poetry, The Paris Review, New England Review, etc or work that was too easy, too sloppy and not very interesting, meaning most small press magazines I was reading at the time. I wanted to create a dissonant space for many different voices and styles, all marked by a surrealistic or idiosyncratic aesthetic. This may sound strange, and even arrogant, but I am not at all interested in reaching “the common man” with Skidrow Penthouse. There are a lot of small pressers who naively think they can reach the average person, the type of person who “needs art.” I think this is bullshit. Maybe you can get someone to say, yeah, that’s good, provided you dumb it down enough. But that person will most likely never return to the poem in question. I realize there are exceptions to this, and there are some people who don’t write who might be interested, but these are few and infinitely far between. Most readers of poetry are poets themselves, and most read what is closest to their own sensibilities. But getting back to the question, I really created Skidrow Penthouse for the contributors. I know how disappointing it is to receive a long-awaited contributor’s copy only to have it be a complete embarrassment—either lacking in production values or containing not-so-great work or both. I wanted a mag that looked good and that was a work of art in itself, something with a mood, an atmosphere, and not just a pile of random poems and stories.
ANGSTMAN: Initially, I created Poiesis as an outlet for the enormous amount of poetry I was receiving that was giving my political/societal-/issues-oriented zine, Revolution Calling, too much of a personal, girly slant. Poetry often exists as a separate entity from other kinds of writings, so I tried to create a place where I could keep it apart from the more technical or article-based writing. I guess, in this aspect, that I created the litzine for myself.
There is a second motivation, however, that exists for the poets, and that is that Poiesis has very few guidelines or judgment policies. After receiving rejection letter after rejection letter for my own writing from some places that have stringent rules and opinions, we decided that we just wanted to create a space where you don’t get turned away. This puts veteran poets right alongside the newbs, learning from each other, and letting the readers be the true judges. We all had to start somewhere and learn to perfect our craft, so it might as well be in Poiesis. It is our only outlet where we don’t scrutinize, and, coincidentally, it is also our current best-selling publication. Draw your own conclusions.
RIES: What was your greatest disappointment or challenge with your publication. What was your greatest surprise or joy?
ASCHBRENNER: My greatest challenge was finding enough time, space, and money to keep Free Verse going. One is happy to have enough funds to pay for printing and postage. Another challenge — submissions, giving each poem and poet enough time and thought, respect. The time challenge, the space on the page challenge, the challenge of readers to keep up with poetry journals. In the ideal world, there would be funds to pay poets for poetry, there would be a poetry audience.
My greatest joy was becoming acquainted with poets throughout Wisconsin and the country. My biggest surprise was that the subscription base kept growing. I appreciated the poets who sent poetry, who wrote reviews and articles, and who became patrons. I also could not have survived without brilliant friends Kris Rued-Clark and Sherrie Weber who did proofreading, and son Nick who maintained the website. It helped greatly that my husband and extended family were also supportive.
Another joy was doing what I wanted with Free Verse—adding contests, book reviews, photos, cartoons, essays, articles, interviews, information about poetry events in Wisconsin. The independent editor/publisher is truly independent, for better or worse. No boards, committees, or restrictions.
HATHAWAY: My greatest disappointment and challenge was when I broke ties with the newspaper where I worked and where Chiron was printed. In 1995 they refused to print Chiron Review anymore because of an Antler poem in the summer, 1995 issue. I had a very naive concept of “freedom of the press,” and to have my own violated by a newspaper publisher was very disillusioning and disturbing. The greatest challenge was finding a way to keep the magazine alive without a job, without a press and without a place to typeset. But I met the challenge head-on, with the help of loyal readers, and everything worked out for the absolute very best.
The greatest joy revolves around the friendships that have come about because of the magazine, meeting writers such as Ruth Moon Kempher, Lorri Jackson, Virginia Love Long, Gerald Locklin, Fred and Joan Voss, Wilma McDaniel, Ellaraine Lockie, Rochelle Lynn Holt, Gina Bergamino, Carl Miller Daniels, Belinda Subraman, Padi Harman, the list is endless. Also the travels that have come about because of the magazine have been wonderful, too. Publishing Chiron Review really opened up the world for me.
COOK: My greatest disappointment with Skidrow has been lack of recognition and lack of respect. I was young and stupid when I came up with the name and I probably should have listened to the poet Walter Griffin when he insisted that the name was sophomoric and that I would have trouble attracting the right kind of attention. And he was right. I’ve had a great deal of difficulty soliciting submissions from even emerging writers, let alone writers who are already established.
The greatest joy has been the discovery of new voices. Weird, angular gems that most likely wouldn’t be published by anyone else. Also, the pleasure of picking up any issue of the magazine and really, truly loving the work inside. There is no greater joy than publishing work I wish I had written.
ANGSTMAN: The greatest challenge for Poiesis is probably the same with all poetry litzines and that is that poetry is just plain hard to market. People are wary of it, unless they have a history with the purchase of a repeat magazine or author. Various-author collections are not as hard to market as single-author collections, probably because there is a greater possibility that you can take a chance and find at least one poem you like; but they are certainly hard to get into bookstores and distribution outlets — even if you are a “Vendor of record” — they just don’t want to invest in low-key deals or consignment, nor do they want to purchase upfront. So therein lies an ever-present problem: getting the small press to be marketed and valued as highly as major presses.
The joy, however, comes in seeing the poetic newcomers gain confidence and talent. They ask for feedback and criticism, and really listen; their second submission is always better than their first, and it’s exciting to watch their growth. It also comes with a secret surprise: not-so-established authors are way more likely to help peddle their wares and bring in tons of book orders in their efforts to become established. Veteran authors are more likely to sit back and let you do all the work. It’s refreshing to have the newbie enthusiasm!
RIES: Why are you ending your publication, or beginning it, or beginning it again?
ASCHBRENNER: After 11 years of publishing Free Verse, after 100 issues and over three thousand poems, I decided I needed more time to read, write, live, and work. My last issue, #99/100, is scheduled for February 2009. Our house is packed with 11 years of poetry papers—I ran out of space. Fortunately, Free Verse will continue as Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Busse of Madison will take over. Their first issue, #101, is scheduled for January 2010. They also hope to become nonprofit which should be a big help, and they will have two houses to spread out their papers. I’ve also published 16 chapbooks after founding Marsh River Editions in 2001. I’ll continue to publish one or two chaps a year, to keep in the biz.
HATHAWAY: I ended Chiron Review because of the exhaustive work, because I needed time to tend to other aspects of my life, because circulation never rose, it always hovered around the same number, even after 24 years.
I returned because I missed the work, the contact with poets and writers, the feeling of being “connected” to something bigger and better beyond the ignorance and pettiness of the small town people where I live.
ANGSTMAN: Poiesis is just beginning again, in different form and title. With so much technology happening so quickly, and the Internet being so faceless, I think now, more than ever, people need to remember what it is like to hold a book in their hands, to get back to the purity of poetry and away from the cold glare of computer screens, meaningless blogs, websites, the like. Now is the time to reconnect to our zinester roots.
RIES: What is difference between a poet/writer and editor/publisher? How would you describe your fellow publishers? Are they different then poets or writers who only write?
ASCHBRENNER: An editor/publisher has a certain bag of tricks. In the small press world, grit, tenacity, and lack of logic are important. One keeps going without profit or reason. There is little demand for poetry journals—or poetry books, for that matter. Editor/publishers perhaps envy poet/writers. We wish we had more time to write and submit our own work. However, not all editors are poets and not all poets could become editors.
I find something to admire in every poetry publication I pick up. I might like the layout, design, fonts, table of contents, photos, art, or the way the editor handles book reviews. However, of all the poetry journals on this planet, the poetry in Free Verse is my favorite. Nothing comes close. No doubt other editors feel the same way about the poetry in their publications. One of the perks of publishing—as editor/publishers we foot the bill, we do the work, so we get to establish content.
HATHAWAY: For the most part, there is very little difference. There is an editor/publisher in every poet/writer and a poet/writer in every editor/publisher, even if they are never “released.”
Some differences revolve around an editor/publisher’s practicality and innate concept of limitations and boundaries (from intellectual, economic, or even the physical limitations of a page or book) vs. that utter wonderful chaos of a poet/writer’s creativity.
I can’t think of any of my fellow publishers who are not also writers and I’m not really sure how I would describe or define them, they are so diverse. But one word would definitely describe them all: independent.
COOK: I think the main difference between a poet/writer and editor/publisher is that there isn’t much of a difference at all. And what I mean is that most editors and publishers are writers themselves. I think the most significant difference is that writers who are also publishers might or at least should be more aware of what’s going on in the literary world, what kinds of things people are writing, and along with this, an awareness of what works and what doesn’t work and what still needs to be written about and what’s being written to death. I think it’s very hard to be both a successful writer and a successful publisher. It takes an enormous amount of time to do even one of these, so usually, one or the other suffers. I think the main reason SP isn’t really known is that I am also a writer, and my writing comes first. But the magazine is also very important. I certainly take time to read everything that comes in, and take the necessary pains and then some to make sure the work is featured properly and makes the authors look good. My main problem has been marketing/sales. I have never been good at the practical side of anything. I am thinking about hiring a publicity person to do these mundane but necessary tasks.
I think most editors and publishers of small press magazines cover a wide range of personalities and ambitions. Larry Ziman, who publishes The Great American Poetry Show – and does a very good job I might add – still thinks people will read poetry, provided it’s presented in a hard-bound coffee-table anthology. I don’t know to what extent he’s accomplished this, a readership, that is, but it is certainly a noble effort. Other editors, such as Michael Hathaway and Paul Roth have been doing this for decades with great joy and success and they are my heroes. Others, too many others, just don’t know what they’re getting into when they start up their little enterprises, and some have the tenacity to grow and stick it out, but most don’t. Of course, we all know the story concerning the mag that bursts onto the scene and then flames out in two or three issues, if they even get that far. But for the most part, I think the hearts of small press publishers are in the right place.
ANGSTMAN: It is very hard for me to tell you the difference between a poet/writer and an editor/publisher, because i am both. I think that most publishers of poetry in the small press are both. Or at least, wish they were. To me, it seems that you kind of have to be; in order to love poetry so much that you are willing to take loss after loss on the selling and creating of small press books, you either had to have read something along the way that really just blew your mind, or you have to be writing it yourself. I think 8 out of 10 times it’s the latter. Most publishers usually just start out creating an outlet to push their own work. Little by little, they meet and connect with other writers whose work is admirable, and the publishers feel the urge to promote that work, as well. Wa-la! A press is born.
Is there a difference between an editor/publisher and a poet who just writes? Sure. A publisher works harder. Every word a poet writes, an editor reads twenty times, publishes 500, and discusses infinitely.
RIES: Is there anything you want to say about the ebb, flow, value, longevity of the small press magazines?
ASCHBRENNER: All of us bow to small press editors/publishers who came before us—those who paved the way, who showed us what was possible. They had energy and stamina. The small press has its place—right now that place is in my basement, attic, closets, stacked along walls, on dressers, in drawers, and everywhere I look.
Some of the small press journals I currently get, listed with the editor(s): Donald Michael Aucutt – Wisconsin River Valley Journal; John and Nancy Berbrich – Barbaric Yawp; Roderick Clark – Rosebud; Tom Conroy – The League of Laboring Poets; M. Scott Douglass – Main Street Rag; Joseph Farley (various publications); Alan Fox – Rattle; Len Fulton – Small Press Review; Michael Hathaway – Chiron Review; Larry Hill – Presa; Brian Morrisey – Poesy; Christopher Robin – Zen Baby; Joseph Shields and Jerry Hagins – Nerve Cowboy; Phil Wagner – Iconoclast; Oren Wagner, Steve Henn, and Don Winter – Fight These Bastards; Phyllis Walsh – Hummingbird.
HATHAWAY: Small press magazines are valuable because they provide a diversity and an honesty that is not available in more mainstream publications. I think they have their fingers on the real pulse of real society. Small press magazines are rare, bona fide cultural treasures.
COOK: A lot of writers go on and on about the deplorable state of contemporary poetry as if they’re the first ones to have made this observation. The majority of anything from any time period is mediocre. By definition, it has to be. Do these people really think that everyone is capable of writing great poetry, as if this is something that is easy to do? What IS different today is that the mediocrity is made way more available by desktop publishing programs and literary web-sites/blogs that are relatively inexpensive to produce. Plus there is no real standard about what is good poetry and what is bad. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is a critic. I’m reading a book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason, which addresses this, and a lot of other things about the dumbing down of Americans.
ANGSTMAN: The value of the small press cannot be measured in any amount of dollars or words, which is usually why we editors do not mind shelling a bit out of our own pockets for good material. In the age of print-on-demand, blogs, and the post office doing everything possible to jack up those shipping prices, it is harder than ever to tell those with staying power from the first-time hacks. But, as always, they will separate themselves in time. And the ones with true merit are the root and cap of everything we know and understand about language and literature today, as they will always be into the future, regardless of how technical and faceless our computerized species becomes.
When I reflect on Linda, Michael, Leah, and Rob’s replies to my questions I can only conclude: they do it for love. We all have our literary loves, and the small press is mine. These are the writers, editors, and publishers I care about. Where can you find greater diversity, talent, community, and wonderful insanity then in the independent small press. God bless the small press!
This interview originally appeared in the final issue of Free Verse.