This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

March 24, 2002 — As everyone must know by now, conglomerization hasn't worked out all that well in the book business. It's been obvious for a long time that it hasn't been that great for the consumer — notice how few books are discounted at Barnes & Noble now that most of the competition is gone? And of course, it hasn't been all that great for Mother Literature, either — yadda yadda yadda, lowest common denominator!

But interestingly enough, it's beginning to seem it hasn't been all that great for the perpetrators, either. As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted, "when it comes to books, the market's invisible hand has refused to bless the economy of scale. In fact, it has given the outlets of conglomerate publishing — Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, for example — a solid smack upside their managerial heads."

This was particularly noticeable last fall, when the big pubs didn't have the kind of serious fare many Americans wanted, and the bestseller lists were suddenly full of books from small independents and university presses.

But will the big boys learn? Probably not. One thing making me think this is the way that, long ago, most of the big houses completely ceded the publishing of poetry to smaller presses, and they haven't looked back since.

Thus, when the annual National Poetry Month rolls around next month, the failings of conglomerization will be on particular display once again.

But also on display will be what many suspect is the kind of old–fashioned literary publishing that may very well be entering a period of rapid renewal.

Take the many new offerings from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Long one of the nation's most prestigious poetry houses, Pitt has put out an even greater number of poetry books than usual this winter and they're going full speed ahead into the spring.

It started with a terrific first book of poetry from Joanie Mackowski, "The Zoo" ($12.95), in which, with a unique eye and an unerring ear, she observes the teeming zoo of modern life, and gently prods the comedy of consciousness. Dean Young's homegrown Surrealism is on display in his fifth book of poems, "Skid" ($12.95), which show off his characteristic free–wheeling wit — such as in the book's last poem, "How I Get My Ideas," which advises, "Always turn in the direction of the skid." The title of David Wojahn's "Spirit Cabinet" ($12.95), meanwhile, comes from a piece of Shaker furniture used to contact the dead, and in his poetry, Wojahn, too, uses mostly traditional forms to plumb the spiritual world.

For Poetry Month, Pitt will publish Jan Beatty's new collection "Boneshaker" ($12.95) a paean to the wildness of love and the fierce pain of its loss, and Robert McDowell's "On Foot, in Flames," which shows off the poet's gift for redemptive poems featuring strong, lyrical narrative lines (no surprise, perhaps, coming from a poet who is himself the publisher of the Story Line Press). And Pitt has one of the month's most eagerly anticipated collections in Alicia Ostriker's "The Volcano Sequence" ($12.95), a brave and powerful interrogation of desire — for love, for justice, for God — in which the rigor of her intelligence is beautifully matched by the passion of her questing.

Meanwhile, another of the nation's leading poetry publishers, Copper Canyon Press, is in the midst of a particularly laudable series of publications — reprints of the eight unpublished manuscripts found on Pablo Neruda's desk when he died. Just out are the first five: "The Book of Questions," "The Sea and the Bells," "Winter Garden," "Stones of the Sky" and "The Yellow Heart" ($14 each). Each is a beautifully–produced bilingual edition with updated introductions, and featuring the wonderfully mischievous and passionate poet, although obviously aware of impending death, at the peak of his powers.

And lest you think translations is all they do at Copper Canyon, Thomas Centolella's "Views From Along the Middle Way" ($14) navigates with a distilled lyricism the complicated journey from the everyday to the transcendent. And the 30–year career of Gregory Orr is justly celebrated in "The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems" ($16), a powerful display of how formal and lyrical skill can chisel the chaos of life into shaped meaning.

Another significant university press, the University of Chicago Press, just released one of the year's most sumptuously–printed poetry books, "Surrealist Love Poems," edited by Mary Ann Caws ($22.50). It combines photographs by Man Ray, Claude Cahun, and others, with poems by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Octavio Paz, Frida Kahlo, and more. The combination beautifully illuminates the wild joy and eroticism of the Surrealist movement.

During Poetry Month from Chicago, Peg Boyers' "Hard Bread" ($14), poems written in the character of Natalia Ginzburg, is a stunningly inventive act of ventriloquism, while Doreen Gildroy's "The Little Field of Self" ($14) is a book–length poem that's a lyric investigation of devotion and conflict within the self.

Other recent or upcoming small or university press publications of note: Robert Pack and Jay Parini's wonderful anthology for the Middlebury College Press, "Contemporary Poetry of New England" ($40 hardcover, $19.95 paperback), which features a wide range of recent work from writers well–known and new. From Cincinnati's Word Press, "No One With a Past Is Safe" ($16) by Page Dougherty is a powerful collection of narrative poems that quietly champion women overcoming hardscrabble lives.

From the University of Florida Press, "Strange Land" ($12.95) by Sharon Kraus is a riveting, often achingly beautiful collection about overcoming traumatic relationships. The dark and compelling lyricism of the poems is impressive in itself, but so is the determined perseverance they inspire. And from one of the most renowned small poetry presses of them all, Braziller, Peter Filkins' "After Homer" ($29.95) is a formally complex but clear–voiced collection that seeks solace and meaning in examining our relationship to history.

And just after NPM, look for the smart and funny collection "The Red Bird" by Joyelle McSweeney ($12), from the new Fence Books, the book–publishing arm of the edgy literary magazine Fence.

Finally, giving credit where credit is due — there are still a few big houses in New York publishing good poetry. Among them is Knopf, which will be publishing Marie Ponsot's "Springing: New and Selected Poems" ($25), a long–overdue collection of the 80–year–old poet's elegant and playful verse. Houghton Mifflin is also publishing a significant new and selected — Grace Schulman's "Days of Wonder" ($25), which spans three decades of her graceful celebration of the mundane and the miraculous. And from Scribner, David Lehman's "The Evening Sun" collects more of his poem–a–day project, which showcases his savvy wit and intelligence, not to mention his refreshing concision.

Of course, looking for these books you may run into another problematic aspect of conglomerization: where to find them. Most chain stores have limited poetry sections to begin with, and don't stock much from small presses either. If you don't have a good independent bookstore nearby, you're left with only one alternative: ordering the book from the chain. Still, thus do revolutions begin.

Last Week’s Column: IF YOU'RE TROUBLED BY THE TROUBLES The hard–to–understand history of Ireland's "The Troubles" make make a little more sense after reading some recommended books.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.