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Poetry in Motion

By staying nimble and artist-focused, 
Wave Books has grown into one of America’s 
great small publishers.

For over half a century independent presses have published the most groundbreaking work in American letters. Ever since City Lights first printed Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg in 1956, autonomous presses have taken risks to deliver the most original and experimental literature to the American public. Today the vastness of independent lit spans all 50 states, constructed from a dizzying network of presses, journals, authors, editors and readers. 

In this world, Wave Books is a beacon of success. The press works mostly out of a two-room office in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood that’s filled with books from corner to corner. The Wave Books team, made up of three fulltime staff members and a handful of interns and contractors, puts out 10 or 11 books a year—a feat for such a small operation. They work almost exclusively with mid- to late-career poets, representing some of American poetry’s most unique voices.

This month presses like Wave—along with some 10,000 writers, editors, publishers and readers of independent literature—will descend upon the Washington State Convention Center for the 2014 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (or AWP). The four-day maelstrom of readings, workshops and lectures runs Feb. 26 to March 1 and culminates in a football-field-sized book fair featuring more than 650 presses and journals from around the world—a sea of colorful hardcovers, hand-sewn bindings and limited-edition, letter-pressed broadsides. Nowhere else in the world can a person witness first-hand the booming landscape of independent publishing. Over the course of the weekend, venues around the city will hold hundreds of readings—formal, drunken and otherwise.

In the belly of this literary beast, Wave’s table of books will be among the most impressive, as will its two off-site readings. The first reading features five Wave poets at ACT on Feb. 27 and the second features 17 poets over an epic four-and-a-half hours at Sole Repair on Feb. 28. Wave’s roster of authors rivals that of any of the Big Four publishing houses (Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House and Penguin), but unlike those nearly century-old corporate publishing giants, Wave is just shy of a decade old, having sprouted into being at a time when the fate of independent publishing looked bleak.

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Wave’s origins go back to the late ’90s when poets Matthew Zapruder and Brian Henry met as MFA candidates at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Henry and his friend Andrew Zawacki had taken over as editors of a small literary journal called Verse, a biannual volume of poetry,and had begun publishing their peers—young, talented American poets.

Zapruder, now 46 with flecks of gray in his dark hair, lives in San Francisco and splits his time between editing for Wave and teaching at St. Mary’s College of California. Zapruder’s work is simultaneously colloquial and monumental. His poems shatter ordinary scenes and rebuild them into unrecognizable, fantastical and haunting places.

“There were very few young editors and the literary scene was bogged down into very staid, predicable patterns,” Zapruder says of his time at Amherst. “There were no venues for young poets and poets who were outside of the system.”

After years of casually discussing starting a press, Zapruder and Henry stumbled upon a series of poems in the American Poetry Review’s 20th Anniversary Issue titled “Letters to Wendy’s” by Joe Wenderoth. As the title suggests, the poems were epistles written to and about the fast food chain. The series was both dead serious and gut-wrenchingly funny. Zapruder and Henry thought it would make a great first book and wrote Wenderoth to say they wanted to publish it. Wenderoth said yes.

“Then we were like, ‘Oh shit, now we have to start a press,” Zapruder says.

Verse Press launched out of Zapruder’s bedroom in a shared house in Northampton, Mass., with Zapruder and Henry as editors. Having grown up in Washington, D.C. at the belle époque of indie-rock, Zapruder built Verse using a DIY framework. “I had seen independent record labels do it,” he says. “Start with no money, no distribution, no nothing and if [the music] was good it would carry things forward.”

In 2001, the same year that Letters to Wendy’s was published, Verse ran a contest and published Richard Meier’s book of post-modern lyric poems Terrain Vague as the winner. Both books broke even, allowing Verse to take on more authors. The operation eventually outgrew Zapruder’s apartment and moved into a warehouse space in an old mill building in Florence, Mass., that they referred to as “the Space.” In addition to housing the press’s books, the Space also served as a venue for readings and performances.

“Now if you go to AWP you’ll see hundreds of presses and magazines that operate on this very small indie model,” Zapruder says. “We started at the end of an old publishing model and the beginning of another.”

 A paradigm shift was taking place—not only in small press publishing but in bookselling at large. The burgeoning Internet boosted Verse’s viability in the newfangled topography of smaller presses and independent journals. The emergence of online marketplaces allowed independent presses to put books into the hands of readers without having to rely on costly distributers.

For New York poet Matthew Rohrer, getting published by a smaller press was a leap of faith. After his first book had been published by heavy-hitter WW Norton, his second book of poems Satellite was among Verse’s first titles. “Back at that time there weren’t that many small presses around,” he says. “I realized quickly that being on a small press is actually much better for a poet—because all they do is you.”

Verse’s reputation grew as one of the foremost poetry presses in the country, one of the few to select a finalist for the prestigious National Poetry Series. With hopes of growing the small press movement, Verse teamed up with like-minded journals and presses McSweeneys, Open City and Fence to form the now-defunct Big Press Small Press Mall, an online network where readers could explore and buy books.

As Publisher’s Weekly wrote in 2002, “Although the presses are geographically far-flung and distinctive in their styles, they see an advantage in cross-promoting their titles, which skew toward a hip, young readership.” Together they opened up an entirely new world to hopeful writers and readers looking for new work outside the mainstream.

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Around this time Seattle philan-
thropist Charlie Wright, a lifelong lover of poetry, was considering starting a press of his own. “I was ordering books from every poetry press I could find, reading everything I could read,” Wright says.

Wright had served for years as executive director at the Dia Art Foundation in New York, a 40-year-old nonprofit that provides long-term support to visual artists. He’s also the son of Bagley and Virginia Wright, two major Seattle philanthropists whose dedication helped turn Seattle into a viable city for artists in the mid-20th century. (Bagley was a principal developer of the Space Needle, too.)

Looking to talk shop, Wright tracked down Zapruder at a conference in New York and the two went for coffee with Joshua Beckman, a poet with several books out on Verse. The three men talked at length about what it meant to operate a small, successful press. In 2005, Wright hired Beckman and Zapruder as editors, purchased much of Verse’s remaining stock and opened an office in Seattle. Wave Books was born.

“Our focus is a little bit different than Verse’s,” Wright says. “But I certainly admired the writers that [the editors] had taken on from the early days. It’s been a good combination of missions.”

Whereas Verse had published mostly unknown authors, Wright’s vision for Wave was to allow veteran writers to create without worrying about how their books would fare in the marketplace. Wave has since published nearly 100 books, including innovative translations, reissues and collections of essays and criticism. The highly experimental Lake Superior (2013), for instance, combines critical essays, letters and journal entries all deconstructing and reconstructing a single seismic poem by Lorine Niedecker.

Taking poetry off the page, Wave produced three biannual Three Days of Poetry festivals in Seattle—2009’s inaugural Three Days of Poetry, 2011’s Poetry in Translations and 2013’s Poetry and Film. Each event hosted readings and lectures by the best poets and translators in the country. Three Days of Poetry and Film, which took place at the Central District’s Gallery 1412 a year ago, showed outtakes of the 1967 public TV show USA: Poetry. Wave also set up a studio where visitors could star in a film of their own, reading a poem of their choosing.

But Wave’s biggest production so far was the now-legendary Poetry Bus, a traveling carnival of more than 100 poets that departed Seattle in September 2006 for a transcontinental trip of 50 stops in 50 days, conducted by Beckman and Zapruder.

“The point was not to say, We’re gonna import poetry to you poor country bumpkins,” says Matthew Rohrer, who joined the tour for two legs. “It was to say We’re gonna bring our bus to your town and join what’s already going on—and of course there’s poetry going on. There’s an underground or above-ground poetry scene everywhere.”

The bus swelled as new poets boarded for revelry and readings. At one point Thomas Sayers Ellis sat in the back quietly typing out poems on an manual typewriter. In Las Vegas Rohrer read at the New York, New York Casino, the sound of slots ringing down the hallway. Outside Flagstaff, Ariz., everyone onboard was allowed access to artist James Turrell’s highly secret Roden Crater project, where the poets read privately to one another. During a routine lunch stop, Eileen Myles climbed behind the cash register of a White Castle and read poems to an audience of hungry customers. The trip ended back in Seattle with a party at the Space Needle.

“It took me basically four years to get my health back afterwards,” Zapruder half-jokes. “But it was a dream for sure.”

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As the only fulltime editor at the press’ Eastlake office, Joshua Beckman spends his days communicating with authors, reviewing manuscripts, contemplating paper thicknesses and searching out new authors. Originally from Connecticut, Beckman—who stands well above six feet with untamed curly brown hair, a thick beard and small wire-rimmed glasses—majored in “The Art of the Book” at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. As an author and translator, he’s had four books published by Wave, as well as three by Verse and three more by other presses.

Beckman’s soft and sage-like speaking voice is reflected in his naturalistic and linguistically playful poems, which often use monosyllabic words exclusively. His most recent collection, The Inside of an Apple, juxtaposes natural and manmade worlds.

Like Beckman’s poems, Wave’s books are simple, elegant and beautiful. Four years ago, the press simplified its covers to save money and emphasize the titles of the books themselves. Now every soft-edition Wave cover is printed on the same matte-white stock with black lettering—no images, no blurbs.

Because the matte white of the covers tends to scuff faster than a glossy cover, Wave’s books accumulate a patina that makes them look better with wear. Beckman considers not only how a book reads and looks on the shelf but how it will age. “The books are made to be read again and again,” he says.

This attention to detail may seem pointless to anyone who views books simply as vessels, but it’s this exhaustive care that makes Wave the pinnacle of progress in independent poetry publishing. By focusing on a single generation of exceptional poets tied together by their age rather than an aesthetic, Wave has created a new model, along a library of work that will outlive its authors.

“When I see people that are a generation or two behind me putting their energy and life into the making of books in the way that I did when I started Verse with Brian, I find that very moving and really, really hopeful,” Zapruder says. “It reminds me once again of how much people love books, how much they need books. And how much they’ll always love and need books.”

 

Illustration by Levi Hastings

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