independent poetry publishers find their literary niche
the first 1st Friday of 2009, and the Upstate Artists Guild
on Lark Street in Albany is teeming with cheery gallerygoers.
Men, women, college students and children, swaddled in down
and wool, waddle around tables full of finger food. Hanging
on the walls is a large variety of work—photographs, sketches,
and paintings—part of the New Beginnings show, which
opens this evening. Relative to the quiet winter sidewalk
outside, the crowded gallery is testament to a vernacular
truth within the Albany arts world that, while the scene tends
to keep a low profile, a little digging will grant the culture
seeker its spoils.
Around the pretzels, under the low ceiling, and at the end
of the human corral, there is a small doorway leading to a
tiny backroom. Like a Russian doll hiding inside another of
its own kin, this is where the Albany small-press publishers
are hosting their book fair. The room is packed not only with
artgoers, who chanced upon the fair in their mingling, but
by representatives of five local presses. The room is likewise
full of the gallery’s (and for that matter, our culture’s)
strangest artifact: books. Ranging from hand-hewn chapbooks
by local authors to glossy perfect-bound anthologies of translated
foreign poets, slim, photocopied zines to lit journals one
could just as easily scoop up at Barnes and Noble, the offerings
are as broad as the presses that print them and the individuals
that put them together.
The fact that Albany is home to any small press may come as
a surprise, but this is forgivable, given the nature of their
wares. Books do not assault our senses in the way our expectations
have been charged for the information age. They can’t be sampled
like a song on iTunes or even browsed like a painting in a
gallery. They do not allow for passive apprehension and instead
demand not only that the reader get up, go out, procure the
individual title and open it, but sit and spend time with
it. With poetry, the textual form in which these local presses
largely deal, the degree of engagement is even greater.
Those people who have made it to the gallery and found its
backroom shuffle by the tables. Some pick up the books and
thumb through their pages. Occasionally one is purchased,
but even this action is a mere preamble to consuming the art
of language. These are the terms of the literary world—the
same ones that keep it vital.
On the walls of this room are photographs of local poets—a
collection that poet, photographer and open-mic stalwart Dan
Wilcox calls “the world’s largest collection of photos of
unknown poets”—so it’s tempting to think of the presses represented
this night as the Albany literary scene, yet the title might
not only be overly simple, but simply beside the point. Like
the work they publish, the presses are deeply nuanced in the
ways they operate and the ways they interact. With a range
of aesthetic objectives, target readerships, production values,
and logistical hurdles, small presses in Albany tend to extend
the adage that form follows function into the realm of publishing.
If you want to know anything about poetry in Albany, Wilcox
is the man to ask. A retired state employee, he grew up in
Delmar, was drafted into the military, and spent a good chunk
of time in New York City before returning to the Capital Region,
but when he arrived in 1987, the poetry scene was just kicking
in. He befriended Tom Nattell, who wrote The Simple Life column
for Metroland and had been running Readings Against
the End of the World, a 24-hour event held each year around
Earth Day. Together they started an open-mic night at QE2
(where the Fuze Box is currently), and over time it got to
be what Wilcox calls “the granddaddy of the open mic scene.”
Mary Panza, who runs Albany Poets and its affiliated magazine
Other:___ with Thom Francis, reflects with similar
fondness on the open-mic scene of the late ’80s. “It exploded
because there was nothing else like it in the area.” As the
scene grew, more poetry open mics opened at area bars. Regarding
the Tuesday open mic at the old Lionheart (where Bombers is
now), she says, “If you were five minutes late, you were 35th
on the list.”
All the while, Wilcox was busy documenting the poets that
came through. “I would go to readings and take notes of what
the poet looked like so I could recognize them on the street,”
he says of his time living down the road from the St. Mark’s
Poetry Project in New York, “but then I thought, ‘I’ve got
a camera; I might as well start taking pictures.’ ” By the
time he moved to Albany, this habit was firmly in place.
In 1990, the documentarian urge took a textual turn, and Wilcox
decided to start producing chapbooks—handmade volumes of shorter
length and lesser quantity—for the poets in the scene. The
first couple featured his own work, that of local poet Don
Levy, and a small collection for a reading at the Albany Public
was just eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch paper with a couple staples
down the side,” Wilcox says of his first books. He calls the
method “cheap and dirty,” but it served the basic purpose
of landing unpublished poets in print. He could produce one
or two books each year and not have to worry about the rigors
of the publishing business. The press had no title until a
friend he was publishing decided to try and sell the book
on Amazon.com. In order to do so, Wilcox came up with the
name A.P.D. Press, got a business checking account, bought
a few ISBNs (commercial identifying numbers), and made himself
a press (dwlcx.blogspot.com).
never been like some big marketing thing,” he confesses. “I
just help poets out and build my catalog.”
One of the poets Wilcox published was Rachel Zitomer, a University
at Albany Ph.D candidate in philosophy, and regular reader
on the open-mic circuit. Zitomer’s dissertation analyzed poetry
communities outside of academic institutions and used Albany
as a model. Her core thesis was that “whereas poetry in academia
is based on preservation, poetry in [a community like Albany]
is based on engagement, and thus on ephemerality.”
Indeed, it seems like the one thing that presses like A.P.D.
and Other:___ have in common is a foundational objective
toward engagement, born of performance-based poetics, that
renders publication of the written word secondary to that
of community and self-expression.
we are not academics,” says Panza, “we don’t have that whole
‘publish or perish’ mentality.” In fact, Panza and Francis
were literally handing out copies of Other:___ for
free at the open house.
Albany Poets (albanypoets.com) is as much an organizational
body, networking apparatus, and community of friends as it
is a poetry press. “The important thing is that we provide
a microphone and a Web site because it is your right to express
yourself,” Panza says. “We want to give you the forum to do
, then, functions more as an extension of this
mission to give poets, who may not feel comfortable reading
aloud at an open mic or at the organization’s yearly Word
Fest gathering, an audience for their work. It can, similarly,
be seen as an extension of what Zitomer calls an “aesthetics
of openness” that refuses “hierarchical valuation” and celebrates
the scene as a “perpetual series of temporal moments.”
In writing about the open-mic community as an academic study,
Zitomer posits a fairly rigid distinction between the goals
of these two communities. Whether or not that divide also
exists for print and performance poets is another matter.
area seems to be splintered,” Francis says, “and it always
has been. There’s what I like to call the ‘street’ poets and
the ‘school’ poets, and the only time they come together is
when we do the Jawbone [UAlbany graduate reading] series.”
Even Wilcox has articulated this dynamic with a poem he wrote
in 1988 called “Where are the professors?” in reference to
community open-mic events.
To call this fragmentation of Albany poetic events antagonistic,
though, might be going too far. Chris Rizzo, a UAlbany Ph.D
candidate and sole executor of Anchorite Press, says, “Such
antagonisms are [invented], so far as I can see.”
Rizzo too looks to the Jawbone series as proof that a constructive,
creative community can be fostered between academic and local
poets. In this same breath, he laments the fact that Jawbone
will not have the resources to continue operating this season.
If this type of divide exists, it seems not to be unique to
Albany. “I think you find the perception of that divide in
a number of communities,” Rizzo continues. He looks to Boston
as an example, where there are sufficient academics as well
as independent local poets to constitute many vibrant scenes.
Similarly, the divide between poetry that is built for the
page or penned for performance might be more of an illusion.
Anchorite, in fact, was born in 2003 of a Boston reading series.
In an effort that parallels that of Wilcox, Rizzo began making
monographs and broadsides for the poets that attended the
readings. And similar to Panza and Francis, Rizzo handed them
out for free. The broadsides became pamphlets, the pamphlets
became chapbooks, and pretty soon Rizzo had a press on his
When he moved to Albany to begin his studies, though, Rizzo
and Anchorite became uprooted from they community they served.
“When I came here it became more abstract. In Boston there
was a boots-on-the-ground, concrete proposition stemming from
the reading events. [The press] became more fluid and mobile
here. I was still filling a need, but for a community that
was somewhere out across the country.”
The story of Matthew Klane and his Slingerlands-based press
Flim Forum (flimforum.com), reads in a similar way. After
living in Boston and studying in Buffalo, Klane landed in
the Capital Region and started his press in 2005. The goal
was to print poets with whom he felt an aesthetic affinity.
This meant, though, that he’d be drawing on a pool of poets
he’d encountered in Boston, Buffalo, and elsewhere. Along
what constitutes a sort of transnational poetic archipelago,
Klane and Rizzo find both their work and their readership
in a community that is not easily localized.
Therefore, the medium in which they deal is books.
Klane and Flim Forum co-founder Adam Golaski (who does not
live in the area) considered the anthology to be the medium
that best served their objectives. “We knew we didn’t want
to do a journal,” Klane says, “but thought that if we went
ahead and published individual, single-author volumes, they
wouldn’t get much of an audience or have much energy. We thought
about anthologies as a way to make books that are like journals
but had a little bit of corrective toward what annoyed us
about journals.” The press’ first anthology, Oh One Arrow,
featured emerging writers who didn’t yet have much name recognition,
but included enough of their work in serial bundles that the
anthology functioned much like a perfect-bound collection
Working against preexisting models, Klane and Golaski followed
rather a formal duty to the work they chose to publish. “I
like to publish whole sequences, or large sections of sequences,”
says Klane. “I wanted big pages. I don’t like headers, footers,
or page numbers because they interfere with the visual integrity
of the page, so I don’t have headers or footers. I’m into
visual work—not work that uses images or drawings, but work
that uses language in its visual sense.”
Since the publication of Oh One Arrow and Flim Forum’s
second anthology, A Sing Economy, the press has moved
in the direction of single-author volumes. The Alps by
Brandon Shimoda is their first foray. “Brandon is a poet who
perfectly fit our goals. He thinks in form, in sequence, over
space. It’s visual as well as sonic. He’s a poet we saw as
emerging but ready to have a stage on the national scene.
And that’s really what we’re looking for: to publish authors
who we really respect, who share our aesthetic, and who are
not widely published in book form.”
While Rizzo’s aesthetic preferences do not necessarily coincide
with those of Klane, they share the goal to disseminate emerging
work. Rizzo speaks, though, of the “reversibility” of that
poetic dynamic of import and export. “[Anchorite] is valuable,”
he says, “because it takes outside work and brings it here,
as much as it exports work from around here.”
Furthermore, it seems that aesthetic considerations are not
the only ones that factor in when Anchorite decides to publish
its two or three books each year. “It’s aesthetics, but also
the politics that emerge out of the aesthetics, and those
key into the economic considerations of a small press. For
instance, I’m going to put out a chapbook by George Kalamaras.
He’s an older poet, pretty well-known in smaller circles,
with fantastic stuff. The aesthetic is not one I necessarily
share with him, but I really appreciate what he’s attempting
to do, and that keys into our small-press economy.”
When Rizzo speaks of Anchorite’s “outsider” leanings, the
title is mostly in reference to this small-press economy.
To clarify, he posits an admittedly “flattened-out” three-tier
system in poetry publishing. On the top, you’ll find large-scale
corporate publishers like Penguin or Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
This is a level that can be sufficiently regarded as the mainstream.
On the second tier are presses that don’t necessarily aspire
to the scale of the top tier, but resemble the work in some
way. This is where Rizzo places Flim Forum because it’s neat
and professional, and conceivably could be shelved at a Barnes
and Noble. However, because of Flim Forum’s experimental slant,
it defies the economics of the first tier. The third tier
is for super-small presses that feature handmade work with
little or no distribution. This work is “outside” in the sense
that it would have a very hard time fitting in the top tier.
Rizzo, however, acknowledges a certain fluidity to this model.
A prime example would be a chapbook he published for poet
and UAlbany professor Pierre Joris. Joris is the type of poet
who could publish handily on the top tier, but a manuscript
of 30 pages or so makes a better fit on the scale that Anchorite
there’s a fourth tier,” Rizzo says, “I’d like to be there.
One thing that Anchorite has going for it is that it’s super
small and can accommodate a wide range of work. The process
of making books suffers if you’re rushing through them, and
I’m only one person.”
Alternative infrastructure does exist for the small press.
Small Press Distribution is a nonprofit organization in Berkeley,
Calif., that brings independently produced books to the marketplace.
With SPD’s catalog and Web site, independent publishers can
reach an international readership. However, the service can
be something of a mixed blessing. While Klane uses the service,
it cuts substantially into an already tenuous profit margin,
such that he prefers that customers buy directly through his
Web site. Rizzo has decided not to use SPD at all.
the way it has liberated most art forms from the material
marketplace, the Internet has also become a useful tool for
poetry presses. Electronic technology is limited, however,
in the way it divorces language from the page and so corrupts
the type of spatial integrity Klane so ardently tries to preserve.
Rizzo has expressed interest in using Scribe technology, which
allows you to upload a PDF, thus preserving that spatial integrity
while taking advantage of electronic infrastructure, but even
this seems to be a bit digressive from these press’ core objectives.
Whether it’s poetry built for the page or the stage, there
is a core degree of engagement between poet and audience that
underlies each one of these local press’ aesthetic missions.
For Wilcox, Panza, and Francis, human interaction is easy
because of an inherent local orientation. But raw, primitive
word-of-mouth is an equally important aspect of what Klane
and Rizzo do.
you’re working in poetic communities that appreciate this
kind of work, you hear about these kinds of things when they
come out,” Rizzo says. “I physically, literally, call people.”
Rebecca Wolff, Editor of Fence magazine and Fence Books,
echoes this sentiment. Ten years after the press’ inception
and two years after moving to Albany for an affiliation with
the New York State Writers Institute, Wolff marvels that “the
vast majority of what made it happen was just talking to people,
Because it was at a time when there was great energy in the
New York poetry scene, Fence’s goal to find “a place for work
that didn’t know what it was doing” turned into a “providential
journey.” While the press’ presence in the local literary
scene has dovetailed slowly, Wolff has “lately been thinking
of [literary communities] with that cosmic sense to ‘think
global, act local.’ I feel like it’s important to get out
wherever you are . . . just getting together with people,
being a part of whatever the scene is.”
In this sense, a local book fair like the one at UAG can be
just as important and useful to a press of any size as the
big annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference,
which Fence and Flim Forum will both attend.
is for crap because there are no fast cars in it,’ ” Wolff
reads from Bad Bad, a Fence book by Chelsey Minnis.
It’s another frigid January night at the UAG, and this time
around representatives of the participating local presses
have gathered in the main room to read from their work. The
line garners an “it’s funny because it’s true” sort of chuckle
from the crowd, but the assertion is not meant to dismay.
In the face of a culture that has grown more and more rapid,
poetry is like the artistic facet of the “slow food” movement:
meant to be enjoyed for its process as much its product. The
two, however, cannot be entirely separated and, for this,
the notion of a small book press is still vitally important.
The evening is a sort of who’s who of area poets between those
at the mic and those in the crowd, and, needless to say, the
variety of work runs the gamut. Before reading on behalf of
Flim Forum, Buffalo poet Eric Gelsinger expresses his gratitude
for the opportunity to read alongside Pierre Joris, who’s
work inspired Gelsinger to enter the world of poetry “for
better or for worse.”
Indeed, the Albany small-press poetry world is rife with ups
and downs (as Albany poet R.M. Engelhardt recalls his own
venture, Dead Man’s Press, itself now dead), but it seems
that as long as there are people to read the printed word,
there will be presses out there to print it. In Albany, this
effort might not constitute a unified front, but it’s in this
aesthetic and logistical disparity that new presses are birthed.
While he speaks on behalf of his press, Klane may just speak
for everyone involved when he says, “Giving poets a forum
is the only goal.”