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  • Three Contemporary Activist Presses
  • Thom Donovan (bio)

Any poetry press active in the US right now is arguably activist. This is so because we live in an atmosphere inhospitable to poetry. Hence, to write poetry and to publish it is both a call to action and a struggle to act. Economically, one scrounges the time to read and write poetry and often succumbs to pursuing an MFA or eking out an existence in the academy or some other humble corner of society in order to continue doing so. Socially, the pursuit of being a poet is not what it used to be. Whereas in the 60s many competed to be considered a poet—deserving of the venerable title—in the present, most of the poets I know avoid calling themselves poets whether for shame or just wanting to avoid explaining what they do. To be a poet in our society is a sign of poverty, regression, and misplaced idealism. Sitting in a New York City cafe recently, I heard someone crack a joke: "maybe I will write a poem about it" (referring to an impasse they had encountered in their attempt to start a business). To write poetry and nurture poetry culture is considered wasteful and hapless, if not criminal. It does not properly participate in the dominant economic model of our society—liberal pluralist capitalism—and is thus perceived as the pursuit of the weak and anti-productive.

Given this situation, there is nevertheless a huge spectrum that currently divides poetry cultures and practices. Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand—these have been our poet laureates throughout the "W" years, and I find something particularly telling about this fact. For these poets represent, to me, terribly retrograde poetic practices and conducts. Billy Collins's cynical rhetoric, in particular, would now seem the mirror of the Bush administration's own. Only where George W. Bush argued for a "coalition of the willing" and "armies of compassion," Collins continues to argue for a poetry of "common sense." As in Bush's speeches, with Collins's sarcastic poems, one recognizes the wink of an insider who would like to be viewed as populist. Whenever I hear Collins advocate for common sense, I burn with the intuition that Collins has it all wrong, and culture—the larger American culture which poetry clandestinely undergirds—is paying for it. There will not be a common sense born from sarcasm. What Collins doesn't realize is that common sense is something which needs to be overturned in order to be won. And this is precisely what any poetry worth its mettle does. It is revolutionary in the most literal sense. And it is revolution which grounds whatever will be called "our" common sense—a shifting terrain upon which every one can tentatively stand together.

The ideological, formal, and political contests of poets are fought in any number of cultural locations. Some of the more humble locations include the bar, bookstore, house reading, street corner, and margins of books. Some of the more "high stakes" locations include the poetry contest, fellowship/grant awards, and academic appointments/tenure system. Perhaps the most crucial sites of these contests are to be found in book publishing. Publishers obviously determine what books get into print at all, and the forms that such books will assume. While very few poets will get book deals with major publishers (Norton; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Knopf; Penguin, etc.), there is a better chance that they may get a book with an academic press. But the majority of poets, if they will publish books at all, publish them with small presses. And it is at the level of the small press where much of the most radical and progressive poetry in the US has always been written, and is certainly being written today.

Small press cultures tend to be well meaning and progressive, if not often eccentric—that is, off center. They can take risks that larger publishers obviously cannot, because large-scale publishers have more economic resources being channeled into their publishing endeavors, and profit (or at least "breaking even") is a must. If small press poetry makes a profit, this profit is usually small...


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