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  • ScenesThe Waywiser Press: An interview with Philip Hoy
  • Philip Hoy

Could you briefly describe your press’s history?

Waywiser will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in April 2022. It sprang out of an earlier publishing venture I’d been involved in, one that Ian Hamilton, Peter Dale, and I established in 1997.

It had all been Ian’s idea. He’d seen the transcript of a longish interview I had conducted with W. D. Snodgrass while visiting him and his wife at their home in upstate New York. I’d spent several days with the Snodgrasses, recording lengthy discussions with the poet as part of my research for a book I had planned (a book that I’m sorry to say never got off the ground). After returning to the UK and transcribing the recordings I’d made, I sent the results to one of the English poetry magazines, to be told that they could only publish shortish extracts, not all 17,000 words.

My friend and former teacher Peter Dale showed the transcript to his old friend Ian Hamilton, a big admirer of Snodgrass’s work, and Ian suggested that the three of us should meet for lunch. Over a rather boozy meal Ian said I should forget about the magazines. The interview was too good to see filleted; it deserved to be published entire. Why didn’t the three of us chip in and publish the interview as a book — one fleshed out with an introductory essay, bibliographical information, and maybe a few pages of quotations from the poet’s reviewers and critics? No sooner had Peter and I got over our surprise at this than Ian took one giant further step and suggested that we make this the first in a series of such books — i.e. books featuring senior poets in extended conversation.

In the next few years — years in which we were joined by the late and much-missed J. D. McClatchy — we published volumes featuring, amongst others, John Ashbery, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, and Richard Wilbur. It was a heady period, one which made me wonder why I hadn’t abandoned my academic career much earlier.

My work on the BTL books gave me the contacts, as well as the skills, and the confidence, to strike out on my own, and the opportunity to do so came about when I was invited to take part in the West Chester Poetry Conference in PA in 2001. I’d fallen into conversation with the late Tim Murphy, a poet whose work I’d become familiar with after Anthony Hecht quoted from it in the BTL interview he and I worked on. Tim and his partner, the late Alan Sullivan, had done a fine translation of Beowulf, but were having trouble finding a publisher for it (Seamus Heaney’s having published his own bestselling translation just two years earlier). After hearing Tim recite passages, I asked him and Alan to let me make it the first of my new press’s releases. They said Yes, and this despite the fact that Waywiser didn’t even have a name at this point.

Some time after I returned to London, Tim sent me an apologetic email: Longman had offered him and Alan a contract, and they didn’t feel they could turn it down. The news wasn’t entirely bad, however, because he went on to ask if I’d be willing to take a look at his latest collection, Very Far North. If I liked it, he’d be happy for me to take it on. I did like it, and Very Far North was published in the spring of 2002, with a splendid introductory essay by Anthony Hecht. Alongside Very Far North, I published Dan Rifenburgh’s Advent, which had been recommended to me by another of my interviewees, Donald Justice. This also came with a fine introductory essay, one I’d commissioned from Richard Wilbur.

Waywiser quickly became the beneficiary of another development, which was the retreat of British trade publishers from contemporary poetry — a retreat which left a lot of American poets without UK representation, amongst...