This is a series of ongoing interviews with women actively engaged with small-press publishing between the 1950s and 1980s. It comes from a desire not only to preserve their accounts but also to draw wider attention to the vital role of women editors and publishers in the mimeograph revolution and beyond. In these decades “poems were bouncing off the sidewalk” (Maureen Owen), and this series traces some of those madcap trajectories.
This interview took place via email between November 2013 and December 2014. It focuses on Wright’s role as the editor and publisher of Lost Roads Press, 1976-present in Fayetteville, Arkansas, San Francisco, and Providence. The press is currently edited by Susan Scarlata.
Stephanie Anderson: Was Room Rented by a Single Woman Lost Roads’s first book? As author, how much input did you have into the publication process?
C. D. Wright: Room Rented … did end up being LRP’s first book. Frank [Stanford] had printed a few titles and then scrapped them because he was dissatisfied with the printing job. He re-did them, and mine was included in that lot of six titles—he put the sequence together. In truth, they came out pretty simultaneously.
SA: Do you recall Frank’s aspirations for the press?
CDW: It was Frank’s press until his death. Frank wanted to publish poets who were not part of a larger sphere, and who did not have that kind of access (himself included). He was aware of how removed we were from a publishing center. This was something valuable he passed onto me—start where you are. The truffles are right under your nose.
SA: Do you know how the name of the press came to be Lost Roads?
CDW: The title Lost Roads Publishers comes from a Lorca poem. Frank’s version of it appears in YOU, published posthumously. He titled it “Circle of Lorca” and it was spun out of Lorca’s “Little Infinite Poem.”
SA: What were your motivations for continuing the press?
CDW: How could I not continue it: he had published six titles, he had six more titles on the docket that were in progress. We had the equipment in the rental house we shared, and an appointment set up with the binder in Tulsa, and as it happened, a National Endowment for the Arts grant had been awarded and was to be withdrawn because of his death, but Professor James Whitehead intervened and the award went through under my aegis. A year later, I moved to California. By that time I had the publishing bug. I enjoyed it. I only brought out one title while I was in California, Trouble in Paradise, a collection of pencil drawings by Zuleyka Benitez. I had the books shipped to California, general delivery, since I had no San Francisco address. I stored half the inventory in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the basement of The Grapevine, an independent community newspaper, a weekly. The day before I came back to Fayetteville to recover the inventory, a flood ruined most of it, including more than half of the copies of The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. So an edition of I think 1500 was reduced by half at least. This poem had been printed two-up and was 542 pages long. It was a huge loss.
SA: The Battlefield is an epic in every way, including length. What was the process of printing and assembling it like? Did you have assistance?
CDW: Before Frank died, The Battlefield was printed in Bentonville, Arkansas, by Overstreet Printing, a printing business he had used for other titles. As I said, it was printed two-up, and that is a lot of plates. When the flats came back to the house we rented on Jackson Drive in Fayetteville, Frank organized a sorting party (this was weeks before he died). Some women came over and we sorted the pages into stacks we could take to the binders. We drove the flats to the binder in Tulsa, a family of really large folks who worked their way around their warehouse set-up to bind books. I picked the books up after his death. He never saw it bound.
We had a printer helping us with the press; we had a Verityper which we operated ourselves, an unbelievably archaic way to set type, and a vertical Agfa Gevaert camera, a handmade light table to strip up the negatives, an old carbon-arc burner we used to burn the plates, a re-built 1850 multilith, a stash of paper in the garage… It was a dedicated amateur operation, and we did not know how to use any of the equipment except by trail and error.
(If you have an original copy, hang onto it. I probably have three).
SA: Will you say a little more about the Verityper and the multilith? I feel like that equipment is difficult for us now to envision, and “Verityper” certainly doesn’t turn up helpful hits on Google.
CDW: Verityper was a pretty primitive way to set type. I shipped the machine back to Irv Broughton after Frank’s death as Irv kept insisted he wanted it back. Irv was Frank’s first publisher, Mill Mountain Press. The Verityper set the letters proportionally, one deep peck at a time. Then we switched to an IBM typewriter that had proportional spacing. Cumbersome, but at least it plugged in. The AM Multilith was a common printer. We could print two-up.
SA: Was Frank envisioning each six as being a discrete set? Were these “truffles” all by writers within a certain geographical range?
CDW: Frank envisioned the books as a series of six at a time and had selected and committed to the second six at the time of his death, as well as to printing The Battlefield in conjunction with Mill Mountain but it was finally all taken on by Lost Roads.
SA: What do you think Frank would have thought about the current incarnation of the press?
CDW: I don’t speculate about Frank. I knew him in his twenties which he resolved not to outlive. I cannot project him forward.
SA: Room Rented by a Single Woman opens with a Dickinson quote, “But you must go to bed. I who sleep always, need no bed.” It, and some of the voices in that book, invokes the sprawling and shifting dreamscapes of The Battlefield. Then and later on, did the process of physically building books influence your creative work?
CDW: I am still physically building books; that is how it feels to write.
SA: After Frank died, how did you market and distribute the books?
CDW: Marketing was nominal. Small Press Distribution handled the books not so differently than they do now: listing them in their catalog, stocking a small number and re-stocking if enough orders came in to warrant it. Occasional ads were placed in whatever sources we knew to place them and could afford it. Review copies were sent out, and a list cultivated of potential reviewers. It was like that, nothing exceptional but time-intensive. A sequence of small tasks.
SA: What was the publishing community in Fayetteville like? How did it differ from the one you found on the West Coast and then in Providence?
CDW: There was no publishing community as such in Fayetteville. Frank was publishing, for the most part, poets who had finished their degrees and moved away. The other independent publisher was The Grapevine, a weekly newspaper, and it was read by virtually anyone engaged with the times. As with us, assembling the paper was very manual and required volunteerism. That spirit ran through the artistic and political community of Fayetteville. For Lost Roads, the printer and binders were paid. Frank and I did the rest.
SA: How did the mission of the press evolve while you were editing? How did the production of the books change?
CDW: The mission was to publish books I liked. I published one title in San Francisco. The first twelve books were books Frank had already selected and begun readying. The flats of The Battlefield had already been printed. When I moved to San Francisco I published the Benitez pencil drawings, as I mentioned. The next round of books began to include California poets, while still publishing poets and fiction writers I had known in Arkansas. Frances Mayes, Stan Rice, Honor Johnson I met in San Francisco. After moving to Mexico briefly with Forrest Gander and then to Arkansas briefly and then to Rhode Island, we began to publish writers we met in Providence. A micro-press. It commonly works in such a way. Contests break that up, but rarely for the good of the press. A kind of cohesiveness that begins with geographical proximity, kindred literary intentions, and friendship is built into the small press. For that matter, so is a New York publishing house, which as Forrest said of the entire city, is like someone’s apartment.
The production of the books improved once Forrest and I hired an outside designer. Forrest co-edited as we came to share the tasks. We both had a taste for it, and didn’t mind the detail, but we knew the books’ look would benefit if someone else took on the design. We were still setting them on an IBM Selectric.
Covers were almost always by artists we knew. The cover of Franz Wright’s translations of René Char’s No Siege Is Absolute was by H. Lane Smith, a Providence artist and Rhode Island School of Design professor on the cusp of retirement when we met him. Denny Moers, a Providence photographer, did the cover for Besmilr Brigham’s Run Through Rock (as well as several of mine and of Forrest’s from our publishers). The look of the books improved dramatically when we hired Peter Armitage (a Providence-based RISD graduate) to design the books. I think he started with Trenchtown Rock by Kamau Brathwaite, with a cover by photographer Deborah Luster, a friend from Arkansas then living in North Carolina. We were still publishing writers we knew, but the sense of the local expanded, because of being at a university where any number of writers filtered through. Because we were both more in touch with writers by mail and travel, the press took on a somewhat broader character.
SA: Will you talk about the publishing and writing culture you found in Providence?
CDW: There were a couple more active presses in Providence, especially Burning Deck. There was also Copper Beech Press. Moyer Bell was based in Newport for a time. A letterpress called Paragraph is in East Providence. As long as I have been in Providence, there have been fine writers about – living and teaching and studying here, running presses, running reading series. Bookstores have closed, but there are still two excellent used bookstores in town, Cellar Stories and Paper Nautilus, and a very small but choice store largely committed to poetry, Ava Books, and a store with an interesting selection of theory, art, literature, graphic books, etc. Symposium. Brown runs a general bookstore, and they are very accommodating about ordering what they do not carry. This is a viable town for writers, among the few I would say.
SA: Did you have a favorite part of the publishing process?
CDW: I liked most of it – the mail, the selection, the lay-out (which we still did in Rhode Island for quite a while). I liked working with Forrest. We often had a student intern, someone likewise interested in what we were doing, usually a young writer. It made me feel useful. Actually selling the books was not my forte. Nor is it of most small press editors. Distribution is limited to the outfits designed to serve the small literary press and we did not publish enough titles for the ones who actually had reps. To make a go of it you have to be very ambitious. We just liked doing it, and once our son was born, it became harder and harder to find the time.
SA: It sounds like Forrest joined the process pretty seamlessly. Was it ever difficult to edit with someone else?
CDW: He took to it and our tastes have always been compatible. His appetite for “discovery” outstripped mine, but I could still net someone out-of-the-way and wondrous.
SA: What was your favorite book to work on?
CDW: I don’t know. My favorite was the one at hand. Your attention shifts with the focus required of the title you are intent on bringing into being.
I return to many of the titles I return to: Frances Mayes’s HOURS and Ex Voto, Franz Wright’s translations of René Char’s No Siege Is Absolute, Arthur Sze’s River River, Philip Foss’s The Composition of Glass, John Taggart’s Standing Wave, Besmilr Brigham’s Run Through Rock, Kamau Brathwaite’s Trenchtown Rock, Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, The Book of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, stories by Sharon Doubiago, and Steve Stern’s Isaac and the Undertaker’s Daughter, his first collection of stories; Alison Bundy’s A Bad Business and Mary Caponegro’s Tales from the Next Village. We were amateur publishers, but we published some terrific books. I don’t even have the list with me, so I won’t go on.
SA: And then did you step back from the press because of the time constraints you mentioned? How did you decide what would be next for the press?
CDW: Time puts its vise on you once job, child, job, child, writing, animal, child, bills work their way in. The press under those constraints was the one dispensable concern. Mind you, we just had the one child. Many people accomplish a great deal with multiples. We were stretched with one.
SA: In some of the books, the NEA is credited with helping to support the press. How else did you get enough money?
CDW: We were able to get grants with some regularity from the NEA and more modest ones from the state arts agency. The titles generated enough money to pay for the next one or two. We kicked in. It was not exciting monetarily.
SA: Yeah, it seems rarely to be. I’m thinking about the voices in and title of your first book – you’ve been interested in the status and independence of women more generally. Did you have strong feelings about being a woman editor?
CDW: It seemed a good thing, to be a woman, to be an editor. I ran a very small press. When I think of the work Jill Schoolman (Archipelago) has produced, I think of a professional. Or Barbara Epler (New Directions). Or Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck) who also edits (with Keith Waldrop) a small press, but one with so many titles, and such longevity… Rena Rosenwasser, Patricia Dienstfrey and co. (Kelsey Street). Now there are many—Rusty Morrison (OmniDawn), Janet Holmes (Ahsahta), Rebecca Wolff (Fence), Carmen Jimenez Smith (Noemi Press, who later turned it over to Evan Lavender Smith), Lost Roads Publishers (Susan Scarlata), E. Tracy Grinnell (Aufgabe the magazine and Litmus Press) and on and on.
SA: What would you say to a young woman interested in starting a micropress?
CDW: Give your press a good name. Give books a good name. Befriend a young graphic designer. Choose each title very, very carefully. “Enlarge the temple,” as Merwin said. Books are increasingly worthless, but this means they are also increasingly precious. I will miss them when I’m gone.
C.D. Wright was born in the Arkansas Ozarks, the daughter of a judge and court reporter. She has published over a dozen books, Including One with Others: a little book of her days (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Lenore Marshal Prize), Rising, Falling, Hovering (which won the Griffin International Prize for Poetry), One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana with Deborah Luster (which won the Lange-Taylor Prize from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke). A MacArthur Fellow and former State Poet of Rhode Island, she and writer/translator Forrest Gander edited Lost Roads Publishers for over twenty years.