A big controversy in the poetry world these days is the discussion surrounding Buffalo-based small press BlazeVOX [book]'s (now discontinued) model of charging some authors a portion of the costs of publishing their poetry books ($250, as I gather). In the closing months of last year, the revelation of this practice inflamed passions in the generally staid world of independent literary publishing. The controversy just got an enormous boost with the recent decision of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) banning poets from listing books published by BlazeVOX on their grant applications.
Questions arise about the viability of poetry publishing in an age of narrow audiences and little financial reward, and about gate-keeping, quality control, editorial integrity and the technologies of dissemination.
Anis: What were the beginnings of the controversy last year? What were the charges your critics leveled against you, and what is your side of the story?
Geoffrey: On Sept. 5, 2011 I was pilloried on HTML Giant for BlazeVOX's co-operative fundraising model. There were also charges of not being fully transparent in the way we presented our acceptance information. Within 24 hours BlazeVOX was being praised and most of the controversy died down and we received thousands of communications of support for our press and how we do business. We have ceased our co-operative funding model and are working on forming as a not-for-profit organization. Here is our statement about the whole controversy. It best explains what I hope to convey.
And here is information from other sources.
Buffalo News: "Poets have a hard sell in America"
Pearl Blossom Highway: "BABES IN POETRYLAND"
No Tell Books Supports BlazeVOX
Anis: Great, I like what Reb Livingston and Michael Kelleher have to say about the economics of poetry publishing! I'm very much against the contest-for-fee model (see my essay on this subject), which more or less completely dominates small press poetry publication today. I think it results in uniform, bland, mediocre work. On the other hand, there are some small presses not following the contest model, and these often produce the most innovative work. What do you think?
Geoffrey: I agree with your assessment of poetry contests. I have seen how contests operate and I do not think that it is the best way to bring new exciting voices into the world. However, it is an accepted model by both authors and readers. The money generated by such contests is the lifeblood of many small presses. In many cases these funds generate the operating budget for their whole year. It is one model, but one that I do not fully believe in as an activity that actually promotes the best and brightest work published that year. This is why we do not host a contest or give out a prize. We choose to do something rather new. We live in a world of rejection and I try to offer acceptance. I know that we have set our own path but this all developed out of a love for poetry. I am a war veteran honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. Through writing I was able to find a way to way to get through the day and live a productive life.
Anis: What is your experience as an editor, and how did you conceptualize BlazeVOX? What needs were you aiming to fill in poetry publication, and do you think you've succeeded in your original aims?
Geoffrey: BlazeVOX started off as a college project while I was at Daemen College, Amherst, NY in 1998. The school is near Buffalo so our contacts with poets and poetry are vibrant. I wanted to start a creative writing journal but we only had a budget of $100. I took that, bought a copy of Dreamweaver, and learned how to design web pages. I used this format for the college journal and it was a great success.
In 2000 I started BlazeVOX as the online journal was gaining momentum. The goal of the journal is to present innovative fictions and wide-ranging fields of contemporary poetry. Our main goal is to provide good quality poetry. The technology allows for a very low overhead in our operation. We moved into book production, as there was a real market for us to expand our horizons, and once the Print on Demand systems began, we hopped right on board. The technology had been awful up until 2004 but now is fantastic.
We have published 280 books and over 1,000 writers in our online journal and other outlets. Our family of fine writers includes Kent Johnson, Bill Berkson, Anne Waldman, Clayton Eshleman, Lee Ann Brown, Tom Clark, Ray Federman, and Gloria Frym and many, many more.
I do think that I have succeeded in our aims. Through publishing hundreds of books and poems online we have been able to make a huge impact on the poetry world. We became very big very fast, and being a poetry press at our core our business reporting and communication needs to catch up to our zeal for making new books. I see our new problems as a real opportunity to grow our market but also to be able to give a brighter spotlight to shine on new, important unknown poets.
Anis: Are there past and existing innovative presses that particularly appeal to you as models for what BlazeVOX is trying to do?
Geoffrey: Jonathan Williams' Jargon Society
Ugly Duckling Presse
Coffee House Press
"C" Press and C: A Journal of Poetry
Anis: These are some of my favorite presses too. For example, Ugly Duckling consistently puts out amazing innovative work -- all without the contest model. I see no problem with small presses formalizing contributions from authors, as long as this doesn't become a moneymaking operation and selectivity is maintained. What is the line between a legitimate press collaborating with authors in terms of sharing production costs and the dreaded "vanity press" How do you maintain this line?
Geoffrey: I would say that there is a huge divide between what we do and what one considers a vanity press. A vanity press will publish any book, within reason, for a price and a full run of books that is purchased by the author. I do not believe that this model happens very much any more, as there are several online places for self-publishing that do great work for many fine writers. Many writers are finding great success by self-publishing their work directly on Amazon.com. The world of publishing and what it means to be a writer is in a wild flux, and I for one find it to be an exciting time.
As I said in our statement, there is a real selection process where we choose books to publish based on many criteria. We receive so many great manuscripts and we have a large percentage of the resources necessary to publish more titles. With the dearth of actual funding available to small presses and with the costs to produce the necessary paperwork that granting agencies require, I found it more effective and streamlined to just focus on the production of books that need to be published.
I would like to make it known that in our offer to publish books with a co-operative donation, if the author did not want to participate in this we also made an offer to publish their work as an ebook in Kindle and EPUB and PDF format and have it available on Amazon.com and iBooks. And if that was still not acceptable, we could wait until our financial outlook was stable and we would then publish their book without a donation. I think that this is a fair arrangement, as do many writers. I think that this is a very successful program and we were able to promote good writers.
I have a vision of poetry as an umbrella that many things can fit under. Only one style of writing is not a good way to run a press. There are a lot of fine writers at every stage of their career, so, as in life, we all find points of commonality and reveal it in many shades of expression. Also, one needs to be willing to sit in a chair for a long period of time and read with an open mind.
Anis: How many books do you publish per year? What is the logic for the number you do publish?
Geoffrey: We publish about 40 to 50 books a year. There is no real logic behind this number except for the amount of interesting projects becoming available. I really enjoy working with texts and being able to design a book, work with a diverse group of poets, and to simply be relevant.
Anis: Let's talk about the NEA decision. Do you think you're being unfairly punished, and why is this the case? If retribution is the aim, there seems to be plenty of large-scale corruption in small press poetry publication to go after: contests where the odds for the eventual winner are unfairly stacked, or more rampant forms of corruption the NEA could pursue were it so inclined. What have you done that's so offensive to establishment tastes? Are they trying to make an example of you, and why?
Geoffrey: It is very difficult for me to determine if this is retribution or simply the NEA constrained by their own rules.
There are several reasons one might think we are being retaliated against. For example, our version of Day by Kent Johnson, a reworked conceptual book using Kenny Goldsmith's Day and re-authoring it.
There are other fine examples of our being a renegade press, publishing the unexpected and unknown. We have gone beyond what a small press is expected to do and we are attracting a great deal of attention to ourselves.
It is possible that BlazeVOX is being made an example of; we caused one of the biggest small press scandals in recent memory. So far have I not heard from the NEA yet on anything but I am excited that things are moving in a somewhat forward direction. In a March 18 Buffalo News article, linked here, they say that they will reexamine their 1983 rule that is the cause of this ban.
At this year's AWP conference I was fortunate enough to meet Ira Silverberg, the new head of the NEA Literature division. We shared a cigarette in front of the Hilton. I was able to have a nice few moments with him and I was able to move from the old hairy eyeball to a warm smile. I was able to let him know were we are now and how I am growing the press to a larger organization and now working on getting our not-for-profit status. He seemed happy about that. At AWP I decided to start up a smile campaign. I posted on Facebook for people to email or stop by their booth and tell them that they love BlazeVOX. I also handed out over 200 post cards asking friends to smile at them and tell them they too love BlazeVOX. It seems to be working :-)
In the end, we do not publish books for the NEA. We publish for those who want to read poetry and are a refuge for writers who want to be supported by their fellow writers. I am disappointed, but large agencies like the NEA have always turned away from small forward-looking organizations. I plan to keep on doing what I do and keep publishing. I have the support of a lot of wonderful friends and I am very thankful for a great deal.
Anis: Can you talk about a few poetry books you're particularly proud of that might not have seen the light of day had it not been for BlazeVOX?
Geoffrey: I am not sure how to answer this question, as I am proud of every one of our 280 books. We have a wide range of titles from a varied group of writers from highly diverse backgrounds and I think that another press would publish each of these books. So I do think our books would see the light of day, as the works shine on their own.
So as not to evade your question, here is a list, by no means complete, of some titles that I am very proud of:
Amy King: Slaves to Do These Things
Mary Kasimor: silk string arias
Michael Kelleher: Human Scale
Jeffrey Schrader:Art Fraud
Andrew Cox:The Equation That Explains Everything
Liam Agrani: Volume One
Sally Ashton: Some Odd Afternoon
Raymond Federman:THE CARCASSES
Kent Johnson: Epigramititis: 118 Living American Poets
Sherry Robbins: or, The Whale
Chad Sweeney: An Archetecture
Terence van Vliet: Black Lines On Terracotta
Robin Brox: Sure Thing
Starlight Gallery Anthology: Starlight's Genesis
Our catalog is here.
Anis: What is your future strategy? Any parting words for the holier-than-thou church ladies of po-biz?
Geoffrey: I know that there are many hurdles in front of us, but I am confident that we can meet any challenge! As I say, we have changed our method of production and are now in the process of becoming a 501c3 organization. We have the support of the poetry community and have dedicated people to help us in becoming the organization that we need to become. I am honored that the work I have done has reached a state that we now occupy. In a sense this is a growing pain; we became big at a much faster pace than we had planned on becoming.
And I will pass on the kind offer at parting words. To date we have succeeded through publishing books that matter, a lot of charm, and plenty of hard work. It may take a few years but I promise that before long I will impress you with what we can do. Hurray!
Anis Shivani's books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (forthcoming, Aug. 2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2012), Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009).