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Anis Shivani


4th Of July 2011: 20 Of The Best Books From Independent Presses You Should Know About (PHOTOS)

Posted: 07/02/11 07:36 AM ET

Last year on Independence Day we launched an intense focus on indie presses, and continued that attention throughout the year (see for example here, here, and here). This year again we bring you some of the most exciting established and emerging voices, both in the realm of literature and cultural/political criticism. You will find, underneath the slides, substantive discussions of the book, the author, and the press.

Our Independence Day feature last year focused on indie literary presses, and picked up university presses for later coverage. There seems little reason to maintain this distinction, since the lines blur considerably--university presses publish some of the most interesting poetry and fiction, and nearly all of the literary criticism, and publish books in a wide range of genres with elegant literary writing. They do much of the worthwhile translations of literature from foreign languages, and they approach many social and political issues with a humane--we might call it literary--approach. The myth needs to be laid to rest once and for all that university presses publish only scholarly books targeted to specialized audiences; that is simply not how the best of the university presses operate these days. (Oxford, Duke, MIT, California, and Columbia University presses definitely belong on this list too.)

The small press world is not immune to insularity and obscurity; literary missions take on a life of their own past a certain point of maturity, and it is important to break the mold from time to time in order to keep the energies vital and the writing ahead of the times. I've talked about the over-reliance of poetry presses on the contest model, but New York Quarterly Books, with which this feature leads off, breaks the pattern and offers an example of a different vision for poetry publishing in the twenty-first century. In addition, while there's too much poetry being published, if one searches carefully, there are notable talents like Kathleen Ossip (Sarabande Books) and Benjamin Paloff (Carnegie Mellon University Press), among younger poets, to revive hope for a public poetry.

Immigrants may be the last people in the country not yet benefiting from the general movement toward dignity and human rights; recently Jose Antonio Vargas told his story of being an unauthorized immigrant while excelling in journalism at the national level; his story is all too common, and the stereotype of the law-breaking, welfare-sucking, border-crossing immigrant who is a net drain on the economy needs to be vigorously refuted so that a rational debate on the benefits of open immigration can take place; such a debate hasn't started yet, but a book like New Press's Living "Illegal" at least makes a start.

Publishing, if it is to survive in the future, is going to have to radically alter its structure and become reader and community driven, operate with a flattened hierarchy, diffuse its energies to the local level, and take advantage of the increasing globalization of reading/writing. This won't happen all at once, but presses like Red Lemonade are at least making a move in the right direction.

We hope this discussion of the country's leading-edge indie presses gives you a sense of the present state of literature and social commentary, and that you will support these presses--along with your favorite indie booksellers--to keep the literary enterprise free and democratic.

New York Quarterly Books: Luke Johnson, 'After the Ark' (March 2011)
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I wrote recently in praise of poetry publishers who don't charge fees to read manuscripts and don't operate by the contest model, instead preferring to exercise strong and consistent editorial vision under the traditional model. New York Quarterly Books is the perfect example of the way a small poetry press should be run: editor Raymond Hammond solicits books from poets already published in the New York Quarterly (one of the most eclectic, well-rounded, and exciting journals I've seen--and I read them all!--with a mix of reviews, essays, and interviews along with very generous offerings of poetry); while the journal has been around for four decades, the book publishing program is new, getting started only in 2009 but already having picked up a lot of steam. Among their new poetry books, I've really liked Amanda Bradley's Hints and Allegations, Shelley Stenhouse's Impunity, Tony Medina's My Old Man Was Always On the Lam, Steve Henn's Unacknowledged Legislations, and Luke Johnson's understated After the Ark. From Johnson's book, here--appropriately enough--is "Independence Day": "The fireworks bloomed across the lake, / exploring the sky, open, distant. / We spread the blanket, pulled it straight / as fireworks bloomed across the lake. / Much more than us, she just gaped / and clapped, so rapt in that bright instant: the fireworks blooming across the lake, / exploring the sky, distant and open." I would also like to mention publisher Raymond Hammond's recent book Poetic Amusement, which I consider one of the classic contemporary statements of the lamentable state of poetry in this country, how it got to be this way, and what we can do to make poetry a public and relevant art again. This is an extremely well-written polemic, with much to teach poets aspiring to write criticism. If you're an aspiring poet, read the journal, contribute poetry and prose to it, and form a relationship with the editor--doing things the honorable and old-fashioned way.
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