Inner Journeys

Wesleyan Poetry Program in Its Fourth Decade

Among the independent, literary, and academic publishers of American poetry, Wesleyan University Press has been a pillar of persistence and quality for nearly four decades. The press was founded by Professor Willard Lockwood in 1957-58 with the help of poet Richard Wilbur, who established first-book poetry publishing as an axiom of WUP. The press has been progressive from the outset, publishing social commentary and scholarship by thinkers such as Norman O. Brown and M.C. Richards, a unique body of avant-garde writings by John Cage in its Music/Culture series, and more recently touchstone works on performing arts, film, women’s studies, and multi-culturalism, along with studies in the traditional academic disciplines.

Wesleyan Poetry began with the auspicious 1959 publication of books by Barbara Howes, Hayam Pluztik, Louis Simpson, and James Wright. Three of those four volumes are still in print, while Simpson and Wright went on to win multiple prizes and honors, as have numerous other poets “discovered” by Wesleyan. The press currently offers in print approximately 130 poetry titles by 95 or more poets, living and dead, American and foreign. On its list are a National Book Award winning volume by the late James Dickey, Pulitzer Prize volumes by Wright, by James Tate, and by younger poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Among the recent new poetry selections are award winners from Joy Harjo, Heather McHugh, Mark Rudman, and others. Inner Journeys this issue reviews a representative masterpiece in translation, Apollinaire’s ALCOOLS from WUP, while other poetry volumes in translation include works of Ernesto Cardenal, Antonio Machado, Li Po, and translations from Italian, Brazilian, Bulgarian, and Czech writers.

Suzanne Tamminen, a Wesleyan grad and Editor at the Press for ten years, sits behind a spacious desk in her office on the first floor of a historical landmark house converted by the University to small but comfortable offices and meeting space. She informed me during a 1996 interview for Inner Journeys that the Wesleyan New Poets Series now publishes an average of six books a year. Jeanette Hopkins, an energetic and distinguished editor who became Director of the Press in 1979, created three divisions: Wesleyan Poetry Program; Wesleyan New Poets; and Wesleyan Poetry in Translation. Hopkins fired the poetry program up to fifteen titles per year in the mid-80’s, earning criticism from some quarters for compromising standards. According to Tamminen, Wesleyan prior to 1979 used a “poetry board,” three or four prominent poet-readers, to judge all poetry submissions. T.S. Eliot served at one time, and he would travel from England to Middletown, CT, to read and judge the manuscripts. These boards often turned down books submitted by poets who were already published by Wesleyan—who then turned to other publishing houses. Hopkins retained a board for the New Poets series only. In 1990, the three series were merged back into the Wesleyan Poetry Program; the press remains committed to new poets and poetry in translation, publishing a volume of each almost every year. All submissions are reviewed in house, and a small percentage are then sent to outside readers and presented to the faculty editorial board.

According to Tamminen, WUP receives 75 to 100 poetry manuscripts per month, or a whopping 1,000 per year—and this in an increasingly electronic age! Approximately 2% of these go to the consultants for final selection—the 2% that are superior in quality, and “manuscripts with coherence, not just collections.” Contrary to my impression (formed during the 60’s) that Wesleyan showcased East Coast and university writers, Ms. Tamminen pointed out experimentalists on the current list, including Susan Howe, Joan Retallack, and Leslie Scallopino (founder of O Press, see poetry reviews this issue), all associated with the avant garde. Not to mention the appearance of poet/novelist Marge Piercy, a veteran of the peace movement and the women’s movement and certainly not a university poet. Publishers Weekly has an apt comment on The Wesleyan Tradition: Four Decades of American Poetry, a crème de la crème selection edited by poet Michael Collier for WUP: “Assembling such different writers could impose uneasy choices on a reader, if the quality weren’t as high as the range is broad.”

How does a small university press maintain such an active poetry program? It is subsidized, in the sense that Wesleyan University provides a building and editorial staff for the press. On the other hand, the books sell world-wide, in modest but steady numbers. Tamminen reports that when the book is published simultaneously in cloth and paper, a typical cloth run for a new poetry book is 300 copies but may be 500 for an already established writer. Poetry paperbacks typically have first runs of 1,000 for a new poet, 1,500 to 3,000 for a poet with previous publications. A few more stores like The Grolier Bookshop in Cambridge, MA, which carries only poetry, would certainly help. The poetry slam movement—and the proliferation of coffeehouse readings—may also be a cultural element favoring Wesleyan and all poetry publishers. Finally, Wesleyan University Press maximizes its human resources by concentrating on manuscript development, editorial work, and design efforts, with all production, marketing, and distribution handled effectively by University Press of New England, which has an impressive catalog and list of sales reps, operating out of Hanover, New Hampshire. For orders in the U.S., call (800) 421-1561, FAX: (603) 643-1540. For Wesleyan University Press catalogs, see listing in this Inner Journeys, page 23.—Iven Lourie, with information from Suzanne Tamminen and Publicist Jessica Mann of University Press of New England.

-- Iven Lourie

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