The Reverend Kane has included me among 10 Poets You’ve Never Heard Of But You’re Going To Love — which is awful of him, and feels great to be wedged in among that talent.
I know I probably sound like a broken record when it comes to the small press, but I thought I’d give a little glimpse into why I feel it has so much to offer readers. What follows are a few small press books that, for me, stand out for either their content, their production, or both — as evidence of just some of what the small press can do that the larger presses either won’t or can’t.
I first stumbled on Albert Huffstickler’s work in the late 1990s, when diving head first into as many small press magazines as I could get my mitts on. Poem to poem, and magazine to magazine, his was one of the very first otherwise unknown names I began to recognize as consistently great. I can’t remember if we ever appeared in the same magazine, but I never missed one of Huff’s poems if I saw his name among the contributors. This book, Why I Write in Coffee Houses and Diners: Selected Poems seems to speak to everything Huff loved: people as poems, diner coffee, a warm plate of grub, a few cigarettes and delving deep into the human mysteries of love and of sadness. His lines are profoundly exact, and ring like a centuries-old church bell.
Another early discovery was the tough-nosed yet deeply-felt struggle and strength of Anne Menebroker’s work. She was in a lot of my target magazines — places I tried with early poems — and there was always something so steady and maternal about her lines, and a down-to-earth sense of no bullshit about her work. She was just rock-solid poem to poem. This book, Tiny Teeth, collected loads of work from Wormwood Review — a true titan among the small press scene for decades — and I jumped at the chance to have so many poems gathered together in one spot.
Mike Kriesel’s Feeding My Heart to the Wind is, like haiku-poets of old, razor-sharp and sweeping, with compact poems covering an array of rural, Midwestern experiences with a piercing eye and open heart. To top that all off, the production by sunnyoutside — letterpress covers, saddle-sewn — showed me that a book need not be huge to read huge. I was honored to eventually land a manuscript at sunnyoutside, and shocked to share a press with such amazing writers.
Quiet as a press, with books only landing occasionally, yet when Centennial Press does one up, they really shake the branches. Like Huffstickler, William Taylor Jr’s poems were (and are!) great every time I ran across them and when this book was coming out, I was really excited. And when it landed on my doorstep — even more so. The beautiful card cover and thick, rich paper stock along with typesetting that paid attention to every detail, I realized that the limits of design — so often forced by cost — sometimes just need to be ignored. I knew Centennial to have a strong base in graphic design (their Anthills magazine was proof positive), and it convinced me that finding professional design help was a must. I love everything about the book, and have even given away a couple copies.
It was with Rebecca Schmejda’s Cadillac Men that I witnessed a giant artistic leap, convincing me that not only did she have laser-focused collections in her, but maybe a novel too. Rebecca asked me to do some cover art, and NYQ Books (associated with the poetic torch-bearing New York Quarterly) was nice enough to use my atmospheric (if slightly imperfect) work. The book, while traditionally produced, felt like a high-water mark at the time…with pro-level distribution and a proud feather in both Rebecca and my respective caps! The cast of characters is riveting, and the anger and compassion for each in turn is unblinking.
And last, the project that is most responsible for my approach to small press projects and productions, the project that destroyed Bill Roberts’ wrist — but was worth it! — as Buddha smiles by Charles Bukowski. Bill, and his then-new Bottle of Smoke Press, letter-pressed 20 individual baseball-card-sized broadsides of Bukowski poems who, in 2003, was a towering figure in the small press. Using a Kelsey 5”x 8” hand press, a mere 2000 impressions later this masterpiece was complete. Click through to scroll through each, and marvel at what a single artist is capable of when determined to do something gorgeous.
Not all of these books can still be found, but if you ever do happen on them, I certainly recommend giving them a shot. Maybe you’ll be inspired to dream bigger yourselves — but even if not, you’ll have some damn fine poems to revisit over and over.