NA: I’d love you to start by just giving a description of Etruscan Books.
PB: I know it sounds trite, but it's
difficult to describe the 40 books we've published or contracted to publish
since our beginning in 2001 because I love every one of them. I remember where
we first met; first grope, first kiss; when I first swooned. It's all so
sappy. I hide my blush behind the mission statement: "to nurture a
dialogue among genres." That works about as well as a cold shower.
But though I'm the last person to describe my love objects, I'll give it a shot:
They are engaged but not entangled in the world. They tell stories without plod. They offer lightning glimpses of a midnight landscape. They shake and stir. They yield more with each reading. They whisper to one another behind my back. I strive to learn from them and to learn them by heart.
NA: How did the press get its name?
PB: We did a lot of market research. Which means we called three or four buddies. Our first choice was Siena Press, in honor of Siena Oristaglio, our founding funder's daughter. But folks thought that we were linked to Siena College. Then we tried Tuscan Sun Press, to commemorate a trip to Tuscany that the Oristaglio's and I had taken many years ago. But that was about the time Frances Mayes published Under the Tuscan Sun.
Then our co-founder Bob Mooney pointed out that the Etruscans had settled Tuscany, and that in many ways the Etruscans' relation to the Roman Empire--underground, mysterious, somehow necessary even though powerless—reflected the role of the small press world in imperial America. Bob's good with stuff like that.
So for us, the question isn't where our name comes from, but whether we can live up to it.
NA: How is Etruscan different from other small literary presses?
PB: Not so different, we hope. We aspire to follow the example of presses we admire: BOA, Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Sarabande, Coffee House, New Directions, CavanKerry, Milkweed, and many others which have produced great books for the last thirty years or more. The small press world is burgeoning right now, filling needs—both aesthetic and economic—that aren't met by corporate publishers.
You know, Nin, I’ve been hanging out with a physicist—I won’t mention any names but his initials are Jim Andrews—and I gather from him that with strings and black holes and quasars and dark matter, cosmic scale is truly weird. Small press scale is wacky too: Immense effort is lavished on products of tiny consequence. The genius of the writing and the labor of bringing books into print are awe-inspiring, and yet most small press titles sell fewer copies than a teen has facebook friends. Now, this could frustrate, I suppose. But it makes me giddy as a charmed quark. I’m helping to produce something absolutely wonderful, something that very few people know about. We all sense that there’s something not quite right about the commercial equation between quality and popularity; but in the small press world, where merit is the only value, the infinitesimal can seem vast, in a weird way.
How is Etruscan different? Well, at ten years old we're a relatively new press, but because Mooney and I are...how shall I put this?--junior geezers?...we have a long history. We didn't begin as swashbucklers trying to publish impetuous younglings. We wanted to provide a platform for writing across traditional genres, writing with heart and seasoning. We wanted to feature work which emerged out of a sense that genre isn’t bound by a set of conventions but is instead a manifestation of a human impulse. There is an impulse to sing, an impulse to regale, an impulse to explain. Yes, genre solidifies into tradition. But the best work—the most new and most ancient—still thrums with that primal impulse. "Form in dread of power," as Emerson puts it. We were looking for work that carried the tradition but emerged from the source. So, we began by scanning our bookshelves, contacting some writers who for us had set that kind of example: Bruce Bond, H.L.Hix, and William Heyen. From them, came our next generation: Carol Moldaw, Jennifer Atkinson, Diane Thiel.
Something else that distinguishes us is our experience as teachers. We're an independent non-profit, but we partner with Youngstown State University and we're housed in the Wilkes University Low Residency Creative Writing Program, which has provided us with infrastructural support, moral support, and an opportunity to teach. Both Mooney and I are faculty members in the program, and twice a year I teach a week-long course on Literary Publishing. I offer versions of that course—both semester-long and one-credit—at YSU. Bob Mooney teaches at Washington College and both he and I have brought Etruscan authors to our campuses and our classrooms. At the invitation of Program Director Bonnie Culver, Etruscan authors serve on Wilkes Low-Res Advisory Board. YSU faculty and administration—as well as prominent Ohio literary folk like you, Nin—also serve on the Etruscan Advisory Board.
Integrating Etruscan into the Wilkes and YSU Creative
Writing Programs has been productive for the press and for the programs in so
many ways. Besides developing courses and offering student prizes and bringing
in visiting writers, we've had over thirty interns and graduate assistants
working for Etruscan. Interns have designed our books, brochures, and website.
They’ve developed outreach curricula and brought Etruscan books and authors to
local schools. Right now two Wilkes
GA’s, Starr Troup and Marissa
Phillips, are running the day-to-day marketing and production, developing
wholly new protocols while learning press operations from the ground up. So,
teaching and learning are central to our mission.
NA: How many books do you publish each year?
PB: We started publishing three books a year, but in 2007 when we began our partnership with Wilkes University, we amped it up to six titles a year. That’s about all we can handle, given our infrastructure.
NA: What made you
want to start a press of your own?
PB: Well, I could say, 'because we already had a band.' But the truth is that Etruscan was really a continuation of projects Mooney and I had worked on. We'd both edited journals: I worked with Dan Bourne on Artful Dodge and Bob took over Mss from John Gardner. And we both ran reading series. Steve Oristaglio was the catalyst: his business background and seed money tempted us to start an independent venture.
NA: What was the hardest part of starting a press?
PB: For most folks, the hardest part is money. The real heroes of small press publishing throw their own bucks on the table. They print in their basement, warehouse in the garage, sell out of their pickup trucks. Sounds like a country song, but these are real stories. Fortunately, with the Oristaglio seed money, we didn't have to go through that phase.
The other hard thing, of course is deciding what to publish. But we were relieved of this difficulty also. On September 12, 2001, Bill Heyen came to us with an idea to galvanize the first response of American Writers to the tragedy of 9/11. Over the next three months he solicited work by 127 American writers, including John Updike, Erica Jong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed, Lucille Clifton, and many other distinguished writers. The collection that ensued, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, was Etruscan's first release. It absorbed all our energies and gave us a standard to live up to.
For us, the hardest part of starting a press was the steep learning curve in business. B.E. (before Etruscan) budget meant rent-a-car and a pie chart was elderberry.
NA: How many unsolicited manuscripts do you receive each month?
don't receive that many unsolicited manuscripts over the transom. Maybe four
hundred a year. Since I read everything, we try to keep under the radar. We
don't advertise in Poets and Writers
or AWP Chronicle, and we charge a $20
reading fee. The result is that the writers who submit manuscripts to us have
already come into contact with Etruscan through our books; in general they are
veteran readers and writers. Many have distinguished publishing records, and
many others have won awards coming out of MFA programs. A large
percentage of the work that comes to us deserves publication. We also get quite
a few manuscripts by word of mouth--recommended by our authors or Advisory
NA: What kind of manuscript would you like to see more of? Less of?
grateful for and humbled by the number and quality of the manuscripts I see.
While I may not be able to publish them, I still profit from having a birds-eye
view of the literary landscape. Reading manuscripts as an editor is very
different from reading them as a professor, where your job is to nurture and
instruct, or as a reader, where you can appreciate and be instructed.
I've learned a lot from the experience. I've learned for instance, that I don't belong to a school. I respond to neo-formalist and post-structuralist poetry, non-narrative and plot-driven prose. Something indefinable in the diction, syntax, voice, structure, authority or tone of a work gets my attention. The response is visceral. I'm drawn in, and soon I've shifted from the posture of editor, pencil twitching in the corner of my mouth, to reader, delighting in the next surprise. You can feel it in the first lines or sentences. It's a pulse, an electric charge—an awareness of form and dimension, perhaps; an awareness of play. No matter how serious and dark the subject matter, certain works emit light: "gaiety" in the old sense of the word. As Yeats has it, "All things fall and are built again/ And those that build them again are gay."
So, as the conductor says tapping his baton, "More brilliance, please."
NA: What is the biggest challenge to keeping a small press alive?
PB: Some challenges we share with all independent presses;
others are particular to Etruscan. Non-profit houses featuring poetry and
literary prose generally make less than half their revenue from sales. So
generating income from grants and donation from year to year is everyone's
biggest challenge, especially in this economic climate.
Etruscan faces challenges in that we aren't located in a single community: Etruscans work in Boston, Chestertown, Wilkes-Barre, Youngstown, New York, Houston, and Minnesota. Just mapquesting is a challenge, and running an integrated publishing program with so many disparate locales requires planning, patience, and a lot of road trips.
After ten years, my biggest challenge is trying to balance my work with Etruscan with my other full time commitments to teaching, running the YSU Poetry Center, and writing.
NA: What advice would you give to a writer sending off his or her unsolicited manuscript to Etruscan?
PB: There’s the usual stuff: Read our books. Follow the guidelines. Send only one book at a time, even—or especially—if you have three in your drawer.
But I have some questions I think anyone submitting their work to a publisher should consider.
Why do you want to publish your book? Is this your best work or just your latest? Is this a vision or just a collection? How close are your neighbors (that is, books like yours) and how well do you know them? Is your book one of the best you’ve read this year? Has anyone published sections of it? Has anyone besides a relative posted your work on a blog, in a letter, or on a refrigerator door? Has anyone learned it by heart? Have you?
Finally, why should I want to publish your book? Taking on a book project is an enormous commitment. There’s the questionnaire and contract and editing and design (cover and interior) and proofing and pre-sales and sales kits and sales conferences and blurbs and review requests and reading requests and jacket copy and contests and ISBN and PCIP and AWP. And after all this, money will be lost. The only sustenance through the process is love for the book and belief that others need to read it. So, friend, is your book worth all that?
NA: What are the highest moments of Etruscan’s publishing history?
PB: There have been wonderful public moments: our first National Book Award Finals for William Heyen’s Shoah Train in 2004. I had just met Elsa, my future wife, and our first date was the NBA finals in the Manhattan Marriot, with red carpets, celebs, etc.... And our encore at the NBA with H.L.Hix's Chromatic in 2006.
We didn't win either time but we had the most fun.
Another high point was getting a phone call out of the blue saying, “Chairman Gioia is on the line.” Dana Gioia was calling to offer us a Chairman’s Action Grant. And he did it again the following year—two of four NEA grants. It’s cool to know that people were noticing.
NA: What achievements are you most proud of? (Feel free to give links to reviews or articles about the press and its authors).
Certainly our first book, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, contributed to an important national dialogue.
We’re proud to have published the last books and crowning achievements of three wonderful writers who’ve passed on: Milton Kessler, Frederick Karl, and Sheila Schwartz.
And we’re proud of supporting emerging writers like J.D.Schraffenberger, Michael Lind, Thorpe Moeckel, Peter Grandbois, and Scott Coffel, whose Toucans in the Arctic recently won the Poetry Society of America’s First Book Prize.
Really, it’s a thrill to tear open the first box, scatter the peanuts, and hold that fresh book in your hands. And sharing a new book with friends, audiences, and students is an enormous pleasure.
Maybe the biggest reward has been working with the people who’ve made Etruscan over the past ten years. There are old friends Bob Mooney, Steve Oristaglio, Bonnie Culver and Robert Lunday. There’s Bill Heyen in the months following 9/11, editing a new kind of book with astonishing speed and care. There’s Steve Reese learning Spanish from tapes and flash cards in order to translate the work of Roberto Manzano. Or Harvey Hix sending out five hundred hand-written notes with each of his new releases. There’s Carol Moldaw and Paul Lisicky getting involved by contracting their own designers, and Dana Gioia flying to Youngstown to deliver a keynote lecture, and Tara Caimi and Mike Ress, two students who put in enormous effort and time designing Etruscan books, and Tom Woll and Jean Casella who gave us the benefit of their long experience. And Starr Troup and Marissa Phillips who’ve revamped and revitalized our operations while living in apartments over the office.
Our greatest achievement? “Say my glory was I had such friends.”
NA: How has being an editor of a press changed your own writing, editing and submitting process?
In some ways, being an editor is inimical to being a poet. A poet starts with nothing; an editor starts with too much. A poet gestures; an editor points. A poet composes and is composed; an editor, dissembling, disassembles.
I try to maintain balance. When the lines blur, I write prose.
NA: Can you tell me about the books that are forthcoming this year? Provide some links to interviews, reviews?
PB: Here’s the list of next three seasons.
The Casanova Chronicles and Other Poems by Myrna Stone
Venison, A Poem by Thorpe Moeckel
So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems by Carol Moldaw
Coronology, Poems by Claire Bateman
Nahoonkara, a novel by Peter Grandbois
The Gambler’s Nephew, a novel by Jack Matthews
The Burning House, a novel by Paul Lisicky
NA: A lot of presses complain about Amazon.com while others are happy that it is there and see it as their distributor. Does Amazon help or hurt a small press like Etruscan?
PB: Because Etruscan books are distributed by Consortium, a premier independent distributor which represents over 100 independent presses, our books are available in all the chain stores, in libraries, and on-line stores including Amazon. So we don’t deal directly with Amazon, and we get a group rate.
But for most of the 80,000 independent presses in the U.S., Amazon presents a conundrum. On the plus side, they provide a platform. If you can use In-Design, you can publish a book and promote it on “Amazon Advantage”—the channel through which independent presses feed Amazon. However, you’ll have to fill each order by post, and you won’t make money, as the cost of making and sending the book more or less equals what they pay. More than that, having a book on Amazon doesn’t quite equal what we might consider, by any common definition, publication. For instance, check out the Amazon Bestsellers Rank on any book page. They’re in the millions. So a book might be the 5,234,000th best seller. If you really want to have fun, order a copy of that book and come back to the page a week later. With one sale this book will have risen over a million places, which means that all these books exist only as web pages. No one ever buys them.
Personally, I’m happy that this book archive exists. Like Jim says, cosmic scale is weird.
Nin Andrews’ poems and stories have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies including Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry (1997, 2001, 2003), and Great American Prose Poems. She won an individual artist grant from the Ohio Arts Council in 1997 and again in 2003. She is the author of several books, including Spontaneous Breasts (1998), winner of the Pearl Chapbook Contest; Any Kind of Excuse (2003), winner of the Kent State University chapbook contest; The Book of Orgasms (Cleveland State University Press, 2000); The Book of Orgasms and Other Tales published in England by Bloodaxe Books (2003); Sleeping with Houdini (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008); Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane (Web del Sol, 2005); Dear Professor: Do You Live in a Vacuum? (2008); and Why They Grow Wings (2001), published by Silverfish Press and winner of the Gerald Cable award.
She is also the editor of a book of translations of the French poet Henri Michaux entitled Someone Wants to Steal My Name from Cleveland State University Press (2003).
Co-founder and Executive Director of Etruscan Press, Philip Brady’s most recent books are By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard (University of Tennessee Press, 2008), winner of the 2009 Essay Book of the Year Award from Foreword Magazine, and Fathom, a collection of poems (Word Press, 2007).
His memoir, To Prove My Blood: A Tale of Emigrations & the Afterlife appeared in Ashland Poetry Press in 2003, and Weal (Ashland Poetry Press, 2000) was the 1999 winner of the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press. Maxine Kumin chose his first book, Forged Correspondences (New Myths, 1996), for Ploughshares Editors’ Shelf. Brady also co-edited, with James F. Carens, Critical Essays on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Twayne Publishers, 1998).
He has won an Ohioana Poetry Award, five Ohio Arts Council Individual Artists Awards, Thayer and Newhouse Fellowships from New York State, and residencies at Yaddo, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, the Hambidge Center,the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and the Soros Centre for the Arts in the Czech Republic. Brady has taught at the National University of Zaire, University College Cork, and on Semester at Sea.
Brady is a professor of English at Youngstown
where he directs the YSU
and plays in the New-Celtic band, Brady’s Leap. He also serves on the low-residency
MFA faculty of Wilkes