NA Tell me about Many Voices Press. Where is it located? What kind of work are you looking for? How many books do you publish each year?
LJ Many Voices Press was founded in 2005. We are a non-profit small press located on the campus of Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana – a snowball’s throw from Glacier National Park. Details concerning our press and our publications can be found at manyvoicespress.fvcc.edu. I teach creative writing and journalism at FVCC, and basically my small office at the college doubles as the world headquarters for Many Voices Press, which is to say that on many occasions it’s difficult to find a place in this office to sit down. We are staffed entirely by non-paid volunteers, including myself as Editor; Hannah Bissell, our Assistant Editor; and an ever changing host of enthusiastic young writers who pass through this two-year college en route to bigger and better opportunities in the wide world beyond our valley.
Our mission is public service; our guiding vision is to be of service to Montana poets, especially Native American poets, though our most recent anthology, New Poets of the American West, reaches out to poets across the West. It’s difficult for poets in rural places to connect with appreciative audiences and the larger literary community. We aim to help rural poets make connections. Simply put, there’s a lot of talent in rural places that goes unnoticed. Also we are in the business of expanding audiences for poetry. We are proud to say that New Poets of the American West generated over 50 literary readings/events across the West, including readings at some of the West’s most prominent independent bookstores such as Elliot Bay Books (Seattle), Fact and Fiction (Missoula), The Tattered Cover (Denver), Beyond Baroque (Los Angeles), Sundance Books (Reno), Collected Works (Santa Fe), Broadway Books (Portland), and Tsunami Books (Eugene).
We have received several small grants, including a “Book Subvention Grant” from Humanities Montana, for which we are ever grateful. Having said that, the money it takes to print our books comes mostly from the generosity of people who donate cash--five, ten, twenty dollars at a time. It’s been a heartwarming experience for me to see how many people are willing to give to a good non-profit cause. Book sales are our second largest source of funding, though anyone who has ever run a small press knows how difficult it can be to market what you print. Large distributors ignore most small presses, especially if you’re trying to sell them books of poems. In sum, money is always a problem, but we manage to go on doing what we do because it brings us and others some joy.
Another point of pride for our press is our commitment to the diversity of languages in the West. New Poets of the American West includes poems in Spanish as well as poems in Dakota, Navajo, Assiniboine, and Salish. Victor Charlo’s book, Good Enough, includes poems in Salish; Lois Red Elk’s book, Our Blood Remembers, includes poems in Dakota as well as a glossary of Dakota words and phrases. There are many voices in rural places, and Many Voices Press wishes to honor them all.
To date, we’ve published:
Poems Across the Big Sky (2007) – an anthology of 120 Montana poets
Good Enough by Victor A. Charlo, (2008) spiritual leader of the Flathead Salish
And Freddie Was My Darling by CB Follett (2009)
All My Relations by J.D. Whitney (2010)
New Poets of the American West (2010) – and anthology of 260 poets from 11 states.
Our Blood Remembers by Lois Red Elk (2011) Lakota elder
NA How do you find the writers you publish? Or how do they find you?
LJ For both of our anthology projects, we sent a zillion emails to individual poets, poetry orgs, writing programs, etc. We can’t afford the hundreds of dollars it costs to advertise in places like Poets and Writers or in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle. Emails are free, and we’ve learned that writers talk with other writers. If you ask writers to spread the word of a publishing opportunity to fellow writers, it will happen.
Arts councils in various states were helpful to varying degrees. Montana, Nevada, and Utah Arts Councils were especially willing to work with us. Some arts councils seem to have no one home, no matter how many times you try to email or phone. Most arts councils have a newsletter which includes calls for submissions.
We’ve been a bit slow at developing a website, mostly because the old fart who serves as Editor still relies on teenagers to tell him which buttons to push. The Directory of Poets on-line from Poets and Writers was also useful, though much of their info seems to be out of date.
The four books we’ve published by individual poets were all by invitation. Sales of our anthologies, enabled us to afford the expense of printing other books. Two of our individual poets were able to subsidize printing costs by purchasing quantities of their book prior to publication. I suppose that’s a somewhat controversial arrangement. I’m in favor of anything it takes to get good poems out to appreciative readers. All our poets help with book sales by participating in book fairs, library reading series, and lots of other marketing experiments. Our two books by individual Native American poets have sold enough to pay for themselves. Vic Charlo is a valued member of a very large group of relatives, so all the Flathead Salish on earth own a copy his book. Good all around.
We cannot read unsolicited manuscripts at this time. We’ve all heard that before, haven’t we?
NA. A question I always want to ask the poets who become editors and publishers of poetry books: why do you choose to publish poetry books, knowing what you know about the limited audience for these books?
LJ I have a friend back in Wisconsin where I was born who painted his house green and yellow – Green Bay Packer colors. Why do people do things like that? I suspect it’s the same reason people start small poetry magazines and presses. It’s more a heartfelt choice than a logical one. You, me, and others have a passion for poems, and we do what we can to keep the practice and appreciation of poetry alive. William Stafford, one of my best teachers, talked about his helpless attraction to the “forlorn cause.” Poetry is certainly a forlorn cause. We are hopelessly attracted to that cause. Poetry has brought me disappointments, but I don’t think it’s ever brought me sorrow. Certainly it’s brought me joy. Every morning I look forward to hearing the next poem on Writer’s Almanac. I’m always on the lookout for a next favorite poet, someone who will thrill me with a new way of speaking, a new way at looking at the world. Why not?
I authored the intro essay to Poems Across the Big Sky in which I confessed that I’d founded Many Voices Press because I’d been moved by a dream. It’s not the sort of talk a therapist wants to hear. To make a long story short, I’ll give an excerpt from that intro essay:
One late afternoon after teaching freshman comp and creative writing at Flathead Valley Community College for nearly twenty-five years—fifteen credits a semester for fifty semesters!—I hunched blurry-eyed under the lamp, scratching red ink on student essays. I stretched back in my chair, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and kicked lightly under my desk, the toe of my boot tapping a slow rhythm against three cardboard boxes that had been haunting me for years. I’d inherited, one by one, the life’s work of three poets. Three of my best students. Now dead and gone. Hundreds of poems in each box, entrusted to me by relatives who had no clue where else to go with all these strange scribblings left behind.
I had no clue where to go with them either. Seemed like a terrible sadness I pushed here and piled there until they came to rest at my feet, and I tried to forget. Now, leaning back in my chair, I thought about what would happen to each of these boxes if I slid on the ice and drove off a cliff into the lake on my way home. The janitors would likely stack them on a dolly and wheel them to the dumpsters. I looked at my own poems tacked to the walls, and stared at rows of file folders and notebooks. My life’s work. Enough paper for a fourth box under the desk. A short span of days after they fished me out of the frigid waters, the same conscientious cleaner-uppers would unceremoniously dispose of all my words in the same dumpster. Ashes to ashes, etc. This valley in winter can stay overcast for weeks. There’s good reason my neighbors flee southward when the winds turn cold. I wasn’t having a pleasant afternoon.
Here is the history of how this anthology came to light. I’ve thought about not telling the truth, because I know skeptics will snicker at what I’m about to say. I didn’t want my three dead friends to suffer that sort of mockery. Still, to be silent with what I have to tell is too much compromise, another sort of mockery. The idea for this anthology came to me in a dream. There, I’ve said it. I went to bed thinking about those three archived lives entrusted to me and fell asleep feeling a bit hopeless. I had a very powerful dream. The kind you wake up and you can’t remember details, but you feel in your gut something important happened during the night. I dreamt of my three poets. I don’t know how events of the dream transpired, but I know we talked, and when my alarm went off that morning, I felt resolved. I knew what I had to do . . . .
To get the full story you have to read the entire essay, but that’s the gist of it. There’s another point I should make: I founded Many Voices Press as a personal outlet by which I could in some small way do a public service. I’m no good in nursing homes or United Way funding campaigns. Q: What service could I do for the public good? A: Give fellow struggling poets a boost.
Lest I sound too altruistic, founding Many Voices Press also gave me a great boost, a great education. I learned a lot of computer skills and connected with a lot of new poetry acquaintances across the country. Over the three years in making, New Poets of the American West, I read twelve thousand poems (12 poems each from 1000 submissions). I learned there are a lot of fine poets out there I’d never heard of. I also read a lot of failed poems, and from these I learned a lot about editing my own work, and about what turns a reader on and what turns a reader off.
NA. When we read together with several other poets in Paterson, New Jersey in April, you talked about how much you liked the poets who read because they were accessible, sincere, and autobiographical. Could you elaborate on that?
LJ I like poems made from the nuts and bolts of the real world. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. I am fond of narrative. Words are important, certainly, but “action speaks louder than words” – so I like poems in which people are interacting with each other or with the world around us. And I like poems that come out of common experience, ordinary lives. Aren’t we all curious to know how it goes for others? Aren’t we all ridiculous and deliciously complex? I like poems as portraits, snapshots, home movies. BUT – like a good photograph, I like poems which illuminate the ordinary in some extraordinary way. As a reader that’s what I most enjoy.
NA. I’d love to hear a little about your own writing and editing life. Is it helpful to do both? In other words, does editing inspire your writing? What projects are you currently working on?
LJ Currently MVP is putting together a book of poems by an Assiniboine elder, Minerva Allen. Should be a fun, quirky collection of poems.
To me as a poet, yes, it’s helpful to also be an editor and teacher. I teach poetry workshops each Monday of every semester, and I write the assignments each week and bring my work to class just like my students. I make myself do the homework I assign, and after a couple years the homework adds up to full collections of poems. As I mentioned earlier, especially editing the anthologies has been a great education. I’m a better writer, I think, because I’ve read so many poems; I’ve seen where failed poems fail and where wonderful poems turn wonderful. I like the idea that a poet should be engaged in the world, neck deep in the dirty work of making a life.
NA Could you give us a poem from a poet you have published recently and that you particularly admire?
LJ I give you the poem “Porcupine on the Highway” by Lois Red Elk. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a poem quite like this. This poem speaks tons to the contemporary reality of Dakota life in northeastern Montana. And I love the humor.
Porcupine On The Highway
Amos: They said sister is stranded on the highway.
Her car is about 10 miles east of town.
Sister: I might as well pick up this porcupine or
it’ll be smashed by tonight.
Porcupine: I give my body to a quill worker,
and laugh at magpie on the fence.
Amos: Mom, I’m taking Myrna to help sister.
Her car quit and I might have to tow her in.
Sister: Oh, it’s a big one and the quills
aren’t damaged. It’s got long hair, too.
Porcupine: Clouds are fading. Earth is cooling.
Grass is calling me home.
Amos: There she is. She put something in her trunk.
It looks like a big old porcupine.
Sister: This sure is a mess. I should skin it here.
All the cats will be coming into the yard.
Porcupine: They used to read my bones, study my
entrails for health and weather.
Amos: What happened? Did you break down?
Don’t tell me, you’re scavenging road kill?
Sister: Yeh, both! All of a sudden this thing
stalled, then I saw this huge porcupine.
Porcupine: They say our voice sounds like a
whimpering child. People gather.
Amos: Pull your hood latch. You’re cable was loose.
Take it home and skin it. We’ll follow you.
Sister: I’ll make Myrna a quilled bracelet and
brother some armbands. Surprise them.
Porcupine: She’ll remember later that last week she
dreamed about a big porcupine on the highway.
U.S. Highway 2, Eastern Montana between Wolf Point and Poplar, MT.
© Lois Red Elk
Lowell Jaeger teaches creative writing at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana. He is author of four collections of poems: War On War (Utah State University Press, 1988), Hope Against Hope (Utah State University Press 1990), Suddenly Out of a Long Sleep (Arctos Press, 2009), and WE (Main Street Rag Publishing, 2010). He is founding editor of Many Voices Press and recently edited New Poets of the American West, an anthology of poets from western states. He previously edited an anthology of Montana poets, Poems Across the Big Sky. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council. He lives in Yellow Bay, Montana on Flathead Lake.
Most recently, Lowell was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work with the Project on Civic Reflection (Valparaiso University) since 2004, serving as a national trainer, teaching others to lead discussion sessions. In Montana, he leads discussions with AmeriCorp and VISTA volunteers serving Montana Conservation Corps and Montana Campus Corps. His essay about leading discussions with Montana Conservation Corps—"Picks, Pulaskis, and Poems"—was included in the "United We Serve" website for the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.