KS: The Word Works is located in Washington, D.C. how does that change things from if you were in, say, Mount Happy, Ohio?
KA: I believe there were advantages to The Word Works in its early days of the middle 1970s in being located in DC. Our founding president Deirdra Baldwin had face-to-face access with people who knew the inside stories on how to get nonprofit status and National Endowment for the Arts grants. We also could go down to the Library of Congress and talk to the Consultants in Poetry (this was the title before we had Poet Laureate). We hung out with poets such as William Meredith and Maxine Kumin.
We were original supporting members of The Writers Center, a Maryland organization that helped with the printing and sales of small press books. We were members of a group at the Folger Shakespeare Library that helped coordinate poetry programs so we wouldn’t all be giving competing readings on the same night. One of board members Jim Beall got permission from the National Park Service back in 1975 to conduct poetry programs at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park and annually since that year we have been mounting programs in Miller’s name. For 35 years, those programs were mostly outdoors. We believe we are the only literary organization with such a relationship with a federal department and certainly the longest running outdoor poetry program. I personally think this was only possible because we had savvy help from DC insiders who could run interference when we got into trouble with conservative government officials. For example, we had a guerrilla theater group led by Kirby Malone doing what he called silent poetry and passersby reported us to the park rangers thinking there were some kind of marauders taking over picnic grove #6 where the Miller Cabin stands. (This was way before people talked about terrorists.) Kirby is now active in New York theater and opera.
We also had access to poets with prominent accomplishments, publishing Edward Weismiller (a Yale Younger Poet who became a George Washington University professor) – his Word Works book: The Branch of Fire. Also a long list of prominent names in The Unicorn and the Garden edited by Betty Parry: Robert Bly, Chinua Achebe, Sterling Brown, Lucille Clifton, Allen Ginsburg, Josephine Jacobsen, Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Kizer, Linda Pastan, Muriel Rukeyser, and others. We sponsored work that Betty Parry did to archive stories from DC’s black intellectual community that included poets Sterling Brown and May Miller Sullivan, but it also address other African Americans in other disciplines like architecture. With Jim Beall’s grant-writing expertise, we got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which resulted in a colloquium at the Folger Shakespeare Library. To a certain degree, we built ties with the publishing scene in New York. Some of our authors, including me, had books at the independent Gotham bookstore.
Perhaps we were wrong in thinking that the main cities to pay attention to for literary events were New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. New York had the big publishing houses, Poets & Writers (we used them to promote our Washington Prize), and critical mass for where the people with big names lived and worked. DC had the Library of Congress and its Poetry Consultants who had a regular schedule of programs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities (we got grants from the NEH also), and people who were smart and connected were also friendlier in DC versus NYC. San Francisco was the seat of the old radical fringe – Beatniks and Hippies.
And we also from the beginning thought about reaching beyond the limits of the U.S. Our group often talked about Paris in the Twenties, American expats, and doing bilingual editions. I think our geography played into that kind of thinking. When the Internet became accessible to ordinary folks, I was on it in 1994 putting up a web page for our activities and books. Now, we can be located anywhere and we are. Our current president Nancy White lives in Cambridge, New York, and to me that’s on a par with say, Mount Happy, Ohio!
KS: Tell us about your submission process and publication schedule.
KA: Our main intake of book-length manuscripts occurs early each year when we call for entries to our Washington Prize. A couple of years ago we started using software to allow us to take electronic submissions. Our readers working in three levels are all published poets. In round one, manuscripts are read blind by only one reader. Each reader passes up as many as five manuscripts to our second readers where again only one person reads the manuscript. Our second readers are veterans in the world of poetry and often have been published by TWW. Final judges number five people and include a majority of TWW board members. However, we make it a point that our fifth judge is always someone different from the year before because we want a new perspective entering the hours long judging process. An advantage of using five judges is that if one of the judges recognizes a manuscript and knows the author, that judge can be recused from the final decision.
Usually we get ten to twelve manuscripts as finalists and all five judges read all these manuscripts. In the last five years, we have been going on retreat in July to a house in New Hampshire to do this judging. While the judges come with a ranked list of their favorite manuscripts, the discussion often modifies everyone’s choice and we work hard for consensus.
We call the winner from this meeting to see if the manuscript is still available and the poet wants to accept our prize of $1500, book publication, and distribution to all entrants. Nancy White then works with the poet on editing the manuscript and getting the book into production with our book design artist. Our goal is to publish the book in January because it helps promote the next Washington Prize call.
The Washington Prize began as a single poem contest in 1981 where we awarded the winner $1000 and publication of the poem as a full-page ad in Poets & Writers magazine. We have been publishing Washington Prize books annually since 1987.
Annually we also take book-length manuscripts from Word Works volunteers. In the last several years, a third-party judge has solely read these invited manuscripts. Nancy White instituted numerous changes in this selection and publishing process. This year Cornelius Eady is reading our Hilary Tham Capital Collection manuscripts as we call this imprint of these books. Hilary Tham was the first Capital Collection author in 1989 with her book Bad Names for Women. Later she became a board member and did much to revitalize the imprint, which was only publishing books sporadically. We have published 25 books in the HTCC and in some years we have published more than one book.
We also have a third imprint called International Editions and this is also by invitation. This year we published Barbara Goldberg’s translation of Moshe Dor’s Scorched by the Sun. The Israeli government has awarded this book a translation prize. Dor is an Israeli poet of national prominence who is editor, along with Barbara Goldberg, of TWW anthology The Stones Remember, a collection of translated Israeli poetry by many different authors who depict the physical land of Israel. TWW received a Witter Bynner grant for the publication of Stones.
Barbara Goldberg was our first winner of The Washington Prize and later TWW published her linked poems Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the Short: A Merovingian Romance. This book was a co-publication with the Canadian Press Porcupine’s Quill and the book was filled with high-quality reproductions of woodblock prints by artist Rosemary Covey.
Another International Editions we are particularly proud of is Crow’s Eye View: The Infamy of Lee Sang Korean Poet as translated by Myong-Hee Kim and with reproductions of water color paintings inspired by this work from fine artist Janice Olson who also has designed many of our books.
Part of our process is to use contemporary art for most of our book covers. So typically we are paying attention to reproducibility of images picked. Typically we do our annual catalog in early fall because by that time we know what books we are publishing for the next year.
KS: What trends have you seen over time, regarding writers, manuscripts, readers, book sales?
KA: Poetry is a rarefied market in the book industry. Those who love it are always looking for good authors to read. Because The Word Works has been publishing since 1975, we have learned a lot about how to keep folks interested. What’s important is to have a community of people around the publication of any book. This not only means readers (whether they are family or friends of the author as well as readers known and unknown to TWW) but also a working visual artist who contributes to the front cover, an outstanding book designer who carefully considers the problems of laying out poetry, and a set of editors at various levels.
Since Nancy White got involved with the book publication end of TWW, we have seen a burst of new audience. Under Nancy’s leadership, we have joined the CLMP and gotten their endorsement; this means, for example, we are running an honest Washington Prize competition—not picking out our friends for the award. We always ran an above-board contest except we didn’t have this endorsement. We also got picked up by Small Press Distribution and have made their top-selling booklists of the month. When we started using Lightning Source, a print-on-demand service hooked up to Ingram and Amazon, we made life a little easier. We aren’t as satisfied with the paper quality but the overall printing isn’t bad and we have stopped amassing boxes of books we can’t move efficiently. We are now making it regular practice to go to the AWP Bookfair and we actually are able to move about 200 books there as well as promote the Washington Prize and some of our other programs. Two years ago, we started using an electronic submissions manager and that has brought us younger writers. We knew about these options for some years but having a new energetic leader has helped us move our experience into place with all these services.
I think manuscripts are generally much more professionally delivered to us than in the past but also we learned to limit to whom we advertised. We choose Poets & Writers as always (The Washington Prize was originally a single poem contest that got the winner’s poem published in a full-page ad in Poets & Writers magazine) but we also know that Writer’s Digest brings in entries that are from hobbyists. In the beginning, we didn’t see so many manuscripts from graduate students and those holding MFA degrees. We have never been academically oriented but we really like the quality we are seeing in the last 5-10 years and part of that is our advertising in the AWP Chronicle. If there is any trend that we have to pay attention to, it is that there is more competition for manuscripts because there are more contests.
As to trends in manuscripts, we are seeing more cross-genre works, which we like, and better integrated collections often on one theme, something we have always encouraged. Our enthusiasm for contemporary poetry continues to increase and it’s hard to make people believe that we aren’t jaded after all these years. I think this is because we believe in having fun while we work hard and we welcome newcomers to join us.
KS: What emerging poets have made an impression on you?
KA: Number one on my list is Dora Malech. Her second book Say So from Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2011) knocked my socks off. In 1999, she was winner of The Word Works Young Poet Competition (now known as the Jacklyn Potter Young Poet Competition), an annual prize awarded to two high school students who then are invited to read in our Joaquin Miller Poetry Series.
I conceived the high school poetry prize in 1988 to encourage young writers. The Miller Series has heard some remarkable voices including this year’s winners Zachary Fine & Ariana Yeatts-Lonske. We never know which of these young writers will continue to write and then publish but we have periodically tried to find out how our Young Poet winners are doing with their writing careers.
Every summer through the Miller Poetry Series, we hear a mix of experienced and emerging poets. For example, this year we heard Alyse Knorr; while she has a lengthy resume, she has not yet published her first book. Based on what I heard and her long list of poetry publication both in print and online, I would say she is not far removed from her first book.
KS: What advice would you give to a poet who is constructing a first book manuscript?
KA: The Word Works published Winners: A Retrospective of the Washington Prize to answer such a question. The preface of Winners, written by the late Hilary Tham who was Word Works editor-in-chief for many years, is titled “On the Process of Creating a Winning Manuscript.” Her first rule is to open with a “reader-considerate” poem that creates trust. Therefore, nothing too long or complicated. The object is to allow the reader a way to enter the work and learn the poet’s voice without trying to over impress.
In January 2013, Margo Stever (one of the five working Word Works board members) and I will be doing public sessions in California on how to get a poetry manuscript published. I will talk about what we look for when we judge the annual Washington Prize competition. Margo, who is also the founding editor of Slapering Hol Press, will talk about what she looks for in judging the Slapering Hol chapbook contest.
The Word Works is open to all subjects and forms from free verse and prose poetry to formalism (sonnets, ghazals, author-created forms, etc), but is more likely to choose work that addresses the human condition. What we often lean toward is work that flows around a set of related themes. We like page-turners and we have seen them in various formats from John Bradley’s Love-in-Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello (about a fictitious post-WWII poet) to the zany mixed-bag (both in subject and form) How to Make a Bird with Two Hands by our 2011 winner Mike White.
So the bottom line is strong poems need to open and close a winning manuscript but the opening must not be too complex or long. How the books flows from poem to poem contributes to readability. Personally I find in creating my own manuscripts that sometimes I have to write a few new poems to fill certain gaps in that flow. Needless to say but one must not overlook the mechanics of writing (spelling, grammar, proof-reading, etc.) and the professionalism of presentation (standard paper, fonts, neatness and no artwork ever unless asked).
KS: How will you keep The Word Works moving into the future?
KA: This is a question that of great concern to me for some years. The Word Works has been publishing and presenting public programs since 1975. I would like this organization to continue so I want much younger poets on our board. Currently Joshua Gray is on our working board and he is interested in improving our website and helping us create electronic books. We love the idea of putting back into circulation books that are currently out-of-print as a way to enter and test this sector of publishing.
Recently Josh and his family moved to India. While we do work geographically dispersed, we still want, every once in while, for our board members to meet corporally meaning in the flesh. We had hoped to do exactly that in the summer of 2012 but a month before Word Works board members gathered in New Hampshire, Josh was flying to his new home in India. We plan to keep Josh as a working officer but we hope to find someone in the United States and preferably on the East Coast to join our board. So moving into the future depends on younger board members as our first steps of long-term strategy.
Karren LaLonde Alenier has been working on behalf of American poets for over 30 years. Her entrepreneurial zest has seen the creation of the Joaquin Miller Cabin Poetry Series, the Café Muse Literary Salon, the Arts Retreat in Tuscany Italy, Master Class Workshops including her recent Inspired by Gertrude Stein program at the Stanford in Washington Arts Gallery, and the Jacklyn Potter Young Poets Competition. She is author of six collections of poetry including her latest On a Bed of Gardenias: Jane & Paul Bowles (OH: Kattywompus Press, 2012), which serves as the basis for How Many Midnights, her opera project with composer John Supko. Find more information about Karren here.
Karen Schubert is the recipient of a 2012 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in poetry. Her poems, interviews and essays appear or are forthcoming in The Review Review, riverbabble, AGNI Online, Knockout Literary Magazine, Artful Dodge and others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks: Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus) and The Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House). She runs a cash mob in Youngstown, Ohio.