NA: When I think of the University of Pittsburgh Press’s poetry series, I think of the name, Ed Ochester. How long have you been with the press?
EO:I became the poetry editor at Pittsburgh in 1978 when the first editor, Paul Zimmer, took a job as director of the University of Georgia Press.
NA: How has the press evolved under your direction?
EO: In the early days of the Series, sales were slim. We published only a few books a year, and we depended on external subsidies (NEA, PA Council on the Arts, etc). One of the first things I did as editor was increase the number of women published (for many years now about half of our list has been women), and the number of racial, ethnic and sexual minorities. These things were NOT done by quotas, but by increasing the pool of submitted mss. The aim was to make the list look more like America, and not just my friends from New York and Boston.
For the past dozen years or so we have not required external grants--though of course we're happy to get whatever additional funding we can to improve the work we do for our authors--and we have increased the number of books we do each year to twelve. These include our Starrett Prize first book prizewinners, the Donald Hall winners from the AWP competition, and--every third year--the winner of the Cave Canem competition.
NA: The University of Pittsburgh Press is one of the preeminent publishers of American poetry, publishing the likes of Denise Duhamel, Lee Young Li, Richard Blanco, Billy Collins and so many others. Do great poets come to you, or do you seek them out? I just read Denise Duhamel’s latest book, BLOWOUT, and loved it. Is this her second or third book with U. Pitt?
EO: We don't publish Li-Young Lee, unfortunately, but he is a former student of mine. Most of our "famous" poets got that way after publishing with us--Larry Levis, Ted Kooser, Sharon Olds, Billy Collins, Richard Blanco, Denise Duhamel, Alicia Ostriker, David Wojahn, and many others. Some others, among them Martha Collins and Etheridge Knight, came to us after their reputations were established.
I like all of our poets, of course, but Denise is one of my favorite people. I've known her and her work for many years, and rather belatedly, at a cold & windy AWP annual meeting in Albany, asked her to send us a manuscript -I know it was "cold & windy" because I had lured her outside for a smoke and business talk. We've published four books of hers now, including a "Selected."
NA: When you are publishing established poets, do you hesitate to edit their manuscripts?
EO: I've been in the lucky position for some years now of not having to do major work on mss. accepted for publication--they're just that good. Since our culture says "be in the public eye as much as possible" I fairly often get incomplete mss. from very good poets. When I do, I'll usually write a detailed letter or have a conversation with the poet about my reservations.
But, you know, nobody's perfect--everybody has blind spots. Even in the best mss. I read there's usually a poem or two, or a few lines, which are surprisingly awful, and I take pride in spotting those. I have a lot of faith in our authors, and I don't think I'm an annoying nitpicker but, as I say, everybody has a few blind spots and needs an editor for those.
NA: How often will you publish a book by one of your poets? In other words, assume a certain poet could write a good book a year. Would you publish them all? Or is there a two or three year cycle?
EO: My experience suggests that if a poet publishes more than one full-length book in three years, the audience per book gets smaller--because the two books will cannibalize each other's potential sales and reviews. And, come on, how many really good poets can produce a really good new book in less than three years? I know there are plenty of people who THINK they can. Sometimes, though, when a poet is in a hot phase, it does happen.
NA: What is the University of Pittsburgh Press aesthetic?
EO: The only "University of Pittsburgh Press aesthetic" for poetry is a pretty old one: every good poet is unique, and the editor's job is to recognize quality that doesn't look exactly like something published before. That's why, when people ask me "what are you looking for?", I tend to answer "I'm looking for what I haven't seen before." That's infuriating, of course, because it doesn't suggest a formula. It does suggest that I'm not very much interested in "schools" (a word which always reminds me of the way that minnows get around). And, like my betters Theodore Roethke and Richard Hugo, "I generate little enthusiasm for what passes as experimentation and should more properly be called fucking around" ("The Triggering Town"). I AM very proud of our diversification in terms of style and content, and that various people have declared in print that they can't figure out what the hell it is we're up to!!
NA: How do you select your new books? And how many new poetry books does The University of Pittsburgh Press publish each year?
EO: We have separate reading periods for first books and books by published authors (for more specifics, please see our website). I read all the mss. from published authors (we usually get 150+/year) and I've had trusty first readers for our first-book contest, who are asked to select the two dozen or so best mss., from which I choose the winner (if it's a poet I know well, an ex-student, or someone else who represents a conflict of interest, I send the best three to five books to an outside reader). The Donald Hall Prize book is selected by a judge agreed upon by the Press and AWP. The Cave Canem prize book is selected by that organization. As I mention above, we now do a total of 12 books each year.
NA: Who are the people behind the press?
EO: One of the reasons we've done so well is that we have a great staff: Ann Walston, production & art director; Lowell Britson, business manager; Maria Sticco, publicist; David Baumann, advertising and direct mail manager. Plus a helpful and experienced general staff, including Cynthia Miller (recently retired as director of the Press) and Peter Kracht (our new director), who are supportive of the Poetry Series.
NA: Your wife used to have this wonderful business called Spring Church. I could buy poetry books from her instead of Amazon. I miss it! What happened to Spring Church books?
EO: Britt and I started Spring Church Books as a mail order poetry house back in the 70's. Originally we did it together, but as I got busier as an editor and teacher, Britt did most of the work for Spring Church. The business had a great run for some thirty four years, and Britt still corresponds with many old customer/friends from around the country, but in the end it just got to be too much. And Amazon really cut into the business (which, obviously, was not a bad thing for poetry sales in general). Britt decided she wanted to spend more time gardening, reading and grand-daughtering.
NA: I’d like to close with a poem of your choice from one of your poets.EO: Our writers have been winning a lot of awards and prizes recently, and we list the most recent on our website. The most exciting one this year so far is the choice of Richard Blanco to be the poet for Obama's second inauguration. Perhaps the poem of his that would be good to end with is "America," from CITY OF A HUNDRED FIRES.
Although Tía Miriam boasted she
at least half-a-dozen uses for peanut butter--
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer--
Mamà never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
II.There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year's Eves,
even on Thanksgiving Day--pork,
fried, broiled or crispy skin roasted--
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio's Mercado on the corner of 8th street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything--"Ese hijo de puta!"
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another's lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
By seven I had grown suspicious--we were still
Overheard conversations about returning
had grown wistful and less frequent.
I spoke English; my parents didn't.
We didn't live in a two story house
with a maid or a wood panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marsha;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke's family wasn't like us either--
they didn't have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn't have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents
about the purple mountain's majesty,
"one if by land, two if by sea"
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the "masses yearning to be free"
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.
V.Abuelita prepared the poor fowl
as if committing an act of treason,
faking her enthusiasm for my sake.
Mamà set a frozen pumpkin pie in the oven
and prepared candied yams following instructions
I translated from the marshmallow bag.
The table was arrayed with gladiolus,
the plattered turkey loomed at the center
on plastic silver from Woolworths.
Everyone sat in green velvet chairs
we had upholstered with clear vinyl,
except Tío Carlos and Toti, seated
in the folding chairs from the Salvation Army.
I uttered a bilingual blessing
and the turkey was passed around
like a game of Russian Roulette.
"DRY", Tío Berto complained, and proceeded
to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings
and cranberry jelly--"esa mierda roja," he called it.
Faces fell when Mamá presented her ochre pie--
pumpkin was a home remedy for ulcers, not a dessert.
Tía María made three rounds of Cuban coffee
then abuelo and Pepe cleared the living room furniture,
put on a Celia Cruz LP and the entire family
began to merengue over the linoleum of our apartment,
sweating rum and coffee until they remembered--
it was 1970 and 46 degrees--
After repositioning the furniture,
an appropriate darkness filled the room.
Tío Berto was the last to leave.
(Ed note: You can listen to Richard Blanco read this poem here )
Ed Ochester's most recent books are: Unreconstructed: Poems Selected and New (Autumn House Press, 2007), The Republic of Lies (Adastra Press, 2007) and American Poetry Now (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2007). He is the editor of the Pitt Poetry Series and is a member of the core faculty of the Bennington MFA Writing Seminars. Recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Agni, Boulevard, Nerve Cowboy, Great River Review and other magazines. He has had poems selected for “Best American Poetry” and Pushcart Prizes; a new poem of his has been selected for "Best American Poetry 2013."
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. Follow Nin on Twitter here.