NA: I would like to start with a brief description of Persea Books, including who the editors are, how long you have been in existence, and how many books you publish each year.
GF: Persea has existed about as long as I have been alive: almost 40 years. It was founded in the mid-1970s by Karen and Michael Braziller, who still own and operate the company, as editorial director and publisher, respectively. It’s a family-owned, literary publishing house based in New York City, though I run the poetry program out of Columbia, Missouri, where I now live. The number of titles published annually has varied over the years, but nowadays it sits at about 10-12, which is the right number for us. Believe it or not, Karen and I are the only in-house editors at the press!
NA: How did you become involved with Persea?
GF: Alice Quinn, director of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor at The New Yorker, referred me to the Brazillers. I was getting my MFA at Columbia, where I was poetry editor of the literary journal there under editors Dave King and Nova Ren Suma (both terrific fiction writers). Alice was our faculty advisor, and I asked to meet with her to review some of the poems I was considering, just to get her take on them. Alice knew Karen and Michael from way back; now that I am thinking about it, it may be that Persea once had an affiliated literary journal, and that Alice was its poetry editor! There was some old connection, I know. Anyway, Alice knew that they were looking for a part-time office person—a desk-jockey, but also someone to help with screening submissions, with promotion, with subsidiary rights. I knew from my work on literary journals that I had a love of editing, but I also knew I wouldn’t be happy with anything remotely corporate. It was good timing on a lot of levels, and I think a good match of sensibilities. I had a tremendous amount to learn, though I think I took to the culture of small press life naturally. It’s fun to play for the underdog, especially when the underdog has already pulled off some key upsets by the time you arrive!
NA: Persea publishes a wide range of books including fiction, poetry, essays, YA, biographies, translations, memoir, and classics. Is there any genre you hope to publish more of?
GF: Well, I run the poetry program, so that’s my focus with the press. But I get to do that because of some of the brilliant, almost prescient publishing Karen and Michael have done over the years—literary anthologies, for example, that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies; books about creative writing that have done terrifically well; and reissues of wonderful but forgotten authors, whom Persea has revived with great success.I don’t know that there is one genre that we’re hoping to publish more of, though we have a terrific track record with YA books—as well as adult books that are suited to a YA readership, like Nightfather by Carl Friedmann. What I do know is that we need it to be wonderfully written and see a way to bring it into the world, to promote it. For that reason, I know that we’re especially interested these days in various sorts of creative nonfiction—literary journalism and essays. In other words, prose that is gorgeous but has, to use a crass term, an external topic. However, we’re open to hearing of exciting projects, whatever their classification.
NA: How does one become a
GF: Serendipity. I mean, as a writer myself, one of the things I have learned from my editorial life is that you have no idea into what circumstances you’re submitting your work. Persea is a small press, and to say we add selectively is an understatement. We add when we have room, and when we have insight into how to publish a submission successfully. But if you believe in your work and believe in a press’s list, you must submit. And then, on the press’s end, if a work is right, it’s right; you find a way to publish it. I should add however, that, at least with poetry, there have been many times where I have read a submission and thought: “This is clearly publishable, clearly excellent and maybe even momentous, but I’m not the right editor. I don’t know how I would talk about it to the world.” If I can’t speak to it, I can’t edit it or promote it; it’s better off elsewhere.
I should plug our two poetry contests here. Honestly, these days, with our existing roster of poets as productive as they are, the contests are the clearest path in, for better or worse. We’re currently accepting submissions for the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in poetry. If you win, not only do you get published, but you get to go to Italy for six weeks to Civitella Ranieri. I’ve been there; it’s like returning to Eden.
NA: I love what is written about Persea Books on your website, especially: We have often taken on important books that other publishers have overlooked . . . Who are some of the overlooked writers you have published? How do you find overlooked books?
GF: There are books that don’t find homes quickly, sometimes because a certain editorial insight is required to see how they should be eventually published. Years ago, Persea published Oscar Hijuelos’ first novel, which was languishing without a home. Karen Braziller, who is a terrific editor, devoted herself to working with Oscar, and helped him organize the novel into the book it was meant to be. It was a collaboration in the best sense, and it launched a major literary career. In my editorial life, I think of Gaby Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, a collection that had been to dozens of publishers before I asked Gaby to see it. Everything was there for a transcendent collection; it just needed someone to reshape it slightly, to help it put its best foot forward, so to speak. Gaby’s made quite a name for herself since then, so it’s funny to think of her as overlooked. At the time, though, she was. Sometimes, I think, an editor uses a manuscript’s misfires as a reason to turn it down; other times, those same misfires can bring an editor closer to the work, helping him to really understand its impulses. That was certainly the case with me and Gaby’s book. And I should say that her second book, Apocalyptic Swing, was submitted to me essentially ready to go to press. It didn’t need my input in the same fashion.
NA: On your website you also talk about introducing a fifteenth-century French feminist writer, Christine de Pizan, to the English-speaking world. How did you happen upon her writings? And how did her book make it into Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia classrooms?
GF: Really, this is a
question for the Brazillers, though I know the story. I believe that Karen had
come across Christine’s writing in school and been intrigued by them. However,
there weren’t full-length versions published in English, which is hard to
believe now. So Persea didn’t re-discover Christine, exactly, but the
Brazillers did identify the need for English-language versions of her writing,
and solicited someone to translate them. It’s amazing how often their instincts
were dead-on in that first decade, in a way that laid the foundation for so
much publishing down the road, including all of the poetry that I oversee. The Book of the City of Ladies, as you
mention, became a staple of Western Civ classes at major universities, which
does amazing things for sales.
Another woman writer Persea successfully brought into the public eye was Anzia Yezierska. Yezierska had been a reasonably successful writer and even screenwriter in the first half of the twentieth century, but had fallen off the grid, her books, most of which were about the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in New York City, out of print. Persea reissued most of her oeuvre in the 1970s, and the response was tremendous. In particular, her novel Bread Givers, became a backlist staple. I don’t know the current lifetime sales figures of Persea’s editions of Bread Givers off the top of my head, but when I joined the press in 1999, it had sold about a quarter-million copies, and it’s sold maybe 15,000 copies a year since then, so…do the math! Without Bread Givers, there wouldn’t be a contemporary American poetry series, I’m sure of that.
NA: Every press has its well-known books and its lesser-known books. I would love to hear you talk about a poetry book that is not well-known but that you particularly admire. Feel free to post a poem or a stanza from a poem below.
GF: It’s distressing when a collection doesn’t reach the people you want it to. Some collections are quiet, some authors are quiet or live remotely. Expectations shouldn’t outsize these factors. Yet sometimes, even given such considerations, a book’s reception is quieter than it should be. Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s Sightseer is an example. The book is simultaneously a travelogue and a commentary on the insights and absurdities of being a tourist. I just think that it is so winning: topical yet personal, moving yet wry—and fierce at unexpected moments. It’s got an intelligence and charm to it that should earn it more readers (which maybe will happen when we publish Cynthia’s next book in a little over a year!).
Here’s a poem in a mode of address that’s common in the book:
Dear Herzen Inn,Don’t laugh at me. From my window
looking out upon the courtyard, I can see
an abandoned rusted bathtub
and I want to lie down in it. For days
no one has come into the square
with a wooden cart. I say it is there
for the taking. After a rain, when the dogs come
loping with their giant tongues
hanging neat as guest towels,
I will be the pearl in your trough. Herzen,
the Kasansky Cathedral pays no attention;
its dome sits resolute as the back of a father’s
bald head. It is as if all of St. Petersburg
has turned its back on me. After a rain,
it would be easy to hold my breath
at the bottom of the tub, letting my hair
drift to the top and fan out like a lily pad,
surprisingly easy to shoot my arm out of the water
just as the dogs lean in to drink, and
rip the tongues from their jowls in one swift snap.
Herzen, I have not slept. I want to sleep.
NA: What are some of your happiest moments for Persea Books? Feel free to provide links to reviews, events, readings, websites, etc.
GF: I am elated any time one of the poetry books gets reviewed in language in which I hear echoes of what drew me to the poet in the first place. There’s a gorgeous review of Vanitas, Rough by Lisa Russ Spaar in the new Boston Review. It’s gorgeous not just because it’s hyperbolic, but because the critic gets the poems the way I do. It begins: “Lisa Russ Spaar’s intensely lyrical language—baroque, incantatory, provocative—enables her to reinvigorate perennial subject matter: desire, pursuit, and absence; intoxication and ecstasy; the transience of earthly experience; the uncertainties of god and the grace; [and] the dialectic between fertility and mortality.” It goes on to say that the collection is “electrifying,” that it is “too ambitious to settle for the merely gorgeous” among other exhilarating moments of praise.When I read a review like this, of course I’m pleased because it’s a very strong review in a great magazine, but it’s more than that. I feel as if the poet and I have begun to reach a readership on our terms. I don’t know quite how to articulate how poignant that is.
NA: Is there anything else you would like to say about Persea Books?
GF: I don’t want to oversell this aspect, because it may not be true across the board, but there is a real commitment to our authors in addition to their books. We like to work with writers over the long haul, and I think that has something to do with the press’s success.
NA: I would like to end with a poem of your choice from a Persea poet.
GF: Here’s one from Kimberly Johnson’s A Metaphorical God. Gorgeous book, gorgeous poem.
Spring begins in a fatness of front lawns,
but not mine. I whose blowtorch urge approaches
the ascetic, whose resolve to bury
luxuriance grows raw-handed from shoveling,
have duly torched and shoveled grass until
the baked blades crumpled like old palm fronds
and their upturned roots drooped. Let spring begin
in ash and dust, I say, and bloom as little
as possible out of them. I’m planting
stonecrop, and rockmat, and if the fireweed
insists on sowing itself in cinders
I’ll truckle it to my lenten aesthetic
or pluck it out: I’ll parch the ground six weeks
to prompt by thirst the fireweed’s fancy,
gratuitous pink to put on the drab.
Let it learn in sackcloth colors to thrive
on desire alone. It’s a discipline
I’m ripe to teach. I excel at fasting.
Gabriel Fried is the author of Making the New Lamb Take, a collection of poems. He is also editor of the anthology, Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems, which Persea will publish in April 2014. He lives in Columbia, Missouri, where he teaches creative writing, publishing, and literature at the University of Missouri.
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.