DD: Robert Frost said, “My definition of literature would be just this: words that have become deeds.” Cooper Dillon Books is building an impressive catalogue of authors ranging from the re-issue of William Matthews first book, Ruining the New Road, to Jill Alexander Essbaum’s chapbook length poem, “The Devastation.” When you look at the books that Cooper Dillon has published, what definition of literature comes to your mind?
AD: I probably default to the Robert Lowell idea of the poem as an event, which is to say that we’re pulled into a place where we stay, even if only for a moment. The books we’ve published each bring the reader into a place that (I hope) we want to return to over and over again. There are lots of great pieces of writing, but a poetry we come to call “literature” is a work that is always resonating, and for different reasons at different times.
CBC: Our hope as a press, however nano-sized of a small poetry press we are, is to bring timeless poetry into our cultural conversation. Timelessness is a very lofty goal for a book or a press, but that resonance in rereading that Adam mentions is what I mean, too. The Devastation is timeless to me because Jill's lines ring in my head, as do Rick Pierce's poems in The Book of Mankey. I suppose that literary publishing could be thought of, in a literal sense, as words becoming deeds, if Frost meant words becoming an entity that can affect us. Cooper Dillon aims to publish poetry that affects us, that we want to be affected by over a span of time.
DD: How did Cooper Dillon Books come into being?
AD: Colleen Ryor, after founding and operating Black Lawrence and Adirondack Review, wanted to create an entity that was dedicated to poetry. She took me on to help with a couple of projects at Black Lawrence, but then she ran the idea by me, and we ran with it. She had/has young children, and I took it over promising I wouldn’t change the mission we’d created. The resolve to regard the values that make poems timeless has always been at the center of our being.
CBC: Adam invited me on as assistant editor in spring 2014, so the press has existed without me for a long time. But as for me, I love being part of poetry publishing again. The core of Cooper Dillon is those books of poems that keep us coming back, and I’m delighted to have a hand in shepherding those poems into our cultural conversation.
DD: Cooper Dillon Books has published six chapbooks and four full length collections, with two more full-length collections coming soon. How many books do you publish in an average year? Do you have plans to expand?
AD: We only do one or two books per year, and it’s a really pleasant pace. It means that we’re never spread thin, and we can give the attention that our readers and writers need. Max, our art-man, asks about expansion also, so it’s on the mind. As much as I’d love to put out more books per year, I think that would demand resources that aren’t realistically there. On the other hand, as long as we’re keeping it small, we get to maintain a quality and integrity that’s really key to running a solid small press.
I worked in beer for a few years, and I live in San Diego (where there are over 110 breweries) and I see a small press somewhat like a small brewery. When it’s small, everything putts along smoothly—the customers know they really matter when they know they can relax and enjoy without feeling pressure or rushed. When a brewery starts to grow too much, a layer of the personal tends to get scrapped. Things get more “businessy,” and the labor of love just starts to feel much more like work. If a press is the same way, I’d prefer to keep the love. That being said, if we sell more books, and we find more manuscripts to love, we’ll do everything we can to give those poems a home.
DD: The Dead in Daylight by Melody S. Gee and Shore by Clay Matthews are forthcoming in 2016? Can you tell us about these books?
AD: These books are awesome. When The Dead in Daylight came in, I lost my mind, and felt like we needed it. As Eduardo Coral wrote for the back, it’s “beautifully strange and intimate,” and that’s clear from the first poem, which has the title “I Cannot Make a Torch of Green Branches,” (which appeared in Town Creek Poetry). Before we even start, we’re presented with a voice in conflict with the natural world, and the living branches resisting their own destruction by fire. The tension that comes with that carries and builds in the manuscript, and I hope everyone loves it when it comes out!
Shore is a book-length poem in parts, built from a lengthy bibliography of flood stories, swirled together in this way that Clay Matthews just nails. Clay’s earlier book Pretty, Rooster is one of our most popular titles, and I think it’s because the poems have all the wonderful qualities of the writer: a raw humility, and a vernacular we seem to connect with (especially after tiring work in the sun, at the moment of a first sip of beer). Shannon Tharp says that he “thinks through and sounds out the stories that need telling,” and that intimate urgency is there.
CBC: It’s worth mentioning that Shore is in print and shipping right now, and it is excellent and will suck you into its world of floods and water and bodies and love:
The end of the story
is that everything drowned
together. The shadow sang
is quiet as water.
As for The Dead in Daylight, I can verify that Adam read the manuscript and lost his mind. He called me immediately, which is how it starts with each book we’ve published together. I read it and had no doubts. It’s very exciting to have Melody Gee’s collection with our press’s name attached, because I feel certain that her book will be read for a long, long time. I’m so pleased we grabbed it first.
DD: Cooper Dillon Books accepts submissions of chapbooks and full-length collections year round. This must make for a mountain of submissions. How many submissions do you receive a year? Also, can you talk about the Cooper Dillon’s rationale for keeping the submissions doorway always so hospitably ajar?
DD: What tips can you give for prospective authors? What do you look for in a manuscript? What can you tell us about the screening process for these manuscripts?
AD: It’s uncomfortable to give tips to writers about their work, so we don’t presume to do so. Part of the pleasure of being a publisher is in discovery of new poetics and uses of language. But, just from a technical point of view, writers should probably use things like page breaks, and create tables of contents with both titles and page numbers (if a “table” only has titles, it’s not a “table,” it’s a list). I know almost every press says it, but knowing the kind of stuff we’re into helps, also—our mission is always on the home page of the website, and we post sample poems from each book in the store, so there are changes to get bits and pieces of work. I guess one general tip is to think about your own context and the context of wherever you’re sending, right?
Beyond that, I think I’m looking for a manuscript that invites me into something extraordinary. Some of my favorite poems are the ones where a voice brings us into another space where we’re having an experience, rather than just hearing about something happening inside someone else’s head.
All of our submissions come in through Submittable, and I read them. After I read them, I let them sit for a little while (days or weeks), then I go back and look at it again when I’m in a different head. If I really feel something happening (either I’m excited or curious), I pass it to Christine for a second read, and we talk about it. I think it’s fair to say, for the most part, the ones that become books are the ones that were doing something strong right away. They just feel right.
CBC: And when Adam says we talk about manuscripts together, what happens is more like, we set up a video chat, as I’m in Seattle and he’s in San Diego. We each get a beer in hand, and we read out loud all the lines that we love. We get really excited and yell happily about poems. What could be better? We find poems we love, and we put them into print.
As for what I look for in a manuscript when I read submissions, I want to be taken in and curious immediately. I want to hear the first page singing. And when I give my time and attention to the whole length of it, I want to feel the arc of the book, not just the collection of poems. I look for cohesion of beautiful parts that leave me stunned. I have high expectations for what the book achieves in each poem and as a whole work. It’s very different from leading a poetry workshop or editing a poet’s work professionally, which I’ve done, or working on a literary magazine, which I’ve also done, where you can pick and choose strong poems or parts of poems and suggest large-scale changes. For Cooper Dillon, I read for manuscripts that are tightly done, taut, and beautifully mysterious.
DD: How many staff members work at Cooper Dillon Books? What are their responsibilities?
AD: It sounds so official to think of us as “staff members,” but it’s really very small. I read submissions, pack up orders, manage the stock, layout interiors, website maintenance, and all correspondence; Christine reviews some submissions, copy edits, does some social media updating, and is generally another reader to provide checks and balances. Max designed our logo, promotional materials, the covers up until now, and he also makes the staff and author images. That’s pretty much it.
DD: Once you’ve accepted a manuscript, how involved is the editorial process?
AD: We're hopeful that we’re mostly hands-off as editors. In most cases, the suggestions made have more to do with the order of poems in a manuscript. Sometimes it might end on one poem when I feel it might want to end on a different one. From there, it’s just a discussion with a writer. We’re both fully committed to the poems, so it’s a productive conversation. Beyond that, sometimes I catch a few things while laying out a book and we make some decisions, like if a word is capitalized one place but not in another, and it seems like an inconsistency is being created—just basic “editor” stuff.
CBC: I get more into the consistency of style throughout the whole book, because that’s my perspective as a professional editor—style it however you want, as long as it’s purposeful and consistent. So I look for inconsistencies, and I question style choices. I do some research on capitalization rules every time, it seems. The level of editing we do with our writers is very minimal and aimed to put out a clean book, not to alter what the writer’s doing. We trust that their work is done.
DD: Your books have beautiful covers and are well designed. The author photos on your website are very cool and resemble woodcuts. Can you tell us about the artist(s) who make your books (and your website) look so beautiful and timeless?
AD: That’s all Max Xiantu. He says: “The cover art and design, portrait stencils and Cooper Dillon website were created by me with considerable input from Adam, and various other cover artists and photographers. The aesthetic of Cooper Dillon began with the thumbs up logo and followed with the author portraits, retaining the woodcut style as the brand. The covers feature original art or art digitally treated by me, as in the case of the covers of Pretty Rooster (original photo by Misha Johnson), We Speak of Fruit (oil painting by Eric Person), The Wonderfulle Yeare (original photo by Kim Tondry), and Haunts (original painting by Daniel Thedell).”
DD: You are a fine poet yourself. How has helming Cooper Dillon Books influenced your work as a poet? Conversely, how has your work as a poet influenced your vision as a publisher and editor?
AD: Thanks for saying so! I think that being at the helm of Cooper Dillon keeps me connected to a community, which is valuable as a poet. Reading submission after submission probably has taught me something about putting my own manuscripts together, too. Running a press also gives me some insight into how things work when I send out my own submissions. For example, I understand if it takes 6 months for an editor to send a response. It’s also taught me much more about formatting, and how to present a poem not just as language, but as a visual artifact.
For the latter question, I think about what I want a publisher to provide for me if/when someone takes a manuscript of my poems, which pretty much just means that there’s a place to get the book, and it’s reliable. Every editor should be fully behind a book; they should make sure it’s available; they should represent the book and make sure the writer has what they need when they are doing readings or their own promotion for the book. People have asked why I don’t publish my own book on the press (and many excellent writer/publishers do so) and my answer is that I want an editor in my corner. I don’t want to have to be both the artist and the logistics at the same time. I want a publisher who can do for me what I can do for the authors on Cooper Dillon.
DD: Christine, how has working at Cooper Dillon Books influenced your work as a poet? Conversely, how has your work as a poet influenced your vision as an editor?
CBC: Working for Cooper Dillon got me back into regularly writing poems. Reading begets writing, and reading our submissions, getting our books into print, planning out our marketing, and keeping up with new work from excellent poets are all processes that spark things for me. Like Adam mentioned, it all encourages community, which also encourages my writing. I think more about the end product, too, with an awareness of what I read for as an editor—strong poems that cohere into a fluid manuscript. My perspective as an assistant editor for Ninth Letter and as an MFA student didn’t quite expand to the totality of a book, the way a strong book weaves itself together. I’m not piecing together a book manuscript right now, but the thinking is starting a bit.
As for how my work as a poet influences my editorial vision at Cooper Dillon, it means that I recognize the impulse for one’s work to be read, to be known and shared. And I get a sense of the aim of a book, whether it aims to tell me things I don’t know, or if it aims to simply impress me--I know what we poets are like, and that we aim for both ends. I’m very aware of my own aesthetic as I read submissions, pausing to consciously read beyond my aesthetic. My mentors and readers have taught me how my poems read to others, and that lends itself to holding multiple viewpoints as I read submissions—those of a writer, of a reader, and of an editor. Finally, I keep my own vision of what my poems can do, in my wildest hopes, separate from what another poet can do, and what Cooper Dillon can bring forward.
DD: 2015 marked the posthumous publication of books by Christopher Gilbert and Frank Stanford, two great American poets whose work is now receiving the attention it deserves. In 2011, Cooper Dillon Books put back into print William Matthews debut collection for the first time since 1970. Can you talk about this book, how it came into being, and the enduring importance of William Matthews?
AD: I found a galley copy of the book in the UIUC Library and was struck by how the poems in Search Party (16 from our republished full collection) changed when placed in their original context. I mean, if we look at a poem as part of a collection (these things interact, right?), it’s a different experience. I had to seek out a full copy of Ruining the New Road, and thought that it shouldn’t be such an effort to find a book by such a substantial poet.
His endurance, I think, is the same as any other poet we return to: the poems re-play, over and over again. I’m fascinated by the voice in his first book, especially knowing his fuller biography—I’ve been at AWP, and people pick up his book and share a variety of strong feelings about him, and those mostly come from their experiences with him, good and bad, that came long after the poems in Ruining the New Road were written. We have this first book from a young man, and I like being able to look at his whole life, rather than a life in progress, as you see with a living writer.
DD: Do you have any other plans to republish out of print books by neglected masters?
AD: I’ve kicked around an idea of trying to make some kind of d.a. levy collection, but there are a few other collections floating around out there. He’s one of the first poets I learned about from my first workshop at Nassau Community College; his biography is interesting, and he’s a substantial poet when we consider poetry in the larger context of activism, specifically in terms of people’s conflicts with militarized police, etc. But I don’t know if his poems move me the way they once did. I don’t know if they replay beyond their contexts the same way Matthews does for me.
Beyond that, if someone has a book that’s been lost to the ether, I’d love to be turned on to it!
DD: There’s a great poem by William Matthews from one of his later collections about the legendary Jazz musician and composer, Charles Mingus, titled “Mingus at The Showplace.” It reads as follows:
I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,
and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat
literature. It was 1960 at The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,
casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ears like a puppy.
And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things, but they were wrong, as it happened.
So I made him look at the poem.
“There’s a lot of that going around,” he said,
and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He laughed
amiably. He didn’t look as if he thought
bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they’d plot
to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children. Of course later
that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.
“We’ve suffered a diminuendo in personnel,”
he explained, and the band played on.
DD: What a nuanced Ars Poetica. The Mingus in this poem and the speaker, as well, are at once deadly serious and cavalier about poetry. There’s something Whitmanesque about the openness of this stance. Art-in-its-unfolding both is and isn’t a matter of life and death, good and bad, high and low—the band plays on despite the “diminuendo in personnel,” poetry grows apace despite what’s maudlin and treacly in a bad poem written by a seventeen year old kid. This poem is a reminder to me of one of the most overlooked poetic virtues: humility. This poem says: “remember we were all young poets once, who wrote sandlots and thought them stadiums.” What advice do you have for young poets?
AD: I do love how this poem is specifically aware of a certain misunderstanding of how poetry is supposed to be. But it’s only one person’s perception and change in perception of poetry. The advice I might have for a young poet (though, I am, technically, still a young poet myself) is to have a healthy detachment from the work. The idea of a poem as an extension of the self seems dangerous, or at least it’s an idea that becomes attached to an expectation--when someone “rejects” a poem, it gets taken as a rejection of one’s self. Avoid that. Detach from it. Let the poem do its own thing, and if it doesn’t do what you want, forget about it, and try to send another poem out there.
AD: They each wrote beautiful manuscripts that I knew I needed to produce and stand behind. Beyond that, there are some interesting threads that hold these together. Especially with The Primer of Zinnie Lucas, The Book of Mankey, The Wonderfull Yeare, and Vine River Hermitage, we have tight concept—a history in verse, a biographical spiritual struggle, a psyche guided by seasons, and a sequence of meditations in nature, respectively. Haunts, They Speak of Fruit, and This Kind of Knowing also have clear thematic threads, but all of the collections have timeless tensions and end on positive notes. The world is different and better after the last poems, and the fact that the writers are disparate seems like evidence that it’s a somewhat universal move that resonates widely. As a publisher, I’m refreshed by the fact that the books are not confined to a specific context that defines a community that might be somewhat closed to those who don’t have the same experience (geographic, or academic, or communal, or whatever other kind of connection). It means that we’re truly open to everyone, and the process of discovery is what keeps me going with it.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as a book-publisher and editor?
AD: My favorite part of publishing a book is meeting the author in person. I knew a few of the authors from other contexts (mostly when I worked at Ninth Letter), but I met Nate Pritts, Laura Cherry, and Clay Matthews through the slush, and they’re some of my favorite people. I’m really excited to meet Melody S. Gee (having just sent the book to the printer). That’s my favorite part—it’s a way for me to discover wonderful poetry and meet amazing people beyond picking up books and going to readings (which I’m doing all the time anyway). When I read these people, I get all stoked for my own writing. That’s what I think a good poem does: you read it, and it’s so moving that you can’t help but sit down and work on your own poem. It’s like we read poems to correct our heads, and get jarred away from jobs and bills and the anxiety of news and social media, into that purer space that (I think) we should all really be living for.
CBC: I agree, I read poems to correct my head and to step into something outside myself. I get that with visual art and music, too, but poems offer a vague place to go inward and be outside of my own head, simultaneously. Reading a good book of poems through our submissions makes my heart ring out, Yes. And that thread between the work of that writer and myself as a reader encourages me to be fully with myself and with all the people I meet.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
AD: I was just talking about this a bit with the lovely people at UC Riverside Low-Res MFA program, and can’t help but think we need more generosity, and by that I think I mean poetry that is for others, whether it be the subject in the poem or a consideration for the audience. It’s about an invitation that’s built into the poem, which is to say the poem isn’t just “this happened to me,” but more like “let me share this with you” or “we’re in this together!” That’s a spirit that is in the books on Cooper Dillon, and when I keep that in mind for my own poetry, I find that I make changes to the poems that make the poems better. Knowing that I’m sending them out to editors and readers, I want them to enjoy the experience (even if they don’t take it for their publications). The idea of being generous has a long tradition (the elegy, the ode, occasion poem, and others), and I’d love to see more of that. I’d also suggest that when we create something for others, we’re able to detach from it because it’s a move of giving, or transferring the idea from ourselves to someone we care about.
DD: Clive James said, “A poem is any piece of writing that can’t be quoted from except out of context.” What is your personal definition of an individual poem?
AD: I might be stealing this from an old professor (Mike Madonick), but I’m reminded of an adaptation of what the Supreme Court said about porn: It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. If I have to create a definition, I’d say that a poem is a place I’ve never been, but once there, I know I want to go back. Maybe that’s just a good poem. A not so great poem is, maybe, a place I know I don’t need to visit again.
DD: If you could publish any dead poet at Cooper Dillon Books, who would it be, and why?
AD: That’s a hard one, since I know the dead poets I know because of how they were published, right? He’s only recently passed, but I’d love to publish Russell Edson. His work helped define poetry for me as something that could be fun in the way footage of Salvador Dali is fun for me. It’s fascinating, and has a serious depth, but sometimes it also just has me laughing with love. They did a tribute for him at an AWP years ago, and he spoke last, but he had a bit of a cough. It was a bit distracting, and someone passed up a cough drop, and I think someone handed it to Charles Simic who handed it to James Tate, who put it on the edge of the podium, and when Edson saw it, he let out this wonderful “Ooo!” like it was a shiny marble uncovered in the dirt. At least from where I was sitting, it was a sound of lovely youthful joy, coming from the body of this old man. I love his books for that same sound and would love to publish him. Maybe I’ll get to one day.
DD: Can you end the interview by giving us a poem from your own work (or the work of a Cooper Dillon author)?
AD: If you want to read my poems, I post links to publications at AdamDeutsch.com. Instead, it feels right to tease a new Cooper Dillon book here, so dig this poem from Melody S. Gee’s The Dead in Daylight:
ON THE VINE
Strawberries emerge pale
before deepening in slow quadrants,
as if blood swells the heart. So fresh
in our basket, so open to sugar.
To plant again, we lay them loose
on a towel and sacrifice the fruit.
The directions are simple: leave the berries
to shrivel, then push the clots through a sieve.
The seeds catch. Rinse them free.
Pinch them into glycine bags so next year’s ghosts
can grow under our gaze, so we don’t miss the heart’s
first throb, the first ripe rush and temptation.
Cooper Dillon Books Publisher and Editor Adam Deutsch has his M.A. from Hofstra University and M.F.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has been on the editorial staff of a number of presses and journals, including Ninth Letter and Barn Owl Review. Adam has been interviewed and has written about publishing at Delphi Quarterly, Quarterly Conversation, Crossroads Lit Journal, & diode. He teaches writing at community colleges in San Diego and has a chapbook, Carry On, from H_NGM_N Books.
Cooper Dillon Books Assistant Editor Christine Bryant Cohen was raised in St. Louis, Missouri, then studied English and art at Cornell College before earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For three years, she served as editorial staff for Ninth Letter in creative nonfiction and poetry. Christine has edited professionally for over 10 years as CBC Editing, where she reviews academic, scientific, medical, and creative writing. She also works with small businesses to develop their brand, core message, and marketing strategy. She lives in Seattle, WA with her husband, cat, and four backyard chickens.
Dante Di Stefano's first collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Southern California Review, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the Thayer Fellowship in the Arts, The Red Hen Press Poetry Award, The Crab Orchard Review's Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry, The Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award, The Ruth Stone Poetry Prize,The Phyllis Smart-Young Prize in Poetry, The Bea González Prize in Poetry, and an Academy of American Poets College Prize. He earned his PhD in Poetry from Binghamton University and he makes his living as a high school English teacher in Endicott, New York.