Saturday, September 16, 2006

Cherry Pie Press - poems you can live on

I love poetry. I read it. I collect it. I write it. Sometimes the form teaches me restraint and force at the same time, and a lesson on how to combine them in daily life, once the poem is left behind on the desk or in the book. Sometimes the words alone give me strong wings, or at least enough courage to make it through another day at the office (my day job...). Occasionally I find a poem that has the power to pick me up off the road, turn me around, set me down again in a slightly different direction.

Finding a poem I love is one of the best feelings I know. There are a few that I go back to over and over -- they mirror a yearning, a sound, a stillness, an unmet reach that is in me, wanting to be better tuned and better strengthened, wanting to recognize and be recognized. The compulsion to go back over a poem that touches me in this way is very like the pull on a divining rod. Surprising, compelling, subtle, and intoxicating in its mystery. A good poem is a friend who can articulate what you need to hear -- not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. It's a pair of shoes you hope you can grow into.

Over the last few years of working with a local writing group, Loosely Identified, I realized many of those writers had given me 'divining rod' poems. I wanted to be able to put them on my shelf and have them available whenever I needed them. This is where the story of Cherry Pie Press begins -- out of my desire to see those poems nicely laid out on fine paper, and always available on my own bookshelf. If there's to be greed in the world, let me direct mine at poems.

And so I started Cherry Pie Press, with the goal of getting those poems into print.

I started with Martha Ficklen's poems, because I have for many years been head over heels in love with her poetic voice, and because she was gracious enough to be my first experiment in print. In 2005, I printed her chapbook, The Palm Leaf Fan.

Next was Nan Sweet's Rotogravure, a collection of poems that touch on feminism, the local history and geography of St. Louis and its neighborhoods, family, and Nan's own beautiful crafting of form and voice, deliciously abstract in its architecture but always on solid ground and filled with memorable objects. Her vision is a fully drawn trajectory across distances of land and time, making history into a personal experience.

Printing Nan's chapbook provided the additional pleasure of fulfilling a partnership -- it was Nan's encouragement and drive that had led our Loosely Identified writing group to self-publish an anthology, and it was that same encouragement that enabled me to see the possibilities of turning that groundwork into an independent small press that could continue the work of getting good poems into print.

The third chapbook is Kiss Me Cold, by Donna Biffar, and it's at the printer right now, available later this month. Donna's deft handling of craft and her awareness of the music of poetry gives me goosebumps, and her voice is as direct as anything on this planet. In her poems, words are knives.

Quick on the heels of Donna's book will be a chapbook by Helen Eisen, and early next year one by Colleen McKee.

Most, but not all, of these writers are from the Loosely Identified group. Eventually I hope to publish beyond that perimeter-- writers with the same strong chutzpah and nerve, the same haunting voices that make me want to read a poem over and over. I like the range of voices I've heard in Loosely Identified, and the Cherry Pie chapbooks will traverse similar terrain -- a radical lesbian poem next to an angry political poem by a senior and seasoned voice next to a saucy gimme-that-man seduction poem. We read 'em, then go out for coffee together.

The goals of Cherry Pie Press include getting good women poets in print, especially women from the midwest. Writers on both coasts seem to have ready outlets, and those outlets tend to be drawn to the sort of voices that arise from the coasts. In my experience, the midwest cultivates a different voice, which I have grown to love deeply. It's hard to characterize but it tends to be a little less flashy but sometimes a little more blunt and brutal. It tends to avoid temporary fads. It tends to avoid falling solidly in line with any particular "school" of poetry. It knows how to value what's local and keep an eye on the vast flat horizon that leads to everywhere else in the world. It's not afraid to moan and howl and to hear that sound willow off over the infinite and flat horizon.

The chapbooks are called, appropriately, the Midwest Women Poets Series. So far geography and that ability to be pungent and direct is the common thread. Each writer has a slightly different audience, and I'm hoping that this will result in readers expanding their interests, and that once they find a poet they like they'll try out other writers in the series.

For years, Nan and I and some of the other women in the Loosely Identified group have had ongoing discussions about poetry editing -- "po biz" as we've come to call it, or the business end of poetry where editing decisions are made and heroes are born. More often than not, it is heroes who are born, and they tend to be male. That's not in itself a bad thing -- a look at the editors of poetry publications in St. Louis (River Styx, Boulevard, Delmar, Margie to name just a few) turns up editors -- exceptionally fine editors -- who are all men. Natural Bridge has different guest editors, and in fact Nan Sweet is editing the upcoming issue #16 with a theme of women writers and their influence on other writers. Sou'wester is co-edited by Alison Funk. So women do turn up in the editorial role, but not by a majority.

Nan and I co-edited the Loosely Identified anthology, Breathing Out, and in doing so paid careful and deep attention to the process we used, and to maintaining the collective involvement of all the writers in the editing and production work of the book. Producing a book with all 21 authors working as full-fledged partners in every aspect of the process is no mean feat. But it is possible, and exhilarating, and exhausting. And it changed forever the lives of some of those writers. That was a very different experience than either Nan or I had in working with male editors in the past. Both types of experience have their valued place in the world, but we realized we'd been a quart low on the female kind. It was nice to balance things out a bit.

From that experience, Cherry Pie Press emerged, with a goal "to fortify and delight." I want to encourage writers who think they might want to publish but don't see a ready outlet, or haven't been able to successfully navigate the editorial world out there. Poems are necessary. When we published Breathing Out, we printed 300 copies and thought that might be overly ambitious. Luckily we were proved wrong. We ended up printing a second run -- another 300 books -- and quickly sold out again. There's an audience with an appetite for the kind of poetry being written here, and Cherry Pie counts on feeding it.

Gerald England's New Hope International poetry review site posts a review of Breathing Out:

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