Publishing Poetry at University Presses

These are just a few of the most recent honors, continuing a long tradition of poetic excellence and innovation fostered at university presses.

What is it about university presses that have made them such a good home for so many talented poets? AAUP spoke with university press editors, one of the award-winning poets, and a poetry reviewer to get their takes on the subject.

Having previously worked with small independent presses, Pulitzer prize-winner Rae Armantrout has found that Wesleyan has been better able to manage publicity, including reviews and award submissions (which have certainly paid off!). She has developed a sense of trust in the Wesleyan staff, and is confident in their reliability: “If Suzanna [Tamminen, director and editor-in-chief of Wesleyan University Press] says a book will be out in June, it will.” Describing her “amazing and almost unbelievable” experience of going “from being a relatively obscure poet to getting this kind of recognition,” Armantrout asserted that the Wesleyan staff  “deserve considerable credit.” The respect is mutual and the staff’s pride in Armantrout’s work is evident; Tamminen said of the poet: “[we] think very highly of her, it’s just great that the world is catching on to how great she is and how important her work is”

The factor that came up again and again in discussing why university presses can be an  ideal home for poetry is the fact that they are mission-driven. Rachel Berchten, poetry and poetics editor at the University of California press, said, “UC Press’s mission statement—that we enrich ‘lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities’—is fulfilled by our publishing a range of poets and poetry.” Tamminen put it simply: “good poetry exhibits good thinking.” Poetry is “a different kind of thinking and expression” that is an essential component of the scholarly enterprise. This focus on the production of scholarship and new knowledge that drives university presses also contributes to what Tamminen describes as a “somewhat edgier feel,” and a sense that new work and creativity will be both welcomed and fostered.

Although university presses must maintain their financial viability, there is general agreement that they tend to be less guided by commercial considerations than their trade counterparts, who tend to publish poetry only by well-known authors. Craig Teicher, Poetry Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly and Vice President  of the National Book Critics Circle, would answer that the suitability of university presses for the enterprise, in part, boils down to economics: “poetry doesn’t make money.” Smaller houses like university presses, he noted, are more accustomed to smaller print runs, and finding and marketing to niche markets, which allows them to commit to publishing authors. University presses are also willing to take risks, for the sake of their scholarly mission, publishing “innovative or emerging poets or translations,” said Berchten. University presses also have a good reputation for keeping books in print, which is important to poets. This commitment, in addition to a tendency to develop long-term publishing relationships with authors, allows editors to “nurture someone’s voice or career,” noted Tamminen.

Practically, both California and Wesleyan have found that publishing poetry is very much like any other scholarly area. As in any other field, a primary motivator in acquisitions is how it fits in with the foundation and desired direction of the list. As poetry falls into trade rather than scholarly lists, Tamminen considers factors similar to those for regional books, such as “whether the author is going to be a good promoter of his or her work,” in terms of whether books will succeed. “Poetry is always changing and growing,” said Teicher, and for this reason publishers must make sure to keep up with the important networks and venues, to ensure they can “keep their lists current—with new poets whose work represents current stylistic trends—while also finding spots for all their older poets to whom they have a commitment.”

A strong poetry list can be a serious boon to a press as a whole. Tamminen explained that having such a high profile poetry program has definitely helped the press’s relationship to the university, as “the books go out into the world and carry the university’s name as home for great writing.” At California, Berchten has found that poetry “expands our presence in the trade media and trade market, as well as lending its lustre to UC Press as a whole.”

Going forward, Teicher said he believes that “university presses are only going to become more important.” He attributes this to what he sees as the increasing specificity of readers’ tastes as more and more work becomes available and easy to search and find.  He said, “there will be more books, but fewer readers for each of them,” a circumstance he thinks trade publishers may shy away from and will lead to an increase in “literary books—not just poetry—being published, and published significantly…by independent, nonprofit, or university presses.”

Any discussion of the future of publishing necessarily touches on the issue of e-publication, and poetry is no different. California is currently publishing all of its new poetry books in e-book as well as print format, in what Berchten sees as “an expansion of our poetry program that will make these important works of literature available to an even larger audience.” Wesleyan is still in the process of converting all of its titles to e-books—they have found some formats work very well for the genre, while others, including EPUB, can cause problems because of the way text reflows. Tamminen said she thinks because of poetry’s small market share, technology has not been as quick to deal with its specific conversion issues, but she finds that the poets themselves are “already very active online and quite knowledgeable about e-books and the digital world—in fact we feel like they’re leading us.”

Whatever the format, all of the stakeholders we spoke with had confidence that university presses will continue to play an important role in publishing poetry and nurturing poets. Perhaps most importantly, as Armantrout attested, “university presses often have editors who care about poetry,” a factor that will continue to entice authors and ensure the respect of the scholarly community and the poetry-reading public. As she concluded of the recent string of successes university press-published poetry has seen, “it must mean something.”

Meredith Benjamin
Communications Coordinator, AAUP