Poets Wear Prada is a poetry publishing house with excellent poets and affordable books with beautiful covers. Have you had your poetry today?--Meredith Sue Willis, Books for Readers * * * Stylistically, these beautifully designed and produced chapbooks bear their own distinctive signature.--Linda Lerner, SMALL PRESS REVIEW

Friday, February 26, 2010

Small is Beautiful

Small is beautiful

Independent presses make books the old-fashioned way

Thursday, June 26,2008
Star-Ledger Staff

THE CONTENT is complex: suicide, war, love and illness.

The format, however, is simple: black ink on white paper.

In an era of streaming video, e-mailed images and audio
downloads, this format -- the printed page -- may seem
paltry. Across New Jersey, however, small presses are
producing beautifully crafted books of poetry and prose, and
in this corner of the world, words still matter. With
original artwork gracing their covers, and quality paper and
bindings, caring hands leave a mark on each volume.

"You are not doing it for the money, God knows. You
aren't doing it for fame. You are doing it for reasons
you can't explain," says Ed Foster, a poet and
founding editor of the nonprofit Talisman House in Jersey
City. "If you don't do it, the core of the culture
rots. It is a very serious thing to do."

Talisman publishes avant-garde poets, as well as
criticism and poetry in translation. Grants from foundations
and donations from individuals help cover the costs of
producing about 10 books a year.

Small-book distributors allow publishers like Talisman to
bring their books to local stores and compete in an industry
dominated by retail chains and publishing conglomerates.
Sales are mostly through local bookshops and online
retailers like amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com.

For a work of poetry, selling 2,000 copies is considered
quite good in the U.S., says Foster, who is also a professor
and administrator at Stevens Institute of Technology.

"It's like the Dark Ages," he says.
"You just have to go through it."

Publisher Joan Handler saw her mission as twofold when
she founded CavanKerry Press, based in Fort Lee, in 1999: to
publish beautiful books with fine cover art on quality paper
and to increase the audience for poetry.

"Poetry is probably the most intimate of the
literary arts," says Handler. "It's like
having a really good friend -- it speaks from the soul of
the poet to the soul of the reader, and the process is

Handler knows a bit about healing. She is a psychologist
who went back to school in her 40s to earn an MFA in
creative writing.

CavanKerry, a nonprofit organization funded by a family
foundation and other grants, tries to increase the audience
for literature by donating books to shelters, libraries,
prisons and to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It
also sponsors readings in schools, nursing homes, prisons
and other locations.

Handler isn't intimidated, however, by new media.
CavanKerry Press has an extensive website that allows
browsers to sample poems from each book and view biographies
of each writer. Audio clips of authors reading from their
works are planned.

Another mission at CavanKerry is to publish books by
authors who have experienced illness or disability. Medical
schools, including UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School in Newark
and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, use
these books to train medical students. "To the
Marrow," by Robert Sedler, chronicles the author's
bone marrow transplant, while "Body of Diminishing
Motion," by Joan Seliger Sidney, explores living with
multiple sclerosis.

"Through writing, we make the experience of illness
something more than the side effects and the list of
symptoms," says Handler.

Roxanne Hoffman started her publishing venture not to mend a troubled world but to aid fellow poets.

As a spoken-word poet, Hoffman says her work is somewhat ephemeral. The audience experiences it, and then it is gone. She started her Hoboken-based press, Poets Wear Prada -- named after her signature poem -- to publish poetry chapbooks. These small, softcover books allow audiences to revisit the work of performance poets.

In 2006, the company produced three books, followed by 10 in 2007, and an expected 10 to 12 this year.

The press is incorporated as a small for-profit company, but is a break-even proposition.

Hoffman believes new media can extend her work as a performance poet and publisher.

"We actually did a podcast in April, basically in support of National Poetry Month, about poets and performing, and had one in May on mothers and motherhood. We are up on YouTube, and I think it's wonderful," she says.

Unlike large publishers, independent presses can't
afford to give authors a big advance when they sign a book
contract. Instead, they typically pay royalties when books
are sold, with an occasional small advance. The smallest
publishers with book runs of a few hundred copies, like
Poets Wear Prada, pay in free or discounted books, which
authors can resell for a profit.

Barbara Worton isn't concerned about books becoming
passé. She recently launched Great Little Books in Glen
Rock, which released its first title in the fall. Worton
first worked in book publishing in the 1970s, and has been a
writer and editor ever since. But her current business
started as a kind of dream.

"I don't sleep very well. For 10 years, I have
been doing three pages of writing at night before I go to
sleep, as a way to write myself to sleep. I started calling
the process 'sleep writing.'" Worton used
this material for the company's first book,
"Bedtime Stories, the Short, Long and Tall Tales of a
Sleepwriter," released in October.

Great Little Books has two books coming out this fall,
and three next year. The small for-profit company has been
funded by Worton and her business partners and also through
small business loans.

Worton sees her work as a writer, editor and publisher as
part of the same continuum.

"Writing is like my DNA; it's just a part of
me, and one thing feeds another. I've always done all
of it. That's why I have a hard time sleeping."
Fine print

A sampling of recent titles from some of New Jersey's
small presses:

"Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of
Contemporary Chinese Poetry," edited by Zhang Er and
Cheng Dongdong, from Talisman House, Jersey City. An
overview of the current literary scene in China, this book
includes 24 contemporary poets with about six to eight poems
in both English and Chinese. ($25.95, available at
barnesandnoble.com and bookshops).

"Bedtime Stories: The Short, Long and Tall Tales of
a Sleepwriter," by Barbara Worton, from Great Little
Books, Glen Rock. A series of stories, fanciful and serious,
written as an aid to sleep. ($14.95, amazon.com,
barnesandnoble.com and greatlittlebooksllc.com)

"Elegy for the Floater," by Teresa Carson of
Jersey City, from CavanKerry Press, Fort Lee. Poems
concerning a family in distress, including the book's
most important character, the speaker's brother, who
killed himself. ($16, available at barnesandnoble.com,
University Press of New England at upne.com)

"Phased," by George Held from Poets Wear
Prada, Hoboken. This poetry chapbook is a meditation on the
moon and all its phases. ($10, available at

"The Spirit and The Word, a Theory of Spirituality
in Africana Literary Criticism," by Georgene Bess
Montgomery, from Africa World Press, Trenton. The author
argues that while diasporic Africans have been cut off from
their memories of an African past, there is a common
recognition of certain images, symbols and ideas. ($29.95,
available at amazon.com and africaworldpressbooks.com)

The Star-Ledger

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