Books In Conversation
BOA EDITIONS with Aspen Matis
Based in Rochester, BOA Editions is an independent literary publishing house known for its innovative and form-pushing fiction and poetry collections and its artful translations of the world’s most worthy—most necessary—new-made poems. Books BOA has published have received the National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, Lannan Literary Award, Shelley Memorial Award, Guggenheim Fellowships, and N.E.A. Fellowships; for a tiny press in a draining lake, BOA has made big waves.
I spoke on the phone with Peter Conners, BOA’s publisher and leader of this great small press.
Aspen Matis (Rail): In the print-book world, a writer best have a 300-ish page manuscript. Publishers can, it seems, do nothing with a 75-page manuscript. For whatever reason—print-marketing costs, reader-demands, tradition—75 pages is just not the printed length. Could e-books and their new ubiquity dissolve that restriction? I mean, will we see more individual short stories and novellas for sale, 100-page prose poems? Could the e-book become formally liberating?
Peter Conners: We haven’t done any single-story things or anything like that, and I guess my answer to that question—which I think is really interesting and provocative—is that for self-publishing, for authors to go their own way, and maybe even use it as an approach to potential publishers or to get their work out there, it might be a really effective means.
Basically what we’re doing is simultaneously releasing all our books of poetry and our fiction books as e-books. Our decision was: listen, the technology is there; we have access to it; it’s not a great expense to us, and so we’re going to do it and get into the field and sort of see how it goes. I will say that our sales of the e-books have been minimal, almost negligible, and it might be because we are publishing poetry, and I think that our readers tend to have a really close relationship to the physical. Poetry is something that you need to go back to and have access to and maybe fold the pages or mark on the pages. And I’ll also say, from our side, that we put so much thought and emphasis into making our physical books really beautiful creations. We think a lot about cover design, the type of paper, the font, everything like that. We take a lot of pride in creating an object that book-lovers are going to have close to their hearts and really want to have around. So we’re in it, but we haven’t seen any real income.
Rail: When you publish poetry in the e-book form are line breaks preserved?
Conners: As soon as you want to start bumping up the point-size, then you’re in danger of having the line-breaks shift. But we don’t make large-print collections or anything like that. So, you know, it’s sort of this balancing act of pros versus cons. My biggest concern was how the authors were going to feel about it. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from our authors.
Rail: Is BOA an acronym?
Conners: Actually it’s just BOA. It’s not an acronym.
Rail: BOA is not-for-profit; foundations and donations account for about 45 percent of your budget. Has the recent decrease in public funds affected BOA? Are foundations stepping in to make up the difference?
Conners: Yes. The decrease in public funds through the N.E.A. and NYSCA, which is the New York State Council on the Arts, is something that’s always on our minds, and the amounts we receive have decreased. And I think, more than anything, it’s just made us go: okay, what do we do if the bottom completely drops out?
Our main supporting foundation is the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. They’ve been wonderful supporters for years of our translation series. They give us money to publish these translated books that are very hard to sell, but are very important. It’s contemporary poets from other countries, and there are so few presses that publish contemporary poets from other countries. Actually, we’re working on a book called The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, a major collection, 850 pages—it includes all of Lucille Clifton’s published work, with a foreword by Toni Morrison, and a wonderful afterword by Kevin Young, who co-edited the book with Michael Glazer. And the Lannan Foundation recognized the importance of this book and actually gave it the 50,000 dollar matching grant. So we have worked really hard to raise that matching-fund money and actually did it. But at a certain point, there’s only so much you can do if public funding goes away. We’d have to look at maybe cutting down on some of our titles, or maybe a different fundraising style or campaign.
Rail: Should artists and writers be more involved in the discourse on public support of the arts and humanities?
Conners: If you believe this art form should be supported by public funds, as opposed to all the money going to, let’s say, weapons, then yeah. You should speak up.
Rail: According to the mission statement, BOA “fosters readership and appreciation of contemporary literature…brings high quality literature to the public.” What constitutes success? How many people must read a book or poem—and what must that book or poem do for those people—for your mission to feel accomplished? Can you ever “accomplish” your mission to your satisfaction?
Conners: To my own satisfaction, no. I always want—[laughs]—I always want more readers. There are a few different ways that we look at it. It might be sales, it might be critical acclaim. And we see that every time the National Book Awards are announced, and there’s this hubbub about why these books are being nominated and praised when they’ve only sold 800 copies. But those books maybe are going to go on and keep selling and keep influencing people. Maybe a book didn’t do as well as we’d hoped right out of the gate, but we published it because we believe in what that author is doing and we believe in that book. And maybe people aren’t quite ready for whatever that author is doing. But that’s part of the mission, too. To push the envelope, artistically. That’s why we don’t work on the corporate publishing model. We have to believe artistically in the work first. And after that we’ll worry about everything else. Our books aren’t disposable.
Rail: BOA is a Rochester institution; its health must be ecologically linked to that of its Rochester peers: Eastman Kodak, the University of Rochester, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. You must all inter-live. And Rochester seems a rusting city: its population has, since 1940, been shrinking; the city’s second largest employer, Eastman Kodak, starves in a new bright digital landscape; flour mills and industrial-type plants have mostly all moved away. What is feeding BOA? How are you not dead?
Conners: [Laughs and laughs.] Alright. When I was growing up in the ’70s, everybody’s dad worked for either Kodak or Xerox or Bausch & Lomb. I tell people it was almost like a socialist city because everybody was sort of taken care of by one of these three corporations. You know, there’d be family night and movie nights and everybody was in that realm. But all those corporations have either moved or they’ve decreased their employment so much that the University of Rochester is now the largest employer. So what’s happened in Rochester is that a lot of smaller, start-up companies have come along, a lot of tech-industry businesses that have really probably been fostered by the Rochester Institute of Technology, but the bottom line is there are all these amazing schools that are all around us, and I think that—and I don’t have statistics to back it up—but I think that more young people are coming out of schools and finding niches here. They usually talk about brain-drain. People graduating from the colleges and leaving. But I feel that’s not the case as much. A lot of those people are finding employment. And, interestingly, those are the people who are most likely to support the arts. That said, for a long time BOA really struggled in Rochester because people didn’t know we were here. The last couple years what we’ve really tried to do is to collaborate with a lot of the local arts organizations to get our work out there and spread the word of poetry. We’ve been going to Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performances and reading a BOA poem right after intermission. And that’s 3,000 people who are in a theater, and I get to stand in front of them and say: BOA Editions, not-for-profit organization, based in Rochester, here’s a little bit about this poet, read the poem. And just doing that a half-dozen times has been tremendous for our visibility.
Rail: Rochester is the smallest city in the world to have had a subway system. Have you ever held an event—say, a prison-literature reading—in the abandoned underground? Dim and chilly with every word echoing——
Conners: To tell you the truth it’s out of our budget. [Laughs.] Sounds weird. That space is being used and it’s being used for art events. There’ve been a bunch of graffiti art events down there.
Rail: An abandoned subway is out of your budget.
Conners: [Both laugh.] Yeah.
Rail: The writers and poets BOA publishes seem to vary in aesthetics; their voices are diverse. But do all BOA books share a—something? A common or necessary spark or thread or world-tinting hue?
Conners: I want to see an author doing something that I can’t imagine anybody else doing. What is it? The duende—I like to use that term. Because that’s really what it comes down to. Is there an animating intelligence and spirit and intention behind those poems that is unique to this human being?
It might be a great poem, and it might be good for lots of people. But I want something that’s going to make me see the world differently and get into the poet and the poet’s perspective and come out a little bit changed.
Rail: Litany for the City won BOA’s 10th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, which Jane Hirshfield selected from 600 manuscripts and wrote: “I found in [Litany] a poet thinking and feeling his way through images of cities both real and metaphoric, inner and outer. This book carries both startling imaginative freedoms and the impulsion of a person navigating the terrain of his life by means of the star-chart and sextant of poems—a winning combination, for me.” Can you tell me more about it?
Conners: Ryan [Teitman] is someone who’s right in that sweet spot of being a lyrical poet who’s not afraid to get innovative with his line-breaks, but he’s also a really clear communicator. So there’s technical mastery, but there’s also a real animating spirit. Interesting motion, interesting poet. A fresh perspective. And, again, when I read it I thought: only one person could do this.