Poets are the nomads of literary publishing. Poetry books are rarely money-makers for their publishers; they get published because of a particular house or editor's personal commitment to poetry, to shore up the literary end of a list, or because a nonprofit, indie or university press is passionately invoved in poetry. And because there is little guarantee of returns on investment to provide funds for future publications, because editors change houses or because small presses fold, poets frequently leap from publisher to publisher—even a very successful poet is likely to change houses more often than a comparably famous novelist. So it's also often the case that, once a poet dies, his or her collected works will end up with a different publisher than the one he or she was last or most often associated with. This is exactly what happened with four poets whose collected works have recently been, or are in the process of being, published: University of California Press is completing its edition of the works of Robert Creeley and just getting its publication of six volumes of Robert Duncan's work underway; while Wesleyan University Press is just about to release the collected poems of Jack Spicer and Barbara Guest. Here are the stories of how these two presses and four poets came together.
University of California Press and Wesleyan University Press both have long histories of publishing important books of poetry. UC, for instance, publishes the complete works of the major second-generation modernist poet Charles Olson. It also recently issued retrospective volumes by Lorine Niedecker and Jackson Mac Low. Wesleyan gave many important contemporary writers, like John Ashbery and Richard Howard, early career boosts, and has published major collections by James Wright, Jean Valentine, James Tate, Heather McHugh, Alice Notley and, most recently, Phillip Whalen. Both houses are also extremely active in issuing new volumes by younger poets who are establishing themselves now. But these larger volumes are a big part of what they do—preserving important bodies of work, offering general readers access to poetry they probably could not get before, and enabling scholars and students of poetry to reexamine major careers.
UC Press's ambitious projects involving the complete works of Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan—both associated with the Black Mountain School, a movement spearheaded by Charles Olson—both involve books from New Directions, which was the most important publisher of both poets. While ND was committed to both writers, it ultimately did not retain the rights to publish their collected works.
In January of this year, UC Press completed its publication of Creeley's complete poems and his new selected poems. UC's association with Creeley dates back to its publication of an earlier selected poems in the 1980s. But for decades, until shortly before Creeley's death in 2005, New Directions published each of his new collections, and was in the process of repackaging and reissuing old ones.
The deal with California was set in motion before Creeley died. According to Jeffrey Yang, poetry editor at New Directions, switching to UC Press “was a really hard decision for Creeley and Penelope, his wife. I know he spent a lot of time thinking about it. Financially, we could not do everything—the poetry, the novels, the essays—in the way that he wanted at the time he wanted them done. We made an offer to do all his poetry and all his other writing in a more spaced-out manner. He was pursued by UC Press—I think they're consciously trying to create a very Black Mountain—based poetry list—so Creeley was a big deal for them. He had a very, very big offer from UC. He was really sad about leaving ND; Penelope was sad, and we were as well. But Peggy Fox, ND's president and publisher, is still friends with Penelope and was friends with Bob [Creeley] until he died. We don't have any bad feelings.”
Rachel Berchten, editor of UC press, tells the same story from the other side: “This has been a long time in the making, obviously. We published Robert Creeley's earlier Selected Poems, and we also had published his first volume of collected poems some years ago, so publishing the rest of Creeley made sense. It had to do, of course, with the work becoming available to us.” Once it did become available, UC published Creeley's last poems; reissued his Collected Poems,1945—1975; published his Collected Poems, 1975—2005; and, just this past January, issued his Selected Poems, 1945—2005.
Robert Duncan's work made a somewhat more complicated journey, involving confusion over who owned the rights to it. New Directions had published many of Duncan's collections, including his final two books, Ground WorkVolumes I and II, reissued in 2006, and his selected poems and prose—these last two were edited by Robert J. Bertholf, who was, at the time, the executor of Duncan's literary estate, a post he'd held since Duncan died in 1988, though his rights to the work would soon be challenged in court.
According to Yang, ND is somewhat more regretful about losing the rights to Duncan. Legal confusion caused ND to miss the opportunity to put in a bid for a book it would have liked to do. Yang explains that UC's acquisition of Duncan's collected works “happened at a point when things were in question with the estate. Duncan always had things in the works with UC Press, though I always hear conflicting stories. The multi-volume edition that UC Press is doing now was kind of planned out 15 years ago or so. Peter Glassgold, ND's former editor-in-chief, always planned to do a collected Duncan. The estate, as far as we knew, was handled by Bertholf, and he ran off with it to UC Press, so we thought it was a done deal. Then, while we were reissuing Ground Work a few years ago, it came to our attention that the trust was very actively being challenged. The Jess Trust [which manages the estate of Duncan's longtime partner, the visual artist Jess Collins] is now legally running Duncan's estate, and they've gone ahead and renewed stuff with UC Press.” ND will continue publishing the Duncan books it currently has.
In a press release announcing the commencement of the Duncan project posted on the publisher's blog in November 2007, UC outlined the contents of four of the six proposed volumes and gave this explanation of how it got the rights: “The road leading up to this announcement has not been without significant challenges. The project was originally initiated in 1987 and 1988 by Robert Duncan and an editorial board that included Robert Bertholf, Robert Creeley, Michael Davidson, and William McPheron. Duncan died in 1988, and all but Robert Bertholf eventually resigned from the editorial board. Robert Bertholf's contribution to the legacy of Robert Duncan has been significant and important, and we wish we could have found a way to proceed on the project with his continued involvement. In 2007, the Jess Collins Trust confirmed that the copyrights to Robert Duncan's writings had passed to Jess upon Duncan's death.”
The first release, following a long-awaited biography of Duncan by the poet Lisa Jarnot, will be Duncan's never-published critical work, The H.D Book, about the modernist poet. That book is tentatively slated for fall 2010. The next volume will be Early Poems, Plays and Prose.
Wesleyan Does Spicer and Guest
Wesleyan's acquisition and publication of the works of Spicer and Guest were less controversial. Spicer was a very unusual poet for many reasons. He spent most of his life in San Francisco, where, with Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, he was one of the leading figures in the San Francisco renaissance. Oddly, he did not want his poetry to be published outside of the Bay Area, so the books were released by very small local presses. This created a problem for hopeful readers in the decades since his death in 1965. Black Sparrow Press did an edition of his Collected Books in the late '70s, but this book has long been out of print and is now available for huge sums on the used book market. Most of Spicer's work has been very difficult to obtain since roughly 1980.
Now, along with poet, novelist and Spicer biographer Kevin Killian, poet Peter Gizzi, who edited The House that Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer in the '90s, is now editing the multi-volume collected works of this long-lost poet. The first volume will be the collected poems, which is due out from Wesleyan this fall. Robin Blaser—whose collected poems and prose were recently published by UC Press—was Spicer's longtime executor, and the editor of the Black Sparrow edition. Through his work on Spicer's lectures and his friendship with Blaser, Gizzi became involved with reissuing Spicer's poems.
The book's road to its home at Wesleyan was anything but straight. When Black Sparrow publisher John Martin sold the press, everything but books by Charles Bukowski and John Fante (which went to Ecco) was bought by David R. Godine. “Robin [Blaser] and I had discussed years ago doing another edition. Little did I know it would happen so quickly,” Gizzi says. According to him, they did not want Godine doing another edition, and former UC poetry editor Laura Cerrutti, with whom Gizzi had worked as an adviser on other books, “really, really wanted the Spicer. But [Wesleyan director and editor-in-chief] Suzanna Tamminen contacted me in 1997,” when Gizzi was ready to publish the lectures. Wesleyan was also doing Killian's biography of Spicer, Poet Be Like God, so the lectures were a natural fit. “They've been devoted to Spicer for over a decade. And I know her,” Gizzi adds. Wesleyan also published Gizzi's two most recent books of poetry.
According to Tamminen, the Spicer collected poems “has been in the works for a number of years, but has taken a while to really come together because there was a lot of archival work that the editors wanted to take care of before they finalized the table of contents.” Gizzi is excited about what they've come up with: “There was all this new material. We were opening boxes into which the contents of Spicer's apartment had been dumped when he died. He didn't publish much in his lifetime, but in there we found all these notebooks and it turns out he was writing all the time. About 20% of our book is all new.”
Wesleyan's edition of The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, with an introduction by Gizzi, has had a more straightforward path toward its June publication. Guest was among the first generation of New York School poets (which included John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara), and continued publishing books of verse until her death in 2006. Wesleyan began bringing out her individual collections in the 1990s, though the most recent retrospective book was a now-out-of-print selection published by Sun & Moon Press in 1995.
The collected Guest had been in the works for years; according to Tamminen, “she's someone that we had taken up back in the '90s. She was at that point looking for a new home. We really enjoyed working with her and she enjoyed working with us. We had begun talking with her a number of years ago—I think it was in the late '90s—about eventually doing a collected. That was already contracted when she passed away. That's been in the offing for a number of years, so that one came together fairly quickly. There may also be some other things in the works—like a collected plays and other writings—but they're way, way on down the line.”
Poetry books lead strange lives. They begin in somebody's head, become words on bound pieces of paper. Somebody publishes them, they move from one shelf to another, one publisher to another, one reader to another. Hopefully, the good ones stay in print and find readers in generation after generation. Perhaps the books of Creeley, Duncan, Spicer and Guest have found permanent homes.