Joshua Beckman, 36, and Matthew Zapruder, 40, met in 1998 when Beckman passed through Amherst, Mass., on a tour for his debut poetry collection, Things Are Happening. Zapruder was an M.F.A. student at the University of Amherst and went to see Beckman's reading: “I was blown away,” says Zapruder. At the time neither could have predicted that, 10 years later, the two friends would be co-editors of Wave Books, one of the most prominent independent poetry presses in the U.S.
In the 1990s, most poetry publishers' lists were filled with mid- and late-career poets, leaving few places for a young poet to publish books—and with the rise of M.F.A. programs there were a lot of young poets. Or so it seemed to Zapruder, who, upon finishing up at Amherst in 1998, joined with fellow poet and the editor of Verse magazine Brian Henry to help fill the vacuum by establishing Verse Press, in Amherst. Their first book was Letters to Wendy's by Joe Wendroth, a collection of humorous and sad prose poems supposedly written on customer comment cards from Wendy's restaurants. The book was a huge hit by poetry standards, selling around 6,500 copies to date.
Verse Press developed something of a cult following among young poets and M.F.A. students. The books—both content and design—were aesthetically hip and often humorous; Beckman's second collection was also among Verse's early volumes. Zapruder, with the help of a small staff, continued to put out books on his own until 2004, when Charles Wright, a businessman, philanthropist and former executive director of the DIA Art Foundation, contacted him, via Verse's distributor, Consortium, asking for advice about starting a poetry press. According to Zapruder, Wright “fell in love with Joshua's work and became very interested in Verse Press.” At that point, Beckman was affiliated with the press only as an author. As he recalls it, Wright “wanted to start something new, but simultaneously wanted it to be Verse Press.” The solution they came up with was for Wright to buy Verse, hire Zapruder and Beckman as editors, and keep the Verse backlist in print. “That meant Verse Press going from being nonprofit to for-profit. In the process, I got hired to be an editor,” said Beckman. As it stands now, Zapruder and Beckman are co-editors of Wave, with Zapruder working part time and Beckman full time to handle the press's administrative functions.
Since Wright wanted a press that would be able to expand the reach of poetry, Beckman was the perfect guy to supply innovative ideas, such as the Poetry Bus, something he'd been kicking around for years. Beckman wanted to get a bus and a bunch of poets and spend a summer driving around the U.S., giving readings. In his initial interview with Wright for the Wave editor job, Beckman told him his idea. Beckman knew he was joining the right team by Wright's response: “Why just a summer?” “At that moment,” Beckman said, “I realized if I bring a big idea to this guy, it might actually happen.” And it did: the bus toured for two months in fall 2006, giving readings in places as far flung as Boise, Idaho, and Wave's home city, Seattle. While Beckman and Zapruder don't plan to sponsor another bus, other innovative Wave projects include the Bedazzler, an online literary magazine, and an anthology of edgy political poems called State of the Union, released this month. Currently, Wave publishes six to eight books per year.
Poetry often takes an unusual path to its readers. Beckman and Zapruder, with Wright's resources and ambition backing them, have tapped into poetry's oldest marketing device, dating back to the days when Homer was transmitted only by traveling bards: community.