When Wave Books, the Seattle-based independent poetry publisher, found out that Tyehimba Jess had taken home the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his latest collection, Olio, it was shocked and elated. Editor-in-chief Joshua Beckman noted that the success seemed almost poetic, since “the first book that we worked on in Seattle was Tyehimba’s first book,” Leadbelly.
That book was published by Verse Press, a now-defunct Massachusetts house bought by Wave publisher Charlie Wright and folded into the then-infant Wave in 2005. (Verse’s editor, San Francisco poet Matthew Zapruder, became an editor at large at Wave.) After a short stint operating offices in both Seattle and Massachusetts, Wave settled fully in Seattle later that year and began publishing books as notable for their unique designs as for their inclusive representation of the American poetic tradition.
Back then, Wave had three full-time employees, not including Wright. Today, it’s four: Beckman, senior editor Heidi Broadhead, publicity and marketing director Ryo Yamaguchi, and office manager and production assistant Blyss Ervin—in addition to part-timer Zapruder and a rotating cast of three interns, serving nine-month stints and usually sourced from the M.F.A. programs at the University of Washington and UW Bothell.
Though this is the first of the two big American literary awards Wave has won, the press has seen its books nominated for some of the bigger American literary awards before, including three National Book Critic Circle Award nominees and finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Awards. The publisher has also taken home the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award and, the day after Jess won the Pulitzer, Hoa Nguyen’s Violet Energy Ingots was shortlisted for Canada’s 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize.
Wave publishes poetry across the stylistic spectrum, including Jess’s performance-rooted work, CAConrad’s exercises in “(soma)tic poetics,” and Matthew Rohrer’s The Others, a novel in verse compiled of a number of layered, otherworldly stories linked via one overarching frame narrative. Part of this is because of the editors’ wide-ranging love of poetry, and part is due to the initial integration of Verse, whose mission—to be international in scope and eclectic in approach—was woven into Wave’s “awkwardly and over time,” as Beckman put it.
One aspect of Verse’s mission that Wave retained is a focus on public interaction. Beckman, like Zapruder, has a strong interest in “D.C. punk rock culture,” and one of the first big projects at Wave, the Poetry Bus Tour, in 2006, reflected that; it involved Wave employees and authors giving readings almost every night, and sometimes twice in one day, in more than 50 cities around the U.S.
Wave has published around 80 books in its 12-year history—not including Verse titles—in addition to, Beckman said, “about a dozen pamphlets and a lot of ephemera—we did a newspaper last year.” Most Wave titles are published in both limited edition hardcover versions and simultaneous trade paperback releases, and they’re distributed by Consortium. For Olio, the initial run was 500 hardcovers and 6,000 paperbacks, making it Wave’s largest first print run for any title. The book had already been selling well when it brought home the Pulitzer, and Wave has since gone back to press, with a run of 500 more hardcovers and 10,000 paperbacks.
Like many indies, Wave uses different printers depending on the particular requirements of each title. The press has published works in a number of material styles, ranging from books that were hand-sewn and printed in its own offices to those printed in white ink on what Beckman called “metallic cardboard.” Olio proved particularly complicated: the collection is uniquely designed, with a number of fold-out and tear-out pages and other quirks that the press’s regular printers couldn’t accommodate. This forced Wave to go to Canada to find the printer: Friesens, based in Altona, Manitoba.
“It was originally more ambitious even than it ended up being,” Broadhead said. “When Tyehimba first brought it to us, it had been bound at Kinko’s, and he had actually figured out how to put those poems all together using a combination of Microsoft Word and cut and paste.”
That said, the publisher does have a distinctive aesthetic for its titles, with two-tone covers or jackets that have black text printed on natural-colored paper. “Our books have a distinctive style in that they presently don’t have any images on them—they’re very text based,” Beckman said. “There was a lot of focus on design built out of the way poems were built. One of the things that’s central is this idea that we design the interiors of the books before the covers. We start to think about what the visual experience of the poems will be, and build books out of that.”
That aesthetic, Yamaguchi said, has helped attract new readers after Jess’s big win. “One thing that sort of caught me off guard is that there are many book collectors who collect every Pulitzer win,” he said. “They were calling trying to get the limited edition hardcover, wanting to make sure they could get a first printing. The reception has been really, really positive for some of these first-time readers or people who weren’t totally aware of us. Because of the distinctiveness of the design, because of the strength of our poets, it feels like opening up a treasure chest for some people. That’s been a really extraordinary experience for us.”
Correction: This story previously misspelled the title of Matthew Rohrer's The Others .