It’s difficult to discuss the state of independent poetry publishing without taking into account the current political and social landscape. Persistent threats to the NEA and NEH, and to smaller, regionally focused arts organizations that support writers and nonprofits, put the future of small presses, many of which rely in part on such funding, in jeopardy.

Against this backdrop, a university affiliation can be an important partnership for a poetry press, offering opportunities for stronger financial sustainability and ongoing advocacy for writers and artistic traditions that may be underserved by mainstream publishing.

These associations take many forms. Colorado State University’s Center for Literary Publishing is part of its English department, while Ahsahta Press receives funding via the interdisciplinary department of theatre, film, and creative writing at Boise State University’s School of the Arts.

Other poetry-focused university presses go beyond specific departmental affiliation. University of Arizona Press is housed by the university’s library system, and the Cleveland State University Poetry Center functions as an independent nonprofit within that university. As a result, Caryl Pagel, the Poetry Center director, says, “we’re responsible for funding our own book publications, reading series, and outreach.”

Regardless of the mechanics of a university partnership, such alliances continue to enrich the literary landscape at a time when arts advocacy is as important than ever.

Stephanie G’Schwind, director of Colorado State’s Center for Literary Publishing, calls CLP “a teaching press,” a description that applies to many publishers’ roles within their larger university communities. CLP offers students internships for credit, and of the more than 300 students who have interned with CLP since it launched in 1992, G’Schwind says, many have gone on to careers in publishing.

An editorial model that facilitates mentorship also opens up opportunities for dialogue across disciplines and career stages. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, founded in 1962, operates on a similar model to CLP, offering credit-bearing internships to students at the university. Pagel says that she and associate director Hilary Plum mentor emerging writers and editors “via multiple types of relationships: graduate student assistantships, undergraduate internships, volunteers, a new postgrad fellowship, and a new course in literary publishing and editing.” By working with people at a variety of ages and career stages, she says, the press does its part to address a “long-standing lack of diversity in the U.S. publishing workforce,” providing training, credentialing, and networking that look beyond the placement of recent graduates.

For instance, the new Anisfield-Wolf Fellowship in Publishing and Writing, a partnership between the center and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, is designed to support emerging writers from nonacademic backgrounds. As part of the two-year position, the fellowship recipient will facilitate an outreach project to the larger Cleveland community, which may take the form of a workshop, an anthology publication, or a partnership with a local arts organization.

The dialogue sustained by a small campus press can find its way into various parts of an academic community. Action Books was founded at the University of Alabama in 2005 and is currently housed at the University of Notre Dame. Its acquisitions focus on translation, a practice that in turn has influenced how professors affiliated with the press design their curricula.

The press and its titles have “challenged us to open up our workshop practices, expectations, and reading lists as widely as possible, and push the students to develop their own sense of poetics in response to examples far outside the Anglo-American canon,” says Johannes Göransson. He and his coeditor, Joyelle McSweeney, teach within the university’s MFA program and have introduced texts including the work of South Korean essayist and poet Kim Hyesoon, and Japanese-born Sawako Nakayasu’s experimental project Mouth: Eats Color—Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-translations, & Originals (Factorial, 2011).

Editors at many university-affiliated presses see their publishing mission as a corrective gesture, and this interest in fostering change through literature informs the acquisitions process.

“As a publisher of Latinx and indigenous writing, we seek outside readers who are Latinx and indigenous to review our work,” says Kristen Buckles, editor-in-chief at University of Arizona Press. The placement of writers of color in gatekeeping positions was instrumental to the press’s Sun Tracks publishing program from the beginning. Sun Tracks, which launched in 1971, focuses on indigenous writers and grew out of a literary journal started by a group of Native American students on campus. “These students sought an outlet to write about themes particular to the American Indian experience that were not of interest to mainstream publishers,” Buckles says, “such as injustice, colonialism, language, and identity.”

Like University of Arizona Press, Alice James Books grew out of a desire to bring visibility to underserved writers. Alice James was founded in 1973 in Cambridge, Mass., and affiliated with University of Maine at Farmington in 1994. (Craig Morgan Teicher, PW’s director of special editorial projects, is on the press’s board of directors.) Since its inception, the press has committed to women’s writing, with the goal of showcasing the range and diversity of the female experience. “When we say we publish women,” says Alyssa Neptune, managing editor, “we mean all the infinite combinations of women: race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity, spirituality.”

For Ahsahta Press director and editor Janet Holmes, championing marginalized writers means venturing beyond traditional forms of poetry. The press was founded in 1974 to promote the poetry of the American West, and when Holmes joined Ahsahta’s staff in 1999, the press’s focus shifted significantly. “We were quite early in publishing and promoting transgender, gender-fluid, and intersex poets, the telling of whose stories often requires experimentation with form,” she says.

Such experimentation remains a hallmark for the varied writers the press publishes. For instance, Heidi Lynn Staples’s A**A*A*A, slated for a May release, explores the possibilities of typography for narrating stories that defy mainstream expectations of gender.

Several editors emphasize the importance of working outside of genre conventions, whether that means encouraging authors who experiment with form, or fostering unconventional book design.

“I’ve spent much of my life as a student or teacher in art schools,” Cleveland State Poetry Center’s Pagel says, “where fluidity between forms isn’t scandalous, and where hybrid work is not only commonplace but essential.” She says that book designers Amy Freels and Sevy Perez embrace that fluidity in their work, creating physical objects that amplify the reader’s experience of language. One example, she says, is the gold foil on Lily Hoang’s 2016 collection, A Bestiary, which PW’s starred review called a “genre-transcending work.” She also points to two just-released titles: Shaelyn Smith’s The Leftovers, which is inspired by Judy Chicago’s seminal feminist artwork The Dinner Table and includes handmade collages, and Nicholas Gulig’s Orient, whose prose-poems consider what it means to be a global citizen in a time of war and are accompanied by journalistic photos of Syria.

The books also represent the slipperiness of genre, Pagel says. The Leftovers, for instance, could be called “a memoir in art” but also “criticism” or “investigations in feminism,” and Orient blends “listening theory” and “global politics.”

Duke University Press editorial director Kenneth Wissoker aims to offer a space “where poetic thinking can be in dialogue with cutting-edge scholarship.” Since the early 1990s, his acquisitions have focused on the African diaspora, queer studies, and feminism. This editorial vision embraces poetry as a form of creative scholarship, where, he says, form, style, and technique are brought to bear on what readers had previously envisioned as purely academic questions. “As an editor, I’m seeing more proposals for creatively written scholarly work than ever before,” Wissoker says.

One example is Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk (Aug.), a dialogue between a poet and the clerk who is the keeper of the poet’s pages. Their discussions about what should and should not be withheld prompts the reader, Wissoker says, to think about the “political forms of such regulation.” He says that stylistic hybridity has energized scholarly writing, and also positions poets as academic experts, opening the door for poetry to be taught in a wider range of college courses.

The press recently published Alexis Pauline Gumb’s M Archive, which Wissoker says is “written from the point of view of a survivor of global disaster, trying to reassemble a world out of old black and feminist knowledges.” By looking to the old world’s grievances, and listening to voices that were once disenfranchised, Gumb’s narrator hopes to build a more just society.

M Archive is one among several titles that use poetry as a testing ground for what’s possible within language and the social order that it represents. Lara Candland, in the 2018 CLP release The Lapidary’s Nosegay, invents her own lexicon by making atypical use of typography. G’Schwind notes the rich history of innovative writing by women that informs the book, particularly as Candland “examines a connection with Emily Dickinson.”

University of Arizona’s Buckles sees poetry as a vehicle for presenting a version of history that amplifies often-suppressed viewpoints. This approach can take many forms. “Some activist writing deliberately eschews technique in favor of voice and experience,” she says, offering as an example the University of Arizona publication Poetry of Resistance, edited by poets Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodriguez.

The book grew out of a Facebook forum created in 2010 by Alarcón, who wrote and posted a poem in support of nine Latino students at the university who were arresting during a nonviolent protest against SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial anti–illegal immigration measures. The forum quickly grew into an online activist arts community called Poets Responding to SB 1070, with more than 3,000 original poems submitted. Poetry of Resistance, which includes works by more than 80 writers who posted to the forum, was published in 2016, two months after Alarcón’s death.

The recently released The Real Horse by Farid Matuk, she says, builds on this legacy of activist poetics, considering the meaning of citizenship in the 21st century.

Ahsahta Press has just published Jonah Mixon-Webster’s Stereo(TYPE), which explores the relationships among language, race, and oppression. In the book, Mixon-Webster uses white space, erasures, blackouts, and drawings to consider the rhetoric of racial identity.

Similarly, Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Flung Throne uses nonstandard typography, strikethroughs, and traditional verse to parse the interplay between language and violence. Ahsahta’s Holmes agrees with other editors who said that telling some stories, especially those concerning historically marginalized groups, “often requires experimentation with form.”

Forthcoming releases from Alice James—Anna Rose Welch’s We, the Almighty Fires and DaVida by Monica A. Hand, both due in April, and Nicole Cooley’s Of Marriage, out in June—exhibit a range of literary styles. Alyssa Neptune, the press’s managing editor, says that this stylistic diversity is part of the press’s effort to showcase the variety inherent in women’s voices. “We have intense social and political commentary about black identity from Monica, Anna Rose has lyrical and faith-driven poems about female empowerment and sexuality, and Nicole has gritty accounts of the vulnerabilities and complexities of a lifelong committed relationship.”

The work being produced by all of these publishers not only challenges the boundaries among genres, languages, and media, but also demonstrates how these divisions are politically charged. Experimentation with language then becomes a form of activism, and university partnerships provide the infrastructure for editors’ advocacy. Or, as Joyelle McSweeney at Action Books puts it, “We’re just one synapse in a whole chain of explosions.”

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (Univ. of Akron, 2020).

Below, more on the subject of poetry:

Plan of Action: Poetry 2018

Joyelle McSweeney, coeditor of Action Books, explains why publishing literature in translation is a challenge and provocation to traditional poetry publishing.

On the Syllabus: Poetry 2018

A selection of new and forthcoming poetry from university presses