THOMAS RAIN CROWE | New Native Press: marginalizing the mainstream
In 1979, I left northern California, where I cut my literary teeth as editor/publisher ofBeatitudemagazine and Beatitude Press (one of the first magazines to publish the Beat poets during the 1950s), and returned to the North Carolina mountains of my boyhood with the idea of beginning something of a literary bioregional tradition here in a region that was generally considered to be “the boondocks” of the American literary landscape. Having, in California, been at the epicenter of a burgeoning Bioregional/Greens movement while keeping company with some of its founding literary fathers such as Gary Snyder, Peter Berg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure, it seemed only natural that the imprint of my first publishing venture should be “New Native Press” – an amalgam of bioregionalism and the Beats.
In keeping with the reinhabitory, place-specific, and non-centrist vision of bioregionalism, the first things printed under the New Native Press imprint were limited-edition fine arts broadsheets done by poets and visual artists from here in the Southern Appalachians. These broadsheets were done as time and money allowed, until several years later I found myself working as a pressman for a small local printing and newspaper firm. I was able to wrangle a deal with the manager of the print shop, allowing me to use the printing presses, paper, and other machinery at cost in order to do printing jobs of my own, on the side. I began designing, typesetting, printing and binding chapbooks of poetry during this time – which was in the late 1980s. I was, quite literally, a one-man printing/publishing operation, doing all the phases and aspects of the publishing process, from selection and editing of manuscripts to binding and distributing the finished books. Looking back, now, I would have to say that this was probably my hey-day as a publisher, as I loved being able to do, physically, all the aspects of book-making from A to Z.
During these days I was publishing not only local and regional writers, but translations of poets from abroad – giving New Native Press a “think globally and act locally” identity that, if nothing else, was unique. But after a few years of printing and publishing small quality hand-sewn books, and after being laid off from my job at the newspaper and printing business, I made the decision to take the ultimate plunge into the world of perfect-bound, mass-market books. It seemed like the logical thing to do, with all my previous experience with magazine and book publishing. But I was in for a real shock when I began studying marketing and demographics for the publishing industry here in the U.S., as I found out quickly that there really was no substantial or self-sustaining market for selling books of poetry. I think the figures at the time indicated that there was a potential target audience of only around 16,000 people. People who actually buy books of poetry on any regular basis. This is a very small percentage of the over-all book-buying and reading public – less than one-tenth of one percent. Not a very big target for someone hoping to try and make a living operating a small press producing books of verse. But despite the odds, I had my mind made up, and so went ahead with the process of setting up NNP as a bona-fide publisher of quality, non-academic poetry.
Thirty years later, I’m still at it. God only knows how I’ve managed to keep afloat in the vastly competitive market here in the U.S., but providence and persistence are what fuels this press and what generated the success of books likeAgainst Information, a slightly satirical poetic send-up of the so-called Information Superhighway, andWriting the Wind – an anthology of contemporary Celtic language poets.
James Laughlin’s New Directions has always been a publishing model for me, and I’ve always been interested in the international aspects of the literary world. In my days as an editor ofBeatitudein San Francisco, the issues I edited were always heavy with translations – Russian, Spanish, French, German, Italian… So, this has been carried over to my oeuvre as a publisher. To date, New Native Press has published work by authors from France, Hungary, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and India, in addition to those from the U.S. All this interest in contemporary international literature was peaked with the publication in 1998, of the Celtic language anthologyWriting The Wind: A Celtic Resurgence (The New Celtic Poetry) – a book which took over three years to complete, during which time I came to know many of the poets who were to appear in the book, and so my connection to the world of Celtic literature and its various traditions became not only informed, but intimate. My eyes were opened to the rich vein of talent and tradition embodied in these writers who were largely unknown to the world, as well as the kinds of struggles and hardships this kind of isolation presented, artistically as well as psychologically and culturally. And it was probably during conversations with such language-activist poets as Bobi Jones in Aberystwyth, Wales, and Aonghus MacNeacail on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and Michael Davitt in Dublin, Ireland – all of whom I met on two trips to the UK and Ireland during the years when I was working on the book – that the seeds were planted for my eventual decision to make NNP into an exclusive publisher of the work of writers writing in marginalized and/or endangered languages. These poets not only educated me as to the wealth in their respective and long-standing literary traditions, but dazzled me with their own individual talents – adding to my enthusiasm and the idea that it was absolutely essential that such a comprehensive multi-lingual book be created in order to fill a huge hole in the international literary canon.
After publishingWriting the Wind, I took a few years off from publishing to work on my own writing and to do some traveling. During this time, I had the opportunity to indulge in further, extended correspondence with these language-activist poets, and others, and to really think deeply about the implications of what it must mean to write in cultures where the number of readers are declining drastically, and where the language, to the outside world, is considered “dead.” During this period, I was, serendipitously, receiving manuscripts from all over the world, including a Native American poet in Alaska and a translator of poetry in the Marathi language in Bombay, India. It was, then, that the idea crystalized for me that New Native Press should become a vehicle, albeit a small vehicle, for the voice of disenfranchised writers anywhere in the world.
In becoming a champion for writers writing in marginalized languages, I had also found an exclusive niche for the press – no small feat at a time when the industry was in the throws of enormous decline in readers of books, and especially fine literature. With this epiphany, I began contacting the writers and publishers directories that had been carrying descriptive ads for New Native Press, and changed the statement-of-purpose clause to fit the new agenda – becoming, instantly, the only press on record devoted exclusively to the publication, in translation, of writers writing from the language edges of their particular cultures. The aim of the press, with this change of direction, became twofold: to introduce English language readers to interesting international voices and to give so-called "marginalized" writers (and especially language-activist writers) a larger pulpit from which to preach and a larger and more diverse audience.
When asked, today, about the press’s moniker and how it relates to being an exclusive publisher of endangered language writers, I respond by saying that I’ve simply taken the notion of what it means to be a "new native" and projected it onto a larger universe. As a publisher, I am embracing the entire planet as my "bioregion" and identifying many marginalized languages and cultures as being just as important, in diversity, as are the more prominent and dominant languages and cultures, world-wide. So, in this sense, my vision as a steward of the place in which I live has not changed, in principal, only in scale.
Thus far, NNP has worked with a Native American Indian poet from Alaska who is, single-handedly, trying to save his people’s Ahtna language; poets writing in the Celtic languages: Welsh, Breton, Manx, Cornish, Scots Gaelic and Irish; a Geordie poet native from the region of Newcastle-on-Tyne in northern England; and a translator from Bombay who has translated the work of one of that countries most prominent poets of the past century writing in the Marathi language. This beginning is indicative of the diverse nature as well as the scale of the press’s vision, as I, for one, believe that the world we live in, today, is, indeed, a global village, and we must be cognizant of the plights and perils of those who are far-distant from us, since what we do locally has global implications. Cultural, environmental, industrial, and political ideologies and practices no longer exist in the kinds of imagined vacuums they did one-hundred or even fifty years ago.
New Native Press’s "bioregion" is, now, a planetary one. One which cherishes all languages and all cultures, no matter how marginalized or remote, as I believe that the world, and life lived in this world, is only as rich as the amount of diversity in it. To aide in the preservation of languages and cultures is, admittedly, a selfish endeavor on my part, as I personally don’t wish to live in a world that has become mono-culturally top-heavy and myopic, in the same way I don’t want to live in a world absent of whales and elephants. This, then, is my credo as I work locally, here in my home county in North Carolina for the preservation of the Southern Mountain dialect that was spoken by my Scots-Irish ancestors, and for the preservation of the "Tsalagi" language spoken for centuries, here, by my Cherokee Indian neighbors. In this sense, the new New Native Press statement-of-purpose is a political one in that I believe that one’s language is his primary politic. Since language is at the heart of any culture, for the culture to live on, so must its language. The language-activist poets being published by New Native Press love their languages and love their cultural heritage. By using his or her indigenous language as their primary language rather than writing in the language of their colonizer, each of these writers is making a strong public political statement.
At the moment, and largely as a result of the success of the Celtic anthology, New Native Press has distributors in five countries, in addition to the several vendors that handle the press’s books here in the US. All this has given New Native Press greater visibility and the kind of name-recognition, both home and abroad, that we’re hoping will benefit our “marginalized language” books and the poets and translators they represent. We’re also hoping that new readers will be attracted to our books and our agenda, and that the interest will be passed on by word-of-mouth.
And what about the future? For now, my biggest challenge is to survive a crashing market. To still be around in ten or twenty years when poetry comes back into vogue, and has captured a true readership. The way that I am doing that, is one day, one book, at a time. And doing these with enthusiasm and with style. Its been an exciting and busy few years living and working in the global village. But as trying and financially frightening as it’s been at times, I think that it’s been well worth it, and that we’ve made the right choice to go this way.
Thomas Rain Crowe (U.S., 1949). Poet, translator and editor in chief of New Native Press:www.newnativepress.com. In the 70s of last century was the director of the International Poetry Festival in San Francisco and of the magazine Beatitude. Author of books like Water From The Moon (1995), The Laugharne Poems (1997), and Poems From Zoro’s Field (2005). Currently organizes together with Floriano Martins, an anthology of poets living in the United States, to La Cabra Ediciones, Mexico. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Page illustrated with works by Kurt Seligmann (Switzerland), guest artist this issue of ARC.