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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Interview with Four Way Books

HFR's tribute to small presses continues. Check out our past interviews here!

What makes us different from other publishers?

It’s hard to approach this question as there are tiers of difference (small presses are different from large, and Four Way is different from other small houses…) — I can tell you what our authors seem to most appreciate: our balance of close editorial attention and aggressive promotion. Commercial houses often can’t be bothered with that kind of attention (to non-blockbusters anyway) and small presses often can’t afford to do as much as they’d like. When Michael Wiegers, the director of Copper Canyon Press, was here at ASU he made a great distinction between “publishing” and “privashing”: it’s crucial to bring books to readers, not just make them into lovely objects.

At Four Way Books, we all—editors, designers, publicity staff—get to know each book, and each author, and I think most authors get a sense of the whole team supporting their book’s publication. We work hard to find each book a real audience (this spring we’ll publish Monica Youn’s Ignatz, a collection partially inspired by George Herriman’s early 20th century comic; we’re promoting the book in all the usual ways, and also to Krazy Kat clubs. Ker plow!)

Also, I cherish the fact that we do not publish according to one aesthetic: there are three of us who acquire books and none of us is predictably wedded to a style or school. Our list has room for the compression and wit and hunger of Alissa Valles, the erudition, formal elegance and spiritual unrest of Daniel Tobin, the sweet hyper-precision about both real and imaginary things that animates the poems of C.S. Carrier...

A recent book I’m excited about?

Luckily for me, there are too many to do justice to. One that’s unusual is Daniel Simko’s posthumous collection The Arrival. It came to us via one of its editors, Simko’s close friend Carolyn Forché, who also wrote the introduction. Simko was ten years old when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and he and his family emigrated to the US in 1969. He lived most of his life in New York. These lines are from the poem “Departure” which opens the collection,

I am entering this room for the last time.

I am entering you the way an angel enters a scythe.

Advice for emerging writers:

Don’t submit your book too soon. Don’t rush. Think about Stephen Dobyns’ essays in Best Words, Best Order (just think about that title!): we can only meet you for the first time once. Make sure your work is ready. Cut the poems you’ve been wondering about (if deep down you know you are holding on for some sentimental reason or for length-o’-manuscript, rather than for aesthetic value). Listen to your own instincts but also listen to your trusted readers (teachers, friends, fellow writers from your student years): that’s not obeisance I’m advocating, but deep listening. The competition is real, and your cover letter is not going to make a big difference. Don’t send the book off because you want to get out from under it: make sure you’ve done the work the poems have offered to you to do.

What is it about a book that makes me want to publish it?

The mind in motion in its pages.

Founding of the press:

Four Way Books was founded seventeen years ago by four writers who wanted to make a hospitable home for poetry as the major New York houses were publishing less and less of it. You’ll notice that poetry now in 2010 has a very strong cast of independent presses who publish most of what appears in print in a given year: BOA, Copper Canyon, Fence, Four Way, Graywolf, Sarabande, Tupelo… some of whom also publish fiction (as Four Way Books has since 2008): I think poetry hit hard times in NY before fiction did, and has had time to build an independent infrastructure that is increasingly strong. Literary fiction is now hip-deep in that same process.

Four Way Books is rising and thriving, and we’ve always been dedicated to creating opportunities for writers of merit in addition to publishing their work. To that end, we send one writer each year to a writer’s retreat (usually the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts) for a month in support of new work. We have a long view: and we are thrilled when we can follow someone over a career. In fact, as our backlist grows and as we publish more fiction, we’ve decided to increase the number of books we publish each year (from 6-8 to 8-11—as much as a 30% increase!) which makes it easier to continue to take on new authors and to keep publishing the best work of our returning authors, in both poetry and fiction.

What is our relationship with small magazines and journals?

We love them. We are grateful they exist.

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