In preparation for our celebration of Carolina Wren Press’s 30th anniversary, I asked Judy Hogan to write a history of the Press’s early years. She was glad to have the opportunity to tell this survival story, which is both her personal story and a reflection on the hard times artists and activists lived through. –Andrea Selch
THE HISTORY OF CAROLINA WREN PRESS – 1976-1991
By Judy Hogan, Founder
“If you don’t believe you can make a difference, you certainly won’t.”
I never planned to be a small press editor and publisher: One thing led to another. It took a lot of time, money, faith, and calling on other people’s time, money, and faith to do it. I was a writer first and when, in 1966, I was ready to send out poems, I tried to get into some small literary journals. But my poems all came back, rejected. Later I would learn that many ‘little mags,’ as they were called, had been founded by writers who, like me, hadn’t been able to get their own work published, and that some of the most distinguished small-press editors had started out this way.
The proliferation of small, cottage-industry presses came about through a combination of many circumstances and events. First of all, large publishers were beginning to be bought and sold by conglomerates, with the result that they did less and less new fiction and poetry; the country was in revolution because of the Civil Rights struggle; there was the Vietnam War, to which more and more Americans were opposed; and there was the renewed surge of the feminist movement. At the same time, there was the new National Endowment for the Arts, and offset printing was becoming more affordable. Those were also years when our government spied on its citizens: reading mail, tapping phone lines, infiltrating peace and activist groups. These events were all happening in the mid-’60s and early ’70s, creating a certain ferment which definitely affected me and drew me into publishing.
The roots of Carolina Wren were in Berkeley, California, though it was birthed on January 1, 1976, in Chapel Hill, as I sat in my living room in Chase Park Apartments, looking past the balcony, where I fed wintering birds, into the woods behind them. Chase Park had grown out of the Chapel Hill Civil Rights struggle and was run by the Interfaith Council.
I had arrived in Berkeley, newly divorced, with my two-year old daughter, Amy, in the fall of 1964 to begin a Ph.D. in Classics, and shortly thereafter the campus erupted in what became known as the Free Speech Movement. I signed an early petition, but I didn’t understand very well why students were boycotting classes. They were angry, too, at those of us who crossed their picket lines to attend class. I remember that someone swiped a sign at me. Those students had spent the summer in the South, registering black voters. They had learned to recognize when those in power were abusing their power, and that was how they saw the University of California-Berkeley administrators. I was grateful to be back in school with a government loan and a part-time job, and I was deadly serious about doing well. I would later come to understand the students’ views and also be horrified by some of the things tried in order to stop them. Helicopters flew over Berkeley and tear gas was used to break up crowds, sometimes without warning. It’s fair to say that Berkeley politicized me as well as giving me the possibility of learning Greek and Latin with fine scholars. I never finished my degree, but I received an excellent classical education. When I left there in 1968, with my new husband, Terry Hogan, I had decided to give myself to writing rather than persisting in the academic world. Terry got a job in the Economics Department at Northwestern and we moved that fall to Evanston.
Hyperion Poetry Journal was launched in Evanston the following summer when Paul Foreman, a friend of my Berkeley friend Foster Robertson, visited us there and proposed starting a journal, but it was in many ways a Berkeley magazine in the beginning.
Paul and I were both poets, as was Foster, with whom he was in love and whom he later married. He had been reading the little newsletter I sent to family and friends while I was a graduate student, to keep them up-to-date on me and Amy. I called it The Kanga-Roo News and in recent years I had expanded it to include a literary supplement, where I “published” my own poems and those of friends and wrote articles on poets I was interested in, Ezra Pound especially. Paul proposed we “expand the Kanga-Roo News Literary Supplement,” i.e., start a journal. We decided on poetry only. He had with him Holderlin’s long poem-novel, Hyperion, and inscribed it to us: “For Terry and Judy and Amy and Tim (when they grow up), in gratitude for their friendship, in love for their spirit, in hope for their future, with faith that the fates will be kind, the gods will be tender, and the earth rich and full in its bounty…. and to commemorate the birth—or rebirth—of Hyperion!”
I liked the name because Hyperion means ‘the one who goes beyond’ and was the Greek light god, father of the sun, the moon, and the dawn. Paul returned to Berkeley to find the poets and began mailing me poems. I had never edited before, but I figured I’d learn how. We both had definite ideas as to what gave value to a poem and we decided we would always tell a poet in writing why his work had been rejected. That was a good discipline. Paul and I also came to realize that our own experiences could help us understand another poet’s. Often I would defend and open up a woman’s poem that made no sense to him, and he’d do the same for a poem by a man if I hadn’t understood it. We agreed that if either of us wanted to publish the poem, we would. He had also two helpful thoughts. One was that “there was no such thing as a perfect poem,” that is, that we shouldn’t go overboard picking at other people’s or our own poems; the best poems had flaws. Another helpful idea was that we should keep an eye out for “those strange fish:” poets who are very different or very new, whom we might reject just because they seemed strange. We could both appreciate a wide range of poetry with our eclectic tastes and we published many different new voices, many of whom went on to publish books and become well known: Sheila Nickerson, Richard Dauenhauer, Colette Inez, Harold Witt, Dave Oliphant, Manizar, et al.
Paul paid an “underground printer” for the first issue of Hyperion with money he’d received from the G.I. Bill. He then hitchhiked to Evanston, having spent all his money, to bring us the first copies and spend the rest of the 1969 Christmas holidays with us. He and I were both visionary. We believed our little poetry magazine could change the world. Maybe it has, or is, or will. Hard to know. But if you don’t believe you can make a difference, you certainly won’t.
Felix Pollack, librarian at University of Wisconsin, had been collecting little mags since the 1950s. I was very excited when he subscribed. We also learned of COSMEP, the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers, and in 1973 we both attended their annual gathering in New Orleans, at Tulane. By then Terry and I were living in Cedar Grove, N.C., 25 miles north of Chapel Hill. Paul and Foster had started Thorp Springs Press by buying a 1250 Multilith offset press. A used one cost $1000, which was my annual payment on my college loan. Terry wasn’t happy that I defaulted on it in 1971 and sent the money to Paul to buy a press.
1973 was, in fact, a momentous year. I met many of the writers I would later publish: Amon Liner, Jaki Shelton [Green], Virginia Long Rudder, Bill Herron, Miranda Cambanis. For both Paul and me, a literary magazine or a press meant a community of people. He had begun to gather writers around him in Berkeley after he married Foster. When I arrived in North Carolina, I wanted to find the writers and set about looking for them. I remember going to UNC Library in the spring of 1972 and finding a list of poets published by UNC Press. The only one I was able to meet was Charles Wright, who at the time was teaching a Continuing Education class in poetry. He invited me to visit his class. I did. They liked my comments on their poems, and someone proposed forming a group after the class ended. We met monthly and some good writers emerged from that group: Cindy Paris, Mark Shuman, Mitchell Lyman.
It was at one of those group meetings, in January 1973, that I met Amon Liner, who was working at UNC Library as a cataloguer. Amon was brought to the group by Betty Bolton, who also worked at the library, but I had already heard of him. He was the poetry editor for the Red Clay Reader and Red Clay Books, which were published by Charleen Whisnant in Charlotte, about whom I had learned soon after I came to the state in the summer of 1971. The model she represented was important: an independent-minded woman writer putting new poets—both black and white—into print. I would later publish some of those she had published: T.J. Reddy (Poems in One Part Harmony, 1980), Amon Liner, and Paul Newman (The Light of the Red Horse, 1981). Charleen had said that Amon knew more about poetry than anyone else in North Carolina. So, when I found myself sitting next to him at this meeting of our poetry group, I was prepared to be intimidated, and I even felt a little competitive, but Amon quickly disarmed me by asking about my six-month-old baby, Virginia, who was on my lap.
It was the beginning of a short but very important friendship. Over the next three years, until his death in 1976, Amon came to our home for supper several times, and we went to his apartment in Glen Lennox. I learned what a dedicated poet he was. When we two were together, we didn’t normally talk much, though he talked freely with Terry. I did have several meetings with him to talk about Chrome Grass, which I had agreed to publish by the summer of 1974, before he went to UNC-Greensboro that fall to get his MFA. I visited him there several times. He was upset about my separation from Terry in late ‘74. At UNC-G he wanted me to meet Tom Huey, whose work inspired by Amon was the best of his that I saw; I published his poem broadside This Life: A Salutation in December 1975, when we had a reading at Somethyme restaurant in Durham for Amon and Jaki Shelton. I also published Huey’s Force Hymn, also written for Amon, in 1979.
No, Amon didn’t intimidate me. We had a lot of respect for each other. He had invented a machine-like form and had taken on topics like mechanized genocide and the surplus of material objects in our lives, while I was still immersed in the traditional subjects of poetry—love and other human relationships, the natural world. But Amon never measured my work harshly. When I asked him and a couple of other people to choose the strongest poems of a selection for my first book (Cassandra Speaking, Thorp Springs Press, 1977), he made very helpful choices and told me why. He could appreciate a wide range of poems, and he cared deeply about the work of other writers. He introduced me, by giving me his address, to T.J. Reddy, in jail by 1974 for being one of the Charlotte Three, wrongly convicted of burning a stable. Amon, who knew I wrote to writers in prison, said, “Here’s another prison poet you might want to write to.”
Amon also alerted me to Julia Fields when Red Clay published her book, East of Moonlight. Once, when I visited him at UNC-G and said that after three years of reading his work, I was beginning to be able to tell his strong work from his weak work, he asked, “Do you think it takes all editors three years to get used to my work?” Some never would have, I’m sure. He was at the time sending around Rose, A Color of Darkness, trying to get it published. He hadn’t succeeded by the time he died in July 1976, and that was the next book of his I published, in 1981, after Chrome Grass, which came out the day after he died.
Despite not talking that much, we communicated so deeply that, when Amon died, I didn’t feel like I’d lost him. He was such an ongoing part of my life, my consciousness. It’s fair to say that he’s still alive in me some way, somehow. He also introduced me to Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, whose work was just being translated into English. These poets became even more important to me later, when I began to meet Russian writers in the 1990s.
That spring, 1973—when the dogwoods were in bloom, so March probably—I met Jaki Shelton for the first time. She and her husband, Sherman, had written me a postcard: “We are two black writers. Would you be interested in publishing our work?” They had seen Hyperion in the Confederate Memorial Library in Hillsborough. I wrote back to send poems, and they did. I accepted some from each one. Shortly afterward Jaki visited me in Cedar Grove, on the tobacco farm where we were living in the farmer’s old frame house that had been moved across the field to make room for the fine brick house he had built for his family. Jaki seemed both fragile and stern to me. She had very clipped, short hair; she was young, slender, and carried a briefcase. She was barely 20, I know now. I knew she had courage to come alone to see me in those racially tense times, when school integration was just beginning to happen in North Carolina; I had immediately become aware of the polarization of the races here. Everyone we met, black or white, had to know where we stood on ‘the racial question.” I passed Jaki’s test, and I genuinely liked her poetry. After she left, I looked across the fields to the edge of the woods, where the small white dogwood stood out, vulnerable, brave, and it seemed to me that that was the perfect image for how Jaki had affected me.
We too became friends. We also helped each other with our children, picking them up from daycare, and we shared each other’s emotional ups and downs. In 1977 she would write a poem for me, “Dead on Arrival,” in which she wrote: “… they asked me to identify/ the smile. /the smell/ the style of her art./ they asked for identity/ a season./ a year./ a place./ I could only give them/ the time of birth/ her astrological chartings/ and the names of her lovers…”. I remember my surprise when I read her poem that began with the line “the moon is a rapist peeing in my window.” I had never considered before that the moon could be ugly in any sense; I was steeped in the Western European tradition of the moon as a serene goddess, the moon as an accompaniment to romantic love. But for Jaki the moon was a white male face in the dark night, intent on violence. She and other black writers took on the job of educating me over the years. In January 1975, when I moved with my three children to Chase Park, as one of a minority of white families, I learned even more about the limitations of my “white liberal” understanding.
In 1973 I also received poems from Miranda Cambanis, a Greek poet in exile in Chapel Hill from the junta of those years. Miranda was also writing poems in English and she had found Hyperion in the Intimate Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I accepted some of her poems and then asked to meet her. Most of our friends lived in Chapel Hill and we often went there to shop or for the libraries. Miranda too became a friend. When Tim entered a nursery school for four-year-olds that met three mornings a week, in the fall of 1973, Miranda and I worked out a babysitting exchange. One of those three mornings I was Paint Mother at nursery school; on one I kept her two-year old Alexis, taking my one-year old Ginia with me, and on the third morning I left Ginia and had a few hours to myself. Miranda didn’t say a lot about what it had been like to be a young poet coming along during a modern Greek poetic renaissance; she had known Seferis, Elytis, and others. But her poems and the play she showed me, The Execution, told me a lot. I published the play in 1975 through Thorp Springs. Later, in 1986, I would publish her poems, The Traffic of the Heart.
One of my favorite poems of hers is about poetry and conjures up Miranda for me: passionate and elusive:
and not in damp houses with leaking roofs and hungry children
as has often been said by well paid intellectuals at cocktail parties,
wishing, in their drunkenness, to be poets with any other voice
except their own.
In these times of distress and improvisation,
when some are killed for only one night and others for an eternity
they don’t even want to know,
poetry lives in perpetual insomnia and stays away from sleeping pills
or promises of eternity or poems about herself.
Poetry is thin, with dark eyes and a hollow face that echoes all
the time without distinction. The distinction lies in her breasts that
are full of beat under her vague dress that changes colors according to the statements.
She never fails, grows old or dies but simply moves to the next place
when it is time to move, to slap, to love, to incorporate the unspoken
before it fades away unrecognized.
When poetry sleeps, she is fatally wounded. Her breasts lie still under
her red dress and her voice surrenders to inarticulate shrieks that freeze
the tears and put a gun on the temple of those who reject their own
heartbeat and believe they can cross reality when they can only lift it.
Poetry comes quickly to us, all of us, as a sin and as ecstasy,
without preparation or purpose or continuity, like a stray bullet from
the guts of a rock that managed to speak after centuries of silence.
Poetry does not protect herself but moves in and out of pain like a warrior
and like a woman who lost all of her sons in violence and is still
going through the shadows erect, strong, and justified, without hope and without death.
Poetry is the voice of those who refuse to forget their isolation,
and so she lives in perpetual insomnia like a captive snake before it surrenders.
(“Poetry,” The Traffic of the Heart, Carolina Wren Press, 1986, p. 11)
Miranda introduced me to a whole different way of using metaphors. Once she and I translated “Marina of the Rocks” by Odysseus Elytis, a favorite poem of hers. “You have a taste of tempest on your lips./ Where have you been all day long, lost/ in what harsh contemplation of stone and sea?” (Hyperion 13, Translation Issue, 1976, p. 242). It could have been written for her. It may have been!
In 1973 I went with my whole family to the COSMEP conference in New Orleans. There I met Anne Pride of the new feminist press, KNOW, in Pittsburgh; Jackie Eubanks, a Brooklyn librarian and feminist; and others in this renewed women’s movement. They were turning COSMEP upside down. Most of the little mag editors of the ’60s had been men, and they were generally anti-establishment and at odds with being too organized. The feminists were there to learn how to publish. They expected the organization to run well and be useful to them: they insisted on having babysitter support and putting women on panels, and being included in bull sessions. I was intimidated by them at first, but they gave me such support, holding my baby while I gave my first poetry reading. As I got to know them, they didn’t seem scary at all and I found that I, too, wanted to be a feminist. Two books I especially remember that KNOW, Inc. had published around that time, which I brought home with me, were The Politics of Housework and I’m Running Away from Home But I’m Not Allowed to Cross the Street. The latter book was about a woman who had seven or eight children. Even though I only had three children myself, I could identify with her.
One after-effect of that conference was that I organized a COSMEP South conference and drew about 30 people, including two young men, one of whom was Steve Hoffius, who had just done a Whole Earth Catalog and later worked for Southern Exposure; Ann Deagon; and Linda Brown Bragg, who wore a big Afro and had had a book of poems published by Broadside Press in Detroit, which was publishing a lot of black writers at that time. David Wilk also came. He was doing Truck magazine and later, in the early ‘80s, he became director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts, after Len Randolph left. We met one fall weekend in 1974 in a large building off Fearrington Road in Durham. We had all brought sleeping bags and stayed overnight. The barbeque promised by the man we had rented the building from evaporated, and I was hustling to buy hot dogs and hamburgers and press my friends into helping with food at the last minute, but it all worked out. T.J. Reddy, with whom I’d been corresponding, sent a letter which I later published in Hyperion 12 (1975): “Although I am in no position to be with you because of the present state of affairs (leaving much to be desired in the way of freedom, justice, and equality), let me extend my appreciation for the consideration directed toward creative survival. Your interest is by no means taken for granted.” He wrote from Albemarle Prison.
Out of that conference grew a COSMEP South distribution project; in 1975 I became its coordinator and earned $2000 a year. Southern Poetry Review, St. Andrews Review, Truck, and other small presses and literary magazines sent books, and we did move some of them. It was always an uphill struggle though.
By 1974 I was also organizing readings at Somethyme Restaurant in Durham. I had read in the Durham Morning Herald of Terry Sanford, president of Duke University, and his openness to new ideas. I wrote to him and suggested that Duke have poets in residence. Gene Fowler, whom I’d met in Berkeley at Paul Foreman’s house in 1971, and Norm Moser, whom Paul was also publishing about that time, were the poets I had in mind. Both called themselves shaman poets, were in need of jobs, and were rather eccentric, to say the least. Terry Sanford replied and suggested I visit him to talk about it. I did. He listened, then turned me over to his “Radical-in-Residence” (his name for this person—remember this was 1974, and in the early 1970s most universities in the country had been in turmoil for years about something or other). This Radical very kindly took me to Somethyme for lunch and introduced me to Aden Field, who worked there. I never worked out the writer-in-residence program at Duke, but Aden later helped me set up a series of readings, mostly for new women writers. A group of Durham women were doing a Whole Women’s Catalog, and to support them I said we’d have a women’s reading. New women writers came out of the woodwork, women who were becoming poets partly because of their new-felt freedom to speak out, be themselves. They were gaining confidence in pursuing their own interests and talents because the women’s movement was making it possible.
The first reading set off others. Somethyme was owned by three people at the time, one of whom was Mary Bacon, who later opened Anotherthyme Restaurant a few blocks away. She used to stay until the end of the reading to hear my poems because I always read last. Many of those poems read at Somethyme found their way into Black Sun, New Moon (Hyperion 15, 1980), which was a gathering of women’s poetry from our area but also from around the country. New women poets were emerging everywhere. I quoted Esther Harding, a follower of Jung, in my introduction:
“As we have followed woman through the various vicissitudes of her life, the myth of womanhood, shrouded by the illusion of man’s anima which he has projected upon her, and which she has carried uncomplainingly through all the years of her unconsciousness, has faded, and the real woman as she is in herself has emerged. In so defining her personality she has released herself from the anima projection of the man; she has stripped herself as far as possible of the garment of glamor with which he has clothed her and has dared to reveal herself in her weakness and in her strength. Man’s illusion painted her in colors superhuman both in their brilliance and in their sombre tones. To him she has seemed divinely fair and demonically ugly. When she steps out into the light, she both loses and gains by the change. Formerly the effects she produced arose from the unconscious, either her own or the man’s and she could have little or no control over them. Now for the first time she is humanly responsible for her own qualities. If she sins, she can repent; if she does well, it is her own doing. It is, indeed, unquestionably a gain in psychological evolution, for by revealing herself as she is she has become a self-conscious individuality” (The Way of All Women, p. 300).
I also went to the COSMEP conference in New York City in the summer of 1974, taking Ginia, who was two, and riding with Norm Moser and his friend Jim Cody, in Norm’s ancient Chevrolet. It took us forever to get there, because Norm didn’t like interstate traffic and kept leaving I-85 and I-95 to follow Highway 1. But as we approached New York, we had to go on the New Jersey Turnpike. Norm couldn’t get his car up to the usual highway speed, despite his preference for the middle lane. It was a bit hairy when a fire engine sped by us on one side and a police car on the other, sirens blaring, but we made it. COSMEP met at Columbia that year, and this time there was babysitting for Ginia. I offered to be secretary and took copious notes, which were published in the COSMEP Newsletter; this may have been why someone nominated me for the board the following year.
In 1974, perhaps partly because of my increased community activity with readings, COSMEP South meetings, seeing poets, and my first creative writing class that fall through UNC Extension, called “Women as Writers, Thinkers, and Artists,” Terry and I had more and more conflict. He blamed the women’s movement for breaking up our marriage. But it wasn’t so simple. I don’t think I would have ever been happy just being wife and mother. And, though, he had never tried to keep me from writing and publishing or organizing readings, perhaps he didn’t like the results. At any rate, we separated in late 1974, when I moved with the children to Chase Park. He moved to Nature Trail Park, not far away, and we took turns having the children.
Then in 1975, at the summer COSMEP conference in Davis, California, I was elected to the board, coming in third of the seven elected. John Bennett had come in first and he was supposed to be the chair, but he quit because he couldn’t cope with the pressure within the small press ranks for more serious organization, especially distribution. Then Hugh Fox, who’d come in second, panicked at the thought of being chair and reminded us that he was going to Europe that year. That left me. There were now three women on the board (for the first time), the other two being Anne Pride and Mary MacArthur, who was doing Gallimaufry, a mag out of San Francisco; she later became director of the National Endowment for the Arts for awhile. We three met and consulted as to how to make COSMEP more effective. After word got out that we’d talked together, we were dubbed “The Feminist Conspiracy.” Once the men’s panic died down, we did quite well as a board and succeeded in getting an NEA grant to put “a van on the road,” the battle cry of small presses in those years. I administered the van project from Chapel Hill. We bought an old library bookmobile, painted it sky blue with fluffy clouds, parked it in Carrboro on a vacant lot where Wendy’s is now, and filled it with a thousand small-press books, but the tractor- trailer itself had one mechanical problem after another. It got to Charlotte and to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and that was about as far as it went. I learned a lot from that failure!
I did two other things in the fall of 1975 that are worth mentioning: I went to a COSMEP East conference at Temple University in Philadelphia, taking all three kids with me. I left Amy, who was 13, with an old friend in Baltimore, but I drove into downtown Philadelphia in my old red Plymouth Dodge late at night and found myself surrounded by the lighted up Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other historic buildings, with Tim and Ginia asleep in the back seat. I did miraculously find the place where we were staying and could “crash.”
Back in Chapel Hill, Sherman Shelton, Jaki’s husband, had the idea that we should do another kind of crashing, so we “crashed” a meeting of the poets who would be teaching the Department of Public Instruction’s Poetry-in-the-Schools program for 1975-76. Sherman had been trying to get one of the Poetry-in-the-Schools jobs; he’d gone to the department and found out from the black secretary that there was a meeting about these jobs the next day. So we went. They didn’t dare turn us out, but I’d never felt so hated before. It shook me up. I remember Sherman trying to comfort me on the way home about being like a turtle. I believe his idea was mythic. The turtle wouldn’t be defeated in the long run. But at the meeting, poets I’d met and already published in Hyperion had glared at me or been supremely embarrassed. We were definitely not welcome and didn’t stay long. We’d made our point, however, and shortly thereafter that program was turned over the N.C. Arts Council and anyone could apply to be on a list of poets available to do Poetry-in-the-Schools work. I later learned from Len Randolph, the founder of the program, that North Carolina had been the last state to handle this type of program through the Department of Public Instruction. The rest did it through their arts councils.
Earlier in 1975 I had been allowed to do some work in the Hillsborough schools, but the administrator, a poet herself, told me that she wouldn’t let me teach kids above sixth grade because I was too associated with prison poets! She probably was thinking of T.J. Reddy; for sure she wasn’t going to risk my rocking her boat at the high-school level. So I told the fifth- and sixth-graders about T.J., how he was in prison for something he hadn’t done. A year or so later I had in my fourth-grade poetry class the daughter of our landlord farmer, who had finally kicked us out of his old farmhouse in 1974—two days after I wrote a review of T.J.’s first book in the Durham Morning Herald in which I called him a modern saint. This child’s best friend was black, which her parents probably didn’t know. I enjoyed the irony of that.
Meanwhile, Thorp Springs Press had been publishing the writers I was finding and being found by: Virginia Long Rudder (After the Ifaluk), Miranda Cambanis (The Execution, a play), and Tom Huey (This Life: A Salutation, a poem broadside for Amon). Hyperion 12 (1975) had in it Lance Jeffers, T.J. Reddy, Jaki and Sherman Shelton, Amon, Miranda, Mitchell Lyman, Roz Wolbarsht, Marion Phillips, and Mike Riggsby. By the end of 1975 I had promised to publish Liner’s Chrome Grass, Bill Herron’s American Peasant, and Mike Riggsby’s Milky Way Poems. That December, when Paul and Foster visited me, he suggested I start my own press, arguing that the audience for my authors was more in North Carolina. So, on January 1, 1976, I decided to begin Carolina Wren Press. I chose the name because I loved the bird, its liking to be near people, its cheerful, confident call (“cheering, cheering, cheering you!”; certainly not “teakettle, teakettle, teakettle!”), and the male wren, I had leaned, constructed four or five nests and then let the female choose the one she liked best.I also was very aware by then that there was an “in crowd” of literati in North Carolina, and a triumvirate of respected literary men: Guy Owen, who edited Southern Poetry Review; Thad Stem of Oxford; and Sam Ragan, who edited The Pilot in Southern Pines. Charlene Whisnant had previously challenged their hegemony, and I had found myself surrounded by the writers who couldn’t break into the inner circle these three dominated. These men were good people, but their vision was limited as to what poetry could be and could express and who the important poets were. They seemed out of touch with all the new voices rising around me. So having ‘Carolina’ in the name of the press appealed to me. My writers were also important to North Carolina, and the South, even if the Carolina Quarterly (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s mag) and Southern Poetry Review wouldn’t publish them. They were a motley crew: African-Americans; new women writers; Amon Liner, who was extremely innovative; and some who were on the fringe—as was I—just because we were not from the South. All of us were intensely committed writers, with vision, with a lot to say to our audience. But we weren’t writing in the standard academic mold of a lyric poem organized around one central image.
A symptom of the way I felt was in my dedication of Hyperion 16, the special Southern issue and our last, which finally was published in 1980. I dedicated it to Amon Liner (1940-1976) and to T.J. Reddy (1945- ): “two outstanding Southern gentlemen.” There I was trying to break down stereotypes again!
In 1976 I was living on food stamps and in subsidized housing, plus receiving free daycare for Ginia under Title XX as I made my way back into the job market. The COSMEP conference was in Austin, Texas that year; and Paul organized it with other Austin area writers and editors. This time I went alone (Terry took the children to the West Coast to see his parents). It was a lively, warm, funny conference; I remember that we all broke up laughing when I described our new van project and told the assembled editors and writers that we’d all get to know each other better if we ate and slept together. There was also a woman there urging us to learn accounting so we could turn our liabilities into assets. I can’t say that I ever learned exactly how this worked, though I did learn how to keep books. But Paul revealed his own economic approach to book publishing when he claimed it only cost $.60 a book, and his wife, Foster, immediately contradicted him. His reply was that he had to believe it cost $.60 a book in order to keep publishing. I also remember vividly Len Randolph holding up a copy of the cover of Chrome Grass, talking about this new press, Carolina Wren, and how strange that felt, and how good. It was real. I was a publisher!
Sadly, when I got home to Chapel Hill, I learned that Amon had just died the day before. His book had just arrived from the printer.
Our next book was Mike Riggsby’s Milky Way Poems. Mike was a self-proclaimed street poet. For some time Paul Foreman had been publishing Julia Vinograd, Berkeley’s street poet, who sold well. He called her books his “bread and butter” books. As I was to do with all our writers, I let Mike have his books at 50% discount, which meant $1 each. He’d go out and sell them at varying prices, apparently, depending on his customers’ ability to pay. He was a fan of Jim Morrison and Ezra Pound (“Pound on, Ezra!”). Mike was irrepressible and a skilled con artist. He would call me up and say, “Judy, I want to come over and fix you a nice chicken dinner, with milk gravy and biscuits.” Then, after I agreed, he’d tell me that all I had to do was buy the chicken, etc. He would cook it. Later, when the director of the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Library got interested in acquiring Carolina Wren poets’ papers, Mike managed to get $200 for his collected papers (literally, poems written on paper bags and scraps of paper) by telling the negotiator that he was dying of cancer. He was a cheerful soul and loved me in his way. I did gradually learn to draw boundaries with Mike and other poets, too.
In 1977 I put three books into print: Jaki Shelton’s Dead on Arrival, Bill Herron’s American Peasant, and Eat Your Natchos, an anthology of poets who had been at the Austin COSMEP conference in 1976. Loom Press was printing the books, which were saddle-stitched (stapled). Natchos was supposed to be a money-maker for COSMEP, but I priced it at $3, and the 300 copies cost me $900. Bookstores take a 30-40% discount; and there’s the cost of postage to mail the books to reviewers and buyers. I didn’t even break even, which Len Fulton, the editor of The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, had said was heaven for us small publishers, but I learned to price better.
Although I had talked Jaki into giving me her fee from the radio program Louise Cleveland produced of Carolina Wren poets in 1977 for WUNC-FM, toward the cost of publishing her book, and Bill Herron contributed to his book, I was still short more than $1000 on printing bills at the end of 1977, and I had to pay Loom Press over a year or so at $100/month, rather painfully in those days. The New Voices radio programs celebrated Jaki, Amon (we talked to his mother and some other writers who had known him), Miranda, T.J., Virginia Rudder, Mike, and Bill Herron.
It wasn’t until 1978 that I got my first N.C. Arts Council grant for $1000 and was able to publish in 1979 Tom Huey’s Forcehymn, begun and dedicated to Amon before he died and finished afterward. I had formed by this time a nonprofit corporation and gotten IRS tax-exempt status, not easy to do for a publisher. I’d attended a conference in the Midwest that explored the choice—nonprofit or for-profit—for small publishers. I assessed all my motives as being nonprofit, i.e., serving the public. I could take a salary as a nonprofit’s editor, but I usually put money into Carolina Wren out of my meager funds rather than the other way around. I was eventually able to get other kinds of grants for Carolina Wren, which paid me to do projects (distribution, book reviews, teaching), but I never received much money to edit.
Books I’d promised to publish accumulated, and I chipped away at getting them into print: Rose, A Color of Darkness by Amon Liner, Poems in One Part Harmony by T.J. Reddy; Rituals of Our Times by Bill Herron, all in 1980, when I finally received my first NEA small-press grant. I had held off from applying until I finished my term as chair of COSMEP. I wrote an article for Southern Exposure’s Southern Literature issue in 1981, and some of what I said there expresses pretty succinctly what I was about in those years.
Writers, like hobos, are mavericks by and large: a bit at odds with society in one way or another, unconventional in their hearts and minds, whatever their clothes, job, income or style of living might suggest. Fairly early, I realized that when you publish, you don’t just publish the work, you publish the writer. You don’t just go through someone else’s orchard picking the best specimens; you feed the tree, you prune, you worry over the harvest; and only then, when all you’ve worked toward matures, do you get involved in selling the fruit, persuading other people that this writer is going to be important to their lives.
If you wonder why I keep doing it—why I’ve dug my heels in even more deeply—I guess I’d have to say I do it because my desire to do something that is both for the world and in the world can be best expressed by publishing. I’ll write myself and hope to see my work in print. But publishing is a very social act–an act, for me, of social change.
I like a term from accounting lingo: accrue. Little by little, good things accrue. You keep a fire going long enough, and people will come to you. The word spreads, when the news is good, by all sorts of methods that defy the big media and their pressures and their increasingly heinous tactics…
People want words that help them live and understand their lives. And that’s the main reason the large publishers are failing, because they’ve lost touch with that… Small outfits like Carolina Wren are doing more and more of the real work that keeps a culture’s life alive. We’re working with the writers, helping them pick their best work, keeping them writing in a period when there’s seldom an opportunity for new writers to make much money from their writing. We’re getting the new work into print: almost all the important new poetry and fiction is coming out of the small presses (Southern Exposure: Celebrating Southern Literature. Vol. XI, no. 2., Summer 1981, pp. 92-96).
Between 1976 and 1991, the books poured out. I was aiming for more than I averaged: two a year over fifteen years. Others I published:
Black Sun, New Moon. Hyperion 15. Special Women’s Issue. 1980.
Focus South. Hyperion 16. Special Southern Issue. 1980.
The Light of the Red Horse. Paul Newman. 1981
The House Within Me: Poems from Little River School. Edited by Lisa Creed. 1981.
Brinktown. Novel by Sharon Ramirez. 1981.
Quiet Poems. Gene Fowler. 1982.
Bombs. Short stories by Randee Russell. 1982.
Wind Over Ashes. Leonard Randolph. 1982.
The Far Journey and Final End of Dr. Faustwitz, Spaceman. Vol. I. Amon Liner. 1983.
Dead on Arrival and New Poems. Jaki Shelton Green. 1983.
Plum Blossom. Translations of Li Ch’ing-Chao by Jim Cryer. 1984.
Elmatha’s Apology. Play by Rebecca Ransom. 1984.
Rainbow Roun Mah Shoulder. Novel. Winner of the first Minority Book Prize.Linda
Brown Bragg. 1984.
The Traffic of the Heart. Miranda Cambanis. 1986
A Living Culture in Durham. An Anthology of Durham Area Writers. 1987.
The Far Journey and Final End of Dr. Faustwitz, Spaceman. Vol. II. Amon Liner. 1987.
The Boy Toy. Phyllis Hacken Johnson. Lollipop Power. 1988.
Watering the Roots in a Democracy: A Manual on How to Teach Writing in the Public
Library. Judy Hogan. NEH-funded. 1989.
Love, or a Reasonable Facsimile. Novel by Gloree Rogers. Second Minority Book
Brother’s Keeper, Sister’s Child. Margaret Stephens. 1989.
This Road Since Freedom. C. Eric Lincoln. 1990.
Letter in a Bottle. Letters between Graham Campbell and Elaine Goolsby. 1991.
The Only Thing I Fear Is a Cow and a Drunken Man. Mary Kratt. 1991