2011: The year in review

This morning, when I went to wake my 11-year-old son, I found him at the window, a camera in his hand. “What are you doing up already, Paul?” I asked. “I just had to take a picture of the fog; it looks really cool,” he answered. His reply made me realize that the impulse to create, or to record what is beautiful, is inherent in all of us. Whether inspiration comes to us in a photograph or a poem, the arts are vital to us, maybe even more important than sleep.

At Carolina Wren, we nurture writers outside the mainstream—especially women, people of color, writers with disabilities and experimental writers. We believe these voices need to be heard, that they are vital to us. This year has been an eventful one for us:

  • In January, we went live with a new website that includes many browser-friendly features such as videos of poetry readings, downloadable submissions guidelines, a blog, and an online store for our books and merchandise. In addition to books by our authors and some friends of the press, we also carry North Carolina Alphabet Posters, Carolina Wren Press hats, and some audio collections.
  • In February, we launched two more books in the Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series: Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine and Yvonne Murphy’s Aviaries. Launch festivities included a party at the Hillyer Art Space in Washington D.C. Later in the year, Yvonne Murphy visited the Triangle for several readings, and she read widely in upstate New York through the year. In September, Minnie Bruce Pratt joined us in Durham for a reading co-sponsored by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library, and to ride on our first-even Carolina Wren Press Parade Float. Our banners read “So-Les-Po” (Southern Lesbian Poetry) and the truck-bed was filled with poets waving to the crowds.
  • On a sad note, in April of this year, we learned of the death of Jeanne Leiby, author of Downriver, the inaugural winner of the Doris Bakwin Award. Leiby, who had risen to editorship of the prestigious Southern Review, was memorialized widely this fall, in conferences and online.
  • In May, we joined forces with Grey Mare Press and the National Library of Wales to make their newest title, The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, available in the United States. We anticipate a lot of interest in this book at next year’s Associated Writing Program’s conference.
  • Another result of collaboration was the publication of The Monti’s Hippo Awards, Volume 1. This two-CD set features winners of the Hippo Awards for 2008 and 2009. The Monti is a monthly storytelling event in North Carolina.
  • Nancy Simpson’s Living Above the Frost Line, our inaugural collection in the Laureate Series, was named a finalist in poetry at the Southern Independent Bookseller’s Association. It was recently reviewed in the North Carolina Literary Review and the Asheville Poetry Review.
  • More and more of our poetry titles are being chosen as texts for university courses: Karen Anderson’s Punish Honey, Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine, and Evie Shockley’s a half-red sea.
  • Grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Durham Arts once again helped us with publications and overhead.

In the coming year we will launch (as paperback and eBook) Margaret Hermes’s Relative Strangers, the most recent winner of the Doris Bakwin Award, selected by Jill McCorkle. We will shortly announce the winner of the most recent Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series competition, which is being judged this year by Lee Ann Brown. Later in the spring, we will be producing several back titles as eBooks, and also producing an audio sampler of Carolina Wren Press poets, from 2005 to the present.  Back in the office, we are awaiting he next round of Doris Bakwin submissions, which will be judged by Moira Crone.

We are increasingly busy at Carolina Wren, but book sales continue to lag in this economy. So we ask for your help in support of our mission. Won’t you please consider giving Carolina Wren Press a tax-deductible donation?  Remember the boy with the camera at the window, how the arts sustain us…. You can click right over to http://carolinawrenpress.org/donate and donate online, or send a check to Carolina Wren Press, 120 Morris Street, Durham, NC 27701.


Andrea Selch, President

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Jeanne M. Leiby, 1964-2011

Last month I learned of the death of Jeanne Leiby, editor of The Southern Review and author of Downriver, which we published in 2007. Downriver had been selected by Quinn Dalton as the winner of the first Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman for its well-crafted style. This award, named in honor of my aunt Doris, a feisty but loving native Tennessean who married into our wannabe-WASPish Yankee family in the 1970s and became, by the 1990s, its matriarch. Jeanne was the perfect choice for this award, and very similar to Doris in manner and habit. Like Doris, she made her way into a previously conservative domain, and made it her own. Like Doris, she could tell a good story. Like Doris, she loved to stay up late, a drink tinkling in her hand, her voice rusty with talk.

In the month following Jeanne’s death, there has been a proliferation of tributes and memorial essays. I wanted create a space to “digest” them but since blog entries sort of disappear from view under new posts, I have turned her book’s page into a site for links about her–reviews, memorials, whatever I can find. I welcome you to send me links to add, or to use the comments section to let everyone know about them.

When Jeanne came to Durham in October 2007, she sat for an interview with Ruth Eckles, then an administrative assistant at Carolina Wren Press, but also a wonderful writer. The transcript of that interview was never published, but you can listen to portions of through YouTube. Here’s a link to that interview’s video playlist .

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The Book of Ystwyth – a post from Wales

I am in Wales just for a few days, to attend tomorrow’s opening of Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ 60th-Birthday Retrospective Exhibition at the National Library of Wales. The exhibition will continue through August, and is celebrated additionally by the publication of two books: The first is the exhibition catalog, Clive Hicks Jenkins, which features essays by a multitude of writers and artists, as well as dozens of images. The second book, The Book of Ystwyth: Six poets on the art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is a publication of Grey Mare Press in collaboration with Carolina Wren Press (we will be the book’s American publisher and distributor). Tonight many of the poets will be present at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre for a launch reading.

PS: The reading was lovely. All five living poets, Dave Bonta, myself (Andrea Selch), Marly Youmans, Damian Walford Davies and Callum James read from their works. In addition, Ian Hamilton and Clive Hicks-Jenkins read poetry by Catriona Urquhart. The bookstore was packed and a multitude of books were sold. Following the reading, a small group (of 14!) went out for curry and conversation. I got to know the illustrator Paul Bommer; you can see some of his work here.

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How we promote our authors

Here are some of our younger workers helping with the recent mailing for Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Inside the Money Machine and Yvonne Murphy’s Aviaries

For every book we publish, we engage in a major marketing campaign. We send out about 40 copies of the book in bound galleys, ninety or more days before publication. When the finished book comes back from the printer, about 100 to 120 packets are sent to review bodies, ranging in size from Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times, to medium size journals such as Book/Mark Quarterly and Parnassus: Poetry in Review, to smaller literary magazines where the author has published, as well as to numerous independent reviewers such as Michael Parker and Ron Silliman. We also send to radio stations across the nation, and make an effort to send to the local papers where the author lives. Each packet contains a copy of the book, a letter to the reviewer with specifics about the book such as print run, price, ISBN, distributors, and a press release. We also can include a longer biography of the author, such as the one we sent out with Pratt’s book.

These efforts are a bit like slow-motion fishing…it may take 6 months or a year, but we seem to garner about 6 reviews for each book we publish.

Here’s a little about the importance of small presses, from Ruth Eckles’ interview of Jeanne Leiby in 2007.

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From Wrens to Chickens… Judy Hogan now

Just wanted to note a lovely report from past CWP staffer Ruth Eckles about a backyard chicken workshop she attended. The workshop was led by none other than CWP founder Judy Hogan. Here’s a link to Ruth’s report.

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why I like grant applications

Of course I could fill two paragraphs with why I don’t like them (e.g., budgets present and past, learning new application software, the very fact of a deadline), but there is much that I do like. Interestingly, writing a good grant application is like writing a good formal poem. Like a sonnet form or a sestina or an Oulipo exercise, a grant application forces me to move outside my comfort zone and think in someone else’s terms. I can’t just say I want to do any old thus-and-such, but rather, I must fit my goals into the terms of the grant. Though this can mean a lot of frustration at the start, the effect is often a richer project.

For instance, recently, the North Carolina Arts Council, after a several-years-long consultation with Nello McDaniel and George Thorn at Arts Action Research, retooled their project grants from simple support of publications and literary and other arts events, to a more goal-oriented approach: to encourage arts organizations to reach more and more-diverse audiences. These project grants, with all the arts now grouped under the umbrella term “Arts and Audiences,” ask us (directors of organizations) to think about what audiences we feel most connected to, and which audiences, currently disconnected, we might want or need to connect with. Whereas in the past the emphasis was on producing books (and promoting them), the emphasis now is on “connecting with audiences” and creating “meaningful experiences” with the arts.

So what does “connecting with an audience” mean for a press? Through the years, CWP authors and board members have hosted conferences, taught and performed in under-served community settings (such as shelters, halfway houses, small public libraries, independent bookstores), served as mentors to new writers, and many other community activities. Mainly, however, we have written and produced books. Promotion of these books has often begun with these community activities, but the be-all an end-all has always been to sell them to libraries or directly to readers. We believe that the most significant relationship a reader can have with a piece of literature is to read it. Readers are our audiences, plain and simple.

Who are our readers? Do we know who they are? Yes. Like most non-profits receiving government support, we keep careful track of attendees at our events. Our authors are asked to count attendees at their readings and to make some “guesstimates” about the races and genders of those attendees. We don’t like this–we know it’s guesstimation, that we really can’t tell much about a person based on appearance–but it’s a necessary evil. Carolina Wren Press was established in 1976 with a mission to publish “underrepresented” writers, which in the 1970s seemed obviously to be women and black writers. Nowadays, we recognize many other types of underrepresented writers, including disabled authors, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender writers, other people of color and mixed races, and even experimental writers. Part and parcel of this mission has also been to reach underrepresented readers. We believe that by publishing new and/or marginalized voices, our works will appeal to new and/or marginalized readers. We’ve endeavored through the years to choose appropriate, accessible venues for our events–to be inviting to those audiences. Through the years we have seen highly diverse audiences, often counting 30% or more African-American attendees, more than 50% women, and significant attendance by members of the LGBT community.

In the last five years, however, we have noticed a significant drop-off in sales to libraries, and in orders from chain bookstores (exception: college bookstores associated with B&N, Borders and Follett are still our biggest wholesale customers). We get very few reviews from larger publications (exception: the Women’s Review of Books has noted our publications in recent years). Our book sales to individuals remain steady–and are exactly proportional to the efforts of the authors themselves in getting themselves readings and teaching gigs–but they aren’t going up.

So, what is happening here? First answer: the economy. Books are a luxury item, so when money gets tight, people don’t buy them. Libraries have had to cut back also, especially since so many of them have been in the midst of retooling–going digital and investing in computers and software (second answer, the digital revolution)–for the last 10 years. Libraries are also shifting some resources from print acquisitions to the purchase of eBooks to loan to their members. Bookstores are also changing in the face of the economic decline and advancements in digital printing, online publications, and–hugely–online shopping, both for printed books and eBooks. Because of technology that allows online shopping to see inside books, even the browse-to-buy function of bookstores is becoming moot. Additionally, the huge discounts offered by online book retailers, and benefits like membership discounts and free shipping, are factors in the demise of local, independent bookstores. And local bookstores are the store-equivalent (and necessary partners) of small, independent presses.

Independent bookstores are going to have to change their strategies, and so are we. I don’t know what they will do, but I know what we are doing: Jumping onto the internet. Instead of fighting the new technology, we are embracing it. We are learning about eBooks, about (eek! dare I say it?) print-on-demand, about podcasting and tweeting and blogging. We have to make our books “discoverable” on the internet, and doing so requires links between our site and other literary sites, author’s webpages, stores, and blogs.

So, back to the grant application (oh yes, I did have a main topic for this rangey blogpost). This year, instead of applying for funding for one or two books (and the associated promotional events), we are asking for funds to help us create an audio disk, a sampler of past and forthcoming poetry. We will also render several past, best-selling titles, into eBooks. One of these, Jaki Shelton Green’s Breath of the Song will include an additional section of new poems. The disk will be a promotable publication in itself, but it will also be an important marketing device. Individual MP3’s can be posted widely on the internet–on our site, certainly, but also on other sites, with links to ours. The disk can be mailed to libraries to alert librarians to our list of poetry titles, and to independent bookstores in this state and nationally. Because the disk will include a multitude of voices, it can help us connect with a multitude of audiences–both online and through libraries. The eBooks will allow us to connect that portion (estimated at 30 to 40%) of readers now using eReaders. In general, these projects will help us meet readers where they are looking for books…on the internet.

So, cross your fingers that our grant application is approved!

–Andrea Selch, President

Further reading:

See this timely article from the Best American Poetry Blog

Also, check out David Wilk’s Publishing Talks, most especially his interview with Don Leeper of BookMobile on February 14, 2011.

Subject for a further blog: What is CWP’s role? Are we a national press or state press?

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Yvonne Murphy in NC, April 14-15

We’re all looking forward to Yvonne Murphy’s visit to North Carolina during April, National Poetry Month. She’ll be in the Triangle/Triad for several days.

On Thursday morning, April 14th, she will visit UNC-Greensboro–Jennifer Whitaker’s poetry seminar.

The evening of the 14th, she’ll be reading at the Flyleaf Bookstore, at their “Second Thursday” series, hosted by Debra Kaufman and Stan Absher. Please join us at 6pm for wine and cheese (and other things) before the reading.

The following morning, April 15, she will be at Duke University Medical Center, as a guest at the Osler Literary Roundtable.

The reading at Flyleaf and the OLR are open to the public! We hope to see you there.

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Flipping the switch – to our new site

Well, if you’re reading this, it has already happened. We’ve departed from our old, static website, and “moved house” to this lovely, flexible virtual space. It’s a WordPress Theme, but adjusted to look like our publicity materials–through the programming expertise of Susan Strozier at Bantam Designs and the design sense of Lesley Landis of Lesley Landis Designs. We look forward to using all the bells and whistles available to us: links to videos and images, shopping carts, individual pages for new books, comment boxes, and who knows what else. We look forward to hearing more from you, and we know you’ll be glad to hear from us in a more regular fashion! Above all, we are looking forward to the community we can build by connecting you with our authors, events and contests. Please consider linking to our site.
–Andrea Selch, President

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AWP Preparation- Hurray! You’re A Poet!

I’ll admit, I have a little love/hate thing going on with AWP. As a small press, it helps us a lot to attend. People begin to recognize the press’s name when they see it elsewhere, we get lots of eyeballs on our beautiful books, it gives our authors a chance to read in front of their fans, and I always enjoy seeing people and talking to customers at the book fair.

At the same time.
I’m just going to say it.
The place is crawling with writers. And, worse, AWP is particularly crawling with pretentious writers. It’s just shocking how important so many people think they are because they wrote a book. Or even worse, they are disgruntled because they’ve published a book and no one has treated them like they are important. The book hasn’t gotten them laid. Or they didn’t get whisked through the VIP line at check-in. Whatever they dreamed being a writer was, isn’t what it turned out to be. And thus, they pack up their little bag of delusions and bring them along to the conference, where they insist their genius be admired by all.

That part is rough. But what I like is, since we are a small press, the Powers That Be at AWP always stick us in some dingy corner. However, that also means we are stuck out of the way with all of the other small presses. Talking with them about the printers they use, how they find their writers, how they get books to new audiences, is fun and interesting. I learn a lot and it makes me believe that there are plenty of people who really love books and who think writing does something. (Maybe not get you laid, but something important.)

But the nicest part of the whole conference is when people stop by the table and tells us how good our books look. We work hard to publish not only good books, but books that look and feel good too. Reading a CWP book should be a pleasing experience on so many levels, for both the reader and the writer.

Because the truth is, writers don’t get enough love. But insisting people love you doesn’t really help. Remember when Ellen DeGeneres pointed out that no one ever has a “Hurray, You’re Gay” party when you come out. Well no one is ever going to have a “Hurray, You’re a Poet” party for you either. So you have to be capable of giving yourself your own little party.

But we at CWP try to help. We will publish the most beautiful version of your writing we can. We will thank and admire you for going to the trouble of creating something out of nothing. And we’ll set out a bowl of chocolates on our AWP table and answer all the questions you can think to ask. So come find us in whatever remote corner of the Book Expo we have been stuck in this year and we’ll celebrate you and us. It’ll be like our own little party. But leave the pretentions behind.
–Tanya Olson, VP (which doesn’t stand for Very Pretentious)

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2011 Poetry Book Contest

Our next poetry book contest will take submissions with a deadline of 2/15/2011. The final judge for this contest will be Lee Ann Brown and we anticipate results in September 2011. Please note: While other sources may have the deadline for this contest listed as 12/1/10, they are wrong! Please believe us when we say the new postmark deadline is February 15, 2011. This will give you time to visit our booth at AWP and pick up something special from us (hint hint!).
Download full guidelines.

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