40 Years of Poetry Publishing

Founded in 1972 by Sam Hamill, Tree Swenson, William O’Daly, and Jim Gautney, Copper Canyon Press started out selling hand-bound, letterpressed limited editions of poetry books out of the trunks of their cars.  Today, over forty years later, with nearly 500 poetry titles under its belt and operating out of a white clapboard house in Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon is one of the country’s largest and most renowned publishers of poetry. Given poetry’s reputation of posing a challenge for even the shrewdest of sales managers, the press’s continued success seems astounding. How, one wonders, does Copper Canyon manage to continually bring poetry to readers in a marketplace marked by short-lived sensations and digital oversaturation?

The diversity of Copper Canyon’s catalog is noteworthy. It includes original collections and translations of heavyweight poets—including Nobel laureates (like Pablo Neruda and Rabindranath Tagore), Pulitzer Prize winners, and National Book Award winners, among them Ted Kooser, W. S. Merwin, and Lucille Clifton—as well as work by emerging authors like Ben Lerner, Natalie Diaz, and Kerry James Evans. Also featured is an impressive number of bilingual volumes of poetry translated from Arabic, Chinese, Belarusian, and other languages. To a considerable extent, Copper Canyon’s bestsellers—former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser’s Delights & Shadows, for example, sold more than 70,000 copies—allow the press to keep on publishing work by lesser-known authors, such as Lucia Perillo’s Inseminating the Elephant.

The press is also embracing digital formats, moving broadly and fearlessly into the e-book market since spring of this year. So far, more than eighty titles are available for the Nook, Kindle, and Kobo. For Copper Canyon’s marketing and sales director, Joseph Bednarik, the dialogue with readers and their (intellectual, emotional, and spiritual) experience with poetry is the main motivator. Over a glass of beer, he told me that nobody has quite figured out where the publishing industry as a whole will go, but that it is an exciting time for the business and that it would be foolish not to be open to exploring digital publishing venues.

In an effort to keep quality standards high and make submissions more manageable for its employees, Copper Canyon has moved away from an open submission system. Before switching to a fee-based submission process, over 1,500 manuscripts were sent in to the press each year, an amount that was simply unmanageable. Now, there are two-month reading sessions throughout the year, during which about 400 manuscripts are submitted. Poets pay a $35 reading fee, which entitles them to pick out two Copper Canyon titles for their own library as well as paying for a thorough reading of their manuscripts by Copper Canyon’s editorial department and their team of volunteer readers all over the country. Copper Canyon’s executive editor, Michael Wiegers (who took over from Sam Hamill in 2005), then has the final say in choosing which manuscripts will get published.

At the Wordstock 2013 poetry publishers panel, Bednarik also reported that the publishing house has tight control over books’ marketing. For example, authors will have a say in their book’s cover design, but Copper Canyon reserves the right to pass the final decision, often after presenting several versions to and consulting with their distributor, Consortium. Design and marketing here go hand in hand: it is important, for instance, how book covers look on the small scale, because readers will mainly come across them online first.

Numbers are a big part of Bednarik’s work and the day-to-day reality of the press, he conceded. With a staff of eleven, Copper Canyon—a non-profit organization, like most other poetry publishers—relies on grants and private donations for about half of its revenue. Technically, he said, every book Copper Canyon sells is underpriced; “it just doesn’t seem to work any other way.”

After over forty years of going strong, what’s next for Copper Canyon? Parallel to their printed books, they will keep expanding their e-offerings. An upcoming collection that I, personally, couldn’t be more excited about is Richard Siken’s War of the Foxes, slated for publication in spring of 2015. Siken’s debut, Crush, sold well over 20,000 copies—if this doesn’t bode well for Copper Canyon, then I don’t know what would.

Lilija Valis Guest Poet Post

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Lilija Valis, a poet from Vancouver, B.C. Please enjoy her post!


We are strangers among strangers.
Even within our blood families, where we establish strong bonds, we have our secret thoughts, desires and deeds. We may use the same words, but we don’t speak the same language. We often consult some type of translator, today called therapist, to unravel our tangles. The first job of this translator is to explore what is embedded in the words we use to hide what we want.
“Love” means different things to the teenage girl and to her grandmother, as does “freedom” to the son and to his father.
Since ancient times, we have sought to discover what lies beyond what we see and hear. Long before we created a formal language with signs and rules, we had poetry as our spirit language.
It uses words to reach what we have no words for in order to reveal the hidden, the primary connections, bridging time and space.
Poetry releases love and expands family. My family now includes the Celtic people who since ancient times blessed everyday life; the numerous Chinese poets who for thousands of years have been sharing what they saw and felt, and the wisdom that grew out of their experience (Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching); the Persian poets Rumi and Hafiz for pouring “light into a cup” for us to drink; New England’s nineteenth century Emily Dickinson for detailing her soul; early twentieth century Anna Akhmatova for baring the gritty Russian soul (“It’s not Promised land….. Yes, for us it’s the grit between our teeth.”); to name just a few of my large family.
We know poetry is powerful because poets have been and continue to be imprisoned and executed for their life-changing words. They have been tortured, sent to slave labor camps to die, like Osip Mandelstam, whose words we still read today, when we can’t remember the names of his jailers.
As poets we take our bloody, pulsating hearts and pass them into the hands of others, putting our trust in this world of broken promises and betrayals, but also of love and beauty.

Poetry Party

Local poets partying with words at the Poets Potluck, hosted by Lilija

In spite of everything, or maybe because of it, poets are well known to be party people. We like to connect and celebrate. Even when we go off into the mountains to get away from our agitating societies, we still do things to connect and celebrate the life around us. Han Shan, or Cold Mountain if you prefer, couldn’t help chiseling his poems onto stones and trees in his chosen isolated mountain home for us to read, a thousand years later. We have named after him a local movement to save forest trees.
Currently in Vancouver, British Columbia, you can attend some poetry event almost every day – at times, five events the same day. We have numerous local groups, such as Poetic Justice, Twisted Poets Literary Salon, and Hogan’s Alley Open Readings. International organizations, like World Poetry, Poetry Around the World, and Writers International Network bring together poets from all cultures, India, Afghanistan and Latin America among them. We have Dead Poets societies to keep up our connections with deceased family members like Rainer Maria Rilke, Pablo Neruda and Robert Frost. We have links to painters and musicians and get together to celebrate each other’s art.

Writers International Network Group Photo

Writers International Network Group Photo

Anything that shifts our perceptions, enlarges our view, and increases our understanding and appreciation builds community. Poetry does these things. Candice James, the Poet Laureate of New Westminster, reminds me, “I am the architect of my own fall.” Margo Prentice’s view of death as returning to the Mother Nature she loves reconciles us to the inevitable. Gavin Hainsworth made me laugh as I recognized a truth about human nature in the title of his poem, “The Condemned Man Ate A Hearty Meal.”
In addition to local activity, we now have new technologies to enable us to connect easily with poets, as well as other sympathetic souls, all over the world, enlarging our sense of community and shrinking our alienation.
Yes, poetry creates links. It invites us into each other’s inner lives, to form a community unbroken by time and distance.
Han Yu (768-824):
Don’t forget,
if it rains
stop in for a visit.
Together we’ll listen
to the raindrops splash
on all the green leaves.
And Li Po (701-762):
Then let us pledge a friendship without human ties
And meet again at the far end of the Milky Way.

Poetic Justice reading at the Heritage Grill in New Westminster

Lilija is in the center of this poetic group at the Poetic Justice reading at the Heritage Grill in New Westminster.

Lilija Valis, born in Lithuania, has lived on three continents during times of war and peace, riots and festivals. While pursuing education and working in cities across America—from Boston and New York to San Francisco—she participated in programs that help to liberate people from poverty and personal misery. Her poetry has been included in four anthologies and her book Freedom On the Fault Line was published in 2012.
Lilija’s poem, “Everyday Things,” is featured the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Vancouver edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.