Small presses thrive with help from loyal writers

by Amy Kingsley

It’s a cold morning, one made particularly chilly by the fact that it’s the last full weekday of spring break. A dry wind is blowing, forcing those who’ve remained on campus to tug coats tighter to their chests.

A college campus during spring break is usually a lifeless thing, and from the looks of it on this gray Friday, UNCG is no different. Tree branches have not yet sprung back to life and silence pervades walkways usually humming with students.

Inside the Elliot University Center, the small press industry, particularly those outposts of it in the Southeastern United States, is taking its pulse. A small audience of Greensboro literati has gathered in a downstairs room, past a buffet table stacked with bagels and pastries, to hear local authors read on behalf of the independent literary magazines that gave them their start.

The weekend is, in essence, a love letter to the small magazine, a noncommercial enterprise dedicated to the art of writing. The typical small literary magazine courts advertising only from other, like-minded publications and the odd writing contest or two.

Greensboro has at least two: The Greensboro Review and Backwards City Review. Both have ties to UNCG’s creative writing program, which is sponsoring this event.

UNCG is where Sarah Lindsay, the first poet on the day’s schedule, obtained her master’s degree. And Unicorn Press, the small literary magazine that first published her poems, is the publication she’s representing.

“I normally work for a magazine that goes in airplane seat backs,” Lindsay says, “so it’s good to be around people who are concerned about other kinds of magazines. The kinds of magazines that care about writing and don’t have advertisements.”

Lindsay is arguably the most accomplished poet residing in Greensboro, with the exception of Fred Chappell. Her work has appeared in the Paris Review, the New Republic and the Yale Review. She’s been nominated for the National Book Award and has been singled out by the New York Times Book Review.

But the woman with the narrow shoulders reading her technical, clever verse to an encouraging crowd of onlookers still celebrates the early days.

“These poems are old enough so that when I read them I feel like I should change them,” Lindsay says of selections from Insomniac’s Lullaby, published by Unicorn.

“It’s funny to look at this book and see where the ink clogged up on the pages,” she says.

Lindsay recalls setting the type (the press had only two varieties) with the help of her sister and taking tea in the afternoons with her British boss. She’s since moved on to Grove Press, an imprint with a reputation for publishing innovative work which has published two of her books.

Lindsay is followed by Charlotte Matthews, a poet with a sassy hairdo and an irrepressible daughter. Matthews is representing Iris Press, which published her first book of poetry, Green Stars, after she authored two chapbooks on other presses.

Matthews divides her reading into sections loosely grouped by topic. The first includes works inspired by stories she heard on National Public Radio. The second segment includes poems about her daughter, Emma, who reads one of the pieces, then scampers back to her seat.

Iris Press started in 1975 in upstate New York, but moved south to Tennessee in 1980. According to its website, the magazine has changed hands repeatedly and has been steered, for a time, by the poet laureate of Tennessee among others. Like all good small presses, Iris aims to publish works by overlooked authors.

A representative from a press closer to him, Mark Smith-Soto, introduces the session and closes it with a selection of his work. Smith-Soto, a Spanish professor, represents Main Street Rag Press, a magazine based in Charlotte.

He opens with a handful of political poems before moving on to his love poems. Smith-Soto, unlike his predecessors, addresses the crowd without much of a plan. Instead he seats himself on the edge of a folding table and flips through his collection Any Second Now until his eyes settle on something to read.

Smith-Soto himself has garnered a bit of literary world success with publication in the Kenyon Review and the Sun among others. He urges audience members to move upstairs after the reading to take in the array of literary magazines on display in a convention room.

Smith-Soto does this not only out of admiration for the presses that gave him his start. He also operates a press, he says. Free issues will be available in the Maple Room, along with subscription forms for those who are interested.

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