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U. of Calif. Press to Suspend Acclaimed Poetry Series

One of the country’s most prominent poetry series, New California Poetry, from the University of California Press, is to be suspended. The pause in publishing, after next year’s three spring titles, likely will become long-term or permanent unless an angel steps forward to provide substantial assistance.

The series, founded in 2000, has published 33 titles by 25 poets, with three more in the pipeline. Its editors have been four prominent figures in innovative American poetry: Cal Bedient, Forrest Gander, Robert Hass, and Brenda Hillman.

Alison Mudditt, who took over as UC Press director early this year, said today, via e-mail: “Like all university presses, we are currently facing increasing financial pressures, partly as we continue to feel the impact of the global economic recession and partly as we reshape our publishing program and our organizational structure to ensure our continued success in the digital age.”

She acknowledged what the editors of the series and many poets say of the series, that it “has included many extraordinary and memorable collections” and “is both prestigious and award-winning.” In 2009, for example, Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy won the National Book Award, while Fanny Howe’s Selected Poems received an Academy of American Poets prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in 2000.

Mudditt said, however, “it is also a series that requires substantial support.” With “significant subsidy,” the series’ three spring 2012 titles will appear, she said. Those are Karen Garthe’s Banjo Clock, ‘Annah Sobelman’s In the Bee Latitudes, and Cole Swensen’s Gravesend. But “because of current financial pressures and a lack of long-term funding for the series, we have put on hold acquiring new titles for the series for the 2013 list.” The press will continue to seek “to secure future funding that will enable us to continue the series,” she said. She added that she is relatively hopeful about its future: “Although we are not able to make anything public at this stage, we do have a couple of potential donors who are interested in sizable gifts to support this program.”

Forrest Gander, a professor of literary arts and comparative literature at Brown University, said today that he will hope for a continuation, but won’t hold his breath: “I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next couple of years, unless an individual steps forward as a benefactor. The economy in California isn’t going to make the University of California Press stable enough to take this on for a few years, again.”

New California Poetry has been “a really major series,” and its termination would be “a pretty big swipe out of American poetry,” Gander said. It also is likely to attract more criticism to the University of California Press, and to Mudditt. The suspension of New California Poetry is the second termination of a series under her fledgling directorship. The first was controversial: ending FlashPoints, a recently established series in literary studies that was notable for its model of simultaneous print-on-demand, hard-copy publishing, and online open access to texts.

Earlier this year, Mudditt said that the press remained interested in publishing books such as FlashPoints had acquired—perhaps for digital publication, only—but that the series had lost money and been identified for cuts under a broad review of all the press’s operations. Members of a committee of faculty members in the University of California system responsible for selecting the titles in the FlashPoint series objected that Mudditt had made the decision without consulting them; she responded that the press didn’t require their approval.

Gander signaled that he does not think the press deserves criticism, in the case of New California Poetry. He said that while he regrets the press’s actions—“It gives me that feeling of the elevator dropping down beneath you”—he does not question that financial pressures would dictate such actions. “California is in particularly bad economic straits, as far as the country is concerned,” he said.

The California press had in fact served poetry well, he said: “They have been wonderfully committed to poetry; they haven’t been making money on the series, anyway. And they have allowed the editors to choose work based on the quality of the work and not on the potential for sales, which is a big deal.”

“What was wonderful about the series is that we not only did better-known innovative writers, people like Leslie Scalapino, Ron Silliman, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who already had reputations as really innovative writers, but we also did a lot of wild-cat drilling, discovering the young, exciting writers like Srikanth Reddy, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and Sarah Gridley. The mix was really rich in this series, and that’s going to be noticed.”

Following the example of New Directions, a leading American publisher of experimental literature, “what we wanted to do was to have a stable of writers that we were committed to and to do multiple books by them,” Gander said. “Some of these writers were depending on future publications from the University of California, and that won’t be the case, now.”

Christine Deavel, the co-owner of what she believes is one of only three all-poetry bookstores in the country, Open Books: A Poem Emporium, in Seattle, said the loss of the series will be a blow: “From its inception, the New California Poetry series became indispensible to us,” she said via e-mail. “We stock all the titles in it and consider a number of them to be touchstone volumes for the store.”

One of Forrest Gander’s three fellow editors of the series, Brenda Hillman, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of California, said by e-mail: “I am so proud of what we’ve been doing with it, and think it has been a true gem there at UC Press—eclectic, cutting across aesthetic boundaries, very selective. It has been our goal to publish the best work we could find, cutting edge work, and it has made a difference to many.”

The termination of the series disappointed her, Hillman said: “It makes me sick about this country, spending four million dollars on each eyeless robot drone—that amount would fund all the arts publishing in California.”

But the press’s action does not signal a crisis in the publication of American poetry, Hillman said: “I feel hopeful about poetry publishing in general.” Many other university presses are “doing amazing things,” she said. “It is really a golden age for poetry, I believe; we need it more than ever.”

Gander agrees. Another key press, he said, is Copper Canyon, which publishes only poetry and “is a long-running serious enterprise and business and that’s really astounding,” he said.

“The positive signs are that people keep discovering poetry, and despite that we live in an age of spectacle, poetry which is the absolute anti-spectacle…keeps finding audiences and keeps surprising—that young people are continually drawn to it, that there are sales and readings and communities that form around it.”

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