The Seattle area boasts two renowned poetry presses (Copper Canyon Press and Wave Books), and it may find its third in Gramma.
The press will spring forth fully formed at its public launch party on November 12 at Generations, but it's already operational and prepared to announce the first two titles: Sarah Galvin's second full-length, Ugly Time, and Christine Shan Shan Hou's third book, Community Garden for Lonely Girls.
Gramma publisher and founder Bill True, the veteran Seattle art collector, says he's committed to the project for the foreseeable future, though he admits he'll be checking in with editor Drew Swenhaugen on a yearly basis to take stock.
True is well-known in the visual arts community. He sat on the board of Henry Art Gallery for 25 years, and, along with his wife, Ruth, ran Western Bridge for 10 years. The gallery focused on contemporary installation and multimedia work and was largely admired by writers at this paper.
So why would an art collector want to back a poetry press?
"I just love it," True tells me, beaming on a couch at the Cloud Room. A college class on the French Symbolists hooked him on reading poetry, but he only started practicing the craft himself five or six years ago. He sent out his poems for review by local poets and publishers, and that's how he ended up in conversations about founding an independent press with Swenhaugen.
"I know the art world in a way I don't know the poetry world at all, so it's all new to me," he says. Right now he reads "the poetry equivalent of Richard Serra or Chuck Close," but says Swenhaugen has introduced him to tons of younger and more diverse poets. "Now I'm a cheerleader," he says.
(Full disclosure: Swenhaugen published two books of mine on Poor Claudia, a small press he cofounded in Portland, Oregon.)
In addition to being a poet in his own right (check out his chapbook, Big, from Dikembe Press), Swenhaugen helped run the Bad Blood poetry readings series and is still a designer for Octopus Books. He also sold books at Powell's for seven years, worked at a food truck for four, and taught writing during graduate school. Helming Gramma is now his only job.
The press plans to publish four to six books of poetry per year, and they're starting strong with Seattle-based Galvin and Brooklyn-based Hou. Though True and Swenhaugen don't promise to publish only Seattle writers, True says the general idea is to publish at least one Pacific Northwest poet per year, which also happened to be a guiding principle at Western Bridge.
Galvin is a frequent Stranger contributor and friend who happens to write some of the most surprising, hilarious, and touching poetry in the United States at the moment. Her latest work shows that taking a year to write The Best Party of Our Lives, a book of essays about gay weddings, has in no way dulled her poetic edge. As ever, she's writing about the complexities of desire with a keen eye and a masterful understanding of joke structures. But recently she's been adding descriptions of city life that would be familiar to Seattleites, as in this stanza from "I Heard She Was Fired from Catholic Arby's":
I climbed every historic building in town
and nothing was on top of them.
Now most of them have been demolished
to make way for buildings that lack
even the possibility of something on top of them.
I first encountered Hou's work in Seattle poet Jane Wong's digital dissertation project, The Poetics of Haunting in Asian American Poetry. Hou collaborates with visual artists to great effect in her two books, and the few recent poems I've read of hers are longer-form, associative, heavy on declarative sentences, critical of war and misogyny, and fierce with left turns into wry humor, as in "A History of Detainment": "Art is the shit on your face. / It is pain, but it is manageable. / A day job. / The movies. / The emergency of sentiment blinds us momentarily. / The beginning of tea and canaries."
In addition to publishing books, Swenhaugen and a team of nine other paid contributing editors will present new poems Monday through Friday and "into eternity" online at Daily Gramma. Four of these editors are based in Seattle (one of them is The Stranger's own Kim Selling), a couple live in Portland, and the rest send work from cities that start with "B": Boston, Boise, and Berlin.
I spoke with most of the editors by e-mail, and it seems like they're looking to represent a wide range of voices. "Writers from the LGBTQ+ community, POC, women. Dancers, agenre artists, activists, homeless youth. If you've spent time in the periphery of the writing world, I want to read (and hopefully publish) your work," writes Seattle poet and teacher Michael Harper.
Another Seattleite, Dominic Ng, is looking for "work that is more accessible to the general public without sacrificing emotional and/or intellectual depth," with a special interest in the intersection between tech and modern life. Brandi Katherine Herrera might knock on your door if your work "falls within the realm of more experimental visual and multimedia poetics."
"There is a diversity of perspective in our editorship alone," writes Portland's Rebecca Nguyen. "So I feel free to let my aesthetic guide my selection process. I trust our system; it was created v. carefully and thoughtfully by Drew, and with our input."
Both Swenhaugen and True are acutely aware that they are two white dudes entering an industry full up on white dudery. "I feel achieving/promoting diversity (in all its forms) in the literary and publishing world is simply the mandate for change," Swenhaugen writes. "Change that wants to break down large power structures (racism, patriarchy, class), and to promote ideals of equality, fairness, kindness, and ultimately love."
True says its time for "old white guys" like him "to get to the back of the line." One can't help thinking this conviction might be more convincing if he wasn't the owner of the line in question. Swenhaugen adds: "Am I a walking contradiction as a white male in charge of new press? Maybe. I still believe I can be a leader for this mandate." And though True gets the final check mark on book publication, he says he's just happy to have access to a steady stream of fresh and exciting work: "For me, it's like 'What new poet do I get to read this week?'"
On paper and online, this model seems promising. In Gramma you have a press whose publisher and editors seek the widest audience they can within the realm of literary poetry. True's investment allows Swenhaugen to hold a full-time position, so he doesn't have to raise money or pay someone else to raise money. Like Joshua Beckman at Wave Books, he can spend most of his time reading and developing relationships with writers. These are the benefits of the patronage system, which seemed to work okay for Hugo House and for Wave. And even if Gramma lasts only a year, the world will only be improved by new books from Christine Shan Shan Hou and Sarah Galvin.