poetical economy/exchange: kitchens, coffee shops, cluttered tables, communities  

by Wendy Vardaman               

As many readers know, Verse Wisconsin began its life as Free Verse, an independent print magazine edited 1998-2008 by Linda Aschbrenner. Free Verse, like a number of projects discussed in this issue, grew out of a writer’s group. Its members felt boxed out of existing publications and wanted more opportunities, not just to publish but also to connect with other poets—truly a gathering around a table. As Free Verse reached more poets in-state and out, it never lost that original sense of gathering, of community. The table just got bigger, and if there was overflow sometimes, card tables went up around the main one. People introduced themselves to each other. We waved at the big table. We waved at each other. We didn’t have to wave at Linda, because she was always stopping by to see if you needed anything, and to ask what you wanted to help with. She’s good at figuring out what you might be able to do and setting you to work on something that makes you feel useful—poetry, of course, we all want to write poetry. But the other stuff too—the work and the writing that needs to go on alongside the poetry in order to support it and the poets who write it, like reviews, interviews, essays, proofreading, layout, websites, accounting. Like poetry news from up north and the Driftless and the cities: a writing center in Viroqua, a poetry series in Racine, a conference at Lakeland College, a literary press festival in Milwaukee, the sudden death of a well-loved poet in Whitefish Bay, the long-expected death of a well-loved poet laureate in Eau Claire. Free Verse put us in touch with each other in a personal way up and down and across Wisconsin, regardless of our jobs and whether we make a living as writers, which is why so many of us didn’t want to lose what Linda had created when she finished a decade as editor, presiding over 100 issues in 10 years.

Publication venues have many different purposes, and sometimes multiple ones. Some build careers for writers and editors. Others provide opportunities for students, undergrads or MFA-candidates, to learn what’s involved in creating a literary magazine. Some promote the writing of particular groups or a particular kind of writing. Verse Wisconsin, taking up the unstated mission of Free Verse, exists partly to promote the poetry of Wisconsin’s writers, to each other and beyond state lines, but more fundamentally, to help maintain and build a community that makes this work meaningful in a personal sense. We’re not a family, and yet familial metaphors seem helpful here: the kitchen table, as a work- and a gathering-place, might make more sense of publishing efforts like Free Verse/Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press, or other newer publishing ventures around the state, like Stoneboat or Echoes or N.E.W. Voices, than little magazine, which refers to size rather than character, small press, which just means having a budget under $50 Million, micro press, which means smaller but still often driven by economic and professional concerns, or nano press, a term coined recently by Nic Sebastian to talk about one editor working with one author to produce one book. What makes me uneasy about those terms are their numerical connotations, like non-profit, which draws your focus right away to economics and money. I want something that sounds more human, that refers not to size, but to substance. Something qualitative rather than quantitative. For most of us, the kitchen is a place where men and women, young and old, gather to create and exchange what is actually necessary to sustain life physically and spiritually: not money, but food, shelter, conversation, and to do that in a way that makes life meaningful.

Still, most kitchens require some cash to do their work, even if everyone pitches in, even if  some of the produce comes from the garden, neighbors bring dessert, your uncle ice fishes, or you fill up the freezer with the deer killed on the way to Menominee in October. Even if the house is paid for, and you’re living in the place you grew up in outside of Kenosha, outside of Shawano, outside of Ashwaubenon, and eating on your grandmother’s dishes and bartering your skills in wiring for carpentry, there’s still the electric and the gas bills to pay. Most literary magazines are subsidized in some way or another—either by the universities and colleges that house them, or by foundations and non-profit fundraising efforts, or by personal resources, however small. And if knowledge, especially of software and web design, might be a contemporary poetry publisher’s Green Stamps, there are still expenses, like printing and postage, if you want to put out a print magazine, let alone ever paying anyone—poets, reviewers, proofreaders, editors—for all of their work. Early on in the process of taking on Free Verse, we considered whether Verse Wisconsin should become a non-profit. As people with professional credentials and academic degrees, we saw what we were doing, at least theoretically, as a profession and as a business, which Linda did too, if not a profitable one. We didn’t expect to make money, but we didn’t want to lose it either. And we had a mission. Shouldn’t we become an official non-profit?

“Dave,” I called out to my next door neighbor, a tax accountant specializing in non-profits. “I’d like to set up an appointment to come talk to you about my poetry magazine becoming a 501c3.”

Dave quizzed me. “What’s your budget?”

“About $6000,” I replied.

The corners of his mouth started to turn up, as he took off his straw hat and passed it over his face. “Do you intend to pay anyone?”

“Well, no. There’s no money in poetry publishing.”

Dave took a deep breath and control of his expression, arranging himself once more into the normal accountant’s countenance, before launching into a mini-lecture on the difference between a business and a hobby, a word that makes me cringe every time I hear it in relation to poetry, especially my poetry. “So what you have is a hobby, understand? Don’t make it more complicated than that.”

But what if we wanted to apply for grants? Ask for donations? Look respectable?

“It’s not worth your time—all the extra paperwork. Not with that budget.” And then he vanished into the back of his house, perhaps to share a laugh with his wife about the wacky poet next door.

And after getting over the bruise to the ego, we realized that he was right, at least for now, and Verse Wisconsin has evolved outside of the non-profit model, accruing adjectives rather than grants as it goes: mission-driven, independent, non-commercial, volunteer, hybrid, online-print. Every now and then we connect with an organization that wants to come to our “offices” or have us send some of our staff over, and we explain: two women, two lap-tops, and a community of generous and engaged poets, reviewers, proofreaders, and advisors. VW tries to continue not just Linda’s magazine, but its spirit: making room around the table, involving poets with chopping onions and tossing the salad. Or call it a pot luck, and VW offers a gathering place and a group where you can show-off your best recipes. The work of publishing and editing happens, as we imagine much of the poetry written and published in VW, where we are and where you are: embedded in daily life and its routines, between and around things ordinary and extraordinary—chores and work commitments, family trips, birthdays, kids’ visits from college and holidays from school, other volunteer work. In kitchens and coffee shops.

Verse Wisconsin is small and we like it that way. We’re not trying to mass-produce poetry or poetry magazines. We couldn’t do that and maintain the same kind of involvement  with poets and the magazine in the process. We both correspond with every author. We don’t have national, or really any distribution, of our print magazine, which is subscriber-based, though we give away several hundred copies of each issue to contributors, community groups, literacy programs, prisons, literary festivals near and far, and we would do more of that if we could. We don’t earn money and don’t expect to, although I’d say we make money by not spending it.

True to its origins around a cluttered table, VW is open to a range of aesthetics and forms of poetry. We try to be as eclectic and as inclusive as possible, welcoming what you value, and we believe that many kinds of people and poetry can make something together that is more pleasing than its individual components. Although we focus on the process of working with poets and on what we create together more than, we hope, the product, work published in VW has been recognized by the Pushcart Award, Poetry Daily, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Wisconsin is home to many poets who deserve a wider readership and more regional and national attention, and we appreciate you bringing your best work to the party: every time you do that, it helps raise our profile as a community of poets regionally and nationally. And it makes a better party.

Kitchen publishing informs more than our budget and where we work. It also influences what we look like. So far, we’ve published poems as colorful broadsides, as give-aways with candy in the Verse-O-Matic, and as a YouTube video, as well as in print and online. Serving up poetry in different forms and formats will, we hope, reach and appeal to more people and poets. In print, Verse Wisconsin retained Linda’s vision of a larger format with poems speaking to each other on the same page, rather than alone on a book-sized page with lots of white space. On a given 2-page spread, we try to include deliberately different voices of men and women, new and established, from Wisconsin and beyond. This decision has a practical dimension—we can publish more poets for less money, but it also complements our aesthetic. One of my favorite tasks in editing and layout is deciding which poems will have a conversation with each other on a page, as well as the flow through an issue to create an extended discussion, a story. As a community-driven publication, everyone’s name goes on the cover, another choice Linda made for Free Verse. VW also welcomes prose about poetry: not just reviews (which appear online) and interviews, but pieces about craft and how poetry informs daily life. In print the poetry and prose flow around each other as much as possible. The online venue helps extend this vision of pieces and poets speaking to each other, and includes visual and performance poetry, photos and art, audio, and video, poetry grounded in and informed by other arts, like theater, dance, music, the visual. We hope that different groups of poets will find each other through VW and that VW continues to find other groups of poets and artists whose work is informed by poetry.

I’ve lived all over the US as well as in Europe, and what I’ve come to love about Wisconsin during the 12 years my family has been here is that it’s a state of builders, doers, and organizers. Of people who pitch in. Of outward-looking artists and civic-minded writers. Of people who talk to their neighbors and actually want to know them. Of people who go out of their way to welcome newcomers. Verse Wisconsin attempts to reflect those values, too. We’re inspired by the work that goes on everywhere to support the vibrant poetry/writing climate of the state. So much goes on, in fact,  that it’s hard to know about it all. VW includes links to other Wisconsin organizations supporting poetry here on the website, and a “Wisconsin Poetry News” column in each online issue, directed not so much at individual news and successes, but at the news of Wisconsin groups working for poetry. We always need help with keeping these links up to date, with providing photographs and other multi-media material, and with collecting and writing the state’s abundant poetry news: from the poetry trail project in Door County, to the poetry wall in Fort Atkinson, to sidewalk poems in Madison, to the annual Woodrow Hall Jumpstart Award that helps fund projects like Kenosha’s poetry street cars and the new haiku marquee in Stevens Point, to the many festivals and conferences that occur state-wide each year, to the new home for Wisconsin’s poet laureate at the Wisconsin Academy, to the work of Writers in Prisons, a project that makes poetry and literature available to some of our state’s most thoughtful and needy readers and writers. We invite each of you to send us material—pictures, video, stories—about what your group, or a group you know about, does to support poetry and to support people through poetry.

No matter how much we might enjoy our own kitchen or coffee place, the familiar can easily become dull, unimaginative, and isolating, which is why we enjoy collaborating with other poetry publishers and supporters in Wisconsin. Partnerships help provide new directions, new ideas, and new audiences, significant needs for every small arts organization. In 2011 we launched the Verse-O-Matic/ Jawbreaker project with Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf, and we have another collaboration in the works for 2013. This issue of Verse Wisconsin (109) is the product of a partnership with the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets to produce the 2013 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, and includes a selection of calendar poems and the calendar’s art work, new audio/video of poets reading, and reflections on some of the many poetry communities in Wisconsin by their members. Many shorter calendar poems also appear for free with candy in the Verse-O-Matic, our poetry vending machine. Partnerships with other Wisconsin publishers are in the works, including one with Hummingbird, a magazine of short poems. We believe in working for common goals as much as possible with other groups that support poetry in the state; in addition to WFOP these have included the Friends of Lorine Niedecker, the Wisconsin Book Festival, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Letters, First Wave, the Creative Writing Department at the UW-Madison, the Association of Wisconsin Writers, the Wormfarm Institute’s Farm/Art DTour, the City of Madison’s Poet Laureateship.

The idea that my poetry, or poetry publishing, is a hobby still sets me on edge, but isn’t most poetry a hobby from the business perspective? Some poetry, without a doubt, is rewarded in the marketplace: greeting card verse, lyrics for commercials and popular music, some rap and hip hop—though not the most interesting or revolutionary kind, the lyrics of Disney movie musicals.…But that’s not the type of poetry most of us in Verse Wisconsin are writing or want to write. It’s assembly line poetry, corporate poetry. The kind of poetry we do write, that means something to us, doesn’t have a “commercial” audience and doesn’t play by marketplace rules, which is precisely why we have the freedom and possibility to say what and how we like, in a range of forms and aesthetics from sound poetry, to spoken word, to visual poetry and other experiments, to poetry essays and novels, to verse drama, to haiku, to accessible poems about your dog, and why we have to publish it, unless we have a wealthy, doting, dotty aunt, in non-commercial ways: subsidized by a university, a non-profit, a community, our kitchens.

But non-profits and universities are themselves not immune from marketplace rules. University publications tend to care (unsurprisingly) about the career goals of their students and faculty, about looking good to other university programs that are hiring or providing students, and about the audience within the university in charge of deciding funding and salaries. Successful, larger non-profits with bigger and more specialized paid staffs, connected or not to universities, also tend to have the time and skills to compete for government grants and foundation money. A few arts groups—theaters, literary organizations, symphonies—have huge resources which makes them more likely to attract even more. The growing inequality of such resources for artists and arts groups parallels the inequitable distribution of income in American society overall. The rest of us can attend their performances/readings or buy their magazines, which may have some benefit, but this is trickle-down art whose advantage to an individual has limits, and, depending on resources, may be inaccessible; in any case, viewing or consuming art is not comparable at all to practicing an art oneself.  So how can groups like VW, too small even to bother being non-profits, compete? How do artists without institutional or NEA-sized backing produce their work? Where does it leave you and me and the art that we feel compelled to do? And where does it leave too many individuals who are denied access altogether to public space and resources?

Verse Wisconsin, like a kitchen, is a group, an organization, a circle, in which the members, the people involved, produce the art, act as the audience for each others’ work, and trade time, expertise and other resources for the benefit of the group’s ability to produce, in this case, poetry, though the notion of such an art circle applies equally well to theater, visual art, music. We’re not a “professional” publisher, though individual members can and do certainly function at a professional level. The circle itself, however, is about allowing people to grow as artists, to interact with each other, to practice their art, and to create something larger than the individuals involved. Some members may only participate occasionally or tangentially, but everyone in such a circle needs to invest in creating and maintaining the infrastructure, and everyone should spend time being the audience for the circle’s members. The circle can’t exist without both of those forms of support and participation. For poetry that means spending, on the one hand, time reviewing, publicizing, publishing, editing, and/or organizing readings/events; and, on the other hand, reading each other’s books, attending readings, reading and buying, if possible, poetry magazines, and visiting magazines online. Connecting small circles to other circles, also helps all of us to make better art and strengthens the art as a whole.

The community art circle, in contrast to a professional model, allows people right now, today, to take charge of their artistic lives. It’s not about some improbable success, or reaching the top of a heap of very talented people—it’s not about gaining recognition or getting a job or a grant—it‘s about being an artist now and practicing an art as part of a more meaningful existence. You are never too old or too young to do art in this way; you can’t exhaust its possibilities creatively; it’s always possible though never easy. The community circle puts art within everyone’s reach, as makers and creators, not consumers. It’s about democratic access; responsive, responsible art. The goal of the community art circle is not careerist or material: it is the mutual support and artistic fulfillment of those who belong, from people who may have very ordinary talents, to those who may be or become major artists.

Community publishing or kitchen publishing? Think of the kitchen as a metaphor for the smallest of communities. The one you have the most control over. The one you spend the most time in and are presumably the most attached to. The place you already have where others can gather. The place you already are. Kitchen is, I believe, a vital space to hold onto ideologically and culturally—not as a locus of retreat or homogeneity, but as a revolutionary space where personal choices can immediately affect social outcomes. Besides being a center of work, paid or not, it’s the center of social interaction in a home, both among the people who live in a house, as well as between its residents and visitors. For those of us who are not wealthy, it is the place in our houses that we probably spend the most waking time; for the wealthy, it is the place where problems of class and race are most often visible; it is also the space in a home, for all of us, where gender and age differences, if they exist, are most visible, the space that witnesses how families organize themselves and divide the work of living. Economically, it is a place where we witness everything from the ordinary struggle of trying to get by, to the hardship that occurs when there isn’t enough to feed the family, to celebration, to the creativity and fulfillment that can come from making do with what we have and making it ourselves.