During the war, we felt the silence in the policy of the governments of English-speaking countries. That policy was to win the war first, and work out the meanings afterward. The result was, of course, that the meanings were lost. You cannot put these things off. One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.
—Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry
Paris Press began almost twenty years ago with the simple mission of resurrecting Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry, a collection of essays originally published in 1949 that explore how resistance to poetry is connected to the modern world’s fear of individual thought and emotion, which then lends itself to a world that seems ever more fractured and confusing.
Over the years, Paris Press continued to publish works by Rukeyser as well as other women writers who had “been overlooked by commercial and independent publishers,” and these books immediately began earning attention from national publications including the New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, along with features on programs like NPR’s Fresh Air.
Paris Press publishes all genres by women writers from all over the map, but every text—whether poetry, play, or prose—deeply explores and illuminates those “emotional meanings” Rukeyser describes as essential to confronting and defying a world that remains as chaotic and volatile as it was in 1949.
Today, Paris Press is on the brink of several new developments: a more comprehensive website and blog launching this summer; a new award for a short story collection that will include publication by Paris Press; and an increased focus on educational outreach. Jan Freeman, poet and Executive Director of Paris Press, shares what’s in store for readers, authors, and educators.
Q: Due to backlog, Paris Press is not currently accepting new manuscripts. When will the press once again be opening the floodgates?
A: That’s about to change. We are just finishing updating our website for the press, and the new and improved site will be launched by the end of July. With the launch, we’ll be expanding our programming. We’ll include a blog, we’ll start publishing individual works by writers—both contemporary as well as writers from earlier time periods—and we’ll be accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for our online site. We also will soon begin accepting book-length submissions online, so we’re joining the twenty-first century. The Internet opens things up in an exciting way that Paris Press is now embracing.
We’ll also have a book length short-story manuscript competition in honor of Alice Munro receiving the Nobel. We are still finalizing who our judge will be, and then we’ll announce on the website the timeline and guidelines for submitting manuscripts. I’ve resisted the whole contest process in the past, because for much of my life I couldn’t afford to submit manuscripts myself—I would have to pick and choose—but we realize that’s how so many small presses are able to publish more books, which we very much want to do. The contest also will mean we’re publishing more work by contemporary writers.
Finally, there are plans to publish more translation projects, and we will be looking at manuscripts in translation this summer. I’m very interested in the press stretching its arms and publishing more works. The big challenge is not taking on too much, so we can give the appropriate attention to each book.
Q: It’s been almost twenty years since Paris Press began, and the accolades and awards began piling up almost immediately—yet you continue to publish a very small number of titles each year with a very small staff. How do you do it?
A: We are hoping to expand the staff. It’s just a fiscal challenge for the press to raise the funds to support additional part-time people in the office. We’ve never wanted the press to be a “large” small press, but hiring additional people in the office has been the hope for the past few years.
We rely a great deal on wonderful volunteers and interns, and ideally it would be a two to three person staff with two to three interns; my future goal is to not be wearing as many hats!
Q: Many independent presses or journals end up aligning themselves with a college or university, or with a publishing house, to share the work or financial burden. Would you consider (or have you already considered) this route?
A: We have thought a great deal about it and at various times have had conversations with a few larger entities. Nothing has worked out at this point, just because Paris Press’s cash flow is a challenge. The difficulties with cash flow and not having the kind of fiscal support that we need ripples into all of our activities.
We focus a lot on educational outreach and have many programs at universities and in public facilities, but for the last two years it’s been difficult to publish new volumes as well as host educational programs and outreach. We have some funding from Massachusetts Humanities and Massachusetts Cultural Council, but we could do so much more—we’re just looking for the right fit and I would love to find that.
Q: When Paris Press published Tell Me Another Morning, an intensely moving autobiographical novel by Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor Zdena Berger, you also provided a comprehensive study and research guide online, which Paris Press had never done before. What was the motivation behind providing this online guide? Do you have plans to provide guides for future titles?
A: Eventually we hope to have guides for all the titles—some as substantial as the one for Tell Me Another Morning, and others that won’t need to be as detailed. Right now we’re working on a guide for On Being Ill with Notes from Sick Rooms (essays on illness by Virginia Woolf, published by Paris Press for the first time with an essay by Woolf’s mother Julia Stephen).
It was thrilling to publish those essays by Woolf and Stephen together—exciting from the literary point of view but also from a medical point of view. The book is now used as a course adoption in medical schools and nursing programs, and I recently facilitated a class with people from all areas of the medical field—from nurses to surgeons to the hospital chaplain—to discuss how this text can help people in the medical field be more compassionate and better listeners, as well as to help them know what kinds of questions to ask patients.
We also are working with Renee Olander from Old Dominion University on a guide for The Life of Poetry, aimed at providing middle school and high school teachers with help incorporating poetry into their curriculum. At a time when so many arts programs are being cut in schools, we hope the guide will reflect how art, physics, dance, poetry, music, history, and religion are all connected to each other.
Our books deserve a large and eclectic audience, so we devote an enormous amount of time to education. The educational component is critical, especially when you’re publishing texts that have been overlooked.
If there’s an unpublished text—especially by a well-known author like Virginia Woolf—people often think that’s because the text wasn’t accomplished, rather than considering the other factors that might have been at play. Zdena Berger’s Tell Me Another Morning was very well-received when it was first published—it was a Book of the Month selection—and then it just disappeared.
These are books meant to be read many, many times; it’s up to us to educate the public about why these books are ground-breaking, life-changing. The study guides are just one way—we also have programs in public libraries, hospitals, senior centers, museums, and schools. The educational component is critical. It’s crucial and challenging.
“Sisters Dresses” by Jane Lund