Monday, October 18, 2010

Let’s Build a Stage and Put on a Show!

Today's guest on First Person Plural is poet and workshop leader Rose Solari. The post is part of the ASP ( series on First Person Plural, which will be all this week. Rose Solari is the publisher and co-founder of Alan Squire Publishers. You can find Rose at, and join her for the ASP book launch event at The Writer’s Center this Friday, October 22. For more details on the event, visit

It seems to me that there are two kinds of writers: those who are content to make and market their own work, believing, sensibly, that that is plenty; and those whose desire to promote and publish other writers exists in tandem with their own writing efforts. I belong to the latter group, those who, like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, want to build a stage and put on a show!

It may have something to do with organizational skills. I always get little angry when I hear someone talk about left-brain or right-brain people, and how we creative types, evidently the right-brainers, are supposed to be the flakes of the universe, floating outside the space-time continuum while crafting our deathless poetry or prose. Excuse my language, but that’s bullshit. I love to write and I love to organize, and the two go very well together. Over the years, I’ve put together countless salons and readings, as well as theatrical events, tributes to other writers, and home concerts. It’s been hard work, but it’s also been a blast.

This year, I decided it was time to realize a long-held dream. I’ve wanted to be a publisher since I was ten years old. It was then that I produced my first, very limited editions, folding sheets of construction paper into folios I stitched or glued together. Whether I filled them with my own drawings and poems, or passages of my father’s favorite books, I loved the act of making something, of putting it all together.

Like a lot of young writers, I joined the staffs of my high school and college literary magazines. A post grad school job at a national magazine boosted my writing and editing skills, and when that magazine started a series of anthologies, published by Harper Collins, I quickly took on a co-editor position for that, as well. In the meantime, I was a hired gun on many a book project, from scholarly studies of J.R.R. Tolkien and Shakespeare, to New Age re-evaluations of Jungian and Freudian theory, to a reminiscence by a young photographer who had fallen into a telephone friendship with the aging, reclusive Marlene Dietrich.  I discovered that I had a knack, if you will, for seeing how a book fit together as a whole, for finding the through-line that would snag the reader’s attention, for seeing the arc of beginning, middle, and end.  And how gratifying it was, to see an author move from draft to draft to polished finish, as the book took shape.

Less happily, I also worked on many a promising manuscript that never found its way between covers, or got into print only to be lost in the scramble of a big publishing house’s need for a big seller. A young-adult author I’d worked with told me her agent was looking “for the next J. K. Rowling.” Another agent, responding to a proposal for my own historical novel-in-progress, said he was hoping for something as potentially successful as Umberto Ecco’s  The Name of the Rose. (Gee, no pressure there!) My boyfriend (now husband), a retired singer-songwriter who had moved into magazine publishing, too, dismissed this as laziness, the kind he had seen in the music business.

“The big guys — the big publishers, agents, music companies — don’t want to do their own R & D,” he said.  “And they’re not interesting developing artists over the course of a career. They’re interested in how much money they can make off these artists, and how fast.”

His words had the ugly ring of truth.

Meanwhile I had some very positive experiences with independent presses. My first two books of poems, Difficult Weather and Orpheus in the Park, were published, respectively by Derrick Hsu’s Gut Punch press and Grace Cavalieri’s The Bunny & the Crocodile. At Gut Punch, I joined a list including such terrific poets as Richard Peabody, Sunil Freeman, and Reuben Jackson, feeling like the first girl child in a family of wonderful older brothers. With Grace, I joined an eclectic list that included Michael Glaser, former Maryland Poet Laureate, and also got a peak at how this amazing woman runs her press. In fact, the DC area had no shortage of cool, inspiring indie presses. The husband and I began to talk. We had started and run SportsFan Magazine (SFM) together, and though we had reluctantly shut it down in the fall of 2006, we thought we could apply our energy and our lessons learned to another publishing venture.

Then we had a galvanizing moment. In March of ’09, I was invited to serve as Blackwell Books Poet-in-Residence for the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival. This opportunity was so rich in so many ways, it would be impossible to enumerate them all. But one of the highlights was hearing the publisher John Calder, Samuel Beckett’s great champion; speak about his own life and work. Now in his late eighties, Calder’s enthusiasm for his writers remains undimmed – he called Beckett “the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare.” Asked his thoughts on the current literary scene, he said that the advances in printing technology and access have made for “the most exciting time in publishing since the post-war era” of which he was a part. He added that his only regret was that he might not live long enough to participate in whatever would happen next. Jimmy and I looked at each other — it seemed we’d heard just what we needed to hear.

On the plane home, we devised a plan to start our own press, involving collaborations with other indie publishers we admired, both at home and in the U.K. We’d help each other promote and distribute our titles; we’d share experiences, resources, and ideas. We’d keep the name of the umbrella organization under which we’d founded SFM, Alan Squire Publishing, or ASP. (I’ve always loved snakes.) And as publisher, I decided that the first book I wanted to see into print was a collection of Jimmy’s essays, Bermuda Shorts. It’s a beautiful and diverse group of pieces, many of which have been published previously in magazines and anthologies, and ranges from autobiography to philosophy to gender studies to sports commentary. I saw the whole that these parts could make up, and knew it would be a wonderful book, indeed. Our second title is the gorgeous debut novel of the well-known journalist, essayist, and poet Joanna Biggar, That Paris Year, which follows five young women through a year in France in the early 1960s. Both are published in conjunction with two other indie presses we love, Santa Fe Writers Project and Left Coast Writers. We’re already looking at manuscripts from some U.K. writers we’ve met on our travels there, and establishing collaborations with indie publishers in England, including Chris Andrews Publishing, another husband-and-wife team who make some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. 

And now, all ASP engines are revving for our East Coast Launch, Friday night at The Writer’s Center. James and Joanna will be joined by the dynamic Linda Watanabe McFerrin, author of Dead Love, a very sexy zombie novel, and founder of Left Coast Writers. We’ve got music, video, surprise special guests, and a big party afterward in the Center’s newly renovated Jane Fox Reading room. It’s going to be quite the celebration. As for me, I still have to pinch myself from time to time to make sure it’s real.

I’ve always wanted to be a publisher – and now I am.


Joanna Biggar said...

Rose, you rock! What a privilege to step out and take a twirl on the stage Rose built.
See you there,

Grace said...

I cannot imagine any publishing house headed by Rose Solari and Jimmy Patterson that would not knock the socks off the print world.That is a convoluted way of saying that I have read these new ASP Books and they are at the top of the heap of prose now being written in America. MOREOVER, and not the least of it, is the feel of these books. They are beautiful. The physical look of the books: the paper,the graphics, the excellence, are pure silk -- All the blood sweat and tears no where to be seen...just the sweet smell of success...If Ken and I are not able to make the drive FRIDAY NIGHT, we will not be happy about missing it, but we will always feel fulfilled knowing this new enterprise "up close and personal." And we are proud of the venture. Grace Cavalieri