Poets stand on the cusp of a new opening to a renewal of the Spirit in language, to a renewal of the infinite resonance of words, so that we may hope to infuse new depths into literary productions without at the same time losing our connection with Tradition…
On a recent trip to Italy, I started writing poetry again. For ten years I have been caught up in so many other things that the contemplative time required for poetry simply wasn’t there. The outpouring of poems in Tuscany made me wonder what the state of publishing poetry might be.
In the past, publishing poetry was a lose-lose proposition. The slim volumes were expensive to produce, which made them expensive to buy. Few got rich and famous on poetry, and in an increasingly utilitarian age, the uselessness of poetry was another mark against it. In addition to these practical problems, much modern poetry, like modern art, has become abstract, bizarre, decadent, inaccessible and unintelligible.
However, good poets still write and good poetry is still savored. Furthermore, with the new technologies, books are increasingly inexpensive to produce, so it should be the case that publishers are willing to risk publishing new poetry. John Riess of Angelico Press is one of those daring souls.
I spoke to him about his small Catholic press and the adventure of publishing poetry today.
Fr. Longenecker: How did Angelico Press get started?
John Riess: After acquiring a fair amount of publishing experience at Dover Publications, I slowly began to envision the possibility of simply doing on my own what I was then doing for Dover.
Then about six years ago I received an email saying that Sophia Institute Press was looking for new management and was accepting proposals. My business partners and I did a great deal of work exploring the fundamentals of a viable publishing model and submitted a proposal. In the end, the officers at Sophia Institute Press went with a “safer” course in joining with Thomas More College for management. This left us with everything in place to start our own company, and so we did.
What kind of books do you publish and why?
I wanted to run a Catholic press, yet reach beyond what most Catholic presses were publishing: to explore the catholicity past and present of the tradition; to give a mouthpiece to contemporary Catholic voices such as Stratford Caldecott, Jean Borella, and Jean Hani.
My business partner James Wetmore and I wanted our list to have books that explored everything from the intersection of science and religion to the locutions received from Jesus and Mary from a contemporary Benedictine monk—this in order to allow the tradition to speak in multiple voices and perhaps to better speak to our own times. We like to publish works that help those on a spiritual path to find their bearings and possible next steps. Judging from the enthusiastic responses of readers, I can say that there are many who are most welcoming and appreciative of such an approach.
You have published some excellent new poetry. Who are your poets?
Michael Martin, Mark Amorose are two of our new poets. We also publish reprints of works by Rilke, and the Russians Vladimir Solovyov and Alexander Blok. An upcoming collection from Sam Davidson, whose work also appeared in our new journal, Jesus the Imagination, along with many other poets.
Do you receive many submissions? What do you look for? How do you judge whether the poetry is worth publishing?
We do not receive many poetry submissions, but it is increasing.
I love poetry, but I can’t claim any special expertise in this area. I read it myself, and if it stirs something in me, I send it to various people, including the poets and literature professors among our consultants.
Then we weigh their various judgments with our own. There is of course also the question of readership and potential market. Though a business reality, that is not necessarily determinative, as there are not a few occasions when we will publish something just because we think it should be in print, hoping maybe to break even, at best.
I worked closely at Dover with its founder, Hayward Cirker—one of the mainstays of the New York publishing world from the 1950s onward—and this was his approach with many books, books for which he knew there would be only a small audience, but a very appreciative one as well. So that approach rubbed off on me quite a bit.
Why should people read poetry? What’s the point?
Especially today, when everyone has their eyes glued to little screens, take a moment to read a poem, and experience an entirely other reality, where the sounds of words can have a unique contour and resonance, meanings emerge and coalesce, and the ordinary shapes and sense of things disappears.
Is Catholic poetry different from other poetry? If so, how?
I think it can be, in the sense that all literature by Catholics can be different. Not so much in terms of subject, but in a framework of Catholic understanding or a Catholic sensibility that the poet brings to all the things he or she might write a poem about.
Our belief is that we stand on the cusp of a new opening to a renewal of the Spirit in language, to a renewal of the infinite resonance of words, to the new modes of meaning to be plucked upon the responsive, taut-tuned strings of the Analogia Entis, so that we may hope to infuse new depths into literary productions without at the same time losing our connection with Tradition.
This is just another way of “resolving” the apparent paradox of “development” in Tradition, a theme at the heart also of many of the doctrinal, theological, and other books we publish. Much is made of the depredations of our time, but seen from another angle, ours is also an exciting—even thrilling—time to be alive and engaged. To foster such an attitude is, in a way, the whole raison d’être of Angelico Press.
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