Interview with David Gullette regarding his new press: Fenway Press
by Mikail Jaikaran
Hoping we can talk a bit about your latest book: the novel, Dreaming Nicaragua. Also, I'd like to touch on your venture into
publishing with your new independent house, Fenway Press.
I'm far enough down the interesting road of my life that in my 60s I wanted to write an odd, dazzling, challenging, quirky,
one-of-a-kind book that would pay tribute to Nicaragua, the country that has owned my soul for the past quarter century.
The book is atypical in the variety of the time frames, the wildly different narrative voices, the use of visual material,
and a mixing of English and Spanish which meant that agents and editors didn't know what to make of it, and it was repeatedly
rejected. I had already for years had the idea of starting a small publishing house, and since I spent most of my adult life
working at Simmons College, 300 The Fenway in Boston, I leapt into the wave of independent publishing by founding Fenway Press.
The first book the press published was AROUND THE COLLEGE by my colleague George Nitchie, and accomplished poet who had never
published a book. He was in his 90s and with a bit of hustle the book came out in time for us to celebrate his work before he
up and died. DREAMING NICARAGUA was next. It has been well reviewed and has sold well enough that I have been able to donate
a couple thousand bucks of proceeds from its sale to our project in Nicaragua
(www.newtonsanjuan.org). Next came a first book
of poems by my former student Ani Gjika, an immigrant (with her family) from Albania, who after Simmons taught English in
Thailand and then studied with Rosanna Warren, Louise Gluck, and Robert Pinsky in the MFA program at BU. Ani's book,
BREAD ON RUNNING WATERS, is a smashing debut for a poet with a deeply personal voice, one that draws on her Albanian childhood,
her time in Asia, the problems of marriage, with a disarming honesty. Finally, this year we brought out a family memoir by
Ann Berthoff about her cranky grandfather who got to the frontier just after the homesteading boom had ended: he was
TOO LATE FOR THE FRONTIER. What makes this a fascinating read is the triangulation between the cool detachment of the
author, the bitter rage of her Uncle Benton who was the main recipient of the old man's pig-headed irrationality and wrote
Berthoff a series of amazing letters that crystallize our understanding of this particularly American sort of crazy curmudgeon,
whose refusal of common sense rings rather familiar these days.
Let me tell you about the motto of Fenway Press: "Fair Trade for Authors." Like many writers, I'm appalled by how little
authors earn from their labors. Even an established writer may earn only a dollar or two from the sale of a $25 book.
For my part, as a comfortably retired professor with a pension, I don't need to squeeze money from my authors. So my
rule is, once we've sold enough books to pay the printer and other up-front expenses have been covered, the author
keeps 100% of all proceeds from sales. This happened to Ani Gjika during AWP in Boston last March when I was sitting
with her at the Fenway Press table: I totted up expenses and income, and as I realized her book had broken even a
couple of days earlier, I took out the FP checkbook and wrote her a check that helped her pay her rent. I believe
Fenway Press is unique in following this Fair Trade model, in which the path is smoothed for a direct
relationship between the consumer/reader who buys the book and the producer/author who wrote it
(and writers always need cash). Our joke is that we should get a bumper sticker that says: I WENT INTO
POETRY FOR THE MONEY-FENWAY PRESS.
The word history is a weighty one. And yours is most definitely a storied one.
No doubt every generation imagines its literary greats to be the best, but for you, that claim is wholly
different: Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Lee, Salinger, and Updike (to name a few) - I mean, some of the
greatest Beatnik writers came into their own while you studied English at Harvard. What was that like?
In the summer between my sophomore and junior years in college, I took my great-grandfather's walking stick, a
backpack, and a couple of books-ON THE ROAD, LEAVES OF GRASS, and a collection of Hart Crane poems-and hitchhiked
west for the next three months. Way west. It was the '60s and hitchhiking was still fairly safe and mostly legal.
Kerouac and the Beats-especially Ginsberg--had certainly a powerful impact on our generation, especially if we were
"Sons of Walt" and identified with the "raw" (rather than "cooked") school of American poetry. But some of us were
also reading Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur and Randall Jarrell, whose techniques tended to have more formalist
roots. Plus we had rock'n'roll and the folk-to-rock transition (Bob Dylan used to sing at a club on Mt. Auburn St.
in Cambridge) and always those two powerful RECORDED voices ringing in our ears, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas-poetry
as spoken performance. So I'd have to say the influences on my own writing were all over the map. (Strangely, I
discovered my beloved older sister Emily Dickinson only in midlife.)
Now I'm not sure if this is a sore subject with you or not, but you're often credited (unofficially) as one of
the founding editors/writers of this little publication known as Ploughshares. You've certainly guest edited
(Issue #7, Spring 1975), and written a number of pieces for the now-famous literary magazine based out of Emerson
College. Would you mind telling us a bit about what it was like being on the ground floor of something of such
magnitude? At the time, do you remember thinking it would ever grow to be as big as it is now?
The literary founder of Ploughshares, DeWitt Henry was actually teaching part-time at Simmons when the magazine was
founded, with the help of money that Peter O'Malley somehow managed to withdraw from the till at the Plough and the Stars,
the famous Mass Ave bar that still exists. Early on, we had epic moderately boozy editorial lunches at my house that
went on for hours. The founding idea, to have a new guest editor for every issue was I believe a stroke of genius.
We wanted to avoid the cliquishness of so many magazines that only publish one identifiable kind of writing and develop
a predictable "sound." If I might correct you, the first and only volume I personally edited vas volume 2, number 3,
which carried poetry by a mix of established poets (Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wilbur [Peter O'Malley's father-in-law],
Eamon Grennan, Anthony Hecht, Raymond Carver) and up-and-comers like Albert Goldbarth, Robert Pinsky, Lloyd Schwartz,
Ira Sadoff, Margo Lockwood and others. It also contained an excerpt I had translated from a book by Octavio Paz, who
was teaching at Harvard at the time and had become a friend. We also had a pair of poets-interviewing poets,
Norman Klein with Mark Strand, and George Starbuck with Charles Simic. It remains an immensely readable volume.
And Ploughshares has become a national treasure. Did I/did we ever imagine it could become so? I think we were too
busy getting issue after issue out to worry about such dreaminess.
My only real regret is that we asked Simmons to become the permanent home of Ploughshares and they short-sightedly
said no. So Simmons' loss has been Emerson's gain.
Your ongoing relationship with Nicaragua, particularly the small coastal town of San Juan Del Sur, has spawned a
number of side projects: from a photo-series done by local children of Cebadilla (In Their Eyes, 2005.), to the
San Juan Del Sur Biblioteca Movil, the country's first mobile lending library, to IDS 228, an interdisciplinary service
learning course based out of Simmons, to the Newton-San Juan del Sur Sister City Project you co-founded more than 25
years ago. Would you mind telling us how this all came about? Who were some of the major players in keeping this
First, to set the record straight, The Cebadilla photo project was the brainchild of my god-daughter Jessica Chermayeff,
and the Biblioteca Movil, was founded and is still run by the great Jane Mirandette, a friend of many years. I share no
glory from these efforts, but feel great admiration.
I could babble on for hours about Nicaragua, but the short version is this: in the 1980s Ronald Reagan decided that
the richest country in the history of the world should make war against the second poorest country in the hemisphere,
Nicaragua, led by the Sandinista Front, which had just tossed out the US-supported dictator Somoza and embark on what
might best be called a Christian Socialist Revolution. Regan secretly armed a mercenary army of terrorists called the
Contras (counter-revolutionaries that) committed certifiable atrocities. A lot of us on the left and in the
peace-and-justice movement, plus a fair number of mainstream religious folks, decided we should go to Nicaragua,
defend it with words, and show our solidarity-a funny, archaic-sounding word that really means "you're suffering
and I intend to stand by you."
Those who went to Nicaragua in those years were mocked in the press as "sandalistas," but in fact the
anti-contra movement grew and the Massachusetts delegation in the Congress was instrumental in outlawing
aid to the Contras, at least for a while. My first visit was in the mid-'80s with my friend Steve Chinlund,
who is an Episcopal priest. On that visit I had been reading a book of poems by newly literate peasants (yes,
you can read that again) who lived in a "Christian Base Community" with the great Nicaraguan poet (and Catholic priest)
Ernesto Cardenal. Steve and I arranged a meeting with Cardenal. I raved about the book and said, "Someone should
translate these into English." Ernesto put his finger over my heart and said, "How about you?" The result within
a year or two was NICARAGUAN PEASANT POETRY FROM SOLENTINAME, containing by description of the poetry workshop out
on these distant islands in Lake Nicaragua, along with a bilingual edition of the poems. A few years later, Ernesto
helped me as I wrote another book, !GASPAR! A SPANISH POET/PRIEST IN THE NICARAGUAN REVOLUTION, about a young priest
from Asturias who-fired up by the doctrine of Liberation Theology, which may be about to have a come-back-ended up
joining the revolution and dying in combat. Gaspar García Laviana was also a poet, and the ways his poetry changed
as he neared the fateful decision to take up arms forms the core of the book. Auden says poetry makes nothing
happen. But sometime poets do.
My third book about Nicaragua, the novel, I have already mentioned. It's available at fenwaypress.com.
What book(s) is/are currently on your nightstand (or wherever you keep books you just can't put down)?
I'm in a John McGahern (re)discovery phase, a writer I had paid minimal attention to in the past. I've recently read the
memoir of McGahern's childhood featuring his hard, emotionally miserly father and his darling but ineffectual mother who
died young. Then I went on to Amongst Women, another take on the male tyrant who is slowly worn down by time and the slow
insistence of the women around him, in this case his daughters. How did I neglect McGahern all those years, a writer whose
power comes from subtle restraint instead of showiness? I remember a dazzling joint McGahern/Heaney benefit reading for
Ploughshares years ago in Sanders Theater. In poetry, I've just finished Mary Jo Bang's sharp, funky, updated translation
of the Inferno which gives it an in-your-face freshness that most other translations lack. I rationed myself to one canto
a night, just before bedtime. Sometimes she does indulge in the showiness I praise McGahern for avoiding, but she has
given us a Dante for the (early) 21st century. An American Dante, if you can believe it.
Oftentimes, writers recall a particular turning point - be it a class they took, a mentor they had, or a book they
read - that really spurred them onto their own private journey of writing and reflection, whether for publication
purposes or not. Can you remember undergoing any such time yourself?
My only brother died when I was 27 and he was 23. I had fiddled around with poetry and fiction before, but that
stern reality jolted me into song. I began to see writing as an adult act, and started to pack my youthful vanities
away. A lot of conversion experiences are like that, a cold slap in the face.
Just in looking at your bibliography, I notice that you've covered a number of disciplines: from translating, to
poetry, to fiction, to nonfiction, to biographical prose, to critical essays, to your latest undertaking, the novel
Dreaming Nicaragua. What can you say has mapped each particular stop on this stylistic totem pole, so to speak?
Was it something dictated by your current state? That is to say, are there any particular styles you find yourself
gravitating towards now more than others?
I think I have only a handful of things to say and stories to tell, and I repeat versions of these in various genres.
Nonfiction prose comes easiest to me, like writing a letter to an intelligent friend. But that means it has less
line-by-line power than, say, a poem I sweat over for months. As for fiction, I can write good scenes, but I don't
think I have what you might call the structural chops (i.e., patience) to shape an entire book. In this sense, for
all its surface dazzle, Dreaming Nicaragua is not among my all-time favorite novels. I've translated a lot, mostly
from Spanish and Italian. That's fun because I'm not responsible for the content, only the "readability" and
truthfulness. It's like a vacation, or like being a grandparent: you get some goodies without being the guy people
finally praise or blame or permanently depend on. Poetry is best because it's the most difficult.
In keeping with that subject of discovering oneself as a writer: what are some of the roadblocks you encountered,
whether objectively or subjectively, which presented you difficulties (or still present you difficulties,
I should add) in writing?
I have whole sides to my life that have nothing to do with writing, so sometimes (often!) writing takes a back seat to,
for instance, my public health work in Nicaragua. There are moments in which I say to myself, "Poetry is a mug's game!
Get out in the real world of human need and make things happen!" So I'll go months without writing. But then an idea,
a phrase, an image dogs my mind, won't let go, and I have to put down the trowel and sit down at the computer. In this
ambivalence about writing I am totally unlike my wife, the age critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette, who sits down pretty
much every day and writes and writes. I'm a hacker, an amateur compared to her.
Many writers have their own processes/ superstitions when it comes down to sitting and actually producing work of any
kind. Would you say you belong to this school of writers? And what, if any, are some of the things you must have when
sitting down (or standing up!) to work on something?
I sort of just answered that question.
What advice, if any, can you give to struggling writers, new or old?
Write about the few things you know well. That's what McGahern did. Come back to them again and again. You may
not get it right this time, next time, ever. As I put it in a poem called "Poets Fishing" you need to find
the sweetness of repetition even repeated failure
even a sort of perfected despair back to the same place
over and over.
You've held a passel of positions over the years, notably those of parent, player, poet, philanthropist,
professor, and now coincidentally, publisher. Hmm, there does seem a pattern afoot - should we be expecting
you as president anytime soon? (I kid.) But please tell us a bit about your latest foray into the jungle of
proofing, printing, and promoting that is publication a la Fenway Press.
I talked earlier about the vision of Fenway Press as a place where getting published means (for the authors)
you earn a little money and self-respect. But before that, I do make my writers work to get the book ready for
publication. And I too work, hard, at the details of a book before it goes to the printer. It can be tedious,
this business of margins, bleeds, spine width, fonts, notes, getting the ISBN and copyright taken care of, Library
of Congress, entering the books in contests, all the nitty-gritty stuff that has to be done. But every painter has
to spend time mixing paints, and every weaver has to tie the threads and prepare the loom long before the intricate
pattern of the finished carpet can appear. Prep-work is always under-appreciated.
A limited edition of Too Late for the Frontier by Ann E. Berthoff was recently published by Fenway Press. The cover art
is a more telling piece for one. Are there any other additional features readers might look forward to when ordering their copy?
The cover photo of Too Late for the Frontier shows Ann Berthoff's grandfather, Franklin Pierce Anderson, sitting
in a battered old roller chair, self-administered rag bandages on both hands, one foot up on the seat, a pair of
kids' shoes at his side, scowling out at the world, looking rather like James Joyce. Me, I'm a fairly mellow old guy
as I sail into my 70s, but FPA was a soul deranged by early failure, raging against the forces arrayed against his
stubborn conception of himself, always ready to wrangle, to start an argument over trivia. There's a raw force in
his wrong-headedness that you have to be in awe of, even if you can't admire it. And to learn about the old tyrant
through the bitter, elegant prose of his injured son is a real treat for a reader. Between them this very American
father and son make a sort of tragicomic Lear and Cordelia.
Just in listening to the highlighted audio clips of your novel, Dreaming Nicaragua (also published by Fenway Press),
I must admit - your command of Spanish, particularly the vernacular of the region where the book is set, is quite
impressive. Is Spanish a language you've simply picked up and reinforced over the years during your annual visits to
Nicaragua, or have you undergone a more formal education in regards to the foreign language?
I had a Fulbright in Rome before I took my job at Simmons, and my wife and I came back to Boston speaking fluent
Italian. In those early years we'd save our money so we could return to Europe (mostly France and Italy) every
summer. We were Mid-Atlantics. Then in the mid-'80s Nicaragua entered the picture, for both of us, and we became
Americans in the Bering Straits to Tierra del Fuego sense. Never having studied Spanish, I took an advanced
grammar, composition and conversation course at Simmons. Worked my butt off and made instant progress, which I
put to immediate use tackling the first of the Nicaragua books. Of course when you really want to learn a language
it comes readily. Now I Skype and email my colleague in Nicaragua daily, and I've begun to dream in Spanish. After
all, it is the other American language.
Can we expect a forthcoming audio book? And, if so, will it be true to form, or an abridged copy?
Not at the top of my Things To Do list. Only a few of my readers have expressed an interest in even an abridged
audio-book version of the novel. But go ahead, urge me on!
What would you say are some of the main advantages/ disadvantages of "self-publishing" against publishing of
more traditional means (commercial, subsidiary, or vanity publishing)? How does Fenway Press, a house whose motto
is "Fair Trade for Authors", address some of those disadvantages when publishing a book?
I guess I self-published Dreaming Nicaragua as the second of four (so far) titles brought out by Fenway Press.
I have to say it was a pretty positive experience: it has sold well, been favorably reviewed, and Amazon.com
hasn't made a penny off the book. What's not to like? And I've already spoken about "Fair Trade for Authors"
above. Ani Gjika can tell you how it has worked for her. On the other hand, I found the AWP convention in Boston
last March oppressive and a bit depressing. Table after table after table: SO MANY small publishing houses,
SO MANY authors out there flogging their books, SO FEW serious readers for books from indie publishers. I
guess all we can do is write well, get our stuff out there, and hope for the best. After all, Moby-Dick was a
complete flop commercially, and wasn't taken seriously until the 20th century. On the other hand, to be appreciated
not by your contemporaries but by posterity doesn't do you much good if you're dead.
And finally, in regards to your new press, what forthcoming books can we expect to reach us in the near future?
My Simmons colleague Richard Wollman has promised me a print-ready manuscript of his wonderful recent poems.
Aside from that, I'm always ready to read manuscripts of fiction, poetry and memoir. But I'm picky. Most of
what comes across my desk I politely reject. But I keep an open mind. I'm always ready to have my socks blown
Thank you for your time, and candor.