To Publish, Redefined

Collective members Chris Anderson (left), Stephanie Lenox (center), and Cecelia Hagen. Photograph by Bonnie Henderson

The way every season contains the next
and foreshadows it.

The yellow leaves in the summer green.
The shining branch, deep in the heart of the tree.

— Chris Anderson, from “The Watchful Tree,”
The Next Thing Always Belongs

In the living room of a house in the eastern foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range, the seven staff members of Airlie Press are holding their monthly meeting, beginning with bread and soup from the garden outside. It’s July, and poetry, per se, is out of season. This day’s discussion is all business: sales figures, donor thank-yous, grant applications, social marketing. Cecelia Hagen, MFA ’76, passes out copies of the press kit she has prepared, promoting her own and Chris Anderson’s forthcoming poetry collections. Not until September will the group begin editing the manuscript set for fall 2012 release—that of Salem poet Stephanie Lenox, who has just updated the group on the status of the press’s e-newsletter.

But back to this year’s titles: where to have the launch party? The Corvallis public library? Wrong vibe, and you can’t serve food, Donna Henderson notes. The Catholic church? Too churchy, says Anderson, a Catholic deacon, but the Unitarian church might work. The Corvallis Arts Center? Someone makes a note to check.

Airlie Press, clearly, is not your typical publishing house. It’s a poetry publishing collective, one of only a handful in the country. It exists solely by the sweat and passion of the poets themselves, publishing beautiful books by fine Oregon poets without losing money. Not an easy trick.

First of all, you sleep too much. You never suffer
bouts of insomnia, waking aghast in the soundless dark
in dread of your impending death. Furthermore
you hate to sit . . . If you strive for anything at all
it’s for happiness—and who wants to hear daily updates
from the land of the blissfully contented?

— Jessica Lamb, from “Denial of the Minor Poet’s 
Petition for a Change in Stature,” Last Apples of Late Empires

In 1973, a handful of poets in the Boston area founded a regional, nonprofit collective press, Alice James Books, designed to involve authors in the publishing process. Its success inspired the founding of a similar collective—Sixteen Rivers Press—in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999. In 2007, four Willamette Valley poets decided to follow the Sixteen Rivers model, pooling their resources and launching their own collective press. Between individual book sales, subscription orders, and donations, Airlie has so far managed to achieve its goal: publish one or two collections by Oregon poets each year without losing money or costing the poet anything other than time.

In poetry, making money is rarely part of the equation. Poets never quit their day jobs.

How the press works: Each poet whose work is accepted for publication agrees to participate in the work of the press for three years. Meaning, participate in the call for manuscripts and the manuscript vetting, the editing, the design discussions, the marketing and publicity—everything required to publish and promote a book.

“It’s kind of daunting,” says Hagen. She joined Airlie Press in 2010, and her collection Enteringwas published in fall 2011. She was on the staff of the UO’s Northwest Review from 1982 to 1990, but Airlie Press has been an education nonetheless. “Poets are not very business-oriented,” she says, “and there are a lot of details, and there’s that loner mentality. . . .”

“I mean, we’re all poets—we don’t have MBAs!” says Anderson, an English professor at Oregon State University for twenty-five years, whose The Next Thing Always Belongs was also released this fall. “I had not written a receipt since I worked at Sears when I was eighteen.” But someone at the press had to take charge of the website, and he was it. “I’ve actually become moderately competent at content management,” he says, just a little smug.

Crack a sentence open and you will have an adoration of mountains
at dusk, you will have a dim day-line under the sunset,
like a decoration at the bottom of a lampshade.

— Anita Sullivan, from “About Sunset,” 
Garden of Beasts

Airlie Press has not gone unnoticed. The Eddy Fence was a finalist—one of five selected from among nearly fifty poetry nominees—for the 2011 Oregon Book Awards. It was also a finalist for da Vinci Eye honors for superior cover artwork from the Eric Hoffer Award, a nationwide competition for short prose and independent books; credit there goes to Cheryl McLean, MA ’85, of Corvallis, who has designed all of Airlie Press’s books, and Monmouth artist Richard Bunse for his watercolor “Black Rock.” Both The Eddy Fence and Last Apples of Late Empires were reviewed in the literary review Poetry Flash, and Valparaiso Poetry Review listed both Out of Refusal and Garden of Beasts as recommended books.

Paulann Petersen, Oregon’s poet laureate, is a member of Airlie Press’s advisory board and a fervent champion. “Oregon is a state replete with good working poets, remarkably so,” she says, but given current conditions, getting a full-length manuscript of poems published is tough. “By limiting its boundaries to the Willamette Valley, and by setting high standards for the poetry that will appear on its pages,” she says, Airlie Press “guarantees that one or two more excellent collections from Oregon poets will get published each year”—filling what she calls an “achingly empty space.”

Airlie Press exclusively publishes work by Willamette Valley poets for one simple reason: That’s where the work gets done. Though there’s plenty of e-mailing between meetings, members of the collective gather at the same spot in the middle of the valley, in person, every month, all year long. Jessica Lamb of Portland currently represents the collective’s north pole, Carter McKenzie of Dexter the south pole.

As for the name, the genesis of the press was a poetry group that had been meeting for several years at Henderson’s house—a quiet spot west of Highway 99W roughly equidistant from Portland and Eugene, a mile off Airlie Road, next door to Airlie Winery, near where Scotland’s Earl of Airlie owned a railroad terminus in the 1800s. Her house became the press’s meeting place, too, and the name seemed a natural. Airlie, it seems, is derived from the Old English hoer, for rocks, and leah, for a fenced enclosure. A farm by the rocks: a place of arduous, honest work. Not unlike poetry-making.

The only way to begin
is to pick up the brush
and paint what’s out there,
starting to coat white paper
with the invisible sheen of water.

 Cecelia Hagen, from “What’s 
Out There,” Entering

The three-year commitment of the original four members has long since ended. But as of this writing, none of the four plans to leave the collective, not yet. “I want to feel that I’m still making a contribution,” says Anita Sullivan, whose Garden of Beasts was published in 2010. “It’s obviously a lot more than the ego trip of just getting your book published.”

“There’s this moment for poetry right now,” Hagen adds. “As publishing houses get swallowed up and get bigger, it creates spaces for these smaller, more innovative things. I’ve done a lot of volunteer writing stuff—Northwest Review, other things—but this is fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s work you like to do.”

Says Sullivan, with an apologetic grin: “I think it is a little addictive.”

By Bonnie Henderson ’79, MA ’85