About two thirds of the way through “The Big Short,” one of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture, a quote appears in the middle of the screen: “The truth is like poetry. And people hate poetry.”
The film, a semifictional account of the men who made millions from 2008’s economic collapse, is hardly the appropriate venue to discuss the merits of poetry, but there has almost always been an antagonistic relationship between poetry and economics. And while the relationship between poetry and economics can’t be ignored, the stronger relationship is arguably between poetry and truth. Poetry has an uncanny ability to express complex emotional truths.
As Ellen Foos, the publisher of Ragged Sky Press, puts it, when you’ve had a great loss or a great love, there’s no better way to express yourself than poetry.
“Poetry crosses borders,” she says.
Ragged Sky is a small, independent poetry press that works “cooperatively”; that is, Foos and her team of editors work closely alongside the writer through the editing, production, and marketing stages of publication.
What this means is that, lacking the resources of major publishing companies, small presses like Ragged Sky bet their bottom dollar on the passion of those who have physically brought the book into existence.
Foos certainly has the passion. She grew up in Rochester, New York, one of seven children, in an environment that encouraged both creativity and craftsmanship. Her mother, she says, was a homemaker who found time to set up her easel and paint. She also read to her children every night, including poetry. Her father was a skilled tradesman—tool and die maker—for General Motors. Both of them encouraged our creativity and interest in the wider world of art and politics.
For college, Foos attended SUNY Purchase, where she majored in English. Her sister had become a graphic designer at a publishing company in Manhattan, and upon graduation, Foos went to live with her on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
By then it was 1989, and the East Village had become, according to Foos, in a phrase that seems readymade for poetry, “pretty gritty.” Foos was married and had a three-year old son. Fleeing the city, Foos and her family relocated to Minnesota. She got a job working for Graywolf Press, a reputable independent literary press.
But after five years in the snows of Minnesota, Foos longed for the East coast—just not New York City. She moved to Hopewell, New Jersey, and worked for Ecco Press.
Three years later, in 1997, Foos made the move to Princeton and began working at Princeton University Press, where she still works now as a production editor. Upon moving to Princeton she became involved with the US1 Poets Cooperative, a group of poets that has been around since the early seventies.
Once a week, the group meets at someone’s home, where they workshop new work. Poetry, Foos says, can be so solitary, which is why groups like the US1 Poets Cooperative are important: it forces the poet into a position to receive feedback on their work. Poetry has a reputation for being somewhat esoteric and a workshop setting can often elicit more meaning and resonance from a work.
As she became more immersed in the writing of poetry, Foos saw firsthand how difficult it was to publish poetry. In some ways, Foos created Ragged Sky as a way to help her and her peers, many of whom she’s met through the Cooperative, get books out into the world.
Her experience with Princeton University Press helped of course. “Working at the University Press and running Ragged Sky was a good match,” she says. “I had a lot of experience getting things done and also motivating other people to get things done.”
Foos and four of the Cooperative’s other writers decided to band together and help each other through the process of creating their first books. Foos’s sister offered her graphic design skills, which granted the books a level of professionalism—what Ragged Sky poet Lynn Levin refers to as “literary elegance.”
“A lot of self-published books look terrible,” Foos says, “because they aren’t really professionally done.” The reality is that books are quite frequently judged by their covers, despite the old adage.
Producing a book, especially in those early days when Foos and her crew were feeling the process out for more or less the first time, was a lot of work. “It was a labor of love,” Foos admits.
If there’s a lot of work involved, and very little money to be made, why do it?
“Writing poetry can be an isolating experience,” she says. “Putting a book together really makes you focus on your whole body of work and put yourself out there.”
This more than anything is what makes poetry itself so vital: it is at once inwardly directed and outwardly directed, a meeting place of the internal and the external.
But poets themselves are not the most extroverted bunch, traditionally speaking. “Most poets don’t have the mindset to put themselves out there and get published,” Foos says.
Small presses like Ragged Sky are so significant because they in some ways facilitate a poet’s engagement with the world. “We try to give as much advice and contact information as we can,” Foos says. “We have built up a list of possible reviewers and prizes that have responded well in the past. We network on social media and hand sell whenever someone has a reading.”
Yet the publisher can only go so far in promoting the work. “It’s a self-promoting, business kind of thing. Publishing is a business and so you have to do a lot of the stuff to get yourself known. You have to do a lot of networking.”
While technology has made it easier to physically produce and sell books, it has not exactly increased the demand for the work. It is up to the writer, then, to foster this demand. This is done through self-promotion via social media, but the best way to put books into people’s hands is to almost literally put it in their hands.
Lynn Levin, whose most recent collection of poetry, Miss Plastique, was one of Ragged Sky’s highest selling single-author books, agrees that public appearances are vital to a book’s success. “Entertaining audiences at readings is the most effective way to let people relish the humor, wildness, and, yes, the pathos of the poems,” she says.
Levin, who is also a professor at Drexel University, has been able to get her books in the hands of other professors, who then go on to teach the book in their classes.
Either way, a book’s success—and to a larger extent, an author’s success—lies in the author’s industriousness.
Cynthia Yoder, one of Ragged Sky’s authors, echoes this sentiment. “The big publishing houses have marketing departments,” she says. “As an indie author, you need to also be an entrepreneur if you are going to sell any books. That’s a challenge for a lot of writers, who are not interested in marketing.”
Yoder came to Ragged Sky press over ten years ago, when a mutual friend introduced her to Foos because of their shared interest in poetry. “I published my last two books with small presses,” Yoder says, “and thought the experience worked out well in helping me reach my goals, so I was looking to do this again. Ellen and I spoke about what I was working on, and she expressed interest in publishing the Kindle version of the book.”
What Yoder was working on was a memoir of her experiences growing up as a Mennonite. These experience became the foundation for Yoder’s newest book, which is a departure both for her and Ragged Sky in that it is a novel.
The novel, Mennonite On The Edge, explores the marriage of Adam and MaryJo, the latter of whom must come to terms with her Mennonite past. It is the story of partnership, identity, and the kinds of secrets that threaten to unravel both of those things.
It all comes back to poetry, however. MaryJo, the main character of the novel, is a poet. “Her desire for a life surrounded by nature is one of the key differences that she has with her more urban-minded husband,” Yoder says.
In addition to Mennonite On The Edge, Ragged Sky is rolling out a new poetry anthology, which is really their bread and butter. The anthology is called Dark As A Hazel Eye: Coffee and Chocolate Poems, a title that comes from Henry Ward Beecher’s sensuous description of the perfect cup of coffee: “A cup of coffee – real coffee – home-browned, home ground, home made, that comes to you dark as a hazel-eye.” The collection features most of Ragged Sky’s stable of poets, including Foos herself, as well as Tomas Tranströmer, the Swedish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011.
Some of the poems, however, came from aspiring poets. Ragged Sky put out a call for submissions through the website Submittable. All in all they received more than 300 poems, and had to narrow it down to 50.
To promote the book, they have been publishing a poem and picture every day. The release of the anthology is perfectly timed for Valentine’s Day, an occasion that goes well with the chocolaty nature of the poems.
“We figured this would be sort of a marketable theme,” Foos says, somewhat dryly.
Dark As A Hazel Eye will have a launch party at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Michelle Hart received her M.F.A. in fiction from Rutgers University, where she teaches writing.