Many thanks to Jeff Spevak and the Democrat & Chronicle for this front page feature on BOA's 40th anniversary!
BOA Celebrates 40 Years of Fine Print
Democrat & Chronicle | March 27, 2016
A lot of rough water has passed under the bridge in the years since Al Poulin published the follow-up book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet that no one else wanted to touch, because its characters were speaking from the point of view of Nazis and German soldiers. BOA Editions’ first book, The Fuehrer Bunker: A Cycle of Poems in Progress. Working out of the basement of his Brockport home, those early days of the tiny independent publisher were, “Drinking, smoking, fighting, all of that great passion that goes along with a vision that shapes small presses,” Peter Conners says.
More than 300 books and one Pulitzer Prize win of its own later, Rochester’s BOA Editions, master of fine print, celebrates 40 years in search of, as the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca called it, the writer’s “duende.” Translated by BOA Editions Publisher Conners as, “the animal spirit of the artwork.”
It has been a successful hunt. This weekend BOA Editions is a co-promoter at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs 2016 Annual Conference & Book Fair in Los Angeles. Readings by Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carole Oates, yoga for writers, dozens of panel discussion on topics such as “What’s Love Got to Do with It? Desire in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Fair booths stacked with books with words assembled by the smartest people in any room, with signings by 10 BOA writers and a panel discussion on BOA’s four decades in publishing. Followed by cocktails.
“This is the biggest role we’ve ever played in the conference,” says Jenna Fisher. She’s in charge of BOA’s marketing, publicity and production. “It’s one of the few places we go where we don’t have to explain what we do. Everybody knows.”
We’ll have to explain here. BOA Editions is one of those Rochester cultural institutions that toils in a calm, craftsman-like anonymity.
April being National Poetry Month, and this being BOA's 40th anniversary, the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library plays host to an April 6 celebration with readings of BOA-published poems. That includes Mayor Lovely Warren reading a piece from BOA’s most-ambitious project ever: The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, with a forward by Toni Morrison. Publisher’s Weekly said it “may be the most important book of poetry to appear in years.”
And in the Friedlander Lobby at Rush Rhees, there’s an exhibit of BOA ephemera from the school’s own collection: typescripts, book and cover designs and letters exchanged between authors and editors. Mostly stuff from the past 20 years. The first two decades are at Yale.
That last few years have been at Anderson Alley, on Goodman Street. An enclave of artists’ studios and small businesses. The smell of oil paint and new pottery is in the air. On the third floor, the offices of BOA Editions are a proper monument to Bohemian literacy. In the reception area, one of the two interns, Rebekah Connell, sits at the front desk. She is reading a book, a perfectly acceptable working-hours activity in a publishing office. Kind of like a brewery worker having a beer for lunch.
Like all of these rooms, the décor in Conners' office seems to collect like driftwood caught on a riverbank. A cheap hinged box once held the tools of an oil painter; one who used the inside of the box as a palette, until it became unworkably infused with colorful globs of paint and it was thrown away. Conners fished it out of the trash outside. To him, it looked like a piece of abstract art. And there’s a papier mâché cubist cat. He found it in in the Alley behind Anderson Alley. Like most alley cats, it’s missing an ear.
Conners is also a writer. His books include a poetry collection, Whiskey and Winter, and Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead, in which he tells of his years as a teenager from suburban Rochester who sells drugs to support his obsession with following the Grateful Dead around the country. Cornell University has contracted Conners to write a history of the May 8, 1977, Dead concert at the school’s Barton Hall, ranked by many Deadheads as among the band’s best-ever shows.
The ceilings here are very high, with exposed beams and track lighting, and a few strings of tiny Christmas lights along the walls and bookshelves. One wall is shelves of BOA Editions books. Mostly slim volumes, mostly paperback, mostly poetry, some translations, some short stories.
On the opposite wall, shelves filled with larger books and anthologies that have re-published BOA writers. On another wall, maps. Push pins mark the homes of BOA authors. On the map of the United States, 35 states have at least one pin. The world map has 23 countries with at least one pin, with a heavy concentration in Eastern Europe. “To be honest with you, I like the sensibility they have,” Conners says. “They have that dark sensibility.”
That’s the kind of books published by BOA.
“As opposed to publishing the last Survivor winner’s memoir,” says Melissa Hall. She’s Director of Development & Operations, handling the bookkeeping and grant writing. Her office furniture includes a very nice $50 estate-sale couch and a coffee table that’s made from a plate of glass she rescued from a trash pile outside, sitting on a set of cinder blocks.
Sitting on top of a file cabinet behind Hall’s desk is an empty wine glass. After 40 years, there is no more fighting. Smoking is outside only. Drinking? “We drink whenever we can,” Hall says.
As any student of The Big Lebowski knows, the worn throw rugs on the floor can really pull together rooms like this.
BOA sees about 1,000 manuscripts a year, publishing 10 to 12. Each is beautifully done. None more so than The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. It cost $100,000 to produce — half the money coming from the Lannan Foundation, a New Mexico-based supporter of diversity in culture. That kind of money is three years of BOA Edition budgets.
BOA publishes some books by dead Frenchmen — Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud — and the work of a dead 20th-century dilettante like Delmore Schwartz. But most of its writers are BOA discoveries. A table in the reception area is piled with boxes of its newest book, This Number Does Not Exist. It is a translation from Hindi of the Indian poet Mangalesh Dabral. “A poet who has made his bones in his home country, and deserves a wider audience,” Conners says. He describes Dabral as a kid from a small mountain town in India who went to the big city and, “his instinct is to retreat back to the mountains.”
“He’s very much a critic of modern technology,” Fisher says.
Dabral may be an anti-cell phone critic from small-town India, but some of his work reads like contemporary prose on any of the world’s down-and-out souls. A poem called “New Orleans Jazz” opens with the lines:
The beer bottles I see everywhere in America
are also here, but empty,
and broken, on the roadside are
shards of glass and stones – Jazz, jazz,
jazz, a long difficult way,
on both sides are swarms of glasses, in them
folks dip their troubles, like bread, in them.
Again, it’s a beautiful book. “We take the actual physical feel of the book very seriously,” Fisher says. On the facing page from each translation is the poem in its original Hindi. The cover photo is of a run-down wall of unidentifiable warehouse architecture. It’s actually a Rochester scene shot by a Rochester photographer, Patricia Buckley. About a third of BOA covers are photos or artwork by Rochester artists. Joan Lyons, a well-known local artist, designed them for years, as did Poulin’s daughter, Daphne. Much of the behind-the-scenes work on these books — design, typesetting — is done by Rochester people.
But other than the two interns, BOA Editions is basically a three-person operation. “There’s a lot of yelling through the walls,” Conners says. “It has remained the same over the years. The number of books we do is about the same, even though the size of the staff and the location may come and go.”
Early on, BOA was a one-person staff. Al Poulin, a French-Canadian New England mill hand’s son, and a published poet and translator of Rilke. “Al was very fond of saying he had all of the confidence of inexperience when he started BOA,” says his widow, Boo Poulin. “But he was very connected with many of the contemporary poets, partly because he had done an anthology of contemporary poetry that was very popular at the time.”
Along with teaching at The College of Brockport, he headed the school’s Writer’s Forum, which brought in top writers for talks. Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ann Sexton. “His access was big,” Poulin says. “And it became clear to him that some pretty important people were having trouble finding publishers.
“He decided he could do something about that.”
Al Poulin was a friend of W.D. Snodgrass, whose collection of poetry, Heart’s Needle, had won a Pulitzer. “He found himself in that position of not being able to find a publisher,” Boo Poulin says. “They had a relationship, and he lived close by near Syracuse.”
“He was having trouble having his book published, even though he’d won a Pulitzer,” Conners says. That was The Fuehrer Bunker:A Cycle of Poems in Progress, and Snodgrass’ use of characters like Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering, Eva Braun and even Adolf Hitler left many publishers leery, even 30 years after the end of World War II. “People were saying, ‘We’re not ready for this,’” Conners says. “But Al saw the value of that.”
The poetry world came around as well after The Fuehrer Bunker was published in 1976. It was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, optioned for the stage by Joseph Papp and eventually became a theater production.
“Al was never really speechless,” Boo Poulin says. “He was quite a raconteur to say the least. He could talk to anybody at any level. He could talk to writers in a very erudite fashion. He could talk to the mailman, and the mailman would get it, too.”
Indeed, Conners says, “The mailman came to his house in Brockport and handed him the letter from the Pulitzer Prize committee and said, ‘Even I know what this is.’”
It was a letter informing Poulin that the Carolyn Kizer, whose BOA collection of poetry, Yin — which had been rejected by many publishers — had won literature’s most-coveted award.
Clifton was another writer whose career Poulin helped to resurrect. But his real expertise, Boo Poulin says, was spotting talents like Kizer. “New, young and up-and-coming writers, Al was really good at that, there’s just no other way to put it,” Boo Poulin says. “He could pick them out, nurture them along. A number of people that he found have since moved on to bigger presses.”
Over the two decades that he operated BOA, poor health caught up to Poulin. “There was a permissiveness in the ’70s on college campuses you can’t get away with now,” Conners says. “You get the feeling the guy was burning hot, burning hot and fast.” Poulin entered into a long battle with COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, and passed away in 1996. The New York Times wrote:
In a field in which the major New York publishers, two dozen independent houses like BOA and an additional 20 or so university presses bring out perhaps a thousand volumes of poetry a year, Mr. Poulin, whose not-for-profit enterprise publishes six annual collections, consistently published poets whose works won a measure of literary acclaim.
“Al was always quite surprised by the success of BOA,” Boo Poulin says. “When we were nominated for a National Book Award he was surprised. Not that our artists weren’t good, but that they were represented by this small entity, and still recognized.
“I don’t know if he ever realized the difference BOA would make, and how long it would survive. But when you’re right in the middle of something, you don’t have a sense of the importance of it, you just do it. And Al just did it.”
Many thanks to Jeff Spevak and the Democrat & Chronicle for this front page feature on BOA's 40th anniversary!