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Little Infinite interviews BOA Publisher Peter Conners

BOA Publisher Peter Conners sat down with Stephen Sparks earlier this year for an interview for Ingram's Little Infinite poetry newsletter. We invite you to enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at BOA Editions through their conversation.

Interview with Peter Conners of BOA Editions
Peter Conners has been the publisher of BOA Editions since fall 2010 and has in this role introduced readers to new and vital voices in contemporary poetry. Last year, for instance, BOA published National Book Award longlisted poet Chen Chen, who was recently called by Poets & Writers one of “ten poets who will change the world.”

Founded on the bicentennial by Andre Poulin Jr, BOA Editions is now based in Rochester and has become such an institution in its 42 years that the mayor of the city declared April 20, 2018 “BOA Editions Day.” All readers should be so lucky to live in a place that celebrates its literary arts in such a way.
Peter was gracious enough to answer a few questions for the newsletter.

What's your elevator pitch for BOA Editions?
If it’s a short ride, I go with my fastball: “BOA publishes the best new and established poets and fiction writers from around America and across the world.” If they stare blankly at me, I usually say something like, “We publish books. Mostly poetry, some fiction. We’ve been around for 42 years.” If they don’t bite at that, it’s probably time to talk about something different, perhaps our mutual dislike of uncomfortable elevator rides. If they know poetry at all, they usually say, “Oh yes, BOA, of course I know BOA, in fact my first poetry book was [insert title of classic BOA poetry collection].” At that point, we become fast friends, and then I usually mention a new book by the same author, or another author who – based on their appreciation of previous author – they might also enjoy. 

What are you looking for in your poetry books?
A singular utterance. That’s asking a lot, but I like to think it’s a part of every BOA book. Every year, I read dozens of manuscripts that contain technically proficient, well-executed poems. It’s hard to argue with anything about them. It’s also hard to find what makes them singular. Unavoidable. Something that BOA absolutely must publish. When a poet combines technical proficiency with flashes of true, singular, deeply experienced, existentially wrangled with, energetically encapsulated, intellectually engaged & authentically conveyed writing – we are in the duende-rich territory of the singular utterance.    

If you had to recommend only 5 BOA Editions poetry titles to a bookseller or librarian, which would you start with?
It would totally depend on the librarian or bookseller. It’s a lot like the person in the elevator – since it’s a bookseller or librarian (some of my favorite people on the planet), let’s assume we’re talking about the one who is familiar with BOA and cares about poetry. Presumably, they have tastes of their own, things they’re looking to share with their buyers, browsers & visitors. Because BOA publishes a healthy range of poetic approaches, there’s a good chance I can turn them on to something they’ll appreciate and want to propagate. One of the cool things about BOA is that many of our classic titles are what I call “gateway drug” books. I’ve heard so many times that a BOA book by Li-Young Lee or Naomi Shihab Nye or Lucille Clifton, etc. was someone’s first poetry book. The one that got them hooked on poetry. Now I hear people having the same experiences with books by Aracelis Girmay or Jillian Weise or Sean Thomas Dougherty or John Gallagher or any number of newer BOA poets. So, if they are amenable, I might suggest that they carry our “gateway drug” books like Rose (Lee), Good Woman (Clifton), and Fuel (Nye), and then build on that collection by ordering a copy of every new book that BOA publishes.
What titles are you most excited about this year and next?
We just released a debut poetry collection by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo titled Cenzontle that, in part, relates Castillo’s experience of being brought across the border from Mexico by his mother when he was a child. He has lived his whole life in the U.S. with the dark reality that deportation is always lurking around the corner. Given our current president’s dangerous propaganda about Mexicans—and the fact that racism thrives on dehumanization—it’s vital to have incredibly talented poets who also illuminate the humanity we all share—joy, fear, lust, confusion, the desire for a breath of peaceful air. Castillo is, first and foremost, a brilliant poet, not a polemicist. But I also believe that this is a particularly crucial time in U.S. history for his very human and complex story to be told.  

What might someone not know about the press that you would like them to?
That if you value independent literary presses, it’s crucial to support them. Roughly half of our budget is covered by book sales. The other half is brought in through grants and donations. We’re not unique in that aspect – if you love contemporary poetry, chances are that many your favorite poets are published, or have been at some point in their career, by non-profit literary publishers. In fact, it’s often the smaller non-profit publishers who launched the careers of our most notable poets. If you want your tax dollars to support the arts through the NEA or your state or local arts funds, speak up. Protect those funds and argue for your money to be allocated to support them. If you want to see vital new voices published and poetry as an art form thrive as part of our cultural milieu, then stock, carry, buy books by non-profit literary publishers. If you’re so moved, perhaps you will even make a personal donation to support your favorite non-profit literary publisher. It is our job to publish and promote poets and poetry collections. We can only do so with the support of the community that values those things.     

Why Poetry?
Poetry has the ability to encapsulate human experience using language that can shock our eyes open and soften our gaze. It is a playful & deadly serious, sexy, dangerous, breathtaking, beautiful, illuminating, and powerful way to mark & contemplate our time on the planet.

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