Nestled next to Long Lane Farm sits the Wesleyan University Press, small, overlooked, and increasingly celebrated. This semester alone, the Press and its legendary poetry series have been thrust into the literary limelight after two of its collections received national recognition this fall. In early October, My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, published by the University in 2008, received a 2009 American Book Award and Versed, another collection of poetry, written by Rae Armantrout, was announced as a National Book Award finalist, the winner of which will be revealed in mid-November. While these two volumes have garnered tremendous accolades, they are hardly the first poetry published by the Press to be acknowledged nationally. In fact, the University Press, no stranger to success, has made a name for itself by carving out its own poetic niche.
”The large trade houses publish fewer volumes of poetry, so responsibility has shifted to the university presses and the independent presses to allow a lot of voices to be heard,” said UMass Press director Brian Wilcox in a 2005 New York Times article, ”And of course Wesleyan is a fine example of a house that publishes established poets… but also introduces new voices on a regular basis.”
In the half-century since its inception, the Press’s publications have garnered four Pulitzer Prizes, three National Book Awards, and a Bollingen Prize. Although the University is the smallest school in the nation to have its own press, Jane Gordon of the Times noted in 2005 how “university presses with large graduate programs and bigger endowments or financial backing from the state still do not enjoy the status in the field that Wesleyan has, nor do they win a comparable assortment of poetry prizes.”
The University’s first foray into publishing began in 1949 with the purchase of American Education Publications, which would operate separately from the University and focus mainly on grade school level publications and periodicals, such as My Weekly Reader. The idea for an actual university press, one to publish scholarly journals, was first proposed by Raymond J. Walsh ’38, chairman of Department of School Services and Publications in the mid-fifties. Yet, it was the arrival of Willard A. Lockwood ’46 in 1955 that spurred the creation of the Press. Lockwood, who had previously worked at the University of Oklahoma Press, drew up the plans for the press in 1956, which the Board of Trustees accepted a year later. Their first manuscript, The Theatre of Robert Edmond Jones edited by Ralph Pendleton ’31, was published that year, as well.
It was at the suggestion of then-professor and Pulitzer winning poet Richard Wilbur in 1958 that the Press began to consider publishing poetry. Roving literary scouts, including celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, corresponded with the Press on manuscripts they came across during their travels. Seven years after its founding in 1964, the Press garnered its first Pulitzer, with The End of the Open Road by Louis Simpson, giving the press national recognition and an increasing number of submissions.
“I’m impressed personally, that for the last three straight years we’ve sold more that 10,000 books of poetry, which is an awful lot of poetry,” Lockwood said in a 1972 Hartford Courant article. “It isn’t the new books that sell that much each time, but the appearance of the 28th book tends to stimulate the sales of all 27 earlier ones.”
Now with hundreds of different books and papers published, the University Press has continued its dominant presence in the world of scholarly journals and poetry.
“It was a point in our long history that we had an opportunity, a niche, outside of Yale we were the only ones publishing this sort of poetry,” said current press director Suzanna Tamminen ’94, reflecting on the Press’s poetic past, “It allowed the Press to establish itself, and over the years it continued to do well in the field and grow. We’re serving poetry with a long legacy of publication. The poetry community needs that.”
Elizabeth Willis, Wesleyan English and writing professor, and an accomplished poet herself, noted the University Press’s commitment to quality. Of the hundreds of manuscripts submitted, the Press publishes only twenty-five a year.
“[College presses] generally perform a really important function, with the current economy, commercial publishing houses are functioning entirely as businesses and literary presses disappear without public funding. The university operations are the ones that are sending out the best literature.”
With such a focus on poetry, the University Press pushes the work that many larger publishers generally ignore, favoring originality and quality over marketability, with the press’s renown in the world of literature carrying the work from obscurity to acclaim. According to Willis, Spicer and Armentrout are the most recent benefactors of this tradition.
“Both writers, they’ve developed their audience through the press,” Willis said, attributing the success to vision of Tamminen. “Armentrout was entirely published through small presses until now, and to finally get picked up by Wesleyan and get this national audience is truly wonderful. Same for Jack Spicer, who during his lifetime was published nearly entirely on small presses, now getting this deserved recognition.”
This legacy has defined the Press since its inception.
“The point is not that we’re consciously not accepting books that are simply okay, that are simply harmless, that get the general approval of people despite minor reservations,” Lockwood told the Hartford Courant in 1972. “If somebody is really jazzed up, then we’re apt to take a flyer.”
Tamminen and the rest of the press staff, holding these words dear, continue to branch out to other scholarly subjects to find the best new books and studies to publish. In the process, they have churned out fresh and increasingly relevant volumes, a fact Tamminen is particularly “jazzed up” about.
“Along with poetry, we’re publishing dance studies, film, and ethnomusicology, more and more fiction, and we’re launching a series in science and public life, which has a lot of ties with the College of the Environment initiative,” she said.
Leslie Starr, the Press’s marketing manager, attested to the importance of this institution in a 2005 Argus article.
“In the big picture, [having a press] is a sign that the University is interested in disseminating information and publishing scholarly work,” Starr said. “The press is a valuable resource to undergraduates because we are a real business providing good work experience.”
“Ultimately, everyone is part of the same broad mission to support scholarly work, new knowledge, and independent thinking,” Tamminen told The Argus in 2005.
It is truly the published community, however, that understands the work of the Press, the historical undercurrent of the offbeat, and the superb results that publishing can yield. Peter Gizzi, a poet recently published by the University Press, put it simply to the Times, “They can publish something very formal next to something completely unhinged,” he said. “They’ve been doing that all along, and in the last decade they’ve gotten better and better.”
Gizzi summed it all up, the nature of the press reflected in the character of poetry itself.
“What I like about the press is its history of publishing work that is experimental… the nature of poetry is innovation. That’s our tradition.”