The Giller Kerfuffle & the Challenges of the Small Press & Carmine Starnino

There’s nothing wrong with making money, not a bit, but if you’re looking for a fat profit, the literary world, and the world of the small press, is the wrong place to be looking. So let me begin by acknowledging all the brave hearts who put their all into publishing necessary books in beautiful editions for very little, if any, monetary reward. [Yes indeed my colleagues at Tupelo Press among them.]

So it’s especially gratifying when books and authors published by small presses receive big prizes, as Paul Harding and Bellevue Literary Press did by winning the Pulitzer for his novel Tinkers. It was hard to find a copy for a while thereafter, but eventually stock caught up with demand. Cash flow is a continual trial for the small press, and coming up with the wherewithal to publish tens of thousands of copies of a book can be a real struggle. And that’s just if you’re a traditional publisher who farms out the actual printing.

But some publishers are printers, too. And fine printers at that. I’m specifically thinking of Gaspereau Press, in Nova Scotia. Sewn bindings, hand-printed letterpress covers, thick cream-colored pages. This sort of labor-intensive printing makes for beautiful books. But not a fast turnaround rate if one of your titles, say, wins the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Which The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, 2009), did last week.

The Sentimentalists is Skibsrud’s first novel, but she’s published two collections of poetry as well, both with Gaspereau Press.

I mention this as a reminder that small presses are loyal to their authors; it’s not about the profit margin but the quality of the work.

Gaspereau Press invested its time, effort, skills, and yes, money, in three books by Skibsrud. Because that’s what they do. As Jack Illingworth says at the National Post here, “While publishing is usually discussed as a business, or an industry, all of the finest small press publishers practice it as an art form. The books that they choose to publish aren’t chosen to fill out a season with a handful of products that stand a reasonable chance of selling. Their lists are cultural projects, embodying a few individuals’ ideas of what literature can be.”

When The Sentimentalists won the Giller last week, it should have been a boon for both Skibsrud and Gaspereau Press, and for the holistic book-as-art from text to type view. But almost immediately the brouhaha began. Because at the uppermost limit of 1000 books a week, there was no way that Gaspereau Press could keep up with the I-want-it-now-and-by-now-I-mean-last-week demand, and pressure came down on them from all sides to get help fulfilling that demand.

As they reported on their blog today, that’s exactly what they’ve done in contracting with the Canadian publishers Douglas & McIntyre, who’ll produce a $19.95 trade paperback, with first shipments going out at the end of the week, while Gaspereau Press will continue with their fine $27.95 edition. It’s a neat solution, and I commend them for it.

I only wish they’d been allowed to find it without all the accompanying ballyhoo accusing Gaspereau of robbing its author of beaucoup sales through arrogance and pride.

I’m all for writers getting paid for their work, no question. And the prospect of losing sales because an impatient and amnesiac reading public can’t wait, well, it just sucks, we can all agree. But may I please interject that the author’s getting a tidy $50,000 prize, so she’s not exactly getting skunked here. And if  Skibsrud  goes to a large publisher offering a large advance, maybe even Douglas & McIntyre, with her next novel, that’s the way of the world, and congratulations to her.

But  after all this, I’m more interested in her poetry titles from Gaspereau Press. I know from personal experience how beautiful their books are. Gaspereau is the publisher of two poetry collections by Carmine Starnino, and back in the winter after I wrote a post on my fandom of Carmine Starnino, Gaspereau sent me those books. I am shamefully overdue in mentioning this, but it’s been that kind of year — I am overdue mentioning too many books I’ve read & loved.

And I love these books. Starnino writes poems at once accessible and rich with sound and sense. These poems think and feel with equal weight, in form and without. And they’re fun. In With English Subtitles, he writes a series of “Worst-Case Scenario” poems, with titles like “How To Escape From a Car Hanging Over the Edge of a Cliff” (“The thing to avoid is a front-row view”) and “How To Survive a Sandstorm” (“your flesh more grist for the gust”). In the same book, “Six Riddles” is a numbered sequence difficult enough to give your mind pause, written with great invention and wit. Even in these short pieces the poems pay delightful care to sonics:


I hatch, wind-spanked, and grow effervescently.
….I’m wet but do not dry in the sun.
I froth on sand. Sailors use “yaw”
….to remember me by.

He doesn’t provide the answers either, because the answers aren’t the point, and besides, if you let the images do their work the answers are obvious. But I still had a wonderful time reading them out loud to my husband.

This Way Out uses language just as inventive and lyrical, but with titles like “Heavenography,” “Tale of the Wedding Ring,” and “Four Months Pregnant,” it’s clear his concerns have shifted. “Ducks Asleep on Grass,” a prose poem in the book’s second section, captures both some of the tone and control of this with “heartbeats like clocks set ten minutes ahead.”

These are both wonder-full collections, and, as Gaspereau Press titles, they’re pieces of book art as well, with pages that are a pleasure between my fingers. Having been introduced to Gaspereau Press and seen the fruits of its labor, I give them what is the aim of every small press: my trust. A Gaspereau Press book is a treasure worth seeking out and waiting for.

Last Day!

How is it possible that tomorrow is May? The days seem to have accelerated, the year nearly half gone!

Today is the last day of National Poetry Month, which means it’s the last day to enter the Great Poetry Giveaway, dreamed up by the ever-generous Kelli Russell Agodon. Visit her blog, Book of Kells, to see the master list of blogs participating (55!), but, before you do, don’t forget to leave a comment here to enter in my giveaway: 2 books & a subscription.  You only have until midnight tonight (world time — your time — midnight wherever you are). Tomorrow I’ll post the names of the winners.


Thank you, yes, I spiffed up the place: new theme, new header, new font thanks to Typekit.  Strange to say after two and a half years, but at last this virtual space is beginning to feel less borrowed and more mine.


Yesterday was a windy day. When I say “windy,” I don’t mean easy breezy. I would say it was about a 7 on the Beaufort Scale. On the Bridge of Flowers, an 8 — that place is a wind tunnel!

Naturally, the boys wanted to be out in it.  They wanted it with the sort of unrelenting, irrational insistence that grew in direct proportion to my efforts to talk them out of it.

I woke up with a cold, so I was already more inclined to be a lay-on-the-couch-and-moan Mama. Stepping out into those gales wasn’t going to be a good time for any of us.

Where did we go? The Bridge of Flowers, of course, because it’s spring, and the tulips and hyacinths have returned the parade of colors to the Bridge after the long gray-scale drought.

It was awful. And even frightening. The wind was cold, unceasing, walking against it like carrying two times my body weight uphill.

But it was worth it. Took the starch right out of the boys — Aidan went right down for a nap when we got home, and Vincent was subdued the rest of the afternoon, playing with his crayons and coloring books when he normally would be wreaking noisy destruction.

This morning, it was actually eerie, walking out into a windless day. The quiet, the ease. The neighbor’s flowering tree had lost all its petals. I could feel the sun, yesterday reduced to light, memory, warm on my skin.

So on this last day of NaPoMo, this perfect spring day, I give you this poem, which feels spring-like to me, and captures both its brilliance and its transcience, its frisson of forboding. It’s by none other than Carmine Starnino, from his book This Way Out. Look for a longer treatment from me about this marvelous Canadian poet soon-ish. Till then:

The Butterflies I Dreamt in Childhood are Here

Look at you, blown in from Christ knows where.
Shoulder to shoulder, silk kissing silk against the asters
in a bunting of open wing and stem, dozens strong,
seemingly self-xeroxed, an apricot spree of yellow
sprayed on green, and lopsidedly clinging as you feed,

afterward ascending on pillars of altitude, a still life.
You have a week at best, and soon the almanac
will catch up even with that good bloom and leave it
twisted shut, like a burr. There’s something else
to consider in the barn-red, hay-green fact of this place:

a sparrow split open near the willows, in full sun.
But no. It’s you I’d rather watch. Heavy enough
to flag a flower, you are large cups of colour set on such
small saucers, coins to keep a child’s eyes closed.

–Carmine Starnino

Carmine Starnino’s “Lazy Bastardism”

We’ve been working on the Collected Poets Series website, revamping it, expanding it, and this week we added some footage of Nancy Pearson’s reading two weeks ago. Our ultimate intention is to create a video archive of the CPS events so that everyone, regardless of geography, can enjoy them. This is our modest first step. Modest in length, and Nancy’s quiet delivery — in content, not at all! So please, check it out, and tell us what you think!


The poet Carmine Starnino contributed a trenchant & tremendously fun prose piece, “Lazy Bastardism: A Notebook,” to this month’s issue of Poetry. I really enjoyed reading this — it’s so full of tasty bits I couldn’t help interrupting my husband’s reading to quote several passages to him. And at several passages, I was restraining myself.

Different sections talk about poetry and prayer (“In fact, regarded a  certain way, poetry might even be said to be a menace to religious belief.”), age & youth re: poetry critics (“Can critical faculties show signs of wear and tear?”), the poetry-drafting process (“It’s so easy to lose heart.”), and that’s just the first 3 pages, with 7 more to go. It’s a true gambol through one poet’s head, and perhaps I loved it so much because I share his varied concerns and conclusions. This, in particular:

If grown-ups don’t read poetry, it’s not because they have a bone to pick with poets. The truth is even more intolerable: they prefer not to. How often do we need to be Bartlebyed before we finally admit to ourselves that those Clancy-thumbing dentists and Grisham-toting lawyers aren’t confused or afraid of commitment? They’re just not that into us.

I’m deeply interested now in reading more of Starnino’s work, prose and especially poems. He’s Canadian, so I’m unsure of how available he is in the States, and besides which I’m still in a book-buying freeze. Thank the poetry gods for the internet!

Andrea Cohen has two poems in this issue, also, and they fairly fizz with word play — they also required the full read-’em-outloud-to-the-husband treatment. Poetry‘s January podcast features her reading one of them, and, among other things, a conversation with…Carmine Starnino! Yes, I like him very much.

What does he mean by “lazy bastardism”? I’m afraid you’ll have to read his notebook to find out, because I couldn’t even begin to do it justice.