Interview with Gary Metras, Editor
How did Adastra Press start?
I began publishing my own poems during the mimeo revolution in the early 1970s when individuals and small groups of writers took the power of the press away from the big corporate guys by buying up used mimeograph machines from churches and schools to publish little magazines and chapbooks. The editions used typewriters for text and their books and magazines were often sloppily printed. The paper was thin, smooth copy paper, mostly with the wrong grain for book-work, which meant they warped after a little while. The bindings were mostly stapled. But none of that mattered at the time; getting the work out was the goal. My own first chapbooks were like this. We all loved the fact that we were being published in whatever format. But after a while, I began to think poetry deserved more than this. I researched the history of book making in a couple local colleges’ rare book rooms, marveling at the page layouts, the beautiful and highly readable typefaces, the elegant bindings. I read about type design and the history of typography. I bought a couple old hardcover books at the library’s 25-cent sale table and took them apart to see how they were put together in the first place. I re-sewed them, re-glued the cloth onto the boards, fixed the hinges with scrap paper, and the books didn’t look half bad.
Shortly after all this theoretical study, the local vocational school advertised a new night course in graphic arts. I signed up right away. After nine months of two nights a week, four hours a class, I received my printer’s apprentice card. With two young children at home and a high school English teaching career, finding time and energy was a joyous struggle. But I loved it, especially the letterpress portion as this was the closest esthetic to the old books I admired.
Less than a month after the class finished, there was a classified ad in the local newspaper offering a complete letterpress outfit for sale with a small printing press, five fonts of type, one type drawer, and miscellaneous tools. I bought it for $175.00, installed it in my cellar, and was on the way to becoming a publisher.
Getting poets was an easy next step. I announced in letters to several poets who were publishing in the same little mags that I was, and with whom I had been corresponding about their poems and poetry in general, that I was going to publish limited edition, hand-crafted chapbooks of poetry. Some of them sent me manuscripts and when I liked what I read I accepted them and began to release titles at the rate of three to four a year.
Within a few years, Adastra Press was considered not only a viable publisher, but one that most any poet would want as her publisher, just because of the esthetics of a hand-crafted chapbook. It got to the point where the poets I published complained to me that their readers and reviewers commented on the production more than or at least as much as the poems themselves. I suppose that is a bit ego-bruising for a writer to receive compliments on the type, ink, and quality of the paper of their book, with which they had nothing to do, more than on their poems. But this was near the end of the mimeo revolution, where sloppy printing and cheap binding had become the norm for small press, while the large corporate publishers were getting so cheap with their paperbacks that the pages fell out when turning them. With these as the comparative norm, when an Adastra Press chapbook landed in the hands of a reader and reviewer, the first things they noticed were the production values that stood out remarkably from the rest. Not that I was the sole practitioner of letterpress printing/publishing, but those first dozen or so titles made a splash in the pond of small press publishing.
Tell us a bit about Adastra Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Begun in 1979, Adastra Press’s mission is to produce with antique methods and equipment short collections of quality contemporary poetry using the highest standards of typography and printing. All books, chapbooks and broadsides are, thusly, crafted by hand limited editions. The type is hand-set, that is, each letter, cast on a piece of metal, is set in place one at a time, the same process as Gutenberg’s “movable type” of the fifteenth century. The printing process is letterpress with two presses in use: a nineteenth century Golding Pearl and an early twentieth century Chandler & Price; both must have the paper fed by hand one sheet at a time, both have treadles to foot-pump the action, though the C & P has been adapted to run on an electric motor. All paper is gathered and folded by hand. All binding is sewn by hand. Since 1990 books are printed entirely on or with some recycled paper. Books that go into second printings are photo-offset from the first edition and perfect or sewn bound. Since 2000 some original perfect bound paperbacks have been released; for these I use commercial printers; I only consider such editions from poets who have previously successfully published two or three chapbooks with Adastra. Through 2015, 98 titles by 58 poets (from Alaska to New Hampshire, Michigan to Florida, Calgary to Tucson) have been published.
Being a poet before I became a printer/publisher, my main concern in printing is to do justice to the word on the page and not to be excessively florid or outlandish in page design. William Morris’s Kelmscott Press books of the late nineteenth century in England were truly works of art, but the production and art values overwhelmed and thereby devalued the literature they contained; they more or less shouted at the reader—look at me, not the text. Besides, they reprinted famous texts and authors, not original, new and beginning poets. I wanted Adastra to be open to new poets, to offer them the kind of production usually reserved for big name poets whose limited editions became instant collectables at exclusive prices.
Since I had a full-time job that took care of the mortgage, gorceries, and regular living costs, my wife and I made the deal that Adastra would have to pay for itself. Remember, public school teachers in the 70s and 80s were not highly paid. Actually, when my second child was born in 1975, I qualified for food stamps, and did get them for a few years. So I wanted Adastra titles to be affordable for anyone who wanted to read poetry. The first several chapbooks sold for $1.50 to $2.50 from 1979 to 1985. Then the cover prices slowly rose as the cost of paper increased. Back then I needed to sell about 100 copies to break even and turn a small profit, which went into buying paper and ink for the next book. And that’s basically how I did it financially: I donated my labor and every book made a profit that paid for the next book.
I sometimes use art to compliment some titles, but it has to be B/W line or ink drawings, otherwise you cannot economically reproduce it for letterpress printing. David Chorlton’s early Adastra book, The Village Painters, includes pen and ink sketches he made on the subjects of his poems. North of Yaounde includes a group of poems Jim Bescta wrote after visiting his Peace Corps daughter in Cameroon, Africa; I researched Cameroon folk art and made reproductions to include. Home Test by American poet Gregory Dunne, who lives and teaches in Japan, has several traditional Japanese clip art designs interspersed with the poems. AZ TWO: Words of Travel was inspired by David Giannini’s trip to Arizona, including the ancient Indian ruins; I researched the native people’s art and reproduced Sinagua Indian petroglyphs for the book. In each case, metal cuts were made for letterpress printing, and each piece was printed from ink colors I custom mixed. A line in the third poem of Leonard J. Cirino’s The Truth Is Not Real reads “[What if] Twenty-six birds formed the alphabet?” and inspired me to take 26 stock printers cuts of birds and shape them into the letter “A” to illustrate that idea; several other poems had lines/images/topics that led me to do similarly, mostly using stock cuts, referred to as “dingbats” or “printers’ dingbats.”
The graphic appeal of a manuscript has become something I pay more and more attention to when reading for acceptances. I recently noticed that my pattern of taking a given manuscript has evolved into selecting those where I really am moved by the poetry but that also challenge me graphically, that make me stretch my skills as a printer/graphic designer. So, if I have narrowed an acceptance down to two manuscripts of equally good poetry, I often take the one that presents a test to my ability to put those poems on paper, to make a little book that is as pleasing or as moving as are the poems it contains.
The market for both letterpress and poetry is so limited that it is impossible to afford braces for a child, college tuition, or even a home mortgage on the income from poetry. This is true for the poet and the publisher of poetry. Only a handful of poets can economically survive on income from their poetry and reputation, which leads to paying gigs for readings, workshop teaching, guest contest judges, and even university teaching positions. In other words, they economically survive on the things their published poetry brings and not on royalties from that poetry itself. The rest of us need jobs to support the writing/publishing we do. I did my printing evenings, weekends and summers, between correcting papers, changing diapers, putting in the garden, etc. Poetry in America is a hobby; the market makes it so because there really is no market for poetry. I wouldn’t have changed any of it. Adastra Press continues on a desired small scale without grants through the hard work of the publisher, the poets selected for publication, and the readers and buyers of the books.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
The newest titles are Mini Maxims by Richard Kostelanetz, All Waters Are One by Harry Humes, and Story & Luck: Last Poems by W. E. Butts. The first two are signed & numbered editions. The latter is a numbered edition. Mr. Butts passed away in 2013 while serving as the New Hampshire Poet Laureate. A little side note: From 2005 to 2012 five Adastra poets passed away. Joseph Langland and Gertrude Halstead were in their 90s but Leonard J. Cirino, Louis McKee, and Anna Kirwan, while not young, passed away too early in their lives. I began to think Adastra was cursed. Even though I am not a superstitious person, such an unfounded, coincidental conclusion is easy to fall into. When both Kostelanetz and Humes submitted their manuscripts, I tried to off-handedly ask each how his health was (both are in their upper 70s). Each was fine, they assured me. Fine, I thought. When the Butts manuscript came my way, I accepted it for two reasons: First, I really liked Wally’s poetry and had been reading it since the 1980s, and, second, since he had passed away, a little part of my psyche whispered, “If I publish a recently deceased poet, I can break the curse.” The book is published to good reviews. The curse is broken.
Currently in press is a compilation of “father” poems by Richard Jones, editor of Poetry East magazine, his fifth Adastra title going back to 1983. It is nice to have such long-standing poetry relationships with people. There are several on the Adastra list: Michael Casey, Jim Daniels, W.D. Ehrhart, David Giannini, Greg Joly, Thomas Lux, Dawn McDuffie, Ed Ochester, Michael Rattee, Susan Edwards Richmond and Tom Sexton have each published multiple titles with Adastra. Bill Ehrhart has nine chapbooks and books, including his selected poems, and a broadsheet with Adastra since 1981; he holds the record; he is the best selling poet on my list and knows how to push his books; I kept his book, The Outer Banks & Other Poems, in print for more than twenty years, until I released his selected poems; what other small press would do that for their author? Bill has been loyal to Adastra, and Adastra to Bill. Greg, Michael Rattee, and Susan had their first books with Adastra. At least a dozen others had their first or second books with Adastra. I published Harry Humes’ second collection, Robbing the Pillars, in 1984 when he was youngish, highly talented, and eager. Almost thirty years later to the month, I published his thirteenth. Emmet Van Driesche was nineteen when I published his first book, The Land Before Us: Poems of the Sea, and Gertrude Halstead was ninety when I released her first, memories like burrs, which recounts some of her experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.
If the poet lives within a day’s drive of me, I invite them to visit the press to take part in the physical making of their book. Many have done so. A couple have been so inspired by the experience that they became informal apprentices with me, and later started their own letterpress publishing: Barry Sternlieb and his Mad River Press in Massachusetts, Greg Joly and his BullThistle Press in Vermont. When I did Susan Edwards Richmond’s second Adastra book, Purgatory Chasm, she participated in all phases of production with multiple trips to the press. One day after we completed the sewing of the signatures, the entire experience so moved her that on her two hour car ride home she composed in her head a ten-part poem about it all titled “Press.” Poetry East magazine published it. I was touched by her revelations of what it meant to get her fingers inky with her own words, her own book. Something I take as normal labor was for her extraordinary. Other poets visiting the press have done similarly though not as extensively. They have taught me that what I do is a gift to them, that I donate my art to further their art.
For the future, I will probably release smaller print runs in signed and numbered editions as I have the last three titles and publish fewer titles per year.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I have published my own poetry, fiction, and reviews with online magazines. The possibilities of such publishing seem endless. The design and typographic possibilities seem bounded only by the editor’s skill and knowledge of graphic arts. The ability to include art, voice, and video with literature amazes me. It’s all good. My problem with it, though, is that I am a “book guy” and I prefer holding a book or magazine in my hands, to feel the words physically. I do own a Kindle and an iPad, and while both are efficient and portable readers, they are not books. In the world of print publishing, the simple fact that there are still magazines and publishers in operation speaks worlds to their belief in and commitment to literature. I applaud them.
A further comment on technology: If you study an offset printing press, you can sort of figure out how it works, but not really; a metal or paper printing plate attaches to this roller, there is a rubber blanket on another roller, an ink fountain combined with an alcohol solution goes over there, and the paper is fed from an opposite tray; these are the parts you can see; and the printing plate is usually computer generated, a process you can’t really “see,” you can’t really “know.” If you stare at a copy machine, even for years and years, you will never know how it transfers ink to paper. After five minutes observing a platen letterpress in operation, the gears, the axles, the iron arms linking rollers to ink plate, you can not only see how it works, but you can understand why it works. Its mechanisms are open and simple. There is just too much in the workings of the world that are hidden and non-understandable, unknowable, even by people with an education. Why and how things work, whether a whistle or the futures market, should be available for anyone who wants to know. Letterpress printing results can be more beautiful than any printed sheet or page than you’ve ever seen before. Of course, beautifully designed type and heavy textured paper adds to the beauty. And you can “see and know” how it is done. All of these are why I do letterpress.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Adastra Press?
I remember meeting a fellow letterpress printer/publisher from Iowa at the old New York Small Press Book Fair some years ago. We admired each other’s work. At one point during the weekend, he asked me how I managed all the unsold copies of the books. I said what do you mean. He said he had boxes of books in his cellar, all his closets, the garage, and was in danger of having to discard clothing to make more room for more books. I asked what his print runs were. He said 800 copies on average. I told him Adastra Press print runs range from 100 to 400 copies. I asked if he has sold out of any of the books he published. He said no. I told him the majority of Adastra titles were sold out. The point is easy: it is hard enough for a small press to sell 200 copies of a given book; 800 is nearly impossible. Corporate publishers release poetry in editions of 1000 or more and fiction at 3-5000 copies. They factor into their budgets income from remaindering, or the cost of pulping, the latter an all too common strategy these days. Their initial worry is more about unit pricing than numbers of copies sold. If you print “x” number of copies, the commercial printer charges a rate that makes them a profit. If you have “y” number of copies printed, the printer’s costs decrease per unit; “z” number of copies ordered and the unit price drops further. Accountants love this game. All publishers want to reduce unit costs. Why pay $8.00 per book for 100 copies when you can pay $4.25 or less for 1,000 copies. This seems to make perfect economic sense. But you need to consider the number of copies that could sell before you make a decision. The print runs of Adastra titles were determined by my physical stamina; since I do my own printing and binding, 250 came to be the ideal. So there had to be special reasons to print more copies than that, and with some of the poets the reason was that they actually did have a market for 400 plus copies. Online publishers, of course, need not worry about any of this. I politely told this gentleman that his print runs were insanely excessive, that he should print only as many as he honestly thought he could sell. Among his authors was Philip Levine and others of similar acclaim, and he was not able to sell 800 copies of these well-know, well-published, well-established poets.
Traditionally, the publisher suffers all costs and expenses of publishing, as well as enjoying the larger piece of what profit there might be. Before that tradition, however, there were no actual “publishers.” There were bookstores whose back rooms were print shops. This in the sixteenth century and earlier. They charged the author to print his book and displayed it on their bookstore shelves and took a percentage of the sale price. A very good business model for the book store/printer, but not for the writer. This “publishing” model brought us such writers as William Wordsworth, John Keats, and an untold number of local ministers who had their sermons printed, bound, and, sometimes, sold.
In the mid-nineteenth century, commercial publishers came into existence. These publishers still owned the printing facilities, which manufactured the books published. This system depended on editors selecting manuscripts they believed would sell enough copies to make a profit for themselves as a business and for the writers to earn royalties off copies sold. The books were all cloth editions and they needed to find two hundred-plus buyers to make a profit for publisher and writer. This model became the standard for over a hundred years. With the advent of paperbacks, sales and profits increased accordingly. This model can be characterized as “the cream rises to the top,” meaning that the best writers would emerge from the slush piles of submissions, get published, promoted, appear on book store shelves, and make money for everyone along the chain. This is the model that brought us F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Billy Collins, and Toni Morrison.
This model broke down in the late twentieth century with the coming of global corporate publishers, chain bookstores, and the “blockbuster” novel. Within a decade or so, the number of publishing companies decreased as they were bought out by increasingly larger publishing conglomerates. With such gigantic operations, the primary goal of publishing became profit. Gone were the small and medium publishing houses whose primary goal was literature. The chain bookstores began to concentrate on copies sold, in other words, profit. Gone were the independent bookstores that offered opportunities to local writers and small presses. This model brought us James Patterson, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, Stephen King, and not a single poet. It is even quietly acknowledged in some publishing circles today that some editors bring first novel manuscripts to the chief buyer at a certain bookstore chain with the questions of if they publish this novel, how many copies would the chain order? If the reply is below a certain number, the book will not be published, no matter how worthy the editor may think it. There are always exceptions within this current model; think of Anthony Doer and his All the Light We Cannot See. This is the model we now have; it is not based on literature per se but on sales; it is no longer the cream rising to the top because there is no whole milk; it is all skim milk.
The literary publishing world was relegated to a few smaller commercial publishers who managed to maintain a sense of literature and a presence within the industry, i.e., turn a profit, the university presses, and a few independent publishers, such as Graywolf and Copper Canyon, who would both cease to exist tomorrow if today the National Endowment for the Arts and a couple other foundations stopped subsidizing them with the monetary grants they have lavished on them for twenty years now.
The rest of the literary publishing industry, the truly independent publishers, the little magazines, the small presses, who are writers themselves, make do as best they can with volunteerism, donations of their own money and labor, and modest sales. It becomes a test of commitment. If they truly believe in what they are doing for literature, they may last half a dozen years or more. If they are maniacal in their faith, they may last decades. With the arrival of online publishing, it all seems easier, safer, cleaner, less costly an investment of money and time. It’s all relative. And it’s still a test of commitment.
Sometimes I receive a manuscript with a check for ten or twenty dollars included. Nowhere in the listings of Adastra does it state anything about a reading fee. Some writers have become so accustomed to paying a publisher to read the manuscript that they automatically include a check. For those writers who send me unasked for money, I always send them an Adastra book or two.
As for reading fees in general: If a publisher charges a writer a reading fee, contest or not, this returns the industry to the early book store/printer model where the business owner makes out doubly and the writer pays out doubly. A horrendously unfair state of affairs. Any publisher, of whatever level, for whatever reason, who charges the writer any sort of fee for the priviledge of rejecting his writing is unethical. And let’s face it, the rejected writers are the super-majority. It is they who are paying for whatever publication is awarded, whether in a magazine or a book contest. The rejected writers in a contest pay the “prize” money to the winner and pay the production costs of the winning book. Those publishers/editors who say otherwise, that the fees charged do not balance out the award, the judge’s honorarium, or the printing and promotion costs, soon revise their publishing model, usually by increasing the reading fee along with increasing advertising of the contest so as to draw in more submissions, i.e., collect more reading fees. An easy example: In a thousand dollar book prize, that’s one grand, say five hundred for the judge, two grand for printing, a grand for promotion, for $4,500 in expenses. If four hundred poets submit at a $25 reading fee, the going rate, that’s $10,000 income for the publisher even before the book is offered for sale. Of course, the editors and publishers of these contests are going to say their expenses are far greater than what I have listed, that they are lucky if the total of entry fees matches the total prize money, etc. And these are publishers who already have income subsidies from grants and/or institutions such as colleges and universities that sponsor the contests and employ the editors in one capacity or another. You do the math. Who is getting ripped off. And the publishers who do not receive enough submissions with entry fees to cover their costs soon cease publishing. It is a test of one’s commitment.
It is interesting, too, that the very idea of charging a reading fee for writers to submit began with a very well-endowed Ivy League college press that had an active and reputable poetry publishing program. There was not even prize money awarded to the accepted poet, it was not even a book contest, just the regular old publishing program at a university press as had been in place for decades. The new editor of the press stated at a conference on the status of book publishing held at the Library of Congress in the 1980s that instead of his budget or the college’s subsidy paying for the publishing program, he had decided to have all the submitting poets pay for it. He argued that these poets were never going to get accepted at any university press because they were just not good enough, that they were delusional about their talent, that they should and would pay for the few truly talented poets who, in his opinion, actually deserved to be published.
So not only was this a new financial model for the industry, but one based on a class system not dissimilar to feudalism. Overnight, other such publishers instituted submission/reading fees, thinking only of monies coming in before any real expenses were paid out, without any consideration of what this does to the nature of writing and publishing, of how it preys upon the fragile egos of all too many writers, whatever their level of achievement. Such a system inevitably becomes corrupt. Witness the few times it became public where the contest judge selected friends or students as the winners and later tried to defend their choices with lame excuses about talent. All this prompted such a crisis within the contest industry that they established new specific rules against such nepotism and publishers had to pledge allegiance to this fairness model in order to receive Poets & Writers Foundation’s imprimatur. But the system of entry fees is so entrenched that it will not go away any time soon, especially with the explosion of MFA programs where students enroll more for careers than for the love of writing. Or if they do enroll for the love of writing, it soon enough becomes primarily a career path more than anything else. They feel compelled to enter contest after contest in hopes of winning so as to further their career chances. How terrible to write poems to impress the chair of a graduate writing program you are applying to for a job and not for the sake of poetry and one’s inner self.
The question arises: Have I ever submitted to a contest that charges a fee? Yes. Have I ever won? Yes, and been a finalist at several. Why do it? Ego, and because that is the system as we mostly have it today. But my last three books were with small, independent presses without fees or contests and my forthcoming one is also, each submitted for their regular publishing programs. I seldom submit to entry-fee publishers.
I truly believe such freedom from fees, contests, careers makes both poet and publisher more true to their calling. But you can’t eat honor, you can’t buy a shirt let alone a suit with a poem. It is difficult to find fault, for example, with a poet such as Philip Levine who worked a few years in rust belt factories then spent the rest of his life writing about it while teaching for forty years at a university. Or with a Jack Gilbert who taught a semester here and there so he could go to a Greek island for a few years and live a pauper’s life but write out the poetry stirring inside him. Or hopefully even myself, son of a bricklayer, a kid from the projects, who followed the inner voice to poetry and printing and publishing.
You’re the first press we’ve interviewed that doesn’t have a website. What’s that like?
Since I use technologies of the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries, twenty-first century electronic tech seems out of place for what and how I do Adastra Press. Nor do I have a web site for my own writing and publishing. I do release new book announcements through e-mail, in addition to snail mail. Besides, Adastra titles are all on Amazon.com and my distributor, Small Press Distribution, has an active and influential web presence. I have, though, been mulling the idea of starting a Facebook group page for Adastra poets to further their connection with each other, to announce readings, latest publications, and other such news. I do think of all the poets who have published with Adastra as family, and relate with most of them as brothers and sisters in poetry.