Interview with Joan Baranow and David Watts, Editors
How did Wolf Ridge Press start?
Our press started in 2008 when David had put together a collection of poems under his pseudonym, Harvey Ellis, and was ready to publish it. (Harvey is his actual first name, after his father, and Ellis is his mother’s maiden name.) The poems were unlike his usual, narrative style—they were imagistic and leaping from one seemingly disconnected idea to the next. They were written at a time when our boys were newborns and waking up in the night to nurse. David would be half awake and writing poems in a hypnagogic state. After sending the manuscript out to various contests and feeling that they were too wild to appeal to judges, he decided to go ahead and create a poetry press and publish the book, Sleep Not Sleep. Since then, we decided we would publish books by poets whose work we admired but wasn’t getting selected by other independent presses.
Tell us a bit about Wolf Ridge Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
At first, we were thinking of the press as focused on “imaginative” poetry, pushing the boundaries of lyric and logic. But with the growing work we were doing in the realm of poetry and healing, our press eventually shifted in that direction. In the same year we published Sleep Not Sleep, we produced the PBS documentary, Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. We had also been co-directing a number of summer writers’ conferences (Writing the Medical Experience and The Healing Art of Writing) and saw the powerful writing that our participants were doing. It was natural that we would publish two books that have an illness and recovery theme: Ultrasound, by Elizabeth Percer, and Breath Enough, by Vivian Teter. By then we realized that our earlier publications by Rick Benjamin, Passing Love and Floating World, also fit into this theme. So in 2018 we launched a Narrative/Poetic Medicine chapbook prize. The winning book, Mercy, by Judith Montgomery, is a gorgeous book about her journey through her husband’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. We were so impressed by all of the submitted manuscripts, however, that we decided to select one poem from each submission and publish an anthology, Still You: Poems of Illness & Healing (2020). Maybe it was a bit circuitous, but in retrospect it’s not surprising that our press would find itself committed to publishing poetry that grapples with the illness story.
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?
On our website we had announced an annual Narrative/Poetic Medicine contest, with poetry and prose publications in alternate years. But bringing out two poetry books this past year was a challenge! David and I have full-time jobs—David is a medical doctor; I’m an English professor. On top of that, I founded a Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at my home institution, Dominican University of CA. I’ve decided to take a year off from publishing and focus on my own writing. When we come back to the press, we will make good on our contest announcement for a chapbook length prose work about illness and healing.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
We live in a Golden Age of literature. A hundred and fifty years ago only a fraction of the world population was literate. Today more than three quarters of the world can read and write. I’m grateful to all the editors who manage literary websites and/or publish print books out of the love of literature. Naturally, the quality of much that’s out there reflects its democratic nature; free verse is innately invitational. But that’s part of the energy of writing today. In terms of what might change, my only concern is that we continue to celebrate all voices no matter their subject—we have to guard against saying who can write about what. Otherwise, we discount the power of empathy and imagination.
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 Wolf Ridge Press?
Outside of our contest publication, our poets pay to have their books designed and printed. David and I donate our editorial service and usher the book through to completion. We advertise the books on our website and at AWP and distribute through Small Press Distribution. We work closely with our poets to make sure that all aspects of the book—from revisions to the poems to cover art to font—are exactly what they want. Seeing the uneven quality of print on demand, we instead have our books printed by a brick and mortar printer. We’re lucky that we have a talented local designer who is reasonably priced, and the cost of printing ranges from $3 to $5 per book, depending on the size of the print run. After a terrible experience with Amazon (they seem to have lost 200 copies of Ultrasound), we let SPD deal with them. The cost to us is the website, advertising, select book awards, and the annual SPD fee, which always exceeds our book sales. For our contest we used Submittable, which has an annual fee. Our contest fee did not cover the winning book publication, nor, obviously, the anthology. I suppose some well-known presses might break even, or turn a profit, but I wouldn’t know about that.
You mentioned that your poets pay to have their books designed and printed. This can be a red flag for some folks, who might see you as a vanity press, or who may not have the resources to pay for their books’ production costs. Can you talk a little more about that decision?
Regarding whether we are a vanity press, it’s more that we have, so far, invited poets whose work we admire to send us a manuscript. We’re not a fee for service outfit. Regarding your question about most poets not having the $ to pay for their books to be published, I would point out that paying $25-$35 submission fees to multiple contests year after year with the unlikely chance of having your book selected, no matter how good it is, is extremely discouraging. On top of that, if you do win, these contests give poets only a couple dozen copies to give away or sell, and then the poets have to buy any additional books from the publisher. Wolf Ridge Press takes a more generous approach. Our poets get all the books they pay for, at cost. We donate our editorial time, publicity, and expertise, and we guarantee a quality product. What’s not to like?