Thursday, July 14, 2005

Copper Canyon Press: A Temple of Words

by Zinta Aistars

At the end of this rainbow is a pot of... copper. Three Kalamazoo College alumni--Michael, Emily, and Amy--unbeknownst to each other, follow their rainbows to Port Townsend, Washington to dedicate their work to poetry. (Published in the Summer 2004 issue ofLuxEsto, the Kalamazoo College alumni magazine.

Port Townsend’s poetic pull proved irresistible to three Kalamazoo College graduates. Each traveled to the tip of the Olympic Peninsula (across Port Townsend Bay from Seattle) for different reasons. But they shared an attraction for poetry, and they share the lodestone of Copper Canyon Press.

Michael Wiegers ‘87 came to Port Townsend more than a decade ago, and he found a small if fiercely devoted office staff of 2 people. Today, Michael is the Executive Editor working with a staff that has tripled.

A high school senior in St. Louis (Mo.), Michael grew up in the Midwest. Broaching college years, he did what he calls “the typical summer college tour. I checked out colleges throughout the Midwest. Beloit, all the Wisconsin schools, Notre Dame. And then there was Kalamazoo. Kalamazoo College won me over with its study abroad program and a curriculum geared towards independent study.”

Michael declared biology his major, studied in Spain, and interned in Philadelphia (Penn.). Nevertheless, his classes in English at Kalamazoo convinced him there was another passion awaiting him.

“I had wonderful professors who transformed me,” he says. “Gail Griffin, Conrad Hilberry, Colette Inez, Herb Bogart. They taught me how to read in the sense that far transcends decoding words on a page. Gail nurtured a sense of other voices, notions of justice, and an ability to look beyond into ways of thinking differently. From Bogart I learned the classics, how important it is not to lose our literary traditions while following the progression of poetry over the ages. Con Hilberry that poetry is not territorial; it is for everyone. Colette Inez showed me that—‘wow, I can write too!’”

Books became Michael’s life. After graduation, he worked various jobs, moving to Boston, and then to Minneapolis. There, he was editor at a small publishing house called “”Coffee House Press. His partner, Kate Garfield ‘87, worked as a bookseller and literary agent. When Michael heard about a job opening in Port Townsend at a press he respected, he applied for the position and was hired. Nowadays, two thousand manuscripts a year now pass through his hands, awaiting judgment.

“Copper Canyon Press values poetry, the relationships built by poetry, and the connections we make with our authors,” he says. “There is a devotion here to the art of the book.”

That art resonates with what Michael learned at Kalamazoo College: Life’s deepest value is found in connections.

“Poetry is language,” he says. “And language connects to the soul, creating an intense experience, not unlike devotion to the divine.”

Copper Canyon Press publishes an average of 18 books a year and maintains an active backlist of 160 titles from major, mid-career and emerging writers. Criteria for publication include the excellence of the work and its fit within the backlist, the stable of published poets by the Press. Michael consults with his staff, listening to anyone who wishes to champion a particular poet.

“We always enjoy discovering a new author, but we also have a commitment to poets that we publish year after year,” Michael says. “Sometimes I need to give a second chance for a manuscript. I’ve turned some down, only to be haunted by the poetry afterwards. We like to look beyond the traditional. Ninety-five percent of the publishing industry today is controlled by big publishers. At a small press like Copper Canyon, we can take a risk on excellence that may not become a guaranteed big seller. It’s up to the small presses to bring in new and diverse voices.”

Emily Warn ‘77, long time board member for Copper Canyon Press, says: “Michael has a genius for being an advocate for authors,” she says. “He forms relationships that tie donors to authors to publishers.”

Talent is in abundant quantity at the Press. Emily is a poet as well as longtime board member. She discovered Sam Hamill in his cabin in the woods, put up her tent nearby, and showed him her manuscript.

“We made an instant intellectual and soul connection,” she says. “And Copper Canyon Press published my first book of poetry, The Leaf Path.”

To find Emily wandering the woods is a common occurrence. Her major at Kalamazoo College was in English, but she always possessed a keen interest in botany. Her passion for words and for nature is evident in her work.

Kalamazoo College strengthened my discipline, and a fundamental education that would serve me in all walks of life,” says Emily. “When I took a writing class with Conrad Hilberry, I found my calling. Until then, I was a stranger wherever I went. Con’s class changed the direction of my life.”

Emily’s calling took her into the wilderness, but always with a good book, or three, under her arm and in her backpack. She worked as a park ranger, often living as a recluse with books for company. She’s also worked on fishing boats and done time in the corporate world, working for Microsoft.

“We learned to thrive in diverse experiences at Kalamazoo College,” she says.

Emily’s more recent poetry collection, also published by Copper Canyon Press, is titled The Novice Insomniac; her two chapbooks are The Book of Esther (Jugum Press) and Highway Street (Limberlost Press). She earned her Master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington. She has received many honors and awards including a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University (1992), The Pushcart Prize Anthology Outstanding Writer Award, as well as various grants and poetry commissions. She recently moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where she teaches English at Lynchburg College.

Amy Schaus Murphy is the most recent of Kalamazoo College graduates to journey to Port Townsend. Soon after graduation, Amy and husband Kevin Murphy (both are members of the Class of 1999), went west to seek their fortunes. They had in mind a life lived in a Montana wilderness cabin. At the last minute, a second couple with whom the Murphy’s had hoped to travel and settle down decided against the trip. Amy and Kevin decided to look for jobs in Seattle, but when they saw the big city sprawl, they knew it was not for them. Port Townsend was just across the bay, and when Amy walked into the small white building with a green roof and shutters, holding out her resume to the executive editor, Michael Wiegers, she had no idea she was facing a fellow Kalamazoo College graduate.

“There we were, an entire country away from little Kalamazoo, and we were both from the same point of origin,” Amy laughs. “No doubt it helped get me hired. That was in the fall of 1999, and I started working as a production intern, a voluntary half-time position assisting Michael.”

At first, Amy shared an office with Michael. His daughter, Ella, had just been born, and he was taking paternity leave, showing up at the office from time to time to check on things. But Michael was so impressed with Amy’s hard work and dedication that she was soon offered the fulltime paid position of production manager.

“I made sure all the t’s were crossed and I made the i’s dotted. My years at Kalamazoo College prepared me well for working at Copper Canyon Press. When I walked into Michael’s office for the first time, holding out my resume, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing!”

According to Amy, a liberal arts education enables one to handle those situations. She had learned how to learn, and she could do it on her feet, she could do it quickly, and she could innovate. Michael’s assures all who will listen: Amy was the most organized person at the Press. She brought order to chaos, made poetry out of dishevelment.

“As an English major,” Amy says, “I also learned how to read and how to write. Sounds basic enough, but it isn’t.”

Amy remembers classes she took with Diane Seuss, who was also her academic advisor, and with Gail Griffin. “Work shopping,” as she calls it, in Di’s class taught her to decide what is working, and what isn’t, in a piece of creative writing. She learned how to proof and to read with a critical eye for detail. In addition to these concrete skills, Amy acquired a “gut instinct to learn.” “That’s a gift for a lifetime,” she says.

Her study abroad in Senegal provided an appreciation for living without luxury and a love of language.

“Translation work at Copper Canyon Press,” Amy says. “reminds me of my time in Senegal. I had studied French and I wanted to go to Paris, but there wasn’t a program available in that city, so I ended up going to Senegal, where I had absolutely no knowledge of Wolof, the indigenous language. I had to learn fast. Today, I sometimes find my dreams and thoughts will tangle into three languages—English, French, Wolof.”

Amy also went to Senegal as a self-described radical feminist. “But I had to take a hard look at feminism as we define it here once I saw it from the viewpoint of another culture,” she explains. “Senegalese women live a segregated life, but it works for them. It works in their culture. From a westernized perspective, it could seem oppressive, but I learned to look at their lifestyle choices as choices they made within the confines of their culture. It expanded my own outlook on being a woman greatly.”

At one time, Amy admits, she might have considered herself something of a wallflower, demure in her approach to life, but being a Kalamazoo College student changed that. She can walk into the unknown, take a challenge face to face, and turn it into poetry.

Perhaps a yearning for the unknown combined with a confidence to venture there, both cultivated at Kalamazoo College, brought Michael, Emily, and Amy to Copper Canyon Press. That, and a love for poetry. And a need for lifelong learning as basic as food, water, and oxygen. All of these qualities are coins of the realm at Copper Canyon and Kalamazoo College.

SIDEBAR—Spirit at the End of the Road

A fine drizzle of rain prisms the afternoon sun, forming the rare wonder of a perfect double rainbow arced across the sky, connecting mountains and bay. At the end of the road that winds between them lies the poet lover’s pot of… copper.

Copper—not gold—as in “Copper Canyon Press.” So reads the modest sign above the small wooden building with creaky and uneven floors, painted white with a green roof and green shutters. Founded in 1972 by a man named Sam Hamill with seed money of $500, Copper Canyon Press is the physical manifestation of the premise that good poetry is essential to the human spirit and to a thriving culture. Hamill started the Press in Denver, naming it for copper as a tribute to the ecological and cultural values of Native Americans. He moved north to Port Townsend when Centrum, a nonprofit arts programming organization, made him an offer. Centrum wanted a literary press-in-residence to encourage and nourish the popular summer Port Townsend Poetry Symposium and to administer high school literary workshops in the winter months. Centrum promised an initially rent-free building, which would convert to modest rent in later years. Hamill moved into a wilderness cabin without electricity or running water, determined to create a Press like no other, and began publishing some of the most promising poets in the country.

Thirty years later Copper Canyon Press enjoys an international reputation for being one of the best poetry publishers anywhere and is one of the few publishers that feature poetry exclusively. Copper has turned to gold. Copper Canyon Press has produced a wealth of poetic riches: more than 240 books and CDs, including work by Nobel Laureates Pablo Neruda, Odysseas Elytis, Octavio Paz, Vincente Aleixandre, and Czeslaw Milosz; Pulitzer Prize-winners Carolyn Kizer, Maxine Kumin, and W.S. Merwin; National Book Award winners Ruth Stone, Hayden Carruth and Lucille Clifton; and some of the most original contemporary poets including Jim Harrison, C.D. Wright, Norman Dubie, Eleanor Wilner, Jane Miller, and Olga Broumas. The Press publishes new collections of poetry, but also anthologies, prose books about poetry, translations of classical and contemporary work from many of the world’s cultures, and re-issues of out-of-print poetry classics.

Visit Copper Canyon Press at

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