Monday, September 26, 2005

Jim Kates and the Zephyr Press

Probably the most significant of small presses birthed in Somerville, Mass. is the “Zephyr Press,” (now based in Brookline, Mass.) that was founded by the late Somerville publisher Ed Hogan. Hogan, started the much-heralded “Aspect,” magazine in the 1970’s. In 1980 he and a group of his editors formed “Zephyr,” and for seven years the press published a small but significant list of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. In 1990, Zephyr published its hallmark collection of Russian poetry: “The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova” translated by Judith Hemschemeyer. After this collection of work by this groundbreaking early 20th Century maverick female writer, other titles from Russia followed, as well as the first anthology of Ukrainian writing in English, “From Three Worlds.” With the untimely death of Hogan, Kates, an old friend of Hogan’s, assumed responsibility for the press and relaunched it in 2000. Since then Zephyr has published numerous books of translations, including the work of Nobel-nominated Chinese poet Bei Dao. Zephyr also has an imprint, “Adventures in Poetry,” that publishes fiction and poetry, and they cooperatively publish a British-based journal “Modern Poetry in Translation.

To interview publisher Jim Kates is no problem because he is an affable man, who seems to have an endless supply of information about the “Zephyr Press,” and the literary world at-large. Kates describes “Zephyr,” as an “alternative” press, an alternative to the commercial presses, who Kates feels has all but abandoned serious literature. Kates realizes that running a “small” independent press is usually a money-losing and often all consuming undertaking. He doesn’t make a living running Zephyr, and the press lives “hand to mouth,” from grants, be it state, federal or private. Zephyr only has one paid employee on staff, and now its office is based in Brookline, Mass.; although it makes no secret of its Somerville roots. The late Ed Hogan, the Somerville publisher was according to Kates “...a child of Somerville, and Somerville was an essential part of his vision.” Unfortunately when Hogan died in a freak canoe accident Zephyr was forced to move to Brookline.
Asked to remember what the Somerville literary scene in the 1970’s was like, Kates’ memory was somewhat cloudy. However he did mention his memory of the “100 Flower Bookstore,” and Hogan’s wife June Gross’ lit mag. “Dark Horse.” Somerville in the 70’s and 80’s was not like the gentrified city it is today, Kates said. He remembers one poet who got a Cambridge PO BOX, so it wouldn’t be known that she lived in Somerville. “It just looked better to be in Cambridge,” Kates said.
Since Zephyr published the Akhmatova anthology many subsequent books on the great poet have hit the market. This anthology according to Kates, “opened up the gates,” for the others. Later, June Gross, inspired Kates to publish an anthology of contemporary Russian poets, and more recently Zephyr published the acclaimed Chinese poet Bei Dao. Dao, was a member of the dissident “Misty” poets group in China and has been a champion of Chinese writers. Dao often sends promising Chinese writers ‘Zephyr’s” way. Zephyr published a collection of Dao’s essays concerning his dislocation from his motherland: “Blue House.”
Surprisingly, American readers are buying Chinese poetry. Another popular title of the press is: “Iraqi Poetry Today,” that gives Americans a much needed window into Iraqi culture.
Kates and I could have talked much longer. He had a plethora stories about the fiction titles the press has released, and the translation group he is part of. Kates’ enthusiasm is contagious, and after speaking with him I found myself brainstorming for my own small press. Kates brings me back to my belief that a man or a woman who has a true passion for something, is a very lucky person indeed.

Doug Holder


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