Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Poetry, Community and The Small Press

This is the speech I will be giving in Israel to the "Voices Israel" Literary Organization this month. http://www.poetry-voices.8m.com/competition.htm

Poetry, Community and The Small Press

By Doug Holder

I am not an academic poet. I am not a part of a faculty of a major university, nor on the board of a prestigious literary organization. I always have been a part of that great eclectic sea of the small press. In fact my activities have mostly been outside of the gated communities of the Academy. I started the Ibbetson Street Press with my wife Dianne Robitaille and my good friend Richard Wilhelm in 1998. For years I had been published in small presses, and I came to realize without a vibrant small press community talented poets would not see the light of day. A student of literary history will realize that many of our great poets from: Whitman, Frost, Ginsberg, etc… got their start in little magazines and small presses.

In the immediate Boston area we have over 100 colleges. And in Somerville, my hometown, there are more writers per-capita than the isle of Manhattan. Many writers in the area have told me how cliquish and exclusive they feel the community can be here and that there were few outlets for their work.

So Richard, Dianne and I decided to start a small literary magazine the “Ibbetson Street Press” that eventually morphed into “Ibbetson Street.” ‘Ibbetson Street” was named after 33 Ibbetson Street in Somerville where I lived for 7 years, before moving down the block to 25 School St. in 2001.

We started slowly, with just a few local poets in our first editions. But over the years the production values improved and we started to get submissions nationally and internationally. The Press has been included in the highly selective “Index of Periodical Verse.” We have published such accomplished poets as the late Sarah Hannah, Danielle Legros Georges, Diana Der Hovanessian, Jared Smith, Robert K. Johnson, and Afaa Michael Weaver, whose face graced the cover of a recent “Poets and Writers” magazine.

As we got more confident we started publishing poetry collections, and now have a list of over 40 books and chapbooks. One of the first books we published under our imprint “Singing Bone” was “City of Poets: 18 Boston Voices.” (2000) We also have published books by Israeli poet Helen Bar Lev and John Michael Simon, members of the “Voices Israel” organization.

To increase the sense of community, about 3 years ago Harris Gardner (a well-known poet and poetry activist in Boston) and I started a writers’ group “ Breaking Bagels with the Bards.” It started in the basement of a local bagel shop in Harvard Square and eventually moved on a rotating basis to two Au Bon Cafes in Somerville, Mass. and Cambridge, Mass. Every Saturday we have up to 25 poets and writers of all stripes chatting, networking, and making new friends.

And even more publishing opportunities have opened for our folks. One of our members, Steve Glines, started the Wilderness House Literary Retreat” in Littleton, Mass, that featured such poets as: Robert Creeley, Lois Ames and Afaa Michael Weaver. Later Glines founded the “Wilderness House Literary Review” http://whlreview.com. Many of our bards are on staff and many more have been published in the magazine.

Another member Gloria Mindock is a small press publisher. Her press the “Cervena Barva Press” has published chapbooks and poetry collections of many of our members as well as national and overseas poets. And of course the Ibbetson Street Press has tapped the talent pool for talented bards.

And since the Internet now offers unique possibilities in writing and publishing I established the “Ibbetson Update” that has reviewed hundreds of books from the world of the small press. Many of our writers got their first experience in writing reviews and more than a few have gone one to more lucrative writing gigs. We have reviewed chapbooks, and books from major university presses to mom and pop small presses. We treat every book be it perfect bound or saddle-stitched with the same respect. The book is a sacred object in our view. The “Update” has been been cited in an award presentation for the “Connecticut Book Award,” has been cited on many websites and resumes and has been praised by New England Pen, as well as award-winning small press poets to university professors.

I also host a TV show on our local TV station “Somerville Community Access TV” Here I present to the community the rich mother lode of poets and writers we have in the Boston-area. Over the years I have interviewed local poets, well-published novelists, and sent many of these tapes to be archived at major university libraries. In fact at one point the curator of the Harvard Poetry Room expressed an interest in buying the tapes, but I donated them; knowing they would have a good home.

I have always believed that poets need to have space on the page as well as the stage. So I have hosted a number of poetry venues over the years. The longest running one is the Newton Free Library Poetry Series in Newton, Mass. This has proved an important venue to introduce new and established poets into the community. I also have an open mic for “emerging talents” to strut their poetic stuff.

I am also the local arts/editor for our city newspaper “The Somerville News.” In that capacity I feature mostly local poets in my column ”Lyrical Somerville.” But I had even greater ambitions for my grassroots efforts. Writer and Bagel Bard member Timothy Gager and myself started the “Somerville News Writers Festival” that has featured local writers and poets as well as nationally and internationally known heavyweights like Robert Pinsky, Robert Olen Butler, Franz Wright, Afaa Michael Weaver, Lan Samantha Chang, and many more.

What I hope I have achieved, along with the many folks who have helped me along the way, is a “community of poets.” We are open to everyone. Just make yourself known, and eventually you will be participating, reading, and may even be publishing.

I am not getting rich on this. In fact I lose money on my publishing efforts, etc… But though I am poor in currency, my life is rich because I am immersed with what I love.

I encourage everyone to build a poetry community wherever you may reside…you won’t regret it.


  1. http://lizsouthwoodpoetry.blogspot.com/

    My mom grew up in Boston. This
    is her poetry.

    Her son,

  2. Well said and inspiring.