Friday, February 27, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Poetry Catalog and Archibald MacLeish

Yesterday, the Poetry Spring/Summer 2009 catalog arrived in my mailbox. This was the first time I'd encountered the Poetry catalog. It's not a list of folks eking out a tenuous living writing verse: it's a women's fashion line. The catalog made me feel bad for poetry. Angry, in fact, on poetry's behalf. Is this its image? This weak, anemic, limp, misty-eyed bunch of blank-eyed women in shapeless clothes? If poetry were this droopy, the heavenly muse would have expired 4000 years ago.

So, from Archibald MacLeish, here's a killer poem to counteract Poetry. It professes not to be about beauty, truth, poetry, immortality ...but it is about all of those things. It's one of my favorites (the qualification for "my favorites" being poems I wish had been written about me). And about it's a little bit about fashion, too.

"Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments"

The praisers of women in their proud and beautiful poems,
Naming the grave mouth and the hair and the eyes,
Boasted those they loved should be forever remembered:
These were lies.

The words sound but the face in the Istrian sun is forgotten.
The poet speaks but to her dead ears no more.
The sleek throat is gone -- and the breast that was troubled to listen:
Shadow from door.

Therefore I will not praise your knees nor your fine walking
Telling you men shall remember your name as long
As lips move or breath is spent or the iron of English
Rings from a tongue.

I shall say you were young, and your arms straight, and your mouth scarlet:
I shall say you will die and none will remember you:
Your arms change, and none remember the swish of your garments,
Nor the click of your shoe.

Not with my hand's strength, not with difficult labor
Springing the obstinate words to the bones of your breast
And the stubborn line to your young stride and the breath to your breathing
And the beat to your haste
Shall I prevail on the hearts of unborn men to remember.

(What is a dead girl but a shadowy ghost
Or a dead man's voice but a distant and vain affirmation
Like dream words most)

Therefore I will not speak of the undying glory of women.
I will say you were young and straight and your skin fair
And you stood in the door and the sun was a shadow of leaves on your shoulders
And a leaf on your hair --

I will not speak of the famous beauty of dead women:
I will say the shape of a leaf lay once on your hair.
Till the world ends and the eyes are out and the mouths broken
Look! It is there!

Archibald Macleish, 1930

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Guest blogger: Barack Obama

I'll let the president be a guest blogger today:

"In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child."

These words are more valuable than any bailout.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Poetry Friday: Robert Graves & Wallace Tripp

As I debated whether to take a bus or a taxi this afternoon in the chill New York wind, the four wallop-packing lines below came to mind. I first encountered them in one of the great poetry anthologies, Marguerite, Go Wash Your Feet, collected and illustrated by the uncompromising Wallace Tripp, edited by the brilliant Walter Lorraine, and published by the redoubtable yet now-owned-by-a-failing-Irish-venture-capital-firm, Houghton Mifflin. Robert Graves brings a laser's intensity to the artist's life. Do we stick with our comic rabbits and live in their comfort? Or do we give them up, try comic hippos, and risk all?

Epitaph for an Unfortunate Artist

He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
Till in the end he could not change the tragic habits
This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.

-- Robert Graves

And if I told you which mode of transportation I ended up taking, you'd think the less of me. So I will leave it to your speculation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"A Brownstone Bookman"

I didn't open the Times today until just now, and saw this obituary for Alfred A. Knopf, Jr. I had the privilege of working at the one last iteration of Atheneum, the Atheneum Books for Young Readers that is now an imprint of Simon & Schuster (which bought Macmillan, which had bought Scribner's, which was what Atheneum had become after selling 10% of itself to Raytheon; see below, and therein hangs a tale of American cultural history). The late Jean Karl was the publisher of Atheneum; it was she who introduced to the world E. L. Konigsburg and Ashley Bryan. Her books won five Newbery medals and six Newbery honors. Quite the publisher. Jean's legacy lives on in Atheneum's sparkling list: Olivia, The House of the Scorpion, True Believer, Kira-Kira, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Tweak.

And it was Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., who spotted Jean's talent. The obituary below is laudatory and informative, but I do take issue with the line "Atheneum got lucky fast." Publishing three bestsellers in your first three lists is not luck: it's hard work, acumen, hunch, intuition, and smarts.

Alfred A. Knopf, Jr., Influential Publisher, Dies at 90

Published: February 16, 2009

Alfred A. Knopf Jr., who left the noted publishing house run by his parents to become one of the founders of Atheneum Publishers in 1959, died on Saturday. He was 90, the last of the surviving founders, and lived in New York City.

Alfred A. Knopf Jr. in 1978; in 1959, a brownstone bookman.

The cause of death was complications following a fall, his wife, Alice, said.

The only child of the publishing giants Alfred A. and Blanche Wolf Knopf, Pat Knopf, as he was called, worked at his parents’ company, concentrating mainly on sales and marketing, when he approached his father about hiring the editor Simon Michael Bessie as the Knopfs’ eventual successor. Mr. Bessie had recently been passed over for the position of editor in chief at Harper & Row in favor of Evan Thomas.

When his father refused, blaming his mother’s resistance (she apparently didn’t like Mr. Bessie), Mr. Knopf said in an interview in 2005, Mr. Knopf (pronounced with a hard “k”) decided to join Mr. Bessie and Hiram Haydn, an editor at Bobbs-Merrill, in founding Atheneum. They lined up four backers, each willing to put up $250,000, and established their offices in a four-story brownstone on East 38th Street. Cornelia Schaeffer, who would later become Mr. Bessie’s wife, joined the house as an editor about a year after its founding.

Atheneum got lucky fast. Its first three lists produced three No. 1 best sellers: “The Last of the Just” (1960), a novel about the Holocaust by André Schwarz-Bart; “The Making of the President, 1960” (1961), the first in Theodore H. White’s series on presidential campaigns; and “The Rothschilds: A Family Portrait” (1962) by Frederic Morton. These books were acquired by Mr. Bessie, although by informal understanding each of the founders had to agree on every book the house published.

Other projects, if not best sellers, also did well for the house. The first list included Jan de Hartog’s crime novel “The Inspector,” Wright Morris’s “Ceremony in Lone Tree” and William Goldman’s “Soldier in the Rain.” Atheneum later published Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (1962), which sold more than 70,000 copies in hard- and softcover editions. On the other hand, having published Mario Puzo’s second novel, “The Fortunate Pilgrim” (1965), the house turned down “The Godfather” (published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1969). Mr. Haydn thought it “junk,” Mr. Knopf said.

Although the founders called on their backers for what Mr. Knopf said was almost a second million, in part to start up a children’s book division in 1964, Atheneum prospered, and the three founders were able to exercise options to buy the company’s stock. “We had good lawyers,” Mr. Knopf later commented in an interview. “Everybody, including the original backers, was very happy.”

In the 1970s, economic conditions began to make it harder for independent publishers to stay afloat. After selling 10 percent of the company to Raytheon, the electronics conglomerate, Atheneum in 1978 merged with Charles Scribner’s Sons, another independent house, to form a third entity, Scribner Book Companies, of which Charles Scribner Jr. became chairman and Mr. Knopf vice chairman, although both houses continued to operate independently. Mr. Haydn and Mr. Bessie had both left Atheneum by then.

In 1984, Scribner Book Companies was acquired by Macmillan Inc., and Mr. Knopf assumed responsibility for all adult books put out by Scribner’s houses. He continued as a senior vice president of Macmillan until his retirement in 1988.

Mr. Knopf was born in White Plains, N.Y., on June 17, 1918. At 7 he was sent to boarding school, first at the Riverdale Country Day School, in the Bronx, then from 1933 until 1937 at Phillips Exeter Academy. The summer after he graduated from Exeter, according to a 1959 story in Time magazine, he ran away from home, despondent over being turned down by Princeton and determined (he said in a note) not to return until he made good. Following a police search, he was found in Salt Lake City, “barefoot, hungry and broke.”

After attending Union College for three years, he was inspired by the Veronica Lake film “I Wanted Wings” to join the United States Army Air Force, which called him up in December 1941. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his work in the 446th Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force, rising to the rank of captain. (Union awarded him a B.A. in 1945.)

When he was discharged, he telephoned his father, who asked what he planned to do for a career. “I guess I’m going to work for you,” he said, and did. In 1952, he married Alice Laine. They had three children, Alison Insinger and Susan Knopf of New York and David A. Knopf of San Francisco.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Jo vs. Amy

Here's the central dilemma of my publishing life. Am I Jo or am I Amy? Meg I'm not, as I have never put up jam or borne twins. Beth -- well, anyone who thinks she's Beth makes me worried. (I do know that at least one extremely powerful woman in publishing claims she's a Beth, but I have never seen her take a stitch, much less embroider slippers.)

But I am on the horns of the Jo vs. Amy dilemma. Which horn I'm gored by will determine much of my future.

Like most readers of literary press blogs, I thought I was Jo. For years. I wrote romances (The Adventures of Charles and Caroline). I used a fountain pen. I was earnest and bookish. I dated men with foreign accents who drank strong coffee and dosed strong medicine to anemic prose. Argumentative and proud with a strong, even crippling, mutinous streak. That's me.

Other times, I Amy'd it right up. Trips to London and Paris. Impeccable manners, fine conversation. Kid gloves, button-up boots, high moral standards. I'm sure I would have loved pickled limes, too. Amy wanted the manor house and the large staff and the oh-so-good-looking boy who adored her. Lunches at Union Square Cafe and the Hotel Baglioni in Bologna. That's me too.

So who's it to be? Can one person be Amy (employee incentive plans) and Jo (McSweeney's) at the same time?

We're changing things up a little

Watch this space.

if u cn read this, u cn get a gd job!

Right after Bowen Press was closed down, folks started posting on my Facebook page. Words like "sorry" and "laid off" and "good luck" seem to have triggered a banner ad change on my profile page. I went from "Lose stomach flab! Follow this one rule!" to "You can earn up to $5000 a month -- from your home!"

Older readers among you might recognize the title of this blog from subway ads of yesteryear. Before there was texting, there was ersatz shorthand. I think the idea was that if you could learn to write very very fast, you could be an exec sec'y.

My first job -- at Harper, in 1981 -- required that I be able to take dictation. Having seen many of those ads (along with "Draw Sparky!") I knew I cld get a gd job. So I wrote really really fast, and my career in publishing began.

Today is the official last day of Bowen Press at HarperCollins -- I cease to be an employee of that august and important American publishing house as of this afternoon at 5PM. Harper gave Bowen Press a huge launch, for which I'm grateful. The books we published and signed up there will flourish.The authors and artists will find good advocates among my former colleagues.

Now I have a logo, a motto, and a blog -- in last year's economy, that would have given me a market cap of $2.5 million -- so let's see what to do with it.

More soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Mark Twain says it best, of course. But if one is not feeling quite so cavalier, below is Elizabeth Bishop on the subject. Before she begins her exacting and heart-tearing villanelle, you might want to look at the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal about the early demise of Bowen Press. Let's all remember that publishing well is the best revenge. Bowen Press will live on, though in what iteration, now known or hereinafter to be discovered, it remains to be seen. Wish us luck!

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from Comic-con

1. Line up fair and square and you'll get a big reward.

2. Whatever wasn't covered by the Ten Commandments can be printed on a T-shirt.

3. Strange is not a crime.

4. The pen and the airbrush are mightier than the sword.

5. The sword is plenty mighty, though.

6. Reading for fun is fun.

7. People look cool in costume.

7 (a). Not everybody has the body of a movie star.

8. It pays to bet on a dark horse.

9. Much kindness is shown by outsiders to outsiders.

10. The geek shall inherit the Earth.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Icarus: "We're going to be in the Mediterranean"

I've been listening to the Sullenberger tapes -- the flight controller recordings from the US Air 1539, plane that went down in the Hudson -- and they are riveting. If you haven't heard them yet, listen in here:

The incident again and again made me think of Auden's "Musee des Beaux-Arts," so here it is, a little early, for Poetry Friday. Certainly I was at my office, walking dully along, when the plane went down a few blocks away.

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking
.......................................dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

-W.H. Auden (December 1938)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Patron Saint of Editors

My mother emailed on Friday to tell me that Jan. 31st is the feast day of Saint John Bosco, Patron Saint of Editors and Publishers. His connection to editors and publishing seems a loose one, and mostly related to the creation of tracts and treatises. As a young man, though, Bosco was a juggler, a magician, and acrobat. As an adult, upon discovering that his vocation was to work with/educate disadvantaged children, he used those same skills with a different goal; once he attracted an audience with tricks and sleight of hand, he would begin to teach, and the youth gathered would listen more willingly than if lessons had been forced upon them.

When I think of the many acts of multitasking performed by an editor, I have to admit that some days it indeed feels like juggling, magic, and acrobatics are required in order to get everything done, though I don't recall that those skills were officially listed in my job description. But I also love that, not unlike the manner of the Saint himself, editing is a profession that allows me to put to good use many skills collected from my own past--among them, my background in marketing books to teachers and librarians; my understanding of classrooms, teachers, and young readers, gleaned from my training as an elementary school teacher; and my belief, picked up from my days as a youth minister, that relationships are at the core of all that that's important in life. In fact, I feel like I realize anew each week the importance of the many relationships that add up to create a book's life. At Bowen Press, our colophon is "Only connect!" and I believe relationships are an enormous part of that goal--we aim to inspire and be inspired, not only by our own connections as editors to artists, authors, agents, teachers and librarians, but also by the even-more-important connections of authors and artists to characters, and characters to readers.

I wish I could claim to have celebrated the feast day of my profession by having juggled and done acrobatics. Instead, since it was Saturday, I spent the day feasting in ordinary but important, soul-filling ways: soaking up life, connecting with some of the people and things that inspire me, contentedly wandering my neighborhood, and NOT doing work on the weekend for a change. I did, however, see my favorite local character--the guy in my neighborhood who "walks" his dog while riding his unicycle along the sidewalks of Brooklyn--an urban acrobat of sorts. I suspect St. John Bosco would have liked him a lot!