'Money is a kind of poetry,' but poetry is not a kind of money

A counter-economy of publishing in the era of budget-cuts

Art by Lian Lederman

A few years ago I was teaching a class on poetry and politics when my students got angry with me.  I had just laughed at their stated ambition to make money writing poetry.  My laughter, they informed me — in no uncertain terms — meant that I did not take them or their work seriously.  That day’s lesson plan fell aside as I told them about the (im)balance sheet of Tinfish Press, about doing one’s life’s work while losing buckets of money at it.  And, hardest of all to fathom, why such a thing might be worthwhile.

One summer I talked my way onto a panel at the Hawai`i Book and Music Festival in Honolulu.  I was under a tent, up on stage with some other publishers, one of whom began talking about how he’d done a print run of 60,000 books.  I heard myself responding that at Tinfish we do print runs of 100 to 300 chapbooks and consider that what we’re doing is pretty important. 

The new president of the University of Missouri, Timothy Wolfe, is a businessman by trade (though his parents were college professors, which surely qualifies him for something).  Recently, he made one of his first decisions.  He is closing the University of Missouri Press.  On firing ten employees, who had heard nothing of it beforehand, President Wolfe was quoted as saying that administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.” Look at the university’s website, and you’ll find a clear statement: “Our distinct mission, as Missouri’s only state-supported member of the Association of American Universities, is to provide all Missourians the benefits of a world-class research university. We are stewards and builders of a priceless state resource, a unique physical infrastructure and scholarly environment in which our tightly interlocked missions of teaching, research, service and economic development work together on behalf of all citizens. Students work side by side with some of the world’s best faculty to advance the arts and humanities, the sciences, and the professions. Scholarship and teaching are daily driven by a sense of public service — the obligation to produce and disseminate knowledge that will improve the quality of life in the state, the nation and the world."

So the “stewards and builders of a priceless state resource” seem to think that a university press is not so much priceless as pricey.  The state of Missouri, whose statewide university budget amounts to $2.5 billion a year, has funded the press to the tune of $400,000 each year or, as one commentator writes, at the cost of two of the system’s eight vice presidents. There’s no talk of cutting the athletic department, which costs the school just as much to fund, let alone the administrative upper-crust.  What are academic and general readers losing in this erasure of a press that was founded in 1958?  The press’s mission statement begins with a list of areas in which they have published widely: “The University of Missouri Press was founded in 1958 by William Peden, writer and dedicated member of Missouri’s English Department faculty. The press publishes in many areas including, American and World History; Intellectual History; Biography; Journalism; African American Studies; Women’s Studies; American, British, and Latin American Literary Criticism; Journalism; Political Science, particularly Philosophy and Ethics; Regional Studies of the American Heartland; and Creative Nonfiction.” A more succinct statement of the press’s importance came on my facebook page from Kathy Lou Schultz, who noted that the University of Missouri Press was the only press to take Melvin Tolson seriously for many years.  They also published Langston Hughes’s collected works.  To say nothing of a significant biography of Stan Musial, St. Louis Cardinals’ great, in the context of the racial and economic history of his time.

Small poetry presses such as Tinfish, and university presses such as the late one in Missouri, or the still-respirating University of Hawai`i Press, fulfill different needs, of course.  But neither makes money.  When Tom Apple was named the new Chancellor of the University of Hawai`i-Manoa, the head of the Board of Regents, Eric Martinson, explained the significance of his hire in these terms: “The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa is our flagship campus and home to our important research enterprises, which will continue to grow in the coming years. An institution with such a critical role to play in Hawai’i’s economy must have its own leader dedicated to charting progress for the school itself while contributing to the overall strength of the entire system. We are confident Dr. Apple will be that leader.” For “progress” read “profit” (or at least “revenue"), and for “Hawai`i’s economy” read . . . well . . . “Hawai`i’s economy.” This is not cultural capital we’re talking about; it’s financial capital. I’ve heard only good hearsay about Chancellor Apple, but what I’m pointing to has very little to do with him; it has to do with the environment within which university faculties and their ever more significant (and numerous) administrative personnel operate.  Marc Bosquet has written a valuable book on the subject, as has Benjamin Ginsberg.

How do we argue against these losses?  Aye, there’s the rub.  If the lexicons of “progress” and even of “research” are increasingly composed in the language of finance, how to un-define these terms in ways that ordinary taxpayers can grasp? How do we intervene in the notion that, because communication is moving so quickly from books to digital technology, that somehow we don’t need presses?  (The very word sounds more like “typewriter” than like “iPad.") Here, I refer to the Provost of the University of Missouri, who said: “Technological changes have turned media up on their head, and that’s turning scholarly communication on its head. It’s more than publishing a book; it’s a much broader change.” He’s skipping an enormous step between old style publishing and new-fangled communication.  Why doesn’t the university then offer more funding to make such transitions successful, rather than putting the whole kit and kaboodle on the chopping block?

Let’s have a look at what the University of Hawai`i Press has to offer its readers by publishing and distributing books. As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I can attest to the significance of the University of Missouri Press’s biography of Stan Musial, but I’m on surer footing when I talk about the relevance of UH Press to the state I’ve lived in for over two decades.  The 2011-2012 catalogue, which you can access here, includes no fewer than three books on Guam, two histories and a bibliography; several volumes on Buddhism, including one on the history of Buddhism in Cambodia at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries; a book on literacies in Hmong communities in the United States; another on Percy Kipapa, whose short life took him from rural O`ahu to Japan, where he became a sumo wrestler, then back to O`ahu, where he was murdered.  There is a history of the bombing of Bikini Atoll, a book on eating well, and another on art and authenticity in Hawai`i.  Amid the riches much is left out, including most of the fiction and poetry being written in Hawai`i these days; those texts are left to presses like Bamboo Ridge, `oiwi, and others to publish.  At first glance, the catalogue — like that of any university press — seems random, full of the very local and the very general, the nearly popular and the unconsumable. 

But in sum (metaphor intended) the wide-ranging selection of work helps provide a backbone to classes taught at UHM and elsewhere. That’s where the University of Missouri’s deliberate disconnect between the university’s mission and that of the press seems so destructive.  I publish books through Tinfish Press because I want to teach them, see a need for them.  University presses do the same.  Their books are used in classrooms.  I can’t imagine teaching most of the poetry books I teach without using university press books as the backbone to my thinking about them.  And the content of those books help us to read and to make more books — of poetry, of fiction, of fact.  Of course, the lessons passed along are sometimes dangerous ones, about dangers to the environment, about colonial histories, about the drug wars. That may be an unstated purpose for closing presses down. But a lot of knowledge about Asia and the Pacific is new knowledge — at least for American readers — and that very newness makes it especially significant, especially fragile. Such new knowledge is crucial to understanding the new (or newly revived) literatures and oratures of Asia-Pacific, including nearly every book Tinfish has ever published.

The costs of losing the “priceless state resources” mentioned in the University of Missouri’s mission statement are steep. The statement is a good one: “Scholarship and teaching are daily driven by a sense of public service—the obligation to produce and disseminate knowledge that will improve the quality of life in the state, the nation and the world.” Pulling a university press out of the web of resources that compose any university is like pulling a brick out of a fragile wall.  You may save the money it would take to fix that wall, but you might also end up without a leg to stand on. Where’s the public service in that?