We're talking about publishing, and specifically the role Ras plays as the director of a university press, that niche between big market-driven New York houses and smaller independent ventures. "I see what we do as the preservation of local culture in the best sense," she explains. "By local, I don't mean provincial. I mean reflective of the great diversity of this nation. University presses support the important and interesting work being created in regions of the country that might not otherwise be embraced by the New York publishing center."
These have been tough economic times for the university press industry. But with a $2.9 million grant from the Ewing Haslell Foundation, Trinity has bucked the closing shop trend and recently relaunched its publishing arm after a 13-year hiatus. Ras, who began her work as an editor at Wesleyan University Press in the late-'70s, came on board in July. Before coming to Trinity, she also worked at the University Press of New England, the University of California Press, and the University of Georgia Press, where, for the past three years, books she has edited have been nominated for National Book Critics Circle Awards.
One of the first books Ras landed in her new position at Trinity is an anthology edited by celebrated nature writer Barry Lopez. Homeground: A Literary Guide to Landscape Terms will bring together 40 writers and poets to create definitions for eight terms drawn from America's rich cross-cultural vocabulary for its land and waters. The list of writers includes Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, and Yusef Komunyakaa. The list of terms includes everything from an eyebrow scarp and an acequia to a canebreak and a misfit river. Read aloud, the terms make up a sort of mysterious and vast national poem. The project itself is a bridge between the geography and language in much the same way the press is a bridge between Trinity University and the region it calls home.
Ras also brings the gift of her own writing to her new home in Texas. Her poetry collection, Bite Every Sorrow, won the 1997 Walt Whitman Award, and she has subsequently won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for Poetry. In an impersonal mega-bookstore, instant-bestseller, and million-dollar-movie-rights publishing climate evermore determined by the bottom line, poetry remains the biggest economic risk of all. But it is the university and smaller presses who can take risks based on artistic merit and not dollars. As both poet and publisher, Ras holds small independent presses who do much of the nation's poetry publishing in high regard. "By persisting in publishing poetry, they are the ones who contribute to the critical mass of beauty in our world," she says.
Emerson once said that "Beauty is its own excuse for being," but he never said it would make money. Locally, two small presses, Pecan Grove and Wings, are doing their part for beauty. Both publishers, along with El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press, were featured at the Perla Magazine and Blue Star Art Space Literary Texas Trialogues Literary Festival on February 22.
A clear image of what it means to be a small press publisher comes to mind when I reach Wings Press' Bryce Milligan on the phone. He is right in the middle of hand sewing 500 copies of a new poetry collection. Milligan, who purchased the press in 1995, celebrates the freedoms of being small with a laugh. "Our mission is simply to publish the best American writing according to the publishers' likes," he quips.
Initially established as a press to "preserve the literature of the 'Nation of Texas,'" Milligan has greatly extended Wings' (pun intended) span. This has been most visible in Wings publication of young Chicana writers. "It's bad enough to be a Texas writer and break into big publishing," explains Milligan. "It's even worse to be a Chicana Texas writer, facing that double negativity. In 1999, Wings began the Poesía Tejana Prize, which is given to four Tejana poets (women of Hispanic background living in Texas) under age 30 each year.
Wings has also published novels, art books, songbooks, and bilingual children's books. "Our job is to support and preserve the imagination," says Milligan. "Sometimes that means doing things not highly valued by commercial presses, taking risks, and publishing things that may be difficult to read or politically sensitive."
Small presses get started any number of ways. Milligan bought Wings because it had published his own last book and was going under. Palmer Hall of Pecan Grove Press began in 1985, when he wanted to publish something by a talented student at St. Mary's University. Since then, Pecan Grove has published more than 100 titles, mostly poetry. Early on, the press focused on San Antonio poets but now publishes about half local and half national writers. "One of the ways you really help local writers is by giving them a national stage on which to play. One of the ways we do that is by publishing writers from all over. It connects local writers to bigger exposure." In recent years, Pecan Grove has published an Australian, a Canadian, and Americans from around Texas, New Jersey, California, Washington, and Indiana. "One of our big focuses is publishing first books. It's amazingly hard to get a first book of poems published. Our hope is that our authors go on to bigger presses once we give them a start."
Back at La Fonda with Ras, we continue, as writers do, the talk about books. There are the ones we've read, the ones by our beds, and the ones someone said we just "had" to read next. The good news is that there's plenty of salsa, both the mix of tomato, pepper, and onion, and the literary mix of landscape, scholarship, risk and beauty to keep us and San Antonio readers well-nourished. •