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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Interview with Joseph Bednarik of Copper Canyon Press

Powell's own Chris Faatz had a chance to speak with Joseph Bednarik, the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press.

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Chris Faatz: Joseph, when was Copper Canyon Press founded? How many books have you published? What's your mission?

Joseph Bednarik: Copper Canyon Press's mission: Publish poetry well.Copper Canyon Press's mission: Publish poetry well.

The Press was founded in the early 1970s by several energetic visionaries who loved poetry and were willing to tangle with cranky printing equipment to produce beautiful books: Sam Hamill, Tree Swenson, William O'Daly, and Jim Gautney. Since then, the Press has published over 400 books, including scores of translations from a dozen languages. In the past few years alone we've published bilingual volumes of poetry from Arabic, Chinese, Belarusian, and Norwegian.

CF: Copper Canyon is pretty successful as small presses go. Why is that?

JB: I'd suggest very successful, given two recent Pulitzer prizes — The Shadow of Sirius by W. S. Merwin and Delights and Shadows by Ted Kooser — and a number of other awards. The reasons for success include focus, editorial vision, and book design. And an unshakable belief in the power of a good poem. We also treat all our constituents — poets, readers, booksellers, printers, librarians, funders, reviewers, volunteers — with abundant respect. As a result, we have a very loyal readership. In fact, we have readers who decorate their bodies with permanent tattoos of our pressmark, which is the Chinese character for "poetry." That's commitment.

CF: What, in your opinion, is the role of the independent literary publisher in today's world? How does that role differ from the past?

JB: Literary publishers prove, book after book, that the mind and heart are vast and fascinating regions to explore, and that good literature printed well will last infinitely longer than a tweet. If given the choice to read a dozen couplets from Pablo Neruda's The Book of Questions or a dozen emails, which would you choose?

What I like, too, is your word "independent." Poets are nothing if not independent, so their publisher must be as well.Poets are nothing if not independent, so their publisher must be as well. Commercial publishers are bought and sold by entertainment conglomerates, and most of them abandoned poetry because the genre doesn't sell as well as celebrity cookbooks. The majority of the poetry published in this country comes from nonprofit and academic presses.

What differs from the past, for a literary publisher, is that books, as objects, are very easy to manufacture. Hence, the market is awash in "product." I just heard that 350,000 new titles will be published next year. Maybe the number was 500,000. Regardless, how can this country possibly handle 1,000 new titles every day? Will we read these before or after we read Emily Dickinson? Good literary presses will continue to be oases of quality, while continuously working for and earning the attention of readers who are confronted with a never-ending torrent of choices. There is also the "New!-Now!" trap, that bombardment of pop-and-sizzle new-now-new-now-new-now. Literary publishers, as a species, expect their books will be read in 100 years, which explains why we print on acid-free paper. What a nutritious thought in the age of disposable supercomputer cell phones.

CF: I know Copper Canyon champions the work of the translator Red Pine. Recently you reissued his Taoteching, the classic work of Chinese Taoist philosophy — and a classic translation of that marvelous text it is. But, isn't that a departure for Copper Canyon?

JB: Taoteching is one of the most poetic texts ever composed. Consider what Red Pine says in his introduction: "If words are of any use at all, they are the words of the poet. For poetry has the ability to point us toward the truth then stand aside, while prose stands in the doorway relating all the wonders on the other side but rarely lets us pass." When we read Taoteching as poetry, we enter into the text, the ideas, the mystery, and the questions that this enigmatic wonderment has posed for 2,500 years. For those of us who don't read Chinese, Red Pine holds the door wide open in English. That's why we champion Red Pine's translations — he provides readers a sublime and necessary service.

CF: It's always a treat to open up a Copper Canyon book. What titles are you excited about right now? What surprises do you have coming up?

JB: I appreciate your kind words about what it feels like to open a Copper Canyon book. That's a fabulous feeling, isn't it? I just bought a used copy of Rilke's poems published by North Point Press in the early eighties. It took me the longest time to get to the poems because I admired the physical book so much.

The books I'm excited about change daily, usually when our interns come up and ask, "What should I read today?"The books I'm excited about change daily, usually when our interns come up and ask, "What should I read today?" These interns are voracious readers and I found two of them last weekend in a coffee shop with — no exaggeration — 1,000 pages of poetry between them. They had Sherwin Bitsui's Flood Song, Joseph Stroud's Of This World, Jim Harrison's The Shape of the Journey, and Shirley Kaufman's Ezekiel's Wheels. What a tremendous sight! They were highly caffeinated and reading intently, from Kaufman's Jerusalem to Bitsui's Navajo reservation. Once I handed an intern a copy of Thomas McGrath's Letter To an Imaginary Friend and it changed his life — he went on to pursue his Ph.D. with McGrath's Letter at the center of it all.

As for surprises coming up: books by Chris Abani and Stephen Dobyns are in the works. Both of these writers have enjoyed tremendous success with their fiction, but they always return to poetry. And we're lucky they do.

CF: Thanks for your time, Joseph, and all the best to you and to everyone at Copper Canyon Press.

JB: Well thanks to you and Powell's for doing what you do. The last time I was at Powell's I was hanging out in the poetry section and watched someone select Emily Warn's Shadow Architect off the shelf. This is a deeply idiosyncratic book, so I wanted to see what would happen. The woman opened the book, read a few poems, and then just stood there in a state of wonderment. I wanted to rush in and help somehow, to explain, to answer any questions, but decided that the book needed to find its own way in the world. Finally, she placed Emily's book in her basket, and I realized I was witness the magic of our mission: Poems finding their reader, and vice versa.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Shadow of Sirius
    Used Trade Paper $10.95
  2. Delights & Shadows
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  3. The Book of Questions Used Trade Paper $8.00
  4. Flood Song Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. Of This World: New and Selected... New Trade Paper $18.00
  6. The Shape of the Journey: New and... New Trade Paper $20.00
  7. Ezekiel's Wheels New Trade Paper $14.00
  8. Letter to an Imaginary Friend: Parts... Used Trade Paper $13.50
  9. Shadow Architect Used Trade Paper $6.50

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