Editor & Otherwise
P.O. Box 170322
Milwaukee, WI 53217-8026
I had finished my reading at Milwaukee's venerated Woodland Pattern Book Center's Poetry Marathon, when a twenty-something guy carrying a camcorder and tape deck says to me, "I'd love to use some of your stuff in my Anthills. How about it?" That was my first meeting with small press publisher, Charles Nevsimal. He started fast, and he hasn't slowed down.
Centennial Press's inaugural issue of Anthills came out in 2000. Anthills 2 soon followed, and by the time Issues 3 & 4 came along, the zine had already featured an impressive roster of small press heavy weights and new voices including: Antler, Matt Cook, A.D. Winans, Susan Firer, Gunther C. Fogle, William Taylor Jr., John Sweet, justin.barrett, Nathan Graziano, Karl Koweski, Glen W. Cooper, Lynne Savitt, Todd Moore, Bradley Mason Hamlin, Lyn Lifshin, Alex Carlson, and John Tuschen (plus a host of others). Deborah Bingen joined the team in 2002 as artist and designer (and later went on to marry the Editor). Her contribution was immediate with the release of two successive chapbooks: The System by A.D. Winans, and Exclamation Points: Ad Infinitum! by Antler, both praised for their content as well as design. Centennial Press filled the time between chapbooks with a string of broadsides for poets Gunther C. Fogle and Jeff Poniewaz. Most recently, Centennial Press has released chapbooks for B.J. Best (a pocket-sized book called Crap) and Alex Carlson (Whispering Winds: the Record Player Reads.) Both have sold extremely well.
Q: Chuck, Tell me how you ended up a small press publisher? When did you start?
A: I went to a small Lutheran University school here in southeastern Wisconsin. Early Freshman year, my Intro to Writing professor, Jean Timpel invited me to a Tuesday night writer's group meeting on campus. It wasn't long before I volunteered to spearhead the design and publication of the school's modest literary journal, which, prior to my involvement, was nothing more than 8-1/2" by 11" sheets of white typing paper bound by a shoddy plastic spiral coil. I saw the potential for something far greater than what was being realized, and saw to it that the journal evolved into something more deserving. The first thing I did was trimmed the size down to that of an actual book. By the time my Junior year rolled around, I was one of two people selecting content for publication, something I did in addition to the proofing, editing, designing, and printing of the book.
I was lucky to have been there (Concordia) at the same time as several other talented writers. Together, we formed The Foundry, a semi-elitist-but-altogether-inspiring campus writer's group. Even in the early days with The Foundry, I always pictured myself putting something similar together once I graduated. Something I controlled completely. So after the shock of being a college graduate wore off, I sat down with my buddy, Josh Peterson, and together we gave birth to Centennial Press (named after the bar we frequented in our undergrad years). Anthills became the name of our publication. The ball was rolling. But soon, Josh moved away and I was left with sole patronage of Centennial Press. I'd already gathered poems from friends and ex-Foundry members, but I wanted Anthills to be more than just a bunch of material from people I knew well. Then, lightning struck. I "discovered" the poetry of A.D. Winans. I was surfing the Internet and reading everything of his I could find. So I sent him an e-mail requesting poetry for publication and he responded in kind the very next day with three poems that completely blew my mind.
With restored verve, I sought out Milwaukee poet, Antler. The people at Woodland Pattern bookstore were kind enough to pass a letter on to him. About a week after I dropped off the letter, he called me on the telephone to tell me how excited he was that a new poetry zine was being birthed in Milwaukee. He also told me to watch my P.O. box for a submission. Wouldn't you know it; the man sent me 15 poems not one week later. In addition to that, he urged his friend, Jeff Poniewaz, to submit, which he also did. And the rest, as they say, is history ...
Q: Why do you do it?
A: I publish because it is my way of putting something beautiful into the world ... something worthwhile. It's a labor of love in many ways, I suppose. I hardly make a dime off anything I publish – hell, most times I end up well in the red. But there's something about giving people a book or a sheet of paper with words on it knowing it might in one way or another lend to the shaping of their world. Publishing these books is to me every bit as fulfilling as writing a good poem. You're seeing your vision through to the end. And you walk into a bookstore and the book you made, you created, you birthed into the world is resting on the shelves among all the giants ... Neruda, Cummings, Whitman, Bukowski ... that gives me chills every time. But that's just my self-centric reason for doing this. I do it also, of course, because I believe strongly in the poetry I put out there. I do it because I want to give these poems a home. The home I give them is Anthills.
Q: Are you more of a publisher, or more of a writer?
A: I would say there's a stronger urge in me to sit down at my typewriter and rap out a poem or two ... or eight. But I'm delighted as hell I don't have to choose either/or in real life, because my desire to put out Anthills – or a chapbook or broadside for that matter – is so strong, there's not a time, really, I'm not thinking about my next project. And in many ways, I suppose, the two "vocations," I'll call them, are not all too dissimilar. As editor/publisher, I'm deeply involved in each project ... and by the time the issue (or chap/broadside) is published, it magically contains so much of me, it's almost as if it came from the same place my poems come from. Not only that, but every poem I publish through Centennial Press is one I wish I'd written. So, even when the writer in me is taking a backseat to the publisher, he's busily taking notes on how to better himself. Oddly, though, I feel no great need to see my own poems in print. I did at first, because I suppose I needed a validation of some sort. But I haven't sent anything out for several months. I probably wrote near 400 poems last year alone, and only three to four people have ever seen them.
Q: Your Anthills series is as much graphic art as it is a premier collection of writers and their work – what are you trying to accomplish with Anthills?
A: Thank you so much. I'm very actively and creatively involved in the pieces I publish. There's much to be said about magazines like Free Verse (which is utterly fabulous, by the way) or Fuck! (which has its own charm) that simply put poetry down on a page and disseminate it. But that's not for me. I am incessantly seeking a new format or an inventive way of putting poetry into the world because I'm interested in creating "books as art," items that can be cherished as much for what they are as for what they say. Then there are the poems themselves, and the selection thereof. The way they all fit together in my mind ... they tell a story. There is always a reason for the order in which I arrange the poems, even if it's not at first glance evident to the reader. But to put it simply, Charles, I want to create something people will love and hold on to for a long time to come.
Q: Who designs your books?
A: My wife, Deborah, designs all the books and broadsides for Centennial Press. She's brilliant, and I'm damn lucky to have her, both as my small press partner and my wife. I love the interest she puts into each piece, reading it before figuring out how to interpret it visually. Sometimes she'll draw inspiration directly from the poems we're publishing. Other times, she'll have a certain vision that she'll want to carry through independent of the poem or poems. But the work she does always floors me. Without her, there could be no Centennial Press. Period. So yeah, maybe I'm the one everybody knows because I'm the one in contact with the poets we publish, I'm the one being interviewed (the one with the loud mouth). But she's the reason our books are so wonderful. She's the wizard behind the curtain.
Q: You seem to have connected with many of the major poets in the small press, how did you manage to do that over such a short period of time?
A: It was rather easy actually. I simply became a fan of their work. Antler, Bill Taylor, A.D. Winans, justin.barrett, Glenn Cooper, Nathan Graziano, the list goes on ... even publishers like Brian Morrissey and Bill Roberts. I became a fan of their work and that's how I approached them as a publisher. What poet isn't flattered when a publisher seeks him out because he's just gotta publish one of his poems? Over time, I became quite close to a lot of those guys. I feel bad though because recently, I've kind of fallen off the map a little. I got married in 2004, and while it might sound cliché, I've sort of been adapting to (and fully embracing) my home life. Time goes by now without my even noticing because I'm doing this or that, and next thing you know, my friend A.D. turns 70 and I didn't even wish him a happy birthday. I regret that. Also, I've taken on another job which has kept me pretty busy ... I'm the editor of Milwaukee's INFO* magazine. If it's not one thing, it's always something else.
Q: How does Milwaukee, Wisconsin work as a center for your publishing efforts? Do you ever wish you could be in New York or San Francisco?
A: There's something romantic about being a publisher of poetry in this blue-collar Midwestern town. I feel at home here. And there's a strong scene here as well, writers like Antler, Susan Firer, yourself, Catfish McDaris, Matt Cook, (the list goes on and on) – Alex Carlson, B.J. Best (whose book Crap I nominated for the Pushcart Prize), Brandon Lewis – calling Milwaukee their home, it's a very exciting place to coexist as poet and publisher. I feel it almost an intrinsic duty of mine to put Milwaukee on the map – or at least, help keep it there. That's why you'll see many local poets in Anthills mingling with other small press big (and little) fish from across the U.S. and the globe.
Q: You know a ton of writers, now you have to pick your top two living poets and tell me who they are and why they top your list.
A: Only two? Jeeze. I'll say, without a doubt, three of the best voices in the vast world of small press poetry are William Taylor Jr., justin.barrett, and John Sweet. Their work continually floors me and I will read their words until the day I die. Nathan Graziano is another who's really come into his own. His book, Honey, I'm Home, is one of the best chapbooks I've ever read.
That said, however, my two favorite living poets are potentially the best-known small press poet actively working, and the least known: Antler and Gunther C. Fogle, respectively. Antler is perhaps the most wonderful human being I have ever had the privilege of getting to know. His poetry transcends every notion of beauty ... he shows me things, allows me to see the world so clearly in ways I never thought imaginable. He is the closest thing the world has to Walt Whitman and his books should line the walls of your heart. They certainly do mine. I never go anywhere without my copy of his Selected Poems, and I make a point to read from it aloud whenever my travels take me someplace new. Antler is a blessing and I cherish him the way I cherish his poems.
As for GC Fogle, he's a different breed entirely. The thing about Fogle's work is that it always makes me want to write. There's some sort of kinetic energy existing in his poems that drives me into action. His bravado is uncanny, but that's something I dig about him. His poems are bigger than he is. They're beautiful, they're tragic, they're hilarious ... and most of them exist only in the envelopes he sent me from his flat in Colorado. Original copies he writes (on a manual typewriter, of course) and sends off to me without editing, without revision, without worrying about making copies first or sending them out to mags for publication. How romantic is that?! There are some truly brilliant poems lying on my desk at home, poems only my eyes have ever seen. But don't you worry ... I'm going to make sure one day the world too has its chance to read the words of Gunther C. Fogle. He's one of the reasons I'm a publisher.
Q: What projects are you working on?
A: Currently, I'm working on my most ambitious project to date, a book of New & Selected poems by William Taylor Jr. called, Words For Songs Never Written. It's a project I've had on the backburner for a long while now because I've always lacked the money needed to do it justice – and this is one of those books that NEEDS to be done right. But I'm happy to report it's finally in full swing. The poems have been chosen and Deb is working on design ideas as we speak. Bill is one hell of a poet, and this book of his deserves to be on the shelf of every self-respecting admirer of poetry out there. I'm honored to be the one to publish it for him.
I've just released a chapbook for the mega-superior cool Milwaukee poet-from-another-century-altogether, Alex Carlson. Al's book is filled with some of the most life-affecting words you'll ever read, small press or not. The man's writing is breathtakingly good. He's the real deal.
I'm also still piecing together poems for a collection I've dubbed Poems As Pickup Lines, which features 10-12 fun, short, "pickup" poems by poets like Bill Taylor and justin.barrett. They're each printed on small, business card-sized paper, packaged together in a unique way for maximal portability. It'll be a fun little collection. Then, of course, I'm always working on Anthills, and I've got books by John Sweet and Gunther C. Fogle forthcoming as well. One thing's for sure, I'm always busy ... and I'm always broke. But it's always worth it.
Q: Are you open to submissions? How should writers get their work to you? What are you looking for?
A: I accept submissions for Anthills year-round (I don't believe in cutoff dates) and they can be sent to me via e-mail or snail mail. But I'm utterly awful at responding ... I'm trying to turn over a new leaf (I've never liked that cliché). I'm looking for poetry that kicks my ass and makes me cry. Poetry that sets fire to the world. Short, long, free verse, haiku, whatever. My only requisite is that it makes me feel. If it does that, it'll find its way into print one way or another.
Q: What's you biggest beef with the small press? And tell the truth ...egos, nepotism, small minds, high walls?
A: All of the above. In my opinion, there are too many poets out there looking for favors ... "You publish me and I'll publish you." Poets are very cheap. They want you to buy their books but won't shell out $4 for one of yours. In general, they're too full of themselves. There are too many poets out there emulating Bukowski, as if he was some sort of small press martyr. They want to be Bukowski, they want to write Bukowski, they want to make it big like Bukowski. And they're too caught up in this bullshit of a fantasy to realize they're scamming themselves. If they truly want to be like Bukowski, they should stop trying to be like him and start acting who they really are. I've read enough poems about puking, fucking, boozing, gambling, whoring ... I'm through with all that. Those poets should take a look at what they're putting into the world and ask themselves, "Is it really worth it?" You want to know what I love about the small press. That you can have a guy like Nathan Graziano with balls enough to put together a chapbook of poetry about how much he loves his wife, loves his little girl, questions himself as husband and father, and puts himself on the line like that ... for everyone to see. That takes guts. Enough Bukowski already. Give me Nathan Graziano!
Q: What is your favorite small press publication - why?
A: That's easy: Johnny Brewton's X-Ray. Johnny Brewton does more with X-Ray than I could ever aspire to do with Centennial Press ... though I certainly do aspire to play at his level. He's one of my strongest inspirations when it comes to conjuring up innovative ways of packaging a poem. His publications are worth every penny you'll dish out for them (and believe me, you can drop a pretty penny on his publications). But like I said, they're always worth it. For Johnny, there are no boundaries, and I admire that about him.
A more affordable alternative would be Brian Morrissey's Poesy and Linda Aschenbrenner's Free Verse. Both are very fine zines whose editors are honest and have a great taste in poetry. Their format is simple but the work that finds its way into each is incredible. It's a shame so many publications have come and gone in the short while I've been on the scene. It's nice to know these two have achieved a certain staying power.
Lastly, I cannot allow myself to answer this question without mentioning Bill Roberts' Bottle of Smoke Press and justin.barrett's Hemispherical Press. These guys don't publish zines, but they put out chapbooks and broadsides that are consistently great. They are both at the top of the small press publishing game.
Q: I hear you just got married. Congrats! What's married life doing to your writing?
A: Thank you. Many months have passed since you first asked this question, Charles, so the "just" is a little misleading. (Another fine example of how I let time slip away from me.) For the near year-and-a-half since we've been married, I'd say probably half the poems I write are about my wife, or married life, etc. It's an endless source of material for me, and the best thing of all is the poetry I write about Deborah always seems to lead me to a deeper truth about our spectacular relationship I hadn't previously been aware existed. I don't know how many people in this world would love reading about my wife, but I sure do love writing about her.
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and twenty print and electronic publications. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio's Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry -- the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org) and on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/.
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