Interview with a Gatekeeper: Copper Canyon’s Michael Wiegers
In Which the Subject Objects to the Term “Gatekeeper”
Michael Wiegers, Executive Editor at Copper Canyon Press, considers himself many things: advocate, collaborator, and when he looks in the mirror, your basic white guy. But he’s no saint, or at least no Saint Peter waiting at some literary mythical gate with a set of keys.
Kerri Arsenault: Let’s talk about the term “gatekeeper.”
Michael Wiegers: I guess I bristle at it primarily because it strikes me as antagonistic and pejorative. And just the notion, when you open the gates, it’s this kind of binary idea. I would expect greater complexity from literary sorts. When I hear the term, it also suggests artists are somehow victims and I don’t believe they are. It sets the editor up as being adversarial to all those who might identify themselves as writers. The reason a book isn’t published isn’t because there’s some goon in suede elbow patches guarding the entrance. I’m not a bouncer here.
I see my role as an editor as much different then just saying yes or no and deciding what books to publish. Often it’s much more complex than that. For example, when I sit down with students and talk about the acquisitions process I try to convey to them there are a lot of things that go into my decisions towards publishing a book. It always starts with the notion that a book has to be good and I have to be interested in it. Well, sometimes I don’t need to be personally interested in it, but I need to be able to advocate for it. That’s where I would hope most writers would see an editor as a collaborator rather than an antagonistic figure, an editor who is someone like them who believes in the word. I also think the term gatekeeper sort of disregards any consideration of the reader.
KA: What do you mean by that?
MW: My job is not just to say yes or no to books or manuscripts, but it’s to pair writers to readers and vice-versa. How am I going to package, design, edit, and convey this book to the world so people want to read it? The idea of a gatekeeper conveys this idea that just because somebody writes a book there will magically be readers for it. My job is to not only build a book and make a book, but also build a readership for it and try to figure out with the author, how to make that happen.
KA: My editor and I were thinking of the term gatekeeper not necessarily in a negative way. Any press our journal seeking to exclude the majority of writers who submit manuscripts to them must engage a gatekeeper of sorts because behind that gate maybe there’s this wonderful sacred territory of literature. It’s why we started this series of interviews I think, to find out what’s behind that gate.
MW: You mean the gatekeeper is sort of like St. Peter? [laughs]
KA: I’d never call you a saint.
MW: Whenever I hear the term gatekeeper, again, it’s often about someone who keeps people out. What I hope for is to bring more people in. We do 20 books a year and I could publish many more books than that but there are many considerations that go into whether or not we publish a book. Some of them have to do with legacy. Some have to do with what else is being published in a given year. For an easy example, look at something like translations. I would love to publish more translations, but in general, we only commit to so many every year so we maintain a balance across our list. It could be that I’ve got a great book of translations but I don’t have a spot for it. I’ll look at our list and think man, we just have no room at the inn. Let me see if we can go to donors or crowdsourcing to make it happen.
KA: You did that with a Pablo Neruda book, right?
MW: That was an easy publishing decision. We definitely needed the money up front for all the costs we were facing, but what I look at is this: is that book going to sustain all those unknown and unrecognized writers I hope to build a readership for? Books like Neruda’s become a vehicle that goes beyond an individual book and sustains those efforts. There are times when you recognize you’ve got to make some effort to enlarge the scope of what you’re doing. When we got the Neruda book, I had already committed to 19 books that year and we had another title or two that were time-sensitive. I didn’t want to kick somebody to the curbside. As an organization, we made extra efforts, but we are a small staff with a limited budget and there are only so many times you can do that.
KA: Perhaps advocate describes you better than “gatekeeper.”
MW: That is the role of the editor and it’s one I gladly accept. I got into publishing with an activist streak. The desire to make change and believing that change can be made through words, through books, though magazines, through stories, poems, and essays. Again, if I’m doing my job well, I become this go-between for the writer and the reader and I kind of disappear. I need to get out of the way. I believe the same thing about publishers. Even though Copper Canyon should cultivate its own identity, if there are typos in a book, if there’s poor design, or if there are interruptions in the marketing or the sale of the book, those are instances of us getting in the way of—and I’ll use your word—that sacred transaction between a writer and a reader. The job of the editor and the publisher is to cultivate that sacred space. There’s something that happens, and to use another quasi-religious word, there’s something that happens when we make communion with a book. A great line I love is “the act of the book is something that begins and ends in solitude.” You’ve got the writer writing in solitude and you’ve got the reader sitting under their tone of light that also happens in solitude. In between there’s this advocacy and this energy, not just by the editors, but designers, copyeditors, and marketing people who make that transaction, that communion possible.
KA: So the communion is when the reader has that book in their hands?
MW: Right. As a writer, you want somebody who is paying attention to you, someone who gets what you are trying to convey, maybe even bringing more to the work than what you bring. To me it’s a sacred space I want to make possible. Again, the idea of the gatekeeper just sounds to me exclusionary. I see my role more as one of stewardship and fostering that act of reading, which puts high value on writing.
KA: Not to belabor the idea of a gatekeeper, but it seems fuzzy to talk about bringing people in when rejection seems to be a part of and somewhat important to publishing.
MW: I suppose it depends upon on what your idea of publishing is. Is self-publishing not publishing? The whole idea of publishing is to be public. It’s about getting your words out to a larger audience. Facebook is a self-publishing model. There’s nothing that prevents you from doing that. Similarly, with the advances in technology since I got into publishing, anybody can be a publisher. There’s nothing to prevent you from publishing a book. Certainly not me. I may align with you and collaborate with you on a book but I’m not going to prevent you from publishing a book… well, unless it’s libelous!
KA: Publishing outside New York seems to be strong than ever. Is there something in the water west of the Mississippi? What are the benefits (or the downfalls) to being in Port Townsend, Washington beyond the orbit of New York publishing?
MW: There are some benefits but also some serious drawbacks. When Graywolf and Coffee House Press started, it was the early 1970s and there was a technological revolution that took place. Letterpress printing went to offset printing and suddenly, these print shops were closing and printing equipment and type could be bought for a song. You combine that with a kind of—and this is a gross generalization—maverick spirit… It goes back to your “in the water” idea west of the Hudson.
KA: Wow, you pushed the water line back!
MW: I had better be careful [laughs]. I love New York! So many of my writers are from New York! So there was this combination of cheap technology and a DIY ethos that compelled people to start their own publishing houses. That’s part of it. Some of it’s also about funding. If you look at Coffee House, Graywolf, and Copper Canyon, we came to Port Townsend because we were being offered some really dirt-cheap printing equipment. Graywolf started in our offices because they were all kind of friends. Coffee House used to be in West Branch, Iowa and migrated to Minnesota because of the philanthropy. That was the way to do things inexpensively. That’s why people are where they are to a large extent. The benefits are that our rent is still cheap, particularly with the rising costs of real estate in Seattle.
Now, Copper Canyon’s staff is spread out all over the place; our publicist is in DC; our Managing Editor is in Portland. Our Associate Editor is in Bellingham, Washington. One of our Co-Publishers is in Seattle. Our other Co-Publisher is in Port Townsend. I divide my time between Seattle and Port Townsend. In other words, location is probably becoming a little less important.
As for the benefits, in Port Townsend, I can be staring out my window watching the eagles fly overhead and see deer and the occasional coyote run past my window. If I’m feeling stressed, I can step away from my desk and walk a few hundred yards and be at the ocean to clear my head a little bit. One of my close friends, C.D. Wright, who recently passed away, said, “Poetry is the language of intensity and because we’re all going to die, an expression of intensity is justified.” Sure, one could apply this to living in New York City, but I think we are operating in a remarkably singular locale as a press and it has its own (and I don’t mean this in a sexual way) erotic intensity. The realm of the senses, I suppose, is more aligned with an organic one than an ordained one. That said, we’re not a bunch of flannel-wearing earnest poetry people. We happen to wear cashmere sometimes [laughs]. But we’re still earnest.
KA: It sounds like the perfect place for a poetry publisher. Speaking of, what are your thoughts on today’s publishing model?
MW: I’m arrogant so I hope we do everything a little differently and uniquely [laughs]. Again, it depends on what you consider publishing. If you consider Facebook to be publishing or Amazon it could be argued it’s doing just fine, even while Amazon may be an impressive house of cards.
I’ll preface this by saying the publishing industry has always been under duress. There’s the joke that after Gutenberg published his bible the second book he published was about the death of the publishing industry. The publishing model as we know it is broken. It’s made increasingly difficult by entities like Amazon. While Amazon may say they’re getting their books into people’s hands more readily, and I agree with that, the economics of it are unsustainable. Having said all that I believe humans are wily and we will figure out ways to deal with these traditions despite the challenges they present.
KA: You just touched upon something I wanted to ask, which seems to go hand-in-hand with the question about publishing models. How can publishers help provide livable earnings for authors?
MW: This is going to be me being blunt [laughs].
KA: When are you not blunt?
MW: The short answer is, we can’t. At least Copper Canyon can’t. I look at someone like W.S. Merwin. Well, let’s back up a little. One way we can help is by publishing books and those books will then lead to teaching jobs or other gigs. That’s one way and it’s going to be a very modest life in those circumstances. If you look at W.S. Merwin, someone who cobbled together an admirable life just on his writing. That wasn’t his publisher. That was him. That’s what I mean when I say we can’t. As much as authors don’t want to hear this, they have to be responsible for that. We can provide them with tools, and the tool would be having a book, having it well-promoted, and advocating for it so the word gets out there, but again, there’s only so much a publisher can do.
KA: What do you do, I mean, as an editor? I’m sure it’s different with every poet you work with, but how do you work with your poets? What’s your process? For instance, Fridays are your self-proclaimed reading day.
MW: I’m not available on Fridays because I’m committed to reading manuscripts and not getting distracted by email or management issues, which are important, but I devote the rest of the week to those things. It also sets the model that reading is important. I have manuscripts on my nightstand. I have manuscripts scattered on my floors at home. But I want one day where it’s like, I’m going to be a professional reader.
In terms of how I work with authors, you already said it; it’s different for every book. Think of it like hanging art in your house. There are certain paintings or sculptures that go well in that spot so you’ve got to think about why this fits and why you want it there. That’s what I do as an editor; I think about each book on its own terms, each author on his or her own terms. Some people already know what they want and they want me to back the fuck off. Then there are others, and they tend to be the majority, who want feedback. So again, this is where the term “gatekeeper” comes in and I may sound a little defensive, but I don’t see myself as some jack-booted grammarian. I try to enter into a conversation and sometimes I enter into that process as the village idiot. I ask many questions, some of which are very basic.
KA: Editor Lee Boudreaux, in an previous interview at Lit Hub, said it’s her job to raise the questions, not give the answers.
MW: Right. To try to draw people out and guide them to get the book they really want, rather than what I want. I can make suggestions, but I also know to step back and support the writer. I’d say probably my biggest editorial tic is when I enter into a book, I’m always trying to look at it as a book. With a traditional novel, there may be a linear narrative. With poetry, it’s almost modular. I think, is this right by having this poem here, is it making the right transition? Is it setting the right tone for the whole book? Is it reinforcing what I perceive as the writer’s intent? One of the ways in which I work with people is trying to figure out the organizational principles or structures of a book. Also, if there are terms or phrases I see repeatedly, I may say, keep me from shitting myself and remove this [laughs].
KA: Especially in poetry because every word is so much more evident, more naked on the page.
MW: Yes, I challenge the writer. I ask, are these choice you are making as a writer intentional or are they a force of habit? Sometimes that force of habit can be fine because you want to convey a particular voice and that’s how a person might talk. I just want to make certain it’s intentional, that it’s a made thing.
KA: You’ve said in another interview it’s good to have knowledge of traditions but to also work against them. What did you mean by that?
MW: Oh gosh, I don’t know if I want to go down that rabbit hole. In terms of just say, knowing the traditions of typography. Type was developed over time was to make that experience, that transaction, that communion between writer and reader more effortless. That’s why we moved from handwritten calligraphy to type with serif, so it’s telegraphic. It keeps the eye moving, floating across the page, and gathering that information without interruption, some of which will happen on subconscious levels. Then a work of writing may call for interruptions. It may require a particular typeface because of the mood it conveys, so the sociological response while reading this typeface may be perfectly paired with the style of writing.
KA: So when I say the word “tradition” you are thinking in a million directions.
MW: I’m also thinking of the tradition of poetry. I support Ezra Pound’s notion that poets need to “make it new.” Poets are, in essence, creating the world. They are making the language, reviving and revising the language. Some of that’s already happening by way of a culture at large, but poets can capture that and fix it in our memory. I’ll return to C.D. Wright. One of the things I’ve always loved about her work is she lived and breathed and ate and drank poetry but wasn’t content for it to be a sonnet. Her work has led the way in what we now think of as documentary poetics. She was doing that kind of investigative poetics with One Big Self or “Deepstep Come Shining” which is a road trip and an assessment of Southern culture and art.
Or somebody like Merwin; he made it new by doing something very simple, which was removing punctuation from his poems. I see so many people imitating that and while it can be effective, I don’t think they know the source. Merwin was writing with this great knowledge of the Provencal tradition of the poetry of the Troubadours. They didn’t write or sing with punctuation. He was cognizant of how some of these first purveyors of poetry were writing and thinking and singing and he was trying to convey that to a contemporary audience in modern American English. Suddenly, Merwin’s work seems this new and different thing but in so many ways, it refers back to a tradition that we didn’t even know about or had forgotten about. He would also say punctuation was like stapling a poem to the page and really felt he wanted something about the human breath and voice. I love that he’s done his homework.
There’s also the tradition of the dead white guy. And I say this with without being dismissive of other people. When I started at the press, it was over two decades old. We had two people of color on our list. At that point, we were publishing about six books a year. I started out working with people I love and admire and people’s work I will always champion like W.S. Merwin, Hayden Carruth, and Richard Jones. Our weakness was perhaps in terms of our list’s complexity. Yet, I’m not going to kick these great writers to the side. Again, to the idea of being more inclusive than the (gatekeeper) exclusive, I try to continually expand our list and bring more people in. We’ve grown as an organization, have a larger staff then we did at that time, and now we are publishing 20 books a year. That allows me to maintain a commitment and dedication to writers who we’ve supported for years but it allows me to bring in more voices and widen the reach and influence of the press. That isn’t to say everything’s perfect. We have a ways to go and I struggle with it every time. For me, it’s about it being interesting. I don’t edit or publish to reinforce myself. There are times when the writer might be describing my life, but it’s uninteresting to me because I see it every day. Again, what I love about C.D. Wright is that her writing celebrates otherness and otherness is something to celebrate. By otherness, I mean something other than me. I turn to books because I want to get out of myself. I want to learn more about myself by courting the Other, courting other ways of being. I get enough of looking at white guys every morning when I’m brushing my teeth [laughs].
KA: You have as your email signature part of C.D.’s “My American Scrawl” and I wondered if this was in reference to the term “gatekeeper.” It reads:
Increasingly indecisive, about matters both big and little, I have found that poetry is the one arena where I am not inclined to crank up the fog machine, to palter or dissemble or quiver or hastily reverse myself. This is the one scene where I advance determined, if not precisely ready, to do battle with what an overly cited Jungian described as the anesthetized heart, the heart that does not react.
MW: I’m not that calculating. For C.D.’s next book, which we had just edited right before she died, we were having a conversation and I could tell she was maybe a little hurt, but she was chiding me. She asked me why she was never on my email signature [laughs]. So I changed it and it responded to her, look, you’re there now!
KA: It’s a great way to spread poetry.
MW: More often than not people will respond to the poems at the end of my email than what I actually have to say. And that’s how it should be.