Poets take publishing into their own hands

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A parliament of local poets assembled in a living room nearly four years ago to complain about the sorry state of publishing—and to come up with a solution.

More than a dozen books and nearly two dozen broadsides later, the Laurel Poetry Collective is in the home stretch of a four-year publishing marathon. Its latest publication is “Unable for the World to Sleep,” a slim volume of poems by St. Anthony Park resident Tom Ruud, who will read at Micawber’s Books at 7 p.m. on November 29.

Starting in 2002, the collective has churned out a book every two months or so, Ruud said, using mostly volunteer labor to produce and sell their publications. About two-thirds of the members now have poetry books published by Laurel, and the goal is to publish one book and one broadside by each member before the project ends.

There has also been a Laurel anthology each spring, and the last title on the list will be an anthology of brief essays from each member exploring his or her artistic process, scheduled for spring 2007.

Sylvia Ruud, Tom’s wife, is a free-lance editor and the only paid member of the collective, editing text and laying out pages as each new manuscript arrives.

Local poets were not the only ones complaining about the consolidation of major publishing houses as the new millennium dawned. A six-pack of conglomerates had bought out many once-independent U.S. publishers, and poets found it ever harder to compete with cookbooks and do-it-yourself manuals.

The poets had gotten tired of sending out their poems and never hearing back from the lone poetry editor buried under piles of manuscripts in a basement office somewhere in New York.

“There are an awful lot of poets that should be published but that are finding it harder and harder because of the slowdown in small houses,” Ruud said.

Ruud joined the group soon after graduating with a master of fine arts in writing from Hamline University. Deborah Keenan, a Hamline professor, gathered about 30 people to explore ways they might publish their work, and “it was just a free-for-all brawl,” Ruud said of their first meeting.

A few dropped out, and in late 2002 the 23 survivors launched themselves as a collective, plunging into a complex world of ISBN codes, copyright registration, press releases and sales taxes.

Members kicked in start-up money, and it became clear that Ruud, until recently a logistics analyst for Target Corporation, had the best shot at keeping the accounts straight. He became treasurer. It also became clear, he said, that an in-house editor would be very helpful. He helped draft his wife into the project.

Consulting with Sylvia Ruud, the poets drew up a four-year plan. They wanted to get their work out to Twin Cities readers, quickly but also beautifully—and at reasonable prices. The editor said she could make time for a book every two months, and the four-year plan was born.

Since four members of the collective were graphic designers and knew letterpress technique, a broadside (a single sheet of fine-quality paper, printed with one poem and decorative artwork) was planned for each poet as well. The broadsides are now complete and on sale at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and other locations for about $17 each.

Laurel took inspiration from a much smaller project, the Sixteen Rivers poetry collective, which started in San Francisco in 1999. But the publishing process itself they learned or invented as they encountered each new obstacle, recruiting a lawyer, an accountant (“mostly pro bono,” Tom Ruud said) and other expert advisers.

The collective meets every few months to check in on current projects and float new ideas, such as a Valentine’s Day anthology, “Love Letters,” that was added to the list last year when an idea raised in a meeting took hold and flourished.

The new Laurel title is Ruud’s first book, although individual poems of his have appeared in Laurel anthologies and in a long list of periodicals, including Mankato Poetry Review, ArtWord Quarterly, Minnesota Monthly and the Park Bugle.

He writes, as he tells it, in “the modern American, prevalent style: free verse.” Yet his lines are short and balanced, his images detailed and carefully wrought, attention to form evident even in the absence of rhyme or alliteration. He writes about a cabbage sliced open to reveal its heart, about the many colors of kittens, and about “toes gripping the edge of the board” as we dive into the loss of a parent. He names Tower Hill and pays homage to Norse roots, but the characters that populate his poems could be anyplace—or at least anyplace that has cold winters.

Ruud’s long association with classic literature, especially ancient Greece, slips here and there into a poem, as a cat named Iphigenia gives birth to kittens and a robin listens for Persephone in May.

In his 20s and 30s, Ruud studied classics as an undergraduate at Augsburg College and later at the University of Minnesota, where he embarked on a Ph.D. in the field but never completed it, having decided an academic career wasn’t for him. He says he doesn’t consider himself a classicist now, although “I do occasionally dip into ancient works.”

He doesn’t name any particular career, in fact. “I couldn’t tell you everywhere I’ve worked,” he said, but job descriptions range from carpenter to courier. “I’ve done a lot of physical labor,” he said.

Eventually he landed a “numbers cruncher” position at Target, and “during that 10 years, I discovered a need to write,” he said. “I didn’t know at first that it would be poetry.” He sought out the MFA program in order to find mentors, and he chose Hamline because of professors Jim Moore and Deborah Keenan, whose work he knew and appreciated. It didn’t hurt that the campus was close by.

The MFA program led him to Laurel, which numbers several other Hamline MFAs. Collective members all live in or near the Twin Cities, many in St. Paul. In addition to Tom and Sylvia Ruud, St. Anthony Park resident Regula Russelle is a member of the collective and one of the broadside artists.

There’s talk in the collective now of what to do when the project has run its course, but they’re not making any public statements yet. Meanwhile, if anyone is thinking of trying a similar approach, Ruud said he highly recommends it and would be glad to offer his expertise to new collectives.

“It can be done more easily than you think,” he said. “You have to be able to trust your members, to learn things as they go and to be available for volunteer work.”

No one should expect to make a profit from publishing poetry, he said, but there are other rewards. “It’s a lot of fun. Self-determination is always more fun.”

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