Interview with Peter Conners
by Tony Leuzzi
I first met Peter Conners at a student poetry reading on the Potsdam College campus back in 1989. Tall and dreadlocked, he had a warm smile and laid-back demeanor, though his eyes sparkled when he spoke about poetry. He was enthusiastic about the work of his peers and even recited a line from a poem I read at a previous event a few months earlier. That was almost thirty years ago, but, minus the dreadlocks, little has changed. Peter Conners remains one of the most generous and energetic advocates of poets and poetry in America. The general public might best know him from his memoir Growing Up Dead, which chronicles his immersion in the music and culture of the Grateful Dead; others might have read his excellent White Hand Society, which reconstructs the psychedelic partnership between Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, or JAMerica, his history of the American jam bands festival scene; still others may have come to Peter's writing through his own distinguished volumes of prose poetry, which have both honored and extended the possibilities of that form. For most of us, these accomplishments would suffice to ensure one a place in the literary world; however, Peter Conners is also the Editor and Publisher of BOA Editions, one of America's finest poetry presses. In honor of BOA's forty-year anniversary, I met with him to discuss the press's founding by Al Poulin, and the various ways in which Conners has stayed true to BOA's original mission while introducing exciting innovations that have enabled the press to flourish in the twenty-first century.
First of all, congratulations to BOA on celebrating its 40th anniversary. You've been the Editor and Publisher of BOA for how many of those years?
I was formally named Publisher in 2012. As far as editing, it's tricky to set a concrete date because I was hired as Marketing Director in 2003, but I started editing almost immediately. At that time, Thom Ward was the Editor. Prior to my affiliation with BOA, I had been editing a journal I co-founded with poet and scholar Mark Tursi called Double Room, a prose poetry/flash fiction journal. Because of that experience, I was able to bring to BOA some of the authors Mark and I had worked with. That all probably happened in the first year. Looking at it in that way, I've had a hand in the editing at BOA for about 13 years.
You initially brought in practitioners of prose poetry, not a form that was widely published at BOA before your hiring.
There were some examples of prose poetry that BOA had published, most notably Bertrand Mathieu's translation of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell & Illuminations, and William Crosby's translation of Baudelaire's The Flowers of Evil & Paris Spleen. But, for the most part, that's right.
Seeing as publishing prose poets was your primary previous editorial experience, did you experience a learning curve when you were editing verse manuscripts? Or was that knowledge always with you
There had been such a strong tradition at BOA of working with poets who favored lyrical free verse. Also, to some degree, formal poetry. I had been focusing more on prose poetry at that time, so I had to come up to speed on BOA's back catalog of lineated poetry when I started working there. I saw what Al Poulin had published, saw what Steve Huff had brought in when he was Editor and Publisher, and I saw what Thom Ward had worked on. I developed a flavor for what BOA had done in the past. In that way, I understood what BOA had done up to that point. I felt that my own interests were a little bit more experimental than some of what they had selected. While BOA always had a bit of an interest in experimentation and a hand in a wider range of poetry, I think at the time I came on board most people would have associated BOA with lyrical free-verse poetry.
What about now? In addition to its continued commitment to publishing lyrical free verse, what are some other kinds of poetry and ideas you have brought in?
Well, as you say, there is still a strong element of lyrical free verse in our catalog. We still publish some poets who've been with BOA almost from its beginning: Michael Waters and Peter Makuck come to mind. They have very much carried on the tradition of Al's aesthetic. I honor that and I love their poetry. We also have authors now like G.C. Waldrep, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Aracelis Girmay, Karen Volkman—people who are more experimental or who are fostering poetic styles that incorporate elements of free and formal verse with prose poetry and other approaches. They've broken down genre barriers—and I like that. In this day and age there are no rules saying you have to write poetry one way. My main criterion for accepting a manuscript is whether or not a poet is being his or her most authentic poetic self. Is she writing from a place that essentially no one else could write from? I'm looking for someone to do something nobody else can do. That criterion can be understood or applied in many different ways.
And in doing so, you're welcoming in all kinds of aesthetics, styles, approaches, concepts that are alive today. Would you say you have broadened the pallet of what is possible for BOA?
I think most people who closely follow such things realize there is no particular kind of BOA book. I would hope they associate our books with quality but not necessarily any one style of poetry. I want a BOA book to be singular, to be the only one of its kind. Beyond that, whatever style that comes through is not as important.
As a fan of BOA and a wide reader of the press's books, there are a number of books that could be called singular…
I agree. Recently we published Aracelis Girmay's The Black Maria, which is really unique. She is coming at her subject matter, specifically the Eritrean diaspora, from so many angles, approaches, voices, and styles. I can't imagine another book like that. She is a really singular poet. Because her book just came out, it popped into my mind, but in their own way, every BOA author is doing their own thing in a way no one else can. John Gallaher's new book In a Landscape is another one-of-a-kind creation. It's essentially a day-book that's part memoir, diary, essay, trip through the consciousness of a middle-aged poet family man. Its 100% exceptional poetry. In a way it shouldn't be interesting at all, but it's completely engaging and fascinating because of how John's mind works. John also co-authored a book with G.C. Waldrep called Your Father on the Train of Ghosts. That one just strips-out their individual authorship and leaves you smack in the middle of a conversation-in-poetry between two of the best poetry thinkers of their time. G.C.'s new collection, Testament, is stunning too. He wrote it in some sort of trance-state in a castle in Scotland and the whole thing has this combination of fierce intelligence and otherworldly glow. I could wax rhapsodic about the unique qualities of every author we publish. I haven't even touched on the translations yet. They all stand alone together.
I also like to measure a poet's new manuscript against what he or she has done before. If someone gives me a second manuscript, or third, or whatever it might be, and I look at it and think it's just a continuation of the author's last book, that doesn't really do it for me. I want to see that the writer is not only addressing poetic boundaries or lines or whatever's going on in the larger scheme of poetry, but that they're also looking to forward the depth and range of their own personal voice and aesthetic. You have to understand that we only publish 10-12 books a year. We have 40 years of poets who have new manuscripts and then all the poets we haven't published before who submit their work. We have close to 1000 manuscripts coming in every year. If a submission doesn't vibrate with inevitability, it's hard to justify publishing it. The hardest part of my job is to decline the work of incumbent poets. Rejection is the editor's cross to bear. Finding inevitable manuscripts is the payoff.
So, for example, you just published another book by Karen Volkman. Do you feel her new book, Whereso, is as singular as Nomina, her previous one?
Yes, absolutely. Every book Karen does is its own creation. She is a lot like Brigit Pegeen Kelly in that way. She seems to be writing from a different plane of existence. With a poet like Karen Volkman, you accept that what she's writing will take years to sink in and will never stop opening itself out into new interpretations.
Every one of her books is a unicorn.
Exactly. Her books are living, breathing objects. That's what we want from great poetry.
That's what you want for your BOA catalogue, too. You want these books to be relevant, still alive, and kind of vibrating in your consciousness long after they've been published.
Yes, absolutely. When you talk to active poets, a lot of times you find out that a BOA book was their gateway into poetry. I joke that our books are "gateway drugs." The truth is that we have authors perfect to get people into poetry for the first time and we also have authors writing some of the most challenging poetry you'll encounter. You never forget your first time. But growth also requires adaptation and challenge. BOA books can take you through the whole life cycle.
One of the significant innovations you were responsible for when you came on as Editor and Publisher of BOA, and even before you took on those roles, was the creation of the press's fiction line. What were some of your reasons for wanting to start this?
It was a big deal when we started publishing fiction. Everybody associated BOA with a poetry press. A lot of people were invested in it being solely a poetry press always. That's certainly still our main focus; that's what we're best known for; and that's what we'll probably always be best known for. But when I first made the proposal to get BOA into fiction, I was looking at the current publishing landscape and thinking, when Al Poulin started BOA there weren't many places to publish poetry outside of the major NYC presses—and they only did a smattering of poetry. There weren't all these small presses around. The technology wasn't there for small presses to print on demand. There weren't many avenues for that. Looking at the literary landscape now, I see many more places to publish poetry than short fiction, particularly innovative short fiction. That was my argument when we started officially publishing fiction back in 2007, and I stick to that today. If we're here to forward the literary arts, and to support underserved literary forms, short fiction needs our support. It needs it as much, if not more, than poetry does.
Some other major poetry presses have gotten on board with publishing small lines of fiction, as well. Graywolf, for example.
Most of BOA's sister presses, with the exception of Copper Canyon, publish some fiction and their work usually predates BOA's foray into the genre. From this perspective, it wasn't that radical of a model for BOA to publish fiction. It just took a leap into a new world.
And it is yet one more way BOA can be in-step with the current trends in publishing as well.
Yes, creating a small space for fiction at BOA has allowed us to scoop up some work that would have been otherwise unclassifiable. A good example would be a book we published by Craig Morgan Teicher; it's called Cradle Book. I could have published it as a prose poetry collection. It's not quite a prose poetry collection, but it's not quite a fiction collection either. The book is really a collection of fables, these strange little pieces—and I love them. They fit that fiction series pretty well. So, there have been books that I just adore artistically that I wouldn't have been able to touch if BOA hadn't gotten into fiction. Even though, for some of them, I could have made the case for them being prose poems, it would have involved a bit of shoe-horning.
So you got more unicorn books because of the new fiction line.
Yeah. I should also mention here that I was informed and inspired by Alan Kornblum's series at Coffee House press called "Coffee to Go," which was basically a short-short-fiction series that they discontinued years ago. Jessica Treat published with them; that's where I discovered her work and we ended up publishing a fiction collection of hers called Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. The Coffee House series was basically part of the model I used for BOA's fiction series. I loved those books and I liked the aesthetic of those books.
Very few people probably know that every one of the editors in BOA's history has had ties to the Rochester region. This was not a requirement, obviously; it just worked out that way. The result has been that all of the editors were committed to the life of poetry in the Rochester region before they came on board to edit this nationally-known press. Could you talk about your years as an enthusiastic citizen of the literary world prepared you for what you're doing now?
Many times a younger person will ask, "How do I get involved in poetry? What's your advice?" I always say, "Get involved with a reading series, with a literary journal, be a reader for a poetry or fiction contest, be a part of your community." Not just to say the regional community but the literary community at large. Play a small role. Play the role you can, and that role will increase. And your experience increases. Before I came to BOA, I was teaching poetry workshops in schools, I taught everywhere from kindergarten up to graduate school, I taught at community centers, wherever I could, freelance. I taught fiction workshops at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). And, as I mentioned before, I co-edited Double Room. Meanwhile, I was sending out my own work to get published, prose poems mostly. I also had a reading series called New Visions and helped out on another reading series called Millennial Muse. I had a broadside series as part of New Visions. I worked closely with Dale Davis of the New York State Literary Center, who was a friend and contemporary of Al Poulin's before I ever worked at BOA. Basically, New Visions was a larger umbrella under which I did workshops, coordinated a reading series, and published broadsides. The New Visions reading series is a good example. When I started it, I didn't have much money. I had some from grants, but not much. On the other hand, Syracuse University was paying writers a lot of money to read there, so I contacted Christopher Kennedy, the MFA director there, and said, "When you have authors coming up, give me a heads up, maybe help me get them to Rochester, too." I got Brian Evenson and Jonathan Baumbach that way. I wouldn't have been able to afford to bring them on my own for my little series; I piggy-backed on theirs. I also got to meet Chris through that process. I love his work. BOA has published two books by him now and we're doing a third in 2018. Once I began working at BOA, Chris and I worked together to establish an internship program through Syracuse University's MFA program. We would get student interns to do two-semester internships at BOA. That partnership happened for years.
You were playing a long game, honing your experience before you entered BOA, a game that continues to this day.
Yes, and when BOA's marketing director before me left, Thom Ward, the editor at that time, knew the things I was doing and asked me to be the press's new marketing director. Because I had so much momentum going in my own activities, those activities rolled right over into BOA. Right away I had authors I had already worked with sign on and publish with BOA, too. The first author we signed from my previous work was Russell Edson. We published his collection The Rooster's Wife. Talk about a singular poet! Our first fiction author, Anthony Tognazzini, came from my previous editing work and from my own writing world connections too. They were just writers I admired or published in journals with that I thought would be perfect for BOA and nudge us forward a little. Nin Andrews, Martha Ronk, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Nickole Brown, Jessica Treat, Joanna Howard, Kazim Ali, a good bunch.
Another thing many people don't know about BOA is that it not only supports the literary world but visual artists as well. The press's working relationship with visual artists has been an important element of the publishing process since the beginning. Can you talk about some of the ways BOA accomplishes this?
We have a grant through the New York State Council of the Arts and the Rochester Arts and Cultural Council for our visual arts library. It's all Rochester-based artists on there. Essentially, we contact the artist and say we'd like to put up a bunch of their images; they might get used for books, they might not, but we'll put them up on a password-protected website; our authors are given that password so they can browse through that gallery, they can select one of the artist's works, we contact the artist and we take it from there. We have high-resolution images; we have the rights cleared. As a result, there's been about 40 BOA books published with covers featuring visual art by Rochester-based artists. Those books go out across the country, across the world, and the art goes with them.
In the last few years, the look of BOA's books has changed. The design work has been incredible. The books seem like artifacts, beautiful dimensional art pieces.
Al Poulin's daughter Daphne Morrissey has been designing BOA book covers for years; she's done consistently wonderful work and she still does two books per year. More recently Daphne connected us with another Rochester-based designer named Sandy Knight who now does the bulk of our books. If we do ten books a year, she'll do eight of them. She's amazing. She really has taken BOA books, the design of them, to the next level, a very contemporary look and feel. She also reads the poetry, matches up the style of the poetry with the design. I've worked with a lot of designers and this is rare. She'll communicate with the author so the author has multiple designs to pick from, and the author has input into what the book looks like—and this is important, too. We want an author to love his or her book, the way the book feels. If she loves her books as an object, she is more likely to want to put it into people's hands. We want her to love that end-product and be as passionate about it as she was about the contents of the book. So that means making the book itself an art object.
You also have a former BOA poet who also typesets the books, Richard Foerster.
Yes, that relationship goes back to Al Poulin. Richard is the only typesetter we use. He is also a marvelous proofreader. Richard is not listed among our staff but he is absolutely a fourth member of our staff, as is Sandy—they are the fourth and fifth members of BOA. Sandy is involved in almost every book we publish; Richard is involved in every book we publish. Again, Richard is incredibly passionate about poetry, he has dedicated his life to it. He has spent a good chunk of his life working on BOA books, as well as books for other presses. Phenomenal typesetter, phenomenal proofreader.
You also have two other valuable members of BOA's staff who work with you on a daily basis, Melissa Hall and Jenna Fisher.
Jenna is our Director of Marketing and Production. She does our marketing, but she also oversees each book's' production, taking a book from the time of the typesetting, making sure it comes out from the printer the way we want it to, overseeing that process. She has beefed up the press's presence on social media, too. She's amazing. She really gets BOA out there in all different platforms, in really exciting ways. I think she's really good about generating excitement around the press in the larger literary community. She's overseen the overhaul of our website recently; she's also overseen the short film documentary project that her husband Stephen worked on for us recently. She's fantastic.
Mel is our Director of Development and Operations. She oversees general operations in the office and makes sure everything is moving forward, that all our bills are getting paid, that our grants are getting submitted, just sort of keeping things humming in the office. Together, we are a small office of three people that gets a whole lot done. This happens because everyone is aware of how they can contribute best and does their job efficiently with skill and mutual respect. It has been an incredibly supportive environment to work in. Both Jenna and Mel started as interns: Jenna was from Roberts Wesleyan College and Mel was from Finger Lakes Community College. I hired them both as interns and then they were both hired as staff employees. They are both wonderful, both passionate about BOA's mission. Now Jenna is in charge of the very intern program where she and Mel both started at BOA.
That's so cool. It's another way in which outreach into the community has benefited the press.
Our interns are awesome. We're now even getting interns from schools located in other states, in addition to every college in the area.
One of the subjects I want to return to is the eclectic nature of BOA's catalog. BOA has obviously published books that are relatable to a large audience. Others seem like strange specialty books. When you're choosing a catalog for each year, do you keep a balance between such books in mind?
Yes. There has always been an eclectic quality to BOA's overall catalog. I'm thinking of a book called Christmas at the Four Corners of the Earth, by Blaise Cendrars, also a book of concrete poetry called Wordworks by Richard Kostelanetz. BOA's first book The Fuehrer Bunker by W.D. Snodgrass was very edgy too. Those are early books in BOA's catalog. But, for the most part, the experimental was more an exception. It popped up here and there, but over time that was not what the press became most known for. But now some of those specialty books are a bit more frequent. I look for a diverse catalog each year. I wouldn't want all one season to be experimentally minded. I try to keep it varied. I'm also very aware of publishing balances along the lines of gender, along the lines of race, sexual orientation, all the different points of view that BOA represents, that exist in the world. We live in a world of variety. Our books should reflect that multiplicity.
Finally, Al Poulin still casts a large shadow over the press and his vision is still a reference point for so many of the press's decisions. At the risk of speaking for him, what do you think were Al's primary goals in starting the press? How would you continue to meet those goals but also diverge from them to develop something he had not thought of?
Al was incredibly passionate about poetry. I never got to meet him, but everything I know about him, everything I've heard about him—the stories are legion and many of them entertaining—really paint a portrait of a man who was consumed with poetry; he was consumed with writing it; he was consumed with reading it; he was consumed with translating it; with teaching it. It was his life. That passion infused BOA with life. It infused BOA with so much life that we're still going strong 40 years later. That vision still continues. I'm aware of what Al did and think of his achievements every time I read a manuscript. It would be completely false to say I do my own thing and don't take any of Al's or the other editors—Steve Huff and Thom Ward's—accomplishments into account. I want to honor the vision of everyone who came before me. I want to honor particularly the vision that Al set out, and also to acknowledge that as soon as you set something in amber and don't let it grow it dies. Al was an innovative person, a creative person, an adaptive person. I think he saw ways BOA could make its mark and then found authors to help the press succeed and become a presence. Nonetheless, to turn a press into a museum, an homage to one person's vision, is to strangle it. In some ways the best way to honor Al's vision is to embrace his innovative mindset and take it forward into the next phase.
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Peter Conners is publisher of the award-winning literary press, BOA Editions. He is also author of eight published books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. His books include JAMerica: The History of the Jam Band and Festival Scene (Da Capo Press, 2013), Growing Up Dead: The Hallucinated Confessions of a Teenage Deadhead (Da Capo Press, 2009), White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg (City Lights Books, 2010), and the forthcoming Cornell '77: The Myth and Majesty of the Grateful Dead's "Best" Concert (Cornell University Press, 2017). His poetry and fiction books include The Crows Were Laughing in their Trees (White Pine Press, 2011), Of Whiskey and Winter (White Pine Press, 2007), and Emily Ate the Wind (Marick Press, 2008). He also edited the groundbreaking anthology of prose poetry and flash fiction, PP/FF: An Anthology (Starcherone Books, 2006). He lives with his family in Rochester, New York.
Tony Leuzzi lives in Rochester, NY. His previous books include Radiant Losses (New Sins Press, 2010) and The Burning Door (Tiger Bark Press, 2014); his two chapbooks are Fake Book (Anything Anywhere Anymore Press, 2011) and 40,000 Crows (Hank's Original Loose Gravel Press, 2012). In 2012, BOA Editions published Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi's interviews with 20 American poets. He is an Associate Professor of English at Monroe Community College, where has received a Wesley T. Hansen Award for Excellence in Teaching and a State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Creativity and Scholarship. A critic and review writer for various publications, including SCOUT Poetry, Lambda Literary, and The Brooklyn Rail, he is also a visual artist whose paintings incorporate collage and erasure.