Burning Deck: Still Burning Brightly
"50 years they've stood on the burning deck while the great ships of publishing turned into krill for the great corporate whales…. And the alphabet of poets and fiction writers they have published — from Walter Abish to Louis Zukofsky — there really is no parallel in American publishing that I can name except New Directions (founded earlier…and backed with a private fortune, which is a very different matter)."
—C. D. Wright, Providence Athenaeum (Oct. 15, 2011)
"It occurs to me that without Burning Deck and a very few others, we experimental poets would, simply, not exist."
—Michael Palmer (1991)
For anyone who knows the books and spirit behind Burning Deck books, the above quotes will come as no surprise, and for those few serious readers of poetry who don't—the above is a directive to beginning ordering books. For 50 years poets and translators Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop have been producing books that have changed the American literary landscape. The below is a brief history of the press, and above a slideshow which provides a glimpse of the hundreds of books the Waldrops have dedicated a life's work to publishing.
Photo from Providence Journal, 1980s.
Photo in press room by Kris Craig, Providence Journal, 2011
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Burning Deck Books
Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop
Burning Deck began in 1961 as a little magazine. In 1961, poets were supposed to be in opposing camps, often inelegantly—and inaccurately—labeled 'academics' and 'beats'. The two most widely noted anthologies of the time (Donald Allen's The New American Poetry and what was known as "The Hall-Pack-Simpson"), both representing the period 1945-1960, do not contain a single poet in common. Burning Deck Magazine disregarded this split and presented a spread of poets wide enough that occasionally an author complained of being published in such unprogrammatic company.
Though advertised as a 'quinterly', the magazine, after only four issues, gave way to a series of chapbooks and—later, in part with the help of NEA grants—books of poetry and occasionally of short fiction.
In 1984, Burning Deck merged with ANYART: Contemporary Arts Center, becoming the literature program of this non-profit organization.
In 1992, we added a translation series (Série d'Ecriture: current French writing in English translation), in 1994 a second one (Dichten=: current German-language writing in English translation).
In the 50 years of Burning Deck's existence, we have published 231 titles (111 books, 120 chapbooks), of which all but 26 are poetry.
With the change from magazine to books, the editorial direction also changed or, rather, narrowed somewhat. Considering the limited resources of a small press, we realized that a narrower focus made more sense than our original inclusive impulse. We focused on work that foregrounds form and structure in innovative, exploring ways. If we still seem eclectic it is because we believe that the history of poetry cannot be clear before the poems are written. It is not denying the importance of "movements," to insist that there is another importance in moving beside or apart from them. After all, there are many judgements, none of them the last.
We periodically print a well-known writer (Creeley, Coover, Hawkes) to attract attention to our list, but our commitment has from the beginning been to less established and unknown authors—to the kind of work that commercial publishers are reluctant to take chances on. Many authors we published first or very early in their career have become noted writers (e.g. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, John Taggart, and the British poet Anthony Barnett).
When we started Burning Deck Magazine in 1961, it happened to be the moment when letterpress printing was being replaced by offset, and print shops were dumping their letterpress equipment. We were graduate students at the University of Michigan, so buying a letterpress and learning to print seemed the only way we could afford publishing. Until 1985, we printed all Burning Deck publications on our letterpress, and in spite of the drudgery involved, it remains a source of satisfaction. Since 1985, however, the automation of bookbinding has made it financially more feasible to print full books offset and reserve letterpress work for the smaller chapbooks. We admire fine printing (under no illusion that ours is such) and admire any press that prints good work, even by xerox. Our own practice—a middle way—is to design and print books with care, in permanent form (smyth-sewn, acid-free paper), but at a price that will not keep them on closed shelves.
Prizes and Honors
- In 1984, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's The Heat Bird received the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation
- In 1985, Ron Silliman's Paradise received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award
- In 1991, Burning Deck was the focus of a weekend-symposium at Foundation Royaumont, in France.
- In 1996, Cole Swensen's Numen was finalist for the PEN West Award
- In 2001, Brown University's Writing Program held a 3-day Festival for Burning Deck's 40th anniversary
- In 2008, Catherine Imbriglio's Parts of the Mass received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America
- In 2008, Rosmarie Waldrop's translation of LINGOS I-IX by Ulf Stolterfoht received the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation
- In 2010, "L'Aventure 'Burning Deck'" was a feature of the "Lettres sur cour" Poetry Festival at Vienne, France
- Exhibitions of Burning Deck books have been held at Wesleyan, Brown, and Long Island Universities, at Woodland Patterns in Milwaukee, various libraries, the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Centre Internationale de Poésie Marseille and, most recently the Poetry Foundation. Single books have been included in exhibitions at the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Stedelijk Museum, and Kensington Art Association, Toronto.