Since publishers Andrew Craft and Sally Sampson Craft began WordFarm in 2002, the small press has published 21 titles, including non-fiction and fiction by Alan Michael Parker, Stacy Barton, Paul Willis, and Jessie van Eerden. But two-thirds of WordFarm’s titles have been poetry collections. These artfully designed books contain voice both varied and indicative of the press’ important aesthetic and approach to publishing contemporary verse.
One identifying element of WordFarm’s approach is a willingness to confront and include matters of belief. Luci Shaw, John Leax, and Paul Willis have long been writing poems that have offered challenge and solace to readers within American Protestant circles, and their collections for WordFarm have given their work an opportunity to find readers beyond that faithful niche. At the same time, WordFarm’s poets also include writers whose work, while earnest and concerned with ultimate questions, bears more tell-tale marks of doubt and surprise than of belief. The science fiction-like work in Rane Arroyo’s The Roswell Poems and Bryan Dietrich’s The Assumption represent two of the press’ gestures towards inquiry over settledness.
Two poets in particular represent the best of WordFarm’s work at this juncture of poetic belief and honest doubt. Erin Keane’s two collections, The Gravity Soundtrack and Death Defying Acts, grit their way through a whole panoply of lyrical and broken characters. The dramatic monologues of various circus folk in the second collection draw on Keane’s engagement with theater (she is also a playwright and drama critic), and this shows in Keane’s evocation of character through the use of both vernacular and lyrical language. It’s hard not to share the existential dilemma of the tattooed lady who speaks in five of the book’s poems, beginning with her “Lectio Divina”: “outlining this rollercoaster / of a body” and ending with her worry that “Some day I’ll run out of skin.” Keane never gives in to an easy version of hope, but her poems still contain a deep, humane desire to offer something more to the reader than cleverness or skill. “Grievous Angel,” the final piece in her first collection, is a direct and smart and devastating look at the strange death of musician Gram Parsons. And it’s a wonderful way, too, of thinking about what poems can offer us, even in the face of loss. “I couldn’t give you / anything to hold” says the speaker, as he considers the uncertainty of our stories, but he can offer the poem: “so take this wakeful night/ know it can’t make sense. What’s left? At least / make it a good story. An offering, one last.”
The second poet at this juncture, perhaps with a foot more firmly on the road to belief, is Tania Runyan and her collection A Thousand Vessels. In her evocations of ten biblical women—Ruth, Sarah, Dinah, and Eve among them, Runyan contends with the possibility that “God creates women for no reason / but grief. He can’t cry himself / and needs a thousand vessels for his tears” as Mary says while watching her son die. To measure these tears, Runyan weaves back and forth between her biblical meditations and equally candid considerations of contemporary married and domestic life. After a poem about Boaz eyeing Ruth, Runyan shifts to “Honeymoon at Monterey Bay” where a contemporary young couple struggles to become familiar with one another as husband and wife. A little shy, still, about their return to the hotel room, they stop at a “long counter of microscopes” and intimately take “turns behind the lens, the skeletons / forming a latticework of cones and spheres, / silica arrows weaving through the openings, / holding the bodies together for good.”
The dialogues created within and between books like Keane’s and Runyan’s work reflect the vision of the publishers and the sensibility of poetry editor, Marci Rae Johnson. The resulting books are beautifully designed (by Craft) and thoughtfully edited. And the press’ literary range is expanding with two recent anthologies, one a collection of essays on the work of W. S. Merwin edited by Jonathan Wienert and Kevin Prufer and the other a collection of highlighted work from the first ten years of 32 Poems. Future work scheduled to appear includes Jeanne Murray Walker’s New and Selected Poems in the coming year.
*Throughout Poetry Month 32 Poems will use this space to praise presses, journals, and readings series that bring poetry to us in a special way. Our hope is that we can point new fans in their direction and publicly thank editors and curators for their work. Check in with us again tomorrow for another poet’s recommendation.
David Wright’s poems have appeared in Ecotone, Image, Poetry East, and Hobart, among others. In 2003, he published A Liturgy for Stones (Cascadia) and was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Artist’s Fellowship for Poetry. Most recently he has taught at Wheaton College (IL) and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. In the fall he’ll begin a new position teaching creative writing and American literature at Monmouth College (IL). You can find him online at http://sweatervestboy.tumblr.