Recollections of a Wisconsin Small Press Editor and Publisher

garyMy first introduction to the small press came about as a student in Doug Flaherty’s introductory poetry class at UW-Oshkosh in 1972. I got interested in literature, mainly through my enlistment in the Army and my two-year stint in Japan, where I discovered the many kinds of poetry and fiction in the post library. Remembering back to high school, I had an interest in poems and stories, but didn’t think of myself as a writer, in fact I made few attempts at writing.

In Flaherty’s class I learned about the small press. Small presses were the place to go for beginning poets, experimental fiction writers, and anyone starting out and trying to get some publishing credits. Doug said that any student who had a poem published in a small press publication would get an A in his class. No one in our class did. He pointed out how difficult it was to get poetry published. There were less than 2,000 small presses operating in the U.S., and most published a few issues and disappeared. I had sent out a few poems, had some reject slips in my files, but soon realized that I was not writing well enough to be published.

In a class in the summer of ‘72, during a class break, I met fellow student Chris Halla. (Chris died in January of this year). He and I were in a fiction writing class together. He commented on one of my short stories I had submitted for class discussion. He said he worked on the UW-Oshkosh Wisconsin Review, the student literary magazine. He liked my story and asked if I would be interested in joining the WR staff. I said I would and became a staff member. I started out mainly sitting at a table trying to sell the latest issue of the Wisconsin Review to students. At that time, the WR was a quarterly and partially funded by UW-Oshkosh, but was expected to sell issues and try to be self-sustaining.

Chris Halla was a small press publisher of a magazine called RIVER BOTTOM. After he showed me a few of his issues, he asked if I would join like to him as a contributor and associate assistant. I said yes. At that time, River Bottom was a wonderful example of kitchen table, small press publishing at its most basic. The editor/publisher chose what he or she wanted to publish and did most of the work to put the publication out, and footed all of the bill. This was usually a one or two person production that would include

• Design and layout, including front and back cover art and copy. The editor chose size, cover stock, and inside paper.
• Assembly. The editor did the collating, folding, and stapling the book. This was usually done on the kitchen table and required careful and patient work. Also the books were often pressed to flatten them. I used bricks or construction blocks for weight. After pressing, the books for a day or two, the books usually went back to the printer for trimming.
• Mailing. The editor’s distribution went to subscribers, authors, and reviewers who one hoped would review the work.
• Record-keeping. The editor kept track of and documented sales and distribution of the publication.

My role on River Bottom began as a helper, then as typist/proofreader, and then as co-editor. Chris and I co-founded a new publication called Wolfsong soon after RB’s last issue. In 1978 Wolfsong began as a quarterly, then became an irregular published magazine. Irregular meant we published when we felt we had enough publishable material or the right manuscript for a chapbook or the money to print it. The magazine eventually turned to doing chapbooks of individual poets exclusively and published through the ‘70’s into 2000. We did chapbooks and broadsides (single sheet or poems) of new and well-known poets, such as Peter Wild, William Kloefkorn, Dorothy Dalton, Bruce Taylor, Mariann Ritzer, Dave Etter, Doug Flaherty, Michael Koehler, and others. See the complete list at the end of this article.

While on the staff of the Wisconsin Review, 1974-5, I had the opportunity to see a wide variety of small press chapbooks come into our small office on the third floor of Dempsey Hall at UW-Oshkosh. I also received through Chris a wide variety of small press magazines. I became familiar with many small press publications. Some of these publications were monthly or quarterly magazines, such as The Paris Review, The Wormwood Review, and Poetry Now, while others were chapbooks of a single author. Some were of low quality paper, produced, mimeo-graphed, two-10 sheets, 20-pages, and a few at the other end, 100 pages plus, glossy cover, perfect-bound editions. Many of them were in trade (that is we swapped WR copies) and others came in over the transom (in the mail) or unsolicited. I liked the variety of these publications. Most were stapled (saddle-stitched), with one, two, or three staples. A few were perfect-bound, on high gloss paper, with fancy art, and some even with advertisements. I liked the simple, non-glossy, chaps that showed the work done by someone who didn’t have much money, or didn’t use it on slick production.

I graduated in January 1975 and passed the editorship of the magazine on to other staff members: all capable poets and editors. I stayed in touch for a while with WR, and since I was unable to find work, I began taking graduate courses at UW-Oshkosh. In the meantime, I applied to graduate school at UW-Madison in the English Department. I was shot down there. However, I was accepted at UW-Eau Claire, WI, where I received an assistantship in the English Department.

Without knowing a single person in Eau Claire, in the late summer of ‘75, I, my wife Linda, and young daughter Laura packed up what we owned, loaded a truck, and headed from Oshkosh to Eau Claire for my fall semester. During this time I continued to be in touch with Chris Halla, who continued publishing Wolfsong and other publications. I was also sending out poems and short stories to a number of small presses, trying to establish myself as a writer.

The small press student publication at Eau Claire was NOTA (None of the Above). It came out irregularly and was in newspaper format. I worked with the editors and staff and had a few poems and short stories in NOTA. In the English Department I met professor Bruce Taylor, who also had his own small press publication: RED WEATHER. RW was also in newspaper format. During my stay at UW-Eau Claire, I published a couple of poets under my own Willow Wind Press name, and also, with Chris, under the Wolfsong name. These publications were aided by my having bought an IBM Selectric typewriter in 1975. With interchangeable typeface balls, one could create a professional-looking magazine.

I had also begun correspondence with Len Fulton, the founder of The Small Press Review and International Directory of Little Magazines & Small Presses. Len was revered by editors and writers alike as the man who gave much impetus to small press publishing in America. Since the early ‘60s, Len listed publisher for free in his widely respected magazines and directories under the Dustbooks name. My correspondence with Len centered on work in the UW-Eau Claire English Department and for “English Week,” during which a variety of small press writers, poets, and publishers were invited to take part. During the spring of ‘77, I recommended Len to the English committee for an English Week guest and he was scheduled to talk about the small press for the event.

What became clear during Len’s talk was that beginning, and even established poets, had little chance of being published in the large, mainstream magazines, such as The New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, and others. Few poets made it into those magazines. Also, the number of poems printed was few. The small press was the place to give new and established poets and experimental fiction writers a place to start. The small presses at that time were mostly one or two person operations, operating on a limited budget, doing most of the collating, assembly, stapling, and distribution on their own. Almost no advertising was published, mainly because advertisers saw the low small press runs and poor distribution as unprofitable and reaching a small audience. Also, most small press publishers didn’t want advertisers anyway. The goal of many small press publishers was to be fiercely independent and not beholding to anyone. Wisconsin small press publisher Tom Montag produced a valuable series of chapbooks on how to establish and maintain a small press publication, from layout, design, printing, distribution, and other business concerns.

I liked the idea of independence and publishing what and when I wanted. Naturally, publishing poetry meant in most cases losing money. Small press publishing took money to mail and advertise. Money was needed to print the books. Money was needed for paper, ribbons, office supplies, and utilities. Once the chapbook was put together, money was needed to send out flyers and notices. And when orders came in for the book, money was needed for envelopes and postage to get the books to the buyers. It took money to send out review copies, pay the author or authors a few copies, and pay other incidentals that were sure to arise. Plus, the small press publisher was working for almost nothing, not paying himself or herself, and hoping to sell enough books to break even or make a little bit over to apply to the next book. It is no surprise that many thought small press poetry publishing was crazy.

Today, in 2014, I consider the small press a valuable outlet for writers, especially serious poets. The battles continue to be distribution and costs associated with producing a small press book. However, with desktop publishing and computer programs, putting together a publication is much easier than decades ago. Some small press publishers, such as Norbert Blei’s Cross+Roads Press did an exceptional series of fine chapbooks over the past two decades. Sadly, Norb died in April 2013. Such publications are a credit to editors of small press publishing because of the talent of the writers and quality of production and art. Also today, online publications are emerging as another source for beginning poets to see their work in print or on the tube. Norb Blei’s Basho’s Road and other sites come to mind. Therefore, aspiring poets have more opportunities to get published, I think. However, the issue of publishing quality remains as it always has—at the discretion of the publisher. Good editors/publishers produce good writing and books when they have good writing coming in and when they have the skill to recognize talent and publishable work.

As a small press publisher I’ve dealt with many poets who have had high opinions of their work. Sometimes these personal opinions were correct, but often they were not. A good editor needs to deal with easily bruised egos, and perhaps that’s the most difficult part of being a poetry publisher. My experiences in this regard have been mostly good. I liked the poets I worked with and published and I kept Wolfsong active for as long as I could after Chris ended his relationship with Wolfsong and left it to me. I recently began publishing my own work (haiku and small poems) in a mini-chapbook series.

Wisconsin today has a strong small press and continuing active interest in poetry. I hope that more independent publishers emerge. Online publishing has changed the landscape of publishing dramatically. Some state organizations for poets have been and are effective and useful to poets, among them The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (WFOP), Council for Wisconsin Writers (CWW), and Wisconsin Regional Writers (WRW).

The Internet has had good and bad influences on poetry writing and publishing. For poets, the reader only sees the finished work and not the revisions and rework always needed to hone a poem for publication. Future generations may regret not seeing the poet at work, sweating over words and ideas. For publishers who only publish online, the reader doesn’t have the delight of holding the poem or collection in hand. All you get is the poem on the screen. Personally, I prefer to have the work in printed form, on a sheet of paper or in book form. Yet, we all adapt to technological changes, or at least try to.

My involvement with the small press has been valuable and enjoyable, as an editor, publisher, and poet. Of course poetry needs financial support. The support of the small press means buying small press books and publications. It also means supporting poetry readings and events to keep poetry alive and in the public alive and active in Wisconsin because poetry gives so much more value to life.

(Note. The deaths of Norbert Blei and Chris Halla are a serious loss to small press publishing in Wisconsin. These two men contributed so much to the small press and served as mentors and teachers to thousands of beginning and established poets and writers. One can only hope that others with their skills and knowledge will emerge to fill some of the gap they left in the editing and publishing fields).

Magazines, broadsides, and chapbooks produced by R. Chris Halla and Gary C. Busha

The following is an index of publications I took a part in publishing or published with Chris Halla. E/P means Editor and Publisher.

  • 1975
    River Bottom, Vol. II, No. I, “Storyteller,” Busha Type setter
    River Bottom, Vol. II, No. II, Mag, Autumn, co-editor/ Busha typesetter, Chris and Jan Halla. E/P
  • 1976
    River Bottom, Vol. III, No. 1, “The Skeptic’s Dream,” Busha, Spring, Busha Type setter
    River Bottom, Vol. III, No. 2, “The Adventures of a Freelance Farmer,” Halla E/P, Spring, Bush Type setter
    River Bottom, Vol. III, No. 3, Mag, Busha co-editor with Halla, Chris Halla E/P
  • 1977
    River Bottom, Vol. IV, No. 1, Mag, Spring, Busha co-editor/type setter with Chris and Jan Halla E/P
    River Bottom, Vol. IV, No. 2, Mag, Summer, Fiction editor/type setter, Halla E/P
    River Bottom, Floating No. 5, Broadside, “Swoon of Papposilenus,” Bruce Taylor, Spring, Busha E/P
    River Bottom, Floating No. 6, Broadside, “Thanksgiving,” Lisa Busjahn, Summer, Busha E/P
  • 1978
    Wolfsong, No. 1, “Gold Mines,” Peter Wild, Busha type setter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong, No. 2, “Stocker,” William Kloefkorn, Busha typesetter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong No. 3, “Waiting,” Debra Frigen, Busha E/P
    Wolfsong No. 4, “The Moon Rides Witness,” Dorothy Dalton, Busha E/P
    Wolfsong No. 5, “River Boy, River Town, River,” Chris Halla, Halla, E/P
    Willow Wind Press, “Warping Time,” Joe Ryszewski, Busha E/P
  • 1979
    Wolfsong No. 6, “Riding the Rock Island through Kansas,” Dave Etter, Busha type setter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong No. 7, “The Lost Tribe,” Peter Wild, Busha, type setter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong No. 8, “Idle Trade: Early Poems,” Bruce Taylor, Busha E/P
    Willow Wind Press, “The 3rd Punch Hole,” Cecily Smith, Busha E/P
  • 1980
    Wolfsong No. 9, “Portable Shelter,” Joe Napora, Busha E/P
    Wolfsong No. 10, “North Farm,” Rodney Nelson, Busha typesetter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong No. 11, “Angst,” Arthur Winfield Knight, Busha typesetter, Halla E/P
    Wolfsong No. 12, “Soapstone Wall,” Travis Du Priest, Busha E/P
  • 1982
    Wolfsong Chapbook Series 1, “Dream of the Electric Eel,” Robert S. King, Busha E/P
  • 1990
    Page5, #1, Bruce Taylor/Gary Busha, Type setter, Chris Halla, E/P,
    Page5 #6, Norbert Blei, Busha Type setter, Chris Halla, E/P,
    Page5 #9, Bay View Stories, Gary Busha, Type setter, Chris Halla, E/P,
  • 1994
    Wolfsong Pubs, “WATER,” Chris Halla, Busha, E/P
  • 1995
    Wolfsong Pubs, “Willowdown,” Gary Busha, Busha, E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Grace,” Robert Schuler, Busha, E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Harvest Work,” Russell King, Busha E/P
  • 1996
    Wolfsong Pubs., “The Skeptic’s Dream,” Gary Busha, Busha, E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “How to Fall Out of Love,” Mariann Ritzer, Busha, E/P
  • 1997
    Wolfsong Pubs., “The Liege Poems,” Rich Bowen/Gary Busha, Busha, E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Next Time You See Me,” Dave Etter, Busha, E/P
  • 1998
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Last Hunt,” Doug Flaherty, Busha, E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Benthos,” Liz Hammond, Busha, E/P
  • 1999
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Notes from Skinner’s Elbow,” Michael Koehler, Busha E/P
    Wolfsong Pubs., “A Wolfsong Anthology,” Various, Busha, E/P
  • 2000
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Weird Sisters,” Nadine S. St. Louis, Busha E/P
  • 2001
    Wolfsong Pubs., “Knots of Sweet Longing,” Richard Roe, Busha, E/P
  • 2012
    Wolfsong Pubs., On the Dock, Gary C. Busha, Sturtevant, WI.
  • 2013
    Wolfsong Pubs., Rhyme Tyme, Gary C. Busha, Sturtevant, WI.
    Wolfsong Pubs., Canoe Haiku, Gary C. Busha, Sturtevant, WI.
    Wolfsong, Pubs., Frog on the Bay, Gary C. Busha, Sturtevant, WI.
  • 2014
    Wolfsong, Pubs., Bay View Spiders, Gary C. Busha, Sturtevant, WI.