While it has no bricks and mortar presence (besides a tiny, cramped office in the basement of the Durham Arts Council), Carolina Wren Press has built a literary community throughout its 32-year history. Launched by a single mom with barely a dollar in her pocketbook, this small independent publisher of poetry, fiction and nonfiction has survived on volunteer labor, grants and community support, building a list of about 60 books and launching the careers of local authors.
"They're the little engine that could," says Debbie McGill, literature director of the North Carolina Arts Council. Since her organization began making grants to the Press in 1979, McGill has seen many changes. Volunteer staff and editorial board members have come and gone. "At each point when there's been a cast change, my heart's been in my throat, thinking, I don't know how they're going to survive this. But they do."
Today, under the leadership of poet and Carolina Wren author Andrea Selch, the Press is still a labor of love, but it's going strong. Its mission remains to publish and nurture new work by people whose voices are often left out of mainstream publishing—including women, people of color and members of the gay and lesbian community. Thus its credo: New authors, new audiences.
"You can't just say, 'I'm for women's rights' or 'I'm for civil rights,'" Selch says. "I honor that beginning. But we've kind of backed up a little and said, 'We're for literature, and we're for those who are underrepresented in literature.'"
Carolina Wren Press has its roots in the small press movement, a literary awakening tied to the Civil Rights movement and protest of the Vietnam War. Across the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s, people were buying $1,000 offset printing presses in order to publish poetry, fiction and experimental work by writers outside the academy and the conventional world of literature.
"To start a small press did not involve a lot of money," founder Judy Hogan says. "Mostly it took guts." During her years as a graduate student in classics at the University of California at Berkeley, Hogan watched with excitement as the "free speech" movement unfolded. In 1969, she and friend Paul Foreman launched a magazine called Hyperion Poetry Journal. When she later moved to Orange County with her then-husband, she networked with poets and hosted readings and literary gatherings at area restaurants in Durham and Chapel Hill throughout the early 1970s.
Writers kept coming up to her at these events asking for advice on how to get published—writers with talent and something to say. Some were black; some were gay; many were women. "I'd suggest places where they should be published, and they wouldn't be," she says.
As president of the Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers, she was familiar with the trials and successes of small book publishers. She'd seen the model at work in Charlotte, where the flamboyant Charleen Whisnant Swansea was publishing poetry through her own Red Clay Books.
It didn't matter to Hogan that, while she herself was a nationally prominent figure in the small press movement, she was also a mother of three small children, going through a divorce, living on food stamps in a reduced-rent apartment in Chapel Hill.
"My philosophy is, you don't do things that make sense, the way everybody else does it," Hogan explains. "You do something because you think you should do it, and support does come, even though it doesn't make sense. People think, 'This is admirable; let me help.'"
She managed to publish her first few titles by the seat of her pants. Sometimes, she would send a manuscript to be printed and shipped out knowing she didn't have the money to pay the bill. Timely arts council grants, donations from friends and even money upfront from the authors themselves saved the day, as did the goodwill of those printers, who let her pay her bill over the course of several months.
Seventeen years ago, Hogan decided to hand over the reins in order to focus on her own writing. For several years, Carolina Wren Press went through a downtime. When Selch took over as acting director in 2002, there was $79 in the bank, the N.C. Arts Council grant had not been renewed, and there were only three active board members. "I was one of them," she says. She's proud to report that, since then, the Press has published more than a dozen books, the annual budget has increased 250 percent, grants have almost doubled, there's an active board and even enough cash to hire a part-time office employee.
In addition to making the Press more financially self-sustaining, Selch says her goal has been to give the press a national identity. "At the time I took over, we had a strong focus on writers of color and women, mostly from North Carolina. I felt like what we needed to do was concentrate on keeping that outside the mainstream-ness, but expand it to include other authors coming from other places."
She turned the chapbook series into an annual poetry contest advertised to a national audience. A presence at the national conference of writing programs reached out to Masters of Fine Arts students, as well. "That national exposure is so important," Selch says, in terms of bringing in diverse new talent and in giving Carolina Wren authors a national audience.
One of the Press' most successful authors is also one of its first. Jaki Shelton Green brought a stack of composition notebooks full of her hand-written poetry out to the Cedar Grove farmhouse where Hogan was living in 1973.
"I wasn't even sure if I wanted to be a writer," Green recalls. "I was trying to embrace the possibility." Hogan became her mentor. "Judy wanted to hear other people's voices," Green says. Gatherings of poets in Hogan's living room inspired Green to take a chance on her own work. Carolina Wren published Green's first book, Dead on Arrival, in 1979, and has published two more editions since.
"I'm not sure that I would have been published at that time in my life by any other press," Green says. "My work was very political at that time—we're talking about the '70s. African- American writers of that era, the tone was very angry sometimes, very emotional. Sometimes we were written off as just people screaming. I will always appreciate Judy taking that on."
Green now travels across the country giving readings and judging literary contests. She's had offers from other presses, she says, but she stays with Carolina Wren Press because of its dedication to its authors. Selch secured grants that helped pay for Green to spend the better part of two years on tour to promote her most recent book, Breath of a Song.
Among the new generation of Carolina Wren Press authors are Tanya Olsen (who was recently profiled in our pages) and Ken Rumble (winner of an Indies Arts Award in 2005). Rumble co-founded the Lucifer Poetics Group, a salon-style gathering of area writers that harkens back to the days of Hogan's dinner parties, except that Lucipo, as it's called, is organized via listserv.
McGill says the Press is particularly good at building new audiences for literature. For example, Shirlette Ammons' recently published Matching Skin was launched not at a bookstore but at a music club, so she reached fans of hip-hop who weren't necessarily seeking out written poetry. "There's not a huge audience for poetry by any means," McGill says, "but Carolina Wren Press keeps producing these books and finding creative ways to bring readers to them. The audience is sustained and grows. There's a ripple effect."
Hogan says she's pleased with Carolina Wren's current incarnation. "I think [Selch and the board] have kept the tradition pretty well by making an effort to work on the cultural edge."
As for the Press' namesake, Hogan says she chose the Carolina wren because it builds nests close to human beings, in old hats, under hoods of cars and in other "impractical places." "I was either impractical or very practical, depending on your point of view. But it worked. And I'm very glad I did it and very glad it's still alive."
For more information about Carolina Wren Press, including an early history written by founder Judy Hogan, visit www.carolinawrenpress.org.