verse press sold

Publishing venture to seek profit in poetry

By Sheila Farr

Seattle Times art critic

Charlie Wright, son of art patrons Virginia and Bagley Wright, is starting a new venture.

Seattleites already know Wright as chairman of the family business: timber and development company R.D. Merrill. Art aficionados around the country see Wright as more of a savior: the guy who took over the failing Dia Foundation in New York (a supporter of innovative, large-scale art projects) and restored it to solvency.

Now Wright is well under way with plans for something entirely different: a Seattle-based publishing house focused exclusively on poetry. He hasn't firmed up a name for the press, which will bring out 10 books a year. But Wright has already hired an editor — poet and literary editor Joshua Beckman — and bought Verse, an East Coast poetry press, which will be folded into the new operation. They plan to announce upcoming titles and authors by later this year.

"We'll be focused on midcareer American poets," Wright said. "There will be some exposure to emerging poets, also reprints and translations — sort of a mixed bag."

If running a poetry press sounds like a strange path for a 50-year-old lawyer and businessman, Wright says it's really more of a homecoming for him. Poetry is his passion. "I've been involved with poetry longer than art," said Wright, who studied literature in college and wrote a thesis on American poet Wallace Stevens.

What makes this venture extraordinary isn't what it is, but how he's chosen to do it. "It's not a not-for-profit," Wright said. "You come to it with a different mentality if you aren't asking for grants and donations."

Christine Deavel, co-owner of Seattle poetry bookstore Open Books, says it is rare if not unheard-of for a press exclusively dedicated to poetry to operate as a for-profit business — poetry is seldom a money-maker. As a result, she said, Wright will have an exceptional degree of freedom in the way he runs the business and the poets he chooses to support.

"It really is unusual. He won't have to spend his time fund raising," she said. "He's not answerable to a board. He can do whatever he wants."

But can he make money at it?

"I don't think we can — but we'll try hard," Wright says.

Wright didn't come up with the notion of publishing poetry on his own. He says his dad — a businessman known for making money, not throwing it away — was in on the plan. "I suckered him into it," Wright deadpans.

But he's completely serious when he talks about why.

"It's to make a difference," Wright said. "It's probably vanity, but I think we can have an impact on poets and poetry. There are so many presses but it's hard to point to one that's consistently on the mark."

For the poets he chooses to work with, the press will be a godsend. These days a number of poetry books get published through contests, where poets pay hefty entrance fees that end up subsidizing the book that gets selected, and even some of the publisher's operating expenses.

What that means for poets is that many of those lucky enough to get published through contests will be bumped from one publisher to another with each book.

That won't happen here. Wright plans to develop long-term relationships with poets and work hard to promote them. His role will be to "help bring light to poets we think are the highest quality," Wright says. "We want to work with poets who will stand the test of time."

Sheila Farr:

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