A BRIEF HISTORY OF BOTTOM DOG PRESS
(from Bottom Dog Press Poetry Anthology: 25th Anniversary, 2010)
by Larry Smith, founder & director
1980's Early Beginnings
Bottom Dog Press began quietly with the publication of one chapbook in 1984, my Across These States: Journal Poems. The book was the immediate result of a train trip across the U.S. from Sandusky, Ohio to Oakland, California in 1984, and it chronicled that trip. It was also the result of my father's death that same year; he and most of the men of my family were railroaders, and so I took to the rails on a journey to find relief and myself again. The idea of printing a book myself and of creating a small literary press came about following the research of that trip on "The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance" done in San Francisco and Berkeley. While articles and reviews were produced from that research, the big book never emerged. But the days and weeks spent in the stacks of Berkeley's Bancroft Library leafing through the small press magazines and chapbooks did provide an education and inspiration to just go ahead and "do it," create an independent small press and publish writing that matters.
To aid me in this venture I had the luck of meeting up with Joseph Curran, a short, stocky fellow who showed up at my office door at Firelands College and asked if we could talk. He had heard of my efforts with writers from the area and wondered if he could help. Not a writer himself, he was in fact a publisher of small books, miniatures, and he lived nearby in Vermillion, Ohio. Joseph mentored our first publication, coaching me on the process and costs. Later he acknowledged being past president of the American Independent Publishers Association and drove me to Mansfield's Meade Paper Company to pick up enough cream colored, laid stock for the text printing and a flecked gray for the cover from their leftover stock. He was teaching me thrift as well as process. My artist friend Zita Sodeika (Willard, Ohio, by Chicago, by Lithuanian) produced the line drawing for the cover, a block series of visions from a train engine. Joseph produced the text on a fine letterpress printer in his basement. When they were done, he called me to come and pick up the pages. On the drive over I realized that I had never talked price with Joseph, and that I had no idea what he would ask. I had a couple hundred in our personal checking account. Joseph took me down to the basement, showed me his marvelous printing machine, and then the pages of the book. They were laid out in stacks of 14, covering pages 1-28. Black Caslon type was stamped deep into the cream paper, enough for 300 copies...a couple extra in case of accidents. As he loaded the boxes into my arms, I dared to ask, "This is so wonderful. How much do I owe you, Mr. Curran?" There was a slight pause till he responded, "You owe me nothing, my friend. I'm glad to do this, and maybe someday you'll do the same for someone else who's starting out." A hand shake and another thank you, and I drove the book home where my family gathered round our dining room table like a train, collating the text of 300 books. Joseph had already taught me the process of stitching the books together and handed me my own template and awl. We used good thick thread, tying a double knot in the center of the first fold, allowing the string to lay out a little. From these humble beginnings arose our dedication to publishing deserving writing that mattered to all people.
Our bottom dog logo (the same one we use today) was taken from a graphics book at a local print shop. The woman found several dogs, but they all looked too soft and pretty. Finally she found a wolf...and we whited out his fangs, and there we had the Bottom Dog, a term taken from a Depression era novel by Edward Dahlberg. We were bottom dogs alright, and like the underdog in a littler we were small and scrappy, yet would prove to be persistent. I have to mention another mentor in Robert (Bob) Fox, fiction writer and publisher of Carpenter Press. Bob was also the literary coordinator at the Ohio Arts Council then, so he was there to offer key advice on launching the press. Bob remained a friend and literary ally until his passing a few years ago. Among his recommendations was a book that became a kind of bible for starting and running a small press. Michael Scott Cain's book with the unlikely title: Book Marketing : A Guide to Intelligent Distribution from Len Fulton's Dustbooks Press. The book begins with a recommendation to study the big publishers and how they operate...and then do nothing like them or you'll go under, as most little magazines and small presses do within a couple years. The book was practical and informed, full of history of alternative small press publishing and sound advice on setting up a production and marketing schedule.
Our second book came from poet-friend Terry Hermsen, 36 Spokes: The Bicycle Poems released in January of 1985. It too was journal poems from the bicycle trip across the US made by Terry and his wife Carla; 36 pages this time, again on laid cream stock with cover art by mutual friend Zita Sodeika, and thanks to Terry's suggestion a full map of the country and their biking path laid out inside the cream colored cover. The poems carried Terry's strong sense of image and detail while maintaining a meditative Taoist outlook to the journey. We sold the book at biking events and took out our first ads in biking magazines and Small Press Review. Again, the printing was done in Sandusky with Roth Printing and the guidance of Dan Roth, who lead our next books through the press and who would eventually traded the printing business for teaching. Our early marketing was through family and friends and fellow writers, and I eventually took the press to a bookfair in Canton, Ohio, where they held the annual Midwest Writers' Festival for years. Our table was alongside of Bob Fox's Carperter Press. I remember getting a cup of coffee and walking back to see our small display of two books and just beaming with pride and disbelief that we could part of a literary tradition and scene.
By 1986 we had come to see that small press publishing was dependent on friends and intimacy with the audience. When Terry or I read to a group of writers or readers in a library or classroom, they actually bought our books. We also found our first writers in those small groups. We next did a flip book...double book which you flipped over to find a second front cover on the back. The two chapbooks included were Milton Jordan's Better Things to Do, and Marci Janis's Lights and Shadows. They each had 18 pages and cover art by Zita Sodeika. We celebrated at a book party in Milton's home in Oberlin.
To my surprise our #5 in the series came that year from an established writer at Bowling Green State University, Philip F. O'Connor and his fiction chapbook Ohio Woman, thus launching our fiction series, which we have maintained throughout. Our production shifted with this book and Dan Roth's guidance to saddle stitching with edges trimmed. We still had control of the paper stock and the cover art, thanks to Zita Sodeika again. With the help of a small grant from the Ohio Arts Council, we printed 500 numbered and signed copies of these handsome books, and they sold out in two years. We applied for this grant without being incorporated, but with Bob Fox's guidance began the process of setting up a board and incorporating, filing with the state of Ohio and IRS as well as a 501 (c) not-for-profit cultural and educational organization. Early board members included poet David Shevin who would become the associate editor and lead the Paul Laurence Dunbar Series of books, filmmaker Tom Koba, artist Zita Sodeika, my wife Ann Smith, and Terry Hermsen. It should be pointed out, that our publishing schedule began to run with the OAC grant calendar, July 1 to June 31, and so our books would usually appear one or two in the fall, and two in the spring
Printer Dan Roth and I had found a new model using saddle stitching (staples) with a dust jacket that was scored and folded around it to appear perfect bound. Thus we had the smaller book format and answered some demand from bookstores and libraries for perfect bound books. Our first book using this format was another flip book joining Michael Waldecki's ironic and witty Mike's Place: Every Monday with Ronald E. Kittell's uncooked poems Raw Sienna treating alcoholism. Mike has remained a good friend and supporter for more than 30 years, testifying to the way small presses work on alliances and networking to counter the corporate publishing machines. Typically, cover art came from an artist friend, in this case Stephen Smigocki from West Virginia.
Fellow writers in Ohio now extending into the Midwest began to take notice of our books, all in a kind of word of mouth awareness... "Hey, have you heard of this little press in Huron, Ohio?" Next came a twin book The Family StoriesThe Grennans and Peter Desy's The Benoits (1986). David Shevin brought us the next book by Ohio poet Diane Kendig. It took us a long way into the cultural and political world. "And a Pencil to Write Your Name" : Poems from the Nicaraguan Poetry Workshop was the result of Diane's work in translating the people's words and lives in a stark political reality. All was helped by Cleveland photographer Steve Cagan whose stark black and white photos grace the book with a verity we desired. This was followed in 1987 George Myers Jr.'s Bodies of Water poems. George, living in Westerville, Ohio then, was book editor at the Columbus Dispatch and had done his own small press work with Cumberland Press. fiction including Jim Gorman's chapbook
Move to Perfect Bound Books
The fall of 1987 saw Bottom Dog Press move from handsome crafted chapbooks into bigger, perfect bound books. This was in answer to both libraries and bookstores refusing to stock our chapbooks and in part a response to our growing abilities as editors and publishers and our emerging reputation as an independent Midwest literary publisher. In making this big step, several mistakes were made. Best Ohio Fiction (1987) evolved in the plan of producing a "Best of..." book, then quite popular and of featuring fiction by writers living and working in Ohio. Like the many of these works, we would feature four of Ohio's best established writers-Robert Flanagan, Philip F. O'Connor, Robert Fox, and Jack Matthews-and allow them to select four young, up and coming authors chosen from a contest. Daughter Laura and I edited the book and screened the bulk of manuscripts selecting 10 to send on to the final judges. The works were judged anonymously, and Laura and I also had a vote in the final selection. To our surprise, two of the winners were John O'Connor, son of Philip F. O'Connor and Anne Flanagan, daughter of Robert Flanagan. We had put no proviso in the contest rules restricting those related to the featured authors from entering, and being naïve about the whole literary world, we decided we had to go through with the four selected, which also included fine stories by Brian Feil and Amy Schildhouse. Though we were slammed for this imagined nepotism by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, we held true to our promise to publish the best of the fiction we had been submitted. Twenty-five years and 110 books later, and Cleveland's big newspaper has only reviewed two of our books, yet clearly we have survived.
1990's Developing Our Series
The story from here on is pretty much told in the list of perfect bound books we produced, often in combined chapbooks of three, four, even six poets. We were publishing deserving authors often in their first book format. Our Ohio Writers Series soon broadened into a Midwest Writers Series, and eventually we developed a Working Lives Series honoring the life and writing of working-class culture. Our Paul Laurence Dunbar series featured work by African American poets in particular, and our Harmony Series has provided a broad umbrella covering our concern for writings of the human spirit. Poetry anthologies have appeared in several of these series including an inexpensive Pocket Poems Series which Terry Hermsen and I created after watching young people without ready cash browsing at our book tables: O "Listen" (Pocket Poems #1) ed. Terry Hermsen (1995), Nature (Pocket Poems #2) ed. Laura Smith (1997), Food Poems (Pocket Poems #3) eds. Terry Hermsen and David Garrison (1998), Haiku Poems (Pocket Poems #4) eds. Yvonne Hardenbrook & Larry Smith (2000), Alphabet Faucet: Prose Poems eds. Allen Frost and Laura Smith (2000), and Catch Fire: New Poets from the Firelands (Pocket Poems #4) eds. Yvonne Stella and Lin Ryan-Thompson (2001).
The larger national anthologies have been our best sellers and allowed us to reach a larger audience and provide materials for classroom use. The poetry anthologies include: Coffeehouse Poetry Anthology: Poems-Photos-Statements, eds. Larry Smith and June King (1996); Brooding the Heartlands: Poets of the Midwest, ed. M.L.Liebler includes selections by Jim Daniels, W. D. Ehrhart, Sean Thomas Daugherty, Aurora Harris, Faye Kicknosway, M. L. Liebler, Ed Sanders, Larry Smith, Tyrone Williams (1998); Working Hard for the Money: America's Working Poor in Stories, Poems, and Photos, eds. Mary E.Weems and Larry Smith (2002); O Taste and See: Food Poems eds. Terry Hermsen & David Garrison (2003); America Zen: A Gathering of Poets, edited by Ray McNiece and Larry Smith (2004); Family Matters: Poems of Our Families edited by Ann Smith and Larry Smith (2005); Evensong: Contemporary American Poets on Spirituality edited by Gerry Lafemina and Chad Prevost (2006); Cleveland Poetry Scenes: A Panorama and Anthology, edited by Nina Freedlander Gibans, Mary E. Weems, and Larry Smith (2008); and Come Together: Imagine Peace edited by Philip Metres, Ann Smith, and Larry Smith (2008). Much credit goes to the volunteer editors who labor long in the selection and arrangement process as well as the business of seeking permissions for reprints. Each has created an atmosphere of genuine sharing as seen in the group readings sponsored around the country. If the people in the book care deeply about it, it will find a home. This has also allowed us to created an Editorial Board from among these editors to consult with and to oversee the selection of our books.
Some High Points
By 1990 I and my daughter Laura Smith had been working on a collection of Kenneth Patchen love poems. For research on a biography of this noted Ohio poet, I had been visiting Patchen's widow Miriam in Palo Alto, CA, that year, so I was there when she received news from City Lights Books that they did not intend to reprint his Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen, one of their earliest Pocket Poets Series. When I asked her if Bottom Dog Press might reprint the love poems, she agreed immediately saying that there were many more poems left out of that slim volume. And so Laura and I gathered almost 100 love poems for the entire collection, including some of his drawing-and-poems. To our delight, New Directions Publishing quite generously allowed us reprint rights to publish a hard and soft cover edition using a Patchen line: Awash with Roses: The Collected Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen. Artist Zita Sodeika provided a truly beautiful cover image of pink roses and pedals. That book soon sold out as eventually did my Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet of America biography done with other alternative and independent small presses as "A Consortium of Small Press Publishers" in 2000.
We were now doing about five books a year, taking Michael Cain's advice of following up on each books for at least nine months with marketing and promotions. Cain's suggestion that books sell in circles of association that ripple outward and that "intimacy creates value," led us to send out mailers to those involved with the writers as well as to arrange for individual and group readings at campuses, libraries, coffeehouses, bookstores and home soiree. With the help of layout and design editor skills of Susanna Sharp-Schwacke, we were printing catalogs and including booklists at the back of all of our books now, doing bookmarks (a simple ruler with the question "How do you measure your life? Read a book"), and appearing at book fairs in the Midwest.
A look at our list of titles and taste of the poems selected here tells the story. Our books have been reviewed and sold nationally. Each year we emerge in the black only to plunge our resources into the next year's publications. By 2006 we turned another corner, embracing Print-on-Demand methods of publishing. Instead of printing a minimum of 1000 copies with offset printing, and storing and shipping them out from our station, we could not print the books on an as needed basis. This method has now won wide approval, and allows us to put labor and love into a book without much financial risk. Thus we were able to launch an imprint under Bird Dog Publishing, doing more deserving authors. According to latest count here, we have done 91 books of poetry and 14 poetry anthologies. We have also done 20 books of fiction in our varied series, and an additional 12 books of nonfiction including themed personal essays and memoirs, most with photos. With the help of filmmaker Tom Koba we co-produced three video docu-dramas on James Wright, Kenneth Patchen, and d.a. levy and have participated in and sponsored festivals on these writers. We have also established a presence on the internet with a variety of home and information pages. The work goes on.
In Bottom Dog Press Poetry Anthology so generously given and assembled here you can sense some of the character of our independence and working-class, Midwest character. The poems do speak to each other and represent individual voices and yet a rich chorus of poets of the eye and heart. With editors Laura Smith and Allen Frost at the helm, and me working as senior editor, Susanna Sharp-Schwacke working on design we will continue to offer "books that matter to us all."
Causes Larry Smith Supports
peace and justice, meditation