April 18, 2019KR BlogBlog

Publisher Spotlight: Philip Brady of Etruscan Press

Philip Brady’s most recent book is a collection of essays, Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). His most recent book of poetry is To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet (Broadstone, 2015). He is the author of three previous books of poetry, a previous collection of essays, and a memoir. He has edited a critical book on James Joyce and an anthology of contemporary poetry.

Brady’s work has received the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press; a ForeWord magazine Gold Medal; an Ohioana Poetry Award; the Ohio Governor’s Award and six Individual Artist Fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council; and Thayer and Newhouse Fellowships from New York State. An essay earned Notable recognition in Best American Essays, and work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes.

Brady has taught at the National University of Zaire, University College Cork, and on Semester at Sea. He is a distinguished professor at Youngstown State University and executive director of Etruscan Press, and he serves on the low-residency MFA faculty of Wilkes University.

Kristina Marie Darling:  How did you come to editing as a career path?

Philip Brady:  In 2000, Bob Mooney, a fiction writer, and Steve Oristaglio, a businessman, and I decided to invite a larger audience to conversations we’d been having for years. Our question: Are poetry and prose two manifestations of the same impulse, or are they completely different arts, joined by the technology of the alphabet? Out of this matrix, we have published 90 titles in poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, translation, and criticism. Each book is signed with runes of line and sentence.

KMD:  What does literary citizenship mean to you and how does it shape your editorial decisions, approach to book publicity, and engagement with the larger community?  

PB:  In these fraught times, I am ambivalent about belonging. Our name reflects this reticence. Etruscans were a people Rome conquered but could not comprehend. Like the Romans, Americans find artifacts of the conquered—such as poetry—obscure and edifying. Etruscan undertakes the mission of independent presses—to be the enigma beneath empire, quietly disrupting.

KMD:  Please share one story about your press, your authors, or the books you’ve published that demonstrates this.

PB:  “Poetry,” Auden famously pronounced, “makes nothing happen.” At first glance, Auden appears to endorse discourse over action. He privileges the word over the world. But viewed from another angle, Auden’s proposition is dynamic: poetry is not merely passive; it prevents “something” from being the only thing that occurs, and opens a plethora of potentialities. It makes nothing HAPPEN. Auden endows poetry with a power equivalent to mathematical zero.

One book that made nothing happen is Zarathustra Must Die: A Fictional Memoir, (Etruscan, 2007). I have never met or spoken with the author. I am not at liberty to divulge his name. His pseudonym is Dorian Alexander, chosen, I assume, to disassociate the author from the sex, drugs, and unhealthy relationship with Nietzsche portrayed in the fictional memoir. It’s a beautiful, genre-defying tour de force, with lightning cover art by Robert Carioscia and some hot blurbs I made up myself. For a decade, this book has remained unread. The numbers of readers of Zarathustra Must Die approach mathematical zero. But one editor—me—lavished Zarathustra Must Die with such bewildered excess of love that it has gone through the process of acquisition, development, promotion, and production that distinguishes books from the endless scrolls of unpublished manuscripts. Zarathustra Must Die is a book. It lies beneath. It whispers, I exist, to readers weak in numbers but radiant with the faith that not all things that count can be counted.

KMD:  In what ways has your definition of and commitment to literary citizenship changed in the past few years?  What sparked these changes?

PB:  Literary citizenship was thrust upon us with our first book, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, which William Heyen pitched to us on September 12, 2001, before we had an office or distribution or production or any publishing chops. That book—consisting of the first response to 9/11 by 127 writers, including Lucille Clifton, Erica Jong, Robert Pinsky, Ishmael Reed, John Updike, Terry Tempest Williams, and many others—galvanized our mission: poetry and prose forged in communal imagination.

Since then, our Outreach Program has brought books of high imaginative ambition and achievement—and the authors themselves—to students and incarcerated citizens whose reading has been constricted to school texts or hackneyed briefs. Our internships at Wilkes (which you know, Kristina, as a site supervisor for one of them) send Wilkes U. MFA students into communities all over the country to bring literature to diverse populations.

The biggest catalyst of change for me has been teaching in prisons. I have been rocked to the core by the talent and dedication of incarcerated writers and readers. Every day I am confronted with—not just the injustice—but the absurdity—of caging people, with all the pageantry of incarceration: the towers and bandoliers and panopticons. The walkie-talkies and key boxes; the codes; the muting of given names; thrice daily counts; the “Not Fit for Human Consumption” stenciled sacks; the violating frisks; the Abandon All Hope archway; the protocol whereby all visitors surrender cash and electronics and jewelry and license as if entering a medieval airport.

Every class, students demonstrate the qualities that I now see as paramount for writers: urgency, experience, and audience. Their most personal stories have been publicly dramatized and juried; they lived among us and are now apart; they glean one another and the world in ways that we outsiders cannot. Our visiting writers learn more than we teach. As one writer said, leaving a class, “I’m so angry. Why are these readers in prison?”

KMD:  Tell us about one forthcoming title from your press that you think will change the world for the better.

PB:  To change the world it may take more than one.

We are thankful for Sheryl St. Germain’s forthcoming 50 Miles, a memoir about addiction and recovery. Sheryl is coming to Youngstown as our Outreach visitor this spring.

We await Spring Ulmer’s Bestiality of the Involved whose title speaks for itself, and Sari Fordham’s Wait for God to Notice which addresses colonialism in Uganda, and Mihaela Moscaliuc’s translations of the Roma poet Liliana Ursu and Diane Raptosh’s Dear Z, the third book of her comprehensive rewriting of America. There are others coming, too.

One which may speak for all is H.L. Hix’s forthcoming Demonstrategy. The heading to “Article 1” exhorts us to “Make another world, make this world otherwise.” I’ll end with the opening to Demonstrategy.

“One take on contemporary life sees technology as having displaced poetry, rendering it irrelevant or at best compensatory. On this view, we live in the information age, under the sign of Moore’s Law, and poetry, as Wittgenstein observed even before digital supplanted analog, ‘is not used in the language game of giving information.’ Absence from popular culture confirms poetry’s reduction to insignificance. Gaming and film and television reach billions of people worldwide, and generate billions each year in revenue. Poetry, by contrast, reaches a tiny, tenuous, negligible audience, and operates at a loss, propped up by patronage, burdening rather than bolstering economic growth.

Consider, though, this contrary view: technology’s influence makes poetry more urgent than ever before, so urgent that it conditions the continued survival of the human species. Exclusion of poetry from popular culture is a symptom not of poetry’s illness but of culture’s. Our situation is not that poetry is dying for want of an audience, but that humanity is dying for want of poetry. In Charles Bernstein’s words, ‘What is to be regretted is not the lack of mass audience for any particular poet but the lack of poetic thinking as an activated potential for all people.’ In fulfillment of that contrarian understanding, I propose ethopoesis. The ethopoetic would recognize the urgency, even the necessity, of poetry, and toward a vision of a poetry that might be adequate to this cultural need.”