Chronicling A Celtic Renaissance

An Interview with Thomas Rain Crowe
Editorís note: This article first appeared in the ďHouselightsĒ department of Independent Publisher magazine, Jan/Feb 1998 issue.

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Writing the Wind, A Celtic Resurgence (New Native Press 1997) edited by Thomas Rain Crowe was the first comprehensive English-language book of contemporary Celtic poetry (and includes selections in all six Celtic languages: Welsh, Breton, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Manx.) Croweís co-editor Gwendal Denez conducted an informal interview with Crowe, and the pair discussed independent publishing, poetry and the release of their long-awaited collection. A portion of their conversation is printed here.

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Gwendal Denez: When did you start New Native Press and what is its history?

Thomas Rain Crowe: I actually began New Native Press when I returned from the West Coast to the mountains of North Carolina. The first things that were printed under this imprint were limited edition fine arts broadsheets - quite literally poems printed on art-quality paper in conjunction with original art work.

As years went by, I found myself working for a local newspaper which had a print shop business as a subsidy. I wrangled a deal with the owner of the business that allowed me to use the printing presses, paper and machinery at cost in my spare time in order to do printing jobs of my own making. I began designing, typesetting, printing and binding chapbooks of poetry during this time -- which was in the late 1980s.

Looking back now, I would have to say that this was probably my hey-day as a publisher, as I loved being able to do, physically, all the aspects of book-making from A to Z. But, after a few years of printing and publishing nice small hand-sewn books, and after being laid off from my job at the newspaper and printing business, I made the decision to take the ultimate step of a full-time commitment to publishing perfect bound, mass-market books. It seemed like a logical idea with all my experience in editing, publishing, etc. over the years. But, I had not figured in the marketing side of things, and so I was in for a real shock when I quickly found out that there really was no substantial market for selling books of poetry (and in fact the fine literary arts in general) in the U.S.

I went ahead with producing perfect bound books of poetry despite the odds against such a venture being able to support itself Ė much less me and my partner. Now, 13 books, four recordings, various broadsides and eight years later, Iím still doing it. God only knows how Iíve managed to keep afloat in the vastly competitive market here in the U.S., but providence and persistence are what fuels this press, and now with the Celtic Resurgence book, I think all the long years of work are finally going to pay off.

DENEZ: You mentioned the problems of marketing books of poetry in the States. Could you speak a little bit about the difficulties of being a small independent publisher in the U.S.?

CROWE: Donít get me started (laughs). Seriously, in response to your question, Iíd have to start with the demographics of the American readership. The latest figures show, and I believe these are very close to being accurate, if not dead on, that a very small percentage of the American population reads anything at all other than tabloid journals, popular magazines and best-seller blockbuster novels.

As a publisher of poetry Iím looking at a potential audience here in the U.S. of some 16,000 readers tops. (And Iím told that most of these are other published poets!) When you consider that there are some two hundred million people here in the U.S. that are of reading age, 16,000 is a very small percentage. Now, factor in the fact that there are some 200 small presses and 40 or 50 mass-market publishers which publish poetry, and that figure of 16,000 begins shrinking very quickly.

No matter how good my books might be, the fact is that I canít get New Native Press books in every store in the country in order to take advantage of this small little group of 16,000 potential poetry book buyers. That, coupled with the fact that as a small press publisher I donít have the budget to advertise my titles sufficiently to reach the full potential market leaves me on pretty precarious ground. Even with good distributors (which I have) itís pretty much a hit and miss business in terms of getting oneís books out into the right places. So, being a small press publisher in the U.S. is more about economic guerilla warfare than any other metaphor I can come up with. You quite literally have to be street smart, aggressive, relentless and creative in the ways you find to select, design and market your books. And even then, itís an uphill battle all the way. In the end, itís very discouraging, I suppose. But, then for those of us who are addicted to this stuff and donít know how to do anything else (laughs), what else are we to do?

Denez: That's a good question. What, then, are you, as a poet yourself, to do under these sorts of trying circumstances that you portray about the state-of-the-art, so to speak, of literature in the States?

Crowe: Well, I for one, have gone abroad to try and cultivate an interest in my work. Since 1993 I've been to Wales and Ireland twice and Scotland once in an attempt to rekindle the fire of my poetic soul which had been reduced to mere embers in the years leading up to that time.

As a result of these visits, and of the friendships and associations resulting from these trips, I've quite literally jump-started a stalled career. The charge that I've gotten from just living for short periods of time in cultures where literature is a viable and sought-after art form has been nothing short of revolutionary. I have fed off of that for almost five years now, and it is beginning to pay off. Just last month my first book in many years was published in Wales by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch press - a book of poems that I wrote from the Dylan Thomas Boat House in Laugharne, Wales. And, the birth of two years of blood, sweat and tears -- Writing the Wind -- has already sold in advance half of the first printing in the U.K., Ireland and Brittany alone. So, you see, there's more than one way to skin a cat, as we say.

Denez: Let's get on to the anthology itself. I wonder if you wouldn't talk a bit about the history of this ground-breaking book.

Crowe: This book was conceived and carried out as an attempt to introduce an uninformed American readership to at least some of the most prominent and most important writers from your part of the world, writing in their original Celtic languages - Breton, Welsh, Manx, Cornish, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic. There seems to be a fascination with "things Irish" in the States at the moment. And in many cases this fascination is being confused with what is perceived to be the whole of the Celtic world by a large part of the American public. This is so largely because there has been little else offered to inform them that there is much more where this came from in terms of contemporary Celtic literature.

On a bit more ambitious level, and as the project got well under way, I took it on as a personal mission to introduce a compilation of Celtic language literature to the world as a document in place and time - to fill the huge hole in the canon of the current international literary scene. Never, to my knowledge, had anything approaching a comprehensive contemporary collection of Celtic language literature been attempted, much less published and made available on two continents. In light of the depth, age and quality of the literary traditions in the Celtic communities we're talking about here, it seems not only a huge oversight, but something of a travesty that such a book has not been done before now! But now we have it, and the 'hole in the dam' is plugged, and we all will be the richer for it.

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Thomas Rain Crowe is a poet, translator and author of several books of original work and translation, including The Laugharne Poems (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1997). He is a former editor of Beatitude and Katuah Journal, publisher of New Native Press and international Editor-at-Large for Asheville Poetry Review.

Gwendal Denez was born in Kemper, West Brittany, and is a native Breton speaker. He founded the magazine Al Lanv in 1981 and has written a novel, a collection of poems and a study of the fishermen of his hometown. He is the editor of the anthology Skrid.