Cowfeather Press’s mission is to bring the work of Wisconsin poets and poetry into the light, by publishing books written by deserving Wisconsin authors, by building audience for poetry across the state, and by encouraging all Wisconsin poets to write to their highest potential. Cowfeather Press co-editors Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman work with authors to design and publish books that represent their own aesthetic vision, as well as that of the press.
Busse and Vardaman co-edit the Wisconsin-based poetry magazine, Verse Wisconsin. Busse lives in Madison with her husband and two children. Busse’s poems have appeared in a variety of journals and two chapbooks, and she is the recipient of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Award and a Pushcart Prize. Her full-length collection, Somewhere Piano, will be published by Mayapple Press in 2012. Author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009), Vardaman has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. She works for a children’s theater, The Young Shakespeare Players, in Madison, has three children, and does not own a car. In addition to poetry, she writes reviews, essays, and interviews which have appeared in Poetry Daily and The Women’s Review of Books and online at Poets.org.
Wisconsin People & Ideas recently met with the two editors for coffee and asked them five questions about Cowfeather Press and their inaugural publication: Unexpected Shiny Things, by Bruce Dethlefsen.
What made you decide to start a poetry press?
As editors of Verse Wisconsin, we’ve become more familiar with the Wisconsin poetry scene over the last couple of years. Given the level of interest in poetry in Wisconsin, and the active writing community, we thought the state could support, and deserved, a poetry press that would seek to publish deserving full-length volumes of poetry (as opposed to chapbooks) and promote our poets to an audience beyond the borders of the state. We look to Minnesota as a model with its many, many admirable presses. Too, as we are editors, it seems like a natural fit for us to have an imprint under the aegis of Verse Wisconsin. True to our magazine roots, we’re starting small. So far, like the magazine, this press is a “two-women, two-laptops” kind of business model. More a hobby than a business, more a service than a hobby, is one way to think of it. Many small or micro press poetry publishers, including us, hope to break even or are non-profits—it’s about love rather than money.
What do you hope to achieve with this press?
At the moment, we’re focusing on this first title, Unexpected Shiny Things by Bruce Dethlefsen. We’d like to help Dethlefsen find a larger audience for his deserving poems. Since neither of us has been a publisher of books before, it seems wise to begin slowly. Starting with one title gives us a chance to feel our way into the current publishing world, which is vast and rapidly changing. Too, fewer bookstores means that we have to explore alternative distribution models. A lot of poets are going to alternate publication models—PDF downloads of poems, audio tracks, and so forth—instead of just making books these days because of the economic hurdles to bookselling and the changing nature of how we read. Verse Wisconsin strives to break ground as a hybrid print-online publisher of poetry, and we hope to apply the expertise and insight we’ve gained with the magazine to producing poetry collections.
Why did you select Bruce Dethlefsen as the author of your inaugural collection?
We both think Dethlefsen’s poetry deserves a broad readership. He’s our current state poet laureate, and his poetry is capable of speaking to people across Wisconsin, and beyond, from all backgrounds and persuasions. His work balances thoughtful intelligence with heart. It’s wise and kind, and we need more of that. Plus we see Cowfeather as a press that, like Verse Wisconsin, both builds community and recognizes those who do. The timing itself was serendipitous. We heard that Dethlefsen was thinking about trying to get a second collection put together, and we had been thinking off and on about trying our hands at book publishing. We approached Dethlefsen about publishing his book, and he generously agreed to take a chance on us.
What can you tell us about his collection that attracted you?
It’s a great book for those who aren’t familiar with poetry. Poets write, in part, to give the rest of us language and ways of talking and looking at things. Dethlefsen’s poems are folksy and friendly. He draws on his musical ear to make the poems fun to read, whether to yourself or out loud. In this collection, he writes about everything from childhood experiences on the playground to the recent tragedy of his son’s death last year in Madison. These latter poems move into a darker, more nuanced place. We think Unexpected Shiny Things is a great choice for book groups who want to try discussing poetry, for libraries and community-wide reads, even for those experiencing grief or moving through the grieving process.
What are some poetry presses you admire here in Wisconsin and across the U.S.?
Here in Wisconsin we’d have to list Parallel and Centennial Press, which focus on chapbooks; Popcorn Press, which publishes poetry and other things; and Little Eagle Press. New to Wisconsin, Rescue Press is doing interesting work. Fireweed Press has also worked to help bring deserving Wisconsin authors to the light over the years. As for other presses across the country … well, in Minnesota alone there’s Red Dragonfly, Greywolf, Coffee House, Milkweed Editions, and that’s not all of them! We also admire Tupelo for the beautiful books they put out. Sixteen Rivers in California works on a cooperative model. Alice James Books, which began as a cooperative, has an impressive list. Red Hen and Wave Books and Black Lawrence are other innovative independents. Then there are the publishers like Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and W. W. Norton that poets dream of working with. All of these presses—and more—inspire us with their attention to the aesthetics of publishing, as well as their emphasis on excellence and their commitment to promoting poetry in a less-than-friendly economy.