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On the Books

On the Books Part Four: Small presses in San Antonio push on, despite economic hardships

Photo: Photo by Sarah Maspero, License: N/A, Created: 2011:06:06 13:51:14

Photo by Sarah Maspero

Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2010:08:13 18:30:29

Anisa Onofre and Juan Tejeda of Aztlan Libre Press.

One of these voices, Carmen Tafolla, author of The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans and Sonnets and Salsa, feels absolutely duty-bound to emphasize the history of the Alamo City and its present plights in her work. “We, as writers living in this special place now called San Antonio, have a responsibility to speak the voice of la gente, the people of San Antonio. And this responsibility exceeds through the dimension of time,” she told the Current. “We owe it to the future generations as well as to the past generations to set history straight, speak the truth, to express las voces de San Antonio.”

“We have to remember a whole lot more than just the Alamo,” said Tafolla. “Our illiteracy is not a reflection of our lack of creativity, intelligence, or story. It is, however, a direct reflection of our economic situation and our general disenfranchisement from the cultural and institutional support structures that are a basic part of helping people reach literacy.”

According to the advocacy group Literacy San Antonio, as many as one in four San Antonians are functionally illiterate in English.

H. Palmer Hall, director of St. Mary’s University’s Pecan Grove Press, which has published such notable SA poets as Jenny Browne and Trey Moore, feels similarly. “Many of the fine poets I know work in the community to help others with literacy and with developing their own art. Is that an obligation or a responsibility? I don’t think so, but it is a major good thing about the SA artist community,” he said.

Hall, whose press enjoys nonprofit status at a university that doesn’t interfere in editorial decisions, still feels the pressures of publishing economics. “In an era of extremely low inflation for most things, the industry is hobbled by rapidly escalating costs. The price of paper and printing continues to rise at a rate of 5 to 8 percent each year, while the cost of postage also keeps going up. That hurts every small press and literary magazine in the country,” Hall said. He believes, however, that the digital revolution may eventually settle the problem. “More and more readers are turning to iPads, Kindles, and Nooks,” said Hall. “We can keep books in print almost forever that way, and magazines can archive copies for readers and for their poets.” Already, Ascent and Ploughshares, two of the top leading literary magazines in the country, have migrated to web-only publishing, as other presses continue to print fewer copies of every book while relying on the web to familiarize readers with their writers. Regardless of current losses among small and large publishing houses, Hall believes that the new regime is “an opportunity, not a threat.”

But Hall, who, like Milligan, took over for a press that had previously published his poetry, is frustrated by San Antonians’ tendency in San Antonio to support poetry by attending events, but not by buying local poets’ books. “Go into the home of a well-educated San Antonian of whatever ethnic group and take a look at the bookshelves. How many San Antonio poets do you see there? I’ll bet it’s none.” Hall notes, with the confidence of a man who has looked at a lot of bookshelves, that these same educated people will undoubtedly own books by some of the finest small presses in the country, imprints like Copper Canyon, Coffee House, and Milkweed Editions. “But,” he asks with rhetorical sarcasm, “how many books from Pecan Grove Press or Wings Press, San Antonio’s two small presses?”

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