Six Questions for Dan Gerber
(interview conducted via e-mail)
Wayne Atherton: Sumac Magazine’s first Editorial Note appeared in issue three, Spring 1969. In a joint statement by you and Jim Harrison, part of it reads, “Some criticism has been directed at us for being what we are not, and we shall remain so. We are not Caterpillar, Io, Kayak, The Sixties, Tri –Quarterly, or Poetry. They are.” In the years prior to publishing your first issue, were there any other poetry-centered periodicals that you may have read and admired which may have served as a possible prototype to expand upon, giving Sumac its own individual imprint or identity? View, The Paris Review, New Directions, and Evergreen Review immediately come to mind as publications worth mentioning and with a history prior to Sumac.
Dan Gerber: I don’t remember Jim and I discussing any other publications as models for Sumac. We just felt that American poetry had fallen into a number of groups, or cliques, and we wanted a journal that was free of those perceptions or divisions. I remember a note from George Hitchcock, that he thought a poem I had sent him was a fine poem, but that it just wasn’t a Kayak poem. We didn’t want to have an idea of a Sumac poem, only that it seemed to us a good poem and a worthy addition to the rather eclectic mix we were putting together.
WA: How was the word spread so quickly in order for you to obtain such a great deal of unsolicited work from such a wide range of poets? This was before the Internet so the word must have been spread via letter writing and phone calls. This fact would set you apart from Semina and The Floating Bear, whose contributors were by invitation/mailing list only and were never sold. Of those other poets whose work you had to actively seek out with direct solicitation, were there any among them who chose not to respond that you wished had contributed something?
DG: We had a very fortunate circumstance in that Jim — in 1968 and just before returning to live in Michigan on a grant he had just received — was working as assistant to Herbert Weisinger, a former professor or ours at Michigan State — who was then head of the English department at The State University of New York at Stony Brook. Jim, along with Louie Simpson, had organized what was called The World Poetry Conference, and it was attended by just about every poet — foreign and domestic — you could imagine. So we were able to talk to a number of poets at the conference, and we had the mailing addresses of almost all of them. My memory is that almost all of the poets we approached responded enthusiastically. If there were any notable exceptions, I don’t remember them. We were also very fortunate that through James Laughlin, with the help of George Quasha, we were offered a new canto by Ezra Pound for our second issue. So, if we needed any additional means of attracting quality work, that certainly helped.
WA: Another co-edited Note from D.G. and J.H. reads, “We’ve had little work from the New York School but then they seem to prefer clubiness.” With the sole example of one Gary Snyder poem, the San Francisco Renaissance poets were virtually absent from Sumac magazine’s nine-volume run. Was that by their design or yours?
DG: There was no design. And certainly no design of exclusion. We wanted to get away from, or around, “The New York School” and “The San Francisco Renaissance,” way of looking at things. And I question the ways in which labels for groups of poets come into being. I remember meeting and spending considerable time with three of the so-called Objectivist poets — George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Basil Bunting, and in our conversations learned how tenuous was the title under which they were grouped. In 1968 Sumac Press did an anthology called Five Blind Men, comprised of the poems by Jim, George Quasha, J. D. Reed, Charles Simic, and me, and in the years and decades that followed I received a number of inquires by graduate students doing studies of “The Five Blind Men School of American Poetry.” What was that, I wondered?
WA: What was the small press distribution situation like back then, 1968 –1971? One of your earliest issues lists 21 bookstores where Sumac could be found. Sumac went four issues before you added a managing editor to the staff. Besides your Sumac Press Books, you began to run several full page ads for books by other presses in your back pages but since Sumac sold for $1.50 to $2.00 per issue back then I cannot imagine a lot of revenue generated there. Do you recall what your subscription base was at its highest peak? Also, James Randall of PYM -Randall Press was your first East Coast Editor. Would you expound upon his role as East Coast Editor for us, what his exact duties may have been? And, who did most of the proofreading? There was a lot of material to proofread in the nine volumes, one issue topping out at around 240 printed pages.
DG: There are about a half dozen questions in the question you ask. The short answer is that $2.00 was a lot more money in 1968. When my first novel came out, in hardcover, in 1973 the price was $5.95. We distributed with a lot of work, contacting bookstores either by mail or by visiting them and making our pitch. I think we had a subscription list approaching 500. Initially I did all the proofreading and I was then an undiagnosed dyslexic. I remember one week, at least, when we received 150 manuscripts for consideration. It was a tremendous amount of work. This led to a managing editor. James Randall had published a broadside of one of Jim’s poems. We would visit him when we were in Cambridge, and he very kindly advised us about establishing a new press.
WA: Your front cover design and images maintain somewhat of a singular and consistent identity with each issue, but with the exception of some etchings by Mary Oppen, all of the inside art pages were black-and-white photo images and a lot of those were taken by you. And, with the exception of Jim Harrison’s “A CHAT WITH A NOVELIST” (Tom McGuane, also to become Sumac’s fiction editor) no interviews with poets appeared. Was that intentional and do you think that if Sumac continued on for several more issues that there would have been more interviews and a more diverse selection of artwork, or was it ever discussed?
DG: I don’t know.
WA: Fast forward to 2105. Are there any current poetry-centered periodicals in print that you would put on the same shelf alongside Sumac ? Not just those in the US but abroad. As an example, in his introduction to The Sumac Reader, Jim Harrison states, “I most loved Botteghe Oscure, edited by Marguerite Caetani out of Rome. Only about one third of each issue was in English which made it attractively mysterious as I had no foreign languages.”
DG: I never thought about comparing Sumac to any other periodicals, either before or after its existence, though there were a number of other magazines Jim and I both admired. Bly’s The Sixties, would be one shining example.
Editor’s Note: all of the poems preceding this interview were contributed by poets who had previously published their earlier work in Sumac (1968 –1971). Some of the poems following the interview are by poets whose work we felt would fit in with the spirit of what Sumac was all about. Other poets were specifically recommended to us by Dan Gerber, Joseph Bednarik of Copper Canyon Press, and Jim Harrison. We would like to thank all three of these gentlemen for their gracious support and assistance in putting together this special Sumac tribute issue.