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Originally published Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Lit Life

Lit life: Seattle's Wave Books brings poetry to the people

Wave Books, a Seattle-based poetry publisher launched five years ago, has been a critical success.

Seattle Times book editor

Lit life |

Five years ago, Wave Books, a Seattle-based poetry publisher, got its start. Launching a poetry-only publishing house was a leap of faith, says Wave Books editor Joshua Beckman, powered by a lot of untested ideas: "We had more ideas than we knew what to do with," he recalls.

Chief among them: getting the word out about new poetry, beyond its core audience of poets, college teachers and MFA candidates. (One of Wave Books' zanier projects was a "Poetry Bus" that toured the country in 2006 — a 50-day, 50-city tour in which 360 poets, who rode the bus for varying amounts of time, read their work all over America).

"It's very common of people to say of poetry, that they don't know what the hell it means ... they say they've read poetry, but it doesn't talk to them. Something our poets really genuinely want is to have their poems read," said Beckman.

If that was the main idea, it's working.

Wave Books has been a critical success. Its book of poems by Timothy Donnelly, "The Cloud Corporation," was named by The New Yorker as the No. 1 book of poetry published in 2010. "Omnivorous, fast-forward, bull-in-a-china-shop poems that deliver more beauty per minute than can comfortably be withstood," wrote reviewer Dan Chiasson. "If Whitman had had a young kid and a Brooklyn apartment, too many bills, and a stack of takeout menus in the top drawer of his Ikea desk, he would have written these poems."

Wave is a for-profit venture, owned by local businessman and philanthropist Charles Wright. While Beckman says it hasn't achieved profitability, some volumes have sold in the 5,000-copy range (a book of poetry may be considered a best-seller if it sells 1,000 copies, though poetry superstars like Billy Collins may sell as many as 100,000 copies of each of their books). It has five employees that work in or out of its Eastlake office, including Beckman's co-editor, Matthew Zapruder, managing editor Heidi Broadhead, and three to five interns.

Craig Morgan Teicher, poetry editor for Publishers' Weekly, says Wave has carved out a distinct niche: "Wave Books has, in its brief but impressive five-year run ... become one of the hippest publishers of new, and edgy, poetry on the scene and already has the stature of a much older publisher," wrote Teicher in an email. "A book from Wave tends to be a little bit disjunctive, but also funny and accessible — think of poets like Mary Ruefle, Noelle Kocot and Matthew Rorher, all of whom write from the funny side of sadness."

Currently Wave publishes five or six books a year. It's tried out other projects, including a poetry residency on an organic farm in Wisconsin and an online-literary review. For now, it's sticking to its basic mission; publishing interesting poetry in beautiful books.

I asked Beckman an obvious next question: What's to become of poetry in the 21st century, an age of short attention spans, mass marketing and e-readers?

Like many authors, poets have a strong romantic streak; they may write about gloom and doom, but they believe in the endurance of their work. So it is for Beckman — he says he loves words on paper (he's currently reading the essays of Robert Louis Stevenson for fun).

He says the poetry book is a compact, accessible, enduring package for the art form. "Poetry books are things that people want to have and read over many years," he says. "People keep their favorite poetry around — for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. For life. A lot of poetry demands reading and rereading."

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On the other hand, he has to think of his poets, and how to get their work out to the public. As the public becomes more habituated to e-readers, things may change.

For now, Wave's formula is working, says Teicher of Publisher's Weekly: "Wave will be around for a long time to come."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/7598353

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