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Slope Builds Press on Level Ground

A number of literary magazines—APR, Fence, McSweeney's, Open City, Pearl, Pleiades, and Verse—have in recent years pursued book publishing ventures, usually ones that include an annual book contest. Putting an electronic twist on that trend is the bimonthly online literary magazine Slope. This spring, founding editor Ethan Paquin is making the jump from Web journal to print press by launching Slope Editions, which will publish two or three books of poetry annually.

The first book from Slope Editions, to be published in May, will be The Body, by Jenny Boully, a graduate student at Notre Dame, followed by Laura Soloman's Bivouac in the fall. The third book on the press's list will be the winner of the first annual Slope Editions Book Prize, which has a deadline of February 15 and is being judged by David Lehman. The books will be printed by Thomson-Shore—the same company that prints Verse and Verse Press titles—and distributed by Small Press Distribution.

Paquin says the nonprofit press will rely on his personal savings, donations, and, he hopes, grant money to sustain its operations. Reading fees from the annual book contest—$20 for each submission—will be used to publish the winning book. It's a plan that, while not likely to make anyone rich, is common with small publishing ventures and that emphasizes the role of editors who are clearly not driven by economic gain.

"The reason I started the print press is not only because there are beautiful, passionate, great manuscripts out there that deserve to be published," Paquin says. "I saw a lot of the long-running, well-established presses putting out excellent books yet letting them languish—unless you're really looking for them, you're not sure that they're out there. I don't think the Web is utilized as effectively as it can be by a lot of the long-standing presses. I saw that as an opening for us to create a print press."

Although e-book publishing would seem the logical direction for the energetic editor of an online journal, Paquin says he isn't convinced of its viability or security. "The idea that an e-book—something a team of Web designers and editors sweat over for many months in concert with its author—could be stolen from the Web by people unwilling to pay for it is a technological issue that needs to be addressed," he says. The collapse in November of Random House e-book imprint AtRandom underscores the uncertainty of the whole business.

Instead, Paquin is embracing the idea that publishing online and in print need not be mutually exclusive operations. Using a combination of print and Web publicity, including traditional ads and special Web sites dedicated to each book—similar to those promoting feature films—Paquin plans to take an aggressive approach to marketing Slope Editions. "We really do see important things, groundbreaking things being done by young people," Paquin says. "We feel it's time to get this work out there, and we're going to use all the resources we have."

One of the best and most immediate resources available to Paquin is Slope. The first issue was published in November 1999 and was the result of, not surprisingly, a poet's discontent. "I was looking around for high-quality literary journals on the Web—and by that I mean journals that incorporated good design with good content—and generally speaking I wasn't satisfied with what I saw," Paquin says. So he teamed up with Web designer Steve Palmer of 76design, based in Ottawa, Ontario, and created Slope.

During the past two years, the magazine has published work by some familiar poets—Charles Bernstein, Forrest Gander, Heather McHugh, Tomaz Salamun, and James Tate—but Paquin's real aim is to publish the work of young poets whose names aren't necessarily lodged in the minds of general readers. "My editorial vision is one of eclecticism," Paquin says. "A lot of print journals have a real proclivity for voices that are important voices, but we've heard them many times. It's time for a new outlook, for a fresh, younger outlook."

And Paquin thinks he has found the perfect venue for that fresh outlook, one that doesn't rely on the paper and ink of traditional journals. "The Web was pioneered by the young, and it is a dynamic and fresh venue if used properly," he says. "The interplay of dynamic text with dynamic imagery is really powerful."

While some aspects of the online journal limit the reading experience (try taking an issue of Slope to the beach), the Web—and the wide range of audio, video, and textual possibilities it offers—can expand the experience in other valuable ways. For example, Paquin, Slope managing editor Chris Janke, and poet Rita Rich are working on an issue of the magazine dedicated to American Sign Language poetry. (Similar to journals like Verse and Conjunctions, issues of Slope are often structured around a theme—"New Welsh Poetry," "Recent Croatian Poetry," "New African Poetry"—"sampler" issues, Paquin calls them.) The ASL issue, scheduled for publication in the summer or fall of 2002, will feature short movies (mpegs) of poets using sign language accompanied by the text of their poems. Readers will also be able to download audio files of the poems.

While Paquin solicits work for Slope and Slope Editions, he subscribes to an open submissions policy. "If it's innovative and dynamic and sears the back of our skulls, we will take an interest in it, absolutely," he says. Online submissions, however, are not accepted.

Slope is just one in a growing list of magazines and presses started by graduates of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Conduit, Fence, Paragraph, jubilat, La Petite Zine, Rain Taxi, Volt, Slope, and Verse Press—all were hatched by graduates of the university. "People are really passionate here, and I think it's the same thing I bring to Slope," Paquin says. "The people who come here are serious and they don't want to become the faceless MFA-holding crowd; they want to make an impact. I think it's a beautiful thing." James Tate, who has taught at the MFA program at UMass–Amherst since 1971, is a little less certain of the reasons but no less thrilled with the results. "I'm kind of amazed and terribly delighted," he says.

For more information about Slope and Slope Editions, visit the Web site at www.slope.org.

Kevin Larimer is associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

ETHAN PAQUIN

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