In 1993, two years after receiving her MFA from Warren Wilson College, poet Martha Rhodes was “a bit at sea,” she says. Rhodes had previously worked in publishing, at Viking Press and Viking Penguin, and had begun to notice that many talented writers she spoke with were having trouble getting their work picked up. “I felt that I had the experience, the tenacity, the desire to help the situation,” she says. “I thought I could start a small press.”
And so Four Way Books, an independent nonprofit publisher that celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year, was born. Rhodes enlisted fellow poets and Warren Wilson graduates Jane Brox, Helen Fremont, Dzvinia Orlowsky, and the late Beth Stahlecker to help get the press off the ground. They began by publishing poetry, starting with Lynn Domina’s debut, Corporal Works, Sue Standing’s Gravida, and Stephen Knauth’s Twenty Shadows. Since then, the press has expanded to publishing short fiction, and has released books by over a hundred and forty writers, some of them going on to win the Pultizer Prize, the PEN/New England Award in Poetry, the Golden Crown Award in Poetry, and the Debut-litzer Prize in Poetry.
Based in New York City, Four Way Books publishes work by both emerging and established writers. Among the titles the press is launching throughout its anniversary year are collections by debut poets Aaron Coleman, Jennifer Franklin, Margaree Little, Ben Purkert, and Valerie Wallace, as well as those by returning poets Lee Briccetti, Cynthia Cruz, Blas Falconer, Kevin Prufer, and Daniel Tobin, and new fiction by Eileen Pollack and C. Dale Young. The press sponsors three additional programs: Pay a Book Forward, which offers free books to college students who attend readings; the annual Levis Prize in Poetry, offering $1,000, publication, and a reading in New York City for a full-length poetry collection; and the electronic journal Four Way Review, which publishes poetry and fiction from emerging and established authors.
“Four Way means democratic,” Rhodes says. “It’s a writer’s publishing company. We are all writers ourselves and understand how it feels to be in the writer’s seat. And so we try to make the experience a good one—for our authors and for ourselves.” Many authors on the Four Way roster agree that the press has been instrumental not only in the success of their books, but in helping to build their writing careers.
Allison Benis White, whose third poetry collection, Please Bury Me in This, which was published by Four Way in 2017 and won the University of North Texas Rilke Prize earlier this year, says she admired the press long before they first published her (White’s second book, Small Porcelain Head, was selected by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2013 Levis Prize). “I remember seeing the crowds of writers around their booth at AWP every year as I tried to get a look at their new releases,” she says. “So I felt very fortunate to join this community of writers.”
“My experience with the press was truly positive,” agrees Sarah Gorham, a poet and the president and editor in chief of independent press Sarabande Books, who published three of her own collections with Four Way, including her latest, Bad Daughter (2011). “And what made me even more grateful was their loyalty to my subsequent efforts.”
Rigoberto González, who has published three books of poetry with Four Way, including Unpeopled Eden (2013), which won the Lambda Literary Award, echoes this sentiment. “It’s evident that the editors and staff at Four Way Books take their authors and their books seriously,” he says, adding that with each publication, “it was the poetry that mattered.” C. Dale Young, whose novel-in-stories, The Affliction, was published by Four Way in March, and who has published three poetry collections with the press, says, “It always feels as if everyone there has read and deeply cares for the book manuscript in question.”
That level of care is due in large part to the creative vision and editorial practice of Rhodes, who is not only a poet and editor but also teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and in the MFA program at Warren Wilson. This three-pronged approach—as poet, editor, and teacher—is “what makes all the difference,” says Gregory Pardlo, whose poetry collection Digest was published by Four Way in 2014 and won the Pulitzer Prize. “She’s not the kind of workshop leader who says, ‘Oh, this is great! I wouldn’t touch a thing. You’re just the bees knees! Take it forth and be happy!’—which a lot of teachers do, and there’s a necessary place for that kind of affirmation—but Martha tends to say, ‘You want the best for this book, we want the best for this book; we’re not gonna play games with petting each other’s egos—we’re in this to work.’ And the result is that the poets and authors who are on Four Way’s roster have tremendous respect for the press.”
Twenty-five years is no small feat for any arts nonprofit, and Four Way has seen its share of challenges over the years, from administrative hurdles like printing issues and financial hardships to larger personal and world events. Having offices located in lower Manhattan during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which happened just after the death of Rhodes’s mother, proved to be both a physical obstacle and tough on morale. Donations also slowed during that time, which made keeping the press afloat even more difficult. But returning to the work is what has helped Four Way keep going each time it has faced a challenge, and Rhodes is aware of how far the press has come. With a staff of four, along with a board of directors and an advisory board, Four Way now publishes fourteen to eighteen titles a year, almost eight times as many books as in its first year. This milestone is not only Four Way’s, Rhodes says, but belongs to the literary community at large, not least amidst continued threats to funding for the arts by the current presidential administration. “We believe that we will always be called upon by writers to provide interesting and necessary literature,” Rhodes says. “That what we do is noble work, especially in a world that often presents as apathetic to our efforts.”
Rhodes and company have already hosted several events this year to celebrate the twenty-five-year mark, including anniversary readings at AWP in March and at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in May. Upcoming events include an annual benefit in New York City on June 6, and a reading at Bryant Park in September. A complete list of readings and events can be found on the press’s website, fourwaybooks.com.
“Mostly,” Rhodes says, reiterating the reason the press has carried on for a quarter century, “we will celebrate our authors—those known and soon to be known.”
Nadia Q. Ahmad is the Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.