Waywiser Press: The Small British Press That Publishes Big American Poets

Steve Kronen

During the last three years, some of America’s most respected poets—Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, and the late Anthony Hecht, among others—have published British editions of their books with Waywiser Press, a virtually unknown publisher based in London. Waywiser offered to publish the Pulitzer Prize–winners after bigger British houses that usually publish their books declined. Strand’s former British publisher, the Manchester-based Carcanet Press, turned down his Blizzard of One, which was originally published by Knopf in 1998. Faber & Faber passed on Wilbur’s collection, Mayflies, which was published in the United States by Harcourt in 2000. And Oxford University Press (OUP), Hecht’s British publisher, dropped its contemporary poetry list altogether, leaving The Darkness and the Light (Knopf, 2001) without a home—that is, until Waywiser snatched it up and published it in 2002. Mayflies followed in 2004, and Blizzard of One was published earlier this year.

Four years before launching Waywiser, Philip Hoy cofounded Between the Lines, a small press devoted to publishing in-depth, book-length interviews with some of the most respected British and American poets.

The founding editor of Waywiser, Philip Hoy, is a fifty-three-year-old former philosophy professor, who has taught at the University of Leeds and at London’s Open University. Hoy’s passion for modern American poetry began when, in his twenties, he read Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That Is Great Within Us (Bantam, 1970), an anthology that highlighted the boldness and virtuosity of twentieth-century American verse. Now Hoy employs a simple strategy for attracting some of the Yankee poets whose work thrilled him when he read that anthology three decades ago: He asks them for their books. “The direct approach is always best,” says Hoy.

But why would famous American poets, even in hard times, place their works in the hands of a relative newcomer thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean? The answer to that, too, is simple: Hoy’s reputation preceded him. In 1998, four years before launching Waywiser, Hoy cofounded Between the Lines (BTL), a small press devoted to publishing in-depth, book-length interviews with some of the most respected British and American poets. The quality of the BTL books and the care with which they were produced made Hoy’s a trusted name within poetry circles.

B.H. Fairchild, whose volume of poetry, The Art of the Lathe, was released by Waywiser Press in 2002, four years after it was published in the United States by Alice James Books and was named a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award, says his decision to publish with Hoy was influenced by the BTL titles. “I was familiar with the BTL book-length interviews of American poets, in particular, the absolutely masterful one they did with Anthony Hecht,” he says. “Hoy is an extremely competent publisher.”

Hoy has certainly proven his competence over the last seven years, but BTL got its start almost by accident. In 1997, while conducting research for an intended book on W.D. Snodgrass, Hoy traveled from London to Erieville, in upstate New York, to talk with the poet. When he returned to England with a fifteen-thousand-word interview, Hoy’s friends, Peter Dale and Ian Hamilton (who died in 2001), suggested he try to publish it in one of the British poetry journals. Placing the lengthy Snodgrass dialogue in a magazine, however, did not prove easy. Considering that a typical Paris Review interview, for example, runs to five thousand words, it was simply too long. After several failed attempts, Hamilton suggested they start a small press and publish the interview themselves. They did, issuing W.D. Snodgrass in Conversation With Philip Hoy as the first title from BTL, in 1998.

BTL has since issued twelve more book-length interviews, ranging from seventeen thousand to forty-five thousand words apiece. The books offer detailed commentary, extensive bibliographies, and, in recent titles, many photos of the poet-subject. Poets interviewed for the series include John Ashbery, Donald Justice, Charles Simic, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Thom Gunn, and Seamus Heaney.

Most of the BTL dialogues were conducted in a manner quite unlike traditional, taped-and-transcribed, question-and-answer sessions. Hoy believes the typical in-print interview often bears little resemblance to the original conversation, once circumlocutions have been excised, factual errors rectified, and sequences rearranged for clarity. The BTL “conversations,” as Hoy calls them, are often conducted in writing, back and forth, through e-mail. “If one has spent many months formulating questions one wants a poet to answer, why opt for an off-the-cuff answer rather than one that’s been meditated on, pored over, slept on?”

Helen Hecht, wife of the late Anthony Hecht, supports this approach, although she says her husband’s interview was done by fax rather than e-mail because he never went near a computer. “Tony particularly liked the written format, as it allowed time for deeper reflection and elaboration that would have been impossible in person,” she says of the long, transatlantic conversation with Hoy. “He spoke of the published interview as the closest he would ever come to writing an autobiography.”

While publishing interviews with poets was gratifying, Hoy felt a growing urgency to publish poetry, especially poetry by those Americans he believed were underappreciated in England. On a trip to the 2001 West Chester Poetry Conference, near Philadelphia, Hoy saw an opportunity to do just that. At the conference, North Dakota farmer and poet Timothy Murphy recited some thirty lines of his and Alan Sullivan’s new translation of Beowulf. Murphy’s recitation from the ancient epic was “spellbinding,” Hoy says.

“It seemed that this was the opportunity I’d been waiting for and that I shouldn’t hesitate. I asked Tim and Alan if they’d let me publish their Beowulf.” Unfortunately, the manuscript was already being considered by Longman, a New York–based educational publisher, and, shortly after his return to the U.K., Hoy learned that Longman had agreed to publish it. He and Murphy had hit it off, however, and seven months later, in spring 2002, Murphy’s third collection of poetry, Very Far North, was published as the first title issued by the new Waywiser Press.

It was not an auspicious time to launch a press in the U.K, however, especially one dedicated to verse. Oxford University Press—whose list had included Hecht, Joseph Brodsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Brad Leithauser, Derek Mahon, Anne Stevenson, Charles Tomlinson, and many others—decided to toe the bottom line and dropped modern poetry altogether. Andrew Potter, a director at OUP, told Nicholas Murray in “The End of Poetry,” an article in the Fall 2001 issue of Thumbscrew, a literary magazine, that the poetry list “was barely covering its costs.” Smaller British presses, like Michael Schmidt’s Carcanet Press and Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe Books, were also feeling the pinch. Schmidt’s rejection letter to manuscript submissions at that time read, “I am very sorry to say that we are not currently adding to our…poetry list.” Astley replied to submitters in similar terms: “Due to the current U.K. book trade situation, we will not be considering or taking any more books by authors…who are new to our list for the next three years.”