This winter McSweeney’s Books is carving out a home for poetry. After making a name for itself in independent-press circles with its stylish, smart books of fiction, children’s literature, and food writing, the fourteen-year-old San Francisco–based outfit is starting its first poetry imprint. Launching in February, the McSweeney’s Poetry Series will publish up to four lovingly designed titles each year. The series will be coedited by poets Jesse Nathan, who recently edited the McSweeney’s title Of Lamb (2011), with poems by Matthea Harvey and paintings by Amy Jean Porter; and Dominic Luxford, poetry editor of the press’s Believer magazine and editor of its only anthology of poetry, The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets (2007).
The series begins with Love, an Index, a first book by Utah poet Rebecca Lindenberg, and continues with Fragile Acts by Allan Peterson, forthcoming in June. Both books are indicative of the series’ openness to new voices and to work hovering on the edge of mainstream recognition. “We weren’t trying to go with poets of any [particular] stripe,” Luxford says. “We just wanted to have our socks knocked off.”
Lindenberg and Peterson have already enjoyed the special brand of support that publication in a McSweeney’s zine offers. Excerpts of Lindenberg’s debut, a series of poems that traces her relationship with the late poet Craig Arnold, who disappeared in 2009 while hiking in Japan, were published in the Believer in 2010. And Peterson, who had a poem appear in the September 2011 issue, had been writing without formal training since the 1960s and considered himself an outsider to the literary world before his work recently caught the eye of several influential tastemakers. One admirer, Harvard professor Stephen Burt, helped bring Peterson to Luxford and Nathan’s attention.
Not surprisingly, Peterson, who also works as a visual artist, was delighted to be approached by Luxford and Nathan for a collection of his poetry. “Jesse and Dominic took a number of poems and we all put them together in a collaborative way,” he says. “I like that they don’t seem to care if you are young or old—I am so happy to be part of this effort.” Lindenberg echoes this sentiment. “It’s exciting to be building a dream from the ground floor,” she says. “McSweeney’s is really trying to make poetry available to a large audience of smart readers who might not read poetry otherwise.”
In keeping with the press’s history, McSweeney’s aims to make the design of each collection a part of the book’s allure. In search of inspiration, Luxford and Nathan have taken field trips to the Stanford University rare books library in nearby Palo Alto and found themselves drawn to, among other things, a chapbook of T. S. Eliot’s early poems put out by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and hand sewn by Woolf herself. “We were moved by that—we want [to make] books that are indispensable as objects,” says Nathan. “The poems will do the work, but we want anyone who has five minutes and comes into contact with one to find it difficult not to take that book home.” (For those who may not come into contact with these books at bookstores, the series will also be available, for forty dollars, through a four-book-subscription club; more information is available at store.mcsweeneys.net.)
With the series lineup beyond this summer still to be determined, Luxford says he’s on the lookout for excellent work from all quarters. “There’s no one aesthetic,” he explains. “At this point it’s kind of an organic process with submissions coming in whenever. We’ve been talking to people, reading, thinking—it hasn’t been methodical.” Nathan adds: “McSweeney’s has always been driven by what’s sent to us.”
When manuscripts arrive at the press’s headquarters in San Francisco’s Mission district, they circulate around the entire office. “It’s a team effort, part of a general mode at McSweeney’s,” says Nathan. “We all think together.” He imagines the poetry series will work the same way, with the engagement of the group determining annual offerings. “We’ll do four books a year only if we really find four amazing books.”
Poets who wish to submit manuscripts may e-mail the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org . “We’re really open,” Luxford says. “We read it all. We’re slow but thorough.”
Tess Taylor’s work has appeared in the Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New Yorker. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America in 2004.