The Truth About The Perils Of Being US Poetry Company
The good news came in May, 2009: “You have been renewed for another 9 month contract as a full-time Lecturer at the University of Arkansas Department of English.”
I resigned my position. Rebecca and I packed up Baby Beck (who was five months old) and Copper (a dog that lives with us rent free), made arrangements to store the stuff we hadn’t sold or given away and hit the road, deciding to go west by the flip of a coin. To engage people about poetry, with poetry. To find out what poetry in America was actually comprised of. To find a new place to live. To find ourselves. To be ourselves. To pay ourselves. We planned nothing except the leaving. We moved into our visions. We told nobody but the people who were closest at the time, colleagues, friends and students with whom we had formed us poetry company a few months before.
“The Road To Nowhere Tour” began on May 29, 2009. A poet (and close friend) summoned me the night before we left to partake of fine Scotch and say goodbye. My friend had written a poem. He gave me the poem in a box with a chain and a single dog tag inscribed, “still remains.” The poet and his poem let us see that the best part of the journey still remains. But also that the journey only happens for a little while because we all will be still remains at the end of this road. It was with this sense of urgency with which we left. After several weeks, we landed in San Francisco. Enter a captionRebecca had secured employment as a traveling nurse there. She had resigned her full-time RN position the year before to relocate to Arkansas, and resigned her position as a home health nurse in Arkansas to stay home and be mommy to Baby Beck. Just before the ink on the contract was dry in San Francisco, we thought better of the choice and decided to keep going. Subsiding on savings and whatever money we could raise for the next year. First Book: Documentary was finished by late February 2010. Rebecca and I discussed whether to send it out to contests, publishers, etc. We thought if it doesn’t get picked up, we’ll start a publishing company and put it out ourselves. Getting the work out is most important for what we do. But we realized, after an honest exchange with a friend on his stoop, that the books which would comprise “The Legend” (an epic poem to be published over three books) were our only leverage, all we had to offer as collateral to secure our larger goals. We knew then that we would publish the books ourselves, use them to start a label which would do its small part to get out and get read the important manuscripts emerging from talented poets we encountered and continue to encounter on the trudge up/down the road to nowhere.
We found ourselves back in Fayetteville in April of 2010, where we received the earliest copies of First Book, published under our newly established imprint, USPOCO BOOKS. One of my former writing/English students, who is also one of the charter members of us poetry company, set up the “First Book Poetry Extravaganza” at Smoke and Barrel in Fayetteville. Rebecca and I produced a show which incorporated music with a mixture of moving and fixed images meant to aid the audience in processing the dramatic scenes taking place. We staged all three episodes, the entire book, for a full house of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and captive but curious bar patrons, the first show in the “2010: The Year We make Contact Tour.” The book was real. The label was real. The audience was real. It was all actually happening as we had hoped, though costing us more than we imagined in relation to friendships, family and finances. The next day reality became all too real. We had been informed on the day of the show, while I was struggling to learn the Greek passage added at the last minute, that our crew had become too noisy and too whatever else to endure. We needed to be out of our free place to stay by the next day, the day after the show. So our celebration cut very short, we packed up our stuff and baby and dog and left. But we had no money. We had literally used our last dollars to order the final proofs of the book and get it on the market. We used the $50 we made at the show to cover the bar tab and bartenders. We were completely broke. No credit cards. No prospects. Nothing.
We went to the hotel we had made our home when no friends in town could house us. The front desk personnel let us check in without a credit card or up-front payment because they knew us. We knew we did not have the money to pay for the room but saw no other choice. The next morning we started working to raise the money to cover the hotel bill and the gas costs to get us to Birmingham, Alabama where we had booked a show to promote the book (the second show of the new tour) and where we could join some friends who were expecting us.
We sold our laptop, Bose headphones and SLR Camera (which we both used daily and loved) to get enough money to cover three days hotel bill and to get us to Birmingham comfortably. We knew we had to go right away because everyday we stayed piled up more debt and lessened the chances of us leaving. Seemingly we were on to the next stop in relative comfort and security. We exited at a gas station for supplies after we had been on the road an hour or so. When I went to pay for gas, I could not find the cash we had raised to get us to Alabama. After hours of freaking and searching and deducing, we accepted that it had fallen out of my pocket the last time I pulled out my license. The next town was Little Rock. We pushed the Suburban toward it, hoping not to run out of gas before we got there. Luckily we had some gas cards, as well. We planned to use them to get us the rest of the way. But there were no BP stations. We coasted into Little Rock and used the computer at a random hotel to find out that all the BP stations had pulled out of Arkansas a few months before. It turned out there were a rash of tornadoes hitting Little Rock at that moment. And we had to take shelter.
We watched the funnel cloud pass us by and wondered where we would go once it was safe to leave. We reached out to some friends we hadn’t seen in a while and were dismissed with disdain bordering on laughter. We reached out to family for help and they responded, helping us to literally weather the storm in a hotel and to get the gas we needed to carry on. We landed at a friend’s house in Shelby County (just outside of Birmingham) in May 2010. We had a tax refund coming and hoped to get a place in Birmingham for the summer, where I had begun writing over a decade before and had eventually gone to school for my undergraduate degree. Unexpectedly, our friend asked if we wanted to stay with him for the summer rent free. He had a large house and was very supportive of what we were seeking to do. He even wanted to teach with us and helped us develop possible lessons as we continued to experiment with the improvisational teaching style we had been testing. He also played Mr. Carter (The Principal) in The Talent Show and The Talent Show 1976, two plays we would later stage. I hadn’t seen this friend since we worked in a restaurant together seven years earlier. He had helped me move to Arkansas for grad school. He came out to the second show of the tour we staged in Birmingham at The Garage. He was now a history teacher in the Shelby County public school system.
We contacted two sixth-grade English teachers at our friend’s school the week before school was out for the summer and made arrangements to teach all of their classes over four days, six per day. We had been developing a method of improvisational teaching during the free classes and poetry shows we had been conducting on the road. The “How To Be Truly Human” classes were very successful, and we were anxious to try our new teaching strategies on some younger students, as well as on a captive audience. We conducted the classes over the first three days with great success, implementing eighteen different lessons for eighteen classes and connecting them all together along the way with no mind of any product other than the experience we were producing for the students. However, the last day had to be canceled due to significant health concerns which arose out of an utter lack of sleep and the stress of living continuously on the edge, as we had been doing for over a year. Beck took care of me and insisted we put everything on hold until we could make sure the pains weren’t serious. I was fine after a few days, and we started putting together a proposal for a series of summer camps based on our success with the sixth-graders.We scheduled a meeting with the appropriate people at the school board. In a three hour conversation, we discussed the development and implementation of our teaching method, the results we had achieved with the sixth-graders and our proposals for the summer camps and after-school program.
By day’s end we had a contingent contract to teach our camps and after-school program in ten middle and elementary schools in the county. We were doing at last what we had hoped to do when we set out over a year earlier. With the help of our tax refund and our friend, we got a place in Montevallo, AL and set up shop. We were now ready to staff up.
I made an appointment with the Chair of the English Department at The University of Montevallo: a small, forward thinking liberal arts college established in 1896 as The Alabama Girls’ Industrial School, where 150 women participated in an educational experiment which lead the way in educational innovation for the state over the next few decades.
The day of the appointment I put on my pants with no holes, my shirt with a collar and socks with my sandals. I gathered up copies of the first two issues of Mêlée, copies of First Book, copies of all the letters of rec I could find, and a slew of literature we had developed for our camps and after-school program. I went to the meeting hoping to form a relationship with the college. We sought to make a staff of unpaid interns for us poetry company and Mêlée Live. And we sought an office for USPOCO BOOKS.
We talked for a while, and the department chair became surprisingly enthusiastic about what we were doing and what we sought to do. He hoped that students would get some real world experience teaching in our camps. We developed an idea together for a series of weekend camps that could be held on campus at the university and employ student interns as teaching staff. The first thing we needed to do was get the new president of the university on board. I wrote a proposal and our new collaborator pitched it to the president. We immediately recruited two
awesome interns from the English Department for our Mêlée Live staff. We found an office we could use in the media relations department of the college. We proposed to recruit five more interns from various departments for Mêlée Live the following semester, making it a truly interdisciplinary journal. We proposed to recruit four interns to staff our after-school program, two from the English Department and two from the School of Education. Each would be trained in our improvisational teaching style. Once again, things were really rolling. Meanwhile, the 2010 us poetry company summer camps had begun. It was the most difficult work Beck and I had encountered so far. We developed a series of five week-long camps in drama, music, journalism, television writing and poetry. In each camp we would have 10 total teaching hours over a week to write, produce and stage an original art project with the kids whose ages ranged from 6 to 10. For example, in the Band Camp three students formed a band, made instruments, wrote five original songs and performed them live for an audience on the last day of the week. But the most popular camp by far was the Drama Camp.
It was the first camp we conducted. There were 8 students enrolled. We only charged $5 a day for tuition, barely enough to cover our costs. We made up the curriculum of each camp as we went, like everything else. But each camp introduced many of the standards the kids would be learning the following year. This was most impressive to our supporters on the Board of Ed. The first two days were spent getting to know the kids and finding out what issues concerned them and what made them laugh. The camp participants developed characters and wrote character sketches. They then put their characters in scenes with other characters and wrote dialogue for them. By the end of the second day we had begun to realize the issues of producing AND staging a project of this magnitude in one week with such young students. There was no way the kids would remember lines in 2 days. And there was no way they would respond to adult characters manifest in kids’ bodies. They were also terrified of messing up in front of the audience. Why did we think we could pull this off? We’re not playwrights! So, as we had learned of necessity on the road, we had to step back and see things from a different angle. There was a solution here we were missing. What we saw from that place was the fact that we could not do this. But this was never about what we could do. It is about what they (the kids) bring to the project and what they can do. Not what they can’t do, or what we can’t do. The form which emerged solved every problem and brought the kids and the characters to life. The play we wrote used dialogue and characters which mimicked the students themselves. The Talent Show became something more than we ever hoped because the action of the play took place on a stage with kids of the same age in roles where kids are expected to “mess up.” The campers became fearless and focused and funny. The show was set on the last day of school during the bicentennial summer, 1976, a time more foreign to these kids than the last ice-age. They performed the show on Friday, with a troupe made up of me and Beck, our friend (the history teacher) and his kids, for an audience of about 40 people. We taught these brave students that nervousness was only a sign that their bodies were preparing to perform. Elevating blood pressure and adrenaline, fine-tuning focus and awareness. We told our campers that if they pushed through the fear, they would experience a feeling together when it was over that they had never known. Backstage before the encore, I cried seeing their smiles so big and their faces so relaxed for the first time since we met. They all shouted and laughed together wanting to know what was next. Free pizza was next. We had written a commercial into the play for a local pizza parlor and in exchange they provided six free pizzas for the staff, kids and parents. It was real fellowship, with our common goal being to let the kids become more confident and more imaginative in the application of their art. Playing is their art.
We had learned that the Board of Education needed a final summer field trip for the kids in the summer daycare program. We proposed to do a variety show incorporating the acts from our summer camps. We agreed on a flat rate of $400 to produce the show. The Board of Education would bus in almost 300 kids for the show. We were about to make our first real money as us poetry company. But how in the hell could we put together such an elaborate show in the little bit of time we had? We didn’t even know how many of the students would be able to participate because it was vacation time for most of the families. Again, we saw the opportunities and waited for the approach to present itself. Again the solution appeared in the form. We already had the perfect vehicle for the show. We would revise The Talent Show and incorporate the acts from the camps as actual acts in the 1976 show. The Talent Show 1976 was born.
Some of the kids were unavailable, so we recruited some new players and rewrote their lines, as each was written for the specific kid playing that part in the original play. Again we recruited friends to play the adult parts. We did not tell the students that they would have an audience of close to 300 of their peers until late in the week. But something was different. They blushed with fear for a moment. Then they made the connection: the bigger the challenge, the better we become. They were eager to test themselves, and ready to elevate their performances. They had grown a great deal as artists and performers in a little over a month. We got the crowd so worked up (explaining how they were important characters in the show, the audience from 1976) that when the curtain opened for the first act (the kids who comprised the band) it was like the Beatles had just landed in Helena, Alabama. The band members froze for a minute, looked at each other and smiled in recognition, then 1, 2, 3, 4. They played and sang like they never had before. When their set was over, they knew they were a real band. And so did we.
When First Book was originally published, we excitedly contacted some of the people we knew who had badass poetry manuscripts and other books we wanted to publish. Nobody we contacted wanted to publish with us. In fact, the responses ranged from ignorance to outrage. People seemed offended that we wanted to publish their books. Who could blame them, I guess? “For books are not entirely dead things.”
However, we were contacted in the fall of 2010 by two individual poets we knew who had books they were looking to publish. We loved both manuscripts and were excited to have the chance to help get them out. We began to develop the two books (a full-length poetry collection and a chapbook) and agreed to have them out by AWP in DC so we could roll out the books at the conference and officially launch the press. I had been revising First Book based on what I was realizing about the book and the poem through touring and performing it in bars wherever we could land a show on the road. With the revision of First Book, we would publish three titles, as well as the first issue of Mêlée Live which had become an issue we were really proud to put out. We would put together a show at
The AWP: “The Mêlée Live Live Show”
As December passed, and we launched Mêlée Live online, we were having all kinds of computer issues and software problems getting the books laid out. Our only option was to buy a cheap laptop and get more free trials of the necessary software. We had to write a check for the computer, leaving us flat broke again. We got the books laid out and proofed in time, thanks to the diligence of everyone involved, including the authors. In the meantime, our contracted printer for the magazine pulled out just before we were to send the file. Now we also had to find another printer for the magazine at the last minute, one who would give us at least 10 days to pay for the job. The printer we found was in another state, but we had no choice. We received 500 copies (of the 5,000 we ordered) of Mêlée Live just before we were to leave for DC. The printer had left the color off the front cover and many of the magazines were smudged badly inside and out. We know this is a standard problem with using a web press, but that doesn’t mean we have to pay for smudged up magazines. We discussed the situation at some length until the printer agreed to reprint the issues and drop-ship 500 to us in DC for free. The magazines never arrived.
At the same time, more opportunities appeared. Due to unforeseen problems with arrangements for Little Beck and Copper, the day before we were to leave Beck made the tough choice to stay back in Asheville and take care of things, so that we could better use our mobility to spread out at the conference and reach more poets of our type. That was a very difficult morning for both of us. I didn’t want to leave Beck behind, and she didn’t want to stay. I made up my mind that I would use every waking hour of our time in DC to work for our press, our magazine contributors and the books of our poets, to ensure that Beck’s sacrifice to stay back would translate to something good for us and our poets at The AWP, as well as in the future. I came home completely broke and completely spent. Beat.
But the launch was a success, in spite of not having the magazines. The show was awesome! H.R. Johnson, J.R. Bouchard, Todd B. Stevens, Sy Hoahwah, Chris Wong, Carl the Bartender and Jimmy the Shuttle Driver were all awesome! We needed everyone of these people, and especially Beck, to make this show happen. Watching it live in DC, I just wanted to sink into my chair and enjoy it. I realized once again that the success of this venture did not rely on our abilities, talents or motives. Success is determined by our sight. As long as we look to others. See what they can do. Provide the resources and space for them to act. Then the art will make it.
Our press is an actual non-profit, meaning that we take no profit from the selling of the books of our authors. Any money we will make in this endeavor will be from the sell of our own books. We have several new titles in development from unknown writers, at least two of which we hope to publish during National Poetry Month. People from Alabama are still contacting us, but not to thank us or anything. They want the money we owe them. By the end of next week, however, we will have everybody we owe in Alabama paid off, except one person. The friend who took us in. I don’t know that we can ever give back what he, SB, gave us. But we can do the same for other people, for you even. If you see our flags waving, get our attention. Jump up and down if you have to. Let’s make something up together. For that’s the only way we know to become a member of us poetry company.
We will publish a total of 10 book titles and introduce three more magazines this year. Then we’re off to Greece to find our family’s island, and to write Last Book: The Rest (Tragedy), to be published in a bilingual Greek and English Edition (2013).
Until then, see you at the show. Don’t be too late.
The Pappas Family
us poetry company