Thursday, November 16, 2006

hommage a tasilo ribischka

New Directions Publishing celebrated its 70th anniversary Tuesday evening at Housing Works Used Books Café in SoHo, & some of the talk centered around whether poet Nathaniel Mackey (“Splay Anthem”) would win a National Book Award the following night. The party was also an occasion to show off a beautifully illustrated tribute to ND Founder James Laughlin, who died in 1997 at the age of 83. “The Way It Wasn’t” is packed with photographs, letters, & ephemera of a man who, at the advice of Ezra Pound, became “something useful”—a publisher. At twenty-two Laughlin started New Directions with funds from his father—the family had made its fortune in steel—and went on to amass a list of some of the most important Modernists as well as brought numerous works in translation to American audiences. Pound, Vladimir Nabokov, Tennessee Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, Djuna Barnes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Yukio Mishima, Dylan Thomas…the lineup of authors almost defies belief. In addition to its amazing backlist, the small press continues to unearth a host of original voices: W.G. Sebald, Javier Marias, Forrest Gander, Dunya Mikhail, Kamau Brathwaite, Robert Bolano, Susan Howe, & Yoko Tawada, to name a few.

Which brings us to Nathaniel Mackey. “We knew it was a longshot,” recalled Jeffrey Yang, Poetry Editor at ND, “but we also had a slight hope because of the panel.” Several judges were fans of Mackey’s work, he said; still, the National Book Award traditionally has gone to the most famous author in the group of finalists. “Jean Valentine [who won in 2004] was a surprise, but when I look at the list of past winners, it’s all big names.” Nathaniel Mackey is not only not a big name, but, Yang explained, "was unread by most of the poetry establishment, and was for many years published by City Lights and now-defunct Sun & Moon press and belonged to a group of innovative writers who kind of kept each other going—no one like him since maybe William Carlos Williams ever won before."

Yang, Barbara Epler (Editor in Chief at ND), & Mackey rode up the glass elevators in the Marriott Marquis Hotel to last night’s ceremony, described in the New York Times as “a splashy event drawing many of the most prominent names in the book publishing industry.” “We barely knew anyone from the enormous publishing houses,” Yang said, laughing infectiously. In fact, ND usually doesn’t nominate its authors for National Book Awards because of the expense—$250 for the entry fee, & an obligatory $1,000 for publicity if an author is shortlisted. In a world in which independent presses generally struggle to survive, this is one more way in which the scales are weighted in favor of big corporations.

But at this black-tie affair, the little guy would triumph. When Nathaniel Mackey’s name was announced, “Barbara & I jumped up & yelled, ‘Whoooo-hoooo!’ Nate was totally taken aback,” recounted Yang. Those at the Norton table (which the ND people shared, saving on the cost of seats) all stood up applauding, with Adrienne Rich (winner of one of the evening’s two lifetime achievement awards) leading the tribute.

When asked what it will all mean for New Directions, Jeffrey Yang said, “It will affect sales for sure. It will certainly affect Mackey—already people have called requesting interviews. It’s a well-thought-out book, & more people are now going to find out who he is. We’re just so happy.” The press today placed an order for an additional print run of 6,000 copies of “Splay Anthem.”


Anonymous roman nose said...

bravo to the underdog!

November 28, 2006 at 3:05 PM  

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