“Publishing Poetry: For the Love of the Arts” by Juliette Keating

Publish poetry: for the love of the arts

December 9, 2022

Among the adventurers of independent publishing, there are those who, following only their passion, embark on the publication of poetry. Aware of addressing a limited audience but which they are working to broaden, independent poetry editors regret their reduced visibility in the media as well as on booksellers' tables. However, these enthusiasts of language and literature are at the forefront of what is being discovered and invented in writing today and are developing new methods of promoting contemporary poetry. We went to meet two of these publishing houses, located in New Aquitaine, one in Bordeaux, the other in the Basque Country. Their founders also have in common a particular sensitivity to the transversality of genres and forms of artistic expression born from their training at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. Franck Pruja and Françoise Valéry of Éditions de l'Attente , with thirty years of existence and Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat of Exopotamie Editions recently created, were kind enough to talk to us about their profession.

It’s a bit of a crazy project » , recognizes Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat who set up Éditions Exopotamie in 2021 while knowing the low figure for sales of poetry books, which the publisher attributes to the ignorance of part of the public of what contemporary poetry is. :  At the Paris Poetry Market, there is an informed public but elsewhere in the more general salons, we are aware of the stereotypes, many still think that poetry must be written in Alexandrines with rhymes. Or we only hear about the two or three famous names that have a monopoly on the market . » Not just as a joke, Françoise Valéry, founder with Franck Pruja of Éditions de l'Attente, says that there is “more and more people writing about them and fewer and fewer buying them » . But, tempers Franck Pruja,  new generations are arriving, authors who introduce their work to teenagers in classes,” who then remember it:  I see them at trade shows, they stop by to see what’s new » . Sales, therefore, but not enough to make these independent publishing houses commercial enterprises capable of remunerating those who devote their time, resources and a lot of energy to them:  We never tried to make a living from it, it's our job as artists » , considers Françoise Valéry.

Making books: a work of artists

Understanding publishing as an artistic work in its own right is what inspired Franck Pruja and Françoise Valéry to publish very early on books of poetry, but not only that.  Thirty years ago, at the École des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux, we suffered from writing workshops which were not yet very widespread. The poet Emmanuel Hocquard invited authors and publishers. We met Denis Roche, we heard him talk about his practice of photography and writing. Bernard Heidsieck spoke to us about his sound work and Claude Royet-Journoud read with a stopwatch, leaving silences sometimes lasting a minute between each verse. We were stimulated by the POL catalog, we built up our working library. We were attentive to all of this. At the same time we were very interested in the printing of texts, stamps, reproduction, multiples » , recalls Franck Pruja. Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat, who also attended Emmanuel Hocquard's seminars, although later, remembers that there was at the École des Beaux-Arts “a small printing press, what you need to make books. » Enough to make students want to start without delay, with informal publishing.  At the start, we were really like a rock group, we had a small pot of money and when we reimbursed the costs of producing one book we made another,” says Franck Pruja,  and without any status » , specifies Françoise Valéry. “During my studies, I unofficially set up a small publishing house where I did everything myself with a stapler, a photocopier, an old paper trimmer. In a playful way, as a form of creation,” remembers Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat. The structuring of the publishing house into an association for some, a company for the other, only came after these first free productions. From their artistic training was also born the interest of these editors for gender transversality.  It’s part of current language, current concerns » , remarks Franck Pruja.  For us, it was from the start. We stayed in New York in the 90s, where we saw that transversality between artistic disciplines really existed, that it was practiced in the USA, in New York in particular, between dancers, musicians, writers, poets, visual artists, performers, everyone worked together and created mixed forms. In France it did not yet exist, but it was our trigger to create a publishing house as artists,” explains Françoise Valéry who publishes both “texts written by artists, visual artists, books with interventions by visual artists” .

As for Éditions Exopotamie, one of Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat’s three collections, the Écumes collection, “ links texts with graphic works, photos, paintings, collages. Either an author offers me a text with his own illustrations, or I fall in love with a text and I put the author in contact with an artist. That’s what I liked about starting a publishing house. Immediately I had in mind that I was going to be able to put both, the text and the image . »

From handmade to using the printer

Founded in 1992, Éditions de l'Attente first handcrafted:  For a long time, our books were handcrafted. We did the sewing by hand for small print runs of around fifty copies of artists' books. I joined a collective that had a screen printing workshop and a photo laboratory. I screen printed the covers and the inside of the books, small notebooks of 32 or 40 pages, stapled by hand, trimmed. We quickly used the rapid technological means of photocopying. Screen printing allowed just-in-time management; we could print three hundred covers and only use a hundred. We didn't assemble all the books at once, this allowed us to be responsive to demand . » This controlled management of print runs based on sales not only made it possible to  manage both our portfolio and our stock” but also to carry out original editorial actions, such as the Weekend collection developed at a time which did not yet know the facilities of digital technology: “in this collection it was said that the book was made over a weekend. When we received a text that we wanted to publish, we made the model in collaboration with the author over the phone during the weekend. At the time, the book was printed within a week. It was very fast. I remember Michelle Grangaud who was commissioned for a text for the twenty years of the Center Pompidou. She called us: could we do a book over the weekend? Fifteen days later, she had her copies, as did the director of the Center Pompidou. There was an intention of reactivity, dynamism, freshness around the book, it was writing in the making, lively, experimental. At one point, we were printing poster books, we bought a vegetable ink machine which was in the office. We had the principle that a text had to generate its format. We had this freedom . » Artisanal production also left the freedom to move the model:  we could reread, correct, the second impression was evolving » remembers Françoise Valéry.

In 2011, the way of working at Éditions de l'Attente changed,  we entrusted the graphic design of the covers to a professional graphic designer, new collections were created with a stronger visual identity, the printing entrusted to printers, digitally for print runs of 500 copies. This publishing house has experienced several lives in thirty years. We have always adapted to what we felt we needed to evolve. Before it was a bit improvised, by feeling, it's more organized now. »

For Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat, the choice of printing by a third-party company was obvious from the start:  when setting up the publishing house, I knew that I would not go purely artisanal, that I would use printers. On the manufacturing side, I take care of the model, the design, the layout, the choice of images for the cover but not the printing or the finishing . » With all the hazards of finding the right supplier, the obligation to change in a period of paper shortage and increasing costs, the difficulties of working with a nearby printer.

A difficult audience to reach in bookstores

One of the major obstacles that these poetry publishers encounter is that of distribution. According to Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat, the greatest difficulty for a beginning poetry publishing house,  it's the commercial part, it's succeeding in making yourself known especially among booksellers » . For the moment, the publisher must take care of distribution herself because she does not publish enough titles during the year to establish a contract with a distributor:  I have neither the means nor the desire to produce more, I want to take the time to carry each book . » But after thirty years of publications and a beautiful catalog, the difficulties are barely eased. Éditions de l'Attente are supported by a few loyal booksellers but, notes Françoise Valéry, “sales in bookstores are made through customer orders, few booksellers pre-order our titles, we remain barely visible in bookstores . » Unable to work with a larger broadcaster, publishing houses must organize themselves. “We were starting to move up a gear, so we absolutely needed a distributor because the administrative part was taking over the creative part which interests us the most. Éditions de l'Attente has joined the collective of independent publishers GIDDE » which allows you to associate for distribution:  the idea is that each publisher broadcasts in its sector the new products of the other members of the collective » . Likewise, Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat organizes herself with another poetry editor: “We made a sort of partnership. When she has contacts in a bookstore, she also drops off my books, I do the same for my part, to expand our networks by supporting us . »

Making poetry a spectacle

 We quickly realized that when we presented a book on a table, it created discussion and interest . » Franck Pruja likes to present his publications directly to the public at trade fairs and festivals. “People discover us, even after thirty years. Salons are about discovery. Talking for five minutes about home makes people want to risk picking up a book. We ultimately have the role of bookseller: I can advise, guide, and trust is established . » Especially since the public is varied and open to surprises: “There are all ages. I remember Anne Savelli's book on Agnès Varda. The director had just passed away, I made a tribute presentation with a photo of her above the book. A young girl passed by, who didn’t know Éditions de l’Attente, she made her mother buy the book, she was jumping for joy , remembers Françoise Valéry.

Contemporary poetry is partly linked to performance art, to the stage. “For me, there are three dimensions in the book: the text, the transversality of genres and the public performance. Some festivals program performers. Our books then serve as scores for the authors » , explains Franck Pruja. Making the publishing house's publications known through readings and public performances is a possibility that Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat is also exploring:  it's important because it allows us to capture the attention of an audience, to open doors to those who may have reservations about poetry, to make them hear the texts in a different way. There is an instant emotion that I find effective. Some authors are used to it and are gifted, it works well . » It is this event part that the publisher would like to develop in the future by relying in particular on field associations which organize cultural actions on the theme of orality or which take over a local book fair.

Subsidies: aid at the price of freedom?

In 2008, after more than fifteen years of struggling, the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (Drac) informed Editions de l'Attente that they could benefit from assistance which enabled them to equip themselves with computers and software: " the Region found that we had an atypical economy which interested them in what is called the book sector. The region and the book agencies are very attentive to the functioning of publishing houses like ours, which do not necessarily fit into the boxes but which exist. » However, resorting to public aid is not without consequences for the organization. Paradoxically, obtaining subsidies for these atypical publishing houses imposes a restrictive framework on them.  This forced us to change our way of working because we have to present a program over a year, whereas before we made a book when it took us, two months later the book was there » , notes Françoise Valéry:  there is less spontaneity, because an author whose manuscript is accepted will only have his book in a year and a half. » In addition, the flexibility provided by limited editions disappears with this type of aid: “for books that are supported by the National Book Center (CNL), we ask a printer for a quote to print between 400 and 800 copies at a time, because it is in a sewn notebook, in offset, it is another management . »

A newly created publishing house has more difficulty finding support. You must first prove yourself, be well established before claiming more solid subsidies, as Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat notes.

Publishing poetry is a matter of passion, as long as you don't have to make a living from it. Mélanie Cessiecq-Duprat, wishes  to be able to keep the publishing house going in the long term, to ensure that the sales of the books make it possible to publish the following ones” . Françoise Valéry and Franck Pruja can rely on their recognized expertise and reputation: “we have partnerships with book agencies, collaborations to publish their authors in residence. These agencies are thinking of us because we adapt, we have ideas about the form, there are projects, constraints, which interest us a lot. But they consider that Éditions de l'Attente have survived the years thanks to their meetings with writers and the pleasure of working on the texts: “little by little we received texts from established writers whose books we had in the library. We have also discovered some, but when we start receiving texts, we don't stop, we are obliged. We have no reason to stop,” declare these publishers of a “literature awake, boiling, like milk on the fire » .

Juliette Keating

Article published on Délibéré on December 9, 2022: