On Shredding: An Open Letter
Copyright © by William Heyen, 3/24/02
July 3, 2001, Nugent Tree Service arrived at my Brockport home—four men,
several chainsaws, a truck for chips, and a shredder that I stayed away
from, its steel drum studded with downcurving teeth.
My wife and I had thought hard and long about having a huge silver
maple in our back yard taken down, then went ahead with it for safety and
light and space. It took the
crew about six hours to complete the job.
I helped chainsaw downed limbs, helped stack several cords of the
medium-density wood for winter fires.
One man kept busy the whole time dragging branches to the behemoth
that chewed and spat them. Idle,
the shredder whined, then, fed, lurched into a lower timbre, disgorged a
splatter of leaves/bark/wood into the truck behind it.
Late that same afternoon I checked my mail. I received a letter from BOA Editions’ Marketing Manager, Sarah Daniels. “Dear Bill: It has been brought to our attention that we currently have an overstock of Crazy Horse in Stillness (972), Pig Notes & Dumb Music: Prose on Poetry (1040), and Diana, Charles, & the Queen (4089). Due to high warehouse costs, we have two options: (1) you may purchase these titles at 50¢ a copy, plus shipping; or (2) we will be forced to shred all but a few copies.” Ms. Daniels went on to explain that this situation broke their hearts, but their distributor was running out of space, and BOA had to act or would be charged more for warehousing than they could afford. Ms. Daniels assured me that I was not being singled out, that they had overstocks of other poets on their list. She asked me to let her know as soon as possible “the course of action you would like to pursue.”
Steven Huff, Publisher and Managing Editor and an old friend, provided a P.S.: “Bill, we’re going to keep the titles in print, we just have to reduce our overstock. We don’t want to shred.”
Quickly, I roughed out costs. Unless I could come up with several thousands of dollars and find space for, what, fifty or a hundred large boxes of books, I’d be going through that fearsome shredder, blood/bone/flesh: as Walt reminds us in one of his “Songs of Parting,” “Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man.”
Well, yes, I pushed my point too far. I’d rather that overstocks of all my books go through the shredder than even one limb of mine. But my imagination kept wincing as Crazy Horse, Pig Notes, and Diana got ground up. Years ago my wife bought me a 10 HP Troy Bilt chipper for my birthday. I thought I wanted one, but used it only three or four times. I cleared some brush and deadwood on our five-acre woodlot around the corner. I got some chips for paths, but I never lost my fear of that voracious machine, and sold it. In a barber shop, I’d met a guy who had recently lost one of his hands when wild grapevines dragged it into the blades of a chipper not even as powerful as mine. I was afraid that some day I wouldn’t be paying sufficient attention and ...
I guess that years ago I didn’t pay very much attention when poet William Meredith sent me a hardback of his Earth Walk: New & Selected Poems inscribed to the effect that this was one of just a dozen of them that his Knopf editor had saved from the shredder, but now—never mind that gruesome scene in the movie “Fargo”—shredding itself is something I can hear and picture, and I don’t want my books to have this experience. For the rest of my life not a day would go by when I wouldn’t think of their obliteration. Apparently, Meredith didn’t know that almost all remaining copies of his book would be chewed up. I’m grateful that BOA took the time to warn me. And I do hear their alert as a warning. Four bits each plus shipping or else, no other possibilities here.
My first book of poems, Depth of Field, appeared from LSU Press in 1970. The time came when I bought the last couple hundred copies (of a printing of 1,500) @$1. I was glad to do this. There was no talk of shredding. I did well on these, selling them at readings and to rare book dealers and collectors. I traded many with other poets for their books during a time when I had very little money.
Years later, I published several books with the venerable Madison Avenue firm Vanguard Press. When this publisher of Bellow, Farrell, Dr. Seuss, and Oates sold out to Random House, I managed to buy many copies of my titles from them—shredding was never mentioned, though remaindering was—and am down now to just a few copies of Long Island Light and Erika: Poems of the Holocaust. But Vanguard never could locate about 3,000 paperback copies of Lord Dragonfly: Five Sequences that got lost in a warehouse. I’ve the feeling that these got pulped, as we used to say, or shredded. Again, this is not a pleasant feeling.
I don’t know how I’ll work things out with BOA. I’ll meet with Steve and see what I can salvage. I’ll tell him that if even one BOA book is shredded, mine or another poet’s, the BOA staff will be able to hear an agonized echoing sound from over in Brockport, a sound worse by far than Heyen’s moans: Al Poulin erupting from his hillside grave. I was with Al at the beginning 25 years ago when he was thinking about becoming a publisher and founded BOA, and I was with him over the years and almost daily during his last weeks. I can say this without exaggeration: he gave up his health for his writing and publishing, and he might have given his arm to a shredder before seeing boxes of BOA books that were labors of love, and that were paid for, summarily destroyed. Before BOA books went to a shredder, he’d have found ways to give them away to their authors or to libraries, prisons, hospitals, schools, creative writing programs, the armed forces. He’d have had them delivered with the local pennysaver. He’d have walked the streets of Brockport with his wheelbarrow calling out, “Free books, free poetry.” He’d have driven a truck to Minnesota, to Consortium, BOA’s eventual distributor, & loaded up those books himself and stopped at every diner and bar and movie theatre on the way home and given the books away until the truck was empty.
BOA has just published a new volume of selected poems by Al Poulin, edited by Michael Waters. Will the time come when BOA will be forced to shred overstocks of their own founder’s poetry?
And weren’t most BOA books paid for by way of government and other grants, and with donations from private donors? Does a publisher have the moral right to shred such products? Couldn’t a few hundred copies of each title just be given to members of their board of directors to do with as they see fit? I’d like to know what is going on at Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Alice James Books, Sarabande, Story Line Press, and at other distinguished small presses. And at the large presses. I’d like to know how many authors are being shredded. I’ve just signed on as a member of the board of a new venture, The Etruscan Press. I’ll tell you right now, and believe I can speak for the other board members: not a single Etruscan Press book will be shredded, no matter what.
Shredding is not murder or the burning of books by Nazis in Berlin or the dumping of milk while people go hungry. These analogies break down, but the shredding of books, of thousands of small press poetry books in BOA’s case, with BOA’s reluctance, would also be revolting. It may also, right now, be short-sighted and discriminatory. That is, no one is going to shred Seamus Heaney’s or Billy Collins’s books or the books of other strong and important poets in the public eye. The books of lesser-known authors like Heyen will be shredded. But Richard Wilbur speaks of being on hand when we arrive, and there’s a chance I or another shredded poet might arrive some day, and when we do, we’d like to be on hand with at least our books. Maybe when I’m ninety I’ll be asked to serve as Poet Laureate. I bet those 972 copies of Crazy Horse would gallop from their boxes and shelves.
But to take this to another plane, I’m thinking of something novelist Raymond Federman said at a conference in Albany, or maybe Binghamton, about twenty years ago. Near the end of a symposium on the glories and depressions of small press publishing, he stood up in the back of the crowded room and said, “I just want my books to exist.” That sentence has stayed with me. Beyond sales, beyond commerce & the distractions of pobiz around me, I just want my books to exist. Each copy is an artifact in time. Each has the potential to be what Walt called a “dumb beautiful minister.” I was fortunate that BOA accepted and produced these handsome books. Now, the books don’t eat hay or require medicine or special care, except storage. They require Time. Since, after so much inspiration and labor and money they now exist, why should they come not-to-be by shredding?
Crazy Horse in Stillness did okay. It won the Fairchild Award in Rochester and 1997’s Small Press Book Award. Steve Huff has often said that he believes it to be one of the most important books of poetry of our time. (His feeling for this book on the one hand, and the possibility of his shredding it on the other, points up the excruciating seriousness of BOA’s warehousing and distribution problems.) For hundreds of years, every copy lucky enough to avoid flame and flood and allowed to continue just to be will say by way of blurbs on its back that Joyce Carol Oates, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Joseph Bruchac believed in its creator. Every such copy will bear on its front a stunning painting by Oscar House. (Pig Notes’ cover shows “Emily [Dickinson] Holding On To Her Yellow Room,” by the visionary DeLoss McGraw.) In his biography Crazy Horse, Larry McMurtry describes my book as “powerful ... showing that the imagining and reimagining still go on.” Yes, I’m bragging and being self-serving here, hoping some bookstore owner will rush in and save my wild book for the future. Once any of my books or your books do exist, to send them to the shredder seems outrageous to me, absurd, even criminal. These books are not doing any harm. One of those 972 copies of my Crazy Horse might in 40 years show up at a garage sale in Taos and come to be important, if only as a negative example, to an historian or philosopher or aspiring writer; another in a hundred years might find its way into a sale in a church basement in Topeka where a harried technician might buy it and find a poem in it—maybe “The Steadying” chosen by Adrienne Rich for Scribner’s Best Poems of 1996—that will change his or her life. You get my drift. Yes, I’m glad that my books came to be at all. And if I can’t rescue them, BOA will have to, they say, consign them to non-existence. Ms. Daniels mentions just “two options”: half a buck each plus shipping from me, or destruction, no wiggle room anywhere.
Maybe remainder outfits don’t want my books at any price, not even for the cost of shipping—I’ll ask BOA if they’ve tried Daedalus, Hamilton, Strand Book Store in NYC, etc. (Poet Robert Phillips once mentioned to me that getting your book remaindered may be the only way to get it around.) Maybe Consortium gets paid by the ton for shredding materials for newsprint, so won’t just forklift books to the street and let the needy have them or call Volunteers of America, with BOA’s permission, for pick-up. I’m first to admit that many things must be going on here that I know nothing about, especially things having to do with business. Will giving books away set a bad example and depress sales in the future? (Maybe the opposite might sometimes happen: a person given a copy of Crazy Horse or Diana or Pig Notes--a Publishers Weekly starred book—with its 89 brief essays might look to buy other books of poetry and poetics.) In any case, I don’t think I can afford or find room for more than, say, 2,000 copies of Diana, my book of 321 double quatrains written before Diana’s death, a sequence that represents a side of my nature—show all the sides of your nature, Theodore Roethke said—not in other of my books, and even this hefty purchase would sentence 2,089 copies to the shredder. If I lived in an apartment, or were as broke as I was years ago, maybe 6,000 of these targeted books altogether would be lost to me and the internet and poets to come forever. What, all my pretty ones?
What do even small office paper shredders do: render all communications unintelligible, reduce them to a nothingness before language and human feeling and story.
I wonder, too, about Ms. Daniels’ saying that they’d be “forced to shred all but a few copies,” and Steve Huff’s saying that BOA is going to keep the titles in print. What if a class of twenty adopts Pig Notes next year? (There have been a few adoptions, and Pig Notes went into a second printing.) Will BOA have copies, or will the college bookstore be advised that the title is “temporarily out-of-stock”? I’ve heard that some publishers will keep a few copies on a shelf so that a book is technically in print, but if an order comes in will say that the book is temporarily not available even if they have no plans to reprint it. I suppose that in this way they can share any secondary income? I don’t know. I’m sure this isn’t BOA’s intention, that they wouldn’t stand in an author’s way. But I’d rather a book of mine go out of print entirely, and all rights revert to me, so that I’d have the options: revise and expand (I’ve 150 new Crazy Horse and Custer poems, and many more pig notes) for another interested publisher, e.g.
One of the bottom lines and central problems here, certainly, is everybody’s lack of time. BOA is harried, their staff of three pressed in countless ways to make ends meet. They have deadlines for grant applications, catalogue copy, manuscript delivery to printers, royalty reports, and on and on. Consortium is always operating on catalogue and other deadlines, and is frantic for shelf space, and I understand that the shelf life of a book in most American bookstores diminishes every year. Thoreau said that no human activity can be fruitful that takes time into account. Spontaneous Walt said that his own greatest virtue was his prodigious patience. We don’t allow our books the time to wait for readers to find them. Crazy Horse appeared in 1996, Diana and Pig Notes in 1998.
I turned 60 last autumn and retired from full-time teaching and have more time now, but I find myself rushing this open letter. But a shredder is running. It seems inexorable, and it wants our books. I wonder what you know about its inner workings. I wonder what we can do to dismantle it.
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