The Power of Words Faces the Might of Money : Publishing: Proposed cuts in arts funding leave small presses vulnerable. It could mean a literary scene with fewer voices.


Sandy Taylor--political activist, book publisher and general friend to serious readers everywhere--is also, as it turns out, a pretty good storyteller. After regaling his listeners with tales of derring-do experienced while driving a camper full of medical supplies to Nicaragua a few years back, Taylor arrived at the moral of his story just as his camper arrived at the Honduran border.

Jack-booted border guards stopped the vehicle at gunpoint, Taylor relates, then carefully searched it, examining the medical equipment, peering beneath the seats, even ripping open a box of books in search of contraband.

"But of course what was in the books was something they should have been concerned about," he says with a wry smile. "They were looking for the power of money but they neglected the power of words."

That isn't a fate likely to befall Taylor. On the contrary, he's spent most of his life honoring the power of words, first as an English professor then, for the past two decades, as founder and co-director of Curbstone Press, a nonprofit publishing house based in Willimantic, Conn. But even Taylor now appears ready to concede that money may be a bit more powerful than he originally thought.

That's because Curbstone, like virtually all nonprofit publishers, finds itself caught in the congressional cross-fire over public funding of the arts. Last month, a House-Senate conference committee agreed to slash the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts by 40%, and even though that figure has yet to be approved by both houses of Congress, some Republican leaders promise that this is just the first step toward ending government support for the arts entirely.

NEA funding for literary publishing is already minuscule, accounting for just $1.095 million of the agency's $162.3-million 1995 budget. And it could get worse. When the NEA completes its reorganization in January, literary publishers will not have their own grant category, which will force them to compete against graphic artists, orchestras, dance troupes and others for their piece of the NEA's shrinking pie.

For Taylor and Curbstone, which this year received $25,000 from the NEA, $5,000 less than the maximum grant available for publishing houses, any reduction in funding could have grave implications. And they're not alone.

"We're all very vulnerable," says Douglas Messerli, the director of Sun & Moon Press in Los Angeles. "The whole issue of the NEA is so shocking. If a society can't support art, it says something about that society."

As NEA funding is reduced, most publishers say they'll have no choice but to reduce the number of writers they publish. Curbstone, for example, which had a $500,000 budget this year, would probably release six rather than eight new titles a year if it loses its government grant. White Pine Press of Fredonia, N.Y., another major nonprofit publisher, is contemplating a similar strategy.

"It will mean a devastation in some ways for the literary scene," Taylor says.

"I think that anyone who truly knows literature will tell you that the big commercial houses are not publishing the best writing of our time," Messerli adds. "Serious exploratory literature . . . was being ignored by the big commercial houses. But we're publishing the James Joyces of our time. I think we're doing some of the most important publishing right now."

Not surprisingly, the writers agree.

"There are always going to be authors who are not going to be bestsellers but who are going to be important," says Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet of immense importance in Latin America and Western Europe but one with a small following in this country. "Someone of the density of a Faulkner, for example. If a publishing house received something of that quality nowadays, they might not publish him."

Adds Chilean Marjorie Agosin, another award-winning poet whose work is available in the United States only through small imprints: "In this country, big presses will never publish poetry unless it makes millions of dollars. And we know that it doesn't. I think the best literature comes out of the small presses."

But while Messerli and others worry about the aesthetic issues NEA funding cuts raise, Taylor wonders about the political fallout. His press has nearly 90 titles in print, including the works of writers Tomas Borge and Sergio Ramirez and poets Ernesto Cardenal, Daisy Zamora and Belli, all of whom were once banned from entering the United States because of their political beliefs. Curbstone, which last month celebrated its 20th anniversary, has a long history of provocative publishing: Its first book, "Santiago Poems" by James Scully, was a collection of poetry about human rights abuses in the wake of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile in 1973.

"Some of these writers might not have had a chance to be heard if small presses had not decided to give the disenfranchised a voice," Taylor argues. "We think the truth wins out in honest debate. And to have an honest debate, you have to have all the voices involved."

That philosophy is spelled out in Curbstone's mission statement, which calls on the press to present "writers who give voice to the unheard." But it also spells out an activist agenda, pledging that Curbstone will remain "dedicated to literature that reflects a commitment to social change" and "build[ing] bridges between writers directly engaged in social struggle and the reading public."

While the clarity of Curbstone's mission may set it apart from other nonprofit publishers, its progressive political beliefs are shared by many small presses. As a result, Taylor believes it is politics, not monetary concerns, that has made public funding of the arts a target of Congress.

"This whole thing is a real phony issue," he says. "Are we so mean that we wouldn't, each individual, give the equivalent of a doughnut in the airport to the arts? Eighty cents per person per year? It's an astoundingly, astoundingly small amount. And now they want to cut that by 40. That will put presses in jeopardy or slow them down to the point where they become ineffective.

"I think it's really a censorship issue . . . the right wing want[s] to censor these voices."


Nonprofit publishers do have one thing working in their favor, however. Although their past NEA grants of up to $30,000 were important, they were relatively small--by comparison, the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum received $200,000 from the NEA for its 1994-95 season--which makes the search for alternative funding easier. White Pine, for example, which has more than 80 titles in print, changed book distributors in January, a move that increased its sales revenue. And, like other presses, it has also sought help from new sources, such as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest fund.

"We've been trying over the last couple of years to diversify our sources of funding, trying to appeal to more private foundations and widen our base of support there," says Dennis Maloney, who has published the poetry of Agosin, Nobel Prize winners Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Minstral of Chile, and David St. John, among others, since founding White Pine 22 years ago. "[Historically] there hasn't been any real energetic effort on the part of private foundations to have an interest or support of literature. Some of those are going to take several years to happen."

In the meantime, Maloney can bank on at least some government support--from the government of Slovenia. The republic, part of the former Yugoslavia, recently awarded White Pine a grant of more than $18,000 to translate and publish the works of some of its writers. Over the years White Pine has received similar, smaller grants from Korea, Norway, Sweden and other countries.

Curbstone, which recently saw its $150,000 two-year Mellon grant expire, plans to follow public radio's lead and seek more help from small private donors. Currently about 4% of the press's budget comes from private donations while nearly 50% comes from book sales. But Taylor believes trying to increase that figure could prove more perilous than simply learning to get by with less.

"I think that's a very dangerous road to take because at the end of that road . . . you end up forgetting what you were all about in the first place," he says. "Profit is not the thing that drives our press. It's the mission that drives our press."

Besides, argues Taylor and others, no one expects the opera or the philharmonic to support itself entirely through ticket sales so why should publishers of poetry be asked to be self-sufficient? Their success should be measured in public weal, not private wealth.

"That's what cultural work is all about, to make culture a part of your daily life. Not something that's reserved for museums or . . . Ph.D. poets writing for each other," Taylor says. Then, quoting Roque Dalton, one of the century's most important Spanish-language poets, he adds: "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone."

Not surprisingly, English translations of Dalton's poetry are only available from one publisher: Curbstone.

'I think that anyone who truly knows literature will tell you that the big commercial houses are not publishing the best writing of our time. Serious exploratory literature . . . was being ignored by the big commercial houses. But we're publishing the James Joyces of our time. I think we're doing some of the most important publishing right now.'

Douglas Messerli

Director, Sun & Moon Press

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