Everyone knows there are lots of S.O.B.s in publishing, and in poetry. How many times have poets been victimized by their publishers great and small? My own SOB story, not worth telling in detail here, involves the disgraceful implosion of Zoo Press; I had much miserable company in that sorry episode. And in a way, the good news is that if anybody wants to, they can find such Zoo titles as my book Union for a couple of bucks these days - as I'd never have received any "royalties" (nothing royal about 'em, in Poetryville!) from Zoo even if it hadn't become extinct, this pleases me greatly. When copies eventually disappear, I suppose I'll follow Bill Knott's noble example and Lulu the damned thing.
Then, too, I now and then see some of my Miguel Hernández translations stuck on websites, which is gratifying, though it deprives that poet's rightsholders from earning their pittance, let alone me mine (I can forgo it). But like Bill Knott, I've seen my work reproduced in print by supposedly reputable publishers, so-called acknowledgment included, without me or the poet's estate ever being consulted, let alone getting paid. The money? It's not much. The principle? Priceless.
At any rate, here's a doubly-sad letter from Bill Zavatsky to Bill Knott about the recent printing of the latter's work in Mary Karr's poetry column; Zavatsky, if you don't know about him, is a poet who also published wonderful books under his SUN imprint, along with a terrific litmag, also called SUN. I say doubly-sad because in this case, the devotion of one poet to the work of another came to such a sorry end. And yet I find the letter ultimately somewhat heartening, because it shows that the failure of a poetry press doesn't diminish the work or the devotion - though Bill Knott might understandably disagree. Anyway, I hope it's ok to reproduce that letter here, but if not please - either Bill - let me know and I'll replace it with a link.
Hi, Bill--I check in with your website every now and again to see what's going on with you, and I was shocked/amused to see you shout me out. (I'm not offended, by the way; I love you and I love your work. I consider it one of my incredible pieces of good life-luck to have published your Selected and Collected Poems.)
The situation is that I was just as surprised as you were when I saw the "copyright" SUN listings at the end of Mary Karr's column. Neither she nor anyone else contacted me about anything, and I haven't made a penny from your work since, alas, I had to stop publishing books in 1985. The books that you didn't buy or take from me I donated to the library at Poets House long, long ago, as I did other SUN titles. (And for the record, I never made any money--or wanted any--from the other books that I had to let go, not being able to continue to pay warehousing fees because the press no long had any income.) I first sold at cut-rate prices (you remember) all the books that authors wanted, then offered the rest for free later on, then donated them when you and other authors didn't want any more copies, etc.
My recollection is that some or all of the poems that Mary Karr (whom I do not know) reprinted in her column were subsequently reprinted by other presses, so there's no way that anyone would come to me for permission to reprint them. My attitude, and I thought I made this clear to everybody, is that when SUN closed up shop all the rights to the work automatically reverted to the authors, you included. I'm sorry if that wasn't crystal clear, but you can imagine how many balls I was juggling, from closing the press to working full time, to finding publishers for work that I had committed to--which I did.
Anyhow, I plead innocent! And I hope you'll put this on your website to show that I'm not a bad guy. I never betrayed you and I never would! Love, Bill Zavatsky