Vol. 3 No. 3, Fall 1998 (#11)

Lost Roads Press

by Eric Lorberer

When you take the lost road
You find the bright feathers of morning
Laid out in proportion to snow and light
And when the snow gets lost on the road
Then the hot wind might blow from the south
And there is sadness in bed for twenty centuries
And everyone is chewing the grass on the graves again
--Frank Stanford, from "Circle of Lorca"

Why does a young poet start a press? In the case of Frank Stanford, maybe his fire was stoked when his epic poem, The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You, was disqualified from competing for the Walt Whitman Award because of its length (a supreme irony, that a prize named for our most expansive poet should institute a page limit). Or maybe the answer can be found in this 1974 letter: "I know a poet who I've lost contact with name of John S. Morris . . . he's pushing 40, but I hate to think of him that age and still unknown . . . If I ever have a chance helping someone publish a book, I'm going to try to find him." For whatever the reason, in 1976 Frank Stanford took out a loan, and--aided and abetted by fellow poet C. D. Wright--bought an 1850 multilith printer, an old carbon arc burner, and a camera, thus beginning Lost Roads Publishers.

The name pays homage to his literary idol Lorca, but Stanford clearly wanted Lost Roads to showcase the local talent; of the 12 books he published and planned before his death in 1978, all but one are by Southern poets who were "still unknown." After the first few releases--one of which was a book by one John S. Morris--Lost Roads got some NEA funding and geared up to publish The Battlefield, though Stanford sadly did not live to see finished copies. Wright, who had been pitching in at the fledgling press, suddenly found herself holding the reins when Stanford committed suicide. "Because I did not die / I sit in the captain's chair," begins her poem "Vanish," but even though she was less sure of the calling to be a publisher than Stanford was, Wright resolved to continue the press in his memory. Her first order of business was to complete the publication of the other books he had begun readying for publication. Among these was Stanford's own book You, a slim volume of lyrics, which, along with Ironwood Press's also posthumously published Crib Death, confirmed the magnitude of the loss that the world of poetry had sustained.

Wright forged on, albeit slowly; it would take six years for another 12 books to be added to the Lost Roads roster. She moved from the Ozarks to San Francisco--where she met and married the poet Forrest Gander, who joined her on editorial duties--then briefly to Mexico, and finally to Rhode Island, where the press is housed today. Having incorporated regional and aesthetic influences along the way, Lost Roads began to demonstrate an editorial range that would seem unfocused were it not for the quality of the work. Poetry in translation began to appear--including Franz Wright's exceptional versions of René Char--as well as innovative works by English-speaking writers from outside American borders, such as Neudstadt Prize-winner Kamau Brathwaite's Trench Town Rock. The press diversified formally as well, publishing collections of short fiction by writers whose prose seems inflected with the cadence of poetry--writers such as Alison Bundy, Mary Caponegro, and Stanford himself. Josephine Foo's charming book Endou contains a fully realized children's story amidst poems and prose vignettes.

Contemporary American poetry, however, remains the central focus of Lost Roads. Over the years the press has published books by Arthur Sze, Fanny Howe, Philip Foss, John Taggart, Frances Mayes, Keith Waldrop, and many others. That Frank Stanford's poetic vision extended to publishing the works of others, and that this torch has been kept lit, is our good fortune.

This year has seen the release of two books from Lost Roads, a big deal for a small press operated by two full-time poets, teachers, and parents. The first, Beijing poet Xue Di's Heart into Soil, is a collaboration with their literary neighbors in Providence, Burning Deck. The book is a fitting addition to both lists. Translated from the Chinese by Wang Ping and others, with final versions smoothed out by Keith Waldrop, Di's poetry is elemental, alchemical, and lacking even a shred of irony; an especially strong sequence called "Flames" reinterprets Van Gogh's paintings with a boldness equal to their inspiration. The other new book, Sam Truitt's highly idiosyncratic Anamorphosis Eisenhower, is a fugue-like work in 32 cantos, a mini-epic that reinvents America as easily as it recycles language. "Actually I am picking these words / Like splinters out of my ass" writes Truitt, but what the hell--his playful collision of the great names and lessons of "Western Civ" with the pop-cultural fallout that has been blinding us since the beginning of the cold war leads to a spectacular display of what poetry remains capable of doing.

Truitt's Anamorphosis, in fact, puts me in mind of Stanford's Battlefield; despite their vast differences in tone and rhetoric, both are highly allusive, often funny, and seek to answer the question, in Truitt's words, "But what would it be like to ride on a beam of it?" Such an aesthetic thread is a pleasure to find on these Lost Roads.

Fall 1998 Table of Contents