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Interview with Dennis Maloney of White Pine Press
interview by Gregory Dunne
This interview was conducted at Cid Corman’s cake shop in Kyoto. I had traveled up to Kyoto from Miyazaki City in southern Japan where I reside; Dennis Maloney had traveled to Kyoto after a brief stay in Korea. We spoke for about an hour and a half, as customers came and went, and as we enjoyed chocolate cheesecake, home made ice cream, coffee, and tea.
Dunne: Good Afternoon Dennis. As you know, we are meeting today at CC’s cake shop. This cake shop serves homemade American cake and ice cream and was established by the American expatriate poet Cid Corman some forty years ago. When I stopped by yesterday, Sachiko Konishi, the present owner, and Cid’s sister-in-law Corman wife, told me that she was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of CC’s. I was struck by the coincidence that the press that you founded, White Pine Press, and the cake shop were both celebrating forty years of operation. So with this rather auspicious occasion in mind, I would like to begin this interview with you.
You arrived in Japan about five days ago from Korea. Could I begin by asking you, what were you doing in Korea, and what brought you over to Japan this time?
Maloney: I was in Korea to accept an award from the Korean Literary Translation Institute (KLTI) for our work in publishing Korean literature in translation. Twenty years ago we established a Korean Voices Series and have published nineteen volumes to date including both classic poetry and contemporary work. We have also recently signed a long-term agreement with KLTI to publish two volumes of Korean translation per year starting in 2014. I am visiting Kyoto this week to visit many old friends and to work with John Einarsen, the founding editor of Kyoto Journal, to finalize a book we are publishing in the fall of his photographs of Kyoto with poetry by our old friend, Edith Shiffert.
This year is also the fortieth anniversary of my first journey to Kyoto in 1973 when I studied here as a student.
Dunne: As mentioned, you are celebrating the fortieth year of White Pine Press this year. Could you talk about the genesis of the press – how it started – where it started, and the reasons that lay behind your decision to establish the press?
Maloney: I first encountered Kyoto in 1973 as a student doing an independent study of Japanese Gardens from my college, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY. I was trained as a landscape architect but was also writing and translating poetry and studying Zen as well, so there were many reasons to come to Kyoto when my program gave me the opportunity to do an independent study somewhere in the world. Gary Snyder was one of my early influences, both with his own work, and his translations of the Cold Mountain Poems, and those of Miyazawa Kenji, led me to the cultures and poetry of Japan and China.
While I was in Kyoto I picked up a copy of Poetry Nippon, a magazine of Japanese poets writing in English. The group met monthly and their next meeting happened to be at Edith Shiffert’s house so I phoned her and asked if it would be OK to attend. She invited me to the meeting and I stayed on afterward and we ended up meeting many more times and becoming good friends. She later introduced me to Cid Corman at the cafe where he hung out. This was early in 1973 so it was before he opened CC’s where we are now.
Edith had lived in Kyoto for a decade by then, earning her living as a teacher, first at Doshisha College and later at Kyoto Seika University. I was inspired during my stay in Kyoto to establish the literary publishing house White Pine Press, now entering its fortieth year, to publish poetry and literature in translation. Edith was one of the first poets we published, and we are still publishing her work today.
One of the reasons for starting the press was my interest in translation and the fact that there were few outlets publishing literature in translation back then. The inspiration for this includes Cid’s work with Origin but also Robert Bly’s pioneering work with The Sixties Magazine and Press which brought a lot of foreign poets to the attention of the US reading public for the first time.
In the early days, I was a recently graduated student with little in the way of funds so our first efforts were rather modest – small postcard folio’s, the first of which was titled “Japan” and included poems by Edith and Cid along with several of the Japanese poets who wrote in English. After that, we graduated to chapbooks and several years later to perfect bound books. Along the way we also found out about various grant sources including the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, which continue to fund us to this day.
Dunne: Did you have any fears or concerns in starting up a press? When you began, did you imagine you would keep it going so long?
Maloney: In the beginning I didn’t have any fears largely because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I sort of learned by doing and asking other editors for advice. Over the years through meeting other editors at book fairs and other events I began to develop long term friendships with many. I had no thought when I started that I’d still be here forty years later publishing and also had no idea we would grow into the presence we now have from such humble beginnings. As the song says, “Still crazy after all these years.”
Over the years we have benefited from several key developments in our growth. The advent of computers made book design much easier. A key development grant from the Lila Wallace - Reader’s Digest Foundation allowed us to hire Elaine LaMattina fulltime as our Managing Director. She has been responsible for all of our book design and copyediting. This allowed us to increase our output to 10 - 12 books per year and upgrade the look of our publications significantly.
Dunne: Where their any mentors that helped you early on with the press – that gave you encouragement or support of any kind?
Maloney: There were a number of mentors in the early days. Alan Brilliant of Unicorn Press was an old hand at publishing poetry and translations. He published the work of Vietnam poets during the Vietnam War bringing a face to the so-called enemy. His work was an act of political courage at the time. Others later included Sandy Taylor, the editor at Curbstone Press, Allan Kornblum at Coffee House Press, and Sam Hamill at Copper Canyon among others. They were very generous in sharing their knowledge and resources.
Dunne: What advice would you have for those considering starting up a press?
Maloney: It is both easier and more difficult to start a publishing venture these days. Easier in that with the advent of computers and digital publishing it is much easier to design and publish a book than ever before. Difficult in that the bookstore environment has significantly changed from when we started. In the old days there was a network of 6000 plus independent bookstores around the country. After the rise of the chain bookstores, those being Borders and Barnes & Nobel, many of the independent bookstores went out of business. In the subsequent years, the landscape has changed further with Amazon taking over a larger share of the book business. The Border’s chain has now disappeared and Barnes & Nobel is struggling to stay in business. Independent bookstores, those that have found a way to stay alive, are now making a comeback.
I think some of the younger editors starting up small publishing ventures are communicating with their audience almost entirely online through social media, blogs, and are developing new ways of reaching their market.
Dunne: In addition to being a publisher and an editor, you are a poet and a translator, as well as a landscape architect. Could you talk about how publishing and editing influenced, and/or affect your work in these other areas?
Maloney: I heard Gary Snyder read when I was a student and he suggested that poetry should be your ad vocation rather than your vocation since, unless you were going to be a member of the Academy, it would be very hard if not impossible to make a living at it. As it happened I had a trade that I was studying, landscape architecture. Soon after graduation I was lucky enough to land a job with the City of Buffalo designing parks and playgrounds. I stayed there in various capacities for thirty-four years until my retirement in 2007. It provided a steady income and now a decent pension, which allows me to pursue my literary activities. I think the training has helped me in other areas. For example in translating poets like Antonio Machado and Pablo Neruda, I have been able to make better word choices because of my background.
I think being a translator has made be a better poet since translation is such an act of sympathy with the author you are translating and by doing a close reading of their work and trying to transform the work into good poems in English.
The work of being a publisher and editor has certainly widened and deepened my knowledge of poetry, much for the better.
Dunne: In perhaps a somewhat similar question as the above, I would like to ask you what unexpected events – surprises – have come to you through your activities with the press?
Maloney: One has been winding up in expected places; including where we sit right now is Cid’s old cafe. A great joy has been to meet many of the authors we have published. In the late 80s we took a trip to Sweden for a Scandinavian book fair. There we met Tomas Transtromer, the recent Nobel laureate, six months before his devastating stroke. We had met him previously when he read in Buffalo many years before but the meeting in Sweden was particularly memorable because so much changed for him shortly after. On the same journey we went to Norway and visited the two fathers of Norwegian poetry, Olav Hauge and Rolf Jacobsen both of whom were in their late eighties at the time. On my several trips to Korea, I have met some of our authors there and they have become good friends. Also we have made many good friendships with the authors we publish in the US.
Dunne: What role does the small press publisher play in the life of literary culture of our time?
Maloney: I think the cultural role of small independent literary publishers has become increasingly important in this age. Much of the commercial publishing in this country, mainly centered in New York City, has with a couple of small exceptions been taken over by conglomerates whose interest is solely in the bottom line rather than the type of literature they are publishing. Much of the serious fiction, poetry, and literature in translation has shifted to University and independent literary publishers.
Dunne: How does one keep a small press alive and flourishing for forty years? What is the secret of that success?
Maloney: With great difficulty. Since, like many other literary publishers, we are nonprofit organization we must rely on government funding agencies, private foundations, foreign grant sources, and the kindness of friends and strangers to support our publishing efforts. By and large the books we produce are not commercial enough to support themselves in the market place so other sources of support are necessary. We view what we publish as a cultural activity essential to presenting the literary diversity that exists in the US and around the world.
We have been successful at obtaining grants from various government and foundation supported organizations in foreign countries to support the translation and publication of their literature into English.
Dunne: How many books has White Pine published over the course of its forty years? How many books do you currently have in print?
Maloney: We have published over 400 titles in our forty years. Much of the early material has been out of print for some time. We probably have close to 250 books still in print. We look at our backlist closely and try to keep books that still have a sales life in print. In some cases the books have become part of a larger book with another publisher or we feel there is no longer a market for a particular title. We are in the process of seeking grant support to reprint a number of our key backlist titles that continue to sell, mainly for use in college courses and also to convert some of them to the e-book format.
Dunne: How do you acquire manuscripts?
Maloney: We acquire manuscripts in a variety of different ways. Some arrive unsolicited through the mail, some are suggested by the various series editors or advisors we have, and some work we solicit.
Since we publish a great deal of literature in translation we are often approached by translators that are working in languages we are already publishing in. I have also been a member of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) for over 30 years and often attend their annual conference. There I have a chance to meet other translators and hear them read from their work and often encourage them to submit to us when the manuscript is ready. We have several ongoing translation series including: The Secret Weavers Series of Latin American women’s writing; Terra Incognito: Writing from Eastern Europe; and the Korean Voices Series of classic and contemporary work from Korea.
In addition we publish the Marie Alexander Series, largely a series devoted to prose poetry, which is edited by Robert Alexander and c.
Dunne: What contests is White Pine Press currently sponsoring?
Maloney: We currently sponsor the White Pine Poetry prize, now in its 19th year. This prize is open to any US poet and guidelines can be found on our website. We have also recently collaborated with the University of Missouri, Columbia and The Cliff Becker Endowment to publish the winner of the The Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. This is the first prize to publish a book of poetry in translation. It is named after Cliff Becker, who until his passing, was the Literature Director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Dunne: Since first encountering White Pine Press some years ago, I have associated it with translation. Was this a deliberate decision on your part to focus on translation form the start? If so, what prompted that?
Maloney: As we spoke about earlier, when I started White Pine Press translation was a main focus from the beginning influenced both by my own interest and work in translation along with the realization that there was very little work in translation being published in the US. The situation has improved in the past two decades with other literary publishers focusing on translation as well but translations of serious literature still make up less than 1% of the books published in the US every year.
Dunne: Wow, that is a remarkable statistic in a world that is ever more intercultural involved.
White Pine is not only publishing translations from Asian countries but it is also publishing translation from European countries. Could you talk some about the evolution of that activity? When did you begin publishing works of translation from Europe? How involved is the press with such work now? What recent translations from Europe has the press published?
Maloney: We have always had an interest in work from Europe. Early on in my writing career the poet Robert Bly introduced me to the work of a number of European and Latin American poets, particularly those from Spain and Latin America. Eventually I translated some of them myself including Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado, and Juan Ramon Jimenez. In addition to these we have published translations of a number of other European poets including: Francis Ponge, Jacque Prevert, Jean Follain, Max Jacob, Tomas Transtromer, Rolf Jacobsen, and many others. We have recently published our first translations from Polish and German.
Dunne: I would like to turn the conversation to a discussion concerning some of the Kyoto-based poets that you have published over the years. For nearly as long as the press has been in operation, you have published the work of Edith Shiffert.
Although Canadian born, and raised in the United States before coming to Japan, she is not a poet that is widely known in the US today or Canada, for that matter. Could you tell us about her? We spoke earlier of how you met. What attracted you to her work? What can readers expect to find in her poetry and in her translations?
Maloney: When I first met Edith we shared the idea of the ancient Asian tradition of the poet/hermit that many American and other poets have embraced. Her early work reflects a life in nature, particularly her second book, For a Return to Kona, which revisits her early years homesteading on the Big Island of Hawaii. I learned more of her life as we became friends over the years.
While she would probably never refer to herself as a feminist, she was certainly a woman who choose her own path at a time when very few dared to do so. She was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1916, she spent most of her youth in upstate New York before moving to Redondo Beach, California, in the mid 1930s. In 1938, at the age of twenty-two, she traveled alone to Hawaii, first to Honolulu and then to the Big Island. There she met and married her first husband, Steven Shiffert, with whom she homesteaded on the Big Island during the war years. After the war, she and her husband moved first to Washington, where they constructed a log cabin near North Bend, and then moved on Alaska for several years. After she and her husband separated, Edith, at age forty, enrolled in the University of Washington to study poetry with Theodore Roetke. She remained there from 1956 to 1962.
After she graduated she moved to Kyoto, in 1963, on the advice of a friend, first teaching at Doshisha College and later at Kyoto Seika University. She taught long enough to receive a pension, a rare thing for foreigners living in Japan. In 1981 she married Minoru Sawano, a retired teacher, and they shared an active life until his death in 2004. After her arrival in Kyoto much of her work took on a Japanese sensibility and was physically rooted in old Kyoto. Her first book published after her arrival, The Kyoto Years, reflects that. She loved to hike and spent many hours walking the hills around Kyoto and learning the names of the flowers, trees, and birds.
We have seen each other many times both here in Kyoto and in the US on her trips there. In 2006 I had the great pleasure of reading with her for the first time in one of her last public readings. She is now living is an assisted living facility here in Kyoto.
In addition to her own work she has co-translated several books of Japanese poetry, most notably one of the first anthologies of Modern Japanese Poetry to be published in English and Haiku Master Buson, which for many years was the only full length collection of his work in English.
Dunne: I understand that you are preparing to publish a new work that will include some of Edith’s poems. Could you talk about that?
Maloney: Part of the reason for my trip to Kyoto this time is to work with her and John Einarsen, the founding editor of Kyoto Journal, to finish up work on a book, Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate which we will publish in the fall of 2013. The book is a longtime collaboration of Edith’s poetry with John’s photographs of Kyoto. It will celebrate Edith’s half century of living here.
Dunne: Another Kyoto poet that you’ve worked with for many years was the late Cid Corman. Could you talk about what it was like to work with him?
Maloney: I knew Cid much less than Edith and only met him a couple of times in person over the years. Once or twice in Kyoto and once in Buffalo when he was doing a reading tour of the US. We usually met, as most people met Cid, through exchanges of those famous blue aerograms. I was familiar with his translation of Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns and thought it would make a great addition to our list. He agreed to our publication and a Japanese artist friend, Hide Oshiro, offered to paint sumi-e illustrations for the book. So a new collaboration came about and we published it in the mid 80s. We reprinted it a few years ago in a small 5” x 7” format in a series we publish called, Companions for the Journey, small format books, many Asian classics, that you can fit in a bag or jacket pocket.
While there are many versions of Basho’s journal out there, Cid’s is unique in that he choose to try and replicate the style of the original and many folks think he succeeded admirably.
Dunne: The late British poet and translator, David Jenkins, was another Kyoto-based poet whose work you have published: Simmering Away: Songs from the Kanginshu (2006). You rescued this out-of-print book and re-issued it. Could you speak to why you decided to keep this book in print? What did you find within it that recommended its being kept in print?
Maloney: I became acquainted with David’s work through some mutual friends in publishing who published some earlier translations of his. On one of my trips here I met David and he gave me a copy of a hand bound Japanese edition of Simmering Away he had put together with some of his friends for an exhibit here and I thought it would make a great volume in our Companions for the Journey Series. Michael Hofmann, the sumi-e painter had done some illustrations for the original Japanese edition so I asked him to contribute some additional work for our book. Unfortunately David passed away unexpectedly around the time the book came out.
Dunne: Thus far we have talked about the press and about some of the poets whom the press has published. I would like to topics a bit and finish up by asking you about your own work as a poet and as a translator. What works of translation have you been involved in recently, and what works do you intend to translate in the future?
Maloney: I have been translating for over 40 years. I began inspired by the Spanish and Latin American poets Robert Bly had introduced me to. I started translating some poems of Pablo Neruda with two years of high school Spanish and a big dictionary. A few years after I graduated from college and had more time I decided to tackle a whole book of Neruda’s. I learned from that experience and decided to work with co-translators who could give me a rough English version to work from. What I found I did best was to recreate them as good poems in English, which I found much more satisfying. I have gone on to co-translate two additional book of Neruda with various hands. Working with Mary Berg we have done The Landscape of Castile by Antonio Machado and The Poet and the Sea by Juan Ramon Jimenez.
I have also done some co-translation from the Japanese with my now departed friend, Hide Oshiro. Together we translated a volume by the Zen poet, Ryokan (Between The Floating Mist: Poems of Ryokan), a book of love poems by Yosano Akiko (Tangled Hair: Love Poems of Yosano Akiko) and the classic anthology, Hyakunin Isshu: 100 Poems by 100 Poets.
I am taking a break on translation right now to concentrate on my own work but I’m sure I will be tempted back into it at some point.
Dunne: What poetry projects are you working on presently?
Maloney: I am presently working on new poems, which hopefully one day assemble themselves as a book and a long-term project, a poetic prose book on Japanese gardens.
Dunne: Thank you Dennis for participating in this interview.
Maloney: Thank you for your attentive questions. It was a great pleasure to see you again in such a wonderful location and remember our dear old friends.
Gregory Dunne is a scholar living in Japan. He was a friend of Cid Corman’s. Two parts
of a memoir of Cid Corman by Dunne appeared in issues 3 and 4 of the PRRB. His
memoir of Cid Corman will be published by Ekstasis Editions in 2014.