The New Poetry Radicals

Wave Books is shaping up to be a truly punk rock press. Now if only they could turn a profit.

Wave Books on Lake Union is the biggest thing to hit Seattle poetry since Poetry Northwest, the biggest Northwest thing since the birth of Copper Canyon Press in 1972, and a transformative force nationally, heralded by everyone from Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. “They decided to inflict their work like a tattoo upon the skin of the land,” says Details writer Jeff Gordinier, who hailed Wave in his book X [as in Generation X] Saves the World.

“They’ve added a kind of hip factor to poetry — much the same way McSweeney’s did with fiction — that perhaps makes it appeal to a wider audience,” says Craig Teicher, National Book Critics Circle V.P. and poetry editor of Publishers Weekly.

And now, surfing on its latest verse tsunami (it publishes about eight books per year), Wave is staging its biggest Seattle event ever, Three Days of Poetry (August 14 – 16) at the Henry Art Gallery: eleven poetry movies and thirteen poets reading in rooms such as the evocative Skyspace, created by James Turrell, which seats twenty.

“It’s going to be a blast — it’s such a cool space,” says Joshua Beckman, who edits Wave’s publications with fellow poet/impresario Matthew Zapruder. “We’re gonna think about the other spaces at the Henry, audio walking tours, or text-based things like pamphlets. Plus we’ll do performances and displays and all sorts of other things.”

Zupruder (left) and Beckman on the bus tour,
desert prophets spreading the Wave word.

Wave is more than a press. It’s a death-defying high-wire act, an audacious attempt to bridge the gaps between the literary and visual art worlds, and also between the music and poetry scenes. The art connection is smoothed by the generous funding of publisher Charlie Wright, rescuer and ex-director of the pioneering Dia Foundation. Artists don’t build sculptural environments with rowdy poetry crowds in mind, but Wright, the most unassuming of modern Medicis, believes he can open minds.

Zapruder, lead guitarist for the Figments, and Beckman are naturals to connect with the music universe. “A creative world in which there’s fluid movement of ideas from discipline to discipline — it’s not even like it’s ideal, it’s necessary,” says Beckman. “Matthew and I were strongly influenced by small record labels — the idea of Dischord, the DC punk label, was probably biggest. Not just DIY [do it yourself], but audiotapes, passing ’em around, playing in people’s garages, you know?”

“‘Wave’ has a lot of connotations,” notes Wright. “Sound waves, sound poetry. Energy, radio waves — broadcast, outreach, recreation, surfing. There’s the association with New Wave cinema — so there’s a suggestion of trying to connect to a movement of some kind. The core strategy is to try to be the press in the U.S. that becomes over time associated with the best poetic writing of a certain generation, born after 1965 and before 1985, say.” Says Beckman, “A majority of our authors are between the ages of thirty-five and forty-five.”

Zapruder and Beckman are a fruitful collision of styles. Zapruder sounds analytical, while Beckman speaks lyrically, riding waves of emotional association (although sources say he has a great mind for business). “Matthew seems very businesslike, with a cynical, edgy, cutting indie-rock humor,” says Gordinier. “Joshua seems a little spaced out — he looks like a Hasidic rabbi who’s left the faith and gone off the grid.” It comes as no surprise that Beckman once lived in a tepee. “A hulking guy, very imposing, a nimbus of hair, these eyeglasses — there’s something strikingly Ginsbergian about him,” continues Gordinier. A famous Beckman poem parodies Howl for the self-mocking post-irony cohort: “I saw the best minds of my generation / living in lofts / thinking they were the best minds of their generation.”

Wave poets sure get the best deal of their generation. “If we form a relationship with a poet, it’s gonna be a deep relationship, and a supportive, a long-term relationship,” says Wright. “We give direct grants to poets, and we set up road trips and readings.” Wave launched in 2006 with a seven-week, thirteen-thousand-mile Poetry Bus tour of fifty U.S. cities. Kerouac and Kesey were literary pikers by comparison. Despite the tanked economy, which forced Wave to shrink its Eastlake office, Wright vows to keep it afloat. “We’re for profit. We’ll never have any of it, but we’re for it.”

The Poetry Bus on the road in 2006. Photo by Maggie Jackson.

It’s tricky to define Wave’s aesthetic. Beckman and Zapruder duck the question. “The editors are interested in a fairly specific aesthetic range — poetry that is highly associative, disjunctive, often ironic and funny, often bringing together pop and high culture,” says Teicher. Zapruder responds, “I think Craig’s assessment, if one had to make one, is fairly accurate, except of course when it isn’t.”

Zapruder also quibbles with Beckman’s indie-rock analogy. “Because of some things we do (bigger tours, events in bars and other venues) and some of the books we have published (particularly Isn’t It Romantic, which included a CD of twenty indie-rock musicians), as well as my own personal, relatively limited involvement in music, it can easily be said that Wave is trying to kind of be a rock-and-roll press or something. I don’t think that’s actually true.” The indie-label notion was simply “a connection born out of economic necessity, i.e., we had to think small and grassroots, like indie-rock labels did in the ’80s and early ’90s. But we don’t think about what we publish as being for a different, or ‘wider,’ audience, whether it’s a rock-and-roll one or any other: we just think what we publish is good, and like anything that’s good, if you put it in front of thinking, feeling, open-minded people, they will like it.”

Wary of getting pinned down to a defining aesthetic, the editors can be downright sensitive on the issue of money, which raises an interesting distinction between the art and poetry worlds. In fact, during our interview it raised Beckman’s hackles. He has a place (not a tepee) in Brooklyn. When I asked if he stayed at a guest house on Wright’s property when in Seattle (as a literary visitor there told me), he stammered, “I’m not sure I want to continue [the interview]! That’s a strange question. Never mind. I just, um, OK, it sets me off from continuing a little bit. To be honest.”


Yes, getting dragged by dogs on a sled
by Joshua Beckman

Yes, getting dragged by dogs on a sled
over an uninhabited ice bank is all I really need.
The stars. That quiet time “alone.”
A bunch of diving birds.
Each thing was like the open mouth of my cave
and I was as a croquet ball on the endless
lawn of a great socialite, taking the perfect journey
through every gate. The dropped jaws,
the spilled lemontine drinks.
My thought then, being so close,
was of the pungent earth.
I rolled.
A magic relief, as in the story
when one finds oneself lost beneath
a canopy of fabulous tropical plants.
A fever of familiar people.
Each day I imagine the nourishing abstraction
of a hot sun. Each night the constellations
distract with proximity.


People in other arts are used to the idea of patron support; compared to the utterly penniless, isolated poetry world, the art world is awash in cash, institutional support and career paths for the ambitious. If Bagley, Virginia and Charlie Wright had crashed their car in 1958, it would have cost culturati the Seattle Rep, Seattle Weekly, Wave, Dia and the core of the Seattle Art Museum collection. Artists crave patrons, but the merest hint of being a “kept” intellectual makes poetry types uneasy — and that goes double for those inspired by indie rock.

But everybody knows that if the poetic equivalent of punk cred exists, Wave has it. Wright gives his editorial duo amazing autonomy. Wave books look distinctive in the bookstore: their design is abstract, bereft of literal-minded graven images or authors’ blurbs on the back. “Give me some good reasons to do it,” says Beckman. Wright wanted to use a standardized format, like City Lights or Gallimard, to appeal to book buyers’ collecting mania. “But I got talked out of that. So we reached a compromise where we should try to stick with more graphic elements, more abstract elements, and get away from using photos, which are kind of a red herring — what does the photo mean?”

Even more than design, what’s crucial to Wave’s promise is the press’s ability to create the aura of an event — to fill a room with urgency via sound waves. Gordinier remembers a reading he did with Beckman at a college back east. Gordinier read his essay on Kurt Cobain. “I deliver a very strong reading,” admits Gordinier. “I kinda killed it. I felt a little guilty — the poet’s going to have to come up and follow me, after I read about a rock star.” Yet, as Gordinier tells it, “Beckman goes up there and he destroys me. Little haiku-like poems, Zen koan, standup jokes, almost like Steven Wright. Joshua Beckman could be a rock star in literature if this country gave any attention to poetry at all.”

Inside the James Turrell Skyspace, the venue for the Wave event Three Days of Poetry at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, Aug. 14 – 16.

And thanks to Wave, people are paying more attention than they used to. The Henry event is bound to be more dramatic than a typical poetry reading or gallery event (or rock show, for that matter). The concept is to let the art forms enrich one another. At Wave’s last Skyspace reading in 2006, recalls Wave’s Monica Fambrough, “Because people were quite literally in another art form while they were experiencing the reading, I think it made them much more comfortable with the inherent tension. I think normally people feel guilty if their attention wanders during a reading, because they think they are supposed to hang on and ‘interpret’ every word. But in the Skyspace, people looked up and around and you could tell they were having a more personalized, open experience, the way you might at a concert or a museum visit. There was more room for free association and nonjudgmental listening.”

In her judgment, the reading killed. Craig Teicher identifies the secret of Wave’s success: “They do a better job than most of making poetry seem fun.”