Finding a Home: Peepal Tree and Caribbean Literature

• June 2011

In 1990, a spurt of intense writing represented a remarkable breakthrough for me as a poet. I had, before that, been writing poetry steadily but with the attitude of someone who was simply moonlighting as a poet. I was, as far I was concerned, a playwright who occasionally wrote poems and short stories. I was still smarting from a rather unfortunate encounter some ten years before, with one of the leading poets of the Caribbean at the time who advised me to burn my work—all of it. “You need to get rid of bad habits,” he said. Remarkably, I remained affected by his dismissal of my work. I say remarkably because I had gotten encouragement from some really gifted writers while I was a fellow in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 1986. But there is a pathology that I share with many people: the inclination to give far greater weight to negative comments than to positive.

However, it was not encouragement that prompted the spurt of writing in 1990. It was something more honest than that. I stumbled across the idea—the conceit, perhaps—of creating a fiction of dialog between my father and me. Somehow the phrase “Oh world that I have lost” stuck in my brain, and offered me a rich vein of narrative image and theme that had the unique quality of seeming honest, unpretentious, necessary, and urgent—qualities, I am afraid, that my poetry to that point seemed not to have. What I now, in retrospect, regard as my discovery of “voice” was, in practical terms, a discovery of comfort and purposefulness as a poet. More than that, however, I was discovering a sensation that had eluded me as a poet for a long time. I was comfortable, unembarrassed, and at ease with what I was writing. That sensation survived many readings, many revisions, and even long periods of not looking at the work. I realize that in truth I had arrived at a place of secure authority as a craftsman, but most important, I had something to write that only I could write. This special “mandate” drove me to write poems that finally explored the painful, and at that time unexplored, in my poems, experience of losing my father. It was, in 1990, six years since his death and I had finally found a way to write about this subject.

It did not take me long to realize that I was writing enough poems to generate a manuscript. In my only poetry workshop at the University of New Brunswick, poet and fiction writer Bill Bauer took a look at the gathering of poems and suggested that I submit it to Goose Lane Editions, the Fredericton-based publishers known for their very regional books. He thought the work worthy enough of publication. The fact that Bill Bauer had a longstanding relationship with Goose Lane Editions and that I had now been in New Brunswick for four years made the decision to try with Goose Lane something of a no-brainer. This was especially the case because even in my most casual thoughts about where my poetry could be published, it was clear to me that I would have to carefully consider my sense of identity and the identity that I would present to a publisher. Goose Lane Editions, as far as I knew, had never published a Caribbean poet before. Were they to accept my book, it would mean that they were seeing me as an immigrant poet—a Caribbean Canadian poet. They had some experience publishing Canadian Caribbean poets, and it became clear during the editorial process that the press needed to ensure that there was some “Can-Con” in the collection to justify their publishing the work with funding from the Canadian Government’s Canada Council. As I edited the collection, I included poems that were related to my being in Canada, and work that would fit comfortably into the mode of the immigrant or exile tradition. Fortunately, these were not poems that I had written for that purpose, but I was encouraged to include them.

When Goose Lane accepted my book, I was surprised and excited at the prospect. I had not gone through the ritual of entering multiple poetry contests or sending my work to various presses for consideration. That would come later. At the time, I simply found it comforting that at last I could say I had a book contract. It would take about three to four years for the book, Resisting the Anomie, to be published. During the years leading to the publication in 1995, I, perhaps bolstered by the knowledge that I had a book contract but mostly driven by the energy and what I felt was a clarity about my voice, my subject matter, and my skills as a poet, began to write at a steady and alarming pace. In two years, I found myself trying to organize the deluge of poems into four possible book collections. I still have these four manuscripts among my papers. I played with titles, with structure, with arrangements of poems, and became quite intrigued by the business of organizing a manuscript for consideration with a press. I was aided by the fact that I was, for one of those years, editor in chief at the student newspaper in Fredericton, the Brunswickan. This gave me access to Mac computers, with their excellent design software, and to printers. I took advantage of this and generated reams and reams of various versions of the manuscripts. During the second of those two years, I had accepted a position with the New Brunswick government. My job was to report on the fish farms in the Bay of Fundy, paying especial attention to the extent to which the training that the workers at these farms were getting in the various institutions was preparing them for their professions. I took the job seriously, but basically arranged my travels and writing for the job around my writing time for the poetry books I was now busy putting together. I wrote many poems, and took advantage of the great equipment in the government offices, and of the isolation of having my own office, to write. Even as I did this, I had begun to do some research on publishing house where my work could go.

For poets from the Caribbean writing in the eighties and nineties, there would have been no obvious venue for sending work. I did what most poets might have done at the time; I looked at the poets who were published and tried to determine who was publishing their work. There were the big names: Kamau Brathwaite was with Oxford, Derek Walcott was with Farrar Strauss and Giroux. Dennis Scott had published with a university press in the US, when he was a visiting artist there, but his other work had been published by the most reliable press devoted to Caribbean poetry at that time, New Beacon Books, in the UK. New Beacon had published Mervyn Morris’s collections, as well as the new work by Lorna Goodison and Martin Carter, and the fiction of Erna Brodber. Wayne Brown’s first collection of poems, On the Coast, had been published by Andre Deutsch in 1972, but beyond that Brown had not produced a new collection. During the late seventies, the Institute of Jamaica had published the poetry of Lorna Goodison and Anthony McNeill, along with some important books of fiction and biographies. The press was still publishing and I saw it as a possibility. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that to find a press interested in my work, I would have to look to New Beacon or start to think of ways to interest US or Canadian publishers.

In the best of worlds, a promising younger poet would have, in his or her home country, a few presses that could be considered as homes for such a poet. The situation with publishing in the Caribbean at the time was not the best of worlds. Not much has changed since then. What we had then was a environment for Caribbean writing that still favored the fiction writer. Heinemann was still persisting with its Caribbean Writers series and while they did not publish a great deal of poetry, they had recently published an anthology of Caribbean poetry. In the Caribbean there was no press that one could regard as a reliable venue for publishing new work.

In 1991, I wrote to Edward Baugh with the news of my pending book with Goose Lane, but also to ask him if he knew of any other venue for me to send my new work. It was he who first suggested Peepal Tree Press. At the time, I had never heard of the press. Baugh gave me the details, which I noted. I could not do a great deal of research about the press, since the Internet then was not quite what it is now, but Baugh told me that the press was publishing Caribbean writers and had recently published a number of poets. I had not seen a book published by Peepal Tree Press at the time, but I sent out my manuscripts to the editor Jeremy Poynting for consideration. It did not seem odd to me that the press was in the UK, but I didn’t quite understand just what the press was about, especially with regard to its commitment to Caribbean writing. I sent my manuscripts on the strength of Edward Baugh’s advice.

I heard from Jeremy Poynting quite quickly. It was a generous and engaging letter and he expressed a definite interest in publishing my work. What happened after offers an insight into what I regard as the peculiar strengths of Peepal Tree Press: I sent my work to Jeremy in early 1993. Progeny of Air was published in 1994, within a year. During that year, Jeremy and I exchanged letters and engaged in a great deal of dialogue about my book. His editing was intense and focused, and showed a great deal of respect for my own ideas for the book. The fact is, Jeremy had received three manuscripts from me. While he proceeded to work with me to consolidate the collection into one book, he also made it clear that he remained interested in the work that would not appear in that book. The process was extremely gratifying, and when the book came out before my first contracted book appeared, I learned something about Peepal Tree Press. It was an operation that while holding to all the professional values of a strong press allowed itself the flexibility to do things quickly and outside of strict rules. It was a small press at the time, and with its own printing press the publisher had a great deal of control of the production end of things.

My first engagement with Peepal Tree was a rewarding one, and Jeremy made it quite clear that, above all, he was interested in me as a poet, as a writer; he was not simply interested in that particular book. He entertained my e-mails and letters about my writing plans and ambitions and he encouraged them. It was clear that Jeremy was most interested in being a publisher of Caribbean writers. He knew far more than I did about West Indian literature. He “got” all my reggae references, and was adept at understanding and appreciating my biblical references and allusions. There was no expectation of me to try to write for a UK market. There was no pressure to ensure UK content. Beyond that, quite early in our friendship, Jeremy Poynting was forthcoming about his realization that as a publisher based in the UK, he was in danger of being no different from all the other traditional presses that had devoted some time and expense to publish Caribbean writers only to lose interest in that kind of publishing when the market seemed to have shifted. He told me then that for him, in the best of worlds, Peepal Tree would be based in the Caribbean somewhere. Because of this sensitivity to the politics of his position, Jeremy worked hard to ensure that the authors publishing with the press felt free to write work for a Caribbean audience.

There is no question that during the early stages of the press, at least during the early stages of my relationship with the press, the business side of things was idiosyncratic and more akin to jazz improvisation than to strict martial music. Publication dates were flexible, royalty statements were not routinely sent out, and the contractual arrangements were both formal and informal.

I was fortunate to have been able to visit Leeds and Peepal Tree in 1994 when Progeny of Air won the Forward First Book prize. I stayed in Jeremy’s home and we spent a great deal of time talking and discussing my upcoming new projects. Jeremy was always interested in my new work, and he never discouraged my prolific output. I remain deeply grateful to him for that. I also discovered that the press was a small operation. Essentially, Jeremy worked together with Hannah Bannister, along with an occasional staff of one that rotated. Jeremy would get some help with the printing, but much of the work, from editing to printing, he did himself.

For a long time I would advise poets who complained to me about the sometimes unpredictable nature of their publishing deal to try to visit Peepal Tree in Leeds. I believed that apart from the opportunity to meet Jeremy and Hannah and to see how the operation was done, they would also come to see how quixotic this enterprise was in and of itself. I have always felt that such knowledge would generate patience with the press.

The fact is that Peepal Tree Press was devoted to putting work out. It did not take long for the press to become one of the few places to which one could send a manuscript for consideration if one were a Caribbean writer. When, in the late nineties, I decided to try to find some way to have at least one of my books published in the United States, since I was based there, I came to understand just how much most presses in the UK and the US were deeply rooted in a tradition of writing that was nationalistic and devoted to the canon of their respective societies and nations. For many of these presses, a Caribbean voice represented something of a departure. In the US, the idea of a distinctive Caribbean voice was, in the late nineties, not especially marketable or interesting in the area of poetry. I was more likely to be given some attention if I was positioned inside the box of the African American writer. And even if I did make it into one of the publishing houses, I would not enter that space as an easily marketed poet. What community? To whom would these books be sold? And further, how was I adding to the American canon? It took some forty rejections (many of them full of generous praise for my work but most expressing uncertainty about how my work would fit in with their lists) before my book Midlands was accepted for publication. Indeed, it took a non-American judge, Eavan Boland, to select it for publication with Ohio University Press, as the winner of the Hollis Summers Book Prize. It was a grueling process. But it was a process I could go through because I knew I had a home elsewhere, a publishing home.

Today, Peepal Tree Press’s position as the leading publisher of Caribbean literature, and especially of Caribbean poetry, is unassailable. The production rate of new books is startling. Indeed, no other press can boast the kind of list that Peepal Tree has. With the addition of the Classics Series, Peepal Tree Press has become the place to go for Caribbean writing in English. Jeremy Poynting, I know, still wishes that the press existed in the Caribbean, but he also knows that the support for this press that has come from the British government is not going to come from the government of any of the Caribbean nations. At the same time, a Caribbean press that seeks to attract the best writers and to develop a strong international presence will have to have a sophisticated system of distribution, promotion, and branding and would, indeed, be creating something that has never happened in the area of publishing. In cricket, track and field, and music the Caribbean has managed to establish itself as a distinctive brand with the unique capacity to create an internationally recognized “product” that is, in many ways, homegrown. Of these, the most successful has been reggae music. But, even then, the control of the product has not always been rooted in the region.

Peepal Tree Press has done the next best thing. It has slowly created a distinctive brand that has been sharpened by the increasing difficulty that many Caribbean writers are having getting their books picked up elsewhere. The matter has never been about the quality of the work; it has been about the dilemmas of niche and trend. Publishers in the UK and the US will say that a work they are rejecting does not meet their exacting literary standards, but in truth they are dealing with something more basic: the work does not fit into the narrative of a nationalist literature. They may deny that they have such an agenda in their selection of authors, but at best we can say that they are acting without being aware of it. I believe that it is more than that. The few UK presses that publish poetry, for instance, are engaged in the business of continuing to add to a national literary tradition. This is a lofty project, but it is manifested in crasser terms. Editors imagine their audience, they imagine their marketing challenges, they imagine their system of tours, and they imagine what they would term their literary niche. In each of these instances, the Caribbean poet is either a spot of the exotic, or will have to demonstrate being a part of this larger tradition. But his or her Caribbeanness and his or her racial “otherness” make this idea impossible for some of the publishers to grasp. They will therefore say it is a matter of editorial taste, this despite the fact that many of these poets have established themselves legitimately in other societies.

Many writers will have their first and second novels or collections supported by one of these presses, but after awhile the novelty wears off and these writers are left stranded. Very often, this is when these authors come to Peepal Tree. Many will state that they want to find a press that will understand what they are trying to do in language and poetic sensibility, and they can’t seem to find that anywhere else.

Peepal Tree Press has managed to attract some of the best poets writing from the Caribbean today and more may well come as the reputation of the press continues to grow.

The future for Peepal Tree will lie in the expansion and solidification of a system that has now been adopted—one that involves inviting Caribbean writers of some reputation to serve as part of the editorial team of the press. Jeremy Poynting has made extraordinary efforts to create a community of writers from the Caribbean to be a part of the shaping of the future of the press. The excitement of publishing new and younger writers from the Caribbean is part of the energy that has made Peepal Tree Press a vital force in the sustenance and advancing of Caribbean writing. Simply put, any writer emerging today has the assurance that there is at least one venue that is seeking his or her work, that is positioning his or her writing as the focus of the list—a place where the best writing from the Caribbean is appearing.

Yet despite the obvious benefits of the existence of such a house for new and contemporary writers, it is Peepal Tree’s latest adventure into the reissuing of classic Caribbean work that may prove its most lasting legacy. Had Peepal Tree not taken on this enterprise, it is quite unlikely that such a project would have been undertaken by any other entity. Peepal Tree, in effect, has managed to keep many current writers in print for far longer than they would ever have been with any other press. And now, with the emergence of the Classics Series, many classic works that should never have gone out of print in the first place are being brought back into print for reconsideration and reassessment.

Peepal Tree remains a vibrant and dynamic press, largely because of the continued energy that we are seeing in the work being produced by generation after generation of Caribbean writers. There is no shortage of quality work and ambitious writers. Nonetheless, as one of the few games in town, far too much pressure may rest on Peepal Tree to sustain our literature. Macmillan and Ian Randle are two presses that may serve as good companions for Peepal Tree, but the former shows interest in Caribbean writing as secondary to its other major interests, and the latter is limited in its distribution and its commitment to the traditional literary arts. The University of the West Indies Press has the potential to be a very powerful and effective press based in the Caribbean, but its heavy commitment to academic publishing and the economic challenges of maintaining a press in the region are still hindering its progress towards being a viable publishing house for the region.

It has been eighteen years since I first made contact with Peepal Tree Press. In those years I have published more than twenty books of different genres with the press. It is my home, and Jeremy Poynting is my editor, and both the press and Jeremy have been as responsible for my career as a writer as anything I may have brought to the table. Peepal Tree did not become interested in just my manuscript; as early as our first conversations, Jeremy made it clear that he was interested in me as a writer and in being a venue for my work. Even when I expressed a need to publish with a US press, Jeremy was supportive, and reminded me that Peepal Tree’s commitment to me was ongoing. There is a tremendous level of security and confidence that comes with this kind of arrangement. I have been able, for the past twenty years, to write with the assurance that my work would get a favorable and interested response from my publishers. While I have never felt that everything I write will be picked up, I have always felt that my discussion with the press would not be one between a judge and a contestant (as much of my dealings with other presses feels like), but between me and my partner in the adventure of creating interesting and exciting work to share with the world. Because of this, Jeremy Poynting’s advice and guidance about my work has been helpful to me in shaping my goals as a writer, and I have come to depend on the sense of home that Peepal Tree gives to me. I have been able to experiment, to change directions in my writing, to test myself as a writer, and even to make mistakes. I have been given permission to be prolific, to generate at what some would call an alarming rate, with the understanding that as long as the work is good, the pace is not an issue. Perhaps a more calculated planning of my output by Peepal Tree may have been better for my marketing, but for my development as a writer, the openness to let me publish steadily and constantly has been extremely beneficial. It is no exaggeration to say that in the same way that the Caribbean Voices BBC series and the literary journal Bim can be seen to have played a pivotal role in the growth of West Indian literature in the fifties and sixties, Peepal Tree Press is easily the single most important factor in the development of Caribbean literature in the last twenty years.

 

Born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica, Kwame Dawes is the author of fifteen books of poetry and many books of fiction, nonfiction, criticism, and drama, and is editor of several anthologies of poetry. In July 2011 Dawes, who has taught in South Carolina since 1992, will assume the position of Glenna Luchei Editor of Prairie Schooner and a Chancellor’s Professor in English at the University of Nebraska.

 

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