Volume 18, Number 3 | JUNE10 -16, 2005

Downtown poets society:
Bards band together

Poetry publisher and poet Martha Rhodes, above, runs Four Way Books out of her Tribeca home. Lee Briccetti, below, a Four Way Books poet, is planning to move Poets House from Soho to Battery Park City in 2007.

Downtown Express photos by Jennifer Weisbrod

By Ronda Kaysen

More than a decade has passed since Martha Rhodes set out to put more poets in print. Working out of her Tribeca loft, the 52-year-old publisher and editor has cranked out 60 collections of poetry in 12 years and established her imprint as one of the more respected in the elite world of letters.

She’s like the mother of us all,” gushed Bob Holman, owner of the Bowery Poetry Clu

b where Rhodes hosts nine poetry readings a year. “She takes care of you.”

Rhodes founded Four Way Books in 1993 with three other partners (the name comes from the collaboration) after she finished an M.F.A. program at Warren Wilson College, a magnate for aspiring poets. “I saw a lot of people who were terrific writers and weren’t getting picked up,” she said, sitting in Yaffa’s Tea Room on Greenwich St. one crisp spring morning. “The community was hungry for another publisher.”

With an annual budget of less than $200,000, she now publishes several collections a year with the help of a small freelance staff – her three partners have since parted ways (“They just buckled under the work”). She also hosts periodic Bowery Poetry Club readings and sends a few writers off every year to New England artists and writers retreats.

Rhodes, a private and intense woman with straight blond hair that curls under her chin and an earnest, if not urgent tone to her voice, culls her authors from a cumbersome review process. Inviting applicants to submit manuscripts to an annual contest and during an open submission period, several readers (none of them interns, she emphasizes) read each manuscript twice.

Of the 1,500 manuscripts submitted each year, only six to eight of them make the cut. “We are very, very slow to respond,” she said. But each rejected author does ultimately receive an impersonal rejection note. She tried other methods in the past – critiquing rejected writers’ works, urging them to submit again – but the outcome was always disappointing. “I feel like we’re damned either way,” she said of delivering the disappointing news.

Rejection is never an easy pill to swallow and one shunned poet, at least, has found a public forum to express his dismay. “I got a rejection slip from Martha Rhodes,” blogger Octavio Gonzalez lamented in 2002 on www.ruintheimage.net. “it’s [sic] actually not terrible to read, although it’s only very nicely worded. it’s still a rejection slip… it feels blank to be addressed so formally, especially since it’s a rejection slip.”

Rhodes – who has three of her own collections of poetry in print by other publishers – came across a poet’s online lament as well and found the writer’s dejection troubling. “We really entered into this venture to help writers and I feel like I’m making more writers more miserable,” she grimaced.

Delivering the news to the chosen few, however, is far more satisfying. She discovered one of her most recent authors – Lee Briccetti, the executive director of Poets House in Soho – at a Poets House reading one evening.

“It was kind of one of those wild stories,” said Briccetti, 50, over lunch at Spring Street Natural. After the reading, Rhodes approached Briccetti and said, “I’d like to see your manuscript, I’m never wrong.”

Four Way released Briccetti’s first collection of poetry, “Day Mark,” this April. “It was nerve wracking. I could barely open the books! I couldn’t sleep in the same room with them,” said Briccetti, who speaks with her eyes and her hands and a quick, enthusiastic voice.

An Independence Plaza resident since 1980, Briccetti has steered Poets House for the past 16 years, shepherding the organization as it grew from a fledgling $70,000 a year operation to become the nation’s largest poetry archive, with an annual budget of $1.2 million. Earlier this year, Poets House was offered a rent-free 10,000 sq. ft. home in what is now Site 16/17 in Battery Park City. It will relocate when the building finishes construction in 2007.

As Briccetti’s organization diligently archived every collection of poetry printed each year in the United States, she quietly wrote her own. Few of her colleagues knew she wrote, although many of her poems appeared over the years in various literary magazines.

When her slim orange volume was finally laid out at Poets House’s annual showcase this spring, Briccetti quaked. “It was like taking your place with the rest of your community,” she said, stabbing at her calamari Caesar salad.

Her poems, lyrical and vivid, thick with images of New York, are intensely personal. They speak of love, marriage, her time spent in Italy – she was born there – and her quest to spot Robert De Niro in Tribeca.

The title poem, “Day Mark,” begins, “During the evacuation I walked up/ the thirty-six floors in darkness/ so utter the world no longer existed.”

Sept. 11, 2001, although prominent in the later poems, does not dominate the collection that spans many years of her life.

“Collections,” a lofty poem about, well, collection, jumps from a Haitian painter to her art dealer to a distant relative in Switzerland to a New Yorker capturing the “Art Deco lacework at 156 Hudson St.”

“At the time I began collecting, I realized New Yorkers rarely look up. So I photographed the sky in my neighborhood…/ I taped the snapshots to the documented sidewalks so that pedestrians, toward a bus stop or coffee shop, might look down to see, momentarily –/ a blister of blue, a gush and flash of cloud between their feet:/ the sky had fallen.”

As the manuscript progressed from a collection tentatively titled “Prospero” to its final 92-page form, Briccetti and Rhodes met frequently at Yaffa’s. Having an editor who is also a neighbor (the two women live just blocks apart) made for an easier collaboration, Briccetti said.

Briccetti was not entirely surprised that Rhodes plucked her from the slush pile. “Martha has a sense of community and she also wants to help the helpers,” said Briccetti. “She wants to recognize the people who are building the infrastructure for literature.”

Another “helper” Rhodes has published recently works in the same Spring St. building as Briccetti. Elliot Figman, executive director of Poets & Writers, an industry magazine, published his first collection of poetry, “Big Spring,” in 2003. Although Figman, 55, has steered a magazine intended to help writers get published since 1981, “Big Spring” is his first book. “It took as long as it took,” he said in a telephone interview. “I was busy being the executive director of Poets & Writers.”

Figman’s journey to Four Way was far more premeditated than Briccetti’s. He decided to pursue Rhodes because he admired her imprint’s reputation as a good place for writers. “Martha really cares about poetry and wants it to be well presented,” said Figman. “I assumed she would be very supportive of her writers.”

Figman, who had known Rhodes for many years through the poetry community, ran into her one morning at Aggie’s on W. Houston St. “We got to talking and I told her I’d been putting together a manuscript and that’s what started it,” he said. But Rhodes was not so quick to scoop him up. Figman submitted his manuscript every year for three years until she finally turned her attention toward it. “I have a daughter and when she was born that was more thrilling,” he said. “But this was pretty exciting.”

Four Way achieved 501(c)3 non-profit status last year, emerging as an independent imprint from a long relationship with Friends of Writers, Inc, in Vermont. Eventually, Rhodes would like to see the publication find a new home – one outside of her Tribeca loft – with a new publisher directing its course. “I’d like to go to Big Sur and look at the mountains and the Virgin Islands. That would make me happy,” she said. She is also an adjunct professor at Sarah Lawrence College, New School University and Emerson College.

Did she expect her little company to last this long? “I didn’t really think that far in advance,” she said. “I’m proud that we’re in our second decade, I think that’s great. I very much wanted to have a press that I could run that wouldn’t consume my life, that’s been important. If I’m going to shoulder the work then it has to fit my temperament, I have to model it for my life. That’s really important when you start a business, to see who you are.”

Ronda@DowntownExpress.com

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