On the Books Part Four: Small presses in San Antonio push on, despite economic hardships

Bryce Milligan — a poet, novelist, and all around “follower of the muse” — took over Wings Press in 1995 by handing over $10 to diagnosed schizophrenic Joanie Whitebird, whom he’d several times talked out of suicide over the phone, and promising to keep things going. What he received for his cash and kindness was a backlog of shrink-wrapped books and a cycle of fluctuating debt. “We’ve been as much as $150,000 in debt,” Milligan told the Current. “You don’t do this to make any money, or to have an insurance plan.”

Milligan manages Wings without the benefit of a salary, making his living instead from royalties he receives from his children’s books (he is the author of such well-received titles as Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story and With the Wind, Kevin Dolan), and from the occasional teaching gig. This troubadour, carpenter, and self-described “literatonto” — a word he likes to use to mean “literary fool” — does what he does for the preservation of literature, and to keep important works in print. And Wings Press, with its list of writers that includes Ana Castillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and John Phillip Santos, can certainly claim to be one of the most durable, impressive, and uncorrupted small-press publishers in the U.S. “But things are definitely worse now,” says Milligan, who recalls a time in 1984 when he penned an article for the Texas Humanist bemoaning the fact that there were only 45 viable small presses in the state. “I don’t think there are 15 now, and that would be pushing it. In the 1970s there were hundreds.”

So what has happened?

“Obviously the biggest threat is the economy, with its crippling effect on funding for all aspects of arts and education,” Milligan said. “This economy, similar to the Great Depression, puts artists on the road — looking for work where they can find it. … And if it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly takes a community of artists to keep a scene going.”

Milligan goes on to recount that not long ago writers were able to make a living doing workshops at public schools, but that many schools no longer have the budget to fund adequate amounts of textbooks, much less pay for visiting writers and artists. “I regularly get these pathetic letters from kids all over Texas asking if Wings Press can donate books to their classrooms or libraries,” he said. “I give away a lot of books, but those letters I just forward to Rick Perry.”

Huffington Post profiled Wings last fall and the press will undoubtedly receive wider coverage when their 50th-anniversary special-edition hardback of Black Like Me hits the stands this September. Thanks to savvy contract-making skills, Milligan acquired rights to the definitive hardback and all future e-book sales of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 classic. Penguin Books, which still handles the paperback rights, is furious, said Milligan, who is happy to busy himself with the promotion and publication of what he sees as necessary voices.

One of these voices, Carmen Tafolla, author of The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans and Sonnets and Salsa, feels absolutely duty-bound to emphasize the history of the Alamo City and its present plights in her work. “We, as writers living in this special place now called San Antonio, have a responsibility to speak the voice of la gente, the people of San Antonio. And this responsibility exceeds through the dimension of time,” she told the Current. “We owe it to the future generations as well as to the past generations to set history straight, speak the truth, to express las voces de San Antonio.”

“We have to remember a whole lot more than just the Alamo,” said Tafolla. “Our illiteracy is not a reflection of our lack of creativity, intelligence, or story. It is, however, a direct reflection of our economic situation and our general disenfranchisement from the cultural and institutional support structures that are a basic part of helping people reach literacy.”

According to the advocacy group Literacy San Antonio, as many as one in four San Antonians are functionally illiterate in English.

H. Palmer Hall, director of St. Mary’s University’s Pecan Grove Press, which has published such notable SA poets as Jenny Browne and Trey Moore, feels similarly. “Many of the fine poets I know work in the community to help others with literacy and with developing their own art. Is that an obligation or a responsibility? I don’t think so, but it is a major good thing about the SA artist community,” he said.

Hall, whose press enjoys nonprofit status at a university that doesn’t interfere in editorial decisions, still feels the pressures of publishing economics. “In an era of extremely low inflation for most things, the industry is hobbled by rapidly escalating costs. The price of paper and printing continues to rise at a rate of 5 to 8 percent each year, while the cost of postage also keeps going up. That hurts every small press and literary magazine in the country,” Hall said. He believes, however, that the digital revolution may eventually settle the problem. “More and more readers are turning to iPads, Kindles, and Nooks,” said Hall. “We can keep books in print almost forever that way, and magazines can archive copies for readers and for their poets.” Already, Ascent and Ploughshares, two of the top leading literary magazines in the country, have migrated to web-only publishing, as other presses continue to print fewer copies of every book while relying on the web to familiarize readers with their writers. Regardless of current losses among small and large publishing houses, Hall believes that the new regime is “an opportunity, not a threat.”

But Hall, who, like Milligan, took over for a press that had previously published his poetry, is frustrated by San Antonians’ tendency in San Antonio to support poetry by attending events, but not by buying local poets’ books. “Go into the home of a well-educated San Antonian of whatever ethnic group and take a look at the bookshelves. How many San Antonio poets do you see there? I’ll bet it’s none.” Hall notes, with the confidence of a man who has looked at a lot of bookshelves, that these same educated people will undoubtedly own books by some of the finest small presses in the country, imprints like Copper Canyon, Coffee House, and Milkweed Editions. “But,” he asks with rhetorical sarcasm, “how many books from Pecan Grove Press or Wings Press, San Antonio’s two small presses?”

Aztlan Libre Press, an independent San Antonio press run by Anisa Onofre and Juan Tejeda, is “dedicated to the promotion, publication, and free expression of [email protected] literature and art.” Although new to the publishing game, they have produced two books, their first being the legendary poet/activist Alurista’s tenth collection Tunaluna. And they have five books in the works. “We put up all the money for our publications and do all of the editing and design work, minus some of the cover art. This is a passion for us and we expect to be around for a long time,” Tejeda told the Current.

For Tejeda, who believes that “there needs to be more integrations and co-mingling between the academic and spoken-word scene,” San Antonio is a Chicano city, and poetry a mirror that should reflect this. “There are a lot of good writers here in San Antonio that aren’t being heard and can’t get published,” he said. “We need more small presses. I wish Aztlan Libre Press had more money and time to be able to publish everyone out there that deserves to be published. We’ve received so many manuscripts and requests. It just goes to show that there is a great need.”

Outside of what Tejeda views as a lack of open minds, sustainable distribution, and “a literate, literary, and book-buying public,” he counts the absence of availability of certain works as a real problem, as well. “We need to have access to books and the schools aren’t doing a very good job of it. For that matter, neither are the local bookstores,” he says, noting what he perceives as a lack of Latino writers being showcased. “We’re in a time where fierce self-promotion is key for writers. In most cases, as an author you need to hustle to get your work out there.”

And again there is that problem of cash.

“If you don’t have a job or money to feed your family and provide the basics, then you’re not going to have money to buy books,” Tejeda said.

Joshua “Lakey” Hinson doesn’t have a lot of cash, or a lot of time to promote himself. He is a 24-year-old slam poet who engages in a kind of spoken-word street artistry that every SA publisher the Current talked to welcomed with enthusiasm. (Tejeda, for instance, called spoken word “poetry for the people that goes back to the oral and corrido traditions.”) Without a publisher, Hinson puts together his own work at FedEx and tries to pay the bills through his art. Though by his own estimation he lives a “very minimal existence,” Hinson is happy to be surviving through his poetry. Sounding like a bit of literatonto himself, he muses with fatalist abandon about his calling. “Unless you’re cool with poverty, it isn’t a profession to expect to make a living off of in San Antonio.” •

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