Poem work

Bear Star Press publisher Beth Spencer gives poetry a home

DOGGONE GOOD LIFE <br>Beth Spencer, seen here with Thelma, publishes poetry from her rustic Cohasset home, where she cohabits with a husband, dogs a kitten and any number of outdoor critters.

Beth Spencer, seen here with Thelma, publishes poetry from her rustic Cohasset home, where she cohabits with a husband, dogs a kitten and any number of outdoor critters.

Photo By Tom Angel

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The view out the big back window of Beth Spencer’s rustic, woods-nestled Cohasset home, which she shares with her husband Tony Baptiste, three dogs and a black kitten named Bella (after feisty feminist Bella Abzug), looks northwest down onto the pine and black oak treetops of Rock Creek Canyon, lower Red Bluff and Campbell Mound, the remains of an extinct volcano that I never knew existed. Spencer’s place is a peaceful vantage point from which one can see faraway and interesting things, things perhaps never seen before, like the old volcano. One of her upstairs rooms houses Bear Star Press, founded by Spencer in 1996; her “baby” (she and Baptiste, community development director for the city of Chico, have no children) and, even more so in some ways than the back window, her exhilarating and enlightening lookout onto the West.

Bear Star Press publishes poetry of the Western United States: “all those [states] west of the Central time zone.” Every fall, from September through November, Spencer’s small independent press accepts submissions for its poetry contest, which offers $1,000 (the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize, named after Spencer’s mother who every year puts up the money for the prize) and 25 author’s copies to the winner. Plus, from this contest the winner gets to be published the following fall. Bear Star Press puts out two books of poetry per year, one in the fall and one in the spring. The poet chosen for spring publication may or may not come from the large batch of contest entrants. Bear Star Press accepts unsolicited manuscripts as well.

The details, though necessary, may sound a little dry, but the stories that Spencer tells in regard to this endeavor most certainly are not. She speaks with enthusiasm and wit about her project.

Spencer clearly loves what she is doing. The self-described “shy person” was animated and sparkling when speaking about her press and the poets she has published. As she told me, “I’m shy personally, but I’m not at all shy about saying how great these guys are.” Locals Joanne Allred (who in 1999 became one of Spencer’s associate editors) and George Keithley, ex-locals Gary Thompson and Kandie St. Germain, Seattleite Deborah Woodard (who is the other of Spencer’s two co-editors) and Alaskan Arlitia Jones, whose Bear Star publication, The Bandsaw Riots, was featured as one of Utne Reader’s “pick[s] of the best new books” in its June 2002 issue, are some of the poets on Spencer’s roster.

So is newly naturalized American citizen Maya Khosla, who was born in London and has lived all over the world (her parents were in the Indian Foreign Service) and now divides her time between Seattle and San Francisco. Khosla’s collection of poetry, Keel Bone, won the 2003 Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize (the fall contest winner is announced early the following year), and is due to arrive from the printer en masse at Spencer’s place any day now. About Khosla’s work, Spencer glows, “She writes the most amazing fish poems! That’s not all she writes, but that’s what made me fall in love with her stuff.”

From “Repetition, Evolved” (from Keel Bone):

The salmon unzip their bodies at last:
Stomach, liver, intestine spilling forth
Into an ocean of egg possibilities.

Upstream, the river warns
With trembling, leafy fingers
As the fish turn blind sight and scale
Towards yet another phase of moon…

Spencer said that Khosla, who has master’s degrees in chemistry and biology, is “probably the only poet in the world who has helped give CPR to a lake trout. I kid you not! Hey, I’ve never seen that before anywhere. I wanted to publish her. It’s fun to find these voices!”

Hawaiian Gary Chang’s From Nowhere Near Moloka’i is Bear Star’s choice for spring 2004 publication. Unlike Khosla, he did not enter the poetry contest. When Spencer received his manuscript in the mail one day and read it, she said to herself, “Holy shit! This is a wild-ass manuscript! I want to publish this guy!” and stuck it in the pile of finalists for Woodard and Allred to read. Chang’s rollicking poem-tales (sometimes told in the literary persona of Grey, short for Greydog) about Captain Aloha and feral goats, among other subjects, told in a blend of pidgin and standard English, are thoroughly captivating, and Spencer’s co-editors agreed.

From “Captain Aloha Winkies For Prairie Dogs” (from From Nowhere Near Moloka’i):

Little Kapiko:
This morning, Captain Aloha called me up, gave me shit
About my prairie dog message: “
Braddah,” he asked, “why
You shoot them like fuzzballs?”

Cause I never stay home,
He went scold my voice-mail: “Someday, Grey, when you
Spocking one dog-hole, I going pop out in my lava-lava.
Show you one effin’ prairie dog.”
It continues:
Even this kanaka get place the sun no go. Aye, right there
in front of everybody, his brown winky, winking at all us.

“The nicest part of the year for me is the fall when I’m reading these manuscripts,” Spencer said. “Because they come from all over. It’s almost as though these guys are, gosh it sounds really corny but, the indicator species for our survival. These poets are on to stuff before it catches on. They’re tapped into the root wisdom.”

Like a number of the people I have interviewed, Spencer was keen to express her thanks to the people who have helped her realize her dream.

She is adamant that Bear Star Press “would have folded long ago” if not for the emotional and financial support she has received from her mother, her husband, her associate editors and “the amazing Flames of Foxfire,” a local women’s book group, formerly known as the Literary Liberation Front, started by Kate McCracken in the late ‘70s.

In 1999, when it became “depressingly clear” to Spencer that her press was struggling financially and that book sales alone could not support her small press, Foxfire hosted a surprise fundraiser for Bear Star Press, brought in $1,700 and allowed Spencer to extend its publishing to two books a year instead of one.

Spencer is also thankful to Chico State’s Writer’s Voice Series for hosting a reading by the current Bear Star contest winner each fall; Khosla will be reading from Keel Bone on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the University Center Lounge.

Option-3 Design also gets a big pat on the back for completely overhauling Bear Star’s Web site (www.bearstarpress.com). The brand-new version includes something Spencer said she is very excited about: the “Bush Clock,” a constantly-running time clock that tells exactly how much time the president has left in office (yes, she has her politics!).

In 2002 Spencer wrote and self-published a little book called How to Found a Poetry Press. She opens with a quote from a publisher named Michael Schmidt: "Publishers get written out of the story and poets live forever…"