George Salis: I consider you something of a superhero, championing the underdogs of literature who have been wrongly neglected. And so, what is the superhero origin story of Tough Poets Press, does it involve radioactive spiders, gamma rays, mutant genes?
Rick Schober: Superhero. Haha. I wish Tough Poets Press had a more interesting back story. No, I was just the kid in kindergarten who read slightly above his grade level and colored inside the lines so I guess I was destined to do something combining the literary and visual arts later in life. In my early twenties, fresh out of college with an unfinished English degree, I got heavily into the the three B’s – the Beats, Bukowski, and Brautigan – and frequented the used bookstores in Harvard Square, amassing a huge collection of offbeat paperbacks with the intention of someday reading them but, in retrospect, probably primarily to impress women. In 1984, I published one issue of a “literary” journal that I called Read This Magazine. It was half comic book, half poetry and short stories that my friends had written. It went nowhere. I sent copies to all my favorite writers (most of them were still alive back then) for feedback and received only two responses: a short but encouraging letter from poet Robert Creeley and a typewritten postcard from Richard Brautigan. He wrote “Thanks for the magazine. It looks interesting. I’ll read it when I have time. I’m working very hard now. It’s that kind of summer for me.” It was postmarked less than two months before his suicide.
Tough Poets Press came about out of frustration, really. For years, I had been working as a graphic designer for one corporate entity after another but really wanted to break into book design. Nobody would hire me so I decided to start my own press. All I needed was a book to design and publish, and I had neither the time nor discipline to write one myself. I had long been a fan of Beat poet Gregory Corso and had copies of several publications containing interviews with him. Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, there was no published collection of his interviews so I went to work putting together The Whole Shot, tracking down copyright holders, securing permissions, and so on, and financed it on Kickstarter. With the blessing of Corso’s estate, I followed this up with the first-ever publication of his first play, Sarpedon, written when he was living as a ‘stowaway’ on the campus of Harvard University in the mid-1950s. What got me started with “championing the underdogs of literature who have been wrongly neglected,” as you put it, was pure chance. I was researching Corso’s plays for a possible further publication and found an excerpt from Marvin Cohen’s then-unpublished debut novel, Others, Including Morstive Sternbump, in the 1964 New Directions annual. The writing style was very original and very funny so, naturally, I wanted to read more. I checked to see if the novel had ever been published. Sure enough, it had been, 12 years later. There were a couple of used copies available online so I ordered one. The copy I bought turned out to be signed by Cohen and he had included his phone in the inscription to the book’s original recipient. On a whim and not knowing if he was even still alive, I called and left a message. He got back to me the same day. He was very eager to see his work back in print and agreed to let me republish the book. Between me, M.J. Nicholls’s Verbivoracious Press, and Jacob Smullyan’s Sagging Meniscus Press, all of Cohen’s previously published works are now back in print, as well as some previously unpublished novellas, and new poetry that he continues to crank out at a frantic pace.
GS: You currently have a Kickstarter for Gulping’s Recital by Russell Edson. Pretend you’ve just met someone in a bookstore and are trying to sell them the book:
RS: There’s a very small niche audience for the books I publish. I seriously doubt that Gulping’s Recital would ever find its way into a physical bookstore, unless it was one of the few local independents that carry some of the Tough Poets titles on consignment. And the novel itself, like Edson’s prose poetry, is just so outlandish, the chances of convincing somebody in a Barnes & Noble to buy it would be very slim. I honestly don’t think I could even describe the book to somebody who wasn’t already familiar with his work.
GS: How do you find the buried and forgotten books that you do? What tips can you give to a budding literary archaeologist, if you will?
RS: There are some really great websites devoted to forgotten books and authors. The Neglected Books page and the Buried Books group on Goodreads are two that come to mind. I probably spend as much time online reading about books as I do reading the books themselves. And then there are used bookstores. That’s where I picked up a copy of Confessions of a Nowaday Child by Turkish-born Erje Ayden, an author I had never heard of before. It was put out by New Wave Publications back in 1966 and the front cover had an old illustration of George Washington with one of those cartoon balloons that said “Come On Over. We’ll Make You Famous.” How could I pass that up? Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover because this semi-autobiographical novel about a struggling writer in 1950s Greenwich Village turned out to be equally quirky and brilliant.
GS: What books do you want to release but have been unable to?
RS: Yumiko Kurahashi wrote this amazing Kafkaesque dystopian novel called The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q. It was first published in Japan in 1969 and an English version came out in 1979. The book is almost impossible to find now. I haven’t seen a copy for sale online since I bought mine a year ago. She died in 2005 and the translator, Dennis Keene, has also passed. I’m still trying to track down their literary estates. Also, I would love to publish some of the stuff that Charles Webb wrote following The Graduate. His novels, Love, Roger and Marriage of a Young Stockbroker, as well as his collection of three novellas, Children and Other Orphans, are all out of print now. Webb is pretty eccentric and reclusive but I was able to contact one of his sons who forwarded an email to him. His response: “It is best that those novels, so-called, along with the others I have written, remain out of print. It took me a number of years to recognize that I lack the basic skills of a novelist, and then to refocus my energies around objectives more in keeping with the talents I do possess.” Pretty self-effacing, no? Fortunately, if anybody is interested in reading them, used copies are still fairly easy to come by.
GS: If you had to pick one buried book for the masses to read, which would it be and why?
RS: Hands down it would have to be Donald Newlove’s 600-page novel Sweet Adversity, first published in 1978, which I ‘un-buried’ earlier this year. It’s a semi-autobiographical serio-comedy about alcoholic Siamese twin wannabe jazz musicians. How’s that for a description? It’s actually two novels – Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974) – that the author edited into a single volume. The New York Times called the first “One of the most desperately funny books we’ve been given in a long time.” And The New Yorker called the second “A dazzling highwire act … brilliant comedy.” How this masterpiece fell off the literary landscape I will never understand.
GS: What about buried books makes them so much more appealing than those that win Bookers or Pulitzers or those that make it on a best-seller list?
RS: It’s the thrill of the hunt. I really enjoy all the research that goes into deciding on a book to track down. And then there’s that rush of adrenaline I get when, after weeks or months of searching used booksellers’ websites, a copy of that elusive publication makes an appearance. If I really wanted to read the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel or David Baldacci or some other best-seller, I could probably pick it up at the supermarket checkout. Really, where’s the fun in that?
GS: What is in store for the future of Tough Poets Press?
RS: After Gulping’s Recital, I’ll be putting out a 30th-anniversary edition of Patricia Eakins’s fantastic collection, The Hungry Girls and Other Stories. And when I say “fantastic,” I mean both outstanding and fanciful; thirteen stories of imaginary creatures, each beautifully written in a distinct style evoking a different culture’s myth, folk tale, or fable. The New York Times called it a “triumphantly quirky first book” when it was first released and it’s been out of print ever since.
Rick Schober is the founder of Tough Poets Press, a one-person independent publisher of rediscovered literary fiction and non-fiction. It was founded in 2014 specifically to publish The Whole Shot: Collected Interviews with Gregory Corso, a book that had been in the works since 2010.
George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.