Sixteen Rivers Press: Against the Tide

Michael Berkowitz
Today at 3:52 PM


Michael Berkowitz

Twenty years ago, when the perils of publishing poetry was more a threat than a full blown disaster, seven women poets in the San Francisco Bay Area gathered to lay the groundwork for one of the nation's most vibrant regional, collective publishers.

After three years of planning, Sixteen Rivers Press was founded as a non-profit poetry collective in 1999 by Valerie Berry, Terry Ehret, Margaret Kauffman, Jacqueline Kudler, Diane Lutovich, Carolyn Miller and Susan Sibbet. To some degree the effort grew out of a writers conference in Oregon called "Flight of the Mind." The group was certainly not the first of such endeavors, nor even the most successful. They got help from and to some degree modeled themselves after Boston's iconic Alice James Books collective.

Sixteen Rivers was launching onto very choppy waters. The publishing industry, both large and certainly small, was uneasily afloat. Major changes in technology and production threatened not just profitability, but its very existence. The internet and E Books have been replacing paper products, reducing physically published writers' access to audiences as they constrict. Shelf space is disappearing as both chain and independent bookstores collapse. Library budgets are cut. College departments turn away from English and Poetry, as students seek greener pastures.

Still the structure of Sixteen Rivers helped them survive and even flourish. Sixteen Rivers is progressive in form, operating as a collective. Members of the collective select work to be published in an annual "blind selection" from submissions. Writers whose work is selected must work with the press for three years. Their work is published during their second year of collective labor. Poets and writers are not limited to three year terms. So many have chosen to continue building the press over the years.

From the beginning, Sixteen Rivers drew on the voices of the San Francisco Bay watershed. The area has a long, proud history of women writers from Tillie Olsen to Maya Angelou. Part of its mission was to represent this area and its diverse voices. But to succeed they knew they needed a viable business structure that reflected their mission. Of course, there was the danger of death by poetry . . . talking their ideas into the ground. But their three years of preparation and commitment to a common goal paid off.

Details of the operation were worked out in the early years. The organization had to change to survive and thrive. The hardest decisions were around keeping the collective wisdom of the founders, but sustaining and growing by bringing in new workers. The group grew. Original consensus models of decision making yielded in certain aspects of business (outreach, media, finance) . . . .but not in the essential decision of what to publish. Function could be strengthened by delegating some recommendations. But everyone needed to participate in the submission and selection process. A board of advisers from around the country was added to do diversity outreach. A mentoring system was set up to further inclusion of younger poets representing all communities.

These efforts have grown Sixteen Rivers to be one of the most successful collective presses in the United States. Over its life, it has published 30 poetry collections. More recently it has embarked on publishing some general fiction. The press has received various awards and nominations for its work and writers. Founder Diane Ludovitch received the American Book Award for her 2003 work "What I stole." Dan Bellam brought home the Independent Book Publisher's Award bronze medal and California Book Award silver medal for "Practice." Poets Murray Silverstein (Independent Publisher medalist) and Beverly Burch (Gival Poetry Prize and Lambda Literary Award winner) recently enlarged and enhanced Sixteen Rivers publications with their respective works "Master of Leaves" and "How a Mirage Works." Both works exhibit consumate mastery of form and structure upon which their ruminations are illustrated. Listen to Burch's exquisitely detailed imagery in "Decode the mystery of decay" from her collection "Master of Leaves" :

The body starts in before its time.
As in decadere, to fall,
hair and nails drop like yesterday's apple.
Skin sloughs off in flakes and nubs.
Organs soften, old meat.
Muscles, tired of stretch and rebound,
droop as if the ground beckons -
not gravity, but cells' desire for dark loam.
If soul is the thing that wants
to fly loose, the body wants to sink . . .

But Sixteen Rivers Press by no means shows the signs of decline so bittersweetly described by their poet. Instead, as it reaches out to new communities and flexes its dedicated veteran writers, it illustrates how writers find voice and form. Salute.