By Liam Bouquet
The fourteen-year-old Etruscan Press, an independent nonprofit literary press partnered with both Youngstown State University and Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, has been named one of five finalists for the Associations of Writers and Writing Programs’ 2015 Small Press Publisher Award.
Philip Brady, the executive director of Etruscan and a professor in the YSU English Department, said the press is up against Bellevue, Coffee House, Graywolf and Salmon presses. The winner will be announced at the AWP conference this April in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“[The AWP] are the pre-eminent association for creative writing,” he said. “This is huge for us. All the other presses there are at least thirty years old. … We are the new kids on the block.”
Etruscan Press was founded in 2001 by Brady and his colleague Robert Mooney, a professor of English at Washington College in Maryland.
“Mooney is a fiction writer, and I am a poet,” Brady said. “What we wanted to do is bring a conversation to literature, a conversation we have been having over the years. The conversation is really about the relationship between poetry and prose. Are they really two ways of expressing the same human impulses, or are they completely different activities that happened to be joined by writing? Of course there is no answer; it is not a yes or no.”
Though they kept this question of genres as their driving force, their initial plan for their first year was changed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“One of the people that we had talked to, an eminent poet named William Heyen, came to us on Sept. 12 knowing we were starting a press, and he came to us with an idea — to capture the response of American writers to this event,” Brady said. “Which is really an unusual idea because literature, what we usually think of as one of its qualities is that it percolates over time. It takes a long time to respond to something, but William Heyen wanted to capture the first response, so he collected work by 127 writers.”
Heyen asked the writers for a response, in whatever form they saw fit, and he published the works alphabetically to avoid a narrative being imposed. The result was “September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond.”
“Right after, it was really controversial. … Now, for you, this is a historical event. You can look at this and you can see attacks on George Bush and you can see people making comparisons between George Bush and Bin Laden and all that,” Brady said. “That was our first book, and it was not meant to be our first book, but it was and it gave us an example of what we have been talking about and a standard to live up to.”
Since their beginnings, Etruscan, now housed out of Wilkes University, has published 60 titles. They started off at three works a year, but they have moved up to six since. Overall, even without advertising, they receive over 400 submissions annually. Brady said while the submissions are all high quality, they only take two or three.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, which specialize in one genre, Etruscan publishes poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, translations and criticisms. Many of their books, due to their distributor Consortium, can be found internationally and in large bookstores like Barnes & Noble.
Over the years, the press has collected a host of eminent writers such as of Frederick Karl — the deceased biographer of Franz Kafka, George Elliot and Joseph Conrad — who wrote “Art Into Life” with Etruscan.
“This book is about writing biographies. So he tells the stories behind the stories. They are wonderful. Kafka wrote so much about his father, and Fredrick Karl went to visit Kafka’s mother. There are a lot of detective like stories in [the book]. Apparently, Joseph Conrad, as a young man, shot himself in the chest as a suicide attempt. He survived. Why did that happen? Why was he depressed? He goes into all of these kind of detective stories,” Brady said.
Etruscan has also published several National Book Award finalists — including H.L. Hix for “Chromatic” in 2006 and William Heyen for “Shoah Train” in 2004, writers from Greece, Cuba and Switzerland and a famous anesthesiologist who wrote “Zarathustra Must Die” under the pen name Dorian Alexander.
“He didn’t want to use his real name because his book was full of drugs and rock and roll, and he said ‘I can’t have my patients knowing about this,’” Brady said.
Etruscan receives the majority of its funding through outside sources — universities, private donations, the High Arts Council, foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts among them — as the revenue from the books is not enough to support Etruscan press or the writers themselves.
“The kind of literature that tends to live on; the kind of literature that has potential to change people’s minds. The things that are not easily graspable right away. These things don’t tend to be sustaining monetarily for the authors during their lifetimes,” he said.
Though the group relies on outside funding, they are offering a service similar to many universities and other non-profit presses, putting works with literary value — that most commercial presses wouldn’t be interested in — into the light.
“Publishers like Etruscan are making bets on the future, and most of our bets are going to lose. But some of our bets will win. There is one thing that we know for sure and that is that the people who are the most famous right now are not going to be the ones that remain the most famous. Somewhere in the future, there is going to be a movement, and we know this from the past,” Brady said. “I think that the independent press world is at the heart of that movement.”
H.L. Hix, a poet and one of the first writers to work with Etruscan, having published 10 books with them overall, agreed with Brady.
“For many people who are doing work that is not going to reach some gigantic audience anyway because of the nature of the work itself, the things that the commercial presses have going for them is a large network for advertising,” he said. “If your work is of a different nature than that, if it is never going to be stocked in Wal-Mart, then it is not clear what the commercial presses really offer. Then your work with a nonprofit independent press like Etruscan is likely to stay in print much longer than with a commercial press. I think there are a lot of advantages to nonprofit independent presses. I think if you look around at what is really exciting and dynamic that is happening right now in literature, especially in poetry but also in literary fiction as well, the place that it is happening is nonprofit independent presses.”
Hix spoke on why he has stayed with Etruscan for so long.
“The not-for-profit nature is very important to me and the intent to question genre and to find writing that might be interesting on other grounds — it crosses genres in some interesting ways. I have been treated like a king,” he said. “For me, it has been a really amazing powerful relationship, and I am glad to have my work and my name associated with an entity that I believe in — an entity with a mission I value.”
Brady said the press has a strong relationship with YSU too — employing two to three interns every year and hiring alumni for freelance work.
“I hope YSU continues to have this opportunity here for our students — to make books, to see books made and produced,” he said. “You know students have read submissions; they have made marketing plans. … They are involved in all these different kinds of enterprises.”