Books Grid ‹ Literary Center

Elizabeth Murphy, editor and publisher of Grid Books, an independent press established in 2003 “to provide a forum for older poets who are sometimes overlooked in today’s market,” talks about their projects and the latest book release: a collection of poems, CONDUCTby Elaine Sexton.

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What are the advantages of working in an independent press?

By far the greatest benefit of working in an independent press is the ability to develop close relationships with the authors and artists we publish. The author-publisher relationship – and collaboration in general, between authors, artists and publishers – is an important part of our project. Our collaboration with authors does not end when a book is published. We often consult with leading and feature writers on issues relating to press growth and direction. Some have introduced us to new authors that we have published. They bring us their own work, as well as ideas for new formats to consider and experiment with. Our first audiobook was produced in response to a request from poet Elaine Terranova, who noted the value of audio for expanding accessibility and engagement with a genre often limited to live reading events. We took her idea and raced with it! of wool Lost was our first audio project – our fourth audiobook release later this year.

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What are the challenges of working in an independent press?

Although we are certainly a small independent press, we are also in a period of growth. So a big challenge we face is that each individual role within the press has to absorb an increasing number of responsibilities. As an editor, in addition to acquiring titles and working with authors, I coordinate with designers, printers, our distributor, publicists. I write press releases and grant proposals. I do website updates and email campaigns. And depending on the project, I often act as a proofreader and proofreader. All of this is fun and exciting work that helps bring the books to the world. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t occasionally (tax season!) overwhelmed.

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Is there a particular quality, style or other characteristic that connects the projects you undertake?

We started in 2003 as Off the Grid Press, a collaboration between poet and activist Henry Braun, then living off the grid in Maine, and Somerville poets Tam Lin Neville and Bert Stern. Over the years we have built a reputation as writers whose work is often overlooked by mainstream publishing, with a particular focus on older poets. In 2015, we relaunched Grid Books, expanding our mission to publish quality work by writers and artists at all stages of their careers. We often describe our program as paying attention to creative work that ‘springs from the margins’, whether those margins have been dictated by history, market forces, social trends or issues of access.

Even more recently, we have begun to focus on projects generated by intergenerational exchange, such as those encompassing oral history or resulting from student-mentor relationships. Our new fine art series is a great example. In 2021, we published The fields, our first fine art monograph featuring a series of paintings and drawings by Riley Brewster. The book was curated and introduced by another painter and Brewster alumnus. We look forward to developing a series that honors creative relationships that span generations.

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What projects are you particularly passionate about at the moment?

In a few weeks we will be celebrating the release of CONDUCT, in both print and audio, by poet and critic Elaine Sexton, just in time for National Poetry Month! What I appreciate most about this collection is its clever and unapologetic engagement with metaphor. The poems celebrate action done in motion, challenging what it is like to be confined by geography, psychology, or circumstance. This collection is as much about driving as it is about writing and ambition, and the relationship to work that both require. Just below the surface of these poems is a theme of quieter process, as if the sense of “drive” did not stop at ambition but extended to travel and exploration, and inevitably to instances of shutdown and restart. As a writer – and although not very conductive – these poems make me feel like I’m in very good company.

I’m also very excited about our growing list of audiobooks, which includes poems read by the authors themselves, and the launch of our online streaming library. In addition to making the poetry we publish more accessible, our audio program gives us another way to amplify some pretty important voices in American poetry.

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How do newbie authors contact you?

Each year we sponsor the annual Off the Grid Poetry Prize, which is awarded to a poet over the age of sixty. The competition honors poets whose work is too often sidelined by mainstream publishing, but whose writing practice is ongoing and whose vision is fresh while drawing inspiration from six decades or more of lived experience. The winner receives a cash prize and their book is published (in print and audio format), distributed and promoted. We are delighted that this year’s competition will be judged by poet Garrett Hongo, and that his poetic interests and sensibilities will contribute to next year’s publishing program. The submission period begins May 1!

We also publish several titles each year which are selected out of competition. For example, in July 2020, Elaine Sexton contacted us with a letter of introduction and a brief description of CONDUCT, as well as details of his life and work. His introduction intrigued us enough to request the full manuscript. And his timing was perfect. I enjoyed reading poems ostensibly about driving, but also about ambition and agency. After a full year of Covid lockdown, her poems gave me a new and much needed perspective, and made me feel ready to hit the road.

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What other independent press do you like/would you recommend?

I’ve been a longtime fan of Milkweed Publishing, whose lists of poetry and non-fiction are some of the best. I’m so inspired by the books they come out, both as a reader and a publisher. I am also in awe of the overall quality and sophistication of Archipelago’s work. As a member of an independent press that is both small and mission-driven, but also eager to continue growing, Archipelago is my gold standard.

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