Tuesday, August 21, 2007

In Praise of Pushcart: the 2007 Pushcart Prize XXXI, Best of the Small Presses

"She's holding a rabbit,
wearing a flowered dress
that melts into a background on flowers."
-from "Portrait of Her Mother as the 19th Century," by Keith Ratzlaff

Here's an excerpt from editor Bill Henderson's introduction to the 25th anniversary of the Pushcart Prize as he reminisces about the Prize's origins: "Twenty-five years ago, Pushcart Press threw a party for the first Pushcart Prize at Manhattan's Gotham Book Mart. All of the 70's literati showed up to sip white wine from plastic glasses and wish us well. I am looking now looking at photographs from that gathering. In one, I am standing near a young John Galassi--now head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux--and poet John Ashbery. In another, Francis [sic] Steloff, nearly 100 years old, founder of the store, laughs with Nona Balakian of the New York Times. Harold Brodkey had just entered the room behind them." All that was 31 long years ago, and times have inevitably changed. The 2007 Pushcart Prize XXXI Best of the Small Presses was released earlier this year. Ironically not long after its publication, the Gotham Book Mart, where Henderson describes the original launch of Pushcart Press has this same year auctioned off its stock of books and shut its doors for what is sure to be its final time.

Bill Henderson. The name means a lot to nearly anyone who has spent a good amount of time writing, editing, or reading little magazines, as his Pushcart Press publications and annual Pushcart Prizes have for over thirty years strived to bring more attention and recognition to the world of little magazine publishing. Something of an everyman's George Plimpton (of similar Plimptonian verve and devotion without the luck of Plimpton's moneyed birthright), rumor has it that Henderson continues putting together each collection of Pushcart Prize in "a small hut in his backyard, heated with a space heater, a testament to his astounding dedication." And, as he states in the introduction to the newest Pushcart Prize edition, Henderson only recently got over a bout of cancer--it's a three page introduction, most devoted to writing, a paragraph to the loss of his dog, Lulu, and only this to his own cancer infection: "I received a diagnosis of cancer, since purged." That's putting literature (and pets) first.

Originally beginning his career as a literary writer (his first novel published under a pseudonym), Henderson soon moved on to publishing a well-received book about self-publishing (including pieces by Anais Nin, Richard Kostelanetz, Gordon Lish, and more), a venture which, in the pre-internet world of the early 1970's, was a much more underground affair. This book on self-publishing--The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook--was Pushcart Press's first book, which in 1978 had already sold 22,000 copies. (The name Pushcart Press Henderson has credited to George Plimpton and his Fifth Avenue Project Pushcart protest, which was an attempt to bring attention to "publisher's ineptitude in getting books around.") It was the enthusiastic reception of the Handbook that led to the development of an annual prize anthology by Henderson: the Pushcart Prize series. As is apparent by the list of some early supporters of the anthology--Anais Nin, Buckminster Fuller, Charles Newman, Daniel Halpern, Gordon Lish, Ishmael Reed, Joyce Carol Oates, Leslie Fielder, Paul Bowles, Paul Engle, Ralph Ellison, and Reynolds Price--such a publication was much desired.

And it still is today. Only last year the Pushcart Prize series was awarded with both the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award and the Poets and Writers/Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers Prize.

This year's edition of the Prize is another collection of outstanding work by some of the worlds best authors, all published in little magazines and small presses. In its pages are such pieces as: Benjamin Percy's often commended and fascinatingly powerful story "Refresh, Refresh" (from The Paris Review), an homage to Thom Gunn by Philip Levine (from The Georgia Review), a call to environmental awareness by Wendell Berry (from New Letters), a heartbreaking piece about our relationships to pets by David Schuman (from The Missouri Review), and a mournful, and simply described poem by Lisa Olstein (from Crowd). In its nearly 500 pages of writing, Pushcart Prize XXXI continues to be a steady testament to, as Sven Birkets, editor of AGNI, recently wrote, why we need little magazines "not less as time goes on, but more." "Because they are not essentially playing the for-profit game," Birkets goes on to say about the little magazines, "they can hew just a bit closer to their own self-originated standards. They represent literature and opinion in repertory, talents en route, freeze-framed; they are a staking of bets on artists and artistic tendencies by editors who dream of eventual vindication." In many respects, Pushcart was created to be that vindication. And it remains so.

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