Paul Zimmer: An Interview
AWP Editor | May 1980
Paul Zimmer, poet and Director of the University of Georgia Press since 19 78, began his publishing career as an order-filler for a book wholesaler on the west coast. In 1967, after several years as manager of bookstores in Sun Francisco and Los Angeles, he became the Associate Director of the University of Pittsburgh Press. That same year Mr. Zimmer's first collection of poems, The Ribs of Death, was published by October House, publisher of his second book, The Republic of Many Voices (1969). Two other collections, The Zimmer Poems and With Wanda: Town and Country Poems, were published by Dryad Press in 1976 and 1980, respectively. Mr. Zimmer has received a number of awards and honors for his writing, including the Yankee Prize in 1972, a Borestone Mountain Award in 1971, the Helen Bullis Award from Poetry Northwest in 1975, and a Pushcart Prize in 1967.
A WP: Most poets feel at least a little isolated because they write poetry. Do you feel that way, and perhaps more so, because you not only write the stuff you publish it, too?
Zimmer: Being a poet in America is not an easy thing (nor anywhere else, I suspect, but particularly here). Making poems is always a singular business. When you meet somebody on a bus, at a cocktail party or even on a college campus, try telling them you are a poet and watch the expression on their face. Usually they look at you as though they expect you to start frothing at the mouth. The poetry publishing I have done has usually been something apart from the "regular" Publishing. It is something I worked for. I put a lot of my own time into it. Though I must quickly Say that I have been fortunate enough to work with people who have understood and supported the poetry publishing. Fred Hetzel, the Director of the University of Pittsburgh Press, taught me most of what I know about book publishing and he was always extremely supportive of the Pitt series.
Is the Zimmer in The Zimmer Poems Zimmerlhe- poet or Zimmer-the-publisher?
The Zimmer in The Zimmer Poems is Every-Zimmer and then some more. I am always Every-zimmer, awake or asleep, snapping out forms, wrestling with the Muse, kissing my wife, complaining about my lot, talking to my kids, abusing my staff or whenever. How could I possibly say, "Attention, I am now Zimmer-the-poet?" "Looky-here, folks, Zimmer will now publish." Anyone who asks such a question is hoping for a spicy schizophrenic response. There ain't none. When I err or triumph as a poet or as an editor or as a father or a husband it is the same. I just try to do the best that I can do.
Have you ever taught for a living?
When I lived in Pittsburgh, toward the end of my eleven years there, I taught creative writing and poetry literature courses part of the time and earned half my living that way. I loved teaching and I miss it. I also love publishing and enjoy it very much. I was middle-aged with kids heading toward college. I had to make a choice and carry a career forward with more concentration. I am not sorry that I chose publishing. However, someday I would like to teach again. I loved my students and was nourished by talking writing and poetry every day.
You know that common argument that only poets read poetry. Are you familiar with the one that goes: "Poets just don't buy Poetry"?
But I think poets do buy poetry. The problem is that more and more books of poems are published in smaller editions at higher prices. No one can keep up with it. Our money is inflating and thus the price of books of poetry goes up. I Remember when you could go into a shop with $10.00 and plan to come out with 4 or 5 slender Paperback volumes? Now you are lucky to come out with two. There are more books and less means to buy them. Poets usually don't have a lot of money anyway. Don't blame them. I think that all teachers of poetry should adopt single volumes of poetry for their classes. Also, poets should take the trouble to have their books with them when they give readings and see that they are sold.
Every poet I know of has received the rejection letter that goes, "We receive so much more good work than we can publish." How much more "good work than you can publish" do you receive at Georgia?
The story at Georgia, in my viewpoint, is much the same as it was (is) at Pitt. Out of every 500 manuscripts we receive, perhaps 5 to 10 are really publishable. Many others are very strong. Usually we have room for two on our list. All poetry publishers face these difficult and frequently painful decisions. I don't know how people like David Way from October House and Merrill Leffler from Dryad Press made the decision to publish my books. They were using their own cash to pay for them rather than using a publishing budget from an institution. This requires great courage, putting your own money on the line, and I am deeply flattered that they chose to publish me. Certainly all small trade publishing is an act of will and love. The returns are minimal at best. I once asked David Way why he published poetry and he said, "Odi et amo." I hate and I love. Merrill Leffler can radiate sunshine even when being pressed by printers with bills. I believe he is a modern saint - as are most small press people. They get their rewards in heaven. It makes me slightly ill when I think that all the money that goes into the National Poetry Series is doled out to places like Scribners, Harcourt-Brace, Random House, etc. - places that long ago foresook the Muse for profits while the small presses and university presses that publish it because they love it are left out. All that money! And it goes to Broadway just like always.
You've said that the very assembling of poems in book form is, itself; an act of creativity. Can you be fooled by the way a poet has structured or titled his book? I guess I'm really asking, have you ever published a book that you later regretted publishing?
There are many poets who can write a batch of fine poems and publish them in good magazines. There are fewer who have the good sense and vision to arrange their poems in a coherent or meaningful way into a book. I am a book publisher and want to publish excellent well-organized and beautifully conceived units of work. Granted there are some poets who are very clever in this way - but not very deep. Yes, I have published books that I later regretted publishing and usually it was because I was dazzled by this kind of footwork. But there haven't been many.
You say that you look for something different when you are deciding on a poet's second or third collection. What is that? Specifically.
Maturity, judgment, taste, control and a bonafide sustained voice.
And what about a first book? What's the least you can accept from a writer previously unpublished in book form?
Integrity, imagination, the ability to take chances and generally bring them off, special energy, and courage. I look for some-of these things in a veteran, too.
Is the poetry that Georgia publishes different from the poetry published by, say, Wesleyan or the Yale Series or Norton ?
I can't say that the books we publish are different than those published by other good presses. I think we all look for the best stuff we can find as we see it. I admire the other programs you mention very much and always read with pleasure what they publish.
Is there a competition among publishers of poetry to "sign" an up-and-coming talent?
I can only answer for myself. I do not compete to "sign" up-and-coming talent. However, I will admit to one curious pleasure I had in this regard. While at Pitt I contracted for a book by a wonderful young poet. Later I heard that he had also been offered the Yale Prize. I wasn't pleased that I had beaten Yale to the punch but that their offer to him supported my very high opinion of his work.
Because there are so many presses that publish poetry today is poetry any less "obscure " â€“ obscure in the sense that Jarrell used it - today?
Some poetry is always "obscure" to some readers. I have a kind of ash-can western mentality. I cannot read with much comprehension or any pleasure the intellectual/psychological bafflegab or the learned litanies, recitations and thumb-suckings of certain poets from the eastern complex. They seem pretentious and a little silly to me and also "obscure." But there are those who obviously read them with the greatest pleasure and "comprehension." I respect this. Hell, I love everybody . . . or almost everybody. It is implicit in the act of writing that you want to share with someone. Everybody, if they stick with it, can find their own kind of audience. What this audience responds to may seem obscure to another group. But this is a healthy business. It is even invigorating that we criticize each other. It stirs the blood. But there is a lot of slinking around and sucker punching. There have even been some critics who have attempted to identify the Pitt Poetry Series as a "school." Charles Molesworth was writing about Greg Pape's book in the Pitt series in Parnassuswhen he said, "It's a varied series to be sure, but it is also clearly marked by the sensibility of its general editor, Paul Zimmer. If you know The Zimmer Poems you know the sensibility: the sensitive but almost crushed soul, plucky, ironic, surviving, never fully understanding his fate, never failing to be amused by it, never attempting to change it. Pape's book fits into this context." I am only sorry for Greg Pape that Molesworth has tried to wedge him into my "Crushed Soul School of Poetry" because his splendid book deserves better treatment than this. So do the other books in the series which were all, incidentally, selected with equal weight given to outside reports - not simply my own plucky but crushed opinion. Nevertheless, I am entertained by the thought of poets like Shirley Kaufman, Mike Harper, Brendan Galvin, Gary Gildner, Dick Shelton; or Gary Soto as part of my Crushed Soul School. Several years ago someone began a review of the Pitt Series by stating that publication of poetry books had now become an ecological question - the question being whether it was worth it to destroy trees in order to make such books. He decided it wasn't and proceeded to axe his way through the series. I was suspicious of his remarks, however, being aware that his manuscript had twice been rejected by Pitt. The trouble was that no one else knew this and so his disgruntled blows fell unchallenged upon the series poets.
What do you find exciting about the poetry being published - not only by Georgia - today?
The variety, the human qualities, the skill at statement, and the refined ability to utter gentle, natural things.
What's depressing about it?
The wheedling and farting, the aping and schooling, and always, the politics.
If you're still publishing poetry 50 years from now - let's hope you will be - what will it be like? Who among our contemporaries will have influenced those writers you'll publish in 2025? And what presses will be of influence (other than Georgia, of course)?
In fifty years I will be 96. The University of Georgia Press will own the New York Mets and the Press will be a subsidiary of International Cash Register. Certainly I plan to still be publishing zippy young poets. Miracle drugs will keep me alive into the 22nd century. I plan to be publishing the likes of Richard Shelton, Brendan Galvin, Michael Heffernan, Gary Gildner, Shirley Kaufman, Jon Anderson, Norman Dubie, Larry Levis, Mary Swander, Gerald Barrax, John Engels, Ed Roberson, Carol Muske, Marcia Southwick, Belle Randall, Jim Den Boer, John Balaban, Leo Connellan, Jim Moore, David Young, Patricia Hampl, Mark Halperin, Jack Anderson, Susan Astor, Dave Huddle, Gwen Head, Peter Meinke, Greg Pape, Mike Harper, Tom Rabbitt, Eugene Ruggles, Herb Scott, John Hart, Gary Soto, Dave Steingass, Alberta Turner, Jim Lindsey, Marc Weber, Mike Culross, and any others I can get my mitts on. All of these will have profound influence in 2025. Georgia and Pitt will still lead the way.