Surprise. Awe. Wonder. The poetry Copper Canyon Press publishes doesn’t cleave to specific aesthetics or perspectives, but when he reads manuscripts, Executive Editor Michael Wiegers says he looks “to be amazed by somebody’s story; to be in awe of how they are using language to create feelings inside me.”
Wiegers, who has held his position with the press since 1993, has edited more than 400 of its over 700 books—works that have won National Book Awards and Pulitzers, among a slew of other accolades. Copper Canyon’s roster of poets includes influential writers from the 20th century—Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and W.S. Merwin, to name of a few—along with contemporary writers and translators such as C.D. Wright, Jericho Brown and local legend Arthur Sze—many of whose poems appear in two new anthologies Wiegers edited to commemorate the press’ 50th anniversary this year.
Two of those poets, Brown and Paisley Rekdal, will read as part of a Lannan Foundation Readings and Conversations series anniversary event this week, and then join a discussion about poetry with Wiegers and Sze.
Sze’s 10th collection, 2019′s Sight Lines, won the National Book Award. About the work, the judges wrote: “Arthur Sze writes with a quiet mastery which generates beautiful, sensuous, inventive, and emotionally rich poems.” Sze also will introduce the event, with remarks on the joint history of the Lannan Foundation and Copper Canyon.
He intends, Sze tells SFR, to “take a moment to honor the memory of Patrick Lannan Jr.,” the foundation’s former president who died in July of 2022. Lannan began the popular Readings & Conversation series in Los Angeles, Sze notes, before bringing it to Santa Fe, where over the decades it brought hundreds of acclaimed writers and thinkers from all genres to the city.
“Patrick loved poetry,” Sze says. “He really believed in the power of a book to change a person’s understanding of life and their place in this world.”
Last April, Lannan announced it would work toward sunsetting in the next decade, and has scaled back its Santa Fe programming. Its last program, in May 2022, featured Sze in conversation with author and translator Forrest Gander. Lannan Executive Director Brenda Coughlin tells SFR Lannan’s longstanding relationship with Copper Canyon, the numerous authors from the press in the area and the foundation’s longstanding support of poetry made the event a “wonderful coda to…this relationship we’ve had with them.”
In addition to Sze, Copper Canyon poets include former resident Dana Levin, Jenny George, Jon Davis and Sherwin Bitsui (Diné), who attended the Institute of American Indian Arts, as well as other writers in Albuquerque, Wiegers notes. Because of those relationships, along with the press’ relationship with Lannan, “Santa Fe has been very important to us. And, and I think by extension, it’s been important to Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners, et cetera.”
Paisley Rekdal, whose book West: A Translation was longlisted for the National Book Award in poetry this year, says the press has been a good home for her work because for “many years now they’ve done projects, poetry books…and projects that fall between genres and sort of move between disciplinary lines.” Her book began in 2018 when, as Utah’s then-poet laureate, she was commissioned to write a poem for the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. Her book connects the railroad to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943), through poetry and essays; an online iteration of the work allows users to interact character-by-character with an anonymous Chinese elegy left by a detainee who committed suicide and left the poem carved in the wall of the Angel Island Immigration Station.
“It’s just been fantastic working with them because they understand how to make very beautiful books,” Rekdal, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Utah, tells SFR. “And they also understand that a lot of poets that are working in different fields want to start bringing those two fields together.”
Jericho Brown’s 2019 collection The Tradition won the Pulitzer Prize (and was a finalist for the National Book Award the same year Sze won the award). In awarding The Tradition, the Pulitzer Committee described the work as a “collection of masterful lyrics that combine delicacy with historical urgency in their loving evocation of bodies vulnerable to hostility and violence.” The book also showcases Brown’s invented form, the duplex, described as “a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal and the blues,” which Brown says he created after pondering for years the notion of a poem made completely of repeated lines and, in this case, “good lines” from “failed poems.”
Brown, Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, tells SFR Copper Canyon was the only press that accepted his second book, The New Testament, which preceded The Tradition. Underpinning his relationship with Copper Canyon, Brown tells SFR, is trust: “I trust Copper Canyon because Copper Canyon believed in me,” he says. “I just try to do what I need to do to make sure I shore that belief up and that belief remains.”
That means when Wiegers makes suggestions, Brown takes them seriously. “Even if I disagree with what he says to do, I will change the poem,” Brown says. Sze also notes Wiegers’ shrewdness and openness with poets. Having 2,000 manuscripts arrive in the mail “is one thing,” Sze says. It’s another, he notes to pick out from that pile a manuscript from Ocean Vuong “and say, ‘I’m going to do this. This is a writer who’s going to go on.’” Vuong subsequently won numerous awards for his work, including the T.S. Eliot Prize, as well as a so-called “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation. “That to me is amazing editorial acumen,” Sze says.
Moreover, Brown says, the press is “always doing something that makes them a part of the larger writing community.”
As for Wiegers, he says he looks forward to having that conversation about the larger writing community and the role of poetry in society with Brown, Rekdal and Sze at this week’s event.
“One of the beautiful things about books is that they begin and end in solitude,” he says. “They begin with the solitude of the writer, and they end with the solitude of the reader. And along the way, they pass through so many imaginations, and they expand to this larger community. I want to consider how books and poetry in particular, not only honor the individual, but make their way into a larger cultural and shared voice.”
Copper Canyon 50th anniversary reading by Jericho Brown and Paisley Rekdal with Arthur Sze and Michael Wiegers: 7 pm, Thursday, Oct. 19. $5-$8. Lensic Performing Arts Center. 211 W San Francisco St., (505) 988-1234
Book signing and sales provided by Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse
And Livestreamed at https://tinyurl.com/4vwwdtzd