"It is kind of psychotic
to write poetry": an interview with the founders of Skanky Possum
Perhaps "poetry magazine" isn't what you first think of when you hear the words "Skanky Possum". "Bad punk band" might be closer. However, when Dale Smith came across a possum stuck in a trap they set for a feral cat, the first words out of his mouth stuck as the title of the magazine.
Smith and his wife Hoa Nguyen run the magazine and micro-publishing house Skanky Possum out of their small Eastside Austin house. On the coffee table are a few scattered issues of their chapbooks and a towering stack of manila envelopes crowd their dining room table. "You see that, that's all askew?" Hoa points at the envelopes. "That's all of the submissions from the past couple weeks. If everybody that submitted bought a magazine, we would be fine."
Their house holds a combination of poetry books and children's toys. Their young son Keaton repeats words his mother says, lifting his fists over his head and shouting, "Pom-Pom!" (a poetry magazine) and at one point, "Poetry!" as if in victory. Smith stays at home to care for Keaton and to work on the magazine while Nguyen works for the University of Texas at Austin. Between the two of them, they do all of the work, from reading the submissions and making selections to stapling the chapbooks and mailing them off. An illustrator helps with the cover designs and they bribe friends with food and beer to help with the stapling, but it's entirely passion driven.
All over the country, micro-publishing houses like Skanky Possum were born out of love and devotion. Unfortunately, an audience for contemporary poetry is still scarce. "The thing with poetry," Smith tells me, "is that everybody wants their poems published, but there are no publishers, and there's no audience. It's just like this total dead end situation. My attitude is like, if you're going to write poetry, and you want it to get published, maybe you should take the responsibility. Because nobody's going to do it for you."
In the poetry circles, their magazine is highly regarded. Published since 1998, Skanky Possum has printed the works of Amiri Baraka and Tom Clark. Poems that were originally in Possum also made it into the 2002 Best American Poetry collection, contributing to their large slush pile. But poetry circles aren't as large as they used to be.
With all small operations like this one, money is always a problem. The individual issues cost $6.00 each and they print only 200 to 300 copies of each issue. They also publish a few books a year, as many as their income will allow them, but stopping publication due to lack of funds is always a possibility. Last year they received an anonymous grant, but Smith admits there aren't many options of that nature. Poetry tends not to be a profitable business. The large publishers figured this out a long time ago and most stopped publishing new poets.
Distribution is another challenge. Their books are available on Amazon.com, but the magazine is only sold in a few places. Currently, no bookstore in Austin carries it. Somehow, however, Thurston Moore found Skanky Possum in Florida and wrote a fan letter. A slightly bewildered and star-struck Smith said, "I don't know how it got to Florida." Nguyen replies, "But it made my day."
Because they have no local distribution, most local writers may not even know they exist. Smith and Nguyen have been trying to change that, but Austin's response to Smith and Nguyen's attempt to establish a poetry community has been pretty quiet. They host poets from around the country and the world for readings in their living rooms, but the audience is always small. They have both taught poetry writing classes at the Dougherty Arts Center. Smith will be involved with a spoken word exhibit with the Austin Museum of Art in April. And yet the larger audiences are always found at open mike nights at coffeehouses.
"I hate open mike poetry," Nguyen says. "I get really impatient because there's no context to it. I like structured reading. When there's a list of people to read, no one's listening because they're preparing to read their thing, then they leave after they read, and it's like 'I wrote this on the bus, on the back of my grocery list...' You might find a gem, but mostly these people are... well, they're poets, but they don't read poetry."
Americans, as a whole, tend not to read poetry. Smith explains it as, "America is in terror of having to know itself." When I mention American Poet Laureate Billy Collins's recent statement that people don't read poetry because high school destroyed it for them, he snaps, " I think nobody reads it also because people like Billy Collins are poets."
Part of the problem seems to be the declining amount of literature reviews in general and poetry reviews specifically, especially in Austin media. The Austin American-Statesman and The Austin Chronicle have both cut back their literature coverage significantly. "Book culture is dead in print. You can go online and find things scattered around, but the papers have just totally dropped it. At the turn of the century, with the op-ed pieces you'd find poems, you'd find major book reviews, intelligent analysis, discussion about book culture in life. With the Statesman, it's gotta be Texana or some Texas author that's getting national acclaim or some kind of crap like that."
Of course, when most people think poetry, it's the dead poets that immediately come to mind. "In Austin, there's a lot of interest in poetry, but not a lot of cohesive understanding of where poetry's coming from, or what's been going on since 1945, even," he said. "If book reviews were as well written as movie reviews, and had some kind of presence on the pages, it might be different. I was really disappointed that The Chronicle stopped doing book reviews. I thought it was important to keep active, intelligent life in print going."
Smith and Nguyen moved to Austin from San Francisco in 1996, and both
seem to miss the literary community there. "It's quiet [in Austin],
you get the work done." But the crowds at poetry events in Austin
are much smaller, and the sense of a literary community is lacking.