Interview with A.B. Spellman

Photo of book cover: Things I must Have Known by A.B. Spellman

Detail of the book cover for A.B. Spellman's Things I Must Have Known.

Author A.B. Spellman talks with the NEA about the importance of small literary presses and about working with Coffee House Press.

A.B. Spellman:     

Groovin’ Low. 
My swing is more mellow
these days: not the hardbop drive
I used to roll but more of a cool
foxtrot.  my eyes still close
when the rhythm locks; i’ve learned
to boogie with my feet on the floor
and i’m still movin’, still grovin’
still fallin’ in love
I bop to the base line now. the trap set
paradiddles, ratamacues & flams
that used to spin me in place still set me
off,  but i bop to the baseline now 
i enter the tune from the bottom up
& let trumpet & sax wheel above me
so don’t look for me in the treble
don’t look for me in the fly
staccatos splatter of the hot young horn
no, you’ll find me in the nuance
hanging out an inflection & slur
i’m the one executing the half-bent
dip and the slowdrag
with the smug little smile
and the really cool shades

Jo Reed:  That was poet, Jazz critic and former arts administrator A.B. Spellman.  Groovin’ Low can be found in his collection of poetry, “Things I must have known” which was published by the small independent Coffee House Press.  A.B. is convinced that independent presses are vital for writers in general and poets in particular.

A.B. Spellman:  Small presses are absolutely essential for poetry.  The small press’s took off in the 1960s and I happened to be around New York when that happened and my first book of poems was published by one of those small presses, Poets Press which Diane DiPrima   edited and if not for those presses poets like me would have had no outlet.  Now there was considerable poetry published doing it in commercial press during the ‘60s than there is now.  When it is almost missing other than in New York, I don’t know where you find a poem in a commercial magazine and the big publishing houses do not a lot of poetry publishing and the poets they publish are very few.  There’s a small sort of group of poets who are included in those houses and good for them but it doesn’t open up much for the rest of the world.  So small presses are the backbone of the poetry and without them, no poets would get read almost except for people who publish themselves.

Jo Reed:  Can you talk just a little bit about the experience as a poet of working with a small press like Coffee House Press?

A.B.  Spellman:  Yes it’s changed a lot since the ‘60s, since my first engagement at Poet’s Press, I gave Diane the manuscript, she put it together and we agreed on an artist to do the cover and shipped it out to bookstores and that was about the end of it.  At Coffee House Press I was very impressed with the complete professionalism of this very small staff.  They were absolutely thorough, they got information from me, they dragged all of my information out of me where I had read, where I’d published, where I’d lectured, where I’d worked, who I knew, people who might teach the book in classrooms, people whom would get me on the radio and they made good use of it.  They were very systematic about their promotion.  Editorially Allan Kornbloom was very impressive.  I mean I don’t a lot of people make suggestions to me about my poems because I work on them very hard and I’m really anal about fixing 'em and making sure that every <inaudible> quaver is justified.  But Allan came in with suggestions for changes and they were very good suggestions and I accepted most of them, which surprised me considerably.  He read very carefully with great taste and great knowledge and I thought helped produce a really good book for me, it’s as good a book as I could have made at that time.  The cover design was done very systematically, I mean I got a questionnaire about the tones and feelings I expected to be expressed through the book or what colors I could imagine, these words representing and my preference for abstraction versus a concrete image and then the artist produced the cover which went with the book which I think fits it very nicely.  So everything was very, very well taken care of and very, very professional, I can’t say enough about working with that press.

Jo Reed:  All publishers right now are really feeling the pinch in this economy and I would imagine that has to be doubly true for small presses.

A.B. Spellman:  Yes that’s true I think there’s no doubt about the fact that the arts in general are serious affected because the philanthropic needs are so great in so many areas and it’s understandable that people who have money to give, A have less now and B have to make hard choices about where they want to give it.  Fortunately I think the artists have been through this before and they come through rather better than some other fields because artist’s organizations work with so little waste so they’re used to operating on a bare budget shoestring and it’s gratifying to see as many artist organizations survive and some even flourish even in these hard times.  Coffee House Press is so well respected that I think that they’ve been able to come through pretty well.  I think that the management is so good there that they’ll do quite alright at the end of this.


Poet A.B. Spellman is the author of “Things I must have known”.  To find out how Art Works in communities across America, keep checking the Art Works blog. I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.