Wake: Up to Poetry
“Bigger isn’t always better: Confessions from Wake Forest University Press interns on working at a small university press”
Wake Forest University Press is the premier publisher of Irish poetry in North America. Despite the lofty designation, it is among the smallest university presses in America. WFUP publishes an average of 4-6 titles each year, all from native Irish poets. It employs two full-time staff members, in addition to a half dozen or so interns who volunteer for experience and/or class credit. Here’s what the interns have to say about working for such a small university press…
“After a semester abroad, I couldn’t wait for my first day back at the press to be reunited with my boss and meet all the new interns. I was expecting some hugs, introductions, and a nice sit-down chat where we filled each other in with what had been happening in our respective worlds the past eight months. That’s not at all what happened, though.
From the second I opened the door my first day back until the time I closed the door behind me, leaving ten minutes later than I was scheduled to, I was slammed … assembling, packaging, and labeling orders.
We are a small press. We get orders on a consistent basis, but they usually take up half an hour of my time at the Press. This was something else entirely. There were orders EVERYWHERE. After every box I sealed, my boss would hand me three more invoices.
What caused this sudden overwhelming constant influx of orders? A review.
A simple book review that happened to be published by the one and only New York Times.
The impact was astounding. We took constant trips to the storage facility to gather more books (WFUP is unusual in that it stores and stocks its titles, and fills it own book orders). Every day we were sending out orders. And the effect was not short term: the review came out at the end of August, and at the end of October, we were still shipping the title out.
This experience showed me a whole new side of working at a small press. We loved the attention, but at times struggled to keep up with the demand. More orders meant more work, and with our small staff and tight quarters we all had to step up our game to ensure our customers remained satisfied.
The impact of a full page review published in one big newspaper was beyond anything I ever would have predicted. A few words by someone important in a visible location did more for our press than all the PR scheming and dreaming we had been doing for years. Bigger presses I’m sure get important reviews on the regular, but first for us, this one was huge.
We are very appreciative of the review and have all learned a great deal from the experience. Now we eagerly anticipate another review, for which we can show off our new skills and durability. This time, we’re ready”. -Maura, senior.
“Working at WFUP isn’t your average internship. In one day, I could be communicating with an overseas publisher discussing subsidiary rites, managing a social media campaign, talking to a customer about an order, researching ebook publishing and writing a blog on Samhain. There is so much variety in what we get to do, and none of it is busy work. Because our full-time staff consists of a measly two full time employees, the interns at WFUP are entrusted with a lot crucial tasks that interns at a larger press most likely would never see.
Most recently, I have been assigned to lead the charge on Conor O’Callaghan’s newest book, The Sun King. Not only have I had the privilege to serve as a primary reader on the manuscript, but I have been able to communicate directly with Conor about questions and design choices. How many interns can say they get to chat with a world-renowned poet on the regular? (10 points for WFUP!)
Another thing I love about working at such a small press is the independence I have to present original ideas and have them taken seriously. Where at larger presses an intern’s ideas might be tossed aside, at WFUP if you have an idea that will improve the press it is always met with the highest degree of enthusiasm. As a result, I am able to work on projects I’m passionate about while simultaneously helping the Press (and my resume) grow.
Of course there are a lot of drawbacks about working at a small university press. We aren’t even big enough to be a part of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP). Typical of poetry’s place in the world, we are relegated to the basement of one of the oldest buildings on campus, which is disheartening to put it nicely. However, I try not to let it get me down. Instead, I’m focused on the invaluable experience that I am getting, experience I know I would not be able to get if I were working for a large corporation”. -Nicole, graduate student.
“The WFU Press is cozy. We work in a small space embraced on all sides by books. Poetry seems to permeate the walls. I love the smell of books; the ink, the crispness of pages that have yet to be turned and words that have yet to be read. I love the softness of our press, we are not corporate. The emphasis is not profit, the emphasis is on the poetry. It is a joy to work with others who value that which is often overlooked. Poetry is taken advantage of by the world at large, poetry does not sell like Twilight or the Hunger Games, but what is it that is reached for in times of extreme joy or grief? Poetry expresses what people cannot find the words for themselves. We lack resources and could use more staff, but we make up for these challenges with enthusiasm and genuine passion for protecting what has become an endangered species in the publishing world. We are cozy and friendly, but also fiercely passionate about what we do. Small presses struggle to survive, but we take the struggle in stride”. -Sophie, sophomore.
“I love the ability to see the production of a book right before my eyes. I have the chance to see the work begin as nothing more than a few scratches on a piece of paper into a published work that I can see before anyone else. I have a much greater stake in the production of materials working at a smaller press”. -Mike, senior.
“What I love about working at the press is that I have the chance to sample all of the various jobs one might do at a larger press. If I were interning at a larger press, I would have to pick one specific area of publishing and stick with just that one job. The upside to that would be that perhaps, being more fully immersed in that task I would get to be really knowledgeable in that specific area, but I still value the variety and chance to try lots of things out here at our press. The hardest thing about working at a small press is that while we seem to never be short on really great, valuable ideas, we just don’t have the manpower to bring all of them to fruition. It’s sad really–we’re all creative and want huge things for the press but it doesn’t always feel possible. On the upside, though, when the interns all brainstorm together, I feel like we come up with fantastic ideas and I love getting to see some of those work out and move us forward”. -Sarah, graduate student.
“The people at WFU Press make this a fantastic experience. The interns are a diverse group, ranging in ages, experiences, outside interests, and even schools (I’m not a Wake Forest student, but actually down the road at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, working at the press for class credit. ) We all get to learn from each other, whether sharing tips from a conference we attended or teaching each other new digital skills. Our boss’s enthusiasm is incredibly contagious; I hadn’t had much experience with poetry coming in, let alone our specific niche of contemporary Irish poetry, but I couldn’t help getting excited. It is frustrating to be surrounded by all these intriguing books and not being able to read them right away. I love how non-corporate we are; we can celebrate the little things (new microwave!) and play with a dog in the office.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the press is sustaining momentum. Sarah mentioned the labor shortage; it’s hard to keep all our goals and projects going when 1)we’re only in for a few hours a day, a few days a week and 2) more urgent needs come up, like processing 72 MacNeice orders. These challenges would probably be easier for a full-time staff, but as the press relies on student interns who can only give so much time between classes, paying jobs, homework, etc. I sometimes wonder if we’re quite polished enough. My biggest personal challenge, though, is the 45-minute commute on Interstate 40, and that’s on a good day. Gas gets expensive, but what I’m learning is absolutely worth it”. -Megan, graduate student.
“I don’t know Irish poetry very well. I’ll be the first to admit it. As the newest addition to the roster of press interns, I feel a little out of place—I know a lot about books and editing and some about technology, but not a lot about Ireland or poetry or Irish poetry. WFUP, despite our size, is the premier publisher of Irish poetry in the North America. With the exception of a few French titles, we only publish poetry from Irish poets.
You can see how this would be a problem.
The past few months have been quite a learning experience filled with subsidiary rights, manuscripts, the placement and function of ellipses (you’d be surprised how many times poets use ellipses), ebooks, blog posts, and much, much more. The best thing about working with a small press is that, as an intern, I literally get to do it all. I’m involved with a book from the time it comes into our hands until it is finally shipped to people far from our office who are hungry for a bit of poetry. I edit and problem solve and create WordPress sites and stare into a wall hoping that some inspiration for a blog post will come to me and keep staring. There is so much to do and so much to learn.
And with the other interns right beside me, fighting our way through a pile of paper, we build a community of slightly stressed out students all wanting the best for the WFUP, the poets, and each other.
But, in some ways, getting to do it all can be the worst part of our small size. We don’t publish hundreds of titles yearly like bigger presses but we still put the same time and effort into creating, editing, and marketing our titles. The difference is, we only have a team of two employees and a handful of slightly confused and stressed out interns to do it. I can’t just rest comfortably on my laurels and only handle the blog, ebooks, and other computer issues. I have to do all of that and figure out what the hell that poem could possibly mean while also answering the phone (THE HORROR) and of course editing manuscripts and talking to poets.
I love it here. I am also deathly scared of the phone. The struggle of the small press intern is real.” -Julie, senior.