An Extension of Prospero’s Books, the Publisher Specializes in Kansas and Missouri Authors
Of the literary arts, poetry is perhaps the least understood yet the most appreciated. And the range of contemporary works is vast, from the plainspoken musings of Billy Collins to the relatively esoteric flights of Anne Carson.
With its focus on the beauty and precision of words, poetry can be a rare pleasure for readers but can also be a risky proposition for publishers.
Yet published it is, particularly by small presses. And in Kansas City, one of the more high-profile purveyors of poetry is Spartan Press.
Launched in 1998 by Prospero’s Books, the press has published more than 200 books, ranging from poetry and essay collections to memoirs, short fiction and coffee-table art books. Jason Ryberg, editor in chief of Spartan Press, describes it as a labor of love. In the press’s early years, he said, its output tended to be “stapled and Xeroxed.”
Eventually, the books began to be put together more conventionally. But the mission remained the same.
“We pretty much only (publish) Kansas and Missouri authors,” said Ryberg, who is himself a poet. “We’ve made some exceptions here and there” including “people who’ve maybe read at Prospero’s a lot.”
Spartan Press has its origins in an open mic series at the bookstore.
“It was a core group of us, who critiqued each other’s work, and all hung out together,” he said. “We’d all had some experience in either the academic world or with publishing, and we just decided to do our own thing.” Ryberg compares the establishment of the press to that of “a small indie-rock label.”
In recent years, Spartan has “ramped up” production, publishing dozens of titles annually rather than just a handful, Ryberg said. Among releases of recent years are Joseph Anthony Davis’ “Black Lives Matter and Other Poems,” Shawn Pavey’s “Survival Tips for the Pending Apocalypse” and Daniel W. Wright’s “Rodeo of the Soul.” Kansas City artist Hugh Merrill’s family memoir, “Whiteout,” is another recent release. (See page 78.)
“We just got so excited with the projects that were coming our way, that it’s just kind of grown,” Ryberg said. “Pretty much, most of the money goes back into the publications.”
And indeed, poets who have been published by Spartan have good things to say about the press.
St. Louis poet Stefene Russell, whose poetry collection “47 Incantatory Essays” the press released last year, said she participated in a “weekend marathon” of readings at Prospero’s and was impressed with its inclusion of a wide range of poets “on the gender spectrum, and the sexual identity spectrum, and the socioeconomic spectrum.
“There were academics, there were slam poets and it was racially diverse, with lots of women poets,” Russell said. “I thought it was really fun.” That sentiment extended to her experience publishing with Spartan.
“Working with little presses is, for poets, always really hands-on,” Russell said. “And I actually was glad to have some input in terms of the cover and the layout.”
Maryfrances Wagner, an Independence-based poet who published the collection “The Immigrants’ New Camera” with Spartan, praised Ryberg as “very easy to work with.”
“Sometimes I thought he should have been tougher on me, but he wasn’t,” she said. “Some editors always are right in there, telling you what to cut and what poems to leave out. Jason was pretty accommodating.” (See page 38 for a profile of Wagner.)
Spartan Press was originally overseen by its founder, Will Leathem, who is also co-owner of Prospero’s Books. But Ryberg has been at the reins for much of the last decade.
“I didn’t get seriously involved until maybe six, seven years ago,” he said.
Spartan is an apt name for the press. Poets who submit their work for publication must also be prepared to do what’s necessary to promote it, Ryberg said.
“I do make the authors work hard,” he said. “I always tell people up front that they’ve got to go out and hit the pavement, and travel, and (read their work in public). Presumably, you’re getting into this because you want to get your artwork out there. It isn’t just a vanity project, where you’re happy with 10 copies and they don’t sell.
“So I do poke and prod our authors,” Ryberg said. “And most of them do tend to be people who’ve been at it for a while, and they have their own channels for moving their books. Or they get out and read a lot and occasionally get on the road. That’s our model.
“We’ve got a fairly sizable social media network (to push books); we’ll do what we can. But it’s still about the author having to be their own salesperson.”
Still, Ryberg said, as a small press, Spartan has a big advantage in being an extension of Prospero’s Books.
“We have the benefit of an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore, and it’s nice to have a venue where your stuff is front and center,” he said. “But it still doesn’t make people buy. You have to sell quite a bit to make money. Whatever makes people do impulse purchases, I, to this day, don’t know.”
Ryberg is somewhat wary of e-books, which arguably have made literature more accessible to folks on the go.
“I’m still getting over a certain prejudice that at least I’m willing to admit,” he said. “I have a gut feeling that people who read poetry are still old-school, tactile, I-have-to-hold-it-in-my-hands people.”
Spartan has fiction titles planned for release as e-books later this year. But publishing poetry in that format has posed challenges, as the layout of lines and stanzas could be altered in the transition from the printed page to the electronic screen.
“At one time, my understanding was that that was very difficult to do,” Ryberg said. “I think that may have changed. But I don’t know if I’m going to do that with poetry.”
As far as style goes, he said that Spartan Press focuses on “postmodernist poetry.”
“I’m not interested in topical poetry that hits you over the head,” he said. “Or metered rhyme, because I think it’s a very tough thing to do in the 21st century. In many ways, the modern song lyric can serve that purpose. What’s poetry to do, in this day and age, to distinguish itself from that?”