The Book Pages: 50 years of Copper Canyon Press poetry

Spending an hour talking about poetry with Michael Wiegers of Copper Canyon Press is a part of this job that doesn’t seem like work.

Wiegers, the executive editor/editor-in-chief of the nonprofit publisher, and I were discussing “A House Called Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Poetry,” a new anthology that draws upon the nearly 700 books the press has published in the past half-century.

Modest and funny about his own contributions – “I’ve been a strap hanger on a literary train,” he says – Wiegers describes Copper Canyon as an endeavor involving many who are all focused on one thing: poetry.

“I would argue that Copper Canyon, and all the people who have been a part of it over 50 years, have helped build and increase an audience for poetry in this country and shown that actually there are people who want to read poetry if you’re able to get it in front of them,” he says. “We’re small, but we punch above our weight when it comes to the poetry field.”

Copper Canyon Press is located in Washington state at Port Townsend’s Fort Worden State Park, a former military installation turned arts complex. “We were brought in to be a visiting press in residence and we’ve stayed for about 50 years now in this beautiful location that’s dedicated to the arts,” he says.

“Being a nonprofit arts organization, much like an art museum, wherein we’re curating poetry, rather than curating exhibits – our exhibits would be our books, of course, – that’s allowed us to sustain this focus and publish some of the most significant poets of the latter half of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st century,” says Wiegers, noting that they’ve published Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners and more.

The anthology’s selection of contributors is so rich that a partial list doesn’t do it justice, but here are 10 poets who are included: Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Jim Harrison, June Jordan, Ted Kooser, W.S. Merwin, Pablo Neruda, Ruth Stone, Arthur Sze, Ocean Vuong. While I could name more writers you’ve probably heard of too, there are also a wealth of gifted poets included who are new to me (though surely known to those more informed about poetry than I am).

Let me underscore that last bit: I’m no poetry expert, but this collection is rich and welcoming and it seems to contain something for everyone – which may be by design. Rather than choose poems himself, Wiegers asked poets, colleagues, interns, board members and others for input on what to include.

“Copper Canyon Press has always been a compilation of many voices,” he writes in the book’s introduction, adding that he got 200 responses when he asked for stories and input, and Wiegers includes memories of his own about the late poet C.D. Wright, who was a close friend and trusted advisor.

When asked about Wright, Wiegers recalls advocating on her behalf to Sam Hamill, one of Copper Canyon’s founders, who was skeptical. “I was just captivated by this book,” says Wiegers of Wright’s “Deepstep Come Shining.” “Later, the book came out to great acclaim and Sam taught me a great lesson in that moment. He just said, ‘You know, I guess we should publish more books I don’t understand.’ It’s like, Yeah – we should.”

Soliciting other readers’ personal stories and suggestions for the anthology had an unexpected benefit as well.

“If I were choosing all these poems it would probably be a different book because I would go to the ones that were personally important to me,” says Wiegers, but he says something interesting happened as he got more input. “I was able to revisit poems that I had edited 25-30 years ago and read them in a new way because somebody else passed them along to me.”

This idea of experiencing older work in a fresh new way led Wiegers to share a childhood memory.

“I grew up with a blind mother; nonetheless, I would go to art museums with her. And when I was probably like, eight or nine years old, we went to see Monet’s Years at Giverny, which was a blockbuster exhibit, and, I would try and explain paintings to my mom,” he says.

“That experience of growing up with a blind parent, where it’s like, OK, how can you create sight with words? I think that’s what a poem does.”

Recently, Wiegers says he saw the Monet paintings again, but this time paired with the abstract expressionist work of Joan Mitchell. They seemed new again.

“Suddenly, because of the proximity to this, this more modern voice, this more modern artist, I saw his paintings in a whole new light. And I feel that’s kind of what this anthology has done as well … I’m seeing things that I’m very familiar with in a whole new light, and I kind of love that aspect of it,” he says.

“I think also that impulse to want to, as I did with my mom, to try and tell her what that painting made me feel like or what I was seeing or what I was identifying, that’s kind of what I want to do as a publisher and an as an editor.”

(Note: Wiegers’s mother was celebrating her 88th birthday on the day we spoke this week, so I passed along happy birthday wishes from all of us.)

My wife and I were so excited to find ourselves near Copper Canyon Press a few years ago, we didn’t even mind taking it in from outside. (Photo by Erik Pedersen)

Finally, I had a couple questions I thought might be dumb, but decided to ask anyway: What makes something a poem – and what makes a good poem?

“It’s a good question,” says Wiegers, who invokes Robert Frost’s quote that “poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom” as well as a line from Hayden Carruth’s “The Impossible Indispensability of the Ars Poetica” (included in the anthology), which reads: “A poem is not an expression, nor is it an object. Yet it somewhat partakes of both. What a poem is, is never to be known for which I have learned to be grateful.”

And as for what makes a poem good?

“This may be a cheeky answer, but I think a reader makes a poem good. If you love that poem, that poem is good,” he says.

“If you’re compelled to make a change in the world or to change yourself because of something the poem moves inside you, that poem is good.”

Melinda Moustakis shares one of her favorite book titles

Melinda Moustakis is the author of “Homestead.” (Photo credit Meg Mulloy / Courtesy of Flatiron Books)

Melinda Moustakis’s visits to Alaska helped inspire her first book, “Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories,” and her new novel, “Homestead,” also takes place there. The author spoke with Michael Schaub for a profile, and here she responds to our Q&A.

Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

I most frequently recommend novels by Marilynne Robinson and Louise Erdrich, and also Danielle Evans’ two story collections.

Q. Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck was assigned in high school. I know it is one of the reasons I wrote a book where landscape is integral in shaping the plot and the characters.

Q. Can you recall a book that felt like it was written just for you?

“Cowboys Are My Weakness” by Pam Houston. The story “Dall” takes place in Alaska and is told from a woman’s perspective, and the whole book opened up so many possibilities for me in thinking about writing about the wilderness.

Q. Do you listen to audiobooks? If so, are there any titles or narrators you’d recommend?

I did get to help choose the audiobook reader for my novel and her name is Ariel Blake and I would recommend any of the titles she has narrated — a recent one is “Luster” by Raven Leilani. That said, I generally do not listen to them as I find I enjoy that otherworldly silence that reading leads you into. And I also need that silence to write. I envy writers that can listen to music while they work because I cannot. If I ever have to drive across the country again for a move, though, I would bring some audiobooks.

Q. Is there a genre or type of book you read the most – and what would you like to read more of?

I tend to read literary novels focused on a particular landscape. I also read story collections, poetry, and memoir. I wish I could read in more than one language and would like to read more books in translation and read more internationally.

Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

I am currently reading “The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir” by Ernestine Shaankaláxt’ Hayes. I want to read “Brotherless Night” by V.V. Ganeshananthan. I just bought a novel called “Sivulliq: Ancestor” by Lily H. Tuzroyluke, who is based in Anchorage. And I just heard about a press that started in Anchorage called Porphyry Press and I’m curious about their list.

Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

When I hear about a book I am most intrigued by the title first, and then look at the first line and first paragraph to get a sense of the style of the writing. Danielle Evans’ “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” is one of my all-time favorite titles. I just read “frank:sonnets” by Diane Seuss and the first line of the first sonnet is “I drove all the way to Cape Disappointment but didn’t have the energy to get out of the car.” Sometimes all it takes is one line and you want to hear everything else the writer has to say.

Please write me at with news, comments or the books you’re reading, and your comments may appear in the newsletter.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

DK Nnuro is the author of the novel “What Napoleon Could Not Do.” (Photo credit Steven J. Erickson / Courtesy of Riverhead Books)

Immigrant Song

DK Nnuro’s novel “What Napoleon Could Not Do” is a rich, family saga. READ MORE

• • •

Brian Warren-MacKay, 4, hands a bouquet of flowers to Cellar Door Books owner Linda Sherman-Nurick as parents Cody and Marla watch at Tuesday’s Riverside City Council meeting. The family supports the store, which was about to be honored by the council. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

A new day for Door

Riverside’s Cellar Door Books may have found a new home, David Allen reports. READ MORE

• • •

“I Have Some Questions for You” by Rebecca Makkai is among the top-selling fiction releases at Southern California’s independent bookstores. (Courtesy of Viking)

The week’s bestsellers

The top-selling books at your local independent bookstores. READ MORE

• • •


What’s next on ‘Bookish’

The next free Bookish event is March 17 at 5 p.m. with guests including Chef Ronnie Woo and more talking books with host Sandra Tsing Loh.

Also, if you missed it (or want to relive the action), you can watch our Noteworthy episode featuring our celebration of 10 Southern California writers who published memorable books in 2022.

• • •

Sign up for The Book Pages
Miss last week’s newsletter? Find past editions here
Dive into all of our books coverage

Share the Post:

Related Posts

Generated by Feedzy