by Jeri McCormick
Book by book, over twenty-five years, Fireweed Press has remained a presence on the Wisconsin publishing scene. For a small author’s collective, this is no small accomplishment. Fireweed’s first book appeared in 1987, followed shortly thereafter by eight others, the works of Madison poets who formed a collective to assist each other with production and promotion. Early encouragement came from Edna Muedt, an acclaimed Dodgeville poet who worked hard in her time (1950s - 80s) to bring poetry to the public. The press’s name came from a botany guide describing colorful weeds, among which fireweed stood out, displaying vivid hues and prolific renewal properties—metaphorically relevant in the writing world.
The first five years of the collective saw regular meetings of the nine writers at the home of Jeri McCormick, author of the first book, who met to pool editing and production ideas. Strategies for marketing soon followed, once the books were in print. Since that time, the group size has more than doubled and spread geographically, and the publishing process has become well-charted and computerized. Full collective meetings are no longer held, but some of the original nine members still serve as consultants in the development of each new book. In addition, volunteer help from other members is available upon request for editing, design, blurbs, proofing and reviews—valuable support for the writer about to face public scrutiny. Each author maintains autonomy in making final decisions, and in financing the book’s production costs. Following publication, the author retains all proceeds from sales. The outlay of expenses is usually recouped when half of the print run is sold.
By 1992, Fireweed had published thirteen books and a packet of ten post cards. Also in print were flyers with sample poems from each book and order forms. Members gave presentations about the press at many gatherings, including Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets conferences, writers’ workshops, book stores, Madison Writers’ Place (active in the 80s and 90s), and to a large convention of the National Federation of Poetry Societies’ attendees from around the country, including the featured presenter, William Stafford, who graciously accepted complimentary copies of the books for his personal library. Since those early years, Fireweed has added another fourteen books to its list, most since the year 2000. Recently, the press has appeared in the programming of two Madison Book Festivals, including the 2011 festival, in which five members served on a Fireweed panel.
Fireweed’s primary goal is to bring quality poetry to the community of readers and writers by means of the printed page—through books and chapbooks. Membership in the cooperative comes by invitation and is loosely defined, with no dues, no contract, and no deadline requirement. Acceptance is agreed upon by at least three original Fireweed authors, one of whom is Richard Roe, Robin Chapman or Jeri McCormick, who offer long-time experience and advice. All assistance is voluntary—a pooling of skills to turn a manuscript into a book.
As with most presses, the biggest challenge is selling the books once they’re published. The individual author plays the greater role in this, and the books tend to move slowly, through face-to-face interactions, book store readings, and table displays at writers’ meetings. The press has a new website, thanks to donated funds, offering publicity for authors, and it has signed with Amazon Advantage, although that marketing service is expensive for poets. Some authors show great imagination in getting their books to the public (a prime example is Sandy Stark [read her article on marketing in this issue], whose Counting on Birds has found bird lovers and other readers near and far). Despite the difficulty of selling in large numbers, it is good for a writer to put out a book as tangible proof of his/her efforts, for the sake of personal closure as well as public exposure.
Word has spread over the years, and Fireweed is recognized as an established Wisconsin press. Among its twenty-seven books, one book of short stories, The Other Side, by retired nurse Cheney Duesler, came out in 2008 and is being promoted far afield—on the east coast and in Germany. In addition, Fireweed is proud to distribute books by former members, Arthur Madson and Frances May, both now deceased, who made names for themselves among Wisconsin poets. Fireweed books have been reviewed in print journals, newspapers, and online, and Garrison Keillor has read from them on public radio’s Writer’s Almanac. Two authors have been awarded the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Posner Prize, and three were recognized by the Wisconsin Library Association with Outstanding Achievement awards. The state’s current poet laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen, has a book with Fireweed, and former poet laureate Ellen Kort is scheduled to publish with the press this year (2012). Currently active in the collective are: Sandy Stark, Richard Swanson, Wendy Vardaman, Bruce Dethlefsen, Karen Updike, Lynn Patrick Smith, Yvonne Yahnke, Eve Robillard, Richard Roe, Robin Chapman and Jeri McCormick.
At a time when mainstream presses grow ever more remote as publishing possibilities for the local poet, Fireweed hangs in there, offering support from experienced authors and bringing discerning new voices to light in Wisconsin and beyond.