Small Press Poetry Publishing: I Ask Myself What’s It All About—The History of Free Verse & Marsh River Editions

by Linda Aschbrenner

Q:  One hundred issues of Free Verse were published from 1998 to 2009 in addition to 17 chapbooks with Marsh River Editions ( How did you start publishing poetry?

A:  Innocently. I did not intend to start a poetry journal. The first issue of Free Verse, March 1998, featured six poems by four poets from our newly formed regional poetry group, MAPS, Marshfield Area Poetry Society. Our writing group rapidly expanded, and I kept publishing our monthly output of poetry. To my surprise, poets outside our group learned about Free Verse, submitted poetry, and asked to subscribe. By May 2001, Free Verse was twelve pages, monthly. It expanded over the years to 40 pages. I set out stacks of Free Verse at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets conferences, at poetry readings, etc. Free Verse then had hundreds of subscribers, most from Wisconsin, some from various parts of the country. Submissions even arrived from corners of the world.

Q:  What advice do you have for poets who would like to start a small press poetry journal?

A:  If you are thinking of starting a poetry journal, think finite—a poetry journal restricted to sonnets about solar flares, for example. Or, how about villanelles about elephants, odes to cats. Restrict the submission period to two weeks out of the year. I am only slightly kidding. What is manageable? Frequently small press poetry journals fold due to heavy time demands.

Vital to the process, at least for me, proofreaders! I acquired two proficient proofreaders, Sherrie Weber and Kris Rued-Clark. They caught my typing errors and other blunders (or as many of my blunders as humanly possible), and they also contributed book reviews and interviews. Serendipitously, Sherrie and Kris were long-time friends before I started Free Verse.

While still in high school, our son Nick submitted poetry and wrote book reviews for Free Verse. Later, he developed and maintained a website for Marsh River Editions. It was fun to have poetry as a family project.

One also needs adequate space—which probably nobody has, not with a poetry journal published out of a home. I worked mostly with paper, not email submissions. Bins multiplied—bins for incoming poetry, bins for outgoing, bins for contest entries, bins for new subscriptions and renewals. In addition to poetry, Free Verse published book reviews, essays, interviews, articles, photographs, news items, letters, cartoons, and ran four contests each issue. I searched for Free Verse cover quotes from the many poetry journals and books that filled our house. (Eleven years of the cover quotes provide an excellent poetry education.) We lived with files and bins, stacks of mail, and poetry books. The office had limited walking space, sometimes just a tunnel to the computer.

Q:  Are there courses in “The Small Press Poetry Journal: Editing and Publishing”?

A:  Perhaps. And no doubt such courses would be helpful. On the other hand, it’s liberating to jump in: just publish who you want, when you want, with the design you want. Computer skills help. In 1994, Nick (still in grade school!) and I both learned QuarkXPress for desktop publishing and basic Photoshop skills. (I learned how to use a mouse at this same time.) Nick helped me with our computer crashes and other computer-related problems. We had ancient computers during the early Free Verse years—we didn’t have high speed internet until after I stopped publishing Free Verse. It could have been worse. At least it wasn’t the era of publishing poetry journals on a mimeograph machine.

Q:  Why did you start publishing chapbooks?

A:  Poet Louis McKee (1951 - 2011) of Philadelphia submitted his poetry to Free Verse. After I had published several of his poems, he insisted I publish his chapbook, Loose Change. He was an editor/publisher himself and talked me through the process. Without his persistence (and because I liked his poetry), I might not have created Marsh River Editions in 2001. Nick volunteered to do the layout and design of the chapbook which became the pattern I followed. Of course, once you publish one chapbook, you will be inundated with manuscript submissions. I found I enjoyed editing and publishing books. (I am working on our family books now and for the foreseeable future.)

Q:  What type of temperament or personality seems to coincide with this type of work?

A:  If you are going to edit/publish poetry, ask yourself: Am I a hermit? Could I be a hermit? Do I love to spend time alone with poetry? It also helps if you can let other things go—like sleeping, or having a perfectly clean house at all times—or at any time.

When I’d walk Free Verse letters to our mailbox, I’d sometimes be surprised to notice it was spring or autumn—I’d be oblivious to the seasons. Darn, did I miss summer again? If I’d glimpse a football or baseball game on TV with thousands of people cheering, I’d wonder why these individuals had time to travel to a game and then just sit there for hours—why weren’t they at home working on their poetry journals? Had they read all their piles of submissions? Responded to them? But no, we poets are a tiny minority on this planet. We poetry editors/publishers are an infinitesimally smaller group. We’re the people not going anywhere—just to our computers. Dust settles on us and on the stacks of papers surrounding us.

Q:  What are some of your favorite memories from publishing Free Verse and the chapbooks?

A:  I enjoyed Free Verse related poetry outings with family. Sometimes my husband and Nick would tend the Marsh River Editions book table at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison while I attended programs, or we’d attend events together. My husband and I went to numerous poetry readings throughout the state and delivered boxes of newly printed books to poets. I also enjoyed corresponding with poets over the course of each year. Letters and emails grounded me to the living world.

Great fun: getting an issue of Free Verse to the post office! I stuffed Free Verse into envelopes on our kitchen table—and sorted and bundled issues by zip code, sometimes with the help of my husband. Outgoing bins filled our living room—all the bins barely fit into our car. I loved driving home from the post office knowing an issue was done and out! The euphoria lasted one night, and then it was back to tackling incoming mail, etc. I also enjoyed driving bins of Marsh River Editions review books to the post office. Books going out into the world.

I also appreciated that I was learning. I learned something with each poem I read, with each issue I published.

I felt grateful to the many poets who submitted poetry, wrote book reviews, essays, did interviews, submitted cartoons (John Lehman, Lee Kisling, and Ed Galing), and to those who entered and judged contests. It’s difficult to mention names because I’m sure to miss many, but frequent book reviewers/article writers included: Sarah Busse, Robin Chapman, Karl Elder, Karla Huston, Michael Kriesel, John Lehman, Charles P. Ries, Lou Roach, Thomas R. Smith, Richard Swanson, and Wendy Vardaman. There were numerous poets who submitted excellent reviews and articles.

And of course, the subscriptions and donations were essential to the entire process. (But one never publishes poetry for financial gain.)

An aside: I love the cartoons in The New Yorker. I wish I would have had crates of cartoon submissions. Another ideal occupation: wouldn’t it be fun to be a cartoon editor?

Q:  Was it easy to select poetry to publish from the submissions?

A:  Oddly, yes! Fresh, unique poems stood out, stood up, begging me to publish them. Editors develop their own sense of what they want to publish. It could be a danger, I suppose, to fall into a comfort zone. You have to be open to new voices, styles, forms, ways of thinking. Then again, it’s the editor’s/publisher’s prerogative to select what she likes.

An editor/publisher of a small press poetry journal is unlikely to relinquish poems to a selection committee. Why would one? Reading and selecting poetry is the best part of the publishing process. It’s endlessly absorbing. (I wonder why all poets don’t rush out and start their own poetry journals for this reason alone.)

Q:  What were the time constraints during the publishing years?

A:  Time always seemed in short supply. During many of those years, I also published two business newsletters from our home. I subscribed to and continue to subscribe to a number of poetry journals—unread articles, pages of poetry, and entire unread issues haunt me. I’m counting on heaven as a haven for reading. There I’ll finally get to read everything I’ve missed.

I also spent time organizing a monthly poetry reading series in our community that ran for four years—from 1999 through 2002. Poets were invited to be featured readers, and we found grants and funding for those coming from Madison, Milwaukee, etc. Glory! Money to poets!

An unexpected outcome: I was so occupied by publishing deadlines that I stopped attending the meetings of our local poetry group that I had started. Sadly, four members passed away. A few moved to other cities and joined new poetry groups. Alas, our local group that inspired Free Verse ceased to exist. (I could always start a new group. I could offer to publish our poetry monthly….)

Q:  How did you feel after your decision to relinquish Free Verse?

A:  After 11 years, I felt ready for a change. I was delighted to find two poets to take over Free Verse. I asked Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Busse if they’d be interested. I knew from their poetry, book reviews, academic degrees, and interest in Free Verse that they would be ideal candidates. It helped that they lived in Madison, an area receptive to poetry. To my joy and gratitude, they accepted. They have accomplished miracles with the publication now known as Verse Wisconsin. They seem to have unlimited energy to do separate online and print issues, start a book press (Cowfeather Press), edit the 2013 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar, and serve as Madison Poets Laureate (2012-2015), along with keeping up with their own writing and busy families. I think of Wendy and Sarah as higher beings from some advanced planet.

Q:  What are you doing now?

A:  Besides talking to myself in this dialogue? (Typical behavior for a hermit, however.) I’m doing more reading and writing (including writing book reviews for Verse Wisconsin), and I’m spending more time with my family and friends. My husband and I travel to visit our adult children and they visit us. My two sisters and I are writing a book in poetry and prose about growing up in a Finnish American home. I’m collecting my poems and writing new ones for chapbooks that I plan to self-publish. I even have time now to exercise and tackle house projects neglected during the Free Verse years. I notice the seasons. Wind chills are 30 below tonight. I noticed that.