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By the Book

Black Sparrow Press soars above the rest

By Gretchen Giles

THIS IS A STORY too good to miss retelling. In 1966, Los Angeles resident John Martin--then a 35-year-old manager of an office supply company--came across the poetry of Charles Bukowski, a hard-drinking postal employee whose work had appeared in small literary magazines. Stunned by the immediacy and honesty of Bukowski's work, Martin drove out to the writer's home. Bukowski, by his own later admission, was on his "ninth or 10th beer of the morning." He answered the door and admitted Martin, who asked if the poet had any work he might read. Bukowski jerked a thumb towards the closet. Opening the closet door, Martin was stunned as a waist-high pile of onion-skin manuscripts fell to his feet.

Refusing Bukowski's offer of a beer (much to the poet's displeasure), Martin settled down to read. Finally he looked up and offered Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his postal job and become a full-time writer. For Bukowski--whose low-rent life was immortalized in the self-scripted 1987 film Barfly with actors Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway--and whose actual rent was only $37 a month, this was one easy decision.

Three weeks later, Martin received a manuscript in the mail. It was Bukowski's first novel, Postoffice. Selling his collection of D. H. Lawrence first editions for $50,000, Martin founded Black Sparrow Press--the internationally recognized literary house that built Bukowski; the prestigious independent publishing house that Bukowski built. Postoffice has since had 35 printings, with 26 other of the author's titles to follow.

Now nearly three years after his death at age 73, Bukowski remains one of Black Sparrow's most profitable writers. "His sales are better than ever," Martin says from the small, residentially located Santa Rosa office that he shares with three employees and nine cats. "Not only that, but we had a kind of agreement where I, with his knowledge, put aside every year a certain amount of material, and I have enough for at least three or four more books.

"We've done two since he died," Martin continues. "We did a book of letters and a book called Betting on the Muse, which is a big 400-page book of stories and poems. I've got at least 1,000 poems that have never been published, plus I've got maybe 20 or 30 more stories that have never been published. We're just doing a new book right now, called Bone Palace Ballet. He thought of the world as kind of a bone palace, beautiful on the outside, but filled with failure and the remains of those who had gone before on the inside.

"But it is a ballet. It shouldn't be thought of as anything different than what it is," says Martin of his good friend's life and work. "He was a great writer; I think that he was the Walt Whitman of our time."

A tall man in his mid-60s with just-greying red hair, Martin is in a position to make such pronouncements. Staunchly devoted to the complexities of the type of literary prose, poetry, and essay writing that engages the mind but rarely the pocketbook, he publishes only 10 new titles a year, in addition to reprinting such Black Sparrow authors as Wanda Coleman, John Fantes, Robert Kelly, and Diane Wakoski. Huge publishing conglomerates like Random House and others are known to refer authors whose work is thought too brainy for the masses to Black Sparrow.

Martin has even published such better-known names as prolific author Joyce Carol Oates (before she was seduced away to a larger company by much larger royalty numbers), and Morocco-based fiction master Paul Bowles.

"I like to feel that when we did [The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles] in '78, it started the revival," says Martin. This resurgence led to Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 adaptation of Bowles' shattering The Sheltering Sky, starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, in which the author makes a cameo appearance.

"Nobody wanted him," Martin says incredulously. "He was completely out of print. The last thing that had been in print was a book called A Time of Friendship, and I just saw the opportunity to do all of his stories up to that time in one volume. And a few years later we did another book called Midnight Mass, which was all the stories he had done since, and that's it. He hasn't written much since." Martin, who is able to have very personal relationships with each of his authors owing to his stubborn insistence on keeping his company small, concludes simply, "Paul is 86, going on 87, and I don't think he's writing anymore."

Fiercely independent, Martin has never subsisted on grants or endowments, struggling instead on a path that he has carved for himself without bowing to literary fads or endowments of the strings-attached variety. "Northwestern University puts out a magazine called Triquarterly," Martin says of his strategy, "and in 1978 or '80 they put out a big, thick issue that was actually a list and a little history of every independent literary press in the country, about 300 presses. Ten years later, the only one still in existence is Black Sparrow, because those people were living on grants.

"I just never would have put my whole life into this with the idea that I couldn't get along unless someone else supported me," he says with ardor. "With Black Sparrow, every book has always paid for the next book. I've never lost money on a book, I've always sold enough copies, and so," he shrugs, "I'm around now."

In addition the quality of the writing it imprints, Black Sparrow--which moved from its Santa Barbara origins to Santa Rosa in 1986--is known for the quality of the books themselves. Pick up one of the creamy, high-quality soft-backs and the design, heft, and feel of the paper alone seduce you to begin turning the pages.

All are designed by Martin's wife, Barbara, who became so displeased with the graphic quality of the company's first five books--designed as they were in those early days by the printer with whom Martin had contracted--that, without any training of her own, she took over the press' look. Today, that look is lauded by design magazines internationally.

"I'm convinced that a lot the books that we sell are due to their appearance," Martin says with satisfaction. "My wife doesn't seem to be losing it all; the books are much more beautiful now even than they were 10 to 15 years ago."

Keeping it small, keeping it personal, keeping it in the family. These are the ingredients for Black Sparrow's success. These, and the fact that Martin--who until the Unabomber changed post office rules, hand-stamped each book shipment he sent, proclaiming postage metering "too impersonal"--himself reads each of the 1,500 or so manuscripts that come his way every year.

"I pick the books, and I can, with confidence, read and pick 10 books a year," he says of his decision to keep the press output restricted to reprints and a handful of new titles, eschewing calendars and other folderol. "I couldn't read and pick 20. Every two weeks I'd have to finish up with a book, and you have to read 10 to pick one. We get so many manuscripts unsolicited a year, but let's face it: If you were a ballet master, and somebody came in and said, 'I want to dance with your company,' and you said 'OK' and put on a record, how long would it take you to know whether or not you wanted them to dance with your company?" he chuckles.

"So, you can look at a manuscript and read in it for five minutes or so and know whether you want to go on with it. There are a lot of people writing out there, it's just awful."

Awful?

"I mean the writing is awful," he hastens to add. "It's not awful that they're writing. It's the writing: it's so lame and pretentious . . . " He trails off and starts again. "I care much less about the quality of the writing than what the writer is saying, what their books reveals.

"There have been great writers who were not masters of the form. Theodore Dreiser was a great, great writer, but nobody would accuse him of being a great stylist. On the other hand, someone like [novelist] Ronald Firbank is a great stylist, but who would accuse him of being a great writer? Nobody. So, I'm much more interested in a writer who's really got a vision about something.

"[Ezra] Pound said that there are innovators, masters, and imitators. It's very true. Your innovator, who's really doing something for the first time, his writing maybe is more careless and loose and flowing and could be criticized on the basis of form, but he's the greatest of all. He's the Beethoven. And then the masters come in and they take what this guy's made possible, and they really perfect the craft. And they're great too: the Bachs and the Mozarts.

"And then you've got the imitators, and some of them are wonderful too. I mean, is there anything better written than Time magazine?" he laughs. "I mean, the writing in Time magazine is wonderful. If you could get a genius who could write like that, my God! But what does it mean? There's no vision behind it, it means nothing."

Vision is something Martin knows well, having had the great good fortune to recognize an innovator when he read one.

"Until I meet Bukowski, I had no idea of becoming a publisher," he says thoughtfully. "I thought that [managing the office supply company] was what I would be doing for the rest of my life. But when I met Bukowski, and realized that here was this unknown, unpublished genius, I knew that I had the business acumen--if I didn't try to go too fast--to try to build up a publishing company of my own. So I started it just to publish him and did it for a year and a half, keeping my other job because I had a wife and a child, and then broke loose to do it full time.

"Here I am," he chuckles, "30 years later."

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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