NEW YORK CITY has seen plenty of ruin over the last two decades, from the ash and debris of 9/11 to the flooding and wreckage of Hurricane Sandy. But for over 20 years, Four Way Books has also been building something of its own, a city within a city, something cognizant of — but also impervious to — that ruin. Founded in 1991 by a group of friends from graduate school, Four Way Books has evolved into a thriving small press, publishing some of the most interesting, aesthetically diverse collections of poetry and fiction in the country.
Everyone seems to agree: the press' director, Martha Rhodes, is at the heart of the enterprise that is Four Way Books. Of her initial dream, Rhodes, one of the press' four founding editors, remarks: “The mission was simple: create more publishing opportunities for writers of merit. I wanted to focus on poetry, and eventually, create openings for short fiction, as well.” She had had some experience in publishing. After college, she’d worked at Viking Press for a few years, and she’d worked in her husband’s graphics studio. “I saw the need for more publishers,” says Rhodes, who these days also teaches in the writing programs at Sarah Lawrence and Warren Wilson Colleges. “A lot of my friends were sending work out — I was sending work out, too — and it was hard going. I thought I could help the situation by publishing a few books a year.”
Tragedy struck early on, when Beth Stahlecker, one of the original group of graduate school friends, died from cancer. Four Way's founding editors — Rhodes, Jane Brox, Dzivinia Orlowsky, and Helen Fremont — later honored her memory by publishing her collection of poems, Three Flights Up, as the first in a series of books named for her. Brox recalls that the biggest obstacle early on “may have been the logistics. We worked with hard copy manuscripts. Martha was living in New York, I was north of Boston on my family's farm, Dzvinia, with two small children, lived south of Boston. We didn't have the help of the Internet, so we were constantly traveling to each other's houses, hauling manuscripts, conferring, reading together, discussing.”
Rhodes agrees that the going was tough those first years. “Doing all the work from standing in line at the post office, to licking stamps, to bringing material back to the post office to mail. No email. No cell phones. No database system. No knowledge of grant writing. In the earliest days, it seemed at times, when the work was most demanding and exhausting, that Four Way Books was running solely on tenacity, honesty, good will, and excitement.” The press released its first books in 1995: Sue Standing’s Gravida, Lynn Domina’s Corporal Works, and Stephen Knauth’s Twenty Shadows. These books — as well as other early releases, such as the book-length poem Eye of the Blackbird, by Mary Ann McFadden — aren’t perhaps as well-known as they should be. “We weren’t as much on the radar then as we are now,” Rhodes admits. “These are terrific books.”
Eventually, Brox, Fremont, and Orlowsky left the press to pursue their own creative projects, leaving Rhodes at the helm of the project she had pioneered. “After a few years of publishing one or two books a year,” recalls Brox, “[Martha] wanted to grow the press (rightly so), and I was a bit scared of being overwhelmed by that commitme...read more