"It's moving, but you can't predict where it's going to be next."
JOE WENDEROTH WAS AT a Cape Cod wedding without anything on which to write some lines. In his motel he found a cheap romance novel titled The Endearment and began to write a story above the story, a line in the white margin at the top of each page. The story was about God, and his dog; God impregnates the dog, and gives birth to two divine puppies named Think and Touch.
Wenderoth included the allegory in a new book of poems, which he sent to his publisher, Wesleyan University Press, who followed academic protocol by sending it, in turn, to an outside expert. "This anonymous reader was concerned that if I included that section in the book, it would ruin my career," Wenderoth recalls. "And I was working third shift at a convenience store at the time, so I was like, I don't see how that's going to interfere with my work. But I took it out anyway."
The Endearment had Wenderoth thinking about a new way to write poetry. A little while later Wenderoth found himself ordering a cheeseburger at Wendy's and "noticed one of those cards that said, 'tell us about your visit.'" Wenderoth did, and enjoyed it; he began regularly visiting Wendy's to write obscene, lustful, meditative epistles to the redheaded muse on customer comment cards.
"I didn't ask Wesleyan to look at it because I took it as a given that it wasn't in their ballpark, so I sent it to a few places like Black Sparrow Press and City Lights Books," says Wenderoth. "None of them took it. Wendy's, it's related to poetry, but it's different. It was provocative. I wasn't writing 'poetry' so much as I was trying more to entertain. The premise of writing seriously with deep Nietzschean angst to Wendy, that was funny."
In Plymouth, New Hampshire, two ambitious poets with new MFA degrees from the University of Massachussetts were teaching writing classes at Plymouth State University. Brian Henry had brought Matthew Zapruder up from Northampton to ride the "desk jockey circuit" that entraps so many MFA graduates, teaching as temporary adjunct professors for low pay. Henry had recently taken over the editorship of Verse magazine, and Zapruder was also interested in publishing poetry. The "eureka moment" came in the form of the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of American Poetry Review landing in the mailbox.
Zapruder flipped through the pages and found some of Wenderoth's "Letters to Wendy's." After failing to find any takers for them, Wenderoth had resorted to publishing chunks of the letters in literary journals and using the contributor's biographical note to announce that the poems came from a manuscript in need of a publisher. "There was a note at the bottom that said he needed one," Zapruder says, "and Brian and I just decided that we had to start a press and publish this stuff."
"Matthew had begun talking about starting a press in maybe 1999, and it just made sense to start a press out of Verse magazine, since I was the editor," remembers Brian Henry, now professor of English at the University of Richmond, "because w...read more