Press On: Black Sparrow Is Back

Josh Sherman on the relaunch of a legendary small-press literary publisher.

By Josh ShermanSeptember 19, 2022

Press On: Black Sparrow Is Back

IN A WAY, Joshua Bodwell is relieved that he doesn’t have to personally deal with Charles Bukowski. Or Wanda Coleman. Or Paul Bowles. Or, for that matter, any of the late, legendary writers synonymous with Black Sparrow Press — the avant-garde publishing house established by John and Barbara Martin in 1966, in Los Angeles, and shuttered in 2002, in Santa Rosa. It’s not that he wouldn’t actually want the opportunity, but right now, bringing the long-dormant Californian imprint back to life is already more than enough pressure.

“It would be a lot of anxiety if one were tending to some of those legacy authors,” admits Bodwell, who, after being appointed editorial director of Boston-based publisher Godine in the winter of 2019, began working that July to relaunch the imprint under its umbrella. Starting with the spring 2020 publication of Coleman’s Wicked Enchantment, he’s tried to quietly oversee the release of 10 new additions to Black Sparrow’s 600-plus-title catalog. He’s held off on making a big announcement about the press’s rebirth, choosing to build up a body of work he could be proud of first. He also can’t believe it’s really happening. “It’s mind-boggling,” Bodwell says of his unlikely ascent from being a Bukowski-obsessed teenager to helming the press that made the transgressive author’s name.

Even if he only has to contend with the ghosts of Bukowski or Coleman, it’s easy to see why the role might have seemed daunting at first: Black Sparrow’s origins are the stuff of underground-lit legend.

Josh Bodwell going through a box of flat, unbound paperback covers of classic BSP titles in the Santa Rosa office, 2019. Photo: Tammy Ackerman.

Martin, a book collector and manager of an office-supply business during the 1960s, raised the seed money for his publishing endeavor by selling rare D. H. Lawrence first editions. Soon after, he introduced Bukowski to a wide audience, and — in what’s become an oft-repeated anecdote — eventually coaxed the so-called “Poet Laureate of Skid Row” from his post-office job by offering to pay him a salary just to write. But the legacy extends far beyond Bukowski. Throughout, Martin unwaveringly published books according to his own taste. “The thing I admire about Martin,” says poet Neeli Cherkovski, a longtime friend of Bukowski, “is that he was able to publish hundreds of other people whose work didn’t sell at all, but because of Bukowski he could put them out.”

Also significant is how many different styles Black Sparrow’s original catalog spans, whether it’s work from the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, the Beat Generation, or the Black Mountain poets. “A lot of small-press publishing was often indebted to a particular school of poets or to a particular community of poets in a particular geography, but Martin’s reach extended beyond those boundaries on a regular basis,” says Michael O’Driscoll, professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, which acquired archival materials from the press in 1969.

Then there are Barbara Martin’s unmistakable covers. Influenced by the vorticist art movement, with its hard angles and bold colors, she laid out the covers by hand using a paste-up technique. “It was a very analog, physical process,” Bodwell explains. (In keeping with Black Sparrow tradition, his partner Tammy Ackerman has designed such covers as Coleman’s Heart First into This Ruin and the 2022 reprint of Diane Wakoski’s Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch.) Letters and art were transferred onto paper, photographed, and sent to the printers with directions for typesetting. “Each book was an original work of art,” says Cherkovski. “From the beginning, Martin wanted to do something special — and he never put quotes on the back of books,” the San Francisco-based poet adds, calling attention to one of many Black Sparrowisms: no blurbs. The books would speak for themselves.

Restoring Black Sparrow to its former glory is something that Bodwell began dreaming of in earnest after David Godine, founder of the eponymous press, hired him on as a freelancer, in 2017, to put together a three-volume omnibus of Andre Dubus’s short stories and novellas. Godine, Bodwell knew, had something of a history with Black Sparrow.

Following repeated attempts, Daniel Halpern of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, got Martin to part with the publishing rights for Bowles, Bukowski, and John Fante. It was a deal he couldn’t refuse — or at least one “for enough to allow me to retire,” as Martin, now 92, puts it in an email. He then all but donated the rest of the Black Sparrow inventory to Godine. “Since my financial situation was secure, I sold them my entire backlist inventory of some 75,000 books, for $2.00, with the understanding they would continue to market the books, and pay author royalty,” writes Martin. (The rights to vorticist painter and writer Wyndham Lewis’s works went to Gingko Press.)

Though Godine informally continued with its own Black Sparrow Books imprint, no more than a couple dozen scattered titles — including reprints of Lucia Berlin and Diane Wakoski — were released over nearly 20 years. But with new ownership waiting in the wings, that would soon change.

The letterpress printer’s plate for the deluxe-edition cover of Michael McClure’s

As Bodwell plugged away on the Dubus project, Boston-based investor William Thorndike Jr., then a Godine board member, was in the process of purchasing the publisher in a multiyear deal that closed in 2019. Bodwell didn’t know it then, but Thorndike had plans for him — and a new Black Sparrow. “Josh was well known to David and to me as we were thinking about someone to come in and run the editorial side of Godine post-David,” recalls Thorndike, who acquired Godine at least in part to try and bring Black Sparrow back.

Thorndike had fallen in love with both Godine and Black Sparrow books in the 1970s, after poring over their respective outputs at the now-defunct New England Mobile Book Fair, a shop he remembers well for what he calls its “Byzantine” inventory system. The book dealer shelved everything by publisher. “You had a unique ability to wander the aisles in this cavernous bookstore and peruse different publishers,” says Thorndike, “and I found, over many, many years of going there, that I was attracted to the Godine section and the Black Sparrow sections disproportionately.”

For a candidate to direct both Godine and Black Sparrow under new staff publisher David Allender, Bodwell certainly had unique credentials. “My first meeting with Josh took place in Portland, Maine,” Thorndike says, “and he showed up with a truly encyclopedic selection of old Godine and old Black Sparrow catalogs, which was a pretty excellent icebreaking starting point for us in our relationship.”

The ephemera is just a sampling of what’s at Bodwell’s home office in Biddeford, Maine. The place is like a Black Sparrow museum — or shrine. There’s John Martin’s IBM Selectric typewriter from the old Black Sparrow headquarters. A Black Sparrow mug, a gift made by his stepmother, sits on another shelf nearby. A framed broadside poem, the kind Martin would send to indie bookshops to display, hangs on the wall. And there are Black Sparrow Press editions, of course — more than 500 of them. Even some that Martin never published, like a hand-bound version of James Purdy’s story-and-poem collection On the Rebound that was never released due to a printing mix-up.

He’d also — since he was 19 — been corresponding with Martin himself. “It’s been a long time,” says Bodwell, whose friendship with Martin began by ordering books directly from the publisher’s catalog. “I used to call to order sometimes … which you could do, which is bonkers.”

Bodwell’s relationship with Martin would prove invaluable for the work that lay ahead. The role would turn out to be much more than acquisitions and editing. “I’m putting my hands on everything from typeface discussion [to] cover design, the whole physical book, which is rare, and I’m lucky — but it’s also true to how John did it,” he says.

But before leaving his post as executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, he had some reservations. One big question was swirling in his mind — how do you fill the shoes of a visionary like Martin? The answer, it turns out, could have been taken straight from Bukowski’s epitaph: “Don’t Try.”

The letterpress printer’s plate for the limited-edition cover of

“John Martin and David Godine, the man, were both very opinionated iconoclasts who did these great things as independents, and what I didn’t want to do was come in and try to imitate either one of them, because it just wouldn’t honor either of them,” Bodwell explains. Instead, he aimed for homage, not pastiche. In addition to pulling from Martin’s original roster, he too would introduce his own taste in acquiring new authors. He hoped to match the consistent quality Black Sparrow had achieved. “You’d see some author you’ve never heard of, but you’d see the sparrow, and you’d buy it,” says Bodwell. “That was important to me — to, like, bring back that connection, the quality feeding between all of the books.” Under his direction, Black Sparrow wasn’t going to be a repository for whatever titles didn’t fit on Godine’s list.

“What [Bodwell]’s done is he has taken that pure aesthetic and kept it pure, but he’s also giving it an underpinning of newness that does not at all ape the old Black Sparrow,” says Richard Buckner, folk musician and author of Cuttings from the Tangle, published by Black Sparrow in December 2020. “It’s not a remake; it’s a continuation from probably one of the only people who understand how to do that.”

The Martin tradition of publishing authors, not just books, lives on: Bodwell’s already working with Buckner on his next book; a follow-up to Nina MacLaughlin’s Summer Solstice (2020), entitled Milkweed, is in the pipeline; and Wanda Coleman’s Heart First into This Ruin: The Complete American Sonnets dropped in June ahead of a forthcoming collection of her Selected Nonfiction.

Look closely, and you’ll find, in the new books, little nods to Black Sparrow’s storied past. Take the font on the cover of Dan Fante’s Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets, which Black Sparrow reissued in July 2021. It’s lifted from the original Black Sparrow edition of The Road to Los Angeles, a posthumous novel from the late author’s father, L.A. writer John Fante.

Buckner’s book embodies how old and new collide. The textured paper on the minimal, type-heavy orange cover is vintage Black Sparrow. Bodwell sourced a machine-made paper from Tennessee to try and match the textured feel of the original hardcovers. Flip Buckner’s book over, though, and you’ll see something you won’t find on any but the earliest of Black Sparrow books: some words about the book itself.

“Richard and I had the longest conversation about honoring Black Sparrow. Like, could we get away with nothing?” he says of the cover, which was designed by Milan Bozic, with interiors designed by Bodwell’s partner Tammy Ackerman. “We didn’t want to have quote-unquote standard blurbs.” The compromise was a poem-like description of the work. (You will find blurbs elsewhere, though, like praise from The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post on the paperback edition of Wicked Enchantment.)

Aesthetic compromises reflect another of the publisher’s goals: to bring Black Sparrow to new readers, not just to diehard fans. Bodwell is, admittedly, a bit jealous that he can’t take Martin’s cavalier approach, such as sending pallets of books to Barnes & Noble without barcodes or list prices. “We have to participate in some of the commerce,” he explains.

The painstaking process Bodwell undertakes for each new book demonstrates just how deeply he considers every single decision — right down to the logo. Three iterations of the sparrow exist, and after some thought, he went with the second. “There’s a little bit of nostalgia in there,” he says, noting that perhaps he’ll use the third logo later or somehow convince Barbara Martin to design a new one.

Respecting the press’s history while adding contemporary elements only makes sense, suggests O’Driscoll, who in 2001 spearheaded an initiative to catalog the University of Alberta’s Black Sparrow Press Archive: “It’s right that the look and feel continue to develop and that it responds to the moment in which the materials are being published. That’s absolutely essential — it is more about that spirit and about the care and attention that goes into it.”

John Martin may cast a long shadow over the project, but he says he hasn’t given Bodwell any advice on how to run things. “Josh Bodwell is on his own,” Martin writes, adding that he’s “very pleased” with the relaunch. “It was like watching a grandchild start off on his own.” Bodwell, in turn, says that he’s gleaned a lot of wisdom from his mentor. “A huge thing I’ve learned from John — it’s about author relationships,” he says. “The end result is always great when you trust the artist and support them to realize their vision, which is sometimes different than trying to dictate how it’s going to go and be too controlling.” Another thing he learned from Martin: don’t try to line-edit poets.

Bodwell with John and Barbara Martin in their home office in Santa Rosa, 2019. Photo: Tammy Ackerman.

Whatever Bodwell’s doing, it seems to be working for the new stable of writers. Like Martin, Bodwell is “one of a kind,” says Cherkovski, whose two literary biographies — of Bukowski and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — have been updated and reissued by the press. “He really guided me in my reluctance to get these two books finished and done and out. And he helped me sculpt them in a way that worked.” Buckner shares another experience: “Because of his aesthetic and training by John Martin — or whatever amalgam it is of that — I was able to be completely satisfied with the whole process,” he says.

For Bodwell, the past three years at Black Sparrow have flown by — and neither he nor Godine books are looking to slow down. So, already living the dream, what’s left for Bodwell to accomplish? “One could say, ‘Okay, for Black Sparrow, what do you want? Like, who’s the next Bukowski?’ But that seems kind of boring to me because I don’t want the press to go backwards,” he says.

Bukowski does, however, figure into Bodwell’s eventual answer. It’s got to do with a certain quality he suggests is inherent in the poet and novelist’s work: “I want us to publish writing that feels like the author who wrote it is the only person who could’ve written it.”


Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based journalist whose fiction and poetry has appeared in Expat Press, Hobart, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and other publications.


Featured image: The letterpress printer’s plate for the limited-edition cover of Michael McClure’s The Cherub. Photo courtesy of BSP.

LARB Contributor

Josh Sherman is a Toronto-based journalist whose fiction and poetry has appeared in Expat Press, Hobart, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and other publications.


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