This year marks the 20th anniversary of Ragged Sky Press, the independent publishing venture founded by Princeton-based poet and editor Ellen Foos.
To celebrate, the press is dedicating three days to launch its newest poetry collection — “Intimate Geography” by California writer and visual artist Ishmael von Heidrick-Barnes. The first event is Thursday, October 11, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, where von Heidrick-Barnes will be joined by award-winning Arab-American poet Sam Hamod and opera singer Andrea Horken. That event will be followed by readings on Friday, October. 12, at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York City, and on Saturday, October 13, at the Hunterdon County Library in Flemington.
Ragged Sky Press had its beginnings when Foos — whose book editing career has included stints in the Midwest and East Coast — was asked to help publish a memoir by a parish priest in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Foos was then working. “That book came out in 1992. Then I helped a friend get the novel he’d written about life in the East End of London into print, but it was done more as a service than as a business venture,” says Foos.
If Ragged Sky Press evolved out of these early toe-in-the-water efforts, it found its niche with the publication of a five-book set of poetry chapbooks — small paperback books or pamphlets — more than a decade later. By that time Foos, who is originally from upstate New York, had moved to New Jersey and was working for Princeton University Press.
That first collection grew out of her involvement with U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative, the Princeton-based critique group. In 2005 Foos and several other poets in the group — Elizabeth (Mimi) Danson, Carlos Hernandez Pena, Elizabeth Anne Socolow, and Arlene Weiner — formed their own offshoot, meeting once a month to focus on each others’ body of work, with a view to publication. “I realized that the group had some great poets but none, save Liz Socolow, had books, including me,” says Foos.
Approaching her 50th birthday, Foos figured it was time to have her own works in print. “Each of us served as an editor for another member of the group, and each paid for the printing, which is pretty affordable these days.” Foos did all the production. Her sister Jean Foos, a graphics designer in New York City, provided the artwork for the covers.
The Ragged Sky Poetry Series was launched in 2006 and included the titles “Little Knitted Sister” by Foos, “The Luxury of Obstacles” by Danson, “Moonmilk and Other Poems” by Hernandez Pena, “Between Silence and Praise” by Socolow, and “Escape Velocity” by Weiner.
“The books were fun to work on and provided an opportunity to do readings and network,” says Foos, who believes they were instrumental in her winning a 2007 MacDowell Colony Fellowship which allowed her to attend what is considered of the nation’s oldest leading artist residency programs, located in New Hampshire.
The 2006 publications were followed by the poetry anthology “Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems” and titles by award-winning poets Valerie Lawson (“Dog Watch”); Romanian-born poet and novelist Anca Vlasopolos (“Penguins in a Warming World”); and Michael R. Brown (“Susquehanna” and “The Confidence Man”), among others.
Foos says publishing Brown garnered quite a bit of media attention for Ragged Sky Press, which is now attracting quality writers such as Eileen Malone (a recipient of a score of awards and author of the title poem from “Eating Her Wedding Dress”) and von Heidrick-Barnes.
The latest publication, “Intimate Geography: Poems,” was co-edited by Foos and Weiner. The writer, von Heidrick-Barnes, is known for his poems, lyrics, and non-fiction found in numerous literary publications and his co-editing of the Magee Park Poets. His Ragged Sky book — promoted by the press as “one man’s journey through many of this century’s cathartic events” — had an initial release in August when the writer read to a standing room crowd in his hometown of San Diego.
Foos has been part of the Princeton poetry scene for well over a decade. She has been an active member of US1 Poets, founded the monthly US1 Poets Invite series at the Princeton Public Library, and organizedS poetry slams for the Arts Council of Princeton. More recently she has been involved in events that brought C.K. Williams, Gerald Stern, and Hayden Saunier to the Trenton City Museum and actively supports the Trenton-based Classics Used and Rare Books, where owner Eric Maywar provides poetry readings and literary activities.
Foos’ sure-handedness comes from experience. As senior production editor at Princeton University Press since 1998, she prepares manuscripts for production and supervises freelance copyeditors, proofreaders, and indexers. She handles about 20 titles a year including field guides, natural history titles, and poetry. “I try to snatch up any books of poetry because it’s so much fun for me,” she says.
She’s worked on the fourth edition of “The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics” and on “The Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets,” which in the past included the likes of Robert Pinsky, Ann Lauterbach, and Jorie Graham. Recently under series editor Paul Muldoon, PUP has produced titles by Kathleen Graber and Gary Whitehead.
“It’s great working with the contemporary poetry series, and the creative writing department at Princeton University is unparalleled, both in the faculty and the visiting fellows. There’s no place better,” says Foos. “Over the years I’ve worked with Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Czeslaw Milosz, and Charles Simic.”
Foos likes to tell people she’s from Greece. And indeed she is, born and bred in the small town of that name, near Rochester, NY. She was born on September 11, 1955, and attributes her love of literature and poetry to her homemaker mom. As a child, Foos listened as her mother, an amateur painter, read aloud from a favorite collection of American poetry. Her father was a tool and die tradesman for General Motors, a union man of German ancestry (Foos means Foot in German).
The future publisher studied English at SUNY Purchase but dropped out just shy of finishing her BA degree in English literature, lured to life in the Big Apple, where her older sister was already living. “I lived in the East Village around the corner from CBGB’s during the late 1970s and early ’80s. I just read Patti Smith’s memoir of that period and it brought back memories of seeing the likes of Smith and Blondie and Talking Heads. It was a fantastic time.”
In New York City, Foos worked in independent publishing, where it was a badge of honor “not” to have an academic degree. She never quite lost that anti-academic stance and is tickled by the irony of a career that has been primarily in academic publishing. Eventually she returned to SUNY to finish her degree.
From New York City, Foos moved with her husband to Minnesota, where she worked for Graywolf Press. Her son Karl, who was born in NYC in 1986, was just three. When she and her husband parted, she moved with Karl to Hopewell for a new job at Ecco Press, then settled in Princeton.
She got into poetry when she took a class at the College of New Jersey. “I enjoyed it so much that I contacted Princeton professor Jim Richardson, who put me in touch with U.S.1 Poets. I’m indebted to him for that and to U.S.1 Poets for making me welcome.”
“Cooperative publishing” is how she describes Ragged Sky Press. Poets are involved in the process from start to finish. “It takes a village to produce a book of poems,” Foos says. The press is funded by readers’ purchases. Printing costs are borne by the individual authors, and Foos donates her time and expertise. If that sounds like vanity publishing, that’s a stigma that has largely dissolved with recent advances in publishing. “It’s a friends and family affair. No one gets paid. We do it for the love of poetry and the glamour,” says Foos (emphasizing the ironic use of the final word).
Several of the poets published by the press now lend their hand to the production side of things: Arlene Weiner, Vasiliki Katsarou (author of the recent “Memento Tsunami”), and Ruth Zamoyta, who worked on “Eating Her Wedding Dress.”
When asked about her ambitions for the press, Foos dissolves into laughter. While working full-time and with a soon-to-be-teenage adopted son at home, her ambitions are modest, of necessity. When her son Karl left home to work for the Washington Nationals baseball team in Washington, DC, Foos made some major personal changes. In 2011, she and her long-time boyfriend, Mark Enterline, married and adopted their son, Kayjaun. “We aren’t the conventional nuclear family,” she says. “I live in Princeton, Mark lives in the Poconos, but it works very well.” As for time to write? “That will have to wait until I retire and can devote my full attention to the press and to my own work.”
Besides her book, “Little Knitted Sister,” Foos’ work has appeared in U.S. 1 Worksheets, the Kelsey Review, Edison Literary Review, and Sensations Magazine.
She describes her style as minimalist, literary, free verse (rather than formal), and based on quotidian experience, domestic scenes, family dynamics, and nature. Although she enjoyed her years living in New York City, she’s a nature-loving country girl at heart and quite the athlete. She regularly bikes to her job in Princeton from her home on Route 206 and takes part in a sprint triathlon every summer.
“As the press has become better known, the quality of submissions has gone up and we are getting more recognized poets,” says Foos. She happily adds that since Ragged Sky produces only a limited number of books per year and is set for 2013, those hoping to submit should wait for a while.
But there is no waiting for encouragement. Foos says, “If someone is really green and just starting out I’ll advise them to send their work to small journals and to join a local writers group like U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative. If they are accomplished but I don’t like their work, I’ll usually send them elsewhere. I encourage anyone with aspirations to write poetry to get their work out. That’s my goal at Ragged Sky Press. Seeing their work in a book is validating for poets. To those starting out, the established poetry scene can be intimidating, it can seem clique-ish.” Foos’ advice? “Jump right in.”
Ragged Sky Press book launch, Princeton Public Library. Presentations by poet Ishmael von Heidrick-Barnes, poet Sam Hamod, and opera singer Andrea Horken, Thursday, October 11, 7 p.m. Free. www.princetonlibrary.org.
More Ragged Sky Press readings with von Heidrick-Barnes:
Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, New York. Friday, October 12, 6 p.m. $8 includes beverage. corneliastreetcafe.com.
Hunterdon County Library, 314 State Route 12, Flemington. Saturday, October 13, 2 p.m. Free. www.hclibrary.us.
For more on Ragged Sky Press, visit: www.raggedskypress.com.