West End Poetry Festival opening reception

Friday, Oct. 17, 6:30–8:30 p.m. Free
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Ross White runs Bull City Press out of a modest townhouse in the Penrith neighborhood of Durham, where he lives with his wife, a black cat named Mr. Spock and about a million books.

More specifically, he edits his poetry chapbook imprint out of a home office sunk half underground, with a window that looks up at the underside of a hedge. This Hobbit-hole is crammed with shelved rows and freestanding towers of slim poetry volumes, many of them from White’s own stock, and also with thick Essential Marvel comics collections. Mr. Spock weaves in and out of this literary jungle gym, chewing up whatever he wants and threatening to send books cascading down on my head.

“He makes me feel like a super-villain when he crawls into my lap,” White remarks, sitting at his computer desk. He’s been making a lesson plan on Gary Jackson’s “Storm on Display,” a poem about the X-Men’s Storm, for an African-American studies class at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, where White works full time administering distance-learning programs. A former high-school teacher, he’s also a part-time poetry lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The 39-year-old comes to poetry from the unusual background of improv comedy. This character trait can still be glimpsed in his small hoop earring, his eager grin and his habit of commenting on his own statements with wacky cartoon sound effectsdroopy slide whistles, mock cheers, sad horn bleats.

Since 2007, Bull City Press has released eight books and 28 issues of a little magazinevery littlecalled Inch. Regional name aside, the press usually culls national authors from its Frost Place Chapbook Competition, which grants publication, a cash prize and a residency at the former New Hampshire home of Robert Frost.

But despite his extensive publication of other people’s poemsand of his own in journals and anthologies, some nationally recognized, such as The American Poetry Review and Best New Poets 2012White’s first collection, a chapbook called How We Came Upon the Colony on Greensboro’s Unicorn Press, only emerged about two weeks ago. The handsome handmade volume, cut with an X-Acto knife and brushed smooth with horsehair, was printed in a run of 501, with 400 in paperback and 101 in hardcoveran extreme rarity for chapbooks. He’ll read from it at the opening reception of the West End Poetry Festival at Flyleaf books on Friday.

“I love editing books, and some of my favorite experiences in the poetry world have been when we were making either subtle or fairly significant changes to a text,” he says, explaining why he would wait for someone else to publish him. “I wanted that. It was never a consideration that I would publish my own work. Bull City Press started because I wanted to be a cheerleader for other people, but I find doing it for myself somewhat odious.”

But with his first chapbook in hand and a full-length manuscript nearing completion, a poetry publisher whose life has revolved around teaching and encouraging others has to figure out how to cheerlead for himself.

White got into improv comedy in high school. He also wrote what he calls, with the fond derision of adult hindsight, “funny poems.” But during four transformative semesters at UNC studying poetry with Michael McFee, whose son Philip would later become Bull City Press’ book designer, White started taking poetry more seriously. “I was publishing my first work in national journals and thinking, ‘I’m 20 years old and I’m a big deal, woooo!’” he says. “But then I took kind of a detour.”

While earning a B.A. in English and Secondary Education at UNC, then getting a business management certificate at N.C. State, White started teaching improv at ComedyWorx. He then helped Zach Ward establish DSI Comedy Theater, serving as training center director from 2002 to 2006. “Trained by Ross White” can still be found on many local comics’ CVs.

White loved the teaching but not the business side, and he decided he needed a master’s degree in creative writing. He left DSI to pursue his MFA at Warren Wilson College, where he had another pivotal experience with a teacher. By the time he earned the post-graduate degree in 2008, Bull City Press was already in motion.

“My first faculty advisor just tore me to shreds,” White says. “He broke me as a person and then rebuilt me. I think there was a desire to be living a life of words, but I wasn’t working hard enough because I’d been doing this other art.”

With improv set aside, White threw himself into poetry. In 2007, he started a project called The Grind. A group of writers, first at Warren Wilson and then around the country, had to write and share a new poem every day for a month. No feedbackthe project was purely about producing lots of material; poetic mines from which gems could be extracted and refined.

“I wrote myself into a totally unknown place,” White says. “And poems I remembered from first drafts started showing up in the best magazines in the country.” Though White no longer participates in The Grind, he still sends an email to get its participants rolling each month, and the project’s first two years were documented in one of Bull City Press’ only book-length publications, the anthology Another & Another.

It was during The Grind that White drafted the earliest of the “Colony” poems that form the conceptual spine of his new chapbook. They unfold intriguing, quietly hallucinatory discoveries and visitations. Their context is mysterious, though we get the sense of a new world emerging from some kind of catastrophe.

The colony keeps appearing from different approaches, whether on a shipwrecked night (“We found the colony complete, / huts built, paths beaten, / a quarter mile inland, / no mayor or chieftain”) or a paradisiacal day: “We found gold in the river silt, / we found beautiful iron in the ore.” White’s narrator is awed by a strange antiquity in a way that recalls a gentler Poe, a voice that smuggles in traces of fantasy adventure lore from comics.

White says the “Colony” poems came into focus following 9/11, as a way to imagine a new nation magically rising from the tragic ashes of an old one. They’re a fever dream of starting America over from the time when the first European settlers landed and a certain course was set.

“As much as I don’t want to, I wind up looking at mortality,” White says of his poetry, puncturing the heavy sentiment with a sad-trombone onomatopoeia.

Though White writes fairly long lines and stanzas, he runs a tiny magazine. Each pocket-sized, $1 issue of Inch features six pages of poetry and fiction.

“It’s funny you say I’m not a minimalist,” he responds when I point out the contrast between his generous poems and his petite magazine. “I loved the precision of Bill Matthews’ book of one-line poems An Oar in the Old Water and always wanted to learn to do that. Part of the impetus for Inch was that I could learn to write short poems. Eight years in, I still have not!”

Inch grew out of a magazine called Blink that the poet Robert West started at UNC. Beginning in July 2006, with West’s blessing, White and a couple of collaborators took over the lapsing magazine’s subscription list. Now White is preparing to bow out as editor, to be replaced by Matthew Poindexter on issue 28.

“We thought, ‘Gosh, if we could make a magazine, we could make books,’” White recalls of his first year publishing Inch. Bull City Press’ inaugural chapbook was Ellen C. Bush’s Licorice in 2007, followed quickly by a chap of one-line poems by Michael McFee. White published only chapbooks until 2011, when he released the Another & Another anthology and Anne Keefe’s Lithopedia, the winner of Bull City Press’ only contest for a first full-length book.

“It hit me that we didn’t have distribution and couldn’t do for either of these books what you want to for a first book,” White says. “I realized that was a disservice to the writers. That’s when chapbook publishing really took off for us, coming at them with renewed focus and understanding fully who we were as a business.”

“We” refers to the national staff White employs, currently including associate editors Brittany Cavallaro and Rebecca Hazelton. They’ve published one chapbook this year, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s The Greenhouse, and are working on another by Emilia Phillips for 2015.

But the staff works on a volunteer basisBull City Press does not make money. The operation is simple. After being designed by McFee, books are printed by Bookmobile in runs of 300 and then shipped to White, piling up in his office until they’re sold. The most recent two have gone into second printings, indicating a growing audience.

“We’ve established a readership that buys every title,” White says. “I like to think we’re going to keep them surprised at each turn. I’ve always tried to read against my own taste and say, ‘Let’s find a great manuscript that’s not like the one we just did.’” For all of its stylistic diversity, the press consistently makes clean and professional-looking books that feature accessible poetry, with a notably high number of female authors.

Chapbooks tend to be saddle-stitched, disappearing on bookshelves, but all Bull City Press chapbooks have spines where you can read the title and author’s name. They look more like small books, a path established at the beginning.

“It had everything I wanted in a book,” White says of Bush’s Licorice, “and there is something about a perfect-bound spine that says, ‘Take this seriously.’”

This article appeared in print with the headline “BRAND NEW COLONY.” Related feature: The West End Poetry Festival brings poetry to the people