Alice Persons tied a pretty purple bow around the book of poetry and dropped it in the mail. She assumed the chapbook would end up among a stack of others that Garrison Keillor receives and never reads.
Lo and behold, not only did Keillor pay attention to the book, he read one of the poems as part of his syndicated radio and online program, “The Writers Almanac.”
Ever since, Keillor has returned again and again to the poems published by Persons and her tiny Westbrook-based Moon Pie Press. In recent years, he’s read 24 poems published by Moon Pie on his radio show, and included four Moon Pie poems in his third published anthology, “Good Poems, American Places,” which came out last week.
“Garrison is my publicity man,” laughed Persons, who founded the press with her friend Nancy Henry seven years ago. In the time since, Moon Pie has established itself as a leading poetry press on a national scale. It will publish its 58th book this month, a collection of poems by Jack McCarthy.
What began as an outlet for Maine writers has become an outlet for contemporary poetry on a much wider scale.
“I think Alice is a very brave woman to launch a small independent publishing press,” said Chris Bowe, who runs Longfellow Books on Monument Square in Portland. “Moon Pie is important, because it is keeping poetry alive and giving an opportunity to poets where there otherwise wouldn’t be an opportunity. And Alice is so damn good at what she does. She has become a patron to some very, very talented poets.”
PROMOTING MAINE POETS
Moon Pie began on something of a whim. Persons and Henry are friends and poets, and often attend readings together. They were encouraged to learn about what Henry calls “this incredible wealth” of talented poets in Maine, but discouraged that so few people seemed to know about them. The two women decided to make it their mission to bring wider exposure to local poets.
Henry had experience in the publishing world, and Persons had enthusiasm.
Moon Pie’s early books met with immediate success. In the poetry world, success is a relative term. Large publishing houses publish very little poetry, because the market is tiny. Most successful poetry presses are associated with an academic program and supported by colleges and universities.
Moon Pie is entirely independent. It is mostly a one-person operation — Persons runs it from a room in her home in Westbrook.
Her mission is simple: she publishes poetry for people who either haven’t had a book before or who are not interested in going the self-publishing route. She decides what to publish based mostly on personal taste.
“It is extremely satisfying,” she said. “It’s such a thrill for people to have a book, and there is such a need for it. Big-time publishers do not publish much poetry because it doesn’t sell very much. And there is an endless need for small presses, but many go under quite quickly. It’s a lot of work, and you do not get paid for it. It’s tough.”
Indeed, this past year was the first year Moon Pie showed a profit. A small profit, yes, but a profit nonetheless.
Persons has kept herself busy, publishing 58 books in seven years. “That’s not only productive,” she mused, “it’s demented.”
She generally does her poetry work on nights and weekends, between her jobs teaching English and working as a medical transcriptionist at Maine Medical Center. She loves the work.
“I’m 59 years old, and it took me such a long time to figure out that this is what I was born for,” she said.
For Moon Pie, a successful book means about 500 copies sold. Her best-selling book sold more than 2,000 copies.
If she had more time and money, Persons could bump up her sales figures. But there is no marketing budget beyond sending books out for review. She depends on her poets to do readings to generate publicity, and having friends like Bowe at Longfellow Books and other independent booksellers helps immensely.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Friends like Keillor are important too.
“He’s given Moon Pie so much exposure, it’s pretty amazing,” Persons said. “People from all over the world, not just in the U.S., read those poems every day or hear them on the radio. When he reads a Moon Pie Press poem, I get orders from all over.”
Moon Pie’s reach is obvious to the poets. Writer Marcia Brown calls it “the single most important force for spreading the message of poetry in Maine.”
Keillor placed one of Brown’s poems in his new anthology, and has read three on his radio show. Her poems have reached readers and listeners worldwide. And it all starts with Persons and her dedication to the printed word, she said.
“There is a great spirit of generosity at Moon Pie,” Brown said. “More than any publisher I can think of, Moon Pie is all about helping more people discover and appreciate the hard work and the joy that is poetry.”
Kevin Sweeney, who has had two books published by Moon Pie, compares the press to an independent film festival. “These are works that otherwise would not find an audience,” he said. “Moon Pie gives voice that otherwise might not be heard.”
Henry, who helped launch the press with Persons, concurs with Brown about its influence and reach. After Keillor read her poems on his show, she arranged a 10-day reading tour of the Midwest. It all started with a handsome, professionally produced volume published by Moon Pie.
She believes the exposure of Moon Pie poets on the national stage benefits the entire literary community in Maine, which is vibrant, active and growing.
“I sometimes feel like someday poets in New England might look back at Portland the same way we look at Paris in the ’20s. The whole Portland poetry scene is really quite miraculous,” Henry said.
“This creative renaissance has been quietly going on for 15 years, and we feel like the press has been a little planet around which these stars orbit. It’s very exciting that Moon Pie is a part of that.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:
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