you are a small press poet and you haven’t heard of Dave Roskos or read anything published by Iniquity Press/Vendetta Books, or, at least settled back in an easy chair with an issue of Big Hammer and a drink, then you are so far behind in the game you may as well collect your chips and leave quietly, preferably by the back door. Roskos has been writing poetry since 1979 and publishing Iniquity Press since 1988.
I knew about Roskos and Big Hammer for many years and when he stopped on his way through Albuquerque a few years back, I had lunch with him and Mark Weber and we talked about tire irons, doing shots in the front yard, furniture thrown out of second storey windows, survival when survival did not seem to be an option, writing poetry in the dark booths of working man bars, Kell Robertson, listening to all the best street talk, and publishing it all out of pocket, out of the soul because that is where it all starts and ends. The soul of a poem isn’t worth a dime but it demands so much of the blood of your blood, the way that you breathe, the way you dream.
I’m looking at Big Hammer 12. The title page is covered with the images of hammers. What else? I flip through the issue at random. Page 118, Blow Out Siesta, the poet is Boni Joi and this is the first line. “She went out for a smoke and got an explosion….” The poem is like a quick shot of bar whiskey, raw all the way through and every word right where it needs to be. This is the kind of poetry that Dave Roskos looks for. This is the kind of poetry that I require while waiting for the next bus to the apocalypse.
Or, lets try this one. Big Hammer, same issue, page 60. The poem is Wild Bill by the late Dave Church. It seems that Dave and his friend Wild Bill go to a bar called Muldoon’s Saloon, get liquored up and go home to make some tapes. On the way,
Wild Bill decided to scale the railing
Of the bridge we were crossing.
He said he wanted to test his nerve.
Suddenly the Devil rushed up behind me—
Made me push Wild Bill right into the river.
As a result of that stunt both Church and Wild Bill are committed to the Institute of Mental Health for a month of observation to see if they really are suicidal. A few months after they are released Wild Bill does kill himself. “Stuck a knife in his heart/Right in front of his mother.” These two lines are what really make the poem, but it’s that last line that blows it all to hell. “He must have really wanted to fuck her…” It’s this kind of poem that makes Big Hammer sing.
If you hang around the small press long enough you will become an editor, even if you don’t want to. It just happens because sooner or later the juice to edit and publish just gets in your veins and pretty soon you are hooked. In my opinion Roskos is one of those rare poets who is a first class editor and publisher. Forget about perfect bound, slick publications for a moment. Those kinds of books are the products of money and hype and bullshit and bean counters. And, yes, there are great ones out there. But, I have looked at far too many really badly written, badly edited slick perfect bound books in my life to know when I am staring at a piece of pure crap. There is no heart, no soul in them. And, if there are genitals, they hidden away from the delicate sensibility.
However, all you have to do is open Andrew Gettler’s Footsteps of a Ghost: Poems from Viet Nam or Ed Galing’s Burlesque or The Goofy Goddess on the Wall by Kell Robertson and you’ll discover the care that Roskos takes in making these books. Roskos prefers to call it building and it actually is a process of building something. Putting it together with your hands. Good editing is almost like dreaming. You have to get yourself in the zone where Andrew Gettler or Kell Robertson live. I have yet to see an Iniquity Press book that has been thrown together. Each one is a work of love and care. You won’t find handmade paper or special print fonts here. Still, the printing is bold and crisp. And, the books like the poems that Roskos publishes, are strictly visceral, the stuff of the shot and beer tradition in poetry. If Roskos had been born say around 1910, he would have been an editor for Black Mask or Dime Detective in the thirties and forties. I can just picture him using a lurid shoot em up cover featuring a Raymond Chandler novelette, say RED WIND. Or, plenty of pin up leg featuring a Paul Cain story.
Building a book includes knowing just how to edit a chapbook. Mark Weber once called chapbooks the equivalent of classical music that string quartets play. Naturally, the world has always been geared toward the big works of art, symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Copland. Novels by Faulkner, Melville, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. And, the ambitious long poems of Olson, Pound and Williams. But, the standard collection in the small press world is the chapbook which can be as brief as two or three poems and as large as thirty for forty poems. It takes a special kind of editing skill to pull off the publication of a good or even a great chapbook. Lets face it, THE WASTE LAND really appeared as a chapbook. And, the same goes for HOWL. Chapbooks are the life blood of the small press world, the place where the real action is. And, when you stop to think about it they are almost always quick reads. Roskos knows this fact as well as almost any editor and that’s why his publications are the equal of any around.
I have heard the term writer’s writer thrown around the writing world most of my life. But there is also that rare person who is an editor’s editor as well. Dave Roskos is an editor’s editor. Not only does he know how to design a book well, but he also knows how to read a manuscript as a book before it really becomes a book. And, that, in and of itself, is unusual.
Keep this in mind, there are no Maxwell Perkinses in the small press world. Perkins, who was an editor at Scribners during the twenties and thirties played no small roll in building THE SUN ALSO RISES and THE GREAT GATSBY. That kind of editor is an extreme rarity in contemporary publishing. But, I think Roskos comes close in the way that he works, simply because the books he edits and publishes always have a very stark clean look to them. Clean and spare. He is the master of the simply designed cover. And, he has the eye for that lean black and white effect. He gets it that stark is also beautiful.
Last, but maybe most important of all, Dave Roskos has a feel for what really is important in small press poetry. When you take a look at almost any issue of Big Hammer, what you will see is something that comes close to the honor roll of the best poets writing in the small press world. A. D. Winans, the late Lorri Jackson, B. Z. Niditch, Tom Kryss, to name just a few. If it weren’t for Dave Roskos, who would publish the work of the late Andrew Gettler? And, this is my little sidebar, Gettler’s work needs to be collected and published in one book. And, if it weren’t for Roskos and publishers like him, Kell Robertson’s work would not be as accessible (if that is the right word) as it is. Robertson is, in my opinion, a major American poet whose work so richly deserves to be read again and again. If there ever is a small press editor’s hall of fame, Dave Roskos should be among the first ten editors to be inducted.