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Publishing Poetry in Times of Pestilence

Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher courtesy of Eric Morago

There are two reliable methods of learning about a person: the first requiring a direct answer and the other an observation.

The first, a two-part question, entails asking, “What is your favorite movie and why?”

The second is to survey that person’s bookcases and take a brief inventory of the reading choices; that will probably reveal more than anything that person will ever willingly tell. It should be no great surprise that the shelves of Eric Morago are crowded with poetry titles. After all, since 2017, he’s been publisher, editor, and primary reader at Moon Tide Press, an independent LA-based press that began operating in 2006.

But what movie does he list as his preference?

Without hesitation, he went to Lost in Translation because, like good poetry, “there’s so much not said” in the narrative. Plus, he pointed out, the lush visuals of the film fulfill the cinematic aspects inherent in a well-written poem.

Morago has lived in the Southern California area since the age of two, starting with his childhood and youth in the Pasadena area. From there, he attended Cal State Long Beach for both his undergraduate and graduate work. He and his wife Katie O’Shuaghnessy now reside in Montebello. However, his writing life has been anything but a straight line.

One might argue, some are born poets; others have poetry brought to them. For Morago, poetry was not the focus of his life until he stumbled into it. He began as a theater major, but the curriculum demands conflicted with his work schedule. Morago’s priority at the time was his job: he had been working from the age of 17 for Choicess, a non-profit corporation dedicated to providing and facilitating live-in services for those with disabilities or developmental delays. He started as a caregiver for cerebral palsy patients, and it had become an important part of his life. Morago is now one of the agency’s coordinators.

Unable to sacrifice his work time to the seemingly scattered, almost haphazard yet lockstep schedule demanded of theater majors and deciding he was too close to a degree to not finish, he met with a guidance counselor. Morago discovered that he would be allowed to transfer many of his theater credits to English, a major with a curriculum that could more easily be adapted to his schedule. He decided to follow that route. One of the classes he needed to complete his BA in English was a creative writing course, and the first open one he could enroll in focused on poetry.

Once baited, he was hooked.

At the time, he was living in the Long Beach area and began making weekly trips to The Coffee House for its Friday night open mic sessions to work on his “homework.”

While most of the attendees were practicing standup comedy routines, he found himself welcomed because the comics saw him as non-threatening, “but I was writing pure shit.”

As a student of that first poetry class, he was also introduced to the concept of “poetry slam” as a particular format. He then “went all over and explored this world.”

Poetry soon became more than a vehicle to a degree: it acted as a sort of life preserver. Experiencing some personal strife at the time, Morago threw himself into writing poems, which offered him a “personal avenue,” becoming a form of catharsis. In many ways, according to Morago, writing poems “healed me.”

He continued writing and publishing, but then, in 2016, Michael Miller, Moon Tide’s founder, contacted Morago to offer him the reigns. The following January, Moon Tide continued under Morago’s guiding hand.

Striking out on his own as an editor and publisher, he “preferred taking on something with history [to] reshape rather than starting from scratch.”

Besides, Moon Tide had published his first book, What We Ache For, in 2010, so what better way to express gratitude? Making the transition from writer to editor and publisher may have been an adjustment, but it proved to him not to be overly demanding. As he underwent the process of taking over Moon Tide, Morago was “very grateful to have [other] presses be so supportive.”

He especially credits Derrick Brown of Write Bloody and the staffs of both Red Hen, now in Pasadena, and Sadie Girl Press out of Long Beach as having “been most helpful, just talking shop” as he found his way into this new world.

If it seems that the small press publishing world lacks the cutthroat competitive atmosphere of other businesses, Morago explains the upside of the active presence of many and diverse publishers—whether they be of books, journals, anthologies, or magazines—by noting that “the more presses, the more voices.”

He experienced a measurable difference between writing and publishing. To know that people admired his writing was one thing, but he found it “gratifying to learn people wanted [his] input” and that they would “trust me with their words.”

Does he miss focusing his time on writing?

“Right now, my creative energy is going into this, and that’s rewarding to me,” Morago said, adding that the “joy of publishing fills any need to write.”

To that end, he conducts workshops along with “a lot of editing,” a responsibility he takes seriously. He sees his primary task now as finding “what can [he] do as a publisher to help people” reach their potential.

“I’m focused on helping get others published,” and the challenge, according to Morago, is “trying to understand the poet’s voice” rather than to impose his own.

While it would seem obvious to ask him how the pandemic has affected his business and its practices, Morago said that “while [he] was worried about printing,” he’s “happily” found that there has been “no significant alteration in the timetable” of getting work onto the page and out to readers. He points to Moon Tide’s latest release, Robin Axworthy’s Crabgrass World, a volume that saw strong pre-orders. Morago postulates that, especially in these days of shutdowns and self-isolation, “People want to support the arts, want to feel connected.”

Postal sales have helped offset any lack of physical interaction—a mainstay of the publishing world, but Morago naturally prefers live performances. To that end, he’s begun using Facebook live streaming as an alternative. He kicked the idea off on Saturday, April 25, by conducting his own session of question-and-answer, allowing those online to pose questions. He’ll continue the live streaming format each Saturday at 4 p.m., spotlighting a Moon Tide writer concurrently on that person’s Facebook page as well as on the Moon Tide Facebook page for those not personally connected to the featured poet. Later, the virtual event will be posted for replay.

The first “featured reader” event will occur this coming Saturday, May 2 to debut The only thing that makes sense is to grow by Scott Ferry, a former Californian now working out of Seattle.

The current absence of big launches and live performances and readings precludes an opportunity to sell previous releases onsite at events. However, necessity being the mother of invention, Moon Tide now offers what Morago calls “mystery packs,” a kind of online grab bag method allowing those interested to purchase, via the website, “three randomly selected Moon Tide books, a special poetry prompt, and a chance at other prizes.”

He noted that “people have been using these as gifts, or [for themselves] to enjoy the anticipation of the surprise.”

So, as many businesses are threatened with failure, perhaps the small presses may lead to new ways to keep people connected, an aspect of the human condition sorely needed.

Still, circling back to the original standards of figuring a person out, the question remains: Who are the authors with whom Eric Morago connects?

Considering the limits on his personal time generated by his own tasks, his own writing, the job of providing assistance to those most in need, and his tasks as both editor and publisher, who are the writers he invests whatever time he has left? A survey and inventory of his personal bookshelf reveals that Morago admires those writers he finds who “do things that no one does in quite the same way.”

Among those are Ron Koertge, Cecelia Woloch, and Lisa Glatt, a published Long Beach poet and novelist. Morago specifically pointed out Jeffrey McDaniel’s surrealistic approach that he finds “beautifully unique” as well as the “tangible, confessional” work on the order of Sylvia Plath that comes from Mindy Nettifee, former Los Angeles and now Portland poet whose first book, Sleepyhead Assassins, was published by Moon Tide in 2006, its inaugural year.

Those interested in supporting Moon Tide as it approaches 15 years while also diving into some interesting poetry, from individual collections to anthologies, can browse the complete catalogue or opt for the new surprise packages now being offered by visiting https://www.moontidepress.com.

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