Few people would dream that there’s an independent publishing house in San Luis Obispo.
“For a small town, this has an incredible literary community,” said Paul Lobo Portugés, senior editor and publisher of Word Palace Press. “We make (Santa Barbara) look bad.”
Word Palace Press, which takes its name from the Chinese word for “poetry,” publishes 10 to 15 books each year, including poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
The books are printed a couple thousand copies at a time in South Carolina and distributed through Amazon.com, WordPalacePress.com and specialty bookstores such as City Lights Books in San Francisco and Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara.
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Portugés officially launched Word Palace Press in October 2011 with Texas publisher Lowery Thompson. When Thompson passed away earlier this year, Portugés took on his duties as well — bringing three or four people to help him design and edit texts, organize book readings and signings, and film videos of Word Palace Press authors reading their work.
“We’re not a big publisher by any means,” said Portugés, a Los Osos-based filmmaker and writer who teaches in the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Rather, he explained, the nonprofit press, which hopes to eventually grow large enough to obtain grants, provides “a little niche for people interested in good literature.”
“We tend to look for writing that has some kind of substance to it, (that’s) not just experimental for its own sake,” Portugés said, as well as writers who have “a great sense of craft” and “something to say.”
For Word Palace Press, that list includes Port Townsend, Wash., poet Sam Hamill (“Border Songs”), San Diego writer Jerome Rothenberg (“A Poem of Miracles”), and Tennessee native Richard Tillinghast (“Wayfairing Stranger”), as well as local authors such as Michael Hannon (“Who on Earth”) and Leslie St. John (“Beauty Like a Rope”). Another book by Hannon, “Selected Poems,” comes out this fall.
“We’re just looking for good writers. That’s basically it,” said Portugés, who is one of Word Palace Press’s published authors. His nonfiction book “On Tibetan Buddhism, Mantras and Drugs: Interviews with Allen Ginsburg” is based on his conversations with the Beat Generation icon at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., in the 1970s and ’80s.
Word Palace Press isn’t limited to American writers, either.
In addition to publishing Japanese poet Mariko Nagai’s “Instructions for the Living,” the press is publishing a book of Japanese love poems translated by Leanne Ogasawara that will feature a foreword by Hamill, himself a respected translator.
“There’s some incredible poetry being made worldwide in various languages. We’re trying to tune into that,” said Portugés, who plans to publish more international authors in the future. He’s also interested in expanding the press’s scope to include screenplays and travel writing.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan, whose poetry collection “Under Such Brilliance” was published by Word Palace Press in 2012, said the publishing house is a boon for local writers and readers.
“We’re very lucky to have such an enterprise here in San Luis Obispo,” said Sullivan, founder of the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival and organizer of the monthly poetry reading series Corners of the Mouth. “They’re putting out beautiful books, and the quality is top notch.”
He also had high praise for San Luis Obispo graphic designer Benjamin Daniel Lawless, who has created many of Word Palace Press’s book covers. “It’s great to have someone local doing that,” Sullivan said.
According to San Francisco author Joe Riley, publishing houses such as Word Palace Press serve an important need in the literary industry.
“Small publishers make it possible for emerging or established writers who don’t … know how to function in major publishing to make their mark on the world,” said Riley, whose 2012 short-story collection, “How Strange It Is to Be Anything at All,” is Word Palace Press’s best-selling book.
“There is no pressure to make your writing more marketable or more accessible,” said Riley, whose short-story collection “Sister Madeline” will be published by Word Palace Press next spring. “They want you to put what you really want to on the page.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong title for Michael Hannon's book.