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Alexandrian's Passion For Poetry

Unsolicited manuscripts are no longer accepted.

Henry David Thoreau once proclaimed, "a true account of the actual is the rarest poetry." That assessment might also be applied to the judgement employed by Roger Lathbury when it comes to his critical decision: Whether he will publish or reject the works of a given poet.

Who is Roger Lathbury? He is the owner, decision-maker, and sole critic of works of poetry submitted to his one-man publishing operation known as "Orchises Press." It is based in and operated from his Cameron Mews home in Old Town Alexandria.

An English teacher at George Mason University since 1973, his home operated publishing house has brought forth the works of roughly 70 authors -- some of whom have gone on to achieve national and international acclaim for their works. "But I've rejected nearly 1,000 submissions," Lathbury said.

"Generally, I publish works for an audience who wants to read them — not worship them. Not long after I started it occurred to me that I could support my love of poetry by doing broader printing. Not just new works but by also printing backlists," he said.

In dealing with those backlists, the trick is to not publish a work that has already received overexposure, according to Lathbury. Some of his published works have received wide-ranging exposure, such as readings by Garrison Keillor and others.

BY HIS OWN admission, Lathbury started Orchises Press in 1983 because "I love poetry." Since then, he has published an estimated 110 titles. "Over the years I have become much more savvy about the publishing business," he said.

The actual printing is contracted out. Lathbury is primarily the editor of works submitted to him. He has also published some prose.

"With poetry you can't really do that much editing. You can make suggestions about cutting certain piece from an overall work or moving or dropping a phrase. But that's about it," Lathbury said.

When he started his company he accepted unsolicited manuscripts. "But then I began to get so many I had to stop that practice."

Now he only takes manuscripts he has personally read or which come highly recommended. "In 1986 I was getting up to 300 manuscripts a year. That's when I said no more," he exclaimed.

Now those he seriously considers for publication are gleaned from reading "Poetry Magazine" and other sources, those that come

recommended, works referred by other critics he respects and those he becomes exposed to through other channels.

Among his published authors are Alexandrians Mark Craver, Larry Moffi and Peter Klappert. Craver, who died in 2004, produced five books, three of which were published by Lathbury. He was a teacher at Hayfield Secondary School in southeastern Fairfax County. His last treatise was published in 2005.

Moffi's "Citizens Handbook Collection of Lyric Poems" was published in 1989. Klappert's "52 Pick up" was one of Lathbury's most successful publications.

Timothy Houghton of Richmond, Kentucky, was first published by Lathbury in 1999. "I was teaching a six week course at Yellowstone National Park when I sent a submission of poems to Roger. I had already had one book published by a company in London, England. One day I got a response from Roger that he liked the work and would publish it. I was very excited and immediately ran back to our cabin to tell my wife," he said. "Since then he has published two other of my books. I've been extremely pleased with him. He has an uncanny knack for picking a diverse array of authors."

John Poch of Lubbock, TX, had his first book of poetry published by Orchises Press in 2004.

"Most publishers give royalties of about seven percent. Roger gives royalties about four times that much," Poch said. "I often wonder if my first book would still be wandering around out there if Roger hadn't agreed to publish it. He also promises his authors that he will keep their works that he publishes in print."

AS A TEACHER in George Mason University's English Department, Lathbury focuses on Early American Literature, Modern British Poetry, as well as courses in editing and regular writing. "My editing courses are geared to people who are striving toward publication editing as opposed to journalistic editing," he explained.

A native of Union County, New Jersey, Lathbury moved to the Washington area in 1972 to join a friend who was starting a new magazine. "Unfortunately, about a year later the magazine never really got off the ground. That's when I started looking around for a teaching job and landed the position at George Mason University," Lathbury said.

He and his wife Begona have two daughters. Rachel, 20, is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Camille, 13, formerly a student at St. Stephens-St. Agnes, is being home schooled, according to Lathbury.

He picks and chooses his new authors very carefully after consulting with others about their talents. "I had one book that totally bombed. It was a $1,400 publishing project that sold only 300 copies," he said.

On the flip side his biggest run was 10,000 copies. The normal run is 700 to 1,000 printed at a time based on sales. Many have gone into their second, third and fourth printing.

It's all not poetry. "I have published some prose and even a scientific text book. The latter completely sold out," he said.

"I contract out the printing. Usually to Michigan printers. They have the best prices being closest to the paper sources," Lathbury

said.

"There is a contract between the author and me. Different from other publishers, the author gets no money until I recover my publishing costs. Although there is no advance, I do pay royalties. It's also much easier to deal with U.S. authors than foreign ones because of all the legalities involved," he said.

Once Lathbury agrees to take a submission for publication, the finished copies are stored in a Maryland warehouse and doled out to book sellers from there. With the advance of computer technology the process has become not only easier but also more mobile.

"When I started the printing requirement was for camera-ready copy. Now it can be sent by PDF files from just about anywhere," he said.

But easier or not, Lathbury will not touch the publication of works of fiction. "That is the most unpredictable, unstable market of all. I take no fiction -- some prose -- but no fiction," Lathbury said.

"There's not a large market for poetry. But, it is a stable market," he said.

That's not a drawback to Lathbury, who is a man of moderate needs — as evidence by his everyday transportation. He is still driving his 1985 Honda.