Ram Devineni, founder of Rattapallax Press, will be remembered best as a literary
book publisher in on the ground floor of electronic publishing, as well as the
new internationalism afoot. Rattapallax (www.rattapallax.com)
started out as a poetry journal, which in 1999 Devineni launched–in short order–into
national and international distribution.
“My philosophy,” he says,
and eventually the press’s approach to poetry, was to make poetry accessible to the public without reducing it’s substance. I determined to publish the first issue like a rock concert or major political campaign. We would become a national publication with our first issue and not wait for the gradual progression. I set up 35 readings in 25 cities around the US and spent a lot of money on advertising. The journal was professionally printed and the accompanying CD was pressed with an imprint. It looked like a book that people would want to buy. We had our launch reading at the Mid-Manhattan library in New York and in about two months read all over the City, Boston, Philadelphia, Camden, Princeton, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and at 11 venues in Los Angeles in 5 days. The magazine was picked up by three distributors and available in about 200 bookstores around the country. With the second issue (2000 copies) we were making a profit, which is almost unheard of in poetry publishing.
Devineni also became the coordinator of an international poetry series arranged through the United Nations, titled “Dialogue Among Civilizations” (www.dialoguepoetry.org) which offered 160 readings held starting on March 30, 2001 in 130 cities around the world, including readings from Antarctica and from atop Mt. Everest. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa was joined by renown author, Joyce Carol Oates, plus Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and James Ragan for an evening of “Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry” to kick off the series at the United Nations in New York City.
A few weeks back, I asked Ram about how it all got started:
Everything started about three years ago when I moved from Philadelphia
to New York City after getting a job at Union Bank of California. While
in Philadelphia, I started a small literary journal with some friends called
Sirens Silence and attended many readings. When I moved to New York
City, I continued to attend readings and met Michael Graves and George Dickerson
at a reading in an art gallery in SoHo. A few months later, when I got to
know Michael as a friend, I approached him about starting a literary journal,
and he enthusiastically agreed to invite George, an experienced editor,
to join in. George was an actor and had been elected as a member of the
Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences–the organization which selects
the Academy Awards. Since I was a filmmaker who’d just made two short films,
I enjoyed our long conversations about films. Dickerson was also a prominent
writer during the 60’s, but had a writer’s block for over 25-years. To escape
his block and support his family, he moved around in various fields including
working for a congressman during Watergate and the UN as de facto head of
security during Lebanon’s Civil War. Recently, he overcame his writer’s
block, but found it difficult to re-enter the literary community because
he was in his mid-60’s. He was a terrific writer and one of the best editors
I knew, so I wanted him on the magazine’s staff. Michael Graves, George
Dickerson and I formed the core of the publication and we began brainstorming
for a title and requesting work from poets. “Rattapallax,” which means “the
sound of thunder” and comes from a word invented by Wallace Steven’s
in a poem represented our philosophy–to find work that captured the music
in the language and a good sense of craft.
Before he was an accomplished filmmaker and computer network developer, though, Devineni took several interesting turns. As a kid he was a street fighter and trouble-maker, but later he ended up directing Republican political campaigns, only to segue into studying political science at Rutgers University with Democrats:
I was born in June 1972 in India where I lived with my grandparents. I moved, at the age of six, to Vineland, NJ to live with my parents in that small suburban town. I was a very violent and hyperactive child and fought constantly with everyone–starting many brutal fights. Until, I fell in love with politics in high school when I worked on a political campaign for a class assignment. At 16, I worked for state senator James Hurley as an assistant legislative aide and handled constituent relations and traveled with the senator to Trenton. From then and while in high school, I worked on several local, state and federal elections. I realized I had a talent for organizing and running major campaigns, having run the Get-out-the-Vote (Election Day activities) in several municipalities at the age of 17 and before I had my driver’s license. Looking back I was a blind and faithful Republican, but it was politics that gave me direction and shifted my energies from violent and senseless acts. It’s funny when I tell other poets, who are usually liberal or progressive, of my political past and working for the Republican Party, but it was a wonderful opportunity especially for a young Indian needing something to believe.
After his youth as a political organizer and during his final studies of political science in college, Devineni became a fairly successful film-maker:
I was bitten by the “film” bug and wanted to make movies. My family is a “cinema family;” many members are involved in the Indian film business including owning one of the largest studios in Southern India. As a senior in college, I picked up a 16mm camera and with a few friends made a short-film called “Life’s Journey” which was later shown at the Cin(e)Poetry Film Festival in San Francisco. I graduated from college and did not pursue politics, but rather went into films. I started traveling around the United States in my car and eventually moved to India where I began another short film called “The Colours of the Sun.” I shot the film in a short time, traveling around India with my cousin in a rented van. We drove from New Delhi to Katmandu, Nepal–a remarkable journey over dangerous hilly terrain. From Katmandu we drove to Pokhra to the steps of the Himalayans. After some time, I returned to the US and sent my film to several film festivals and was accepted to San Jose Film Festival, Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, Cairo International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival. “The Colours of the Sun” ended up on the film-circuit and toured the country. The film was doing well artistically, but I was broke. After attending the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema, I met some remarkable poets at a reading at Robin’s Book. They were Charles Hewins and Lamont B. Steptoe, African American poet and Viet Nam Vet, who changed the course of my life. I began attending poetry readings and that led me to where I am today.
Though he works by day in the business world, Devineni toils by night and on weekends to publish his books and magazines with the help of a knowledgeable staff, including Associate Publisher, Stella Padnos; Senior Editor, Judith Werner; and Fiction Editor, Alan Cheuse. Cheuse is a book commentator and regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, who served as the host and co-producer of the NPR syndicated fiction short story magazine “The Sound of Writing.” Cheuse’s The Bohemians was made into the famed movie “Reds” starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.
Among the poets and editors who have lent their know-how are George Dickerson, formerly on the editorial staff of The New Yorker and Martin Mitchell of London and New York, founder and publisher of Pivot magazine for many years and film critic for After Dark from 1968-81, currently editor of Rattapallax: A Journal of Contemporary Literature published bi-annually with a CD Ram audio of the writers contained in it. Among the poets are Bill Kushner, a 1999 recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the Dylan Thomas Prize given by The New School for Social Research; Ron Price, born in Memphis who is currently Poet in Residence at The Julliard School of Music; Elaine Schwager, a psychoanalyst who was formerly published by Harper and Row and Macmillan; Michael T. Young, a highly praised poet.
As the first poetry press to insert an audio CD of poets reading their work within each of their published books, Rattapallax has since significantly expanded on its electronic offerings. “E-books are not digital photography,” says Devineni. His e-books go beyond the presentation of straight text. Rattapallax.com offers titles, mostly poetry, in Glassbook, MS Reader and Rocket eBook formats, as well as on CDs. Many Rattapallax titles (PDF only) are designed to integrate Web-based Mp3 sound files and Real Player video clips. Some Rattapallax titles are designed to provide graphics or game-like structure to the process of reading the text.
Now that so many authors have won electronic rights law suits, and the National Book Awards have decided to consider e-books alongside print books for their annual Awards as of 2001, e-book devotees and publishers are vindicated in their predictions that within three to four years e-books will be prevalent. As the technology is perfected, marketed and distributed via the internet, palm held e-book reading devices will most likely spread as quickly among readers as word processors spread among typists.
At the same time, Rattapallax’s new e-book list is growing longer everyday.
Among others, there’s Rhonda J. Nelson (about whom David Mura has written “Rhonda
J. Nelson’s . . . images implant themselves in your mind and will not let go
“) Regie Cabico is another lively poet who was winner of the 1993 New
York Poetry Slam, a Road Poet on Lollapalooza, and the opening act of MTV’s
Free Your Mind Spoken Word Tour. He is the editor of Poetry Nation: An Anthology
of North American Spoken Word & Written Poetry (Vehicule Press, 1998).
Many poets have happily joined the rush into the digital world–including yours
Despite the skepticism about the future of electronic publishing, e-books and
internet activities often expressed by an older generation of techno-shy writers,
there’s little doubt that e-books and the internet are the future of poetry.
Many poets like Stephanie Strickland and Robert Kendall have been publishing
computer poetry with Eastgate Press for some years, but e-books of regular
text collections are gaining prominence, especially with the National Book Awards’ decision
to include them among its prizes. Then, too, Robert Pinsky, former United States
Poet Laureate, has clearly stated that he believes “the internet is the
future of poetry,” and he certainly is not alone in that estimation.
“E-books will not replace print books,” says Devineni, “but wireless technology will drive their popularity and it will give writers the flexibility to sell their titles direct to the consumer. Publishers will have to adapt.”
Well, I’m adapting. Since first becoming interested in the phenomenon of e-poetry last year, I’ve decided, at age sixty, after having published several hard copy books, to publish my next book of poems electronically. An old lady does not want to be left behind in the dust, as difficult as it is to keep up with the young whizzes who speak their computer jargon full of “cookies” and “java,” which are not edible or drinkable, and DVDs, which are not a brand of underwear. So, I’ve decided to jump aboard the e-book train speeding into the future.
If I’d been around to say anything about it, I’d have suggested to Ram Devineni
a better name for the press than Rattapallax — I can’t find anyone who knows
how to pronounce it. But somehow it is a bit unforgettable–it sticks out like
a sore-thumb of consonants and vowels, creating curiosity, perhaps, if not instant
recognition. It will be interesting to see how this adventuring venture works