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The Power of Words Faces the Might of Money : Publishing: Proposed cuts in arts funding leave small presses vulnerable. It could mean a literary scene with fewer voices.

October 22, 1995|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sandy Taylor--political activist, book publisher and general friend to serious readers everywhere--is also, as it turns out, a pretty good storyteller. After regaling his listeners with tales of derring-do experienced while driving a camper full of medical supplies to Nicaragua a few years back, Taylor arrived at the moral of his story just as his camper arrived at the Honduran border.

Jack-booted border guards stopped the vehicle at gunpoint, Taylor relates, then carefully searched it, examining the medical equipment, peering beneath the seats, even ripping open a box of books in search of contraband.

"But of course what was in the books was something they should have been concerned about," he says with a wry smile. "They were looking for the power of money but they neglected the power of words."

That isn't a fate likely to befall Taylor. On the contrary, he's spent most of his life honoring the power of words, first as an English professor then, for the past two decades, as founder and co-director of Curbstone Press, a nonprofit publishing house based in Willimantic, Conn. But even Taylor now appears ready to concede that money may be a bit more powerful than he originally thought.

That's because Curbstone, like virtually all nonprofit publishers, finds itself caught in the congressional cross-fire over public funding of the arts. Last month, a House-Senate conference committee agreed to slash the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts by 40%, and even though that figure has yet to be approved by both houses of Congress, some Republican leaders promise that this is just the first step toward ending government support for the arts entirely.

NEA funding for literary publishing is already minuscule, accounting for just $1.095 million of the agency's $162.3-million 1995 budget. And it could get worse. When the NEA completes its reorganization in January, literary publishers will not have their own grant category, which will force them to compete against graphic artists, orchestras, dance troupes and others for their piece of the NEA's shrinking pie.

For Taylor and Curbstone, which this year received $25,000 from the NEA, $5,000 less than the maximum grant available for publishing houses, any reduction in funding could have grave implications. And they're not alone.

"We're all very vulnerable," says Douglas Messerli, the director of Sun & Moon Press in Los Angeles. "The whole issue of the NEA is so shocking. If a society can't support art, it says something about that society."

As NEA funding is reduced, most publishers say they'll have no choice but to reduce the number of writers they publish. Curbstone, for example, which had a $500,000 budget this year, would probably release six rather than eight new titles a year if it loses its government grant. White Pine Press of Fredonia, N.Y., another major nonprofit publisher, is contemplating a similar strategy.

"It will mean a devastation in some ways for the literary scene," Taylor says.

"I think that anyone who truly knows literature will tell you that the big commercial houses are not publishing the best writing of our time," Messerli adds. "Serious exploratory literature . . . was being ignored by the big commercial houses. But we're publishing the James Joyces of our time. I think we're doing some of the most important publishing right now."

Not surprisingly, the writers agree.

"There are always going to be authors who are not going to be bestsellers but who are going to be important," says Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan poet of immense importance in Latin America and Western Europe but one with a small following in this country. "Someone of the density of a Faulkner, for example. If a publishing house received something of that quality nowadays, they might not publish him."

Adds Chilean Marjorie Agosin, another award-winning poet whose work is available in the United States only through small imprints: "In this country, big presses will never publish poetry unless it makes millions of dollars. And we know that it doesn't. I think the best literature comes out of the small presses."

But while Messerli and others worry about the aesthetic issues NEA funding cuts raise, Taylor wonders about the political fallout. His press has nearly 90 titles in print, including the works of writers Tomas Borge and Sergio Ramirez and poets Ernesto Cardenal, Daisy Zamora and Belli, all of whom were once banned from entering the United States because of their political beliefs. Curbstone, which last month celebrated its 20th anniversary, has a long history of provocative publishing: Its first book, "Santiago Poems" by James Scully, was a collection of poetry about human rights abuses in the wake of the U.S.-backed coup in Chile in 1973.

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