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In 2002, Barbara Ras became the founding director of Trinity University Press, a position she retired from this January. Under Ras’ guidance, TU Press has published more than 200 books and developed an international reputation for its award-winning books.
Many a book was her brainchild, forged from the alchemy of her imagination and her relationships with prominent writers. A glance through the titles reveals Ras’ passion for poetry and the field of nature and environmental writing. Just a tiny sampling includes a book of poetry by W.S. Merwin, Unchopping a Tree, accompanied by illustrations by San Antonio artist Liz Ward; Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney’s Home Ground, “an homage to language and landscape;” and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall by editors Marc Bekoff and Dale Peterson.
Ras is an internationally acclaimed poet with more than three decades of work in the publishing industry. Her three books of poetry include Bite Every Sorrow, One Hidden Stuff, and The Last Skin. She won the Walt Whitman Award for her first book of poetry, as well as the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her poems can begin with the red speck of a mite crawling across a book and then, with the quick clarity of a lightning bolt, offer her wisdom and philosophical insight. They are worldly poems, both shaped by traveling and a wide range of subject matter.
Reading one of Ras’ poems amid the chatter of a coffee shop, I’m suddenly in a place like Zanzibar, “somewhere with slow fans and ceremonious walking/where the post office behind the soccer field will smell of cinnamon.” I see through her eyes as she drives through Texas, where a parade of animals is one bit of “the road’s cabinet of wonders,” where giant stones may be “humongous chalk to draw the woolly clouds in the severe clear/or towering salt licks for some gargantuan ungulate we had yet to meet?”
Ras’ observation and imagination open up the many possibilities of our world. “My eyes see everything, not nothing,” a palm reader says in one of her poems. “Imagine now the way a wind waves its way through a field of tall grass and how each blade bends alone in its own time, but together they make the wind visible. Grass, lines, letters – all mystery. Hold on to it.”
This could well serve as her parting words for the legacy she has left at TU Press, where she solidified her reputation as one of the country’s best editors in nature and environmental writing. She has given readers much to hold onto, the many pages of illumination and reflection on the world both on a global and regional scale, equally reinforcing the interconnection. The gift of her presence in San Antonio counts doubly, infinitely, even – through her contribution as director of TU Press, and through the sharp focus of her poet’s eye.
The Rivard Report spoke with Ras recently to discuss her career and plans for the future.
Rivard Report: Tell me about your decision to retire. What will you be doing?
Barbara Ras: Among the things I’ll be doing: welcoming my granddaughter into the world in May; finishing the last stretch of my next book of poems; starting the fifth that I’ve been writing in my head for nearly a decade; reading, reading, reading; adventuring; learning to tell fortunes; and researching two nonfiction books I’ve been yearning to get into the works. Travel, of course. Improving my Spanish, and learning Italian. And, alas, of necessity, resisting the current efforts in Washington, D.C., to buy out our democracy and destroy the values on which our country is founded.
RR: As founding director, you have “solicited, shaped, and published” so many award-winning, successful books. Can you tell me a little about the process?
BR: Publishing is a people-oriented business, and whenever I’m out and about, whether in San Antonio, New York, travel abroad even, I always ask writers what they’re working on. They may have a perfect book for the press, or a friend who’s just finished one. Often conversations lead to me asking, “Have you ever thought of writing a book on that topic?” One such question led to Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer by Peter Turchi. His book was picked by the editors of the New York Times Magazine as one of the Top 100 nonfiction books of all time. Who could have predicted that?
As a writer myself, I’m often in the midst of other writers, so the opportunities for finding good work are magnified. Another factor is that I’ve worked at a lot of presses, met a lot of writers in different parts of the country; that experience has created a wide network of friends and a broad base of knowledge about who’s doing what. Then sometimes I have a good idea and go in search of an author to write it. A couple of such books are on the horizon, and I’m eagerly awaiting their appearance.
RR: How does your practice as a poet inform your work at TU Press?
BR: I know a lot of writers through my life as a poet, teaching at workshops and doing readings around the country. I meet a lot of people, and that expands my network. I think writers are drawn to work with me, too, if they respect my own writing, which predisposes them to trust my editorial instincts.
RR: I’d love to hear about the writer community that you know and how you have utilized those relationships to strengthen the press’ publications. I’m thinking of all the amazing writers who I and the rest of San Antonio have been lucky to read on the page and hear some of them speak. Names that come to mind are Rebecca Solnit, W.S. Merwin, Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, and Gerald Stern.
In the case of W.S. Merwin and Gerald Stern, I’d been reading their poems for more than 30 years, and their work has been monumentally important to me. When serendipity brought us into contact on book projects, I was over the moon. That stars in my poetry pantheon became friends through our work together still makes me giddy – and grateful.
I’d worked with Rebecca Solnit, Barry Lopez, and Gary Snyder at previous presses. We developed bonds of trust and camaraderie. My respect for their various works is boundless, and what I’ve learned from them is incalculable. That I can count them, too, as friends is an astonishment to me.
Let me emphasize that it is the work of these writers that I cherish, and which I have been honored to bring to readers. What writers like Merwin, Stern, Solnit, Lopez, and Snyder have created is a bedrock of culture in such a wide range of fields that it can’t be categorized. They are public intellectuals, whose writing leads us to be the best, generous, and kindest human beings we can be. And even that last statement doesn’t begin to hint at their expansive importance in bringing knowledge and wisdom into the world.
RR: I’d also love to hear about TU Press’ list of books on landscape and your vision for this.
BR: We all live in places, and the more we learn about the places we inhabit, the better stewards we can be for the land, for the habitat of our fellow creatures, for the quality of our air, water, biodiversity. At this moment in history, we are at a precipice. Humans are putting too great a load on the planetary resources that provide our own life support. If we don’t stop climate change and save catastrophic species loss, including our loss of forest cover, we are doomed.
RR: How has the press evolved throughout your leadership?
BR: Trinity University Press has evolved in response to the dynamic changes in the publishing industry more than because of any single leader. With each new hire we’ve brought on more talent, more creativity, more imagination. We’re now publishing our titles in print and ebook simultaneously; we have constantly examined the balance of our program, which fields are performing better than others, and we constantly try to maximize the best books possible to fulfill our mission to educate people for lifelong learning and understanding their place in the world. Our constant goal is to give our books and their messages a life beyond their covers.
RR: I see that you have been in the publishing and editing business for 30 years. What has changed? What’s your outlook for the future? What kind of markets does TU Press work with and how does this affect marketing and sales?
BR: TU Press books reach all markets through broad national and international distribution, being sold on nearly every platform, from independent bookstores like The Twig, to Amazon and other online retailers, library and other wholesalers, and specialty niches – like Sam’s Club and Costco, museum stores, national park stores, and more. As far as the other topics, since I’m retiring, I think you should do an interview with Tom Payton on these broad-ranging, nearly unanswerable questions.
RR: Would you direct me to or share one of your poems? I know it’s probably not possible to pick a favorite, but maybe select one for this moment? Are you going to be writing and/or have you been working on any personal literary projects?
BR: I am always writing, though sporadically. Thank you for asking me to share a poem. Here’s a short one that was published in Granta. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reprint it here.
How easy then, the fun house at Lincoln Park
before it grew into a field of weeds, you could buy
five tickets for a buck from a blank face in a booth
and enter the dark with your brother to be scared
by tilting floors, phony doors, corpses
bursting out of coffins, and once out into blue sky
dash breathless to your mother and father, dazed,
you could have called them salad days,
but why would you — no one in your family
had read Shakespeare — so you bought
French fries, doused them with malt vinegar,
the four of you, competing for your share
of potatoes improved by salt and grease,
and nothing in those early evenings free
of care could have prepared you
to be the last one left, the one
with grief to spare.
– Barbara Ras