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Monday, August 2, 2021

Small Press History 4: Soheyl Dahi/Sore Dove/1980s-Present

Leonard Cohen and Soheyl Dahi

 BE:  I was able to find the first issue of Sore Dove.  I did not see a date on it but going by my pic and contributor note I know that I was living in Bechtolsheim, Germany so it must have been mid-80s?  What made you decide to begin Sore Dove?  When did it stop being a print magazine (or did it)?

SD: The plan was to have a Sore Dove magazine parallel to the chapbook publications. I published two issues in the mid-eighties but had to stop for the usual reasons of lack of distribution and funds. For the two issues we received hundreds of submissions and in our submission request I didn’t say what kind of poems I was looking for, I just wrote ‘if we like it, we’ll publish it’. With help from my friends, poet Cathy Voisard and Marco Sottile, we read all the poems we had received and then picked our favorites. One afternoon we gathered in my studio apartment in San Mateo and over lots of cheap wine and shouting and laughter, we chose the final poems for each issue. Most of the copies went to the contributors and our friends and family. There is a copy of each issue at UC Santa Barbara Special Collections library where Sore Dove Press archive is housed.

BE:  I checked your Facebook page and it indicates you’re now publishing “Modern First Edition Poetry, Signed Limited Editions, Beat Poetry, chapbooks and broadsides.”  Tell us about these enterprises and some of the famous people you’ve published.  Do/did you know them in person?  You must have some interesting stories. Tell us at least one, please. And when you came from Iran were you already a poet and did you already know you wanted to edit a magazine?   Were any doors opened for you or did you struggle in the publishing field?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sabine and Soheyl Dahi

SD: The press has gone on several hiatuses as most small presses do. In the early 2000s, I was more financially secure and dived into publishing with gusto and fury. In 2003, The invasion of Iraq was imminent and I knew thousands of people would die over phony WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) charges. My longtime pen pal, the fine Sacramento poet, Ann Menebroker, wrote to me about the North Beach poet, Jack Hirschman. She said he is the best poet we have in San Francisco and if you get a chance, go to his reading. So, I did and it was a transformative experience. I arrived at the North Beach branch of the library where the reading was but I was early and no one was there except Jack in his bright red shirt and long gray wavy hair. As soon as he saw me, he walked towards me with a smile and stretched arms and hugged me Middle Eastern style. Then he asked me who I am and how happy he was that I had come to his reading. The greeting warmed my heart and the reading that followed was phenomenal. Jack read his anti-war poems and it was like he was rubbing a pomade on my wound. Right there and then I decided that I needed this man in my life. After the reading, I went up to him and I asked him if it’s possible to see him for a cup of coffee. He said ‘come tomorrow at 3 to Caffe Trieste’. 

And this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that is still going strong. 

Diane di Prima and Jack Hirschman

When I met him the next day, I told him I wanted to publish a book by him. Days later I met him again and he gave me a folder full of his poems and said ‘put something together from these poems that Ferlinghetti rejected for Front Lines (the book of his that City Lights published in 2002). The following weekend, I had to be in Hopland, CA for a birthday bash so I took the folder of poems with me and late at night when my wife and daughter had gone to bed, I went to the bar in the lobby of the hotel, ordered a double shot of Cognac and began to read the manuscript. That night I chose all the poems for the collection that I later gave the title Fists on Fire. It was remarkable that one of Jack’s famous poems, Path that I included in the book, was rejected by Ferlinghetti. He had written NO in caps with a cross next to it! Years later, I showed the poem again to Ferlinghetti and he read it, and then quietly said ‘This is one of Jack’s best poems.’ I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he had rejected it years ago. 

By mid-2000’s, I had published my book of interviews with Lawrence and we had become good friends. I would visit him regularly. He supported my press by giving me the opportunity to first publish a few of his poems. He was a remarkable man with a great sense of humor. I always felt he treated me like a son he would have liked to have. I went with him to his studio many times and acted as his assistant. He would call me late at night to say please come by tomorrow to fix my printer. I took him to his doctors. I helped him with his groceries. 

published by Sore Dove

His curiosity was endless. He would ask me all kinds of questions about Iran and the Middle East. He would talk to me about his worries and anxieties about the future of the United States. ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’ he hand-wrote it on a piece of cardboard and hung it on a wall in City Lights. By far, he was the most patriotic American I ever met. 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

As to how I got started in publishing poetry: I left Iran when I was 17 and went to England for my education. I graduated from University of Leeds in 1978 and in the midst of Iranian revolution went back to Iran to get my visa to come to the United States which was always the country that I wanted to visit the most. The U.S. Embassy in Tehran was still in operation. I had an acceptance letter from Iowa State University. But I had to be interviewed before they would issue me a student visa. It was a big deal, because if you didn’t do well in the interview, they could easily reject your application. Fortunately, coming from England, my English was fluent and my ‘interview’ became a lively conversation about great places to visit in London! After, my arrival to the U.S. the horrible episode of hostage crisis happened which of course I was very much against. Iranians living in the U.S. paid a price with all kinds of insults, prejudice and racism. It was 1980 that I discovered City Lights and what a savior it was! I used to go there and sit and read for hours. It was like going to Church. I would see Ferlinghetti pass me by on his way to his office but I did not dare talk to him. I always felt welcome and accepted there.

I had an awareness of the Beats when I was in high school in Tehran. I was reading the intellectual literary journal of the time called Ferdowsi and they would publish translations of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti’s poems and many others.

Around this time, I was writing poems ferociously. I knew that this was the universe I wanted to live in. The only question was how to find my way in. By the mid-eighties I was settled, I was done with school and was working in San Mateo. Cathy Voisard was a co-worker and we became close friends. We used to go to a park in our lunch hour and read our new poems to each other. Then I started submitting to small magazines of the time. After a shoe-box worth of rejections, finally Michael Hathaway of Chiron Review accepted one of my poems. It was a tremendous boost to my ego that someone actually liked something I had written. 

As to whether doors were opened to me or was it a struggle? I must say that I was very lucky and many doors were opened for me, partly being an Iranian and that fact alone was a source of curiosity for many. I always approached poets that I liked and had read their work. I had some encounters that were memorable – some resulted in publication and some didn’t. Through my reading at City Lights, I got to know Bob Kaufman’s work and I found his work extraordinary. I later met him at Caffe Trieste and approached him and bought him a cup of coffee and we talked. Man of few words and he would stare in the distance when he talked. I also had a rare opportunity to see Lenore Kandel at Diane di Prima’s 70th birthday party. She was a hermit but took a liking to me and invited me to her place which was filled with furniture and stuff and almost totally dark. I found my way to her bedroom. She was sitting up in bed with a purple light to one side of her and I managed to squeeze a chair in near her bed and sat down. We talked for hours. What a fascinating woman she was! She let me take photos of her and then gave me a poem which I published as a broadside that ended up in a portfolio called Meat/Beat which consisted of 23 signed broadsides and original art by Beat and Meat poets.

Lenore Kandel

One of the publications that I am most proud of was a broadside poem by Leonard Cohen. I knew Bill Roberts, publisher of Bottle of Smoke Press and then I met him at Vesuvio in San Francisco. The camaraderie was immediate and we became good friends and he is also publisher of my own work. Later, he generously invited me to go to his house in Delaware and publish a letterpress poem by Cohen and a book by Allen Ginsberg. We worked about 4-5 days in his basement in January of 2005. The letter that Allen Ginsberg had written to Kerouac in 1963 was published in book form in two editions. Bill Morgan, one of the executors of Ginsberg’s estate kindly offered it to me for publication.

The Cohen broadside was later signed by him and these days you’re lucky if you find a copy less than $1000.  

BE:  How did you hear of Gypsy?  (New poets seem to think we had no way of knowing about each other before the internet).

SD: After getting published in Chiron Review, a whole bunch of other small presses published my work and among them was your own Gypsy (Vergin Press). I had correspondence with you around 1986/1987 when you were in West Germany. It’s hard to believe these days but the channels of communications did exist pre-internet. I was exchanging letters with a few publishers and constantly learning from them and plotting my own entry in the field of publishing. You also put out spoken words cassettes and invited me to submit for Sanctuary 8. You were and are the real deal and I remain grateful for what you did for me and others in those years. 

Through the small presses, I also made lasting friendships. I read a poem by Ann Menebroker, ‘The Blue Fish’, so I wrote to her in 1986 and told her how much I loved her poem. We stayed pen pals until the day she died in 2016. Even though, I only met her twice in person in all these years, she was a close friend, and editor of my work. I published her multiple times. She was a sage and an amazing letter-writer that I sorely miss. 

BE: Do you have plans for more Sore Dove publications?  Would you tell us about them?

SD: Like all presses, Sore Dove has gone through its share of evolution. We began by publishing chapbooks, then limited edition broadsides came along and in the mid-2000s, I met a remarkable man named Arnold Martinez. He was an old school bookbinder and box maker. We became good friends and he produced a whole bunch of hand-crafted boxes for the press. These publications were all in very limited editions of no more than 30 copies. Couple of interesting ones were the baseball boxes that I did for Hirschman and Ferlinghetti. I come from the part of world where soccer is a religion but I don’t have the ballgame culture in me, however, both men have written game poems and Jack is a diehard fan of Detroit Lions and Lawrence loved SF Giants. With Arnold’s help, I designed a box that would fit a rolled broadside poem and next to it was a signed baseball. Both Jack and Lawrence loved the production. I never forget how giddy Lawrence was signing the baseballs -- a first for him.

Sadly, Arnold died in early 2021 from Covid so Sore Dove boxed editions are no more. But we continue with broadsides and unique livres d’artiste portfolios. 

BE:  Any advice for young poets or editor/publishers in today’s digital world?

SD: Follow others up to a point but reinvent the rules of the game for yourself. John Martin of Black Sparrow Press managed to sell poetry in the United States and survive and flourish. All he needed to sell to break even was to sell the signed limited editions which often carried an artwork by the poets. It was a brilliant idea that I stole from him (and told him so when I met him) and found out that it actually works. I have included original artworks for many of the poets I have published: Leonard Cohen, Jack Hirschman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Ann Menebroker, Linda King, Neeli Cherkovski, Joanna McClure and others.

And finally to paraphrase Irving Layton: Publishing poetry in the USA is not a choice, it’s a verdict.

Amiri Baraka, unknown and Soheyl Dahi

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Very informative and enlightening. That's some beautiful work that Dahi has accomplished.