Writer Bryce Milligan made a blood oath in his backyard to buy Wings Press in 1994. Its founder, Joanie Whitebird, had agreed to let him have the press for $100 with the condition that he keep it going.
Two hundred books and 20 years later, Milligan has honored that promise. The small book press, which has had such a colossal impact on authors’ and readers’ lives, now celebrates its 40th anniversary.
Wings Press was founded by Whitebird and Joseph F. Lomax in 1975 “to express the myriad forms of art taking shape in Texas,” Whitebird said. Lomax passed away in the late ‘80s and Whitebird’s health was in decline when the press went belly up.
The press published 25 books. Its final book, "Working the Stone," was a collection of Milligan's poetry published in 1993.
“So I offered to buy it in order to get my book,” said Milligan.
Milligan is a novelist, poet, book critic, songwriter, musician, linguist, educator, political activist, publisher, book designer, and more. “He’s one of those rare cultural icons who brings to mind the MacArthur 'genius' grant,” said Margaret Randall, a feminist writer and activist, who has nine books published by Wings.
Milligan’s 124-year-old house in Southtown is filled with testimonials to his varied passions. In the dining room, hand-written poems by Joy Harjo and Jane Hirshfield grace the wall. On his dining table, Milligan has spread out the prodigious selection of books published by Wings in the last two years. They range from memoirs, chapbooks and children’s books to drama.
Three important anthologies are published by Wings this year: "Her Texas" is “a multicultural, multiethnic and multidisciplinary” anthology of Texas women’s writing.
He is an advocate for Chicana voices, and previously co-edited "Daughters of the Fifth Sun," an important anthology of Latina literature. He advocated for a Chicano literature collection at the San Antonio Public Library as well as for UTSA; and, along with the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, helped to found the Texas Small Press Book Fair (which later turned into the Inter-American Book Fair).
The two other anthologies published this year include literary criticism by Robert Bonazzi and Dave Oliphant. “The reason I did these is because they document this entire era, the last quarter of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. It documents what went on in the small press movement,” said Milligan.
“The number of books that he has issued, and their wide range of subjects and styles, is unequaled by any other small press publisher in Texas, and perhaps beyond its borders,”said Oliphant, who ran Prickly Pear Press in Austin for 25 years.
In the literary world, Milligan balances his stalwart presence with a flexible approach; he is accustomed to change. He has watched the number of traditional small presses shrink over the years, even though the physical act of publishing has become easier. Robert Bonazzi said he produced 10 (books) one year for Latitudes Press and it almost killed him. "But I’ve been able to produce 18, 20, even 25 one year, which is a book every two weeks, with the aid of using computers,” said Milligan.
On another wall in Milligan’s dining room, there is an original photograph of the Catholic writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, taken by John Howard Griffin, author of "Black Like Me". Merton and Griffin were connected through photography, Milligan explained; they traded cameras.
Griffin’s book “has floated this press for the last 20 years,” said Milligan. Penguin owns the rights to the paperback, but Wings Press owns the rights to the eBook version of "Black Like Me," which benefits Mulligan as schools switch over from paperbacks to eBooks.
There is no specific formula to a Wings book, but "Black Like Me" fits Milligan’s “example of an important book. It’s very well written, it’s spiritually insightful, it’s culturally crucial, it’s multi-racial in its outlook on life, and it’s experimental.”
When asked about his selection process for publications, Milligan read the Wings Press mission statement out loud, as it appears on the back of each book:
Wings Press intends to produce multi-cultural books, chapbooks, e-books, broadsides, enlightening the human spirit and enlivening the mind. Everyone associated with Wings Press has been or is a writer. We believe that writing is a transformational art form capable of changing the world, primarily by allowing us to glimpse something of each other’s souls. We believe that good writing is innovative, insightful, and interesting. But most of all it is honest. As Bob Dylan put it, ‘To live outside the law, you must be honest.’
What does it mean to live outside the law?
“Pay no attention to the rules, just do what’s right,” Milligan said. “I’ve lived by that since I first heard it in 1966. I guess Davy Crockett said the same thing, so it could be a Texas thing, too.” The idea appeals to his proud liberal leanings. “I have 150 writers, and I think I’ve only published one Republican, and I can’t say it was a mistake.”
Milligan is dedicated to giving voices to those who aren’t heard and standing up for the underserved, which translates to Wings Press' recent focus on environmental literature. "Apology to a Whale," the latest book by Cecile Pineda, “is environmental philosophy more than anything else,” said Milligan.
When asked about her working relationship with Milligan, Pineda said:
"When Bryce Milligan approached me with the promise that Wings Press would publish anything I wrote, and bring back all my out-of-print titles, I felt it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had come from a mangling by two major New York trade houses and by a prestigious, but indifferent New York literary agent. Although the recipients of many prizes and much critical acclaim, my works had been remaindered, and those not remaindered had been orphaned….That Bryce would have the courage to see in my work something outside the usual paradigms, and to stand by it has not only made my work as an artist viable, but has also given my work a place at the table of international fiction unavailable elsewhere in the context of American commercial trade book publication."
While Pineda is an award-winning writer who is based in Berkeley, CA, Wings Press often publishes writers who would otherwise not have a platform.
“Bryce Milligan and his Wings Press have been my salvation as a writer," said Oliphant, one of many writers who corroborate this claim. "That is, without him and his imprint my work would have languished, unpublished and unreviewed.”
“I’ve always focused on publishing people who were having trouble getting their voice out,” said Milligan. “We had a contest for many years that was for Latinas living in Texas under the age of 30, which was the most underserviced group in the country.”
Milligan handles everything from the book design to hand-stitching the poetry chapbooks. He fills the press catalog with enticing descriptions of the books and incisive blurbs, but it also reads like a manifesto for a small press. Milligan’s essay “In Praise of the Lowly Chapbook” explains the psychological importance of the chapbook as a literary artifact; it also documents how chapbooks have ignited poets’ careers.
“I have been designing, printing and sewing them regularly since I bought Wings Press in 1995,” said Milligan. At his house, he shows me where he sews, pointing to the blue chair in his living room. “I sit right there and do it while I watch Rachel Maddow.”
It’s hard to imagine that Milligan completes all of the jobs generated by Wings Press with only 24 hours in the day. In the front room, Milligan is surrounded by books and dulcimers that he hand-carved—he is also a luthier. He writes folk music and performs; he was the church musician at St. Mary’s Catholic Church for 30 years. Before that, as a teen, he played at the Rubiyat in Dallas, opening for musicians like Townes Van Zandt, Michael Martin Murphy and Ray Wiley Hubbard.
“That was the best creative writing class I’ve ever had,” Milligan said, referring to how they delivered their critiques of his songs. “No holds barred, they’d leave things bloody on the floor.”
His enthusiasm for language builds connections throughout the literary community. Poet Wang Ping met Milligan at the Linda Pace Foundation during Isaac Julien’s "Ten Thousand Waves" installation. Because her poetry was an integral part to the collaborative project, she was invited to read. “I invited local poets and the audience to participate in reading 'Ten Thousand Waves,'" said Wang. “Bryce was one of them. He has a great voice. I didn't know he was a singer then.
"After the reading, he told me he was a publisher, gave me a pile of his books as gifts and told me to send him poems for his consideration. I did, and it was the 'Ten Thousand Waves' book of poetry, the title poem he helped to perform. How fitting! A seeming coincidence but not really. We were just at the right place at the right time to put the puzzle pieces together….I'll do more books with Bryce without hesitation. He's the treasure (and) treasurer of the poetry world.”
For the last 12 years, Milligan has been working on a historical novel about a woman who is believed to be the first writer in recorded history. Her name is Enheduanna, the daughter of the famous king, Sargon. “We have over 2,500 lines of poetry by her, so I know a lot about her. Unfortunately, I had to learn how to read Sumerian, so it took a long time, but now I can read cuneiform on the walls of the (Metropolitan Museum of Art),” said Milligan.
This fall, Milligan’s "Take to the Highway: Arabesque for Travelers" will be published by West End Press, based in Albuquerque. He is not stopping the press, but slowing things down to spend more time on his writing.
Upcoming events honoring the Wings Press 40th Anniversary:
- April 9 - May 21: An art exhibit at the Bihl Haus on Wings Press book design, curated by Agnieszka Czeblakow, Rare Books Librarian at UTSA.
- April 10: A celebration of National Poetry Month "benefitting Gemini Ink's Writers in Communities program and honoring Wings Press," from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Whitley Conference Center at the Oblate School of Theology, 283 Oblate Dr. Sponsored by Voices de la Luna
*Top Image: Bryce Milligan inside his home. Photo by Wendy Weil Attwell.