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Nestled on a street in the historic King William district, a few minutes from the bustle of the Blue Star Arts Complex, lies the unassuming heart of San Antonio literature: Wings Press.
“I guess it’s surprising to me as a writer that people don’t often know what’s going on in their own vicinity,” said Naomi Shihab Nye, who describes herself as a “wandering poet” who resides in San Antonio. “Wings Press really is a local treasure.”
Wings Press has been giving authors a voice for more than 40 years, a stretch that local poet Jim LaVilla-Havelin considers “no small feat” for an independent publisher.
The press was founded in 1975 by Joanie Whitebird and Joe Lomax in Houston for the production and publication of “literature of the nation of Texas.” Whitebird operated the press until 1995, publishing 25 volumes, mostly hand-sewn and hand-printed, including acclaimed Texas poet Bryce Milligan’s Working the Stone. In 1995, Whitebird passed the press on to Milligan, who brought it to San Antonio and serves as Wings’ director, editor, and publisher.
“I bought the press for a song and a blood promise, made in the backyard, that I would keep it going,” said Milligan. “Since then, I’ve broadened the mission to publish literature that I think needs to be published and to give a voice to diverse voices, without consideration of whether it’s actually going to make money.”
Milligan’s authors range across 28 states and several countries, mostly throughout Latin America.
“It’s very idiosyncratic,” he said. “I publish what I like, and I don’t publish what I don’t like.”
Only about 30% of Wings’ authors are from South Texas, but Milligan values their contribution.
“San Antonio is deeply engrained in what I do, and I have a real appreciation for the city supporting what I do, as idiosyncratic as it is,” he said. “San Antonio has been very good to me.”
Milligan is synonymous with Wings, and both overwhelmingly garner praise for their contributions to the literature of San Antonio and beyond.
“[Wings Press is] nationally admired for producing consistently quality literary work backed by a deeply genuine commitment to their writers,” said Trinity University Press Director Tom Payton in an email.
“Bryce has gone way beyond what anyone could have imagined doing with the press,” Nye said. “He’s published many young writers who are finding print for the first time, and many important writers whose voices we need, full of integrity and positive sustenance.”
Wings Press is known in part for debuting unpublished authors and for working to empower Latino and Latina writers. Wings’ first book under Milligan’s direction was an anthology of six female poets under age 25 from San Antonio. Four of the six poets in the anthology went on to publish their own books. From 1999-2002, Wings published seven titles by Latina poets under age 30 in a series called Premio Poesía Tejana at a time when minority poets statistically had the most difficulty getting a first work published.
“Wings is highly representative of our city’s culture in its profound multiculturalism and its attention to the undersung, emerging voices,” Nye said. “Grassroots care for those people is important to the very original culture of San Antonio, and Wings certainly provides that.”
Milligan’s interest in creating space for emergent authors also is apparent in his love of San Antonio’s cultural roots and his desire to keep them alive and present.
“San Antonio has a long history as a cultural crossroads. Before the Spanish arrived, it was a crossroads for Native Americans,” Milligan said. “So I think an expression of multiculturalism is sort of a natural San Antonio thing.
“Most [homegrown literature] has to do with indigenous and Latino culture. There’s an important Chicano writer named Alurista, who sort of created the idea of Aztlan as a homeland of Chicano culture, and during the movimiento, he said that ‘el corazón de Aztlan’ was in San Antonio. In many ways the [Chicano] literary movement was centered here. Even though there were bigger events and important writers elsewhere, San Antonio was always sort of at the center of things.”
Milligan worked to catalog San Antonio literature’s colorful past in an anthology called Literary San Antonio, which he edited to be released next year. The book covers 300 years of history, beginning with Coahuiltecan chants about the river, narratives from Spanish explorers, and written accounts from the priests who founded the settlement. The work continues into the first novel written in San Antonio in the 1830s, and to the many writers of the past two centuries who have been captivated by the city, its natural springs, and its people.
San Antonio’s influence continues to the present day, Milligan pointed out, with San Antonio’s creation of a city poet laureate in 2012 that has inspired other cities around the state to do the same.
“We have a really strong presence in poetry in Texas,” Milligan said. “There’s always a reading going on someplace, whether it’s by a published author or not.”
Two San Antonio poet laureates so far have gone on to become Texas poet laureates: Rosemary Catacalos, Texas’ first Latina poet laureate, and Carmen Tafolla, both of whom have had books published by Wings.
“The introduction of a voice to the community is incredibly important, and Bryce has been instrumental in that, time and time again,” LaVilla-Havelin said. “I think if you wanted to talk simply locally, that he’s brought us both Rosemary Catacalos and Carmen Tafolla, his place in heaven would be reserved just for that.”
But, LaVilla-Havelin said, Milligan doesn’t simply introduce a new author or an old author to a new community and stop there.
“If Bryce publishes you, he pushes you and makes sure the work finds its audience. That’s rare for small publishers,” he said. “The work Bryce does with Wings is way more than full-time. Its a labor of love.”
“I wear a lot of hats,” Milligan said.
At one point, he produced 20-25 books a year, an overwhelming pace for a lone editor-publisher. These days, he sticks to about six a year, which allows time for his own writing, music, and other projects, like making walking sticks for poet laureates. He only rarely takes new submissions, and mostly continues to publish existing members of the Wings family.
“I try to cater to my own authors,” Milligan said.
LaVilla-Havelin said that while he has lived in other cities with small presses and more literary renown, Wings is remarkable and uniquely San Antonian in its “artistic cross-breeding” between emerging local and established international writers.
“Wings is about the building of literary community,” LaVilla-Havelin said.
Currently, Wings is working on a set of new books to coincide with San Antonio’s Tricentennial, including a history of the Pearl Brewery, a history of Miraflores Park, and a reprint of a 1939 book on La Villita by then-Mayor Maury Maverick Sr., expanded with new material and a set of watercolors by Maverick’s granddaughter.
Despite its low profile, Wings Press plays an important role in making room for ideas to develop and voices to mingle, Payton said. It maintains its heritage while also looking outside itself and allowing different perspectives to find their way into the same conversation.
“While best-selling titles hog much of the media [and reader] attention, the real cultural substance in the history of book publishing is in important works often from small, independent presses,” Payton said. “Historically, they publish tomorrow’s great writers … today. It is yeoman’s work, oft-misunderstood and never fully appreciated, but culturally vital and completely needed.”
Nye encourages locals to explore the small publisher’s works and learn more about its authors.
“They’ve done more than most people would be able to believe, on a modest budget and without a lot of fanfare,” she said. “It speaks an important truth about us being a cultured and literate city. It is a feather in our cap.”