Family Feud

If we have two, or three, or four, or five disgruntled writers," says Dr. Nicolas Kanellos, head of the nonprofit Arte Pblico Press at the University of Houston, "we're batting a lot better than most presses." Kanellos may be right on that point: writing, of course, is a commodity like any other, and like all good retailers a mainstream publisher does its best to buy low and sell high.

But Arte Pblico, which Kanellos founded 15 years ago at a time when mainstream presses mostly ignored Hispanic writers' work, built its reputation on being different. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and Greek father, Manhattan-born Kanellos leaped feet first into the 1970s Chicano movement, which aimed to recognize the Hispanic culture that has always existed alongside Anglo culture in the United States. While working on a doctorate in Spanish at the University of Texas, Kanellos took part in street theater and grassroots politics; in 1973, he founded a pan-Hispanic journal that grew into a small press. Finally, seven years later, the University of Houston offered to house the whole enterprise on its campus. To Mexican-American writer Denise Chavez, whose first book appeared with Arte Pblico nine years ago, Arte Pblico's activist past makes the present even sadder: Chavez is now suing Arte Pblico for copyright infringement.

In a dispute that fellow Latino writers say could rip their flourishing community apart, sides have already been taken. Backing Kanellos are many of Arte Pblico's current stable of 200 writers who still enjoy its famed supportiveness and personal attention. In Chavez's corner -- and represented by a fat stack of letters that Chavez keeps with her legal papers -- are angry Arte Pblico refugees including poet Gary Soto and recent MacArthur Grant recipient Sandra Cisneros. In a torrent of missives as variably blistering, sorrowful, dignified and bilingual as one might expect from the country's premier Hispanic writers, the correspondents accuse Arte Pblico of grafting the worst traits of for-profit publishing onto the emotional, dictatorial elements of a badly run small press.

"This is a very complex story, and a sad story to me as well, because it had to do with my trust," says Chavez in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico. "Literature is a business and you have to be very organized about it. When writers start out, there's such a naivete and such a hunger to get published. You're so eager to get published that you don't look at your contracts. You don't pay attention to things and you might find yourself signing away your book."

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That, Chavez says, is what she effectively did with The Last of the Menu Girls, first published by Arte Pblico in 1986. Chavez was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico when her teacher, the esteemed Hispanic novelist Rudolfo Anaya, suggested that she send her creative writing master's thesis to Arte Pblico. Kanellos' friendly response -- he accepted the manuscript of short stories and in 1986 published it as Menu Girls -- began several years of editor-writer nurturing, for which Kanellos is still famous. Both he and Chavez describe how Kanellos helped the financially struggling writer first to win a fellowship at UH, then a job as an assistant professor in the school's drama department.

That personal commitment, Chavez says, imbued Arte Pblico with a unique feeling of family: of Latino writers and publishers united not only by a product, but by blood and by the mandate to share and celebrate their culture. The informal, family atmosphere also extended to Arte Pblico's production department, however. Relying sometimes on work-study students, the still-young press produced volumes pocked with run-on sentences, typographical mistakes, even unauthorized changes in the texts.

The same kind of amateurishness also characterized Arte Pblico's business dealings. While Chavez remained on excellent terms with Kanellos personally, she soon grew uneasy with her lack of control of Menu Girls. Though she and Kanellos agreed to sign a new contract each time the book was reprinted, somehow, in printing after printing, no one ever seemed to answer Chavez's pleas to clean up the copy. "I should have said halt, stop," Chavez says. "I should have been more diligent."

Contracts, too, were makeshift affairs; Chavez claims that one of hers was signed by someone else when she was away from Houston. But at the time that seemed the price of getting published. Then, in 1991, when Menu Girls was published for a fourth time, Chavez asked again that the errors be corrected, only to hear the book was at the printers. "I said, 'You don't even have my signature on the contract, and you already sent the book to the printers,'" Chavez recalls. "I said I wasn't going to allow any more printings. I talked to him, and believe it or not he talked me into [signing]."  

Chavez says she insisted that the fourth printing would be the last. But in 1993, Arte Pblico published Menu Girls again. By that time the book had grown popular, attracting the attention of mainstream New York agent Susan Bergholz, with whom Chavez began working in 1993. "That's when I decided to leave Arte Pblico," she says. "I said I would like to just pull Menu Girls. [Kanellos] said, 'Well, I'm sorry, it says on this contract that we own your book.'"

Shocked, Chavez says, she found that the contracts she had signed for the book's last two printings in 1989 and 1991 were different from the first two, in 1984 and 1985. The negotiable items had been put into an appendix, which was attached to a form document. But the main body of the contract had been altered, too. "I was never informed that there were significant changes in the form document over the contracts I had previously signed, so I did not pay attention to this form language when I signed these documents," Chavez says. There was, of course, another reason why she didn't reread the familiar-looking document: she thought she was among family.

Nick Kanellos is eager to talk about Arte Pblico's bilingual children's books, its summer film series and its ambitious effort to bring important but neglected Latino writers back into print. Fifteen years after its modest start, Kanellos' brainchild is robust. Thanks to grants from such sources as the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the former underground press enjoys a $2 million budget and is the largest nonprofit literary publishing house in the country. But despite Arte Pblico's many successes, Kanellos also has plenty to say about the Denise Chavez case. To him, it is a personal betrayal.

"Denise wasn't signing away her copyright. The book is copyrighted in her name," Kanellos says. "By the contract -- and this is a standard contract in publishing around the country -- you publish as many books as you can sell. You don't need the permission of the author." Chavez knew all this when she signed each of her contracts -- none of which were signed by anyone but her, Kanellos says. But he thinks he knows where the rift between them started. "At the beginning we were doing flat fee contracts," Kanellos says. "Then we changed to royalty contracts. She was aware of that. What she wasn't aware of was that an agent would offer her fame and glory and lots of money."

Filed in August 1993, the lawsuit now languishes at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals; due to a little-known state constitutional clause, the University of Houston and all other state agencies are exempt from being sued over copyright issues. Arte Pblico, it turns out, enjoys that protection, too. Chavez's lawyer, Kenneth Kuffner, who took the case on a pro-bono basis, claims that UH lawyers encouraged him to take the dispute to court in order to prompt a settlement. Instead, the UH lawyers acted on the school's copyright exemption; that is the issue now being decided on appeal.

Meanwhile, as the case dangles in the slow winds of constitutional law, Chavez's stack of testimonials from angry writers keeps growing. Together, they form a disturbing montage whose common glue is alleged contract violations, overprinting, printing without permission and a certain personal spite that seems to rise in Kanellos when authors move on to bigger presses.

In one letter, San Antonio novelist/poet Sandra Cisneros says she left Arte Pblico after her newly acquired agent Susan Bergholz found flaws in her former contract. Later, Cisneros says, she also discovered that her work had been reprinted without her signature. "I, too, felt indebted to Arte Pblico for nurturing my work in its early years," Cisneros wrote Chavez. "[But] in many ways, Nick Kanellos assumed a paternalistic attitude concerning his writers and asked us to allow him to make decisions regarding our work."

Poet Gary Soto, who published two books with Arte Pblico, says the press printed 500 more copies of his book Small Faces than was in his contract. (Kanellos says this was an oversight.) Overprints can be damaging, Soto explains, because under Arte Pblico's early contracts, an author could not renegotiate a contract until a previous printing had sold out. Eventually, says Soto, now well-established in the mainstream press, he bought up the entire stock of his unsold copies from Kanellos "just to get away from him." Page after page of other letters complain about Arte Pblico's sudden policy changes, unauthorized reselling of poems printed in its quarterly magazine, and insults or emotional intimidation.

Some of the letters in Chavez's file include copies of correspondence from Kanellos; the notes are brief, informal and occasionally very acid. "You have a naive idea of how well poetry sells and how commercial it is or isn't," reads one letter to the poet Juan Felipe Herrera. "P.S. You sure do a lot of bitching for someone who has changed his address three times."  

The most spectacular artifact of friction between Kanellos and some of his former writers, though, springs from the pen of Herrera, who complained in 1993 that his book Exiles of Desire was overprinted and then sold by Arte Pblico without consent. With the help of an attorney, Herrera arranged with Kanellos that the latter would pay $200 for the overprints, with the stipulation that in 1989 all rights would revert back to Herrera. But, the poet claims, Arte Pblico is still selling Exiles to this day.

Herrera vented his frustration in a 1993 letter of support for Chavez. "Under the leadership of Mr. N. Kanellos, the Arte Pblico project has become a blasphemy to Chicana, Chicano and Latin-American letters," Herrera wrote. "With this letter, I am calling for a thorough investigation of Arte Pblico's enterprise; I am calling for a meticulous audit of Arte Pblico's management and contractual process and procedures; I am calling for a thorough examination of the relationship between Arte Pblico and the University of Houston; I am calling for the stoppage of federal, state and private funding and of any further business with and by Arte Pblico until every case against Arte Pblico is resolved."

To Kanellos, each bitter letter from a former associate reflects the press' achievements. While frankly admitting that the press' contracts "were not real good" in its early years, Kanellos puts that down to the early struggles of a grassroots endeavor fueled mostly by what he likes to call a mission. Rather than any wrongdoing by Arte Pblico, he says, his normally friendly voice taking on a slight whine, it is New York agent Bergholz's concerted efforts to steal his stable of writers that has caused much of the writers' discontent with Arte Pblico. In fact, if anyone was victimized by Arte Pblico's amateurish early contracts, it was the press itself, he contends. Although Bergholz extricated Cisneros' successful The House on Mango Street from Arte Pblico, by the time of Chavez's lawsuit, Kanellos says, "we had some contracts and (Bergholz) couldn't repeat her deadly deed."

Bergholz calls Kanellos' accusations absurd, saying Cisneros called after getting Bergholz's card from a common acquaintance, and other writers followed.

"I don't do that -- that's not my style," she says of Kanellos' accusation that she had stolen writers away from Arte Pblico.

Yet Bergholz acknowledges that most of the two dozen or so Hispanic writers she now represents have been published at Arte Pblico. Then again, she adds, so have most of the more respected Latino writers in the country. In addition to the normal desire of gifted writers to seek wider acceptance and sales in the mainstream, the writers she represents left Arte Pblico because of Kanellos' paternalism and the publishing house's shoddy contracts, Bergholz claims.

Still, the agent bookends her complaints about Kanellos with accolades for the publisher.

"Whatever Nick thinks of me," she says, "I think he has made an incredible contribution to American literature. No one can take that from him."

Perhaps because its participants are all uncommonly articulate, what in another industry might be simple legal and business conflicts are, in Arte Pblico's case, fraught with nuance. Denise Chavez's statements have an elegiac quality, voicing ire but also melancholy at a mentor she believes exploited her. To Rudolfo Anaya, the dean of Hispanic letters, the conflict between Chavez and Nick Kanellos sadly threatens the fraternity and goals of all Latino writers.

But perhaps most damning of all for a purportedly activist, minority operation, Puerto Rican-American author Nicholasa Mohr thinks Arte Pblico's conflicts -- which she knows of only secondhand -- reflect a transition from business, family-style, to something more conventional. Mohr, who has worked with Arte Pblico since 1986, says she is quite content with the relationship. But while the personal touch remains, Mohr says, authors now may be best off regarding Arte Pblico with the caution they do any other company.

"I've had no problems and no complaints," says Mohr, who also publishes with several mainstream presses. "[But] I was already making a living as a writer, so I come from that point of view. I like working with Nick. He's fair.

"If I have a contract with Nick I negotiate it; I don't just take it as it is," she adds. "In all fairness to these people, they may not understand that. It's just like any other enterprise -- it's a business.  

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