General 10-18-2004

The Spirit of Holy Cow

Jean Sramek spoke to Jim Perlman about his remarkable publishing house, Holy Cow Press. In case you're wondering, the name came to him in a dream.

Rob Reiner’s cult-classic mockumentary This is Spinal Tap includes a scene with the fictional band’s lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel. The interviewer asks Nigel what he would do for a living if he weren’t a rock musician. Nigel, played by the wonderfully deadpan Christopher Guest, chews his gum thoughtfully and answers, “Well, I suppose I could work in a shop of some kind …maybe in a haberdashery … you know, like: ‘What size do you wear, sir?’ and then you answer me. And I say, ‘I think we have that’ or ‘No, we’re all out.’ You see, that sort of thing, I think I could possibly muster up.” When the interviewer asks him whether he’d be happy in such a pedestrian occupation, Nigel shrugs, “Well, I don’t know. What are the hours?”

The scene has two messages:

1. A famous rock star cannot imagine having a regular job.
2. If you’re a famous rock star, why bother?

When you talk to Jim Perlman, the founder and sole employee of Duluth’s Holy Cow! Press, you catch a little of that famous rock star vibe. Only without the leather pants and groupies. Okay, actually without any of the trappings of a famous rock star. He is, after all a book publisher. He studied business at the University of Minnesota, and he taught community college English a time or two. Those were aberrations; he’s a book publisher. He and Nigel Tufnel have one thing in common: they don’t wish to waste idle time thinking about other things they might do for a living. Can you blame them?

Ask Perlman, 53, about the authors he’s worked with, or his backlist, or the titles he has coming out this fall, and the conversation comes easily. Ask standard interview questions about his philosophy as a publisher or the evolution of his approach to publishing, and he’ll be more thoughtful, more careful—not because he doesn’t know the answers, but perhaps because doing his work comes so naturally, and because he is so content in his role, that to deconstruct it is to stomp all the fun out of it.

Jim Perlman started Holy Cow! Press (the name came to him in a dream) as a college student in 1977, but his love of literature was born a decade earlier. As a student in a rather progressive advanced English class at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, he was exposed to the beat poets. “I was swept away by the power of poetry,” remembers Perlman, “and by the power of protest.” Soon afterwards, he became the editor of the school’s literary magazine. In the years that followed, he left a trail of literary magazines in his wake: one at the University of Minnesota; an independent magazine called Moons and Lion Tailes in 1973; another at the University of Arizona. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa, editing poetry for the Iowa Review, he came to realize that literary magazines had their limitations. “They have a shelf life that’s pretty short,” he explains, “and people don’t read them the same way they read books. The presentation can be fragmented, with different kinds of work by different people. They don’t seem quite as ‘centered’ as books can be.”

He found himself in a community of writers who would be among the first ones published by the newly formed Holy Cow! Press. For Perlman, “it seemed like a logical extension of being surrounded by these writers, these poets—to start publishing books.”

Among the first titles published by “The Cow” was Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, a compilation of responses to Whitman’s works. When Perlman, his wife Deborah, and their growing family moved to Stevens Point, WI, Perlman had the opportunity to reprint some of Meridel LeSueur’s children’s books, first published in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. In the late ‘80’s, the Peterson-Perlman family (and Holy Cow!) moved one last time. They now live in Duluth, where Deborah teaches communication at the University of Minnesota. In the 27 years since the printing of Letters to Tomasito, a chapbook by Thomas McGrath, Holy Cow! has published over 70 books. About three-quarters of them are still in print. In a typical week, he receives 800 pages of unsolicited work.

Holy Cow! publishes an average of 3 to 5 books per year, mostly poetry, short fiction, young adult books, and prose, all of it with a regional focus—Perlman looks for perspectives that are uniquely Midwestern—and many of the works are not only Midwestern, not only regional, but decidedly local. Connie Wanek’s Hartley Field (2003) is a collection of poems named for a Duluth location just 10 minutes’ walk from Perlman’s office; Sea Smoke, is the fourth Holy Cow! offering by poet Louis Jenkins, a longtime friend of Perlman’s who lives within shouting distance of Holy Cow!’s offices.

However, Perlman does not choose books solely because of their Midwesternness. The writing, even if informed by an author’s location, must transcend that location and appeal to any potential reader. “If writing is really good, and deep, and significant, it’s going to speak to a broader audience.” He uses Jenkins’ poems as an example. “Even though Louis’ work is written here, in Duluth, in Minnesota, he is not a ‘Minnesota poet,’ he is a national poet.”

A significant percentage of his titles are authored by Native Americans (Anne Dunne, Joseph Bruchac, and Todd Fuller, to name a few) or center on Native culture. Perlman has made a commitment to publishing Native works—something that relatively few small presses are doing. “Writing can transcend not only state and geographic boundaries, but cultural boundaries,” says Perlman. As a non-Native, he feels fairly comfortable in his role as publisher of Native writing, but he admits there is controversy (subject matter or tribal enrollment? Content or full-blood status?) around what constitutes “Native” writing. They’re hard questions to answer, but he maintains that what is most important is that the writing say something essential about Native culture. Just as a regional or Midwestern work must do more than simply be regional or Midwestern to be published by Holy Cow!, the Native-themed works he chooses “must be more than simply Native—it’s got to be something more fundamental than that.”

Holy Cow! is a sort of stay-at-home publishing company. Perlman runs the business from a small office in his home, furnished with an ancient computer, a small sofa, and neat, endless piles of papers and manuscripts. His home phone number is also the business line for Holy Cow! and Perlman sees no reason to get a second line. His four children, raised in a house with a publisher in the upstairs sunporch, are used to answering the phone in a reasonably professional manner. “They’re well trained,” says Perlman. “It’s a part of their lives, too.”

Louis Jenkins’ forthcoming book includes a mischievous piece called “Retirement,” (see sidebar) in which he muses about whether to sell his poetry “business” and wonders what the new owner will do with it. Perlman giggles when asked whether any of his four children (now aged 14, 16, 19, and 20) would likely take over the family publishing business. “I think Nina [Perlman’s 19-year-old daughter, a journalism major at the University of Minnesota] inherited the literary bug. We’ve talked about her taking over the press, but she’s said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to publish any poetry. I just don’t get poetry.’” Would it be okay with Dad if his likely heir changed the direction of the press? “Sure,” he says good-naturedly. “She’d probably publish mysteries. Something more concrete.”

Publishing books is what Perlman does, but it would be more accurate to say that it is who he is. Fortunately for his authors—and their readers—Jim Perlman has no aspirations to become a haberdasher, no matter how good the hours.

Contact Holy Cow! Press at to obtain the forthcoming titles:
Sea Smoke, Louis Jenkins
Century’s Road, Patricia Kirkpatrick
, edited by Ellen Moore Anderson