In November, the Cape Cod-based publisher Wrinkled Sea Press released Sidelong Glances, the debut poetry collection by prolific Counterpoint contributor Dennis Rivard. The volume’s unusual journey to publication began with a poem printed in a high school yearbook half a century ago.
Rivard and his publisher, Gerry Grenier, both graduated from New Bedford High School in Massachusetts in 1971, but until recently, the classmates’ paths never crossed – at least, not in person. Yet a poem by Rivard in the school’s yearbook, a dystopian take on the holiday season, left a strong impression on a teenage Grenier, who saved it and revisited it on Christmases thereafter, even passing it out to friends.
With a class reunion approaching, Grenier began to wonder what had become of the poet and, through online research, tracked down his address in White River Junction, VT. Rivard hadn’t achieved literary fame, but he’d never stopped writing, and after initiating a correspondence, Grenier eventually ended up in possession of a stack of 700 poems.
Following a career in academic publishing in New York City and New Jersey, Grenier had retired to Orleans, MA. With the hope of finding a readership for Rivard’s work as well as a new hobby for himself, he decided to start a small business, which would become Wrinkled Sea Press.
“I’m not looking to make money off this,” Grenier noted.
Grenier’s proposal to publish a book took Rivard by surprise. “Who is this guy, you know? Out of the blue, he started contacting me, and I thought it was weird for quite a while before I finally got to know him,” the poet remembered. “I really wasn’t that crazy about the whole idea at first, but gradually I came to realize that he was the real thing and he’s a real great guy.”
Grenier doesn’t identify as a poetry expert. He emphasized the “accessible” quality of Rivard’s work.
“We go through life, and we experience some of the absurdities of our civilization, and it’s just wonderful to see Dennis hit the mark on so many of those oddities of our everyday life. And I just find it entertaining,” Grenier said. “It’s the kind of poetry that you can’t put down once you start reading it, I think.”
Some of Rivard’s poems are humorous, some philosophical, some romantic. A number of them also chronicle his self-described depression.
For Rivard, the condition entails “a hard edge on every surface.” He laments, among other challenges, “the invisibility of the / whole crumbly deal you deal with. / The general public doesn’t / hear any sirens blaring. No smoke burns / their eyes as you pass among them all.”
More recent poems reflect Rivard’s diagnosis of pre-Alzheimer’s disease, depicting the recognition of mental deterioration with a paradoxical clarity. He likens the forgetfulness and confusion to “walking around in an alleyway / that gets longer and shorter / and goes from much too wide / to pressing way hard in on you.”
According to Grenier, Rivard’s writing takes on these weighty subjects without succumbing to a mood of total darkness. “At the end of almost every poem, he hits the reader with a spark of light,” the publisher pointed out.
Rivard hesitated to attempt a summary of his own work. “I’m an observer with big eyes and big feelings, I guess,” he offered.
Sidelong Glances – characterized by Rivard as a “modest but heartfelt book” – contains 114 pages and nearly as many poems. With associate editor Paul Cordeiro, a college classmate of Rivard’s who’d taken care to preserve his friend’s writings over the years, Grenier spent nine months winnowing decades of work, including, often, multiple versions of the same poems.
“None of Dennis’s poems had dates on them,” Grenier said. But as far he knows, the oldest ones in the volume originated in the 1980s.
“The bulk of the stuff, 60% or so, is 2005 and forward,” Grenier added. Rivard wrote the poem that opens the volume only a year ago. “Some of my brain cells, / they’ve clumped, I think / into some unofficial / faction. They’ve split off / into some secret / club I’m not part of,” it begins.
Before Sidelong Glances, a few of Rivard’s poems had appeared in small magazines and newspapers, but his work didn’t find a consistent home in the literary journals. Instead, Counterpoint – which he encountered during visits to HCRS, the Vermont Department of Mental Health’s designated agency in Windsor County – served to bring his art to a community of readers.
In the fall 2020 issue, Counterpoint’s then-editor Anne Donahue observed, amid a full page dedicated to Rivard’s work, that the publication had by then received submissions from the poet for nearly two decades. “Anne was wonderful to me. I was very grateful for what she did for me,” Rivard said.
He expressed similar appreciation toward Grenier and admiration for his work as a publisher. “Gerry did a fantastic job, beyond belief,” he enthused. “I was very, very pleased.”
In 2020, Rivard moved to Davis House, an assisted living facility, in Windsor, where, by his account, his wife Shirley visits him about twice a week from White River Junction. “It’s going OK. It’s a pretty good place,” he said. “There are other places I’d rather be, but it’s not too bad.”
Lately, Rivard hasn’t produced as much poetry as usual, and he suspects that he is “fairly settling into a kind of retirement, because it’s just not happening. I’m not going to force it.”
Grenier, however, already has plans to put together another Rivard collection. He also hopes to publish other poets, turning Wrinkled Sea Press into a second career of sorts for himself.
“The subject is very different, but the mechanics of publishing are the same, whether it’s poetry, trade bestsellers, or academic publishing, where I worked. It’s content acquisition, content editing, design, printing, marketing – you break it down to those silos there,” he explained.
As his new company’s first venture, Sidelong Glances was a success by the judgment of Grenier, who cited 105 sales in the book’s first month on account of social media marketing. More importantly, he had created a durable testament to Rivard’s creative gift.
“After connecting with Dennis, my whole motivation was to give Dennis something that recognizes his art of poetry,” Grenier recalled. “And the day the book came out, I sent him multiple copies, and I called him up, and he was crying. He said, ‘I never thought that my poetry would be recognized. This is one of the greatest things that has happened to me.’”
Sidelong Glances is available for purchase at Amazon and other booksellers.