Massachusetts presses publish “Notable” books

“Recognition is the coin of the realm for a literary press,” says Jeffrey Levine, Editor-in-Chief of Massachusetts-based Tupelo Press. Right now Levine has a couple of big coins.  Of the twenty-two books assessed by the Academy of American Poets as “Notable” for 2011, two were published by Tupelo. Two may not seem a large number until you understand that the following big name presses had only one book each on the list: Norton, Knopf, and Houghton Mifflin.  The two books Tupelo published are Circle’s Apprentice by Dan Beach-Quick and Severance Songs by Joshua Corey. “It’s great for the book, for the author and for Tupelo Press to have this sort of double recognition.” He adds, “It’s great, and we’re grateful.”


Altogether books by eighteen presses were chosen, with four presses represented by two books each. Another of those doubly-acknowledged presses is Four Way Books, which also has Massachusetts roots. Martha Rhodes, Director and Founding Editor, explains that three of the four founding editors — Jane Brox, Helen Fremont, and Dzvinia Orlowsky – lived in Massachusetts, and Rhodes, though she now lives in New York, was born and grew up just outside of Boston. Four Way’s Notable books are: Kevin Prufer’s In a Beautiful Country  and Jennifer Denrow’s California.


The other literary presses with two Notable books are Ahsahta Press and Nightboats Books.


Levine is pleased with the recognition of two poets within the Tupelo stable, but he is quick to note that other Tupelo books have been honored. “Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish  was a semifinalist this year for the National Book Award and won several other awards. Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa won about every award a first book can win: a Whiting Prize, the Dorset Prize, an Institute of Arts and Letters award, and so on.” Nezhukumatathil was one of the headliner poets at last year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

Four Way books have received other honors, too, including Daniel Tobin’s Belated Heavens, which was named a 2011 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. Monica Youn’s Ignatz was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in Poetry, and Debra Allbery won the 2010 Grub Street National Poetry Prize for Fimbul-Winter.

Levine began Tupelo in November of 1999, not long after receiving an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers. The press began in a small office in Walpole, New Hampshire. Levine says, “I had recently gotten involved with the Great River Arts Institute and the founding director thought it would be a fine thing to add a publishing arm to their (mainly) fine arts-oriented efforts. As for me, I thought it might be a fine and noble thing to search out and publish emerging poets with large talents, distinctive voices, important ideas, and a vivid feel for the language. Anyway, that alliance didn’t really catch fire, but the press did: the first book we published – Jennifer Michael Hecht’s The Next Ancient World” – won the Norma Farber first book award from the Poetry Society of America, and we were off and running.”


Levine continues with the history of how Tupelo came to Massachusetts. “Getting those fabulous poets into print gave me so much pleasure—and still does—as did finding a few sensational designers who helped me achieve the vision of making the physical artifact—that thing that becomes a home for each book—into works of art. Soon (very soon) I moved the press to Dorset, VT, where there was a small advertising/design house with actual publishing experience – by which I mean, they knew how to turn a 70-page manuscript into a printed book. Then, three and-a-half years ago, having way outgrown that space in Vermont, I discovered the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, MA – large artists spaces with high, high roofs, many big windows overlooking the river, the town, and the Berkshire mountains – and decided at once that’s where Tupelo Press needed to be.”


Circle’s Apprentice is the third book by Beachy-Quick that Tupelo has published. Levine believes, “Each of the three has been quite different. But here’s what remains the same: for all of his nearly visionary gifts as an “experimental” poet, Dan writes poems that are beautiful and so beautifully controlled, that take the sort of risk on the page that leads to discovery for the writer and, necessarily then, discovery for the reader.”


Levine compares Beachy-Quick’s poetic methods to music. “There’s something almost Mozartean in the way each poem seems so effortlessly made. Seems effortless, yes, but very little of what I’ve read before prepared me for Dan’s work: the weight of his spare lines, the overwhelming combination of empathy and intelligence that shines through them. There’s an authority at work that puts me entirely at ease – I’m willing to let that voice wash over me over and over again. To read Dan’s poems out loud is to be invited inside the creative process itself: it’s like listening to an extraordinary jazz pianist whose playing is informed with surprising harmonic invention, rhythmic variety and authority, and melodic freshness – one who makes you feel instantly transported and elevated. There’s something of that pureness of the musical art form that enters Dan’s work. I fully believe that Dan is one of the most important poets now writing.”


Levine is just as excited about the work of Joshua Corey. Severance Songs “does the important and almost impossible work of remaking the sonnet in his own image. Each poem has 14 lines, but you don’t find a recognizable meter (rhythm) or rhyme scheme. So the container, that instantly recognizable sonnet shape, becomes something else in his hands: a deft, earnest and deeply thought conversation with readers, all of us whose world changed after 9/11.  There’s an emotional rawness that reaches out through the evident intelligence — and that very rawness is quite addictive, I have to tell you. Finally, what makes any book stand out for me comes down to a rather simple test: do I need to keep going back and back to the book? Does it generate heat of its own accord? I did. It does.”

Rhodes and the three other founding editors also began Four Way Books not long after receiving MFAs from Warren Wilson. She says, “Four Way Books was created mostly because trade houses virtually abandoned poetry and literary fiction.”

Besides In a Beautiful Country, Four Way has also published more than one book by Prufer. “We enjoy the passion and integrity of his work, and we like to follow our authors when possible. His next book with us will be out in 2014.” says Rhodes.

She is also enthusiastic about Denrow’s book. “The linguistic integrity of her work is exhilarating.”

Mass Poetry is excited to have such a strong representation from our presses. We offer our congratulations to both and thank them for their role in keeping poetry vital.