Indie Spotlight: Autumn House Press

autumn press

Autumn House Press was formed in Pittsburgh by poet Michael Simms in 1998, just as commercial and scholarly presses were responding to economic woes by slashing budgets and shrinking lists, abandoning established poets along the way. Autumn House made a name for itself by publishing an impressive roster of notable poets, including Gerald Stern, Ada Limon, Ellery Akers, Chana Bloch, Richard Jackson, Ed Ochester, Frank Gaspar, and Andrea Hollander. In 2008, the press expanded into fiction and in 2010 began publishing nonfiction; the press also is known for its influential contemporary anthologies.

In June 2015 after several years of training his replacements, Simms turned over the running of Autumn House to Christine Stroud, who selects, edits, and promotes new releases, and Alison Taverna, who manages business affairs. Simms continues as president of Autumn House, but his role is primarily that of mentor and advisor to the staff.

Autumn House’s most recent books include Twin of Blackness by Clifford Thompson, a terrific memoir in which the author, born in 1963, recounts his upbringing in a lower-middle-class black Washington D.C. neighborhood alongside his “twin”: “I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not—and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it.”

Other new titles are Our Portion: New and Selected Poems by Philip Terman, recently excerpted on Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, and So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, Jill Kandel’s quiet and candid memoir of moving to a remote part of Zambia as a newlywed in the early 1980s.

Autumn House primarily accepts book-length poetry, fiction, and nonfiction submissions through its three annual contests, which award publication and a $2,500 prize in each genre. Through its online imprint, Coal Hill Review, Autumn House also sponsors a yearly chapbook contest in poetry whose deadline of November 1 is quickly approaching.

For the Ploughshares blog, Autumn House founder Michael Simms shares more about Autumn House’s history, aesthetic, and outlook, and he discusses Vox Populi, his new publishing venture.

Kate Flaherty: Autumn House initially published only poetry. What prompted the addition of fiction and nonfiction? How has the press evolved as you’ve expanded?

Michael Simms: Our fiction and nonfiction initiatives came about as a result of natural growth in our community. My former colleague Sharon Dilworth, who had been the fiction editor at Carnegie Mellon University Press for ten years, put forward some interesting ideas about book projects she wanted to work on and she brought considerable talent and a wide network of authors, including Stewart O’Nan and Kathleen George. Later, Phillip Lopate encouraged us to start a nonfiction line, and he agreed to judge our nonfiction contest for the first couple of years.Continue Reading

Round-Down: McDonald’s Happy Readers Initiative Fated for Great Success



Roald Dahl’s estate, the National Literacy Trust, and McDonald’s have teamed up in a smart, new installment of the fast food franchise’s recent UK literacy initiative, Happy Readers. Fourteen-million Roald Dahl books have been created specifically for the project, featuring excerpts from some of the author’s classics, and will be distributed with Happy Meals in the United Kingdom.

In an interview for The Guardian, Director of the National Literacy Trust Abigail Moss said, “Many parents will have enjoyed the wonderful world of Roald Dahl when they were young and now they’ll be able to share these iconic stories with their children. The scale of the campaign will reach millions of children, including many who haven’t owned a book before, inspiring them to enjoy reading and improving their life chances.” This isn’t an empty public relations promise, either: around fifteen percent of children do not own a book, and McDonald’s’ considerable reach will help not only to change that disappointing fact, but to encourage many young people to grow into lifelong readers.

The facts compel: young readers, and those read to when young, are better set up for success. If there is any criticism of the Happy Readers initiative, it is that it has only taken off in the UK and has not yet been launched in other countries.

Unlike Chipotle’s Cultivating Thoughts series, McDonald’s Happy Readers seems to risk little in distribution. I approached Chipotle’s venture with a degree of hesitation for its implicit suggestion that literature is disposable. Happy Readers, however, is circulating the work via specially printed booklets. In addition, the initiative isbeing produced by a company that, according to Gus Lubin and Mamta Badkar at Business Insider, has “daily customer traffic (62 million) greater than the population of Great Britain.” It’s a project that is especially exciting for its growth potential–the prospect of this project moving its franchises globally.

This is a truly thoughtful and smart move on the part of a company that has come under relentless fire for its public face as a fast-food industry giant uninterested in the well-being of its customers.

“Cow Country” And The Problem With Pseudonyms


A recent post on the Harper’s blog has gotten me thinking about pseudonyms. In it, Art Winslow posits that a new novel, Cow Country, from an obscure vanity press was actually authored by Thomas Pynchon under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson.

As evidence, Winslow points to certain aesthetic similarities between the author and Pynchon, including its meta quality and the use of outlandish names like “Dimwiddle.”

Cow Country is at heart a playful novel, side-splittingly funny in a goofy, almost junior-high way, overworking its material far past expected bounds, taking Emily Dickinson’s idea of telling it “slant” and running with it in wild abandon, sometimes to the extent of losing its very breath. There will be recurrent talk of lost civilizations, forgotten cultures, and tongues. The novel seems to revel in its own delight of cultural esoterica, and it displays both a fondness for and a corresponding suspicion of countercultural motifs of the 1960s–70s as well.

Sure, sounds like Pynchon. Also Pynchonesque is the premise of the imagined scheme: to expose the advantage granted to “names” over unknown authors while a book’s content goes ignored.Continue Reading

Round-Down: On Women Writers And the Fallout from ‘Confession’ in the Digital Age

1150px-Astronomer_Edward_Charles_Pickering's_Harvard_computersSocial media is in the spotlight—or crosshairs, as it may be–in the literary landscape this week. Several articles and author interviews have touched upon both the benefits and the tremendous costs known to an author maintaining their online presence, none of them coming to a firm conclusion about whether it’s better to be Harper Lee or Hanya Yanagihara, Cheryl Strayed or Elena Ferrante when promoting a book. All of the attention being paid to how we market ourselves online has me asking: Does social media pose yet another disadvantage to women writers? Or is it a blessing that gives us easier access to mainstream audiences? Women are particularly vulnerable to the lure of public confession that the internet seems to demand—and they are most likely to be the ones to suffer fallout from it.

After Laura Bennett’s piece in Slate raised the question of whether publication of personal confessions is exploitative, The Guardian interviewed a variety of editors for outlets that often publish gone-viral first person essays. Curiously, all of these editors were themselves women and not all of them agreed on whether women were more likely to write confessionals than men.

My studies of literary history have revealed that the hyper-awareness of a woman writer’s biography has always, always garnered more attention than a male writer’s—and our obsession with a woman’s biography over her work has in some ways doomed many women writers either to obscurity or to the assumption that more women write more personally than men. For example, no one today doesn’t know the name of William Shakespeare. And yet, who among us recalls Mary Darby Robinson, an eighteenth century sonneteer? While she was alive, her personal life was of great interest to many critiquing her work. As Paula Backscheider puts it in her book, Eighteenth Century Women Poets and Their Poetry, “That [Robinson] succeeded Robert Southey as poetry editor of the Morning Post and died arranging a three-volume collection of her poetry is seldom mentioned, but the ‘autobiographical’ aspects of [her poetic sequence] Sappho and Phaon (1796), with its ‘jilted’ woman’s voice, nearly always attracts comment.”Continue Reading

A White Man Used An Asian Woman’s Name To Publish A Poem. Does That Change The Poem? Yes: A Brown Man Explains

4654424717_cf0f293c2e_bBy now you’ve probably read about the 2015 Best American Poetry scandal. For the uninitiated, the story goes like this: the anthology comes out with a contributor note by the editor, Sherman Alexie, which states that one of the poets included in the anthology, Yi-Fen Chou, is actually the pseudonym for a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson. Alexie then goes on, in the contributor note, to express frustration, rage, and then finally acceptance of the fact that he’d been duped by Hudson, who admittedly used the pseudonym, “Yi-Fen Chou,” to increase the likelihood that his poem might be accepted for publication.

As the story unfolded, the details got stranger by the day. Hudson’s pen name, Yi-Fen Chou, is actually the name of a very real person that Hudson knew in real life. Stranger still are some of the reactions to the controversy, many of which seem to celebrate Hudson’s actions as an event which evidences bias in contemporary publishing. Which begs the question that’s been asked over and over again by Hudson’s defenders: If the poem is good, it’s good. Does it matter that it’s written by a white man?

I’m a brown man. I also teach college English. So, let me answer that question: Yes. Yes, it does matter. Let me explain why.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Catapult Launches Onto the Literary Scene


Elizabeth Koch recently conceived of a promising new literary venture, Catapult, that launched yesterday. Jennifer Kovitz, the publisher’s publicity and marketing director, said that “Catapult is dedicated to spotlighting extraordinary narratives (as fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and graphic/illustrated projects) and we intend for Catapult to be an inclusive community for writers at all stages of their careers.”

Kovitz explains that the publishing company “was conceived by Andy Hunter and Elizabeth Koch in 2014, and has been just over a year and three months from conception to launch.” Hunter, co-founder of Electric Literature, will serve as Publisher, and Pat Strachan, who worked at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, will serve as Editor-in-Chief.

Catapult’s team members and their positions in the independent press community already situate the publisher within a revered literary landscape; the company seems poised to be of great new influence—and soon.

It is not often the case that I don’t at all question the necessity of a new literary venture. Catapult, however, promises to deliver the best in contemporary work today with an eye turned seriously toward supporting writers and readers in an ever-evolving industry.

Catapult already looks to be highly ambitious, well-organized, and worthy of attention. Its launch onto the literary scene seems at once careful and forceful, carrying the weight of extraordinary writing from its emerging and established writers alike. It is rare, too, to find this combination of vision, talent, dedication, resource, and commitment to voices at all levels—all qualities that give it the potential to be a fantastic literary force.

The new publishing company has been offering—and will continue to offer—excellent workshops with greats such as James Hannaham since April. Its first release is Pagdett Powell’s story collection Cries for Help, Various. David Byron Queen reviews the title at The Rumpus, and writes that the work is a “stirring balance of silliness and tragedy transcends and wins, over and over.”

Head over to Catapult’s website to read great new work by a cast of talented writers.

Indie Spotlight: The Backwaters Press


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Eighteen years ago, The Backwaters Press was established by poet Greg Kosmicki in Omaha, Nebraska, and immediately made its presence known with the anthology Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace: Writing by Women of the Great Plains/High Plains, which won two Nebraska Book Awards in 2003. The Backwaters Press has continued to produce illuminating anthologies celebrating the work of writers living and working in the Great Plains/High Plains, including Road Trip, a collection of interviews with Nebraska poets, as well as anthologies of personal reminiscences about unsung, brilliant writers Weldon Kees and Thomas McGrath. In addition to these titles, The Backwaters Press also has published literary fiction and nonfiction, but the bulk of its books are collections of poetry.

The Backwaters Press remains loyal to its Great Plains roots by publishing poets such as William Kloefkorn, Marjorie Saiser, Twyla Hansen and Mark Sanders, and the press also celebrates the work of poets around the globe through its annual Backwaters Press Prize. A small sample of The Backwaters titles include To Live in Autumn by Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck, We Grow Old by Taiwanese poet Yu-Han Chao, and Bulrushes, by New York native Michael Madonick.

Current Backwaters Press titles are Only the Dead Are Forgiven, by renowned poet Greg Kuzma, and Wakpá Wanági: Ghost River by Trevino L. Brings Plenty, a collection described by Joy Harjo as “poems of a hardcore rez visionary,” that was recently named Book of the Month by the radio program “Native American Calling.”

Having made its mark in the Great Plains and beyond, The Backwaters Press’s current editor Jim Cihlar shares with Ploughshares what’s on the horizon as Backwaters Press closes in on publishing its 100th title. Continue Reading

Round-Down: The Life-Saving Genius of The Drinkable Book

maxresdefaultChemist Teri Dankovich recently created a life-saving tool in the form of a book with perforated pages that filter water. The book, simply called The Drinkable Book, “acts to both educate the user and purify their drinking water.” It is a low-cost, portable, and reliable alternative to other water purification systems and methods, and though it is not yet commercially available, it aims to be soon. Watch a video of The Drinkable Book in action here.

One copy contains twenty-five pages, and each page uses silver nanoparticles to filter up to twenty-six gallons of water. The pages also function as educational tools, drawing attention to the dangers of drinking unsafe water. An estimated 663 million live without access to improved drinking water, and with 3.4 million dying of water-related diseases every year, this new venture is capable of offering real, lasting, dramatic aid.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Adam Johnson’s New Story to Sell for $9,000


Adam Johnson, the author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, has a new story collection, Fortunes Smiles, out today. The collection, which includes six stories, was recently reviewed, with high praise, by Lauren Groff for The New York Times.

Each of the stories in the collection have appeared in esteemed journals such as Tin House, except one. In December, this story, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” will be the feature of a collaboration with the artists at 21st Editions called “The Janus Turn.” Only thirty-seven copies of the resulting work will be produced. And they will each sell for the handsome sum of nine thousand dollars.

Ron Charles at The Washington Post said of the collaboration: “What a different experience this will be than scrolling through the text on your e-reader. You would never accidentally leave this on the subway.”

It’s true, of course—you wouldn’t. 21st Editions is a maker of literature-focused art that encourages the exploration of the thoughtful intersection between content and its forms.

But does engaging with a story differently, in another format, ineluctably change the story itself? I’d argue the answer is yes—it does. That the work is titled “The Janus Turn” already creates a new perspective, a complicated duality, story and art mirroring one another.

If there is another question, then, it seems to be: Is “The Janus Turn” worth $9,000? To which I would respond, “Of course. Could a Picasso be worth millions?”

It’s true that it’s not the same thing—but I do think that it is impossibly difficult to assign monetary value to the care taken and the process endured in creating art.

It would be interesting to see how 21st Editions could grow its operation with other written work or make its art more accessible. It does seem, however, that these are things that seem to run in some discord with the company’s high aim to follow, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, “in Alfred Stieglitz’s footsteps,” in enriching and exalting photography as an art form. Compromise in any direction would simply cheapen the work. This is art at its highest and, sure, most expensive, but it is well worth our attention and admiration.

Indie Spotlight: Tupelo Press


Founded in New England by Jeffrey Levine in fall of 1999, Tupelo Press made a splash with its first five collections of poetry, primarily by emerging writers, and it hasn’t looked back since. Tupelo quickly established a reputation for poetry collections that were both exacting and exciting, published to the highest design and production standards. Housed in North Adams, Massachusetts, Tupelo’s most recent titles include Ye Chun’s Lantern Puzzle, a “self-translated” collection of poems that effortlessly move between cultures, countries, and time itself; Soldier On, a collection of smart, conversational poems by Gale Marie Thompson; and, most recently, Fountain and Furnace by Hadara Bar-Nadav, exquisite poems that are deceptively minimal and powerfully deep.

In addition to publishing more than 150 titles thanks both to poetry contests and open submission periods, and expanding their list to include prose, Tupelo also hosts intimate writing conferences in California, New Mexico, and Maine and sponsors two online poetry-writing marathons. First is a 30/30 project where poets volunteer to write and post a new poem every day for 30 days and second is “The Million-Line Poem,” where, thanks to contributions of poets around the globe, a poem currently is growing couplet by couplet, until the final product will be celebrated with readings across the country.

Finally, Tupelo Press has established a Teen Writing Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, offering workshops and camps to high school aged students. Poet Jeffrey Levine, founder and editor of Tupelo, shared with me how the press has managed to grow so quickly while maintaining its level of excellence.

KF: With its conferences, teen center, and online presence, Tupelo has greatly expanded since your five titles from 2001. How do you juggle so many concurrent activities while maintaining your high publishing standards? Do you see the conferences, online projects, or teen writing center as venues for discovering new Tupelo authors?

JL: Certainly, the conferences and the Tupelo Quarterly bring us into contact with a rich pool of talented writers, some of whose books we’ve already solicited. But our secret is an extraordinary team. Continue Reading