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.

KF: Anthologies are often an overwhelming undertaking as well as a tricky marketing challenge. How do you acquire and develop an anthology at Autumn House? And while Autumn House’s collections have a clear cultural value, for example New America: Contemporary Literature for a Changing Society or Keeping the Wolves at Bay: Stories by Emerging American Writers, do they also help Autumn House’s bottom line by being marketed as textbooks?

MS: You’re right, Kate. A four hundred page anthology is a huge undertaking for a small press, and we’ve published a dozen of them. Our flagship anthology, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, featuring work by major poets such as W.S. Merwin, Lucille Clifton, and Naomi Shihab Nye, as well as a number of lesser known authors, is now in its third edition. Our anthologies are intended for college classroom use, and a number of teachers have adopted them. In the past, I generated the idea for each anthology, based on my perception of the kind of book that college English teachers wanted to assign to their students. I then pitched the idea to an experienced editor who selected the poems or prose, negotiated the rights, and wrote an introduction. Once we had a finished manuscript, then the production editor, usually me, worked with the designer, artist, and printer to produce the finished book. And, of course, marketing a book of this size and scope is key to its success.

KF: So many independent presses are run by editors who also are writers. How does working as an editor influence–or perhaps hamper–your work as a poet? Vice-versa?

Well, there are only so many hours in a day and only so many years in a career, so we all have to make choices about how we want to spend our time. I’m sure that I am less accomplished as a poet and writer than I would have been had I spent more time on my own writing and less time editing and publishing other people’s work. Sometimes I feel the sting of regret at not having written more and written better. That being said, I think on balance I made the right choice. At Autumn House, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best poets and writers in the English language and gain their respect. A year before he died, Phil Levine write a note to me praising the work of Autumn House, saying that we’d made an important contribution to American poetry. How many poets can say the same?

Moreover, building Autumn House gave me an opportunity to use abilities that are not commonly found in the literary world, especially among poets. There are many ways we can serve the Muse, and literary entrepreneurship is certainly one of them.

KF: The past couple decades have seen a wonderful resurgence in Pittsburgh being recognized as a literary gem–a joy to witness for writers and readers who know a life of letters can exist outside New York. How has Autumn House contributed to Pittsburgh’s national profile? What’s a unique benefit to being based in Pittsburgh?

MS: My wife Eva and I moved to Pittsburgh in 1987 partly because of the lively poetry community here. Pittsburgh is a wonderful place for a writer or artist to settle. There are poetry readings every night of the week, and a strong emphasis on the arts. Autumn House is part of this rich mix.

There’s always been a productive tension between Autumn House’s roots in the local Pittsburgh literary scene and our national and international presence as a publisher. On the one hand, we publish a number of important Pittsburgh poets such as Terrance Hayes, Jan Beatty, and Ed Ochester. We work closely with local teachers; we sponsor a reading series; and a significant portion of our funding is generated locally through foundation grants and donations from individuals. On the other hand, most of our authors live in other parts of the country, and as they promote their books, garner reviews, and win prizes, Autumn House’s reputation and book distribution expand in those places. Our international presence has grown as well with Autumn House’s books being regularly reviewed in The London Times Literary Supplement and The Jerusalem Times. So Autumn House has the best of both worlds: we’re rooted in Pittsburgh, but seen by the world.

KF: What new developments are in store at Autumn House? What venture or titles are you most excited about this coming year?

MS: The most exciting thing that’s going on now is the transition in our staff, with my stepping back and letting younger editors take the lead in running Autumn House. Christine Stroud joined Autumn House as an intern three years ago and has steadily worked her way up the ranks. Alison Taverna joined us as an intern last year and was promoted to fulltime in May of this year. These two stalwarts are assisted by a number of talented freelancers and volunteers, including our board members. The whole group makes a terrific team. This year, Christine and Alison are producing books from manuscripts that I selected, but starting next year, they’ll be producing titles which they’ve chosen. Among the books scheduled for release next year are St. Francis and the Flies, poems by Brian Swann; Bull and other Stories by Kathy Anderson; and Presentimiento, a memoir by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher.

KF: As you look back over the last 17 years of publishing books and building a press, what stands out for you? What are you most proud of? What regrets?

MS: I really enjoy scanning hundreds of manuscripts looking for the one that leaps out at me. I also get a kick from helping poets revise and polish their manuscripts, as well as working with designers to create beautiful covers and texts. Marketing books and organizing readings are sometimes fun. However, I never particularly liked being the leader of a nonprofit corporation. Fund-raising, in particular, I found to be onerous. I regret that the art of administration is not something I’ve ever fully embraced, but I’m confident that Christine and Alison, who’ve shown talent at both editing and administration, will do a better job at running the press than I’ve done.

KF: Now that you’ve turned over the management of Autumn House to the next generation of editors, what new projects are you working on?

MS: I’ve had more time for my writing — which I’m enjoying immensely. Also, I recently completed a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University – I’m fascinated by the healing properties of plants. In the empty lot near our house, I collect purslane and dandelion for our salads, and just the other day, Eva showed me a blackberry patch she found in a clearing in the woods.

But most of my time recently has gone into starting a new publishing venture separate from Autumn House. Vox Populi is an online magazine focusing on politics and poetry. It has a wide scope, so I’m able to include authors and genres I’ve never had the chance to publish before. Since we started last year, VP has posted over 1,000 items, and I especially like publishing work that the mainstream media shies away from because it might offend their corporate sponsors — such as music by Big Mama Thornton; leftist articles by Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges; poetry by Doug Anderson, Jose Padua, and Vanessa German; interviews with Cornell West; video essays by Kogonanda. VP’s subscriber list is growing and our posts often go viral reaching hundreds of thousands of people. It’s a whole new world of publishing out there. I feel honored to be part of it.