Indie Spotlight: Tupelo Press

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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.

Once we accept a manuscript, Jim Schley, our Managing Editor and production manager, Marie Gauthier, our Director of Sales, Marketing and Publicity, Sarah Russell, our Administrative Director, and our superb designers are so good, so professional, and so experienced that, really, I could go fishing and that book will happen, and it will be expertly edited and beautifully designed, review copies will go out, catalogs will be written, designed and produced, and our sales reps (far as I know we’re the only indie press with its own national sales reps) will head for the bookstores, and readings will be slated. Likewise, Christopher Kondrich, Editor-in-Chief of the Tupelo Quarterly (our online magazine), and Kirsten Miles, Regional Tupelo Director in Charlottesville, VA—who runs the Teen Writing Center—are so good that they work pretty much without supervision.

And everybody doubles up. Sarah Russell is also Managing Editor of the Quarterly. Kirsten Miles also manages the 30/30 project. David Rossiter, a retired mathematician, who’s in charge of fulfillment (we’re self-distributed), is also our I.T. guy. Because they all do their jobs so well, I have the luxury of time to concentrate on, well, not fishing, but reading manuscripts and giving conferences. 

KF: Tupelo’s submissions come through its several poetry contests, and you also charge a reading fee during your open submission times. Beyond helping with operational costs and keeping submission numbers down, what are the benefits—for Tupelo and its prospective authors—of such an approach? Any drawbacks? 

JL: I know that there’s an ongoing debate about reading fees, but honestly, in certain ways it doesn’t interest me. Pragmatically speaking, almost without exception, no independent press could survive without reading fees. So much of what I do (now wearing my publisher’s hat), is to raise money. That’s the endless business of keeping an indie press going. For us, each book represents a $25,000 investment. Our staff and editors are all part-time, and though I’ve put in 70 to 80 hours a week since founding the Press, I took no salary at all for the first 14 years (my salary now is right at the poverty line).

So every penny goes into keeping the doors open, into turning manuscripts into books and sending them out into the world with all kinds of support, plus running the Tupelo Quarterly, the Teen Writing Center, and subsidizing scholarships and fellowships for Tupelo Conferences. Incidentally, these days, we publish 14-16 books a year, and of those a good dozen come to us outside of contests. All this said, if Microsoft or Apple or Ruth Lilly would write us some nice fat support checks, I’d absolutely love to be able to afford to do away with all of our reading fees. “Keeping submissions numbers down” is no part of the plan.

KF: Your initial Tupelo titles were all by women, and your current list shows a gender-equality that is refreshingly balanced. What about your editorial processes do you think might contribute to this result?

JL: Thanks for noticing this. We don’t publicize it (maybe we should), but 68% of our titles are by women. Our editorial processes are pretty simple: I read everything—5,000 manuscripts a year—and I choose what speaks to me. In truth, I think of myself as gender neutral in choosing what to publish. 

KF: While Tupelo began as a press primarily for emerging authors, you now have a healthy mix of new and established writers (some who became established by publishing their first titles with Tupelo). Is the emerging author still a focus of Tupelo’s editorial choices? What’s next for Tupelo, online or in print—what upcoming titles and projects are you most looking forward to?

Discoveries excite me, and Tupelo remains committed to finding and publishing emerging writers. We’ve broadened our mission over the years to actively seek out superb work by writers of color, and also, I find it exciting when established writers (like David Huddle and Lawrence Raab) actually walk away from their commercial publishing houses to join our nonprofit enterprise. And it’s an enormous satisfaction when writers whom we’ve either “discovered” or happened upon early on are having big careers: Ilya Kaminsky, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Anna Rabinowitz, Matthew Zapruder, Dan Beachy-Quick, Jennifer Michael Hecht, to name a few. But, of course, this is what I want for all of our writers. 

There’s so much coming soon that I’m excited about: for example, Pablo Neruda’s “Canto General,” his most important work, translated by Mariela Griffor. This will be the first translation of “Canto” by a woman, the first by a native Chilean, and for that matter, the first by a native Spanish speaker.

Also, we have (coming very soon) a graphic “novel in verse” by Tony Barnstone, with brilliant homage-to-noir full color illustrations by the gifted Iranian artist Amin Mansouri.  And there’s Nancy Naomi Carlson’s translation (from the French and Creole) of “Calacazza’s Delicious Dereliction” by the exquisite Martinique-born writer Suzanne Dracius. Also, we have a new joint venture with 3:A Taos Press, and our first project will be an anthology of indigenous poetry sourced from the US, Canada and South America. All in all, Tupelo Press has never been in a better place artistically and aesthetically.