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Not an Elegy for The University of Akron Press

We are still writing and revising the fate of The University of Akron Press. I say “we,” since the voices that matter to me are the voices of the poets, editors, and designers who make the literary landscape a place worth inhabiting. These are the voices that matter to me because they have earned my trust through their words and their work, using the power of the page to touch my life in meaningful ways, far beyond the physical location of Akron. These are, unfortunately, not the loudest or most powerful voices in our current cultural climate, as evidenced by the sweeping budget and job cuts that unceremoniously shut down The University of Akron Press earlier this week. More recent clarifications state that “the press” itself will not be shut down entirely, but will be “transferred to the Division of Libraries.” Whatever this actually means in practical terms, what is a press without its editors, its staff, its expertise, its resources, and its vision? And what is a university, if not a place that supports intellectual and creative growth and community?

I do not envy administrators who have to make hard financial decisions in difficult times. I have known and worked with, and I continue to know and work with, administrators who work toward the greater good and serve as true stewards. But as is so often the case, the facts of this situation include the usual bloated salaries at the top of the university food chain, alongside a troubling lack of clarity as to where the university’s money is being allocated.

Essentially, we aren’t seeing anything at The University of Akron right now that we aren’t seeing again and again in other institutional contexts, which is all the more reason why everyone who cares about the health of education, culture, and literature should care about what’s unfolding at The University of Akron. Cuts like these echo cuts at institutions like Howard University, where students no longer have the opportunity to work with Washington, D.C. inspiration and institution E. Ethelbert Miller, the brilliant poet and activist whose position as director of Howard University’s African American Resource Center was eliminated (also unceremoniously) just a few months ago, along with 83 other staff positions. He had been at Howard for the past 40 years. They echo the results of California’s budget cuts and a “shifting marketplace” a few years ago, when the University of California Press suspended its visionary New California Poetry series indefinitely, issuing no further volumes in a series that includes critically acclaimed books like Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary. These issues aren’t simply local, or even national, but international, as evidenced by recently slashed humanities positions and departments at the University of Amsterdam; (George Blaustein’s “Letter from Amsterdam” in n+1 is a particularly thorough narrative of that situation). Cuts like these don’t just reflect the realities of “the bottom line,” they reflect what those in power see as expendable. Our voices must reflect otherwise.

The facts of the situation at The University of Akron press were first detailed in local reports like  Marilyn Miller’s article in the Akron Beacon Journal, before being picked up by national news outlets like Claire Kirch’s article in Publisher’s Weekly and Scott Jaschik’s piece at Inside Higher Ed, which is a particularly helpful analysis of the situation. The Association of American University Presses issued an announcement condemning the university’s decision.

Rather than aggregating those reports, I want to highlight the work and voices of The University of Akron Press itself. Some of the press’s authors, staff, and supporters have been generous enough to take the time to share their thoughts with The Kenyon Review blog.

Mary Biddinger writes:

When I received the keys to my office as editor of the Akron Series in Poetry in 2008, my first thought was to take a lot of pictures. I flashed forward to a version of myself on the brink of retirement, still settling into an overstuffed gray chair in an alcove of the Bierce Library, allowing myself to be completely transported, and viscerally moved, by the poetry manuscripts that crossed the transom. Now, I wish I had taken more pictures, because it seems my time as editor ended on Tuesday, July 28th 2015, with the termination of all staff members at the University of Akron Press.

So far I have not received any message from the administration regarding the future of the Akron Series in Poetry, but a posting on the UA Press website states, “The operations of University Press are being transferred to the Division of Libraries, where the director will work with the interim dean of Libraries and the Provost to assess UA Press operations and to recommend priorities going forward.” I tend to give the benefit of the doubt, so I kept thinking that perhaps the president and board of trustees did not realize there was a longstanding poetry series founded by the venerable Elton Glaser. The response to the shuttering of the UA Press has been substantial, and national, as it should be. I am devastated for our poetry authors and poetics editors, who are a brilliant, diverse group. They aren’t just excellent thinkers, but good people who give much of themselves to others, and to the arts.

My favorite poetry collections are ones that aren’t afraid to show their teeth. I lecture my graduate students about how taking risks can be a way to understand a poem’s underlying obsessions and passions. Many of the books that I accepted for publication as my editor’s choice selections were first books by innovative new poets such as Sarah Perrier, Emilia Phillips, Brittany Cavallaro, and Jennifer Moore. During my time as editor of the Akron Series in Poetry, and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, which I founded in 2009 with John Gallaher, I worked closely with designer Amy Freels. I can say that what we did was not just literary publishing, but the creation of art. We engaged deeply with the books, pondering the intersection of text and design, and corresponded extensively with the authors regarding all aspects of publication. In many ways it felt like we were a pair of midwives, offering support and encouragement and wisdom to ease something miraculous into the world.

Amy Freels adds:

I loved the challenge of designing the poetry books and working with each author to make each book a physical representation of the heart of each manuscript. Our authors are amazing and I will carry their poetry with me in my heart, always. I hope we are able to continue the Akron Series in Poetry and Series on Contemporary Poetics in some form.

Caryl Pagel writes:

As the Director the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, a neighboring university press that shares graduate students with The University of Akron Press, I can imagine the gigantic hole this will leave in the poetry community—nationally and locally. Akron’s students and alumni will no longer have the example of Mary Biddinger’s editorial vision or Amy Freels’ bookmaking brilliance, not to mention their dedication to readers and authors and their commitment to innovative poetry. It is alarming that administrators are unable to see the value in a university program that uses the collaborative energies of students, staff, and faculty to select, shape, support, and share works of art; certainly an ominous sign for everyone in the humanities.

Rebecca Hazelton, co-editor of the forthcoming UA Press anthology The Manifesto Project writes:

I’d been familiar with the University of Akron’s Press for many years because of the high reputation of the Poetry and Poetics series. When I was in graduate school and when I was a fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’d all discuss our dream presses. The University of Akron’s Poetry and Poetics series came up more than once in these discussions because of its strong catalog of both young and established poets and its outstanding work in promoting those books.
The University of Akron’s Poetry & Poetics series has been a powerhouse. There are many great books there, but I’m a real fan of Ashley Capp’s Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, Brian Brodeur’s Other Latitudes, John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World, Prop Rockery by Emily Rosko, and I have to mention the first book of my sometimes writing partner, Girl King, by Brittany Cavallaro, which was just published and deserves attention.
It was because of this fantastic reputation that when Alan Michael Parker and I came up with a book proposal — The Manifesto Project, an anthology of contemporary poets’ manifestos with accompanying poems — we were more than pleased to find a home with Akron. Over the past year, we’ve worked to gather and edit our contributor’s pieces, and the press has been amazing in working with us. Mary Biddinger and Thomas Bacher were communicative and enthusiastic, just what you want from an editor and a director, Carol Slatter was incredibly helpful with gathering contracts from about forty-four contributors, and while we weren’t to the book design process yet, I’d worked with Amy Freels for my own book at Cleveland State UP, and so I know that would have also been a good experience.
The fate of our book — and of our contributors’ work — is unknown. The latest news release — that the press, sans its staff, is being moved to the library — does not reassure me considering librarians are not publishers, and they’ve lost nine of their staff to boot. Other poets under contract are in the same boat. And of course, all the poets in the catalog now lack a real press to promote their work.

University of Akron Press author Brittany Cavallaro, who took the time to comment, despite being in the middle of a cross country move, wrote:

I consider Mary Biddinger’s work with the Akron Poetry and Poetics series to be of incredible importance to the poetry world at large. My book, GIRL-KING, just came out with the press this spring, and I was (and am) so happy to be a part of the legacy of Akron authors that she was building there. I’m heartbroken to be without my press’s support when my book is less than six months old, and I’m devastated for the staff members that lost their jobs.

University of Akron Press author Steve Kistulentz says:

I spent 17 years in national politics. I’ve managed people, campaigns, and multi-million dollar budgets. I’ve worked at a university that housed a well-known press. These are issues I know. It’s a manufactured crisis. The money they’ll spend on new branding for the athletic teams this year would fund press operations for the next several years. This is a classic case of administrators destroying something the institution does well in favor of investing in things that have little practical or historical connection to the University’s mission or strategic vision. I have to ask what the Board of Trustees is really doing here. They’ve clearly either failed in their responsibilities as custodians of the public trust, or they are simply a rubber stamp. Three years ago, they publicly approved a strategic plan that called for massive investment and hiring 160 new faculty and staff. Now, they claim a need for reductions. I’ve read the verbatim transcripts of the faculty senate for the past two years; there’s absolutely zero discussion of the press’s closing as a possibility. It’s the kind of secretive back room behavior that has no place in the shared governance of a major university. This entire situation is an example of how bad business practices have crept into university administration. This president is essentially an accountant, not an academic; in just a year, he’s unnecessarily spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to make a very good regional institution into something it was never intended to be.

I chose Akron as the home for my second book precisely because their staff sold me on the idea that the University of Akron Poetry Series wanted to cultivate careers for their authors, not just individual titles. My first book had been a finalist for the Akron Prize, and through that experience, I got to know what a great editor Mary Biddinger is; she took time to give me some notes on the book even after it won an award from another press. So when I had the chance to work with Mary, and Tom, and Amy on Little Black Daydream, I was thrilled. And that experience sounds like every other story I’ve heard this week from other authors in the series.

University of Akron Press author Emilia Phillips, whose book Signaletics was published by UA Press in 2013, and whose second book Groundspeed is (was?) forthcoming from UA Press told me that she’s still largely in the dark. She writes: “I’ve heard they intend to publish my book, but with no staff. No designer to finish designing the exterior and interior of the book. No staff to support the book through submissions to post-publication book contests. No support at conferences, etc.” She has been sending letters to the director, “begging my contract to be released and my rights to the cover image and design reverted to me. I’m not sure what he can do. I’ve also written to the President, Board of Trustees, and a Provost asking for the reinstatement of the staff or to release my contract. I’ve contacted Authors Guild to see if they’d look over my contract to see if I have an easy out. Otherwise, I may need to hire an attorney to attempt to get me out of the contract so I can find a home at a press that will support the book.”

Just last week, I was admiring Amy Freels’s designs for Phillips’s two books:

Signaletics Groundspeed

A few months before that, I was blown away by the title poem from “Groundspeed,” published last year in Green Mountains Review:

Groundspeed

On the Change.org petition “Restore Funding for University of Akron Press,” University of Akron Press author Oliver de la Paz writes:

I have published three books with the University of Akron Press. I have also purchased and used books by the UA Press in my classes at Western Washington University. And I’m not the only one who has used their books. A university press is a vital way for a university to not only engage with its students who may intern under the press or learn valuable skills that they can use long after they graduate, but also it’s a means for the university to engage with the wider academic community, locally, nationally, and internationally. Additionally, the books in print are part of a legacy of academic and intellectual discourse that enhances the profile of the university that produces them. By eliminating the press, U of Akron is essentially removing themselves from the broader academic, artistic, and intellectual conversation. They have also shuttered students from having valuable job experience in the publishing, design, PR, and educational field. The press must be reinstated and the staff must be retained.

 De la Paz’s poem “Dear Empire [these are your temples],” from his 2014 UA Press collection Post Subject: A Fable, reverberates off of the current context, “Ozymandias”-like.

What you can do to make your voice heard:

From Emilia Phillips’s “Groundspeed”: “Whatever crashes downwards, sends praise back up… // A transference of energy–” . . . “A body / can, like a sympathetic string, ring with another’s / peril.”

Let’s keep sending praise. Let’s keep ringing.