July 30, 2019KR BlogChatsEnthusiamsLiterature

Publisher Spotlight: Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press

Jeffrey Levine is the author of three books of poetry: Rumor of Cortez (Red Hen), nominated for a 2006 Los Angeles Times Literary Award in Poetry, Mortal, Everlasting (Pavement Saw Press), which won the 2002 Transcontinental Poetry Prize, and most recently, At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, Salmon Press, 2019. Levine’s many poetry prizes include the Larry Levis Prize from the Missouri Review, the James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review, the Mississippi Review Poetry Prize, the Ekphrasis Poetry Prize (twice), and the American Literary Review poetry prize. His poems have garnered 21 Pushcart nominations. In addition to his own writing, he is editor and principal translator of Canto General (Tupelo Press), Pablo Neruda’s epic work of poetry. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, Levine is founder, Artistic Director and Publisher of Tupelo Press, an award-winning independent literary press located in the historic Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts, he also serves as Director of the esteemed Tupelo Press Writing Conferences. Building on his years of experience in publishing and editing, Levine offers a comprehensive suite of literary services. Also an accomplished musician, Levine is a concert clarinetist, jazz and acoustic guitarist, and pianist.

Kristina Marie Darling:  How did you come to editing as a career path?

Jeffrey Levine:  Good question. For better or for worse, I have an entrepreneurial—or to put more accurately—a restless spirit, and my path has been crooked as they come. Many years ago, I joined the faculty of Skidmore College where I taught music for dance and theater. I thought that was my career path. Then I left Skidmore to play clarinet in the Buffalo Philharmonic, and I thought that music performance was my career path. While in Buffalo, I went to law school, and three years later was pretty horrified to find that practicing law seemed to be edging out music as my career path. Though I did that (practice law) for 23 years, it felt, always, like marking time. A diversion, right up to the day that I got off an airplane after a stultifying business meeting in Mexico City, marched into the terminal, and mailed my application to the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. 

Poetry as a career path? People told me I’d need three books to get a poetry job in academia, but I didn’t have three books. Or one book. I thought, while I’m waiting to have three books (a wait that took me until April of this year), it would be fulfilling, rewarding, and possibly fun, to edit and publish other poets, ones who were writing great stuff, but were undiscovered. That was 1999. I named the venture Tupelo Press (after the lovely Tupelo tree), and went to my first AWP conference and sat at a perfectly empty table for four days. I started knowing next to nothing, I learned along the way. A year later, we were able, with great pride, to introduce six new books on that formerly sad and lonely table, including Jennifer Michael Hecht’s fabulously smart The Next Ancient World, (which won the Norma Farber Award), Francine Sterle’s ravishing, Every Bird is One Bird, Amy England’s utterly inventive The Flute Ship ‘Castricum’, and Matthew Zapruder’s voice-driven American Linden. Now, twenty years on, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had a measurable role in shaping American letters, having sent well over 200 books (poetry, prose, translations, anthologies) into the world, and having had a hand in launching so many important careers. So I guess you could say, I came to that fork in the road, and took it.

KMD:  What does literary citizenship mean to you and how does it shape your editorial decisions, approach to book publicity, and engagement with the larger community?

JL:  I’m so glad that you ask about literary citizenship. It’s a relatively new phrase to describe an ancient practice. We humans rely upon writers: for story, for beauty, for ideas, for challenge, for a sense of companionship in deep, existential waters. Those of us who write and those of us who publish have an obligation to the muses to participate fully in the life of letters. Self-promotion is easy and, no way around it, solipsistic. Promoting art for the general good is god’s work. For me, participating fully has meant a full-on dedication (80-hour, 7-day weeks) to a set of important goals: claiming a space for writers of color, for women (67% of Tupelo’s authors are women), for indigenous writers, for immigrant writers, for LGBTQ writers, for translators. It has meant providing a platform for reviews and commentary, as well as innovative writing (in the shape of Tupelo Quarterly). It has meant providing an incubator for writers in the form of the Tupelo 30/30 program, providing instruction to young writers in the form of the Charlottesville Teen Writing Center, and in a broad, national, sense, in the form of Tupelo Press Seminars. We have well over 1,000 alums of these programs, who maintain active contact with one another via social media!

KMD: Please share one story about your press, your authors, or the books you’ve published that demonstrates this.

JL:  We recently took on an enormous – and enormously important – project resulting in the publication an anthology of work by contemporary indigenous writers from North America: Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations. This collection makes space — that is, returns space — to writers whose voices have been systematically stolen, silenced, ignored, denied in the ongoing aftermath of settler colonialism. What sets this book apart from other such anthologies is that each writer was also given the opportunity to write a craft essay in response to a poem that helped to shape their work. The book is a treasure, richly textured. Expertly and lovingly edited by CMarie Fuhrman & Dean Rader, it features writers such as Allison Hedge Coke, Heid E. Erdrich, and Joy Harjo, among many others. As you know, Joy Harjo has just been named Poet Laureate of the US – the first time in the history of our country that such an honor has been visited upon a Native American. Native Voices has been warmly welcomed into the world and widely praised. The celebratory reading at AWP was radiant — so much love in that room!

KMD:  In what ways has your definition of and commitment to literary citizenship changed in the past few years?  What sparked these changes?

JL:  One thing I’ve noticed over the years as MFA programs have flourished, even mushroomed, as online publishing opportunities have exponentially increased, is that people feel a bit lost. But for lots of folks who cannot afford the time or cost of MFA programs (and even among those who have graduated from such programs), that field can appear increasingly exclusionary. So many poets want to both gain and retain access–they want their citizenship, so to speak–but don’t know how to navigate the field and its on-going challenges. Since I sit on both sides of the desk (as publisher/editor, and as a writer), my online contributions have been twofold:  to make personalized, one-on-one mentoring available to writers, and to write blogs that address the nuts and bolts of making fully publishable manuscripts, and offer close examinations of what elements (in my view) make for superlative writing. The response to these offerings has been overwhelming. So many people have written me, or thanked me in person, for offering hands-on guidance and direction. I’d love to hear from readers how I can be of further assistance in this regard. What other subjects would people like to hear about?

But for all the excitement of the virtual electronic community we’ve seen grow up around us, one of the costs of living inside the pixels and ether can be a sense of personal isolation. We have had to sacrifice opportunities for making human contact. I’ve addressed this by offering writing and manuscript conferences around the country (seventy-five such in the past 15 years). A new conference will be held in mid-December in Truchas, New Mexico, with faculty including Ilya Kaminsky, Katie Farris, Veronica Golos, Cassandra Cleghorn and myself, as well as intensive manuscript conferences in Chicago (September) and New York (October). 

In addition to — and perhaps more important than — the instruction itself, these conferences and workshops create lasting friendships and fellowship, providing a truly affirmative experience, from which writers take enormous strength and inspiration. I see friendships develop in which people mentor one another, become active critical readers (and reviewers) of one-another’s work, maintain contact through social media alumni groups, and on that scale, actually gain the tools and opportunities to significantly advance literary citizenship. The response has been heart-warming.

KMD:  Tell us about one forthcoming title from your press that you think will change the world for the better.

JL:  What I especially love about this question is that it gives me the opportunity to brag: in my view, we’ve never published anything that I didn’t feel would change the world for the better. That’s ultimately my criterion for selection. But of course, you’re after something more specific, and I’m happy to oblige. 

By year’s end, we’ll release Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s Shahr-e-jaanaan; The City of the Beloved, winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize (for Asian-American poets), and sponsored by Tupelo Press. Adeeba Shahid Talukder is a Pakistani American poet and translator. She translates Urdu and Persian poetry, and cannot help but bring elements from these worlds to her own work in English. Adeeba is also a singer, and the music of her poetry is insistent, indelible. 

About this book, I cannot speak more eloquently than you, yourself, have, in your citation: “In her subtle yet commanding debut, Adeeba Shahid Talukder’s poems become a ledger of transformation. Here we trace the narrator’s careful path through seemingly incommensurable mythologies—of self, family, artistic legacy, and womanhood.  What’s more, we are invited to glimpse the ‘mirror’ as it illuminates before her eyes. ‘When in the dark / my mind brightened,’ Talukder writes, ‘I realized I could no longer / wait be beautiful.’ Yet the beauty of these poems arises from their complexity, the infinite ways they bring together lyricism and urgency, femininity and violence, adornment and danger.  ‘In this intricacy is power,’ Talukder explains.” (One of the things I love most about working at Tupelo, by the way, is the interplay between editors and staff — how we lean on and learn from one another at every step.) 

I love all Tupelo books and authors, of course — they are an extension of my family. But lately I have been rereading G. C. Waldrep’s Feast Gently, recently honored by the Poetry Society of America with the William Carlos Williams award. I find endless stores in the pages of this beloved book — strength of vision and wonder of craft that feed my soul, my ear, my embodied self. “I will lie like this / in the chamber of my ligaments until bells / heal my purchase with their frailing apothegms. / Let my frame be a honey-stanchion then, / a sill, a dry milk. Some fragrant ballast crashing.” I mean, my God! When I read lines like this — and recall with a start that in some small way I’ve helped to broadcast them to other readers who might need them as much as I do — I feel an enormous and humbling gratitude.