A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
My good friend Melissa Becker, President of the Board, has asked me to tell the story of Autumn House Press.
When I think of the last twenty-two years, I don’t think of awards or recognition, or even of the many books Autumn House has published. Instead, I think of the people: poets, writers, editors, designers, artists, board members, interns, bookstore owners, fund-raisers, donors, administrators, teachers, librarians, reviewers, printers, truckdrivers. And of course, readers… thousands and thousands of readers.
And thinking of AHP primarily as a group of people, rather than as a publisher, is appropriate; after all, Autumn House started with a friendship.
In 1998, a time when the large commercial publishers and university presses, facing financial pressure, were getting out of the business of publishing books of poetry, and the sacred burden of keeping American poetry alive was falling on a few independent presses, my old friend, mentor, and co-author Jack Myers came to visit my wife Eva and me in Pittsburgh. Jack and I sat in our living room, Jack drinking beer and me drinking coffee, night after night talking about starting a poetry press. Out of those conversations, Autumn House began. And six months later, AHP’s first book, OneOnOne by Jack Myers, was released.
To learn about independent publishing, I sought the advice of Ed Ochester, editor of the renowned Pitt Poetry Series; Thea Temple, founder of The Writer’s Garret; Frank Lehner, the founder of Cathedral Press; Samuel Hazo, founder of The International Poetry Forum; and Gerald Costanzo, founder of Carnegie Mellon Press. These consummate literary professionals advised me on a number of topics: setting up a non-profit corporation; selecting a manuscript out of hundreds of submissions; marketing a poetry book; navigating the politics of the national poetry community; and building relationships with authors. They also offered enthusiastic encouragement for the new venture. Ed Ochester’s selected poems Snow White Horses became the second Autumn House title. Later, we published two more collections of Ed’s.
And my wife Eva deserves a lot of credit as well. Literally thousands of times in the early years of AHP, Eva and I lay in bed in the darkness before dawn, talking about the challenges of fundraising and marketing and author relations and staffing. Without Eva’s consistent support and wise counsel, Autumn House would never have existed.
For the first five years, I ran the press out of our home, boxes of books piled to the ceiling of my study, daily trips to the post office and UPS. This was in the days before everyone had cell phones, so if I wasn’t quick enough, our four-year-old daughter Lea would beat me to the family phone and answer: “This is Autumn House Press, Michael speaking, may I help you?” For years, many people thought I had the voice of a little girl.
AHP moved out of our family home (at last!) and set up shop at 87 ½ Westwood which Eva always claimed sounded like the address of a hobbit hole. Eva, with Lea’s help, painted the walls and set up the electronics while our son Nicholas and I moved furniture and boxes of books into Autumn House’s new world headquarters.
Shortly after we moved to Westwood Street, Maxwell King, the Executive Director of the Heinz Foundation, invited Eva and me to his house for dinner. There he introduced us to the arts philanthropist Lea Hillman Simonds, who through the years has become AHP’S most steadfast supporter.
I remember Autumn House’s first visit to the AWP bookfair. We were assigned a table next to Alice James Books, a highly respected feminist cooperative. And there I met April Ossman, at that time the executive director of Alice James. April taught me a great deal about running an independent non-profit literary press. Other important people in AHP’s development were Michael Wurster who organized author readings; Jan Beatty who interviewed our visiting authors on her public radio show; J.J. Bosley who handled our accounting on a pro bono basis; Deno DiCiantis who wrote our bylaws and strategic plan; and Anne Burnham who spearheaded Autumn in Spring, our annual fundraising event.. But I am leaving many people out of this account – so I apologize for not being able to name everyone who played an important role at Autumn House through the years.
The most remarkable thing about the development of AHP was that at every turn people stepped up to help, and I think that this generosity happened because they could see that, even as socially inept as I can be (after all, I am a graduate of the Charles Bukowski School of Etiquette), people saw that I had an unquenchable thirst for poetry, as well as an unstoppable drive to build AHP into a thriving publisher of beautiful books.
In our ninth year, Richard St. John, a wonderful poet and veteran arts administrator, joined us as AHP’s Executive Director at half his previous salary. I came to appreciate Rick’s gentle skills in community building. I called him the “Nice Department” because when I had a difficult letter or email to write, I usually ran a draft by him to edit for tact. Sometimes I ignored his suggestions and sent my angry draft anyway…. And later regretted it.
There’s so much I relished in the years I spent as the lead editor of Autumn House. How exciting it was, for example, to sort through a big pile of manuscripts, looking for the one that jumped out and demanded to be published. And what a privilege it was to work with poets and writers to polish their manuscripts. And how remarkable it was to coordinate artists and designers and printers in the production of a beautiful book. Equally important, I came up against my own limitations – my dislike of fundraising and my difficulty in delegating tasks were challenges I had to overcome.
From the time Autumn House began, I knew that at some point I’d have to hand over leadership to a successor. I’d seen nonprofit successions handled badly many times, so I wanted AHP to move smoothly into the second generation when the time came for me to step down.
As the press grew and we hired editors to help me, the board and I looked at each one to evaluate his or her ability to take over the organization.
When we finally settled on Christine Stroud as my successor in 2015, she had been with AHP in various capacities for three years. She had the qualities we were looking for: personal integrity, a passion for poetry, editorial and design talent, and organizational skills. But the main quality she had was what is sometimes called grit, a combination of courage, steadfastness, and discipline. In her quiet determined way, Christine is unstoppable.
After six months of additional training, she was ready to take over as editor-in-chief, so in 2016, eighteen years after the founding of the press, I stepped down.
During my leadership of Autumn House, it became one of the premier independent literary presses in the country. We published over 100 books, sponsored approximately 250 literary events, published at least a thousand poems and essays in Coal Hill Review, and visited countless classrooms. We published well-established authors such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Jo McDougall and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as first books by authors who later developed stellar careers, such as Ada Limón, Danusha Laméris, and Sarah Gerkensmeyer. We received awards for our books, most notably the Whiting Award for Clifford Thompson‘s first book, a collection of essays titled Love for Sale, garnering $50,000 for the author. And in 2011—we were awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Pennsylvania State Legislature for our contribution to the arts.
AHP books were being regularly reviewed in Publishers Weekly, The London Times Literary Supplement, and The Jerusalem Post. We had a cash reserve of over $250,000, and multiple streams of income. The press was well-respected and financially stable. My work at AHP was done, and there were other things I wanted to do with my life.
Now, four years after the leadership transition, Autumn House continues to thrive. Christine is making innovations and taking AHP in new directions, and I’m very pleased with where the press is now and where it is headed. Christine has moved AHP to Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District in order to be closer to universities, performance spaces, and arts organizations; she has outsourced book distribution to the University of Chicago Press; and, most significantly, she has hired the highly capable Mike Good as managing editor. These changes have further secured Autumn House’s position in the front ranks of American literary publishers.
As for me, I’m writing poems again (yay!). And I founded Vox Populi, a daily online gazette that publishes poetry, personal essays, political discussions, art, and film. With 11,000 email subscribers, VP is building a large audience for poetry, art, and progressive ideas. The job suits me perfectly. My relationship with Autumn House is friendly, casual and occasional: every now and then Christine asks me to participate in a poetry reading or a fundraiser; and Eva and I continue to cheer the authors and editors from the sidelines.
Autumn House is now solidly in its second generation. Seeing the young editors and authors establishing their reputations excites me, but I often feel, as old men often do, a sadness over the loss of friends. In recent years, a number of poets and editors that I worked with have passed. Jack Myers, our first author, died in 2009. John Hoerr, our chronicler of the great labor struggles in America, died in 2015. Peter Oresick, a poet and one of our editors, died in 2016. Poet and philanthropist Marilyn Donnelly passed in January of 2018. And the greatest loss to me personally — in 2016 we lost two poets, James Tolan and Chana Bloch, both of whom I was especially close to.
Twenty-seven years ago, Jim Tolan was my junior colleague at the Community College of Allegheny County. I mentored him when he taught his first class. CCAC has an extremely challenging population of students who come from some of Pittsburgh’s poorest neighborhoods, but Jim mastered those pedagogical skills and went on to a professorship at City College of New York where he became a popular and respected teacher. Autumn House published two of Jim’s books, Mass of the Forgotten, a collection of his poems, and New America: Literature for a Changing Society, an anthology of literature which he edited with his wife Holly Messitt.
Here’s a poem by Jim Tolan:
My grandfather was a storyteller who died
when I was young. He would take me
for walks among the evening trees and know
they were alive, pulsing with the life
that was his story. I run my hands
against the rough bark of an aged oak,
railroad spikes marking its trunk, and feel
my grandfather, his stories of lost children
stolen in the woods, when no one was there
but the wind and a thousand blinking eyes.
As I mentioned earlier, another Autumn House poet who died in 2016 was Chana Bloch. Out of the blue, Chana contacted me 11 years ago asking whether I’d be willing to consider a collection of her new poems. Since I was familiar with her translations, in fact, her renderings of Yehuda Amichai’s work were a tremendous influence on me when I was young, I was excited to hear from her. Chana and I, and later Chana and Christine, had a very productive relationship. AHP published her collection Blood Honey in 2009, and then went on to publish her selected poems Swimming in the Rain, and then, after Chana passed, Christine published her final collection The Moon is Almost Full. Here’s one of my favorite poems of hers:
The Messiah of Harvard Square
Every year some students would claim to be the Messiah,
It was the rabbi who had to deal with them.
He had jumped, years ago, from a moving boxcar
on the way to a death camp. That leap
left him ready for anything.
This year at Pesach, a Jewish student proclaimed
Armageddon. “Burn the books! Burn the textbooks!”
he shouted to a cheerful crowd,
sang Hebrew songs to confuse the Gentiles,
dressed for the end like Belshazzar.
People stopped to whisper and laugh.
“I have a noble task,” the boy explained.
“I must prepare myself to endure
the laughter of fools.”
The rabbi was a skeptic.
Years ago he’d been taught, If you’re planting a tree
and someone cries out, The Messiah has come!
finish planting the tree. Then
go see if it’s true.
Still, he took the boy into his study
and questioned him slowly, meticulously,
as if the poor soul before him might be,
God help us, the Messiah.
Most literary presses fade away when the founder leaves, so I cannot tell you how much it thrills me that AHP continues into the second generation. By any measure – prizes, reviews, sales, fund-raising, strategic development, beauty of design, literary quality – Autumn House Press has been an unqualified success. Thank you, readers and writers, for your continuing support!
Copyright 2020 Michael Simms