by Rushi Vyas
Jeffrey Levine founded Tupelo Press in 1999. After a brief stint in Dorset, Vermont the press moved to North Adams, Massachusetts where it publishes literature with “urgency of language, imagination, distinctiveness, and craft.” For Tupelo and Levine that means:
It’s a kind of precision I find myself looking for, having to do with the bravery of the poet in making a discernible emotional investment in the poem’s imagery, and in accomplishing this emotional investment with the use of connective tissue we’ll call “gesture” — where language opens up a clearing in which something happens, and we see and feel the gestures of that thing happening, and we come to recognize it for what it is, as if for the first time, that very particular “now.” 1
In 2001, Tupelo released their first five books. Today the Press has 144 titles to its name and keeps growing. In addition to poetry, literary fiction, and creative non-fiction, Tupelo has branched into e-books and even audio CD’s blending poetry with music. All of the audio titles were released between 2009 and 2013- starting with Pure Water: Poetry of Rumi by Coleman Barks accompanied by Cellist Eugene Friesen. The most recent audio title, Duo Eamon, adds fiddle from Quebec, Ireland, and New England by Cassandra Cleghorn to the poetry of Cleghorn and Levine.
Tupelo has stretched what it means to create community through a literary Press in several ways. One central way has been the Poetry Project. Started in 2007 through the Press, the Project was designed to find new ways to create challenging and provocative prompts for writers and teachers alike. A guest editor then selects 30 submissions that relate to the theme, sometimes turning the poems into a collection. In the winter of 2012, the Project asked for erotic poems and the collection turned into an anthology of Erotic poems published by Tupelo- Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke. In addition, Tupelo has used a 30/30 project both as a fundraiser for its 501(c)(3) structure and as a way of inviting more poets into the Tupelo community. For December 2015, Tupelo selected 9 poets for the 30/30 and asks the reading community to donate in order to support these emerging writers.
Through these actions, and their Berkshire Prize for a 1st or 2nd book, Tupelo is following up on Levine’s initial drive to put work into the world for those emerging writers who have the talent but haven’t quite been announced into the literary scene.
Current Tupelo Catalog:
In just 14 years, Tupelo has an impressive 140+ titles to its name. In addition to books of poetry and prose, the press has branched out to publish a few e-books and some audio CD’s that blend poetry and music. Here are just a few titles that are a part of the Tupelo Catalog.
In Abiding Places, Korean poet Ko Un has transfigured his homeland in lovely, observant, and penetrating poems uniting ancient and modern, secular and spiritual, art and politics, South and North. When his former political cellmate Kim Dae-Jung became President of Korea in 1998, Ko Un became the first citizen from the South to be invited to tour the North. From that visit came this deceptively simple and deeply engaging book.
Sunny Jung and Hillel Schwartz provide lyrical and penetrating translations, and complement the poems with essential maps.
The question underlying After Urgency is how to go on—a question that presses even when we can do nothing else—and each poem in this collection posits a hard-wrestled, multiplying answer of gorgeous continuance. Rusty Morrison instantiates idea and feeling in ways unlike any other poet now writing. The intelligence and aliveness here are omnidirectional. Inhabiting extremity with speech’s own vision and musics, Morrison’s image-assertions are uncanny in their inter-mixing of inner and outer, of precision and threshold-awareness. This is a hallmark book of grief and life.
—Jane Hirshfield, final judge of the Dorset Prize
“You don’t think poetry can be as sexy, violent, terrifying, and shocking as that stuff you read when no one else is looking? Guess again. Tony Barnstone’s Pulp Sonnets is fantastic in every sense of the word, the work of someone with an equal love and knowledge of poetry and great genre storytelling. Amin Mansouri’s artwork is gorgeous, reminiscent of both Dave McKean and Ralph Steadman, and worth the price of admission on its own. This book will beat up all the other books on your poetry shelf. Buy it.”
— David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, creators, screenwriters, and executive producers of the HBO series, Game of Thrones
“Lantern Puzzle opens with an earthquake and ends on a breath, and from tremor to murmur, a lyric history unfolds, following a map/ of cherries and water paths, as mildew turns back into rain and food into fire, in a twirl of air once a village/ with salt and piglets. By turns we are in China, in childhood, in America, and in a world wholly the poet’s own, suspended in time. Chun’s is a rain-lit, gestural world, where bicycles are ridden through smoke and a stupa of pear blossoms covers a sheep’s shorn body. We move between the stillness of aftermath, and the inexorable workings of history. It is not often that a poet possesses the gift of rendering the missed moments of world visible, and who finds a language for deeply meditative attention, but such is the accomplishment of Ye Chun. A beautiful work.”
— Carolyn Forché
Tupelo Press has four major contests annually, each leading to publication of a book or chapbook. In addition, Tupelo also publishes a quarterly online journal- the Tupelo Quarterly. The Quarterly has an annual contest for poetry and prose as well. There are reading fees for these contests and for the open reading submissions. Why? Here it is from the Tupelo website:
Why a reading fee? We are an independent, nonprofit literary press. Reading fees help defray, but do not entirely cover, the cost of reviewing manuscripts and publishing the many books we select outside of our competitions.
Berkshire Prize for First or Second Book
The annual Tupelo Press Berkshire Prize Award for a First or Second Book of Poetry is an open competition for a poetry manuscript with a $3,000 prize. This year’s judge is Carol Frost. Prior winners include Kristina Jipson, Daniel Khalastchi, Megan Snyder-Camp.
Sunken Garden Chapbook Poetry Prize
The Sunken Garden Poetry Prize is a prestigious national poetry prize established in 2002. The Prize has drawn submissions from around the country that have been judged by renowned poets such as Martha Collins, Patricia Smith and Tony Hoagland. The winner receives a cash prize, an introductory reading at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and publication of a chapbook.
The annual Dorset Prize is an open competition for a poetry manuscript, with a $3,000 prize. Prior winners include G.C. Waldrep, Joshua Corey, Rusty Morrison, and Ilya Kaminsky.
Snowbound Chapbook Award
The annual Snowbound Chapbook Award is an open competition for a poetry manuscript with a prize of $1,000 and 25 copies. Prior winners include Kath Jesme, Brandon Som, and Stacey Waite.
July Open Submissions
Throughout July, Tupelo Press welcomes open submissions for book-length poetry collections (48-90 pages) and chapbook-length poetry collections (28-47 pages). This is not a contest and manuscripts are not read anonymously.
Prose Open Submissions
Our editors now read submissions of fiction and non-fiction year-round, including novels, novellas, short story collections, essays, and memoir. Prose manuscripts are not read anonymously. All prose submissions must be mailed; online submissions are not acceptable.
Conversation with Editor-in-Chief/Founder Jeffrey Levine
Jeffrey Levine was generous enough to have a conversation over email about Tupelo Press. We discussed the conception of Tupelo, the structure of the non-profit Press, and how Tupelo continues to innovate in order to foster a healthy literary community. Here is most of our conversation with Jeffrey below.
Rushi: What’s the story behind your creation of the press? Why? Who? When? How?
Jeffrey Levine: In November 1999 I rented a little office above the Walpole, NH post office, got a desk, telephone (remember those), and started Tupelo Press. I’d just gotten my MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, and had it in mind to create a nonprofit publishing house that would pay attention to fabulous emerging writers and give them a home.
After a couple of months, we (that’s the editorial “we”) moved the press to Dorset, VT and started reviewing manuscripts, coming out with our first five books in the fall of 2001. At that point there were basically two of us, Margaret Donovan, who held down every title I didn’t, and, well, me. Margaret had plenty of publishing experience. I had a lot to learn, but I knew what I liked. Margaret introduced me to Bill Kuch, one of the most gifted book designers I’ve ever known, and together we three established the Tupelo “aesthetic.” Bill is still designing for us, though we now have 6 other designers.
The first book we published, Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “The Next Ancient World,” won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and was the ForeWord Magazine Poetry Book of the Year. I felt we were off to an auspicious start. By the time we moved to our Loft in the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, MA (8 years ago), we had some fairly solid footing (for a literary press, that is), and had assembled a terrific cast and crew. Of course we’ve enlarged our mission, but providing a vehicle for important new writing continues to form the core of our raison d’etre.
R: How did you go about establishing a financially sustainable structure for a non-profit press that has allowed Tupelo to publish 140+ works of literature?
JL: Every single nonprofit literary press is a fragile enterprise. There’s no such thing as financial security in this business. That said, 17 years of sustainability is nothing to be modest about. My guiding principle from the beginning has had two major components:
1. Achieve, if possible, a balance between book sales, donations/fund-raising/grant writing, and fees received from discrete parts of the business, like contests, joint ventures with other organizations (i.e., a publishing institute at The College of Charleston, partnerships on several anthologies with The Poetry Foundation, joint ventures with Kundiman and with the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival – and so forth). This approach has meant, for example, working VERY hard on book design and production values, on publicity and promotion, on teaching our poets guerilla marketing techniques, on dedicating about 80 copies of each book to review sources, to generating beautiful, informative print and online catalogs. It has meant building our “brand” to a point where writers see Tupelo as a press of destination, and see winning one of our contests (or being selected for publication outside of a contest) as a mark of personal triumph. We also, I like to think, pioneer in creative fundraising ideas, such as (a) our 30/30 (Thirty poems in thirty days) poetry incubator/fund raiser, (b) project finance (i.e., what organization(s) might benefit from or have a particular interest in a book well before publication, and how might we encourage that group to participate in publication costs.
2. Constantly seek to get our mission message out, to maintain an “open list,” and to enhance our “brand” and accessibility through:
(a) educational outreach: seminars, workshops, residencies, free downloadable readers’ guides to our books, my own blog (jeffreyelevine.com) in which I discuss a range of topics relevant to the writer, from poetics to nuts and bolts of assembling the manuscript, to careful, detailed discussions of how we run our contests http://jeffreyelevine.com/2011/11/04/contest-manuscripts-behind-the-scenes-at-tupelo-press/
(b) developing and operating a (free) pilot teen writing center in Charlottesville, VA;
(c) developing the Million Line Poem https://tupelopress.wordpress.com/the-million-line-poem/
(d) offering free talks, such as the one I gave in Pittsburgh last spring;
(e) creating and managing online a growing alumni association (numbering in the hundreds) of former Tupelo Press Conferences participants and 30/30 participants, where alums share work, share support, share publishing opportunities, and so forth.
R: I read somewhere (Wikipedia) that in 2010 Tupelo left one distributor to create their own book distribution service. It seems you now use SPD. Did Wikipedia lie? Or did you attempt to distribute your own books and later reconsider? What are some challenges/successes Tupelo has had with distribution?
JL: This answer.
Wikepedia is (for once??) absolutely correct. Tupelo Press started right out of the gate with Consortium Book Sales and Distribution – back in 2001 — when CBSD represented about 50 publishers. They did a fairly good job for us at first, but by about 2008 they had grown to about 150 client publishers, and we could see that there was no way CBSD reps could pay sufficient attention to each and every press — and if their reps couldn’t, then the bookstores wouldn’t.
So we created our own book distribution service, and that continues to this day. Tupelo Press is the only independent press that contracts directly with independent book sales reps (four different companies covering every State) – and we provide all of our fulfillment in-house, which means fast service with a warm and personal touch. All inventory is stored on-site at our headquarters in North Adams, MA. In addition, SPD has been kind enough to give us a “carve-out” from their all-or-nothing distribution policy, so in a win-win deal, they also distribute Tupelo books, and they do an excellent job for us. We also work with the two largest wholesale houses in the country: Ingram and Baker & Taylor, which will fulfill bookstore and college/university orders when called upon. We carefully and proactively manage our relationship with Amazon, and we do everything in our power to drive sales directly to our website, because it makes ALL the difference if you’re not paying the 50% discounts that bookstores require just to stock a book. Incidentally, our sales doubled within the first year of leaving Consortium.
Because our one-of-a-kind system works, we now starting to offer our distribution services to other presses.
R: It is amazing that you can do all of that as an independent press. Do you have paid staffers or a group of volunteer staffers to be able to do all of this work?
JL: Rushi, there’s no point in denying that we accomplish an awful lot on a modest budget — a budget that’s 1/2 to 1/10 that of other publishers who produce as many books a year as we do. We have a very small, very efficient, hard-working, dedicated, poetry-and-prose-loving group of editors and staff. It’s truly a labor of love around here. There’s no better answer than that. Everybody wears at least two hats: Jim Schley is both Managing Editor and Production Manager, Marie Gauthier is both head of publicity and head of sales, I’m both Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. Nobody is a full-time employee, although since the beginning I’ve always put in about 80 hr/week, it’s only in the past two years that I’ve taken any compensation at all (and very, very modest, at that). There are only four of us in the the Tupelo Press loft in North Adams, MA,–plus the one or two interns who come to work with us for a semester from MCLA (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) or Williams College–though it looks like very soon we’ll need to add another person to help with the order processing and shipping. Jim works from his home in northern Vermont and Marie from her home in Greenfield, MA. Beyond that, our wonderful pool of designers, proof-readers, line and copy editors, bookkeepers, and whoever else we might need for a given project, are all independent contractors.
We thank Jeffrey for his time and hope Tupelo continues to produce beautiful books and find ways to use the Press to cultivate a local and global literary community.
To learn more about the Press visit their website:
And check out the Quarterly: