Portrait of a Press: The University of Akron Series in Poetry




When I was a graduate student at Florida State and later, a fellow at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’d sit around and talk presses. Like many young writers, we dreamed of being published, but more than that — we wanted to be published by a good press, a press that cared and would support us. The world of poetry is small and fast — a new book can easily drowned out by the many other books released in a year. It was clear that if you expected anyone to read your book, you needed a press that was passionate and supportive. The University of Akron was a press that came up in these discussions again and again. They were picking winning books, and they supported their authors through marketing, social media, and a boisterous presence at AWP. You could not walk by the Akron’s table at AWP without editor Mary Biddinger reeling you in. Before you knew it, you were walking away with five books in your hands and the sense that you’d just made a new friend.

— Rebecca Hazelton

Therefore, the artist takes her brush and paints the cliffs in a way that expresses their joy. Therefore the artist sets to make something beyond a paper understanding. To make certain the pines are understood. That the kindnesses of childhood echo in a hail of gunfire. 

— Oliver de la Paz, “Dear Empire [these are your guns],” from Post Subject: A Fable

WHEN I BEGAN this essay, in July 2015, at least according to news reports, the University of Akron Press (UAP) had ceased to exist — all its employees fired by Scott Scarborough, a new president eager to make his name balancing a bloated budget. It was part of a mass layoff that included nearly 200 workers at the university, which had fallen on hard times.

Less than a month later, on August 18, the press had been resurrected — and its employees were back to work, doing what they’ve been doing for years: making books. What happened between these two events is a story as much about literary and political activism against the forces of neoliberal corporatization as it is about a university press and its cherished poetry series.

Anyone who has been following American higher education knows that it’s in a bad way. The post–World War II government investment in public education and student loan programs has ceded to increasing privatization, spiraling tuition costs, and student debt. The rise of a corporatization defines higher education principally by the bottom line. According to Ned Stuckey-French, a professor at Florida State University,

For most of the twentieth century, especially during the age of the GI Bill of Rights and the Space Race, our country saw public higher education as a common good. Funding it was seen as a public investment shared by all. The Reagan revolution — read, the Reagan tax cuts — changed all that. We don’t all invest in college in the way we once did. State universities received 60-70 percent of their funding (in constant dollars) from state governments in the late 1970s. That percentage is now in the mid-to-low twenties. Over the same four decades inequality has increased dramatically. Since 1979, real income for the top 5% of American families has increased about 75% while the lowest fifth experienced a decrease of over 12%. The American families in this disappearing middle class are at the same time being expected to mortgage their houses, take out massive student loans, and go into debt in order to send their kids to college.

The privatization (or corporatization) of public higher education has brought with it a move away from the humanities and research toward training and socialization, a move away from education and toward skyboxes. It is no surprise that President Scarborough and the University of Akron Board of Trustees have spent $950,000 on renovating the President’s house and $61.6 million into stadium upgrades while simultaneously attacking the university’s press, shuttering its arts center, and laying off 215 people [n.b. 213 jobs were eliminated, 161 were laid off]. Skyboxes and presidents’ houses are where the donors schmooze; arts centers and scholarly presses are where students and professors work.

At a time when administrators and accreditation boards have begun requiring programs and departments to be financially self-sustaining and demanding assessment data to measure student learning, programs in the humanities and liberal arts have been subject to attack. Not surprisingly, perhaps, university presses themselves have been a target. In fact, what happened at Akron happened three years earlier at the University of Missouri in 2012, when, according to Stuckey-French,

The administration, led by a new president who was a software executive with no graduate degrees or college teaching or administrative experience, closed the press, laid off 10 employees, and launched a $200 million sports facility upgrade. Students, parents, alumni, staff, faculty, and taxpayers rallied against those cuts, and the University agreed to keep its press.

Almost as soon as UAP’s closure was announced, a number of poets and writers began to go public with their protest, analysis, and email-organizing to reverse the decision. In particular, Oliver de la Paz, Emilia Phillips, Rebecca Hazelton, and I (in the interest of full disclosure, each of us with a vested interest in the press with poetry books on the list or shortly forthcoming) pushed each other to create a coherent message and be public.

Very quickly, we determined that the goal was not merely to have the press reopened, but to have all the workers rehired: director Thomas Bacher, Akron Series in Poetry editor Mary Biddinger, editorial and design coordinator Amy Freels, and coordinator of print manufacturing and digital production Carol Slatter. Biddinger, who has written four full-length poetry books (most recently, Small Enterprise, from Black Lawrence in 2015), has been at the editorial helm since 2008, doing much of the work part-time and during the summer. The sudden dismissal came as a complete surprise to everyone, including Biddinger, who has poured considerable lifeblood into what has been a side project to her teaching gig at the University of Akron and the Northeast Ohio MFA (NEOMFA) program.

All we had was our writing; we wrote directly to the president and the board of trustees, composing open letters that we then shared on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs, on comment streams, on podcasts, and with mass media. We also had our author’s rights, a point made publicly by Emilia Phillips, which became a way of suggesting that closing the press would open a Pandora’s box of legal issues for the administration.

Our method was good cop/bad cop: we needed both to publicize the national reputation of the press and to criticize the president’s mistake — sometimes resorting to explorations of Scarborough’s excessive spending on personal items including an infamously expensive olive jar that apparently cost the university $556.40. (The olive jar, incidentally, now has its own Facebook page, continuing the battle against corporate bloating of universities.)

Other prominent poets — such as C. Dale Young and Dora Malech — wrote key pieces that helped move the story forward. Claire Kirch of Publishers Weekly played a key role keeping the story in the news, and actively engaged on an email list that included veterans of the University of Missouri Press battle, thanks to the organizing work of Kevin Kern, a historian at Akron and also a member of UAP’s editorial board; the aforementioned Stuckey-French; John McNay, a historian at the University of Cincinnati and president of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors; and Bruce Joshua Miller, a book representative for small, university, and independent publishers in the Midwest, who used to represent the Akron Press. Their veteran perspectives on strategizing were crucial to the effort.

I can’t tell you how many emails passed between us during the month of crisis, but it numbered in the few hundreds. The decision to close the press came when everyone was on vacation or in the process of moving to new jobs; I was in the Northampton area and plowed through dozens of emails at the Whole Foods in Hadley and within wi-fi range of the Forbes library in Noho.

Almost as a rule, such decisions seem to come when it is least likely that organized resistance can be summoned against them. Yet supporters of the press organized a protest of the board of trustees meeting in August, just a few days before the president and board reversed the firings. Combined with the negative press, this sort of public presence may have been impossible to ignore, and the president had to admit — albeit in the passive voice — that “mistakes were made.”

By the end, not only did Scarborough rehire the fired workers, he also made a public statement in support of the press and its poetry series:

The University of Akron Press has been and will continue to be a vital part of the academic core of this institution. […] As we complete its transition to University Libraries, we will take all steps necessary to make sure it maintains its well-earned reputation as a vibrant, active academic press, and to maintain its full membership in the Association of American University Presses. It will honor all existing publishing commitments, continue to seek out new, high-quality works to add to its catalog, and proudly continue to support its nationally recognized poetry series.

Of course, there was one exception. Thomas Bacher, director of the University of Akron Press, who had been instrumental expanding the press — publishing limited-edition hardback versions of the poetry books alongside the paperback versions — and who had worked behind the scenes to pressure the university to change its decision and publicly stated that he was uninclined to work for a university that “value[d] beans over brains,” was given six months to transition the press to the interim director Jon Miller.

I don’t expect President Scarborough is an avid fan of poetry, or to begin reading work from the Akron Poetry Series, just because he’s put his words behind the press. But I imagine that he now knows what noise poets can make.

¤

The Akron Series in Poetry, founded in 1993 by former press director Elton Glaser, brought some national attention to Akron, Ohio, a rust belt city once known for its robust tire manufacturing. Akron was once called “The Rubber Capital of the World,” thanks to the combined industrial might of Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich, but has been hemorrhaging jobs and residents since the mid-1970s.

According to Glaser, “There were many manuscripts of good poetry out there and not enough publishing houses to get them into print.” He had published his third book, Color Photographs of the Ruins, with the University of Pittsburgh Press, and planned to run a poetry contest to fund the Poetry Series. But first he had to prove his publishing mettle:

Before anyone would submit a manuscript to the series, though, I had to get some books into print, so that poets could see what kind of job UAP could do with poetry books. I was determined to have attractive covers, preferably from paintings, to match the outer beauty with the beauty within, the poems themselves. I asked two fine poets who were friends if they had manuscripts they would be willing to publish with a press that had no previous track record of publishing poetry, and they kindly agreed to take a chance with UAP. The first two books — really, a kind of sample of the work the press could do — were Barry Seiler’s The Waters of Forgetting and William Greenway’s How the Dead Bury the Dead. Both poets published subsequent books with UAP, and two of Greenway’s books won the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry.

Once UAP had established itself with these books, Glaser sought judges with national reputations.

The Akron Series in Poetry has continued to grow under the editorship of Mary Biddinger since 2008. Alison Pelegrin, whose Big Muddy River of Stars (2007) dealt with her experience of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, spoke fondly of Glaser’s “patient and firm” editing, and Biddinger’s “enthusiasm and support” during the editing and production of her 2011 follow-up book, Hurricane Party. (The word enthusiasm, it turns out, recurs in nearly every testimonial of Biddinger’s work with poets.) In Pelegrin’s words, written when the fate of the press was still unknown,

The University of Akron Press gave voice to my experience with Hurricane Katrina, and I will be forever grateful. As the ten year anniversary of that hurricane approaches, I hate thinking that my books, which gave voice to a part of the experience, will no longer be available.

Here’s the ending to her final poem of Big Muddy River of Stars, “Ode to Contractors Possessing Various Levels of Expertise,” cataloging all those who came to fix their house in the wake of Katrina:

I liked the last ones best, Scientologists
out of Lafayette that we hired away
from a neighbor. I learned to barter with
this crew, longnecks for the long lost secrets
of the split-jamb door. We had a routine
going. Morning call at six in our kitchen,
coffee and chicory, kiss the shakes goodbye.
One day we had the photo albums out,
looking for a background shot of where
the plastered-over phone jack used to be.
Like children, like the rest, they moved along
and never call. A fiction, what I knew so well.
No proof but dirty thumbprints and memory
of their tattoos which slurred, “We’re into knives.”
A broken record, the blue lines of their body art —
dagger, dagger, dagger, dagger, heart.

There is a hunch among poets, and the readers of poetry, that something essentially human would be lost without poetry, without cadenced word-scapes like this. William Carlos Williams’s oft-quoted words pack a level of hyperbole that most contemporary poets eschew: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Perhaps what Williams’s words suggest is not that poetry is the only key to happiness or a meaningful life, but that in poetry we may find something that might open us again. In its radical forms, in its sometimes alienating obduracy, poetry — the cockroach of artistic forms, oldest and most durable — is a dark night’s companion.

In the words of Rachel Dilworth, author of the Akron Poetry Prize–winning The Wild Rose Asylum (2009):

For new songs to be heard — for the human spirit or story, questions or beauty or sorrow or healing or challenge they may carry to be shared — there must first be the opportunity for voice. Access to such opportunity is vital for any poet, and uniquely, immeasurably meaningful for those who have not yet published a book. Without it, work that has been invested in passionately — not just in terms of artistic craftsmanship or intellectual rigor, but in terms of the places one has followed it into the human experience, hoping to be part of strengthening that experience — may remain effectively just locked in silence.

Dilworth’s book emerged from a Fulbright research project exploring Ireland’s Magdalen laundries, where widespread institutional abuse of so-called “fallen women” — unmarried mothers, prostitutes, etc. — occurred from the 18th to the 20th century. According to Dilworth,

[The Wild Rose Asylum] was work I’d carried close to my heart — work undertaken out of passion for the powerful force I believed poetry could be in and for the world. […] Writing poetry is a lonely process; but in the end, it is done in hopes the poems can be heard and shared, can truly mean something to and move others, can participate in strengthening our common humanity.

For all their differences, the books by Alison Pelegrin and Rachel Dilworth both deal with catastrophic, nearly unspeakable losses. It’s clearly a motif in a number of books from the Akron Series in Poetry, which “address the power of the human spirit, and its ability to overcome great odds,” Biddinger wrote to me.

We value collections that provide a voice for the voiceless and confront issues of inequality through poetry. Whether it’s the very serious subject of the Magdalen laundries, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the power struggle of everyday working folks recast humorously in Matthew Guenette’s American Busboy.

If there’s a continuity between the editorial vision of its founder, Elton Glaser, and its present editor, Mary Biddinger, it’s that both have been drawn to poems with a strong sense of voice. Two books from Glaser’s tenure, Lynn Powell’s The Zones of Paradise and George Bilgere’s The Good Kiss, aptly demonstrate how far a strong lyrical “I” can take a poem.

I’ve been teaching Powell’s “In Praise of My Daughter’s Insolence” for years, as an example of a contemporary sonnet that unfolds gracefully, and complexly, within the strictures of the form:

I got my mouth washed out with soap for sass.
I still recall the lick of Dove’s white lye
and recollect the awful aftertaste
that counseled me to hedge, to qualify.
George Washington and Jesus mentored boys —
they chopped down trees or spurned a worried mom,
then charmed the world with righteous alibis.
But good girls reaped their own rewards in time:
stymied poems, a stack of counterfeit;
a pliant heart that didn’t know its mind;
and once, from Mother’s tongue, the name of slut.
True, I often did concur with men —
I’d mute their certain words with my soft mouth.
For I could not tell a lie. Nor tell the truth.

Collections like The Good Kiss demonstrate Glaser’s range of taste — from the formalist to the free verse. Consider, for example, Bilgere’s “Corned Beef and Cabbage”:

I can see her in the kitchen,
Cooking up, for the hundredth time,
A little something from her
Limited Midwestern repertoire.
Cigarette going in the ashtray,
The red wine pulsing in its glass,
A warning light meaning
Everything was simmering
Just below the steel lid
Of her smile, as she boiled
The beef into submission,
Chopped her way
Through the vegetable kingdom
With the broken-handled knife
I use tonight, feeling her
Anger rising from the dark
Chambers of the head
Of cabbage I slice through,
Missing her, wanting
To chew things over
With my mother again.

This poem, like all of Bilgere’s poetry — which has been featured scores of times on The Writer’s Almanac — manages to be accessible (even popular) without being trite, exploring in plain speech the complex and mysterious experience of grief at the loss of his mother.

Like her predecessor Glaser, Biddinger has capacious editorial taste. In her words, “Fans of the UA Press say that we are one of the last few truly eclectic poetry series, and that brings me great joy. We have no set aesthetic, but we are always on the lookout for poems with teeth, and we do like humor (as well as seriousness).”

To measure the difference between the Akron Series under Glaser and Biddinger, one might consider Sandra Simonds’s recently awarded Further Problems with Pleasure (Akron Award Series 2015 and forthcoming in 2017), chosen by Carmen Giménez Smith. In a sense, the opening of this poem parallels Powell’s, but it is as if Powell’s sonnet has been turned inside out, all interiority scurrying along the exteriors of digitally recycled language:

“Poetry Is Stupid and I Want to Die”

The one trick I’ve always fallen back on is to make a man think
he’s the one rejecting me
But it was so quiet in your room
even if you had horrible books written by evil men
at your bedside and in your possession that deep desire
to hurt and thus in my head scrambling between kissing you
and trying to maneuver how I would leave unharmed
the way a woman has to manipulate both mind and body […]

Biddinger has created a space for such innovative poets, particularly by picking for her “Editor’s Choice” selections the first books of poets such as Sarah Perrier, Emilia Phillips, Brittany Cavallaro, and Jennifer Moore.

These are poets and poems with teeth, to be sure, poets who are not afraid to challenge the conventions of our ironic age, to take both aesthetic and emotional risks. In the first poem to Phillips’s Signaletics, it happens that literal teeth emerge: “Don’t ask where the teeth are / you exchanged for coins as a child.” This is utterly intentional; Phillips’s poetry is rife with literal teeth. Teeth come back again when her mostly absent father, a forensic scientist, advises:

If you’re ever kidnapped, bite
the car door, my father said one Sunday
after the divorce, Crown Vic en route

to his office. Teeth marks. I can find you
that way […]

It’s no surprise that Signaletics is among the best-selling poetry collections of the Akron Series in Poetry, which also would include: The Good Kiss by George Bilgere, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields by Ashley Capps, Girl-King by Brittany Cavallaro, Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz, American Busboy by Matthew Guenette, and Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon.

Phillips, whose Signaletics received considerable critical praise for what one critic called its “stylish hybridity,” not only spoke about Biddinger’s editorial acumen, but also of the design work of Amy Freels. In her words,

Amy honored and transformed my ideas about the design into exciting and original covers. With Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), we were able to commission original cover art from Hollie Chastain. The collage Hollie made included some of the vintage BB gun targets I had in my ephemera collection, and it was inspired by the manuscript’s poems. There’s no other press that would allow me to be involved in all creative and design aspects of the book, and because of this I know that they respect me as an author and creator.

Talking about her collaboration with Freels, Biddinger was equally effusive:

I can say that what [Amy and I] have done is not just literary publishing, but the creation of art. We’ve 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 feels like we are a pair of midwives, offering support and encouragement and wisdom to ease something miraculous into the world.

In addition to publishing books of poetry, Biddinger co-founded the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, with John Gallaher, in 2009, which publishes scholarship on trends and innovations in contemporary poetry from the US and around the world. Its debut title, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, was released in 2011, and has received an enthusiastic reception from professors, students, and poetry audiences beyond academia.

For the Contemporary Poetics series, Rebecca Hazelton and Alan Michael Parker are completing The Manifesto Project, an anthology of contemporary poets’ manifestos with accompanying poems. Hazelton had long followed (and submitted to) the Akron Series in Poetry, which drew her to propose the book to Akron: “I’m a real fan of Ashley Capps’ Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, Brian Brodeur’s Other Latitudes, John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World, Emily Rosko’s Prop Rockery, and the first book of my sometimes writing partner, Brittany Cavallaro, Girl King.” In Hazelton’s words:

When I was a graduate student at Florida State and later, a fellow at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, we’d sit around and talk presses. Like many young writers, we dreamed of being published, but more than that — we wanted to be published by a good press, a press that cared and would support us. The world of poetry is small and fast — a new book can easily drowned out by the many other books released in a year. It was clear that if you expected anyone to read your book, you needed a press that was passionate and supportive. The University of Akron was a press that came up in these discussions again and again. They were picking winning books, and they supported their authors through marketing, social media, and a boisterous presence at AWP. You could not walk by the Akron’s table at AWP without editor Mary Biddinger reeling you in. Before you knew it, you were walking away with five books in your hands and the sense that you’d just made a new friend. She’s a powerhouse.

Oliver de la Paz, who has worked with the press more than anyone else — publishing two books of poems, Requiem for the Orchard (2010), and Post Subject: A Fable (2014), as well as the anthology A Face to Meet the Faces: Contemporary Persona Poetry (with Stacey Brown, 2012) — recounted the very moment his association with Akron began:

I was strolling to my car from the gym when I got the call from Mary Biddinger telling me that Martín Espada had chosen my third book, Requiem for the Orchard as the winner of the 2009 Akron Poetry Prize. I sat down on the asphalt right in the middle of the parking lot when it happened. It was a book that I wrote fiendishly in a year marked by my own cancer diagnosis and the birth of my first son. After my surgery and cancer treatments I wrote out of what felt like survival instinct. Every morning while I was getting hormonal treatments I’d spend an hour or two reading aloud, thinking, and revising the poems that would become Requiem. I had wanted to create a monument for my soon to be born son because there still so many unknowns — would the cancer stay in remission? Had it spread to my lymph nodes? So when Mary called, it felt like a release from one concern.

¤

We don’t know the future of the Akron Poetry Series — or any of the university press poetry series, for that matter. Yet the furor around the press’s closing may have contributed, at least in the short term, to its public value. According to Elton Glaser,

Ironically, the University of Akron Press never got as much attention before as it did when it seemed to be on the brink of elimination. While the administrative actions were sickening, it was heartening to see so many people come to the defense of the press, and particularly the Akron Series in Poetry.

Those of us who participated in the defense of the University of Akron Press know that the battle was won, but the war may not be over. We will need to watch carefully in the coming months and years to ensure the university continues to fund the press.

One publishes poetry in an age where poetry is largely dismissed or forgotten because one loves the way words can come together to make something larger than words. There is no fame in it, no big pay day, no stadium of fans shouting your glory. Occasionally, people are brought to their knees with the news that their words will receive another life, edited and designed and bound and sent all over the world. And somewhere, right now, there is a person who might be pulling that book off a shelf, in a small library or bookstore, and reading a poem there, maybe for the first time, deciding to sit for a moment, utterly in the thrall of that made thing.

¤

Philip Metres is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.


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