Not surprisingly, the publishing of First Books/ New Voices has always been at the forefront of CavanKerry’s concerns. New, talented writers are abundant, yet the doors remain mostly shut to them! We decided to focus on this very worthy group with the hope that more publishers would join us in the cause; perhaps, others would start presses as well! This concern included a commitment to an embargo on competitions and reading fees. In their emphasis on winners and losers, competitions seem to subliminally pit writers against one another and exacerbate the envy and insecurity that often already exists. While fiction writers and poets of considerable reputation are often free from the burden of contest entries and reading fees, unpublished poets as well as those with short publishing histories face prohibitive and costly expenses just for the chance to get noticed. This breeds resentment and can be fatal to prospects of brilliant-yet- unpublished works of fine literature. We reasoned that these works deserved the same rights to be seen and read by all.
As a result, we made a commitment to publish 2-3 First Books/New Voices every year; manuscripts would come from open submissions and recommendations as well as from the considerable array of worthy poets I already knew. Due to the fact that publishing (like so many other industries/arts) seems to venerate the young, particular notice is given to older poets. That said, no generation has been neglected—our writers range in age from late twenties to early eighties.
Of the 100+ books we have published, we can proudly say that many of our writers have gone onto flourishing careers. Beginning in September of 2000 with our own first book, A Day this Lit by Howard Levy, we have since published reputable names, such as Karen Chase, Peggy Penn, Sherry Fairchok, Sondra Gash, Liz Hutner, Christopher Matthews, Eloise Bruce, Celia Bland, Catherine Doty, Giorgianna Orsini, Joan Seliger Sidney, Laurie Lamon, Chris Barter, Andrea Carter Brown, Robert Seder, Richard Jeffrey Newman, Ross Gay, Joseph Legaspi, Christine Korfhage and Teresa Carson just to name a few.
On the other side of the publishing spectrum, out-of-print books also concerned us. The plethora of exquisite work allowed to go out-of-print due to slow/limited sales is staggering. We added these to our list and committed ourselves to publishing reprints of fine books that we believe deserve permanence while doing all we could to not allow any of our own books from going out of print. Martin Mooney’s Grub was our first reprint. I was drawn to him first as a gifted writer and that interest deepened once I heard that his publisher had ‘pulped’ the 600 copies of Grub that remained in storage without informing Martin. Nor did they invite him to purchase or simply remove them. Worst of all, he discovered the fate of his books when he contacted his publisher and was unable to purchase books for a reading. Grub along with Moyra Donaldson’s Snakeskin Stilettos were our first reprints.
CavanKerry’s interest in writers who are “under-recognized” or “rejected by the literary mainstream” came to include a scope broader than merely poets who were previously unpublished. Many seasoned, mid-career poets are forced to solicit a new publisher for each new book. CavanKerry has provided a home for many of these Notable Voices, including Robert Cording, Mary Ruefle, Kenneth Rosen, Jack Wiler, Karen Chase, Baron Wormser, Sam Cornish and more.
Another interest of ours are intelligent, insightful works that focus on the creative process and the making of art; these are CK Critical Collections. Our Carolyn Kizer (introduction by Maxine Kumin) and John Haines (introduction by Dana Gioia) books collect the essays and poems of reputable poets and essayists across the country who have studied the works of these two brilliant writers and write in depth about it.
Our initial aesthetic commitment goes hand-in hand with our community focus which revolves around our interest in special projects. CavanKerry has published two collections to benefit another arts organization. The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, Volumes 1 and 2 were published to honor the great work of The Robert Frost Place Center for Poetry and the Arts in Franconia, New Hampshire under the protective mantle of former executive director, Donald Sheehan, where many notable and fledgling artists, including myself, have made and shared poems.
But we were not finished. Like any excited home or business builder we kept finding new rooms to add to our structure. During our second season, we found yet another category of book that we wanted to support: specifically, those that dealt openly and honestly with the profound psychological, emotional, and physical issues connected to illness. This came to us in the form of Life with Sam by Elizabeth Hutner, a book sent to us by Molly Peacock which recounted the deeply moving story in poems and photos of a woman who lost her 5 year old son to leukemia.
Having spent most of my adult life with serious (though not life threatening) orthopedic problems (two spinal fusions and one ankle fusion, among several other surgeries), I struggled as a writer with a need to confront the effects of these in my writing and a need to escape them. When I suffered a very serious fall that resulted in a trimalleolar fracture of my left ankle, I avoided the pain in my writing until Molly insisted I confront it. I balked. I didn’t want to appear self-pitying, nor did I want to write about what I was convinced no one wanted to hear. Yet, as a psychologist, I knew how important it was that I do so.
So much work about illness, including my own, seemed to tackle the problems either glibly or stoically; all seemed to avoid the emotional pain that, by necessity, accompanies serious illness. This is important and powerful work and very necessary for writers and readers alike. Readers need poems to help them live with and through their illnesses. Poems name things for us. Sometimes they name what we feel—what we cannot express on our own. They tell us that we are not alone. The incredibly courageous story of Sam brought to mind the whole array of important works that are a necessity to read for the families, caregivers, physicians, and those living with their illnesses. I wanted CavanKerry to claim this work as a major part of our mission. We approached the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for the Advancement of Humanism in Medicine requesting that they partner with us in CavanKerry’s imprint, LaurelBooks, The Literature of Illness and Disability. The name stems from my mad love affair with trees and a line from one of my poems:
Have you noticed
how the laurel dips down
crawls along the ground
to find the sun
like any life or body
that’s known love?
The Gold Foundation agreed and with them we have brought Life with Sam, in the form of both books and readings/discussions, to medical communities across the country.
Our second LaurelBook, Body of Diminishing Motion, by Joan Seliger Sidney, tells the story in poems and a memoir of a woman who has battled with Multiple Sclerosis for over 40 years. Body of Diminishing Motion was also distributed and read to the medical community as well as to a general readership. The third, fourth, and fifth LaurelBooks also deserve notice: Robert Seders’ To the Marrow is a memoir written by a man who underwent a bone marrow transplant for lymphoma; Mark Nepo’s Surviving Has Made Me Crazy is yet another powerful story in poems and memoir of a man who survived lymphoma; and Teresa Caron’s, Elegy for the Floater recounts in poems the life of an extremely dysfunctional family that focuses on the youngest sibling who committed suicide. Our 2009 LaurelBook, We Mad Climb Steep Ladders by Pam Wagner, tells the story in poems of a woman’s inevitable plunge into the madness of schizophrenia and her eventual but very slow return to a tempered sanity.
Since then, as of January 2020, we’ve had the pleasure of publishing LaurelBooks like Little Boy Blue (Grey Jacobik— a mother and her emotionally challenged son), Letters from a Distant Shore (Marie Lawson Fiala— a mother whose son suffers a cerebral hemorrhage), Motherhood Exaggerated (Judith Hannan— a mother’s story of a daughter’s Ewing’s Sarcoma), My Crooked House (Teresa Carson— experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder), Sweet World (Maureen Seaton— a woman’s recreation of life as a survivor of Breast Cancer), Cracked Piano (Margo Taft Stever— recalling a life through letters of a relative who was a victim of psychiatric incarceration in the 19th century), and The Body at a Loss (Cati Porter— a woman’s articulation of the complexities regarding diagnosis, treatment, and recovery of Cancer). LaurelBook readings have taken place at Columbia University’s Medical Schools, UMDNJ, cancer support groups, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and many others. I’ll go into greater detail in the next section of the Community blog in this series.
I am very proud of this work and the positive impact it has had both within the writing community and among a more general audience. CavanKerry’s tagline is “lives brought to life,” with a simple but powerful mission to explore what it means to be human. Each of the 100+ books we have published in the last two decades has furthered that mission and worked to bring fine literature to an ever-growing audience.