Part 3 in our ongoing series, The Birth of a Press, CKP publisher Joan Cusack Handler discusses the ins and outs of running a poetry press.
Then as if all my collective saints, angels and muses had heard my pleas and harangues and either concurred or together conspired to silence me, my dream became a possibility! The product of both an enormous stroke of good luck that took the form of an inheritance my husband, Alan, received quite unexpectedly and most of all, his enormous generosity to me, I now had the start up capital to start my press. I was delirious. The first thing I did was call Molly and the second was to call my friends Karen Chase, Howard Levy and Peggy Penn to tell them that I would be honored to publish their books. We were all elated.
I hit the ground running. I had to learn everything. Immediately! I decided to do it in tandem with the most capable person I knew who miraculously was looking for part-time work, Florenz Eisman (then Greenberg). In addition to having a great gift for writing, Florenz had worked for several years as a vice president for a public relations firm. She, in the course of her career had done just about everything—from managing a department to research to writing. She knew her way around people, business and most importantly, books. Even computers!
First on our agenda, our press needed a name. That was not a simple decision. Surprisingly, in all of my dreaming, I had never come up with a name. That took considerable thought.
Remarkably at major points in my life—when life seemed to be clearing a path for me and success was in the wings, a woman in my life died. Or so it seemed. When I was given my husband, son and Ph.D, it was my good friend Janice; when I was given my press, it was my mother.
During her last visit to my home in East Hampton, she (and my father!) read my poems for the first time. I kept all of the journals that my work had appeared in in a basket in front of the fireplace in our family room. I cautioned both of my parents that my work was brimming with profanity and what they’d consider obscenity and that they violated all of Mom’s dictates to never speak outside of our family of anything personal. They were undeterred. They handed poems back and forth to each other. Mom, did you read this one? Dad, look at this one. My mother who could hardly see twisted the pages high into the light to read every poem. Remarkably, rather than be horrified, they were interested in what the poems had to say. My father reminded me that he’d been a laborer all his life so he’d heard those words before. Nor was he surprised by all the raging that went on in the poems. They asked me questions. Particularly about events recorded in the poems. They did not argue; they did not chastise; most importantly they did not judge.
It was a miracle of sorts. These poems had been there in the same spot during scores of previous visits and they showed no interest in reading them, but this time they were ready. I don’t know what prompted that openness, but I know I was grateful. We were all three grateful. This was an intimacy that we had never known. For years I had kept much of myself from their view. They knew only facts about my life; I kept what mattered to myself; and I no longer saw any value in exposing either them or me to the worlds that separated us. Yet on this weekend, this Saturday afternoon in November let’s say –I like to think it was even Thanksgiving weekend –we always spent it together—we were ready. The gift of that closeness served us well during my mother’s illness.
My parents have always amazed me in their ability to grow as human beings as they aged. My father’s steps were always steady and involved virtually no regression. He held fast to what was important to him, namely his Catholicism and the Church as supreme authority, but he was open to influence about everything else. He loved (and still does) to learn. The world of people and nature were magical places for him and he reveled in each story or creation. My mother was more complicated. Her growth did not come until her cancer. Prior to that she was unpredictable–completely open one day and then refusing to talk the next. If she let you in –perhaps revealing some confidence, she would quickly shut you out. I stayed away from her for long stretches of time.
Miraculously however, when she got sick, she shut the door on all that anger and resentment. It was as if she were reborn, but this time without the darkness, her own dead mother (she died when my Mom was 6) close and whole, forming the bedrock of love that we all count on to carry us into adulthood trusting that the world will care for and love us. She finally knew she was blessed. She finally believed she was loved. She was grateful and said so for every kindness or attention. Being close to her was effortless. She invited it; I/we all accepted. And she lost no time. She wanted to know everything about each of us. In my case, my writing—What was I writing? Was I writing? I should be writing. I should tell my story. She gave me Reader’s Digest large print books that included autobiographies of strong women. Write your story, she said. People will read it; you tell the truth. Her support was palpable and unwavering. I told her that I had been writing the memoir of my young self as a 12 year old girl. I read it to her during hospital visits then sat by her bed for hours writing while she slept.
There was no greater gift I could have received than to be close to my mother when she was dying. To face a parent’s death with coldness between you is a barren painfully lonely land. To be able to go with her and face it together is/was a blessing. She talked to me of cooking for Dad, teaching him to cook, her concerns for the grandchildren, what she felt, what she wanted, what she worried about. I was able to give to her for the first time since I was a child.
Shortly after she died, the money miraculously arrived for the birth of the press. A friend suggested I name it for her. I liked the tribute, but I didn’t want to exclude my father. I settled on CavanKerry—the two counties in Ireland where they were born—my father, Cavan; my mother, Kerry. Though CavanKerry would not be an “Irish” press, it was from that land –those two lands–that my own writing grew.