River Teeth Print Journal

Editor’s Notes 12.1

Fall 2010

By Joe Mackall

This issue is one we’ll remember fondly here at River Teeth—we finally have work by Phillip Lopate between our covers. We’ve admired and respected Lopate and his work for years. One of my all-time favorite novels is a quiet, loving gem titled The Rug Merchant, published in 1987. We’ve heard him read numerous times; we were even fortunate enough to have him at Ashland University a few years ago. I once heard Lopate describe himself as somebody the publishing world thought of as a steady “.250 hitter.” I never regarded Phillip as a “.250 hitter,” not by a long shot. To me he’s always been the ultimate professional writer and essayist, whether he’s writing about shaving a beard, shushing somebody in a crowded movie theater, discovering changes in his own body, or enlightening readers about marriage. His edited book, The Art of the Personal Essay, is now used in hundreds of college classrooms, and his introduction about the history, characteristics, nuances, and subtleties of the personal essay is easily worth the price of the book.

Always a defender as well as practitioner of the personal essay, Lopate has chosen to go out on an even flimsier limb for us to defend the publication of essay collections. As Lopate writes, “In these uncertain times for the book trade, when the very future of the printed word seems in question, the one thing certain is that no one wants to publish a collection of essays. Your agent would prefer not to have to sell it, your old publishers don’t want to touch it, and even those pretty young editors who smile enticingly around the buffet table and give midlist authors such as yourself their cards don’t want anything to do with it.” Phillip’s piece proceeds to unearth the latent power and subversive beauty of the essay collection as only he can.

A new light in the publishing world agrees with Phillip about the importance of writers writing and publishers publishing essay collections. Kim Kupperman, an essayist and recent Bakeless winner, is launching Welcome Table Press, which she hopes will become a press dedicated to publishing essay collections. We’ve asked Kim to tell us a little about her press.

She writes, “The notion of welcome is a tenet shared by all the world’s belief systems, from Judeo-Christian and Islamic practice, to Buddhism, to tribal cultures. The words and expressions for welcome are varied; in Hebrew and Arabic, they are the same word for peace; in French and Spanish, bienvenu and bienvenido mean, literally, ‘good coming.’ And our own Anglo Saxon word welcome, derived from the Old English wilcuma, comes from willa, ‘pleasure, desire, choice’ + cuma, ‘guest.’ And so I choose, and desire, a great pleasure in greeting all of you, our guests, at what will be, I hope, a welcoming experience.

“The term ‘welcome table’ comes from an old gospel song. But it was from James Baldwin’s writing that I first was introduced to it. Baldwin’s last work was a play called The Welcome Table, but the notion—a table where all people can sit, regardless of how social mores, laws, and bigotry divide us—is infused into his prose and dramatic writing, and, it always seemed to me, into his entire being. Baldwin remains my one constant literary heartthrob, though I’ve had other ardent infatuations. And so it came to be that in 2002 I created an entity called Welcome Table Press, under whose aegis I published a miniature periodical called Food for Thought, each issue of which featured one short lyric essay and a recipe for a dish made with local, seasonal food. I produced two volumes of Food for Thought, with six issues each. I was in grad school then, so I actually had some time to hand-cut and hand-sew the little books. I worked with a papermaker to craft a dozen boxed sets, which were raffled off to raise money for a small library in coastal Maine, where I lived at the time. Alas, Food for Thought had to be put aside when I graduated and took my job at the Gettysburg Review.

“Flash forward to 2007, Iowa City. Five writers in a coffee shop: Michael Steinberg, Mimi Schwartz, Robert Root, Dustin Beall Smith, and myself. We’d come together to discuss what it might take to start a low-residency MFA in nonfiction. We’d been going back and forth over e-mail for several months. The hurdle, we all agreed, was where to start such a project. And then Mike Steinberg looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure you want to be in a relationship with an academic institution? Maybe you should just launch an institute.’ I went home and within a week, I understood what I had to do, and, to make a long story short, I wound up envisioning a press whose mission was also educational.

“So, why the essay? We at Welcome Table Press believe it is time to celebrate this form of writing as it’s never been celebrated before. Which means publishing nothing but essays. In all their forms, from the Montaignian train-of-thought personal essay to the experimental-you-can’t-tell-the-difference-from-a-prose-poem lyric essay. And everything in between.”

Kim tells us that her press, while not accepting submissions at this time, hopes to first publish themed anthologies of essays by different writers. Once the ground beneath Welcome Table’s feet is strong, the press will become a beacon for publishing collections of discrete essays by a single author.

We’ve also had some good news here lately. River Teeth has won its second Pushcart Prize thanks to Mohja Kahf ’s “The Caul of Inshallah.” We also have another winner in the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. Lisa Catherine Harper’s book, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in spring 2011.

Thanks for reading.

– J.M.


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