Monthly Archives: October 2012

Defamiliarizing the History We Know: Editing “Sojourner Truth” and “The Spitting Image”

by Niko Pfund, Publisher, Trade & Academic, Oxford University Press (USA)
A Books That Matter Essay

Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, by Carleton Mabee (NYU Press, 1995)
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke (NYU Press, 2000)

Like most university press directors, I could pen an entire collection of essays on books with which I have been proud to be associated. I’ll focus here on two books that I acquired and edited at NYU Press rather than published, since an editor’s involvement is always more direct than a publisher’s. Both of these books provide a wholly original and counterintuitive perspective on a familiar topic, in both cases a subject rife with emotion, passion, and conflict.

Cover: Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (ISBN: 9780814755259)

In the early 1990s I came across the manuscript of a revisionist biography of legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth by Carleton Mabee, a SUNY historian who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his biography of Samuel F. B. Morse, and was immediately intrigued. I was especially struck by his contention that Truth never actually uttered the phrase with which she is most famously associated, “Ain’t I A Woman?,” spoken defiantly, it had long been believed, to a hostile crowd uneasy about the establishment of a direct link between women’s rights and abolitionism, at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.  Instead, Mabee claimed, Truth’s speech was met enthusiastically. The hisses and catcalls that purportedly rang out from the crowd were in fact the later embellishment of Frances Gage, one of the organizers of the conference, in a chronicle written years after the fact. Mabee further contended that the famous phrase was not in fact Truth’s at all, but rather of Gage’s later manufacture, basing his claim on an examination of both Truth’s and Gage’s use of language in their speeches and writings, and a review of newspaper accounts in the days immediately following the conference, which contained no mention of any such expression.

While the Akron convention may have been devoid of the specific dramas attributed to it, the publication of Mabee’s book itself made for some moments of considerable drama at the 1993 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Mabee was perhaps 30 years the senior of his fellow presenters, and was, if memory serves, the only man and the only white person on the panel. Appearing alongside a panel of Truth biographers at one of the conference’s best-attended sessions, held in the large auditorium at Vassar College, Mabee’s presentation of his findings was greeted respectfully by the other panelists.

The excitement began during the Q&A, when a member of the audience stood up, wearing a black “Silence = Death” t-shirt, and claimed that Mabee’s work was motivated solely by his desire to tear down an iconic female figure. The time has passed, she said angrily, when we should let a white man guide our interpretation of the life of a prominent African-American woman. Carleton remained impassive and a hush fell over the audience, as I sat squirming in the front row.

After a tense few moments, the Princeton historian Nell Painter, who was at the time working on her own biography of Truth and thus had every reason to feel ambivalent about Mabee’s work appearing before hers, took the microphone. Painter began by saying that it was she who had invited Mabee to the conference. His work, she continued, was important and, er, truthful, rooted in imaginative archival research and fact. Her own work would make use of his when her book (which was widely considered the definitive biography of Truth upon publication) was released. As 300 women historians sat rapt, she concluded that the time had happily passed when scholars of women’s history needed to shore up their subjects as a means of validating the field of study. Sojourner Truth, she said was a remarkable and potent historical figure, and no one should feel the need to erect—or sustain—mythical scaffolding to prop her up.

Debates over identity politics were roiling the humanities in 1993, but Painter’s remarks were met with loud, sustained applause.


Cover: The Spitting Image
The Spitting Image (ISBN: 9780814751473)

Some topics act as a canvas onto which we project our pre-existing beliefs. Rather than engaging with other perspectives to challenge and test those beliefs, too often we simply search for empirical evidence—however selectively chosen or disingenuously applied—to support our established sense of how the world *is*. And so there are few more gratifying experiences as a publisher than contributing in some small, vicarious way to changing the way we think.

The Vietnam War, as a barometer of America’s trajectory as a nation and global power, is clearly such a topic. And, of all the contested iconography that came out of that war, the image of the American soldier returning home, crisply uniformed and eagerly anticipating a family reunion, only to be met by an anti- war protestor who spits on him and calls him “baby killer” has been one of the most potent and most resilient.

Only, claimed Holy Cross sociologist Jerry Lembcke, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, it never happened. Not once, at least not according to any available evidence other than individual memories, which are, as oral history has shown us, notoriously changeable over time.

When I first encountered it, Lembcke’s argument struck me as overstated. Surely, I thought, this must have happened at least a few times and then been exaggerated; why else would everyone think it had? But the further I read and the more Lembcke and I discussed the project, the more persuasive I found his claim. The spectre of the hippy protestor (most often a woman, frequently wearing a flowery dress, almost always in the San Francisco airport) spitting on the returning vet was first given life, according to Lembcke, in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and then became culturally institutionalized in the mumbling monologues of Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo films. In fact, the only Vietnam-era episode Lembcke unearthed of someone being spat upon occurred during a rally by Vietnam Veterans Against the War when an anti-war protester was spat upon by another veteran countermarching with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Even as I found Lembcke’s argument increasingly persuasive, I failed in my attempt to get him to address why so many returning soldiers absorbed this claim of having been spat upon into their own autobiographies, and how the obvious unease that Americans felt in welcoming home veterans of a “lost war” was translated by soldiers into feelings of having been spat upon. Here I should note that I sent a draft of this piece to Jerry, who disagreed with my recollection here: “I think I did address the question why veterans say they were spat on. The stories are a form of scapegoating, i.e., blaming the loss of the war on home front betrayal and gendering those stories with girls or young women (or male longhairs) cast as spitters. The stories also conjure the image of the spat-on `good veteran’ that displaces from public memory the real-life anti-war veteran with whom the public is uncomfortable. The book’s contribution to the study of myth-construction is some of what has given it the legs it has.”

In any event, the book was widely reviewed upon publication, including an above-the-fold feature piece in the purple “Life” section of USA Today. Every review was met with incredulous, often irate readers’ responses as well as with other letters best distilled as “finally!” Jerry was tireless in engaging with all perspectives. His work compelled precisely the sort of debate that both author and editor had hoped for.

Given what a dicey proposition it is to accuse others of having in effect embraced a false consciousness—or, put more bluntly, having made things up—about their own autobiographies, Jerry faced some challenging moments during the promotional campaign for the book. At a reading at Clark University, a group of VFW members assembled outside before the talk and then marched in, taking up most of the front row seats. Within a few minutes of Lembcke’s opening comments, they began shouting comments and questions like “Where were you during the war?” Happily, Lembcke is not a shrinking violet. He didn’t shy away from these encounters but was even animated by them and welcomed the engagement, however fierce, holding his ground and giving as good as he got.

Influential books have a long life, and so The Spitting Image has seen several revivals. The 2006 film Sir! No Sir! featured the book, giving it its biggest post-launch boost. Manohla Dargis, the New York Times critic, favorably reviewed the film, specifically mentioning the book. Seven years after the book’s publication, Sir! No Sir! served as a second launch of sorts for The Spitting Image.  More recently, the LA Times editorialized about President Obama’s 2012 Memorial Day speech and built its critique around The Spitting Image, citing the book favorably.

Jerry continues his revisionist ways, most recently publishing a book about Jane Fonda, Hanoi Jane, with the University of Massachusetts Press. He reports “a donnybrook at the Waterbury CT public library in 2010 where a group of about 20 veterans decked-out in “I’m Not Fond ’a’ Fonda” t-shirts picketed outside and then entered the auditorium where they forced an early end to my talk and then intimidated other attendees in the Q&A to the point where a police officer stepped to the front of the room to cool things down.”

I just hit my quarter-century mark in scholarly publishing. Writing this piece, and reliving the experience of publishing these two books, affirms for me yet again how much I love the work we do, how valuable that work is, and how lucky we are to be academic publishers.

Finding Treasure in Press Files

Scholarly presses are better known for publishing the results of archival research: documentary editions, works of history, sociological studies–all the amazing scholarship that is supported by memory institutions and records repositories. But as cultural institutions with long and storied histories of their own, presses often light upon some pretty amazing archival finds in their working files. During this Archives Awareness Month, we’ve happened on a couple of stories of such recent finds:

* While working on a massive contracts digitization project, Peter Froehlich, Rights & Permissions Manager of Indiana University Press, came across the press’s original contract with one Jorge Luis Borges for the book Borges at Eighty: Conversations. Borges happened to be visiting Bloomington and signed the contract in person; attached was a photo of the occasion featuring the great writer and the Press’s then-editor, now-director Janet Rabinowitch. The Press is now working with the University Archivist to preserve this wonderful history.

Jorge Luis Borges and Janet Rabinowitch
Author Jorge Luis Borges and editor Janet Rabinowitch in Bloomington, IN.

* Penn State University Press is working on a reprint of a seminal work on the poetics of Maurice Sendak, by John Cech, originally published in 1996. In the marketing files for the original edition, PSU Press Marketing & Sales Director Tony Sanfilippo found a letter to Sendak about how the press might use some of his illustrations, marked up in Sendak’s handwriting with a personal note to Tony’s predecessor. Perhaps even more appealing to a university press sales director, Sendak also appended an order for a copy of Penn State’s The Photographic Experience! (The story of how the reprint finally came to fruition is also worth reading, so flip over to Tony’s blog for the full tale.)

Correspondence between Maurice Sendak and PSU Press
Click through for the full letter and story!

There have to be hundreds, even thousands, of stories like this–please share some of your favorites in the comments!

Razzle-Dazzle: Publishing “The Fosse Style”

by Meredith Morris-Babb, Director, University Press of Florida
A Books That Matter Essay

The Fosse Style, by Debra McWaters, Foreword by Ben Vereen (University Press of Florida, 2008)

Book Cover: The Fosse Style
The Fosse Style (ISBN: 978-0-8130-3153-8)

“Dance as though no one was watching.” When the opportunity to acquire books in dance can into my life, I tour jetté-d at the chance. What better way to express one’s love for dance then through books for everyone?

I love the ballet and all of its force of emotion and music, but my heart is drawn to jazz dance, specifically, the dances and choreography of Mr. Bob Fosse, Mr. Jazz Hands himself. Now there was a man who knew how to break from the known, go to the edge with unflinching conviction, guided by a vision and style that remains unique and complete. His signature movements were so subtle yet so powerful in their expression, sensual in their delivery, cynical in their purpose, provocative in their meaning. Most people regard him as the guy behind Cabaret and Chicago, and those musicals do indulge in his singular style. But if you want to see classic Fosse, watch him as the Snake in “The Little Prince.” It’s like Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark—only that man could play that part so well. Fosse simply was the snake. However, I am drawn to other works—The Pajama Game with Gwen Verdon dancing “Steam Heat,” and the movie All that Jazz with the number “Bye-Bye Life.” How many performers get to choreograph their final performance? Genius.

What bothered my editorial sensibilities though, were the Fosse knockoffs; those crass imitators who saw nothing more than hip thrusts and cocked wrists as Fosse-style. Here, in Bob Fosse as much as in the dances of Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharpe, was the American jazz style. So was this magic to be lost simply because Fosse never had a dance company? Stars have had their careers made with his dance—Shirley MacLaine and Liza Minnelli still make his dances the center of their one-person shows. You know it when you see it, and, if you know it, you know when it is done badly. So the editor in me wanted to codify that style, capture that genie of technique and pedagogy in a Fosse-style bottle.

About four years after making my move to the University Press of Florida, a press with a strong list in music and dance, my chance arrived. The Carr Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida had booked the show Fosse!, a retrospective of Fosse’s work created by Ann Reinking, a protégé and romantic partner of Fosse’s, in collaboration with Gwen Verdon, his wife and mother of his daughter. The three-act musical is a marvelous tribute and a wonderful documentary of Fosse’s evolution as a choreographer. Of course, I had contacted Ann Reinking about a book project, but she expressed no interest. I wanted to meet the person who was staging and directing the show—perhaps here was the author for my dream book. It turns out, in a surely serendipitous sign, that the dance director, Deb McWaters, was living in Tampa.

Deb and I hit it off immediately. We both shared the same vision and the need for a collaborative effort to preserve that which we both found precious and special in Fosse’s work. Many issues needed to be fleshed out before we could begin with a proposal, however, much less a contract.  Were the dances in copyright? Did Nicole Fosse, his daughter and artistic estate heir, own the trademark on his image, name and use?  What was Reinking’s role going to be? Did the estate of Gwen Verdon have any say? Was this going to be a legal nightmare like a book on Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley? Almost, almost…

First, we contacted Nicole Fosse. We received approval to do a book on the dance style of Fosse using the production Fosse! as the basis, but Reinking would have to pre-approve everything. Well, that made sense, and we proceeded with the estate’s permission. But of course, things never go quite that easily. For reasons that are still unclear, Ann Reinking suddenly opposed the idea, stating that if anyone should do this book it should be her, an idea she had already declined once.

I wrote to the Fosse estate lawyers asking if the dance moves (not the choreography) were trademarked or copyrighted in anyway. In other words, was there anything preventing us from showing moves as being in the Fosse STYLE but not recreating any single Fosse dance in toto. The lawyers reluctantly agreed that we could proceed in this manner, but of course that meant no endorsement from either the family or Ann Reinking. This was the dilemma. Do we honor the wishes of the ex-girlfriend, or do we preserve for posterity that which was not going to be done otherwise, for it was evident that this denial of participation had a personal element in it. Deb, it appeared, had fallen out of favor and no longer was of the tribe. But Reinking made it quite clear that she had no intention of creating such a book herself or with Fosse’s daughter. Posterity or publicity: that was the question.

We opted for posterity.

Ilustration of Fosse-style dance
© 2012 The Barn Players Community Theatre, a 501(c)3 organization.

The book required defining Fosse’s funky names for all of the moves and postures, then photographing dancers performing them. This was very challenging as Fosse’s choreography is filled with small, subtle, nuanced, movements. Fosse once described himself as “turned in:” rounded shoulders, knocked-knees, and fallen insteps all lead Fosse to create a closed-up, tightly wound, style with bursts of unexpected openness and freedom. The signature wrist rolls are called the “Soft-Boiled-Egg Roll,” and are to be performed as if holding an egg. Sequential photography to show the Fosse version of the Mosh Pit (“The Clump”) and its variations the “amoeba” and “seaweed,” the hat flip with fingers extended, and so on, were needed.  Fosse’s dancers are so highly stylized, yet you can see how easily a dancer can put their own mark on this choreography.

How to capture this? Dance is so visual, all mirrors upon mirrors, that dance technique is quite demanding to capture on film.  We opted to use both male and female dancers, two of each, to demonstrate how personal the movements could be. Each movement was done in at least three sequential photos. The book was divided into body parts because that was how Fosse taught his classes. The book closes with a sequence of photographs from the earlier chapters that show how the moves can be put together into a Fosse-style dance.  We really wanted to re-create “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” but the lawyers said “no.” So we created a fake Fosse dance using Fosse-style moves. It worked brilliantly. Deb was able to capture in the narrative how necessary it was for dancers to perform a move perfectly AND improvise within the style, for the dancer to be utterly fearless because the first eight counts belong to them alone.

As we neared the end of both our budget ($1200 for the photography alone!) and our endurance, Ben Vereen called me out of the blue. Yes THAT Ben Vereen.  He had heard about the book and offers to write a foreword. Hallelujah, the Fosse angels are here! The foreword is a loving tribute, and Deb is most gracious in her acknowledgements even to Reinking.  Once final piece was needed: the essay or prologue that would place Fosse into the dance historical context. Why did this man’s vision matter? What did he contribute? Dance critic and historian Mindy Aloff provided the prologue and we were done.

The book has done reasonably well, but it did not earn back its costs in Year One. It remains a solid if not stellar backlist contributor. But that was not the point. Deb, I, and all the dancers put into the written record, for all the ages, the genius that was Bob Fosse. That is so satisfying and rewarding. Because every time I walk into a big meeting or presentation I always think…

“Give ’em the old Razzle Dazzle…..”

Publishing Peggy Pascoe

by Susan Ferber, Executive Editor, American and World History, Oxford University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, by Peggy Pascoe (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Book Cover: What Comes Naturally
What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (ISBN: 9780195094633)

I had inherited so many files for so many overdue books. It was hard to know what would ever come to fruition. Every year I would see Peggy Pascoe at the Western Historical Association conference. Over tea we would commiserate about constant sinus infections, and she would apologize for being late and tell me that, really, she was working on it and she didn’t want to give it to me to read until she felt it was ready. Every year I’d also hear from others about all the invaluable reviews she was doing of young scholars’ and colleagues’ manuscripts, editing their work closely and helping them to publish the very best versions of their books.

Peggy’s manuscript was 14 years overdue on the contractual deadline. Any commercial press would have dropped the project by that point. But good things often come to university press editors who wait. What Comes Naturally was going to examine local and state miscegenation laws—widespread race-based legal restrictions on marriage—across the United States and how they affected those who tried to marry from the Civil War to the 1960s. It was a brilliant idea for a book and much anticipated by historians. It was also an immense research job, requiring many trips to archives around the country, made even more challenging after Pascoe and her partner adopted two babies.

Then came the day when she told me she had been diagnosed with cancer. She was determined not to leave her book undone. Soon after, I attended a panel on Peggy’s career held at a conference, which seemed a little like attending a memorial service for someone still alive, and one paper was about her forthcoming book. Another was on Peggy as manuscript reviewer and an in-depth analysis of the kind of work she did as a series editor for the Crossroads series at the University of California Press and for other historians. (This was later published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives as “The Art of Manuscript Reviewing: Learning from the Example of Peggy Pascoe.”) I’d never felt so intimidated by the idea of editing a project. Clearly Peggy was a master editor. While I’m not normally fazed by the prospect of working on anyone’s prose, this bar was set high.

When Peggy delivered a manuscript, I sat down immediately to work on it, worried that time was of the essence. It was all that I hoped it would be and more—sweeping in scope, erudite, full of archival gems, aiming to make arguments in the conclusion about the shift from discriminatory laws based on color to ones based on sex. Fortunately I found some ways to improve the manuscript and offered some suggestions, trying to weigh my concern about not having been tough enough against my sheer awe for the achievement on the pages. Peggy was such a professional that, even when she was undergoing many rounds of chemo, even when she couldn’t sit for more than half an hour at a time, she worked on finishing her book, revising after I’d edited, reviewing her copyedits, reading her page proofs, answering all her emails. I knew it was a great physical feat, not just an intellectual one. Her partner, Linda Long, did superb photo research so there were some unusual images of people and places that are rarely seen, such as the courthouse wedding of a couple that many in society legislated and fought to keep apart.

Every step of the way, I worried that Peggy wouldn’t make it to the next one. Her immune system was so weakened. The drugs weren’t working. She was experiencing horrific side effects.  But her spirit was so strong, I knew she was fighting to spend more time with her daughters and to see her finished book. She complained about having to spend time battling the health insurance company, but she seemed to find joy in spending time having massages and having herself taken care of, time I knew she hadn’t made on a regular basis when life was so busy. She never neglected her graduate students or her responsibilities as a faculty member, even when she had to stop teaching.

I’ll never forget the day What Comes Naturally came in from the printer, and because there is a superb photo of it, the day Peggy got her first book in the mail. It was more than being an editor, getting to publish her work; it was an honor and a mitzvah.

Not only did she live to see her book published, but Peggy survived long enough to see it win five prizes and the public acclaim of her colleagues. She was even able to receive four of these awards in person.  The last time I saw her when was when she went to San Diego, to the American Historical Association, both to be honored in person and to attend a panel about her book. We sat next to one another during the panel, but she was firm about not wanting to speak, to let others interpret its meaning. She was such a humble person, I knew that this panel had embarrassed her, but it is so rare to hear others talk about how a book, so soon after publication, had sparked and inspired new research agendas. We had lunch outside that day, overlooking the marina. We talked about so many things apart from the book, as we had increasingly done over email. I have thought about those conversations many times since–how hard it is be a workaholic and to have to learn how to prioritize what is truly important and what you don’t want to leave undone in life. Those lessons will never leave me, even though Peggy sadly departed this earth two years ago.

Peggy was a consummate professional, a generous and gracious soul, and someone who continues to inspire me because of the work she did, not just as an author but also as an editor.

Read “In Memoriam: Peggy Pascoe” (AHA) and visit Dr. Pascoe’s University of Oregon faculty page

Defying Stereotypes: Publishing “Growing Season”

by Will Underwood, Director, Kent State University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community; Photographs by Gary Harwood; Text by David Hassler (Kent State University Press, 2006)

Book Cover: Growing Season
Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community (ISBN: 978-0873388733)

This book’s story begins at a 2003 reception for the late David Citino, whose essay collection, Paperwork, had recently been published by Kent State University Press. KSU photographer Gary Harwood discreetly circulated among the guests, expertly capturing images of the event. Our marketing intern, Mario Morelos, asked Gary, “How is your migrant worker project going?” and our senior editor and I both immediately reacted with, “What migrant worker project?” That was the beginning of what eventually became Growing Season: The Life of a Migrant Community.

For several years before we learned of his work, Gary had been making the 35-minute drive south from Kent to Hartville, Ohio, to photograph the migrants, mostly Mexican, who work on the K.W. Zellers farm. Gary had discovered the migrant community when he was assigned to cover the KSU nursing students’ role at the nearby free clinic that serves the migrants. He hadn’t known that just a few miles south of Kent is a community of farm workers, whole families who come north on migrant visas to pick vegetables in the region’s rich black soil, from late spring up to fall’s first killing frost, before moving on to Texas and eventually back to their homes in Mexico. Largely unseen and unknown to the majority population, these workers live on the Zellers’s farm in comfortable temporary housing provided by the landowner; when not in school, older teens work alongside their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, harvesting the produce that ends up in supermarkets and on dining tables throughout the eastern United States. This nearly invisible community-within-a-community fascinated Gary. The mystery of who these people are combined with the invitingly rich visual material was irresistible to him.

Radish Harvest
Prepared for inclement weather, Patricia Prieto works with her crew to harvest radishes during a morning rain. (Photo by Gary Harwood. Reprinted with permission.)

For two years Gary photographed the migrants from afar in all seasons, from sunup to sundown; he was chased off the Zellers’s property more than once before being granted grudging access to photograph the workers up close by Jeff Zellers, whose reputation had been damaged more than once by sensation-seeking journalists. After a few more years Gary was no longer regarded as a stranger, but became an accepted presence. Eventually he was invited into homes, asked to attend weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms, and first communions—and asked take photos! More than just a curiosity from the Anglo world, Gary became a friend. As this slow transformation from outsider to insider to friend progressed, Gary gathered a rich visual record of a tightly-knit community and the group of permanent residents and volunteers who support it.

After seeing his portfolio, we were captivated. We told him, “Gary, these need to be in a book, and we want to publish it.” But we knew that in order to complete the story, his photographs needed complementary text. I suggested Gary contact poet and writer David Hassler. Independently and coincidentally, Gary had already discussed the project with David. We signed both men up, and their collaboration began.

Moving Crates
Workers move crates from the trucks to the fields, where they will be packed with fresh lettuce and placed back on the truck for delivery to the wash house. (Photo by Gary Harwood. Reprinted with permission.)

David interviewed the migrants and the permanent residents of the community who work, often as volunteers, to support them—nurses, social workers, neighbors, farm owner Jeff Zellers, teachers, the parish priest, the bishop. The resulting rich oral histories did not explain the photographs; the photographs did not illustrate the stories. Instead the two media worked together liked a musical score, forming a contrapuntal and complementary whole, greater than its several parts.

After working intensively with the staff at KSU Press, Gary’s and David’s joint effort became Growing Season, a record in words and pictures of a small, tightly-knit community of America’s underclass, well-treated by their conservative employer, supported by their sometime neighbors, a story that defies stereotypes of downtrodden immigrants, illegal aliens, and exploitative employers. It’s not a story of extremes of oppression and gloom but rather one of quiet dignity, joy, toil, hope, and a measure of success against tough odds. Both a collection of stunning photographs and a catalog of moving oral histories, Growing Season serves as a model in microcosm of how things can be if each of us lives up to the moral duty we have to one another and keeps the social contract whole and healthy.

Growing Season Gala
At the Canton Museum of Art in September 2006 three of the migrant workers documented in Growing Season sign under their photos in the book. (Photo courtesy Gary Harwood.)

Growing Season garnered financial support from the Ohio Arts Council, regional corporate foundations, and the owner of a local chain of grocery stores. It was launched in 2006 at a gala reception at the Canton Museum of Art, where an exhibit of Gary’s photographs and panels of David’s stories were on display. Several of the migrants—including children—and local community members were guests of honor. A number of tables were set up along which they sat with beaming faces, chatting with guests and signing their names next to their pictures in the book.

Growing Season Gala 2
Photographer Gary Harwood and Brianna Soto sign copies of Growing Season at the Canton Museum of Art in September 2006. (Photo courtesy Gary Harwood.)

Poetry, Friendship, and an NBA: Editing “Head Off & Split”

by Parneshia Jones, Sales and Subsidiary Rights Manager and Poetry Editor, Northwestern University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney (Northwestern University Press/Triquarterly, 2011)

Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney (ISBN: 978-0-8101-5216-8)

I was twenty-one years old with two poems to my name when I first heard the words of the resident Geechee Girl from South Carolina. A long, distilled woman with bronze dreadlocks, unshaken in her air, deliberate with her words, she was crafting stories into rich, poetic voice. I was a burgeoning poet, hanging on to every line, surrounded in a room of writers and non-writers who came to a halt and attention, captivated by the poet Nikky Finney.

Ten years and many poems later I sat in my office as the sales and subsidiary rights manager and poetry editor at Northwestern University Press with a carefully typed manuscript entitled Head Off & Split and a handwritten note (that seemed to pay special attention to the roundness in the Rs and Es) from the very poet I had admired for so long, from afar. Now, to put it like this would give the impression that her manuscript just showed up on my desk one day. No, this is not how it happened. Nikky and I saw each other occasionally throughout the years, and I now know that she was watching me grow in my publishing world as I watched her claim the poetry world. We came into this partnership as friends, each with a great deal of trust and faith in what the other could do.

When I first read Head Off & Split, loose pages brimming with metaphors not able to stay on the page, I took a step back (a literal one) and paced in my living room thinking and imagining. I imagined readers’ reactions when they finished the last lines of “Red Velvet” or “The Condoleezza Suite.” This was a writer who could make you imagine something greater than you. Nikky made it clear from the beginning that she was ready to turn the corner in her writing career, and she wanted to do that with Northwestern. Northwestern was ready to turn that corner with her, and with that Head Off & Split made its debut in February 2011. With a second printing two months later, a cover story for the April issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, and features of the poet and her poems in multimedia and publicity pushes making the rounds in every social networking outlet, the book was a success long before October 12, 2011.

October 12, 2011, was the day it was announced that Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split, and Northwestern University Press had been nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry. With no intention to sound cavalier, I must say that I had been to the National Book Awards before. In 2004, a year and a half after I started work at Northwestern, my first trip to New York City was to be present at the awards ceremony for our fiction nominee, Christine Schutt. I already knew how grand this was going to be. This was the Oscars of publishing and as a writer myself, I knew this was a “Cinderella moment” for any writer. My experience was very different this time: this was a book that I acquired, a writer who was a friend, a friend whom I had become very close to over this journey of putting her book out into the world. This time, it really was personal. Staff from the Press, including the director and publicity manager as well as the dean of libraries, descended on New York City with the poet and her family. One of the great highlights was meeting Nikky’s parents, Ernest and Francis Finney, a retired South Carolina Supreme Court Justice and civil rights attorney and a retired elementary school teacher. They spread their proud parent wings and came all the way from Nikky’s ancestral home of South Carolina to watch their daughter be Cinderella for the night. The night at Cipriani was filled with bellinis and sequins, the flashes of cameras and raised iPads, and ribbon-wrapped book centerpieces. Everything in motion stood still for the seconds that could have passed for hours before the poet Elizabeth Alexander called out Nikky Finney to the whole wide world. The cheers from our table could be heard all the way outside, down the Occupied Wall Streets, and the distilled poet, for the first time since I have known her, was shaken in her own air. She reached the podium and made it clear to all those who knew her (and those who didn’t yet know her) why she was the National Book Award Winner for Poetry. Her acceptance speech, written as a poem, was one she had been crafting her whole life.

I am beyond grateful to Northwestern for trusting me to step outside and use my love and liberty as a poet to bring the writers of my world to this great house of literature. And I am immensely blessed by my friend Nikky Finney, writer of longitude, latitude, and reverie, who introduced me to her words ten years prior and made sure they lingered long enough for me to help her share them with rest of the world.

Watch Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech (called by presenter John Lithgow “the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life”):