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James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Richard Blanco: Making Poetry for All of Us

By Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press

Although Beacon has not primarily been known to publish poetry, we have always had a select list of exceptional poets who reflect the values at the core of our mission, including, for many years, the premier poet of the natural world, Mary Oliver, and, of course, the inimitable Sonia Sanchez, who represents a vibrant tradition of oral interpretation that blends and bends the lines between verse and music. Sonia has famously performed with rap artists and memorably with Sweet Honey in the Rock and other artists, including Diana Ross. Sonia has been on a mission for decades of using poetry in public schools and she makes it a rule that wherever she’s invited to read for an adult audience, she also tries to visit a local school and read to and engage with the students. We are enormously proud of her work.

We are also proud to have on our backlist several books of Spanish-language poets in bilingual editions, including a wonderful volume of Lorca and Jimenez, and one of Neruda and Vallejo, both translated by Robert Bly.

Jimmy's Blues, Gypsy, and New edition of Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems by James Baldwin
On the left, previous editions of James Baldwin's Jimmy's Blues and Gypsy. On the right, Beacon's forthcoming edition of Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems
This season, we add two books that build on this heritage and expand on it in breathtaking ways. We are thrilled to bring back into print the poetry of James Baldwin, adding seven important poems that have never been released in the trade. When the administrator of the Baldwin estate phoned me to ask if Beacon would want to bring back Baldwin’s volume of poetry, Jimmy’s Blues, in a new edition, I not only leapt at the chance but asked if there were other poems we could add. She told me that one volume was his only published collection of poetry, but invited us to dig further. We did, and assistant editor Crystal Paul made a great discovery in the rare book room of the Boston Public Library: a limited-edition volume called Gypsy, of which only 325 copies were ever printed. It was the last book Baldwin had worked on, a collaboration between the poet and the artist Leonard Baskin, completed, but not printed, just before his death.

Notes of  a Native Son James BaldwinThe seven poems in that rare book, especially the title poem, “Gypsy,” are breathtaking, and the book itself is a work of art; I purchased two copies from rare-book dealers; one I presented as a birthday gift to Cornel West, who is working on a new book for us to be called Black Prophetic Fire; the other sits on display in my office. The new volume, which we’re calling Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, will be introduced by National Book Award–winning poet Nikky Finney. We hope it will demonstrate definitively why Baldwin always considered himself a poet. And we’re honored to have this book join Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which was first published by Beacon in 1955, on our backlist. The first edition of that book, in fact, has become a rare book itself, and when I discovered we didn’t have a copy in our permanent library, I went out to buy one from a rare-book dealer. James Baldwin stares down at me from that cover on my bookshelf as I write these words, in fact.

Richard Blanco For All of Us, One Today
Richard Blanco and the cover for his forthcoming memoir, For All of Us, One Today. (Photo: Timothy Greenfield Sanders)

And this season, too, we offer a new book by Richard Blanco, the much-praised writer selected to be the Inaugural Poet in 2013. I owe a debt of gratitude to my old friend Mitchell Kaplan, the inspired bookseller who has been such a force for good in the book industry over the past three decades here. Mitchell, whose stores are based in Miami metro, and who has known Richard for years, suggested that the poet show his latest book to Beacon. The book, For All of Us, One Today, contains the poem he read on that memorable occasion, along with the two other poems he prepared for the White House to consider, in bilingual form. The poems are folded into a graceful narrative of his improbable road, as the son of an immigrant Cuban family and as a gay man, to that podium; it is also beautifully embellished with the designs of Richard’s dear friend, artist Sergio Baradat. Billy Collins said of the book in a recent e-mail:

"In this charming and engrossing book Richard Blanco traces his personal and literary development that led to his appointment as the inaugural poet. The high drama here is the backstage look into the pressure and process of writing the poem itself and the thrill of reading it to the world."

Richard Blanco, Helene Atwan, and Gypsy by James Baldwin
Bob Kosturko looks on as Helene Atwan shows Richard Blanco a rare copy of James Baldwin's Gypsy
In fact, we’re receiving such a flood of praise for the book, thanks to the efforts of Richard’s partner, Mark Neveu, that I could fill another post with them. We might just do that, in fact.

Earlier this week, Richard came by our offices to meet our staff, including our creative director, Bob Kosturko, who had worked with Sergio on the cover of the book, and I was able to show Richard the copy of Gypsy—a Kodak moment if ever there was one!

Richard Blanco shares Sonia Sanchez’s mission of bringing poetry to young people, and I hope his new book, which goes on sale November 19 (thanks to the entire Beacon team for crashing it out!), will be an inspiration to all readers, of any age and background, who have felt “other” in America, and who can be moved by this poet who reminds us how much unites us in “One Today.”


About the Author

Helene Atwan, director of Beacon PressHelene Atwan has been director of Beacon Press since October 1995. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Virginia. She began her career in publishing at Random House in 1976, and has worked at Alfred A. Knopf; Viking Press; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Simon and Schuster. She served for eight years on the board of PEN-New England and is the Administrator of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.