Q&A with Helene Atwan
What has been Beacon’s relationship with poetry?
For the past decade or more, Beacon’s poetry program, such as it was, focused largely on two key poets we have published over many years, Sonia Sanchez and Mary Oliver. There would be the occasional exception anthology we would add to the mix, but primarily, that was the poetry we were publishing. But I’d begun to think there was an opportunity for Beacon to do more, and since Mary moved to Penguin Random House, we have been looking to amplify our independent voice in poetry again. Though of course we all continue to treasure Sonia’s work; there’s a new documentary about her which I just can’t wait to see.
And then the literary administrator of the James Baldwin Estate, Eileen Ahearn, called to ask if we’d like to bring back into print his only volume of poetry, Jimmy’s Blues. We were fortunate enough to find a group of important poems by Baldwin that had only appeared in a limited edition volume, so we were able to add those to the new edition. Those two volumes really set the stage for us to rethink our role in publishing poetry.
I had read his work before and many of us here knew about him. Everybody who pays any attention to poetry knows about Jay Parini. Although we hadn’t met before, he phoned me and told me that he was looking for a new home for his poetry and asked me if I would like to consider it. I can’t even say where he got the impulse to call me, but I’m really, really glad he did. He sent me an entire volume of new poems, and they are dazzling. He’s a powerful and beautiful poet. He will also do a little bit of nonfiction with us, including a new book about Jesus, but he’s continuing to publish both fiction and biography with other houses. Beacon, though, is now his home for poetry. We’re beginning with this wonderful big volume of new and collected poems, coming out for National Poetry Month next spring, which I hope will be a huge success and help him break out as a poet in the way he’s already broken out as a biographer and novelist. He has, by the way, a killer biography of Gore Vidal coming out next month, so worth reading.
How did Beacon come involved with the National Poetry Series?
Rob Arnold, our former digital marketing associate, was involved with the National Poetry Series. He had been an editor at Ploughshares Magazine before he came here. He’s been involved in the poetry and literary world for many years, and I had known him in that capacity as well before he came to work here. He asked me one day if I knew the NPS, because one of the five publishers in the series had decided they needed to drop out of the series this year, and the NPS was looking for a new house to replace them. The more he described it to me, the more excited I became. I said we’d be honored. Daniel Halpern, director of the NPS, said they were thrilled to have Beacon.
The role I want Beacon to play in the series is to publish poetry that gives voice to social issues and social concerns. The NPS is very supportive of this. The way we do this is by inviting a poet who we think has a particular eye for these issues to judge for Beacon. This year, I’m really proud to say we’re launching with Tracy K. Smith as our judge.
Tell us how the anthology for Liberation came together.
The Terezín Music Foundation embarked on this ambitious project, Liberarte, which commissions poetry and original musical pieces to be performed with the poetry. Liberation is a chunk of it. Lisa Pemstein, our former marketing director who had joined the Terezín Foundation, thought of Beacon as a possible publisher for the poetry anthology. She approached Tom Hallock, our associate publisher, about it, and Tom passed it on to me. So I guess that’s another story about a former Beacon staffer bringing us a publishing opportunity.
It was such a unique opportunity to publish such a diverse group of poets writing on the theme of liberation and freedom from so many different aspects. There are several poems in the volume about concentration camps, but there are also poems about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, poems by Afghan women, Tibetan and Cuban dissidents and a foreword by Ha Jin. The poets include Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Blanco, and of course Jay Parini! It’s an amazing collection. So there you have three more “suddenly”s!
How do you see Beacon’s role in poetry?
We’re publishing poetry the way we publish all our books—with a purpose. It’s poetry that speaks to the condition of the world, speaks to urgent social issues, whether it’s the environment or race, cultural or class dynamics. And, like all of our books, the quality of the writing is sterling. We’re all very happy to be having a poetry publishing program.
About the Author
Helene Atwan has been director of Beacon Press since 1995. She has been reading poetry all her life.