Tupelo Press through the Eyes of Its Managing Editor, Jim Schley

by Jacquelyn Malone


Massachusetts is home to several small independent presses. Tupelo Press, in the western part of the state, is one of the larger indies in the country. It is a press of great diversity, championing the work of African Americans, and, in a joint venture with Kundiman Press, it is supporting and publishing the work of Asian Americans.  As a partner of the Poetry Foundation, Tupelo recently published an anthology of contemporary Chinese writing in translation. Another venture in translation is an anthology they published of Russian Modernist Poetry. And finally in a recently formed joint venture with 3: a Taos Press they will publish a definitive volume of Native American poetry. A truly impressive lineup!  

To give you a more intimate look at the press, we interviewed Jim Schley, Tupelo’s Managing Editor.  Thank you, Jim, for answering our questions.

When did Tupelo Press begin? How long has it been in Massachusetts? Tell us a little about its first few years.
The press was founded by Jeffrey Levine in 1999, and the first five books were released in the autumn of 2001. In the early years the books were produced by the staff of an advertising and publicity agency in Vermont working with freelance graphic designers, while editor-in-chief and publisher Jeffrey Levine was living in Connecticut, teaching high school. I wasn’t involved in the early years, but as a reader and poetry enthusiast I was deeply impressed by the caliber of writing presented by Tupelo, and by the extraordinary physical beauty of the publications. Moreover Tupelo had an uncanny design ethos, both edgy and elegant, consistently surprising. And the stylistic scope of the Tupelo list was exceedingly wide, ranging in really unpredictable ways but consistently excellent.

 What is your role with the press, and how long have you been associated with it?
I was hired at the end of 2008 to be the Managing Editor. Jeffrey Levine was rebuilding the company at that time, moving the base of operations to North Adams, Massachusetts, and he was creating a new staff, organizational structure, and board of directors. I had twenty-five years experience in publishing — co-editor for the literary quarterly New England Review, then editor for the University Press of New England consortium, and managing editor then editor-in-chief at the activist/environmental publisher Chelsea Green. For three years before coming to Tupelo, I was Executive Director of The Frost Place, a museum and poetry-conference center at one of Robert Frost’s former homes. A friend asked me for a letter of recommendation for the Tupelo job, and when I read the job description I had to tell my friend, “Sorry, I can’t recommend you. I’m much more qualified.”

 Does your role as editor involve more than copyediting? How do poets react to your edits?
Some books require an extended “developmental editing” phase prior to copyediting, and at Chelsea Green I often accompanied authors through a succession of complete revisions prior to the book commencing the production phase, with copyediting and design. Because the books chosen by Jeffrey Levine for publication by Tupelo have come through such a selective process and are already well conceived and extremely well written, they typically don’t require extended revision, so my role could more accurately be described as copyediting. Not to sound immodest, but I’m very good at this work, and the better the writer, the more she or he appreciates editing. I don’t generally tell my writers what to do, but I try to describe what I notice and experience in response to their manuscript, in great detail and encompassing the parts and the whole. My favorite part of the job is serving as the liaison between writers and graphic designers, and I have long experience anticipating the kinds of issues that are interesting and challenging for designers.

 How does Tupelo select the manuscripts it publishes? And what should poets know if they’d like to submit their manuscripts to Tupelo?
The selection process is collective in certain ways. Jeffrey Levine has surrounded himself with astute, adventurous advisory editors who love reading widely and deeply. Ultimately, however, Jeffrey chooses the books that will be published, and I continue to be amazed by the variousness and power and beauty of the works he selects. And he is rather traditional (in the very best sense) in his method: Tupelo receives thousands of submissions, and he reads for many hours every day, and when he loves (or finds compelling in other ways) a manuscript that he “can’t send back,” he spends more time with that work, sometimes over the course of months. Authors hoping to be published by Tupelo need to know that they should send their very strongest work then trust the process.

 What do you believe makes Tupelo Press unique?
This would be a good question for some of our authors. We’re working now on the third novel that David Huddle has given to Tupelo, and David has published twenty superb books: fiction, poetry, and essays. Similarly, we’re publishing a new book by the marvelous Williamstown poet Lawrence Raab, his eighth collection of poems and first with Tupelo, to which he’s moved from a major international publishing company. We work with esteemed, experienced writers the same way we work with first-time authors — completely dedicated to the success of the book, with customized attention to the nuances and particularities of each project. I believe that all of our authors appreciate the editorial rigor, human warmth, and participatory atmosphere that Jeffrey and his staff bring to the work every single day. And with a great variety of creative means, we can often reach readers in new ways and new places.

What gives Tupelo an advantage over big presses?
I’d sound silly and simplistic if I criticized big publishers with a broad brush. If only we had the production and publicity resources that the big companies have! We are constantly figuring out how to do more with less, and Jeffrey needs to fundraise endlessly, day and night and in-between. By necessity, we only do twelve to sixteen new books each year, so each one gets loads of personal attention not only from me as the editor but also from Marie Gauthier, Sales and Publicity Director, and the operations staff. And we keep our books in print, which might seem obvious but has become quite rare in corporate publishing. I’m fond of saying that if Simon & Schuster or Random House are like Budweiser, then Tupelo is like Berkshire Brewing Company or Harpoon — an artisan outfit, painstaking in our efforts to be significant and effective even though we’re small, and with a proven ability to foster a pretty mighty sense of community in our allies and enthusiasts.

What is your favorite part of being on the Tupelo team?
My Tupelo job is home-based, and I love working in our off-the-grid home, where in a very noisy world I can actually concentrate. I love my Tupelo colleagues, who are creative and hilarious and skillful — and very dedicated. I love making books; there is nothing I love more than making books. 

Jim Schley is Managing Editor of Tupelo Press, of North Adams, Massachusetts. Jim has edited more than three hundred books and is author of two collections of poems, As When, In Season (Marick, 2008) and One Another (Chapiteau, 1999). He lives in Vermont.