The Ballad of New Rivers Press: Part One, An Overview

As I write these words, New Rivers Press (NRP), one of the oldest and most distinguished literary not-for-profit small presses in America, is still in business at Minnesota State University (MSUM), though barely, its very illustrious backlist — or some of almost 400 titles, at least — distributed by Small Press Distribution.

MSUM, busy reinventing itself (like many public universities) by deemphasizing its arts and humanities programs and disposing of faculty, made the decision two years ago, when they retrenched the English Department, to close down the press this year. (When I was Chair of English in the 1990s, the Department had some 35 faculty; now it’s down to less than a dozen, and university enrollment is half of what it was then.)

The good news is that there’s a chance to revive NRP elsewhere for a second time in 20 years.

C.W. ‘Bill’ Truesdale famously started the press out of an old barn in New York state in 1968. Truesdale moved the press to Minnesota in the 1970s and started publishing writers like Charles Baxter, who at the time wrote poetry and not the novels and craft books that have since made him into one of Minnesota’s best-known authors. From the start until the present day, Truesdale, and the editors who have succeeded him, have published well-received titles in all literary genres.

I was a New Rivers Press author, a two-time winner of its MVP competition for Rumors from the Lost World in 1993 and Alone with the Owl in 2000. I had also co-edited four volumes of American Fiction for the press (1996–2000). When my editor Bill Truesdale, a beloved and idiosyncratic founder, died in 2001, NRP went into suspension. A letter from the press told its authors and editors that it was actively searching for partners to revive it.

My colleague Wayne Gudmundson and I negotiated with MSUM [Minnesota State University Moorhead] and with NRP to relocate it to Moorhead in order to save the press. We agreed to make it a teaching press so that students could learn about the publishing business from the inside out, which pleased MSUM, and to honor Truesdale’s primary mission: to publish the best work we could find by new and emerging writers, especially those residing in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. That commitment convinced the NRP board of directors that the press, once revived, would be in good hands.

Wayne Gudmundson was (and is) a nationally-known photographer who taught in MSUM’s Mass Communications department and had overseen many publications in the Prairie Documents Photographic Book Series, as well as published books of his own work and collaborations (like Minnesota Gothic, poems by Mark Vinz and photographs by Wayne Gudmundson, in Milkweed Press’s Seeing Double Series of Collaborative Books).

We approached MSUM administration — Wayne as Director, me as Editor — and pitched the idea of relocating NRP to MSUM and reviving it as a teaching press to offer a Certificate in Publishing and, eventually, a minor and major. After a merry-go-round of meetings and the involvement of many lawyers and administrators, including Minnesota’s Attorney General, MSUM signed, in 2001, the “ASSET TRANSFER AGREEMENT BETWEEN NEW RIVERS PRESS, INC. AND MINNESOTA STATE UNIVERSITY, MOORHEAD.”

Here’s the thing: Item 6.1 only obligated MSUM to continue publishing for five years, and that date has long passed — but item 6.3 required that MSUM must try to market NRP’s books, and there’s no time limit to that. Those of us who have studied this binding agreement have concluded that closing the press without trying to place its backlist with another press violates that clause.

We’re hopeful that the press, for the second time, might have a phoenix-like resurrection by Easter. A benefactor with a long association with NRP has found a possible partner to relocate and revive the press once again and keep its backlist in print. We’ve approached current administrators at MSUM, as well as Anne Blackhurst, its acclaimed President who has announced her retirement. Honoring item 6.3, and facilitating the relocation and revival of NRP could be a lasting part of her legacy.

In 2001, Poets & Writers, a national literary magazine, announced the suspension and Truesdale’s death. Gudmundson, MSUM, and I were hailed by many as saviors. It could have been a heady moment, but the work required to transfer and revive the press with a cadre of students involved as designers and apprentice editors was backbreaking. (Also very satisfying: a number of those interns and students have gone on to careers in publishing. Under supervision, students edited books, designed covers, and assisted in all the work required to publish and market a book in today’s brave, new literary world, where social media often reigns.)

With the help of Donna Carlson, an experienced Managing Editor, NRP started publishing again in 2003, first getting into print any books in press when NRP went into suspension — almost a dozen — and then publishing as many books as we could each year with our limited staff and finances. (Amost any literary press, except a handful with very deep pockets, could recite such war stories.)

Each press has its traditions, its history and, if successful, its unique duende (a distinctive quality of spirit and passion). Our job was to continue to honor NRP’s past while turning the page and incorporating all aspects of operations into a university curriculum while keeping the passion and innovation of an independent press alive. I think we achieved that goal, thanks to MSUM and our colleagues, to generous corporate funders like McKnight and Jerome along with individual benefactors and donors, to the many students (both MFA grad students and undergraduates) who served as interns and took Publishing classes, and especially to our extraordinary Managing Editors — first Donna Carlson, then Suzzanne Kelley (who also served as co-Director after Gudmundson retired), and now, as MSUM winds down its commitment, Nayt Rundquist.

I served as Editor from 2001–2016, when I retired. My greatest appreciation goes to our authors and editors, to the many writers who submitted manuscripts (whether we could publish them or not), to colleagues and student interns, and to book-buying readers. Lisa Gill’s Mortar and Pestle, an astonishing book of poetry written in the aftermath of an MS diagnosis, is a profound work of the imagination that incorporates a great deal of lore and learning. Richard Hoffman’s Half the House, a memoir about many things, but centered on his sexual abuse at the hands of his baseball coach, a serial molester that the book helped bring to justice, is a powerful testament to the ability of literature to witness the world with grace and bravery. Michael Hettich is one of the best poets writing today; it was a pleasure to reach out to him and convince him to work with us to publish Flock and Shadow: New and Selected Poems. I could name many, many others; they deserve your attention and time. I’m proud of every title we managed to publish.

I was often happiest, perhaps, when we published a writer’s first book, because I well remember the feeling of seeing my own first collection of stories in print for the first time, followed a few weeks later by a wonderful review in the New York Times written by Dorothy Allison.

Whether a first book or a midlist title like Clint McCown’s compelling and comic novel Haints, however, the press has made a place for itself over 50+ years in America’s literary culture. The university where it currently resides, having hit upon hard times, its once robust student population splintering, its once sterling reputation as a public university with a first class liberal arts curriculum in tatters, now intent on becoming a regional polytechnic, has not yet done its due diligence to work with NRP’s benefactor and others to find New Rivers Press a new home. If you have any pull with any of those people, given them a ring or send them a note.

New Rivers Press is dead, long live New Rivers Press.

To be continued.

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