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Perugia Press in Northampton celebrates 16th anniversary with newly published book, reading

  • Susan Kan of Perugia Press with some of her books at her home and office in Northampton.<br/>
  • Susan Kan of Perugia Press with some of her books at her home and office in Northampton.<br/>

Susan Kan has a motto: Identify a problem. Fix it.

That is what Kan did a few years ago after she noticed that too-few talented female poets were getting their work published, due in large part, she says, to the publishing world’s patriarchal system.

Looking for an avenue through which to change that equation, she decided to become a poetry publisher herself, creating Perugia Press, a nonprofit concern that publishes a single work each year by a female poet who is selected by a panel of judges. Her goal: to tip the scales back into balance.

“Why do you think women are only making 70 cents on every dollar that men make? Sexism,” she said.

Perugia Press will celebrate its 16th anniversary with a reading and reception Friday at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.

Kan, 50, who lives in Northampton, says she’s long had a love affair with words.

After working in a bookstore and at a women’s center, she received a master’s degree in creative writing from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers near Asheville, N.C.

When she published her first poetry collection, Gail Thomas’ “Finding the Bear,” in 1997, she says, she wasn’t thinking about starting a press. She just wanted to make a poetry book that she thought people would enjoy.

“I love poetry, I love to read it. One of the unique things about me as a poetry publisher is that I don’t write it, I just like to read it,” Kan said. “I’m trying to advocate for more readers of poetry because it seems like people think they shouldn’t read it unless they also write it and that’s a misconception.”

According to Kan, Perugia Press has created a system of excellence by choosing to publish just one collection of poetry a year. In this way, she says, she will achieve her goal of garnering more readers for the genre.

“One of the biggest compliments that I can get about the sensibility of the press is when people come to a reading and they say, ‘I didn’t think that I liked poetry, but I like this,’” she said.

Annual prize

After publishing a fifth book, “Seamless,” by Linda Tomol Pennisi, in 2002, the press established an annual prize: The Perugia Press Prize, a national manuscripts contest for women at the beginning of their publishing careers. Contestants are women who have never produced a book or have published just one book prior to participating in the contest. The prize includes $1,000 and publication by Perugia Press. That first year, the press received 482 submissions, Kan says, and continues to receive about the same number each year. This year’s winner is “The Wishing Tomb” by Amanda Auchter, who teaches at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas.

This is Auchter’s second book and the 17th published by Perugia Press.

“The Wishing Tomb” is a love letter to New Orleans, a quintessential city of jazz, yellow fever, hurricanes and Creole cuisine,” according to Kan. “The poems show how we are connected to our homes, how history can escape us, and how even in our tragedies, we are made whole again by rebuilding and moving forward,” she said.

In her poem “The City That Care Forgot,” Auchter writes: “What brings you back is the sugared air / that seeps its way through / the streets. / The scrolled iron balconies, / banana-leaved courtyards, gas lamps draped / with bright plastic bead.”

Righting wrongs

One of the problems inherent in a system that largely ignores the work of female poets, Kan says, is that because women are underrepresented, their work is not getting reviewed and, therefore, not being chosen for the poetry world’s important “best of” awards. Perugia Press is changing that equation she says.

Indeed, three consecutive Perugia Press books have won post-publication national contests, including Jennifer Sweeney’s “How to Live on Bread and Music,” which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; Nancy K. Pearson’s “Two Minutes of Light” won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award; “Kettle Bottom,” by Dianne Gilliam, which has sold more than 10,000 copies, won national prizes and is used in college classes all around the country, including at Smith College in 2005.

“For a press that publishes just one book a year, to have so many of our books win different prizes is definitely a high ratio,” Kan said.

Kan says there are hundreds of contests like the Perugia Press Prize run by small poetry presses. What makes Perugia stand out, she says “is the fact that we publish just first and second books by women and also that we do one book a year.” “I love the process of turning this pile of pages of poems into a book.”

Auchter will read from her new book at a reception Friday at 7:30 p.m. at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. She will be joined by Florence resident Maya Janson, who will read from her debut collection, “Murmur & Crush.” Janson is a community health nurse and a lecturer in poetry at Smith College in Northampton. Special guest Eleanor Wilner is also on the program. Wilner, a Perugia Press board member, has published seven books of poems. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Juniper Prize, three Pushcart prizes and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. For information about the press, visitwww.perugiapress.com.

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