By Martha Park M.F.A. ’15
Since he was a teenager, Professor of English R.H.W. Dillard has wanted to be a publisher. Groundhog Poetry Press fulfills his dream, offering “the best poetry we can find” and welcoming writers “who’ve given me of their intelligence and energy for years.”
Professor of English and editor of The Hollins Critic R.H.W. Dillard has been writing poetry, novels, and critical essays and teaching literature, creative writing, and film studies for over half a century. Over the past year, he has added a new role: publisher.
Dillard started Groundhog Poetry Press LLC (GPP), a small, independent press publishing books of poetry without preference for styles or theories of poetry. The GPP website announces, “We publish established poets and new poets, prize-winning poets and those deserving of prizes, and those to whom the very thought of poetry prizes is anathema. We only want the best poetry we can find.”
GPP will publish books in suites. The first suite included 7,000 Sparrows by Duffie Taylor ’07, as a flock of goats by Liana Quill ’04, Domestic Yoga by Jack Christian M.A. ’03, Subsidence by Julia Mae Johnson ’93, and Great Bear by fellow Professor of English Cathryn Hankla (’80, M.A. ’82).
The poems in Great Bear are wide-ranging, its poems populated by critters of all kinds—giraffes, catfish, raccoons and, yes, groundhogs—as well as human neighbors, an ailing mother, and the speaker’s observant and companionable voice.
Hankla says, “Having Great Bear be the first Groundhog book to emerge from hibernation was a wonderful experience! I’ve worked with poetry publishers since the early ’80s when Phenomena came out, and I’ve never seen a more generous contract from a publisher. Richard is all about the poets and respects varied voices, styles, and definitions of the poem, as we teachers and mentors at Hollins also encourage poetry’s many possibilities.”
GPP’s second suite will be unveiled sometime this spring, and will include the first book of poetry by Grant Kittrell, a 2014 graduate of Hollins’ creative writing M.F.A. degree program.
Kittrell says, “The title of the book is Let’s Sit Down, Figure This Out, and in some ways that’s what’s happening in many of the poems—someone is confused or desperate or out of their element. These poems explore attempts to locate an identity within a constantly shifting cultural context.”
Dillard was able to develop the press with the support of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins. As the Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing for two years, Dillard used the course release time to teach himself about all aspects of publishing, from the challenges of formatting different styles of poetry on the page, to distributing books.
Dillard has learned you can make a really good book without having to spend a fortune. “I love designing the books,” he says, “Although only one of my own books was ever set in my favorite font, Palatino, I’ve taken great pleasure in establishing it as the house font for GPP.”
Dillard’s collaborative approach to publishing grants authors some creative control over the design of their books. Each writer can choose the image that appears on his/her book’s cover. Therefore, the books are coordinated but distinct from each other.
Since Dillard is acting simultaneously as “publisher, editor, designer, compositor, account warehouse manager, and the entire shipping office of GPP,” all book distribution is being handled by Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California. The GPP website (https://www.groundhogpoetrypress.com/, managed by current M.F.A. candidate Tessa Cheek) has a direct order link to Small Press Distribution.
Groundhog Poetry Press is by invitation only, and cannot accept uninvited manuscript submissions or queries. “That’s not a snobbish decision,” Dillard says, “but a purely practical one.” One result of a life spent in writing communities is that Dillard knows a lot of poets with strong manuscripts.
“One of the poets published by Groundhog Poetry Press I’ve known for fifty-five years. Another I’ve known for five.
“So far,” Dillard says, “no two books are alike. In terms of style and approach to poetry, they’re all different.”
For Dillard, this new role doesn’t seem so new at all: “I wanted to be a publisher as early as I wanted to be a writer,” Dillard says, “since about age sixteen.”
Dillard says publishing poetry is “my gift to people who’ve given me of their intelligence and energy for years.”
Hankla adds, “Richard has a knack for reinventing himself, and this venture may be his finest.”
Martha Park is a writer and illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee, and a 2015 graduate of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Hollins.