WILLIAMSTOWN -- Jeffrey Levine has lived many lives: a criminal defense lawyer, a professional clarinetist, a high school English teacher, a poet, and most recently publisher and editor-in-chief at Tupelo Press, the third-largest independent literary press in the country.
Levine's first book of poetry, "Mortal, Everlasting," won the Transcontinental Poetry Award from Pavement Saw Press in 2001. His second book, "Rumor of Cortez," was shortlisted as an L.A. Times Poetry Book of the Year in 2006. Levine will read from his forthcoming book, "Jubilo," on Thursday, Oct. 17, at Williams College.
Occupying a third-floor studio in the historic Eclipse Mill in North Adams, with views of the nearby steeples and surrounding hills, Tupelo Press has maintained a low profile in the Berkshires, while publishing books of poetry, novels, broadsides, anthologies and other products for a national audience.
The press publishes about 15 books a year, selected from thousands of submissions. For 15 years the nonprofit's mission has been "to publish extraordinary work that may be outside the realm of large commercial publishers."
On Tuesday, the press launched its first issue of Tupelo Quarterly, an online literary journal. With the goal of cultivating a literary and artistic community, the journal features a broad range of work,
Tupelo emerged in the late 1990s out of Levine's thirst for a more life-affirming career. After more than 20 years of practicing law in New York City and New Jersey, Levine realized while getting off an airplane on a business trip that he needed to pursue an MFA in writing.
"I've always been a writer, always been a poet, and it seemed like the important life-saving step - to really privilege that part of my life and to go back to being an artist - although a difficult one because it meant giving up my livelihood," he said.
He received his MFA from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina in 1998, and decided to begin an independent press. But he admits that he had no idea how to go about it at the time, or what it would entail. He founded Tupelo Press (named after the widespread genus of tree) in Dorset, Vt. in 1999 with the goal of supporting unrecognized but deserving writers.
"The idea that I started with is that it would be very small," he said. "I would just choose two or the three people whose work I liked who weren't getting published, who weren't getting recognized and say, ‘We'll get you out into the world.'
"But that quickly turned out to be a fantasy, because there is just so much work looking for a home, as it turns out. We get about 1,000 submissions every time we have a contest. Between contests and open reading, we get about 4,000 submissions a year."
Tupelo eventually began self-distributing (the only independent press in America to do so), which required a larger space. At around that time, Levine met his partner, Cassandra Cleghorn, a poet and a professor of English at Williams College, and moved to the Berkshires. Cleghorn discovered the empty loft at Eclipse Mill, which became the headquarters for the press's editorial and back-office work. (Cleghorn is Tupelo's associate editor for nonfiction and associate editor of Tupelo Quarterly.)
"We walked into that door, looked around and I told the owner, ‘I'll take it,'" Levine said. "So all that happened pretty precipitously."
Levine and Cleghorn also share a love of music. Cleghorn is a longtime member of the local band MoCA Jam, and plays fiddle in the style of Irish and French-Canadian folk music. Levine comes from a musical family and plays a variety of instruments, including guitar and clarinet.
Before turning to law fulltime, Levine played clarinet with the Albany Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic and the New York City Opera Orchestra: "All good gigs and all not quite enough to buy peanut butter and jelly," he said. (He plays recorder on Geri Doran's "Sanderlings," a new audiobook from Tupelo.)
Last weekend, Levine and Cleghorn travelled to Mill Pond Music Studio in Portsmouth, N.H., to record their first album, which will combine Irish and French-Canadian folk music with readings of Levine's poetry.
"There is certainly something that ties music and poetry together," Levine said. "The creative impulse comes out of the very same place, and language is its own kind of music, and music has its own language. And so I think the writing and the playing for me have always worked in tandem."
As for practicing law, he didn't think it spoke as much to his creative need, "although it sure comes in handy running a press - you know, all the years in business and not having to hire lawyers saves us a considerable amount of money every year."
As editor and publisher, Levine discovered ways to support professional and emerging writers while also supporting the press. Seasonal and year-round competitions that require a modest entry fee draw submissions from around the country. The First / Second Book Award each spring, for example, includes a $3,000 prize, as well as publication, distribution and promotion by Tupelo.
The press also receives financial support from a variety of cultural institutions.
Levine continues to find ways to build community through literature. The Million-Line Poem, perhaps the only open-source poem in America, invites anyone to add two lines to the evolving online work. Thousands of lines have been written so far, Levine said, drawing the interest of the National Endowment for the Arts, one of Tupelo's institutional donors.
As a nod to the wider Tupelo community, the press offers a subscriber series (9 books for $99), where subscribers can save over 35 percent on titles published between 2009 and 2013 and also get books wrapped as soon as they come off the press.
This year's releases include "Ex-Voto: Poems of Adelia Prado," the 78-year-old Brazilian writer's first book in English since 1990; "Darktown Follies," by Amaud Jamaul Johnson, which focuses on the challenges faced by African American variety performers in the early 20th century; and "The Perfect Life," by Peter Stitt, founder and editor of The Gettysburg Review.
In selecting works for publication, Levine said, the only consideration is the quality of the writing. He noted that Tupelo runs counter to the national publishing trend, where only about 20-30 percent of published works are by women.
"Nearly 70 percent of our authors are women," he said. "There is no political reason for that, we just publish the best writing that we can. But in that respect we are almost a feminist press." Submissions are usually submitted by equal numbers of men and women, he said.
"We look for inventive and exhilarating work, and are concerned about what's on the page, not who's writing it."
Levine's reading on Oct. 17 will be something of a return to the roots, he said.
"I spend so much of my time being editor or publisher that it's wonderful to be able to spend a day being an actual poet again. That's life-affirming for me."
Jeffrey Levine will read from his forthcoming book, ‘Jubilo,' on Thursday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. in Griffin Hall, Room 3, on the Williams College campus. For more information, visit tupelopress.com or jeffreylevine.com.