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JP Grace: Publisher marks 17 years promoting state authors

Oct. 15, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Seventeen years ago I was caught up in the serendipity exercise of publishing a book with my Mason County high school students, a book that came out of their meditations in solitude at Tu-Endie-Wei park in Point Pleasant at the confluence of the Ohio and the Kanawha rivers.

The book, titled "River Fog Rising: The Solitude Papers," edited by Fay Thompson, blended prose and poetry written by the students either during their meditations on the riverbank or shortly thereafter. Donations solicited from Mason county companies provided funds for publication.

Jesse Stuart, arguably Kentucky's greatest 20th-century writer, had done something similar with his high school students, publishing his own essays alongside theirs. Today the non-profit Jesse Stuart Foundation, occupying the old main post office in downtown Ashland, carries on Stuart's work, keeping all his books in print.

"River Fog Rising" turned into the launching platform for our own not-for-profit publishing entity, Publishers Place, Inc., now heading into its 18th year.

With noted performance poet Kirk Judd and retired dean of humanities at Alderson Broaddus College, Barbara Smith, as editors, Publishers Place undertook a sweeping collection of West Virginia poetry, from 1950 to 1999. Issued under the title "Wild Sweet Notes," the volume took the state by storm.

Gov. Cecil B. Underwood threw a gala reception for all contributors at the governor's mansion and ordered the purchase of copies for every public library and all secondary school libraries in the state. Bookstore sales were brisk as "Wild Sweet Notes" went into three printings within six months.

Publishers Place followed up both of these works with sequels. With contributions from five high schools --Weir, Wahama, Parkersburg South, Van and Buffalo -- we issued "Light that Splits the Dark: The Solitude Papers II," edited by Paul Elmo Keenan.

Because many noteworthy Mountain State poets were missed in the first anthology, we recruited poet Ace Boggess to solicit entries from wordsmiths not included in Volume I and we published "Wild Sweet Notes II: More Great Poetry from West Virginia."

Both volumes received rave reviews. Since then "Wild Sweet Notes" has been used as a text in at least nine colleges and universities in West Virginia and Virginia and also in a number of high schools.

Branching out, finally, to single-author books, Publishers Place brought out Carter Taylor Seaton's landmark work "Father's Troubles," a novel based on her grandfather's story of a precipitous fall from grace in banking to convicted felon, plunging his family into poverty. The book was named a finalist for Best Historical Fiction in America in the highly regarded ForeWord Magazine awards for 2003.

Ms. Seaton credits Publishers Place for launching her writing career. Her third book,

"Hippie Homesteaders," will be issued by West Virginia University Press in April 2014. She has also been working as the commissioned author of former Secretary of State Ken Heckler's biography.

Her pulling together of voluminous notes for "Father's Troubles" began in the first edition of the Life Writing Class, at the Huntington Museum of Art. That class is now in its 43rd edition, with over 300 people from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky having participated; 27 published books have resulted thus far from alumni.

A recent hit -- and important contribution to our cultural and political history -- has been "Witness at Hawks Nest," by Milton native Dwight Harshbarger. This work is historical fiction centering on the 1930-31 tragedy of 700 or more workers dying of silicosis poisoning from digging a hydro-electric tunnel at Hawks Nest for Union Carbide.

The West Virginia Library Association honored Harshbarger by naming his novel its 2011 "Book of the Year."

These and many other books issued over 17 years respond well to our mission: "To encourage, promote and elevate the quality of the publishing arts in West Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic for citizens of all ages."

John Patrick Grace is the executive director of Publishers Place and the coordinator of The Life Writing Class. He lives in eastern Cabell County.

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