Little Press Success

Big things can come in small packages

By Stephen E. Smith

Since its founding by professor Ronald Bayes in 1969, St. Andrews Press at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg has earned a reputation as one of the most consistent and persistent small presses in the country — which is no insignificant accomplishment considering that the average small press has a lifespan of five years. Within the last few months, under the editorship of Ted Wojtasik, the press has released two books that deserve a wide audience. The first is Ruth Moose’s The Goings on at Glen Arbor Acres, a collection of interrelated stories about life in an assisted living facility.

Moose has long been a creative force in the North Carolina writing community. She has published two novels as well as numerous collections of short stories and poetry. Her work has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal and Our State magazine, and she taught for 15 years on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Moose’s latest collection will not disappoint readers who are seeking to escape the everyday stress of politics and pandemic surges, neither of which is mentioned in these stories. There may be “goings on” aplenty at Glen Arbor Acres, but only of a benign nature. In “The Major’s Gun,” a character observes: “You have to be so careful around this place. One misheard word and the gossip goes rampant” — which is pretty much the source of the collection’s recurring conflicts.

Moreover, readers won’t be troubled by stories about characters who undergo overwhelming misfortunes that culminate in disasters of epic proportions. Glen Arbor is no Keseyesque Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s no Nurse Ratched in the medication room, no physical or verbal combat, no racial utterances to be heard, or even a mildly offensive exclamation that might raise a wary eyebrow. Moose’s slice-of-life stories simply offer readers a window into the everyday dilemmas of Glen Arbor’s elderly residents who eat, drink and sleep in the gossipy microcosm where fate has deposited them. If they are allowed enough freedom to cause a mild degree of mischief, they’re always on the lookout for a new source of intrigue. They’ve identified an antagonist, Miss Anne Blackmore Rae (Miss ABR aka Always Be Right), the director of  Glen Arbor, and a male protagonist, the Major, a resident who functions as an authority figure who might right trifling wrongs, a tired old god the ladies can turn to in times of emotional discomfort.

Moose focuses on her characters’ foibles and eccentricities — there is a nudist yoga teacher, a wig maker, a troll-like man who intrudes himself into the ladies’ daily walks, and the mystery of the director’s runaway dog who may or may not be dead. The most “teachable” story involves a resident who submits a poem to a national poetry contest and is notified by mail that she is a finalist who should attend a dinner meeting to receive her award. Of course, it’s a scam perpetrated on the unsuspecting — in this case, the elderly — but the aspiring poet buys a new dress and attends the ceremony. She doesn’t win (there’s a surprise), but she’s received by her peers at Glen Arbor as a literary luminary, proof that there is success to be had in the waning years, and that good friends value us for who we are, not for what we do.

There’s a good deal of irony and wit in Moose’s stories, even if her characters don’t see themselves as the object of humor, even when the situation and context are obviously comic, and readers will find themselves amused and charmed by her subtly crafted narratives.

Another recent St. Andrews Press publication, Collected Poems of Marty Silverthorne, is justification enough for supporting small presses. Silverthorne died in 2019, and it’s unlikely, regardless of his talents as a poet, that a mainstream or university press would publish a book by an author who isn’t around to promote it at readings and in bookstores.

As a poet, Silverthorne had talent and perseverance to spare. He devoted himself to writing verse while working for 30 years as a counselor for persons suffering from alcohol and drug addiction. Left a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident in 1976, he faithfully dictated his poems to a caregiver and companion, and until the pandemic, he was a steadfast participant at regular meetings of the North Carolina Poetry Society.

Silverthorne is a “plain language” poet. His poems are straightforward retellings of the events that shaped his life, the loss and redemption, the small pleasures he experiences, the troubles and pain a person in his predicament suffers, as in “Inside of Me,” where the poet muses on what others expect of him after accepting his disability: Inside of me you expected to find/a motorcycle wrapped around a tree,/whiskey bottles beside the road./You did not expect to find daffodils/blooming in a pine thicket,/crape myrtles close enough/to threaten their beauty//Inside of me you expected to find/the soiled pages of Penthouse./You did not expect Yeats and Keats/on a linen table cloth,/one large candle with a wavering flame,/a bottle of chardonnay.

Much of Silverthorne’s later poetry was written while mourning the loss of his wife, as in “Delicate Ashes:” . . . Back at home our neighbor held you in his hands,/his fingers around the beautiful blue bowl/of your body, the delicate ashes of your life . . .

Silverthorne makes rich and various uses of rhetorical devices — humor, anger, wit, irony, and juxtapositions of conflicting and indecorous feelings. In doing so, he has left readers with a rich record of a life lived to the fullest despite almost overwhelming adversity.

We are fortunate that St. Andrews Press and other small presses continue to publish books that might otherwise, for reasons unrelated to literary quality, go unread. The pandemic has hit little presses hard. Readings at bookstores and arts organizations have dropped off, and live audiences are difficult to gather in dangerous times. If you’d like to encourage small press publishing, buy their books. Poets and Writers magazine lists over 370 such literary entities that desperately need our support.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

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