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To visit Sherman Asher
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by Nancy Fay



Sherman Asher Publishing began with an impulse to produce beautiful books. Judith Asher had been in love with books and bookmaking since childhood when she would play at printing books and binding them. It was her vision in 1994 to create a press with the trademarked slogan: “Changing the world one book at a time.” The slogan comes from the Talmudic teaching: “Tikun Olam,” which translates as “Mend/ repair/ transform the world”. I signed on as editor before the first book appeared, spending all my spare moments when not at my other jobs immersed in page proofs. When the press had a dozen titles in print in 1997, forsaking all others, I agreed to work for Sherman Asher Publishing as a legitimate job with known hours and a paycheck. Judith brings to the press her powerful sense of engaging the world through Judaism, and I through my Buddhist practice. With each book the press has found a new level of its pragmatic path of creating books that change the world.

In our quest for books as beautiful objects, we tried hiring book designers, but Judith quickly discovered a ferocious passion in herself for the intricacies of font, page design, and creating covers that expressed the essence of the books. She now works collaboratively with Janice St. Marie, a graphic artist, who provides technical support on realizing Judith's design ideas. The earliest awards for the press (Benjamin Franklin Award and PEN West) in 1997 for Listening for Cactus by Mary McGinnis, a first book of poems by a brilliant writer who has been blind since birth, was partially credited to our design decision to bind in a Braille frontispiece. Our initial hope had been a Braille / English format, but this did not work due to the more extensive space requirements for Braille and English on facing pages. Judith and I had long been involved with disability rights and proponents of barrier free buildings. After years of attending Mary's extraordinary readings, watching her hands skim along the raised dots and markings of her notebooks as well as many instances of including her poetry in our anthologies, it seemed a natural progression to publish Mary's book. Our inside joke was that we invented “publishing on demand” as we would tell Mary repeatedly, “Just give us the poems. You've got a great book lurking in those big black notebooks. Hand over the poems and we will make a beautiful book.”

We didn't know how hard it would be to cross genres when we decided to edit the anthology Written With a Spoon: A Poet's Cookbook. We simply wanted a book that combined our two loves; great food and great poetry. Since this was a book we would buy, we naively figured we had a market. If I had known beforehand the special nightmares of copyediting both poetry and recipes I might have deserted the project on the spot. Ah, but then came the bliss of taste testing the recipes for Nectarine Pie and Handcranked Peach Ice Cream. Following your passions can lead to some odd, yet wonderful, places.

We were already great admirers and friends of both Joan Logghe and Miriam Sagan, so when they pitched us the idea for Another Desert : Jewish Poetry of New Mexico (for a review of Another Desert) we were eager to work on it. Spotlighting the rich Jewish legacy of New Mexico appealed to us. The Jews of the frontier West and the hidden converso Jews among the early settlers from Spain have little official visibility in books. Judith is active on regional, national, and international boards for Jewish education and is fond of saying that as soon as there is a board for intergalactic Judaism she will serve on that too. The hidden work was proofing poems that looped into and out of Spanish, Hebrew, Ladino, ( a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew) Yiddish , and the archaic Spanish that is specific to Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. My unlimited gratitude to Reuben Cobos for his meticulously researched dictionary of the region. To our delight this book was a finalist for the 1998 Mountains and Plains Awards, and has miraculously gone into a second printing. Que milagro!

Likewise, when Marjorie Agosín brought us the manuscript for Miriam's Daughters: Jewish Latin American Women Poets (for a review by J.C. Todd) it seemed a natural progression of our interests in Judaism and in bilingual texts. Work by these poets was frustratingly hard to obtain, and we were attracted to making their work more visible and available. We had published Marjorie's poetry in a bilingual edition Lluvia en el desierto / Rain in the Desert (for a review) the year before, and so we felt we could stretch our skills to encompass a book in English, Portuguese, and Spanish with multiple authors. This noble project would have been worthy of a well-endowed university with graduate students assisting in the endless logistics. What in the world was a micro press without grants thinking when we decided to orchestrate such an international project? We thought it would be a book we'd love to read, and it was!

While Judith was in Spain she stopped to visit one of our favorite poets who had poems in two of our prior anthologies, The XY Files and The Practice of Peace. Lawrence Schimel has authored or edited over 40 books and had just had a press drop out of an agreement to publish his anthology by and about gay Jewish men. He gave us several stories to read and we were wild about them. Judith saw the appropriateness of a press known for its interest in Judaica presenting the writings of gay Jewish men. Never mind that we knew little about marketing frankly erotic stories. The writing and the content were compelling, and so we leapt in to publish what became Kosher Meat. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive from Publishers Weekly, Salon.com, and Tikkun who devoted a surprising amount of ink to praising the book. When Kosher Meat was a finalist for both ForeWord Magazine's 2001 Book of the Year Award and the Lambda Literary Awards, we felt that our faith was justified.

In a similar vein, I had first heard Alvaro Cardona-Hine read with Joan Logghe when these two NEA winners read together one wintry afternoon. I solicited his work for anthologies and the press was honored when he brought us two of his memoirs. A History of Light follows the prose poem tradition so beautifully realized in the classic Platero Y Yo by Jimenez. Alvaro's translucent and tender meditation on the mind of childhood was a finalist for the 1998 Small Press Book Awards. The Bloomsbury Review wrote that A History of Light “dazzles us with affection and delight.” A native of Costa Rica, Cardona-Hine is a celebrated composer of music and texts for music, an artist whose work is exhibited nationally, an editor for a decade of Mankind Magazine, a translator of Vallejo's España, Aparta de Mi Este Caliz and the author of 14 additional books in English and Spanish. His most recent memoir, Thirteen Tangos for Stravinsky which considers his coming-of-age years as a immigrant in Los Angeles in the 1940s, was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in 2000. His paintings have graced four of our book covers and his invaluable advice on translation has made a number of our other projects richer, more precisely nuanced, and we are grateful for his artistry.

Marjorie Agosín called us one day and announced that she had a wonderful present for us, an introduction to a gifted author, Genie Zeiger, who had written a deeply moving memoir about her mother. I promised to read it, if only out of respect for Marjorie. I knew from the first page I read that it was exactly right for us: tender, exquisitely written, brave and clear-eyed as the author faced the irremediable onslaught of Alzheimer's on her vibrant mother—a memoir that only a poet could write. Then I panicked. I was afraid I would be the only one who liked such a book. What if readers were scared away because it was sad? because there were no easy slogans put forth as answers? because as a reader, you care so much about this mother and daughter in their complex relationship and then the mother dies? However, the reader response was stunning.

Oprah picked How I Find Her : A Mother's Dying and a Daughter's Life as suggested summer reading in her magazine. We sold the German rights to Kindler Verlag who publish Salman Rushdie. Magazines and newspapers wrote glowing reviews. As an editor, I was relieved to find that I have no idea what the public wants. Maybe readers are still looking for meaning and beauty. We went to a second printing in three months, and the book is continuing to find grateful, devoted readers.

Each book has its own story illuminating another step that showed us how to turn our passions into carefully crafted books that find homes among readers. Our decisions to pursue and publish certain authors and projects have an icing of logic spooned on top, but the overwhelming reason we commit to a book is simply that we are in love. We fall in love with language and craft repeatedly, we are infatuated with narrative, we feel we have a serious commitment to translation, we have something special going with memoir, and we crave a good story. Our commitment to poetry stems from the conviction that the insights received from the symbolic messages of poetry are a necessary and potent precursor to making changes in the world. Poetry and memoir offer such an intimate view that our contact with them changes us, undermining our sense of who is “the other”, decreasing our sense of isolation, and as the work gets under our skin, past the rational cool mind, and gets in our blood, yes, it changes the world.

Years ago I was given some exceptional advice by two wise friends. Peter said, “Do what is obvious to you that needs to be done. Trust your sense of what is necessary. What is obvious to you will not be what is obvious to others.” Miriam Sagan said, “A good idea is not a poem. You still have to do the work. Apply the craft to the good idea.” These two ideas have been crucial to my life and practice, to what I bring to the press, and what the press brings forth to the world.