From the Desk of Director Tim Stookesberry

Our New Website is Coming - Contest Alert
Happy Spring!

I’m delighted to let you all know that we are in the process of updating the SUNY Press website! Our new website will launch this summer, and it will offer our faithful readers a dramatically improved browsing and shopping experience. In anticipation of the launch of our new website, I’m pleased to announce our 50 for 50 contest offer to our newsletter readers where the first 50 people who enter our contest will receive a 50 percent-off coupon they can use on the new store.

To enter, send an email to michael.campochiaro@sunypress.edu with your name, email address, and the subject header “50 for 50.”

Tim Stookesberry is the Director of SUNY Press, and he would love to hear about your publishing projects! Contact him at tim.stookesberry@sunypress.edu.
Book nerds love origin stories where you get inside information behind a book’s inspiration. We have two such stories in our newsletter this month—the first from Kathleen M. Vandenberg, author of Joan Didion: Substance and Style. Through close readings of selected nonfiction from the last forty years, Vandenberg’s new book reveals how Didion deliberately and powerfully employs style to emphasize her point of view and enchant her readers.
“It’s just words, folks. It’s just words.” So said Donald Trump during the second presidential debate in 2016, responding to question about lewd remarks he’d made. “Just words,” he tweeted, in response to Joe Biden’s acceptance speech. “You don't concede when there's theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore," Trump said during the rally that preceded the attack on the Capitol on January 6, these words spoken before the shouts of rioters punctured the air, shots were fired, and fire extinguishers were wielded as weapons. “Not a single word encouraged violence or lawlessness, explicitly or implicitly,” his lawyers said in his defense during his second impeachment trial.
Twenty years earlier, a similarly blue-sky day was punctured by violence, though it first appeared to me as a silent column of smoke rising lazily above the horizon, dispersing in the cloudless air. Visible from where I sat on a campus in Northeast, DC , its source was unclear until word began to spread: America was under attack. The Pentagon had been hit. In the days that followed, as the true horrors of that day became clearer, there was a swell of patriotism. Brokenhearted Americans, seemingly acting as one, flew flags, spoke of unity, silenced debate, and began to march willing along to the drumbeats of war.
Joan Didion remained unmoved, not by the attacks, but by what she saw as the eminently predictable and facile nature of the narratives composed in response.
Already a dedicated reader of her works, I was struck, at the time, by how a writer so frequently characterized by the press and popular culture as frail, elitist, neurotic, and reserved did not hesitate to challenge these narratives, her language, whether spoken or written, as controlled, direct, and ironic as ever, her refusal to just “play along,” on full display. She seemed then a small figure planted tightly in the soil, her face raised against a forest of flags, a parade of slogans, refusing to be swept along. My book, Joan Didion: Substance and Style, is the result of years of trying to unpack just how she did it, how she has done it for decades, how she has managed to select and arrange words across pages and pages of powerful essays that deconstruct language through language.
I was thrilled to learn that her latest work, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, published as she nears 87 years of age, would be released a week before my own book, the appearance of twelve previously uncollected pieces a sure sign of her continued relevance, her enduring appeal to a large audience who have already begun to buy this work en masse and leave glowing reviews in their wake. Her voice, composed in these pieces across thirty years, reemerges at a pivotal moment in political and public discourse, returns at a moment when calls for violence, for force, are being dismissed by great portions of the country as “just words.” How fortunate then, that in the moment the work of composing my own book is finished, I can open this newly-purchased collection and find myself once more in the presence of a writer who takes seriously the power of language and the purchase it gives us on reality. 
Our second origin story in this issue of the newsletter comes from poet Alisha Kaplan, whose dynamic collaboration with artist Tobi Aaron Kahn reimagines the ancient, biblical concept of sacrifice. Here’s what author Annette Insdorf said about Kaplan and Kahn’s collaboration: “Qorbanot is a vivid counterpoint between sensually anchored poems and evocatively abstratct images. A few uttered lines here, a few painted lines there, make for a provocative artistic—as well as spiritual—offering.”
We were having brunch at a restaurant in Crown Heights when Tobi asked me what I was working on. I said that I was obsessively reading Leviticus, fascinated by the sacrificial offerings described throughout the book in bloody, visceral detail. It was the end of 2015 and I was writing poems for my graduate thesis at NYU, exploring what sacrifice meant to me as a young woman in the twenty-first century. Tobi responded with his characteristic enthusiasm and told me that he has been creating art on similar themes for decades. We’d known each other forever but had never had an in-depth conversation about our work. “Let’s collaborate,” he said. A long-time admirer of his art, I immediately agreed.
Tobi and I have similarly deep-rooted relationships with the Torah and the Jewish practices prescribed within it. We both come from modern Orthodox traditions, and despite the fact that I have moved away from that tradition, Tobi and I were still able to connect around our love of ritual. We also both come from Holocaust backgrounds. Tobi’s uncle Arthur, for whom he is named, was one of the first Jews killed by the Nazis. His sister Felice was named for his aunt Fanny who was also killed by the Nazis, along with her son. My grandmother survived Auschwitz and my grandfather survived labour camps, while about two thirds of their families were murdered in the Holocaust, including my grandfather’s first wife and two sons. This legacy has always been integral to Tobi’s art and my writing, and is especially true of Qorbanot, which has at its center many burnt offerings.
Tobi and I are also dissimilar in many ways. We are different genders, generations, and personalities. All of these connection and differences made for a fertile collaborative experience.
We began with a visit to Tobi’s studio in Long Island City, after I had sent him some of the poems I had recently written. I always loved visiting his studio, seeing how the work is made and lives. He pulled out works of art on paper from various drawers, some pieces as old as thirty years. We looked at the paintings alongside the poems, and something powerful happened: they spoke to each other. The rich colors and organic shapes in the art reached across to the black-and-white text of the poem, and vice versa, to draw forth and expand their individual meanings in a symbiotic relationship.
We continued this process of sharing poems and paintings back and forth, pairing them together, shuffling them around, until we had formed a whole book. I sent Tobi a poem or three, saying this needs an image, and he sent me back a handful of options. Or he showed me some paintings and I thought, I’m in love with this one, it needs to be in the book, and it then inspired a poem. We knew pretty early on the image that would be on the cover: Study for RYSTA, which we had paired with my poem “Heirlooms Offering,” a piece that describes family heirlooms, tangible and intangible, passed down through generations. The image is a deep red the color of blood, with cell-like ovals floating through it. It spoke to the poem’s theme of what gets passed on through blood ties, through epigenetics, and to the broader themes of sacrifice, slaughter, and the spirituality of the physical body.
What has made this collaboration on Qorbanot so meaningful is that Tobi and I respect each other as artists, and the themes that we explore in our work are not just elements of the work but are essential to our lives and the way that we choose to live them—with intention and ritual and connection to our heritage, always honouring our ancestors.
We’re pleased to report that two of our Spring titles were recently awarded grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the third round of the NEH’s Fellowships Open Book Program, a special incentive for scholarly presses to make recent monographs freely available online. Congratulations to Deanna P. Koretsky, author of Death Rights: Romantic Suicide, Race, and the Bounds of Liberalism, and Amy K. Kaminsky, author of The Other/Argentina: Jews, Gender, and Sexuality in the Making of a Modern Nation. For the NEH's full announcement, click here.
And finally, congratulations are also in order for our recent award winners, including Neil Thomas Proto, author of Fearless: A. Bartlett Giamatti and the Battle for Fairness in America, and William S. Yellow Robe Jr, author of Restless Spirits: Plays, (edited by Jace Weaver). These two books are finalists in this year’s 2020 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year competition. Other recent award winners are listed below.
2020 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year
Neil Thomas Proto
Award: Finalist for the 2020 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year in the Biography Category
William S. Yellow Robe Jr.; edited by Jace Weaver
Award: Finalist for the 2020 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year in the Multicultural Adult Fiction Category
2021 Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize presented by the Association for Asian Studies
Charles Sanft
Award: Honorable Mention, 2021 Joseph Levenson Pre-1900 Book Prize presented by the Association for Asian Studies
2020 BSLS Book Prize presented by the British Society for Literature and Science
Andrea Charise
Shortlisted as a finalist