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Simsbury's Antrim House Spreads Poetry and Prose

Rennie McQuilkin has been publishing books for 20 years or so and has no intention of slowing down.

What started as a loving gesture some 20 years ago, has turned into a passion-filled third career for Rennie McQuilkin. When he put together a book of poems authored by his mother for her 85th birthday, he did not set out to start what was to become Antrim House, the publishing company he runs out of his home in Simsbury.

“It came to pass gradually,” he said of the company that publishes poetry by emerging and established authors, as well as memoirs and photo essays.

Gradually is how McQuilkin has done things over his long and varied career, morphing from one position to another.

McQuilkin was an instructor of English at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and for more than two decades at Miss Porter's School in Farmington. He founded and until 2000 directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington.

And now, his work is Antrim House (www.antrimhousebooks.com). He also writes poetry. His poetry has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, Crazyhorse, The North American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Chelsea and The American Scholar, among others. His most recent book, from 2009, is entitled “The Weathering: New & Selected Poems”. 

McQuilkin has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as several grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Connecticut Center for the Book. He and his wife, the artist Sarah McQuilkin, live on Goodrich Road.

Each of McQuilkin’s careers has left traces in the next. It was poet Norah Pollard (he arranged for her to read at Sunken Garden), daughter of the jockey who rode Seabiscuit, who propelled him further into book publishing. She did not consider herself a poet who should be published, said McQuilkin. But he turned her work into a collection that got some notice, 2003’s “Leaning In.” Antrim House has published two other books of her poems and has two CDs of her reading from he work.

“People liked her book,” he said from the kitchen of his cozy home with his dog Wizard sleeping by the wood stove. (The doorbell to the house plays Happy Birthday. It was done for a birthday and was never changed.)

After Pollard’s success, he started hearing more of this: “Can I have a book?”

Since then, he has published about 70 books. Don’t confuse Antrim House with a vanity press, though, as this is a true collaborative venture between author and editor.

Some of the recent offerings include “Flounder In: Fishers Island Sketches” by Charles B. Ferguson, 93, the former director of the New Britain Museum of American Art from 1965 to 1984; “Laughing in the Face of Cancer” from Simsbury resident Pam Lacko; and “Love Like This” the posthumous collection of poems written both before and after Margaret Keane became Sister Marie Michael, who was born in 1909 to a large family in New Haven and passed away in 1981.

McQuilkin has gone from publishing four to five books a year in the early days to 16 in 2010 and 20 in 2011. But more than one a month can be difficult.

“It just kept spreading,” he said. “I thought I was busy before. And I can’t say no to an interesting project.”

McQuilkin wants to keep it at about the size it is today, as he cannot comfortably take on more. Plus, he is a very hands on editor and collaborator, as he helps with publicity.

“Rennie is a delight to work with,” said Canton resident and author of two books published through Antrim House, David K. Leff. “He’s a consummate craftsman, a good listener, and has a sixth sense about the sound, music and meaning of the English language. In an acknowledgement to my most recent book of poems, “Depth of Field” (which he published), I wrote that Rennie “is the absolute soul of poetry and midwife to more poems than he will ever know.””

Many of the poets he publishes appear at the small poetry festival he runs out of a railway depot in Windsor, the Windsor Art Center. He also started hosting a series on Simsbury Community Television not that long ago.

A typical print run for these book is 500 or less. On some occasions he has gone as high as 1,500. McQuilkin, who uses several presses in the Midwest, has also had second and third printings.

“Books are a hard sell these days,” he said. “It happened overnight practically.”

With bookstores closing and people moving to e-readers such as the Kindle, McQuilkin knows he has an uphill battle to some extent. He said it has been about the past three years he has noticed the change, but it has sped up recently.

He is planning on offering e-versions of the books as well hard copy. But with most of what he produces, it’s something to hold the book in one’s hands. It’s not only a book, but also a keepsake of sorts.

When he finds time he still writes poetry. He said that there is a literacy in how to read poetry that can be taught. It has to wash over you and may not be clear until the second or third read, or until someone else reads it aloud. It’s an experience.

So he will keep going — working with authors on all sorts of books, maintaining the level of involvement he prefers for these projects. And keep spreading poetry.

To that end, McQuilkin will be leading a workshop on “Childhood Reminiscence: Writing Poems Based on Childhood Memories” at the Hill-Stead Museum on Jan. 15 from 1:30 to 5p.m. , followed by a potluck dinner and ‘drama’ from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. McQuilkin will read poems prompted by childhood memories and discuss strategies for writing poetry or prose based on such memories. Since one of those strategies involves delving into family photo albums, participants are asked to bring such albums or single childhood photos. The final part of the workshop will be devoted to writing.

The workshop will be followed by a community potluck dinner 5:30–6:30 pm, after which Riverwood Poetry will present an original drama 7–8:30 pm, taking Hill-Stead founder Theodate Pope's favorite poets off the museum's bookshelves and bringing them to life. Admission to the workshop is $20 for museum members, $25 for nonmembers; potluck dinner and drama are free (participants are encouraged to bring a dish to share). For information or to register, contact Sarah Wadsworth at 860-677-4787 ext 134 or wadsworths@hillstead.org.

Fir more information go here: http://hillstead.org/activities/calendar.html#Jan12.

For more on Antrim House go here: http://antrimhousebooks.com/index.html.

Kenneth Picard January 07, 2012 at 03:04 PM
Rennie also has a show on SCTV called "Speaking of Poetry". Tuesday 11 and 8. Or visit simburytv.org to see past shows.

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