Making sensitive or inconvertable topics more palatable to the general public is a big part of the mission of Fort Lee, New Jersey-based CavanKerry Press. As a not-for-profit literary press serving art and the community, CavanKerry is committed to expanding the reach of poetry by publishing works that explore the emotional and psychological landscapes of everyday life and bringing that art to underserved populations. With its LaurelBooks imprint, CavanKerry is especially engaged with work from people living with physical and/or mental illness and disability.
“The only way to create a world in which illnesses both physical and mental are treated with compassion and care is to normalize them and make them more visible,” says CavanKerry’s director and managing editor Gabriel Cleveland. “It is important to highlight those experiences and make them part of daily conversations to help destigmatize people (with mental health issues or physical disabilities),” adds Cleveland, a mental health advocate and a poet, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program at Lasell University. Cleveland co-edited “Places We Return To,” a 20th Anniversary retrospective on the publishing history of the press along with CavanKerry founder Joan Cusack Handler, a poet, memoirist, and a certified psychologist in clinical practice with decades of experience.
Along with the late Florenz Eisman, Handler founded CavanKerry in 2000 with the aim to demystify poetry with its first book, “A Day This Lit,” by Howard Levy. Since then, CavanKerry has published more than 100 books by such reputable poets as Joseph O. Legaspi, January Gill O’Neal, Christian Barter, Andrea Carter Brown, Ross Gay, Sherry Fairchok and Celia Bland, and New Jersey poets like the late Sandra Gash, Eloise Bruce and Catherine Doty.
A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Doty’s writing is influenced by her experiences as a young girl. Her latest book of poems, “Wonderama,” captures 1960s Paterson, as experienced by the poorest, most vulnerable children living there. The collection of poems explores survival and loss in the life of a young girl escaping the perils of want, neglect and abuse. Doty’s work chronicles sexual awakening and assault, alcoholism, race, the hazards of Catholic school, and the complex consequences of coming of age in the inner city. Things weren’t always bleak, so there are some funny parts, notes Doty. “I grew up with seven brothers and sisters. Part of our survival technique for each of us was to have a sense of humor.”
Doty fell in love with poetry the first time she ever heard it, even before she could read. “I knew it was a different kind of language. It was musical and full of surprises. My mom would read poetry (by Irish and British poets). So, I Like Yates.” Another influence growing up, she adds, “were children’s stories and poems by ‘Winnie the Pooh’ author A.A. Milne.”
A retired schoolteacher, Doty hopes her book, “Wonderama,” touches people and that the poems are universal. “I never want my poems to be just informative, I want them to be experiential like a movie, something cinematic that pulls you in.”
Another recent CavanKerry title is “Tanto Tanto” by Marina Carreira, which explores female queerness through the lens of first-generation culture. The collection of poems about a queer daughter of immigrants highlights the struggles she faces in romantic relationships amid an oppressive, culturally-sanctioned heteronormativity culture. “Tanto Tanto” unsettles ideas about romantic love, queer motherhood, gender identity, sex and more.
Carreira, who teaches Women and Gender Studies at Kean University, where she also works as an administrator, says the inspiration behind “Tanto Tanto” is her personal relationship and marriage to her ex-spouse. In writing the poems, she was detailing her own “romance between two queer women who were both daughters of immigrants, who were both Portuguese and how they navigated that relationship in not only American society, which is super homophobic and conservative, but even more so being part of a bilingual culture where it is very religious and also very heteronormative,” she shares. “And even though me and my partner are no longer together, I still consider (“Tanto Tanto”) to be a love story or a testimony to that relationship.”
Carreira is a queer Luso-American multidisciplinary artist from the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English from Montclair State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Rutgers University. As the daughter of immigrants, Carreira says words and languages were always of particular interest to her. “The way we arrange words, and the way languages are different from one another, even within dialects and vernaculars,” she adds.
Poetry proved to be the ideal fit for her as a compressed art form. For one, “you can detail a moment or pinpoint a particular experience of someone in such a short way, especially when you use evocative language and metaphors,” says Carreira. Secondly, “as someone who suffers from ADD, I have a very short attention span. So, poetry was always very captivating because I can read something and sit with it for a while and really have me bear witness with it and relate to it and try to process it in a way that reading a longer form or writing a longer form just doesn't come as natural.”
Flying in the face of growing censorship and book bans in public schools and libraries, CavanKerry is committed to publishing a diverse roster of authors each year, with a particular interest in receiving more work from queer, trans and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) voices. Diversifying its readership and submission pool is a vital goal, says Cleveland. “We are publishing a more diverse range of authors than we ever have before,” he adds. “We are a small press so there is only so much that we can do. But we are pushing ourselves every year. It is important to honor the voices of the people who represent our society.”
He cites for example “When We Did We Stop Being Cute?” by Martin Wiley. A novel in poetic form scored with a soundtrack of hip-hop musical references, “it is a story of growing up in the mid-eighties as a mixed-race kid trying to find his place in the world, one that is hostile towards him,” Cleveland says.
Wiley, who grew up in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, notes that the transition from childhood to adulthood can be scary, dangerous and lonely, especially for Black boys. In writing “When Did We Stop Being Cute?” he wanted to examine the search for manhood and for readers to gain a better understanding of that struggle. He adds, “and for people who go through that struggle to know that you're not alone and that it's OK to be confused, angry and mad, and you will find a way through it.”
Wiley’s novel questions, What does it to mean to become a man when doing so means you become a threat if you are a person of color? “Whether you want it to or not,” he says, “whether you feel threatening or not.” And he believes that part of the struggle and confusion around becoming a man has to do with role models and positive images. He questions, What does it mean when so many of the images, so many of the people that you look up to are horrible people? “A lot of the idols that I looked up to in the eighties were men that did really bad things,” he says, referencing comedian Billy Cosby as an example. “We didn't know or I didn't know.”
Wiley’s poetry is inspired both by the racial and personal politics of the world around him and the music he grew up with, from Public Enemy and Run DMC to Blondie and The Bangles. A Mason Grove School of the Arts at Rutgers graduate, Wiley shifted his focus from painting to poetry in part thanks to the hip-hop group Public Enemy. Their second studio album, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” saved his life to an extent, he believes.
“As a kid (of mixed race) in the eighties and growing up in the suburbs where everything is all plastic and perfect and feeling like I didn't fit in and feeling angry, I thought I was wrong. When I listened to a Public Enemy and they said, ‘I got a right to be hostile,’ I was like, OK, you're right, I do.” During his college years, he became heavily involved in campus activism and organizing events. He would fill empty stage time by reciting one of his poems during an open mic event or music concert.
The spoken-word artist and slam poet went on to earn his Master of Fine Arts from Rutgers University-Camden, where he was a Fellow. More recently, he joined the staff at Arcadia University as an English professor and the coordinator of its writing center. He is grateful for how CavanKerry press has been 100% supportive, with his editor cheering him on every step of the way through the process. “I had an editor (Cleveland) who worked wonders on this book,” says Wiley.