Antrim House: The Soul of Poetry

By Kalee Brunelle, Dogwood Managing Editor

As an undergraduate history major, Robert McQuilkin never could have predicted that he would end up becoming the director of the renowned Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington, CT. Furthermore, he never could have predicted that after speaking with and getting to know a multitude of poets, he would transform his love of poetry into his very own publishing business.

Having spent nine years with the festival, McQuilkin has a fine-tuned eye for quality poetry. He began to notice that many of the poets who did not have books to their credit were extremely talented, and he made it his personal mission to help them get published.

“I had learned that one can, with proper learning, create books—it’s feasible to create books on your own these days,” McQuilkin stated, and with that knowledge he set out to publish the work of those poets who, up until then, had gone unnoticed.

It all began with Norah Pollard—a poet whose talent McQuilkin refused to overlook. As a superb two-time reader at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Pollard demonstrated her love for poetry, as well as her gift for writing it. Believing in her abilities, McQuilkin offered to publish a collection of Pollard’s poems—an offer that she accepted without hesitation. Leaning In was published by McQuilkin in 2003, and Antrim House was officially born.

Screen Shot 2013-11-20 at 4.04.41 PMTitled after the Northern County in Ireland from which his forbears came, Antrim House is dedicated to working closely with poets to publish their work. As a small, home-based publishing house in Simsbury, Connecticut consisting of only two employees (McQuilkin and one newly-added associate editor), Antrim offers quality publishing with a personal touch.

While larger publishing houses tend to keep their authors at arm’s length, Antrim House works closely with its authors, consistently taking their input into consideration. “My whole idea is to have the author involved intimately in all aspects of the book,” McQuilkin says, and by doing so he has created a strong community of poets who return to Antrim, eager to publish more books. Since her debut in 2003, Pollard has published three more books with Antrim, including In Deep, which was released this year.

News reports on Antrim House confirm this image: a small, cozy press with a huge heart and the professionalism to match it. Stephanie Riefe of the Simsbury Patch writes, “Don’t confuse Antrim House with a vanity press, though, as this is a true collaborative venture between author and editor.” McQuilkin works directly with each poet to discuss design, layout, structure, cover art, and editing. He pays extremely close attention to detail—a unique aspect of Antrim House’s publication process. “I like each poem to have its own place on the page so it looks centered, out from the spine, and down from the top,” McQuilkin explains. When it comes down to it, Antrim House gives each individual poem the TLC that it has earned.

But McQuilkin’s investment in the success of each book does not end after it has been published. Instead, he then works tirelessly to market the book, implementing a wide variety of strategies including posting titles and information on Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter, setting up an online bookstore on the Antrim website, helping authors to obtain feature stories and reviews, helping authors submit their work for national awards, displaying their books in various poetry centers, setting up readings, book signings, and promotional events for authors, and sponsoring televised series of those readings. In other words, he will do everything in his power to get the names of emerging writers out there. That is the type of quality, individualized attention that Antrim House pledges to give each of its writers.

Yet another unique aspect of Antrim House is McQuilkin’s belief in the power of readings. Poets published through Antrim are encouraged to read their poems aloud, a concept that is in line with McQuilkin’s credo that poetry is a “living, breathing art form.” Antrim’s smallness also allows McQuilkin to attend many of those readings.

Antrim publishes an average of 15 books a year, and has recently added both memoirs and photo essays to its list of publications. After the three-page submissions are reviewed, the chosen few are asked to send in a full manuscript. “I get large numbers of submissions that I have to turn away,” McQuilkin says, “but I try to be as helpful as possible. I sometimes ask them to please submit again, give them some suggestions, and direct them to other publishing houses if I think their work would be a good fit somewhere else.” Even when he is reluctantly turning down submissions, McQuilkin tries his best to work with authors and aid them in their progression as poets.

McQuilkin does not wish for the house to grow any bigger. He focuses on quality over quantity, and in the future, he wishes to “maintain its standards and publish poetry and adjacent works of the best sort.” At Antrim House, it is not about profit or creating a recognizable name—it is about creating a space and opportunity for strong poets to present their work to the world in a fashion that does justice to their creativity and hard work. “There’s a place, a nook, for poetry publication that will not disappear,” McQuilkin states, a conviction that Antrim House continuously aspires to uphold.

Every now and again, McQuilkin finds some time to write poetry of his own. He is greatly inspired by the pieces that he reads, and feels as though poetry is an “interactive art form in which the reader, listener, and the poet are working together toward some kind of a realization.” At the end of the day, that is exactly what continues to keep poetry alive.

In addition to the compilation of his own nine books, McQuilkin has guided many other poets through the writing and publication processes. David Leff, who published The Price of Water and Depth of Field with Antrim House, praised McQuilkin as the “absolute soul of poetry and midwife to more poems than he will ever know.” Clearly, his reputation precedes him, and his credibility and intent are beyond question.

McQuilkin’s philosophy of promoting the many talented, yet often unrecognized poets and working closely with them throughout the publication process ultimately permeates every aspect of Antrim House—a press that is dedicated to the progression of poetry as a true work of art.

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