McPherson starts a press for excellent but unknown poets

March 5, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Swan Scythe Press announces the publication of its first two poetry chapbooks, "The Spices of Our Sky" by Nwando Mbanugo and "Feather¹s Hand" by Susan Kelly-DeWitt.

The new press is an independent publishing venture founded by Professor Sandra McPherson of the UC Davis English department and partially supported by UC Davis. And a swan scythe, for those who don’t know, is an early 20th century Cambodian farm tool of great beauty, carved to look swanlike but utilitarian.

"The Spices of our Sky" is a collection of poetry by Nwando Mbanugo, an Igbo/American poet who has spent half her life in Nigeria and half in America. She is a biochemistry and English student at UC Davis.

Kelly-DeWitt, author of "Feather's Hand," has taught poetry through University Extension, UC Davis and taught both art and writing at the Women's Wisdom Project in Sacramento for many years. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.

The next two titles in the series, to be published this spring, are: "The Happy World" by Naomi Schwartz and "Following" by Sara Dawson Savitt.

Why would a busy English professor and hard-working poet in her own right decide to start a publishing company?

"Some time in 1999 I just felt a directive out of nowhere to start a modest press," said McPherson. "It seemed like an absolute good to me; my years in writing my own poems and in being published were paralleled by many other writers' years of rejection. And often the rejectees would ask me what the matter was with (1) their work; (2) publishers' heads.

"So I decided to start making change in a small way," she added. "All of our authors' chapbooks are their first book publications except for Susan Kelly-DeWitt, who had one other chapbook published. Since she has hundreds of poems, a lifetime of work, I think two chapbooks are a minimum of what she deserves."

But that’s not all. In addition to these four publications, McPherson organized a poetry contest by Swan Scythe Press. This resulted in 175 entries and the inevitable rejection of many fine poets.

"I’m only able to publish a winner and a runner-up," she said. And those two are: The winner, Jim Fairhall of Chicago, and Betty Davis Miller of Florida (whose daughter lives in Davis).

Fairhall’s collection, "Dragon Music," is about his life as an 18-year-old soldier in Vietnam, as a Vietnam veteran, and his return to that country in the late 1990s. This chapbook is his first book publication.

Runner-up Miller wrote "The Last Thing You Get to Know." This manuscript also represented her first poetry book publication although she's collaborated on a prose book about Death Row inmates in Florida (available at

"Her poetry concerns aging and speaks with wit, humor, poignancy, modesty and guts," said McPherson. "I just love her voice."

"Both ‘Dragon Music’ and ‘The Last Thing’ touched me because they were preceded by long silence and then burst out, flowered, with artistic maturity," she added.

Fairhall’s "Dragon Music" will be available by late spring. The second series of chapbooks will then begin with the publication of Miller’s work.

McPherson said that a dozen graduate students have been helping her with the press. The press also will be holding a second chapbook contest and manuscripts will be accepted Sept. 1 through Dec. 15. A $15 entry fee is required.

"UCD hasn't had anything like a book publishing venture before," she said. "So, although most of the funding for this press comes out of my own pocket, I wanted the inclusion of the students because many writers, upon graduation, look for jobs in editing and publishing; they now have some experience/expertise. And believe me even a tiny venture like this is enough to keep a dozen people very busy.

"I love the way the chapbook format is conducive to introducing a poet," she added. "And for the poet, the chapbook provides a focus for seeing his or her themes in an integrated way. As small as these collections are, they take a tremendous amount of editing for unity and dramatic order; they demand word-by-word artistic evaluation."

Subscriptions to the first series of five chapbooks (Mbanugo, Kelly-DeWitt, Schwartz, Savitt and Fairhall) are available for $40. Individual chapbooks will be available for $9.95 each (California residents should add 71 cents).

"We would really like local bookstores to carry our chapbooks," said McPherson. "So far, they are available from me personally (, from and from Paperwork in Sacramento ("

Inquiries and checks made out to Swan Scythe Press can be sent to: Professor Sandra McPherson, Swan Scythe Press, Department of English, UC Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616. Inquires can also be addressed to

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