There was revolution in the air when Judy Doyle and Sandy Taylor met in the 1960s at the University of Connecticut. She was an undergraduate studying English literature, and he was working toward his Ph.D., also in literature, with a special interest in Scandinavian writing. “We were both pretty involved in the antiwar and Civil Rights movement,” Doyle recalled from her office in Willimantic, a small town in central Connecticut, where for more than 30 years she and Taylor ran Curbstone Press, a house known for its mix of political and literary titles.
What began as a political comradeship eventually developed into love and marriage and a publishing partnership that over the years has served as a model for activist literary publishing on the small press scene.
“From Sandy we learned what it is to be a publisher,” said colleague and friend Dan Simon, whose own company, Seven Stories Press, has taken a similar path.
With Alexander “Sandy” Taylor's death on December 21, at the age of 76, a dynamic partnership came to an end, but it by no means spelled the end of what Curbstone does and has come to represent. In her typically forthright fashion, Doyle dispelled any such talk in a phone conversation with PW: “Hey, I didn't quite expect Sandy's death so soon—neither did he. But we've talked about Curbstone having a life of its own for years. We had no intention that it would die with us.”
This weekend, the Curbstone board of directors, chaired by Harcourt sales director Paul Von Drasek, and including former Walker & Co. publisher George Gibson, longtime bookselling activist Suzy Staubach, former Nation publisher David Parker, among others, will meet to discuss finding new editorial leadership. “While Judy continues to take care of the rest of everything,” Von Drasek said, “we'll begin to think about how to maintain the editorial spirit.”
Curbstone's origins date back to 1975, when New Haven poet and friend James Scully returned from a year in Chile with a manuscript of poems. “Curbstone was founded in order to publish a book,” says Doyle. Scully's Santiago Poems bore all the marks of what Curbstone would come to specialize in—the literature of political witness. “We published it badly,” admitted Doyle, softly laughing, adding that later on they did a more professional edition, which is still in print. “But we realized then that we were a press.”
Indeed. Curbstone knew what it was about from the beginning and has never lost sight of it. Scully's protest poems of the 1970s have been followed by memoirs by Roque Dalton, poems by Claribel Alegría and Martin Espada, a moving tale of gangster life by Luis Rodriguez, as well as literature from Eastern Europe and Vietnam. The press's mission is to publish in Webster's sense of “making generally known, to make a public announcement.” “It's a unique mission,” said Gibson, who first met Taylor in 1982 and has been on the board ever since. “It includes not just the publishing of books but the outreach into the community to make connections between writers and students, writers and prisoners.”
Outreach was Sandy Taylor's specialty. Since his death, what has been most vividly recalled by those who knew him and have written in blogs and e-mails, is his generous spirit. Cincos Puntos publisher Bobby Byrd wrote of “the man of courage and jokes and cigarettes and wisdom and laughter and joy,” who didn't like a lot of things in the world and did something about it. Author and activist Luis Rodriquez, whose now classic Always Running was first published by Curbstone (now a Touchstone trade paperback staple), called Taylor “a second father” who “advised me, taught me, talk[ed} to me... something my father never did.” Alan Kornblum asked his Coffee House Press supporters to consider a donation to Curbstone, if they had “a little left” in their coffers, in honor of what Taylor had given the community.
“There was always a great feeling of fellowship around Sandy,” Dan Simon said. “You felt from him a powerful assertion that we are all in this together, that we are doing something wonderful, that we are all angel warriors in independent publishing. He used to say of himself that he was an old Viking, and that fit.”
Taylor, who also had a long career in teaching, “was always an educator,” Doyle said. And he remains so. His last acquisition was a novel, Nora Eisenberg's When You Come Home, about the lasting impact of war in Iraq.