Northfield-based Slate Roof Press connects poets and community

  • Abbot Cutler, second from left, reads his poem, “Another Place,” to a group of Franklin County Technical School students earlier this month. Cutler is joined by his fellow Slate Roof Press members Cindy Snow, Amanda Doster and Janet MacFadyen. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Amanda Doster, second from right, reads her poem, “I Keep My Memories on My Tongue,” during a poetry reading at Franklin County Technical School earlier this month. She is joined by her fellow Slate Roof Poetry members Cindy Snow, Abbot Cutler and Janet MacFadyen. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Cindy Snow laughs as Abbot Cutler jokes about writing quirks. The two were among four members of Slate Roof Press who held a poetry reading at Franklin County Technical School earlier this month. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Amanda Doster, a member of Slate Roof Press, reads her poem, “I Keep My Memories on My Tongue,” during a poetry reading at Franklin County Technical School earlier this month. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Janet MacFadyen, managing editor of Slate Roof Press, shows the cover design of her book “In the Provincelands” to a group of Franklin County Technical School students during a poetry reading earlier this month. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Franklin County Technical School students listen as Abbot Cutler, a member of Slate Roof Press, talks about writing. With the help of cultural council grants, Slate Roof Press often holds poetry readings and workshops at local schools. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson

  • Cindy Snow, at left, and Amanda Doster, third from left, listen as a Franklin County Technical School student reads her own poetry. Snow and Doster were two of the four Slate Roof Press members who led a poetry reading at the school earlier this month. For the Recorder/Nicole Braden-Johnson


For the Recorder
Published: 12/26/2018 4:43:17 PM

At first glance, it seems like Slate Roof Press was born out of a moment of serendipity.

A group of poets spontaneously getting together 15 years ago for dinner at China Gourmet and fleshing out the plans for a working poetry press might seem as random as a William Carlos Williams poem. But like all art, including Williams’ poetry, there’s much more to it.

“I was giving a reading in Northampton,” founding member Ed Rayher recalled, “and Trish Crapo (a former Greenfield Recorder columnist) came up afterward and said she liked my poetry and was thinking of gathering together a group of people to form a publishing group.”

Rayher, a Northfield resident, had already been running his own Swamp Press for many years at that point, and knew the kind of work, commitment and motivation the project would require. Still, he jumped at the chance to be involved.

“Motivated” is a key word for Rayher, Managing Editor Janet MacFadyen of Shutesbury and recent alumna Cindy Snow from Shelburne Falls. As they described the book-publishing process, it became clear that only highly motivated individuals could sustain that kind of productivity.

By poets, for poets

According to Rayher, Slate Roof Press is a “poet-driven, poet-run collective to publish poetry.” It’s also entirely volunteer-based. The collective is based in Northfield, where its members publish as well as hold meetings.

Members are selected through a yearly contest usually held early in the spring with a $500 prize, under the agreement that they’ll be part of Slate Roof Press for at least three years, during which their own book is published.

Except for MacFadyen, the six other members do not have titles and contribute according to their skills and expertise. Initially, the poets had to pay $500 in dues to join, but now they are able to work off the press’ own revenue.

The poets come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some, like Rayher, have made publishing their full-time jobs; others, like Snow, teach writing. MacFadyen is somewhat of a “Jill of all trades,” as her background includes everything from freelance writing to piano tuning.

Last year, Slate Roof Press received 60 manuscripts all vying for the one open publication spot. The entire lot must be read and the submissions are debated over at length until the members arrive at a final candidate. Manuscripts chosen for publication then go through extensive revising, editing and proofreading.

Book covers are designed by Rayher, and feature work by local and regional visual artists. These artists — a mix of painters, photographers, and even potters — include Christin Couture, Stephen Earp and Sarah Holbrook from Shelburne Falls, Jamie Young from Ashfield and Stephen Schmidt from Shutesbury.

Motivation at work

Once a book is printed, it still needs to be marketed, which Slate Roof Press members do at book fairs, bookstores, on the internet and wherever else there can be exposure.

Although self-publishing is increasingly popular, and some have success going that route, Rayher explained it is difficult to take care of getting books the best exposure possible after they’re printed.

“At Slate Roof Press, you have many dedicated people working to get your book out there, editing your manuscripts, working to get your book in bookstores, working on grants, working to get your book reviewed,” he said. “A publishing house is a lot of work. You get a lot more mileage when you have a group behind you.”

Slate Roof Press has also been trying to expand its audience, geographically and demographically. The organization can’t expand much beyond Massachusetts, since members need to attend monthly meetings, and the collective also simply doesn’t have the capacity to publish more than one or two books a year. But the members seek to have as large a pool as possible from which to draw the best talent, and are considering opening up the contest nationally every year.

Expansion has included adding the blind poet Susan Glass from California to the collective. She lives part of the year in western Massachusetts, and attends meetings through conference calls, otherwise. Glass convinced the members to record their poetry on audio CDs so as to reach the blind community, which they have begun with their most recent publication, Catherine Stearn’s “Now and Again.”

Expanding horizons

Rayher said his involvement with Slate Roof Press has allowed him to meet other local poets, his favorite part of being a member.

“I’ve formed good friendships with people I wouldn’t have met otherwise,” he explained.

MacFadyen agreed with Rayher’s sentiment, adding “Lots of times, if someone wins the contest, we have no idea who this person is, and then they come in and become part of our group. These people are all really good. I feel it’s expanded what my horizons are as a poet.”

She also admitted, “I retired a few years back, and I was like ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ It gives me something to do with my retirement.”

Snow said the idea of having a book, rather than being published in a journal or magazine, was a big draw for her when she decided to join Slate Roof Press. She quickly found herself in good company among the other writers.

“The idea of having a book, that you could hold in your hands, that you created, that was something I felt would help push me to the next level,” she explained. “It would let me take myself seriously as a poet. I wanted to be in this group of excellent writers and be excited to continue writing. It was a nice synergy to be supporting my local community.”

Slate Roof Press also makes an effort to support the greater community, Snow continued.

“Whenever we get a grant, we do something in the community,” she said, “like a workshop or reading at a senior center or at a school, so we feel like the press is regularly giving back. We also donate books to local libraries.”

Sometimes the collective arranges joint events with other presses, like Straw Dog Writer’s Guild from Northampton. Other times, its members incorporate different kinds of media: for example using a slideshow with local visual art, or having a trombonist accompany their readings.

Snow said Slate Roof Press members particularly enjoy doing workshops in schools in part because it “shows kids that the creative life, and being involved with art, is actually something that they can do. They can ask questions and see themselves as continuing a creative life.”

MacFadyen added that part of the focus of workshops is to clarify the work of poets.

“There’s a mystique that in order to be a poet, you have to have this inspiration, and either you’ve got the gift or you don’t,” she said. “When, in fact, so much of it is really just hard work.”

One way in which the members demystify the persona of a poet is by explaining how even experienced writers practice reading before presenting anything publicly.

“I don’t think that the students expected ‘grown poets’ to have that kind of concern,” MacFadyen said.

Reaching young minds

Before attending a Dec. 6 reading at Franklin County Technical School with Slate Roof Press, which was funded by a Greenfield Local Cultural Council grant, Snow explained that the members of Slate Roof Press collaborate with teachers to produce a lesson plan that is both in line with Massachusetts teaching standards and most useful to the instructor.

As we made ourselves comfortable in the library-turned-auditorium, the English teacher facilitating the reading, Lori Devino, said how excited she was for the poets to share their work and wisdom with the students.

Her hope was that the students will realize that poetry can be a valuable part of their lives, even if they remain outside of academia or are not inclined to dedicate their whole lives to writing. She proudly noted that Franklin County Technical School students have frequently been finalists in the annual Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest.

MacFadyen and Snow read their work. Amanda Doster, a substance abuse prevention specialist and the collective’s most recent contest winner, joined them, along with Abbot Cutler, English professor emeritus from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and former press member.

Before, after and often punctuated throughout their poems, the poets explained where the poems came from, and why they included or left out certain thoughts.

Doster, who won the Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest in 2009, read “I Keep My Memories on My Tongue,” inspired by the years she lived in Germany in her youth. Cutler read “Another Place” with the slow, rhythmic cadence of a sermon, reflecting a search for meaning in the mundane-turned-foreign.

Drawing from her family life, Snow’s “To a Daughter at Seventeen” provided insight into the unseen conflicts, and hidden depth of the day-to-day. Lastly, MacFadyen’s “Through the Eye of a Potato,” which she has been working on for 20 years, clearly conveyed the layers of experience she wove into it.

During the Q&A period, the students asked about writer’s block and what the writing process involves. The poets gave tips about different ways to start writing, all of which was geared toward the same notion: just write.

“Write at night and edit in the morning,” MacFadyen suggested.

When asked how much they edit their work, the poets laughed and said the process is never complete. MacFadyen confessed that once, after having a poem published, she decided that the entire second half of it was unnecessary.

Students Elijah Furtado and Kayla Lewandowski said how much they enjoyed the reading, including how “chillaxed” the poets were.

“I think I learned more about life than about poetry,” Furtado said.

Some of the students clustered around the poets, asking follow-up questions. They read some of their own work, to which Snow and MacFadyen gave much encouragement and praise.

While things were wrapping up, Devino received an email from a student thanking her profusely for having held the reading, having found it “inspiring” and “freeing.”

For more information on Slate Roof Press, its members and how to buy their books, or to donate or submit your own manuscript for next year’s contest, visit

Nicole Braden-Johnson of Conway is the author of “Unheard Melodies,” a monthly poetry column in the local “The Visitor,” and has also been published in several literary journals. She is always on the lookout for poetry news and events, and can be reached at Visit her website at

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