Meredith Foundation builds a 'little house'

Richard Harteis, former partner of the late Pulitzer Prize poet William Meredith, has written a memoir and launched a publishing house.
Richard Harteis, former partner of the late Pulitzer Prize poet William Meredith, has written a memoir and launched a publishing house.

The resume of William Meredith, the former Connecticut College professor and Uncasville poet who died in 2007 at the age of 88, is a many-splendored thing. Among other honors, Meredith won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and was the U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

To officially oversee that legacy is an honor and a great gig - and admittedly a lot of work. But it's a job that Richard Harteis, director of The William Meredith Foundation and the poet's partner for 36 years, undertakes with vigor and commitment. He also finds time to focus on his own writing, including "WMD - A Memoir," which is one of the first books to come out from Poets' Choice, the Meredith Foundation's new publishing venture.

Harteis will read from and sign copies of "WMD - A Memoir" Saturday afternoon in Mystic's Bank Square Books. The event doubles as a kick-off celebration for Poets' Choice, which, along with "WMD," will publish "The Wall," a collection by the late writer/humanitarian Andrew Oerke, the 2015 winner of the foundation's fourth annual William Meredith Award for Poetry.

The foundation also published books by the three previous Meredith Award winners - David Fisher (2012), Lyubomir Levchev (2013) and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (2014) - but outsourced the production to other publishing houses including New London's Little Red Tree. But when Little Red Tree relocated to New Haven and thus created a bit of an accessibility issue, Harteis decided it was a natural progression for the foundation to start their own in-house imprint.

"We could have tried for a New York publishing house, but the turnaround on something like that can be two years," Harteis says. "Since the idea is more about a commemorative award than a commercial venture, we thought, 'Why not create our own little house?' I did some research and realized it's not easy, but it's certainly doable and they would certainly be interesting projects that, at the same time, help us focus on poetry."

It also made perfect sense to release Harteis's memoirs through Poets' Choice - and not just because of the author's relationship with Meredith. While their partnership receives poignant, fond and intriguing attention, Harteis also offers reflections on his own life - and, in fact, the impetus for the whole project came when the author developed a grim set of physical symptoms that suggested Alzheimer's or a similar decline in mental function.

While the diagnosis was ultimately different and less alarming, Harteis was motivated to set down the events of his life. The title of the book helps explain his sense of urgency. "WMD" stands for "white matter disease," the progressive, age-related decline in certain cognitive functions with which Harteis is afflicted. Despite any solemnity implied, the book is conversational in tone - sometimes funny and sometimes melancholy - and comprises anecdotes, epistolary dispatches, essay-style commentary, snapshots, poems and breezy narrative travelogue.

"When I thought I was going to completely lose my mind or my personality, my first thought was that maybe I could write something to help Boomers along the way," Harteis says. "It turned out not that serious, but I did start to think about what was going to happen. And when you've lived with someone like William, who was quite a bit older and suffered a massive stroke, you go through an arduous aging process with him and start to experience what I call anticipatory grief. And I wanted to explore those feelings in my own personal context."

In addition to complications with his health, Harteis recently experienced the deaths of his mother and his dog. But the actual task of reliving his life experiences through reflection and the written word has had a very positive effect on his attitude.

"I came to a gradual realization, a new look at where I am in life," Harteis says. "The first job as a writer is to get it all down on paper, and as you do so, you learn. I kept thinking of all the people who'd passed in recent years - and I thought about the effects they had on me and it was just great and helpful. It's how you respond to things that make you. I hope my life has had value - and at the same time I didn't want the book to become self-indulgent. I want to age with grace and not be a mean old man. I've had a modest but interesting life, and I hope and think I have a lot yet left to do."

Part of his work is to continue to foster the foundation's artistic and cultural exchange with Bulgaria. In the 1970s, Meredith met Bulgarian poet Levchev and they became good friends. Over the years Meredith visited the country more than 20 times and created the Bulgarian-American Arts Foundation, which worked in tandem with the Griffis Arts Center in New London and established a Bulgarian-American Exchange Program for artists and writers.

It's no coincidence, then, that the first reception for "The Wall," which was endowed by foundation board members John and Lorraine Hracyk, takes place Feb. 1 at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The work also will be featured June 21 at a retrospective of Bulgarian and American art at the Slater Museum in Norwich.

Oerke and Meredith were close friends, who, Harteis says, believed that poetry was a way of perceiving and relating to other people. "For them, poetry was a way to bring about social justice and serve as a solution for changing the mind and spirit of mankind," he says.

Those ideals will guide Poets' Choice, Harteis says, and the publishing house already has three other books in development. A poetry collection by Daniel Levanti; accounts of a spiritual quest by Jonas Ruta; and a series of essays on American culture and politics by New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio are scheduled tentatively for publication in the near future.

"These are worthy books that, in today's publishing climate, might not be easily published elsewhere," Harteis says. "A lot of major writers are now successfully going the indie route, and that's how we're going to approach this. It's part of the mission. Besides, truth told, it's fun to promote new talent and people you know."

r.koster@theday.com
Twitter: @rickkoster

IF YOU GO

Who: Richard Harteis, writer and president of the William Meredith Foundation

What: Author reads from and signs his latest book, “WMD — A Memoir,” and celebrates the foundation’s new venture, Poets’ Choice Publishing

When: 2-4 p.m. today

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 West Main St., Mystic

For more information:
(860) 536-3795,
williammeredithfoundation.org

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