Jennifer Tappenden: 2013 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award Winner

Aug 29, 2013 at 4:00 am
Jennifer Tappenden: 2013 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award Winner
Jennifer Silverberg

Jennifer Tappenden's green eyes gleam when she discusses her idea to introduce more people to poetry. It happened a few years ago when Tappenden was taking a typesetting workshop at the south-city printer All Along Press.

"I remember thinking, 'I could print the single poems on nice thick card stock.'"

From that thought was born Architrave Press, a St. Louis venture Tappenden describes as a "new kind of periodical literature." Architrave Press uses antique letterpress methods to print individual poems and then sells them for $3 a pop. Think Gutenberg meets iTunes.

"If a whole journal full of literary work is too intimidating, what about one poem?" explains Tappenden. "How about if I can get you to read and talk about one poem?"

Since its launch in 2011, Tappenden's Architrave Press has gone on to feature the works of more than three dozen poets from across the United States. Not one of Tappenden's poems has made the cut — and not because they're not worthy.

Last year University of Missouri-St. Louis named Tappenden the school's first-ever poet laureate. Her work has appeared in national literary magazines such as Euphony Journal and Slipstream. In 2011 her poem "The Tooth Collector" earned a Pushcart Prize nomination.

"Architrave is not an outlet for my own work," Tappenden avows. "If I see that editors are consistently printing their own work, I think less of that publication. Their peer review is them. If I really want to see one of my poems in print, I'll make an edition of one copy to hang in my bedroom. I'd rather see my stuff in other people's great publications."

Tappenden's selfless devotion to the craft has long set her apart, says UMSL poetry professor Shane Seely.

"With her experience and her credentials, Jen might rightly have dominated our workshop, using her authority — she was very well-regarded by her peers — to shape the conversation. But she didn't," says Seely. "She sat back and listened, piping up to underscore or complicate someone else's idea. She wants very much to be a member of the community. She wants to work together."

Jennifer Fandel, who has worked with Tappenden organizing the St. Louis Poetry Center's Observable Readings series (and whose poem "Midwest Lullaby" appeared in Architrave's fourth edition), echoes that character assessment.

"Jennifer is so much more than a strong voice wanting to be heard," says Fandel. "She really hears other poets. "

Tappenden moved to St. Louis in 2005 from her hometown of Buffalo, New York, when her now ex-husband got a job here. "I would have never moved away from my family and friends otherwise," says the 43-year-old.

Now, following her divorce, Tappenden has no plans to leave.

"It's exciting to see parts of the city springing back to life," says Tappenden, who holds down a full-time job as a data specialist with the Washington University School of Medicine. "St. Louis is a great secret. There's such a do-it-yourself spirit here, and I've been infected by it."

Tappenden's St. Louis writing colleagues are equally happy that she's staying.

"The qualities that made Jen a unanimous choice for the first UMSL poet laureate could best be described as charisma and integrity," says John Dalton, who runs UMSL's MFA program. "There's nothing pretentious about her passion for poetry; it's authentic and strong and will last her entire life. As for integrity, Jen does exactly what she says she will do."

Tappenden runs a press, organizes poetry readings and enjoys wading through slush piles to recognize talent other than her own.

Richard Newman, editor of River Styx, recruited Tappenden to read submissions for his St. Louis-based literary magazine after hearing her read her poetry at an event. River Styx managing editor Tina Shen says Tappenden's keen eye has been tremendously helpful in choosing poems for the publication. But there's more to it than that. "Her quirky sense of humor also really adds to our selection process," says Shen.

Tappenden has won over the local printing community as well. Amy Thompson of Paper Boat Studios, where Architrave Press now prints its poems, says Tappenden's creativity shows in her typography. "She's not just typesetting the words in a rigid fashion," says Thompson. "By playing with the fonts, she's responding to the poem."

Architrave has put out four editions of poems. Each edition contains ten poems that can be purchased online (or at brick-and-mortar locations including as Left Bank Books) as a series, or each poem can be purchased individually. With each edition of poetry, Tappenden receives around 300 submissions.

A friend suggested the name Architrave, an architectural term for the molding surrounding a door or window.

"I wanted a name that would signal the press was open to curious people who maybe don't read a lot of poetry," says Tappenden. "My friend Scott knows I love architecture, so we started throwing architectural terms around. He suggested 'architrave.' I didn't know what it meant. I looked it up its definition, and it was perfect."

Tappenden is now gearing up for her fifth edition of poetry through Architrave Press. She hopes to use her $1,000 award as an RFT MasterMind to send out the first edition of Architrave's poetry to librarians across the country.

"Hopefully they will then continue to collect me going forward," she says. "The University of Arizona's poetry library already has every one of my editions in its broadside collection."