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Many Arkansans know the name Miller Williams, the Arkansas-born poet who recited his poem, Of History and Hope, at President Bill Clinton’s 1997 inauguration. The reading was a nod to President John F. Kennedy’s inclusion of a poet in his ceremony and it created a tradition that has continued with Democratic candidates ever since.
But not everyone knows how influential Miller was in Arkansas aside from that moment in the spotlight. One lasting legacy is the University of Arkansas Press, which he co-founded with UA Chancellor Willard Gatewood and led for 20 years.
Founded in 1980, The UA Press set up shop in the McIlroy House, named for the McIlroy family who originally owned the house and provided the initial 160 acres of land for the establishment of the university in 1871. The press created a venue for scholars at the UA to publish their work in the arts and humanities. A press focused on publishing work produced by its faculty commonly benefits a university’s attempts to attract top educators. Universities worldwide promote their faculty this way, and Miller and Gatewood likely saw it as a way to elevate the University’s standing amongst its peers.
The first book published by UA Press, released in 1981, was The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography, edited by Gatewood and the former chair of the UA department of history, Timothy Donovan. Also in 1981, Ellen Gilchrist’s short story collection, The Land of Dreamy Dreams, was published to critical acclaim. In 1982, the UA Press named its first editor, Stephanie Brown. Williams remained involved by managing the majority of new acquisitions.
The UA Press has suffered several setbacks through the years. A fire at the McIlroy House required staff to find temporary lodging in 1983. Another fire in 1987 at the warehouse destroyed a large number of books in storage there. Still, the UA Press continued to grow and in 1989 published the first computer-based state atlas in the country, The Electronic Atlas of Arkansas by Richard Smith.
By the 1990s, the UA Press had become one of the leading publishers of American poets, given the Williams DNA that infused it. Williams also secured a relationship with one of his friends, former President Jimmy Carter, who published several books through the UA Press, including An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections, and a reexamination of the 1980 Camp David Peace Accords titled The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East.
In 1998, the UA Press reorganized as a nonprofit following a battle with UA administrators, including newly-appointed Chancellor John White. They believed the press was a drain on the University pocketbook and wanted to cut it from the budget, which was effectively a death sentence for the operation. Gatewood rallied prominent Arkansans and promoted a publicity campaign to keep the press operating. White backed off his original stance that the UA Press did not add value to the University. Reorganization, along with an infusion of donations from individuals and corporations like Tyson Foods, ensured the UA Press would continue.
That summer, Lawrence Malley became the new UA Press director. Under his leadership, Middle East-themed works were added to the press’s extensive catalog. The newly-established King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies gave scholars an outlet for their research and translation projects.
After Williams retired from teaching at the University of Arkansas in 2007, his daughter, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, headlined a concert to support the newly created Miller Williams Poetry Series Prize. The UA Press publishes four poetry collections each year and awards the prize to one of the poets. UA Press also awards the Etel Adnan Poetry Series Prize for new collections from Arab American poets.
With the retirement of Malley in 2013, former assistant director Mike Bieker took the leadership role. Today the UA Press is a widely respected press. It publishes critically-acclaimed collections of poetry, works of fiction, and books about Arkansas, regional history and the Middle East. Nine unique series are included in the ongoing work of the press, and you can order directly from their website. Williams died in 2015, but thanks to his role in creating the UA Press, his legacy in literature lives on.
All photos used with permission.
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