Allan Kornblum, the wiry-haired, keen-minded founder of the internationally renowned Coffee House Press, died Sunday morning at his home in St. Paul. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2006 and stepped down as Coffee House publisher in 2011, though he continued to edit and consult.
"He just wanted to keep going," his wife, Cinda, said on Sunday. "He wanted to keep working, keep editing. He would never be finished, no matter how much time he had. He would never be done with everything he wanted to do."
Kornblum, 65, was a poet, an editor, a master of the letterpress, a scholar of the history of publishing, a passionate mentor and teacher, and, in his household, the resident cook. "He never cooked with less than six ingredients," Cinda said. "It was always something unusual. Even to the end, he swore he was going to cook one dish for Thanksgiving."
He was born in New York City and moved to Iowa City in 1970, where he studied letterpress printing "and kind of fell in love with the craft," Kornblum said in a 2012 interview with the Star Tribune. While in Iowa, he founded Toothpaste, a mimeographed poetry magazine, and Toothpaste Press, which published limited-edition letterpress chapbooks of poetry. "It was a little flip, and it was fun and informal, and that's the way I felt about things at first," he said. But eventually he grew aware of the limitations.
Drawn by the growing literary community in the Twin Cities, he and Cinda moved to Minnesota. In 1984 he launched Coffee House Press, which — along with New Rivers, Milkweed Editions and Graywolf — helped establish the Twin Cities as a center of high-quality nonprofit literary presses.
Kornblum was particularly interested in publishing women writers and writers of color, people "who write well, but who are crossing boundaries of form and culture," said Chris Fischbach, Coffee House publisher, who worked with Kornblum for 20 years.
Some of the authors Kornblum published over the years include Karen Tei Yamashita, Alexs Pate and Ron Padgett.
Padgett's "How Long" was a finalist for a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and his "Collected Poems" won a 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Yamashita's "I Hotel" was a finalist for a 2010 National Book Award.
"I was so blessed" to have Kornblum as an editor, Yamashita said in a telephone interview. "He had a hand in all of my books. He was always training in new folks, new editors, but I would always see his marks in the margins. He had a very light hand and a broad vision about everybody's work. I'm a part of a community of writers that he brought together over so many years.
"He was a presence. A big presence. And so wonderful."
Kornblum was well-known for his hand-set letterpress broadsides, which he freely gave away. "I love the challenge of taking a sentence or two and finding a way to arrange the type and maybe add a simple drawing and turn it into something special," he said.
He was "endlessly curious," Fischbach said. "He had a great desire to share his knowledge and to teach." His last letterpress chapbook was a poem by Andrei Codrescu, which Kornblum published with an intern. "He basically taught her the craft," Fischbach said. "It was very important to him, and for the rest of the staff to see — that is how you pass on knowledge and skills through the generations."
In 2012, Kornblum was honored with the Kay Sexton Award, which goes to someone who has devoted a life to the literary world in Minnesota. An affectionate slide show, which was shown at the Book Awards Gala, highlighted Kornblum's distinctive wiry gray hair.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Gwen Kornblum of St. Paul and Annabel Kornblum of Eagan.
Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Willwerscheid Funeral Home in St. Paul, with funeral services at 10 a.m. Saturday. A larger, public memorial will take place early next year. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials to Coffee House Press, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, or any leukemia charity.