Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Poet's passion turns out to be good business

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer greeted friends, including Colin  Watkins, right, during a five-year anniversary celebration earlier this month for Poezia, a poetry-writing group she started with Watkins.
Katerina Stoykova-Klemer greeted friends, including Colin Watkins, right, during a five-year anniversary celebration earlier this month for Poezia, a poetry-writing group she started with Watkins. Herald-Leader

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer already was a classic American success story.

Born in Bulgaria, she immigrated to the United States at age 24 with her young son and married her American pen pal, Daniel Klemer. She earned a bachelor's degree in computer science, then a master's in business administration. She became a software engineer for IBM, then a project manager for Lexmark International.

Increasingly, though, she felt something was missing in her life.

Then, on Dec. 20, 2006, while driving down a Lexington street, she realized what it was. A poem popped into her head. She pulled into a Kroger parking lot and wrote it down.

Stoykova-Klemer, 40, had begun writing poetry at age 8. She was published in Bulgaria, to some notice. But in her rush to build a new life in a new country, she had stopped writing. The poem that popped into her head was her first in 11 years and the first she had written in English.

"I suddenly had this feeling of joy and thought, 'I can't let go of this!' " she said. "The most important voices in our lives are often quiet ones."

A year later, Stoykova- Klemer quit her job at Lexmark, where her husband works as an engineer.

"Before I started writing again, my job was the most important thing I did; then it was just something I did," she said. "I realized that I didn't want to spend so much time doing something I am not passionate about."

Since her passion for poetry reignited, Stoykova-Klemer has been a ball of fire. She started a poetry group, earned a master's in fine arts from Louisville's Spalding University; taught classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning; and created Accents, a radio show about arts and culture that she hosts on WRFL-FM at 2 p.m. each Friday. She writes poetry and encourages dozens of other writers.

In 2010, she combined her business, technical and artistic skills to start Accents Publishing, which has produced 21 poetry books by 20 authors. Eight authors are Kentuckians, including well-known poets Richard Taylor and Frederick Smock.

"I think she is one of the most creative people in this town," said Neil Chethik, director of the Carnegie Center. "She has a combination of business sense and creative juice, and she is such a compassionate person.

"Her poetry is fantastic. Plus, she's trying to find a way to make literature and poetry marketable, to help other creative people make a living. She's exactly what Lexington needs."

Chethik watched Feb. 9 as more than 50 people came to the Carnegie Center to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Poezia. That is the writing group Stoykova-Klemer started with Colin Watkins, a poet and songwriter she met at a New Year's Eve party 11 days after her epiphany in the Kroger parking lot.

The writing group meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays at Common Grounds coffeehouse. New members are always welcome. Poezia got its name when a member asked Stoykova-Klemer the Bulgarian word for poetry.

At the anniversary celebration, Stoykova-Klemer announced she was stepping down as a leader of the group, in part to focus more time on Accents Publishing.

The company's most popular and profitable books are small "chapbooks." Making them is a family affair: Stoykova-Klemer prints and cuts them, and her husband binds them. Her son, Simeon Kondev, a student at Rhode Island School of Design, creates cover art.

Stoykova-Klemer handles distribution to stores from Kentucky to New York and New Hampshire. "They all know me at the post office," she said.

Chapbooks sell for $5. "What we found out is that people rarely buy just one," she said. Profits from chapbooks help support larger, professionally printed paperbacks that sell for $10 to $15.

"Our idea of affordable books seems to be working," she said. "They say poetry books don't sell, but our books sell. We keep selling more and more of them."

Accents Publishing sponsors an annual contest to find new authors. "We have had hundreds of people submit work," she said. The company covers all publication costs and pays authors by giving them 10 percent of the press run. Accents broke even its first year, and she expects a profit this year.

Stoykova-Klemer wants to keep growing the company — adding prose books and widening distribution — as long as it doesn't crowd out her writing time.

"I say the most important thing I can do for Accents Publishing is to keep writing," she said. "That keeps me centered for everything else."