Michael Koch, longtime editor of Cornell’s acclaimed literary magazine and a lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences’ creative writing program, died May 27 after a brief illness. He was 75 years old.
Recognized by colleagues for his wise, gentle presence and dedication to literature, Koch propelled fiction and poetry publisher Epoch to national prominence during his 34 years as editor, marking American Literature and helping to shape the Creative Writing Program. As a publisher who supervised and trained MFA students who served as associate editors of Epoch, Koch influenced writers who went on to publish best-selling and award-winning works of fiction and poetry.
“Michael Koch was goodness; an invaluable guide as an editor, writer, lecturer and friend to the legions of people whose lives he touched,” said Maureen McCoy, novelist and professor emeritus in the Department of English Literature (A&S). “His voice was soft but tinged with a practical Philadelphia spirit. His easy good humor might fly under the radar, unexpectedly, with zingers such as “the guy is all hat and no cattle.” Our world is diminished without Michael Koch walking in it.
Poet Ishion Hutchinson, Associate Professor of Literatures in English and Director of the Creative Writing Program, said: “Michael was an incredible colleague. How fortunate that we had the chance to work in the sphere of his quiet grace.
Koch believed that one of the publisher’s most important tasks was to create a forum for writers. “The publisher should be erased,” he told the Cornell Chronicle in an article marking Epoch’s 50th anniversary in 1997.
Koch joined Epoch in 1987 and became editor in 1989. The magazine flourished under his leadership, receiving the O. Henry Award for Best Magazine in 1997 – an honor given in other years to publications such as than the New Yorker.
Epoch published the early works of many now famous authors, including Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo. During Koch’s tenure as editor, works from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “The Interpreter of Diseases,” first appeared in Epoch, as did the poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa which later appeared in his Pulitzer Prize-winning collection. Epoch published a story by Denis Johnson later included in his classic “Jesus’ Son”.
Koch’s recognition of excellence in poetry and fiction came from a deep appreciation for the art form.
“Michael was first and foremost a reader whose reverence and affection for literature is almost impossible to properly assess,” said Donald Anderson, MFA ’89, director of creative writing at the US Air Force Academy. “Far more than taste, his literary judgments set a high standard for the journal he edited and the staff he oversaw. Each issue of Epoch was a newsworthy event for his many readers.
Former MFA students who served as associate editors of the magazine include National Book Award winner Susan Choi; Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize winner; and Téa Obreht, National Book Award finalist and Orange Award winner.
Koch has also shaped the work of individual writers as a creative writing teacher and academic advisor. He won the Robert A. and Donna B. Paul Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Counseling in 2004.
“Michael was a particularly effective leader of creative writing classes, especially fiction writing, with a unique focus and interest in flash fiction,” said Robert Morgan, Kappa Alpha (A&S) English teacher. “Erased, discreet, he treated the famous and the beginner with the same courtesy and the same respect. When he spoke, he said something worth listening to.
Says Lamar Herrin, novelist and Emeritus Professor of English Literature, “He brought all that friendliness and wisdom to Cornell’s creative writing program, especially the MFA program, helping to make it the preeminent program that it is. today, and by making Epoch magazine, when he was its editor, has become one of the best literary quarterly in the country.
For more than 20 years, Koch ran a summer writing and art studio in Rome with his wife, Stephanie Vaughn, a short-story writer and professor of English literature, and Stan Taft, professor emeritus of art at the College of architecture, art and planning. .
Michael Claude Koch was born in Philadelphia in 1947. He earned a degree in English from La Salle College (now University) in 1968 and later an MA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he met Vaughn, who is retiring June 30.
Koch had also planned to retire on June 30. Epoch turns 75 this year.
Koch is survived by Vaughn, four of his five siblings, and nieces and nephews.
Learn more here: https://as.cornell.edu/news/michael-koch-epoch-editor-remembered-quiet-grace
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.