Small Press Points: Mason Jar Press

Staff

Sometimes the best future is the one you don’t see coming. In 2014, when Michael B. Tager and Ian Anderson, classmates from the University of Baltimore MFA program, teamed up to self-publish Tager’s poetry chapbook, neither imagined building an independent press. But the pair enjoyed working together and steadily brought in new projects and team members, resulting in Mason Jar Press, which now boasts a catalogue of over twenty volumes of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and is operated by a staff of ten. Tager is the managing editor, and Anderson is the editor in chief and designer. “It’s been a wild ride, and we love it,” says Tager. Describing the business model of Mason Jar, which has remained in Baltimore, Tager says, “Much like our origin story, one thing leads to another. We’ll have an idea, or we will bring on a partner who wants to do a new thing, and we shrug and say, ‘Well, that sounds good. Let’s see where this goes.’” Readers will find more than thirty episodes of their podcast Lit!Pop!Bang! on the Mason Jar website, and the press publishes a literary journal, Jarnal, alongside two to five new titles a year in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Hybrid work is welcome, as exemplified by Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, which was published in 2018 and was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award.

Later this year Mason Jar will publish A Prayer for a Non-Religious Autistic, a book of poems with elements of memoir by Lucas Scheelk, and Lesser American Boys, a short story collection by Zach VandeZande. The team is most interested in work that is “accessible avant-garde.” Tager explains: “We want it to be a little weird, a little off, but not relegated to ivory-tower readers. We want everyone to enjoy it and be challenged at the same time, either by form or content.” Between April 15 and July 15, writers can submit to Mason Jar’s inaugural 1729 Book Prize in Prose, which will award $1,000 and publication and is open to manuscripts in most prose genres. The contest is supported by local indie the Ivy Bookshop and will be judged by Diane Zinna. There is no entry fee.

Small Press Points: Bitter Oleander Press

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Staff

2.16.22

Last year was a period of transition for Bitter Oleander Press, an independent publisher in Fayetteville, New York. After twenty-seven years of publication of the press’s celebrated biannual journal, the Bitter Oleander, editor and publisher Paul B. Roth sent the journal’s final issue to the printer in the fall and prepared to focus on Bitter Oleander’s books program. In this new phase the press will publish almost exclusively poetry in translation and is holding a no-fee open reading period through the end of March, expressing particular interest in manuscripts by “contemporary international poets whose work is either still unknown to an English-speaking audience or has hardly been published in translation.” It is an interest that is near and dear to Roth’s mission as a publisher, having consistently championed literature in translation through the press’s books and journal since its founding in 1974. “As an editor I’ve always wanted to present how our distinctive likenesses as humans mirror each other through the complexities of different languages,” says Roth.

The press publishes four to six books of poetry a year—typically “deep-image poetry, serious poetry, that doesn’t necessarily fall under the influence of any particular school or follow any formalized pattern of style.” Titles to be released in 2022 include a bilingual edition of Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008–2021), translated from the Italian by John Taylor, and Andrea Moorhead’s Tracing the Distance, an English-language collection that won the 2021 Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Award. To prospective Bitter Oleander authors and translators, Roth offers an invitation: “We’d like to consider more imaginative texts from translators whose poets take chances, who open doors that have previously had no keys.” 

 

 

Small Press Points: Black Ocean

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Staff

4.14.21

I wanted to create a press that would bring the attention of a major publishing house to quality and design and treat poetry as a genre with frontlist potential,” says Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean, an independent press based in Boston and Chicago whose striking volumes have been captivating readers for more than fifteen years. As an emerging poet with roots in the DIY zine scene, Stucky longed to see publishers more energized about the poetry titles on their lists. Together with two friends, Stucky founded Black Ocean in 2004 to address this need. “We set out with a strong, simple visual identity and attention to detail,” he says. “I think our belief and commitment in the work, and a little luck, helped us quickly build an enthusiastic and dedicated readership.”

Today Black Ocean publishes fiction, nonfiction, and literature in translation alongside its poetry titles. Its Moon Country series “aims to widen the field of contemporary Korean poetry available in English translation, but also to challenge orientalist, neocolonial, and national literature discourses,” and an essay collection series titled Undercurrents brings a poet’s “lyric attention to language” to the form. This year Black Ocean will release three works in translation, as well as Kristina Marie Darling’s Silent Refusal: Essays on Contemporary Feminist Writing, Nathan Hoks’s poetry collection Nests in Air, and Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords, vol. II. Because of the press’s focus on new voices, “many people simply seek out ‘the next Black Ocean book,’” says Stucky. “It’s incredible that people trust us to help them discover their next favorite poetry title.” Black Ocean accepts submissions year-round via e-mail and does not charge a reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Clash Books

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Staff

2.17.21

The titles of Clash Books are by turns Gothic and playful and nervy, but they all share one quality: They must be spellbinding. Based in Troy, New York, and founded as a media website that evolved into a book publisher in 2017, Clash Books issues about twenty titles a year, an eclectic mix of art books, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—“really, anything that excites us,” say editor in chief Leza Cantoral and managing editor Christoph Paul. “A big mission is to challenge genre expectations as well as to bring together a diversity of voices.”

This year the press will release titles as varied as Aaron Carnes’s pop-criticism apologia In Defense of Ska and Kevin Sampsell’s collage and poetry book I Made an Accident, alongside literary fiction and “a novel about waterfall goddesses, a trans fairy tale young adult novella, lots of fun and dark poetry, and some quality literary horror,” say the editors. Paul says he knows he has found the next Clash book when reading a submission if he has that “feeling you get when you hear a new song that you have to listen to again right away.” He adds, “I know it’s the next book when the middle is as strong as the beginning.” Clash is open for submissions year-round via e-mail and does not charge a reading fee. 

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

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Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

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Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

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Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

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Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

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Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

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Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

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Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: Acre Books

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Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

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Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

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Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

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Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

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Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

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Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: 7.13 Books

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Staff

6.13.18

July 13 holds special importance for writer and publisher Leland Cheuk. Not only is it the day that, in 2014, he found out his life had been saved by a successful bone marrow transplant from a stranger, but it’s also the day that his first novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was picked up by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Two years later, on the same day, Thought Catalog sent him an offer for his first story collection, Letters From Dinosaurs. So when Cheuk decided to start his own small press in 2016, he didn’t hesitate to name it 7.13 Books (713books.com). Publishing four to five fiction titles a year from debut writers, the press seeks to offer “a publishing experience that’s respectful to and even reverent of first-time authors.” Cheuk wants the press, which is located in New York City, to avoid the pitfalls of both traditional publishing houses—which he describes as elitist and at risk of publishing the same kinds of books—and indie presses, which he admits are often understaffed and unresponsive. Cheuk replies to each submission within four to eight weeks and offers brief constructive feedback even for those he rejects. The writing—not a writer’s pedigree—matters to him most. In July, 7.13 Books will publish Willie Davis’s Nightwolf, about a seventeen-year-old dropout whose brother has gone missing, and in the fall the press will release Jenn Stroud Rossmann’s The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, about a working-class family in California’s Silicon Valley. Cheuk says both novels have wit and humor, noting that his own taste leans toward literary comedies. Submissions of story collections and novels are open until November 1 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Bottlecap Press

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Staff

4.11.18

“To put it in Hollywood terms,” says Bottlecap Press (bottlecap.press) founder and editor C. A. Mullins, “we think of ourselves more as producers than directors.” Established in Skagway, Alaska, in 2014, the self-described “millennial publishing outfit,” now based in central Missouri, is dedicated to putting its authors first by allowing them more creative control over their books.“Our philosophy is that we’re the ones working for the authors, not the other way around,” says Mullins. The press, which publishes one to two chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction every month, offers editorial and design guidance more as “suggestions rather than mandates,” says Mullins. The resulting books, hand-printed by the editors, are diverse in design and aesthetic. Recent and forthcoming titles include Sarah Kennedy’s debut poetry collection, How to Find a Husband (April) and Andrew Duncan Worthington’s story collection A Very Small Forest Fire (June). In addition to traditional books, Bottlecap Press also welcomes mixed-media work: Kennedy’s collection, for example, incorporates photographs from her parents’ personal archives and is part of a larger performance project in conversation with Wendy Stehling’s 1985 book, How to Find a Husband in 30 Days. Mullins also plans to launch digital multimedia projects in the future, including a YouTube channel that will feature poetry, music, film, storytelling, performance art, and animation, and the editors have recently begun looking for artists to illustrate some of the press’s older chapbooks. The press accepts submissions in poetry, fiction, art, and video year-round via e-mail at bottlecappress@gmail.com.

Small Press Points: Gold Wake Press

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Staff

2.14.18

Every small press faces the choice of whether or not to charge submission fees, which can help keep a press afloat but can also exclude writers who don’t have the money to submit. Some publishers, such as Atelier26, Sundress Publications, and Gold Wake Press (goldwake.com), offer an alternative: A writer can submit a manuscript after purchasing a book from the press’s catalogue. While the cost of purchasing a book will surely still prohibit some writers from submitting, the model not only ensures that writers will get something in return for their submissions, but that they will be more familiar with the press’s aesthetic before sending their work. “We found the usual model of requiring a submission fee to be unethical,” says Nick Courtright, who runs Gold Wake Press with writer Kyle McCord. “We’d also heard so many stories of presses not really doing much to sell books once they were published, as if the whole point of the press enterprise was not to sell books but to elicit submission fees. Because we want to support our authors, this is a great way to get their books into the hands of prospective readers.” Located in Austin, Texas, and Des Moines, the press publishes about eight titles a year across genres. “We’ve done crazy poetry books, serious poetry books, novels, illustrated memoirs, short story collections, and flash fiction,” says Courtright. The editors look for work that combines “daring content with meticulous attention to form.” Recent titles, such as Erin Stalcup’s novel, Every Living Species, and Frances Cannon’s graphic memoir, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, have blurred the line between image and word, while others, such as Glenn Shaheen’s short story collection, Carnivalia, have combined poetry and prose. In the fall the press launched a triannual journal, Gold Wake Live, which is open for submissions in all genres year-round via Submittable. For those who have purchased a Gold Wake Press title, the press is open to full-length manuscripts via Submittable from March 1 to April 15.

Small Press Points: Saddle Road Press

by

Staff

12.13.17

On a plateau at the center of the island of Hawai’i, Saddle Road runs between two nearly fourteen-thousand-foot volcanoes, one of which is active. “It is a strange, isolated, and terribly beautiful land of black lava and vast light,” says Ruth Thompson, the publisher of Saddle Road Press (saddleroadpress.com), founded in Hilo, Hawai’i, in 2011. A similar description might apply to the style of work that Thompson and her team of editors look to publish at Saddle Road Press. Michael Collins’s poetry collection Appearances (November 2017), for example, is a meditation on nature not as “some place you visit / some museum to nostalgia through,” but rather, Thompson says, as “a place of meeting and confrontation between nature and civilization, art and subject, consciousness and the unconscious, life and death.” Jessamyn Smith’s hybrid prose and poetry collection Gilgamesh/Wilderness (March 2018), a follow-up to her 2016 novel-in-stories The Inugami Mochi, addresses mythology, nature, and grief. Gillian Barlow’s essay collection, Nomad’s Home (February 2018), “interweaves the author’s experience in designing aboriginal housing with the ancient Japanese text ki, aikido, thoughts on the idea of ‘house,’ a long-buried family secret, Australian bars, racism, and the idea of translation,” says Thompson. The press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, though the editors are specifically seeking collections of lyric essays and hybrid prose and poetry. The editors also plan to launch a chapbook series of work from or about islands in the Pacific. Submissions of full-length manuscripts are open until January 31 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Holy Cow! Press

by

Staff

8.16.17

The name Holy Cow! Press, complete with exclamation point, came to publisher Jim Perlman in a dream. Forty years ago that dream became an independent press, which today boasts a catalogue of more than 125 poetry collections, novels, story collections, memoirs, biographies, and anthologies. Perlman, who runs the press out of his home in Duluth, Minnesota, is committed to publishing the work of writers living in the Midwest, a “territory traditionally ignored by larger indie publishers,” he says. The press has published the work of writers such as Minnesota poet laureate Joyce Sutphen, poet Louis Jenkins, young adult writer Jane Yolen, and the late Brenda Ueland. Holy Cow! Press releases three to five books each year, 40 percent of which Perlman estimates are poetry collections. To celebrate the press’s fortieth anniversary this year, Perlman has organized readings in Duluth; in October the press will also participate in the Iowa City Book Festival and the Twin Cities Book Festival, where Rain Taxi will hold a tribute event for the press with readings, a Q&A, and a book signing. Holy Cow! Press will also publish two new titles this fall: Subtle Variations and Other Stories (October) by Minneapolis author Miriam Karmel and Winds & Currents (November), a book of retold and illustrated Native American stories by Duluth author and artist Joan Henrik. Submissions are open year-round; send a query via e-mail or postal mail.

 

Small Press Points: Sibling Rivalry Press

by

Staff

2.15.17

“Our mission is to publish work that disturbs and enraptures,” says Bryan Borland, publisher of the Little Rock, Arkansas–based Sibling Rivalry Press (siblingrivalrypress.com). “The press has always positioned itself as a stage and a microphone for anyone who is ‘other’…. Any time we’ve been tempted to move toward more mainstream projects, the world has always had a way of reminding us that our purpose is to build bridges. I know firsthand that when you find someone whose voice makes you feel less alone, it can save your life.” Since founding Sibling Rivalry Press in 2010, Borland has consistently delivered on that mission. He and editor Seth Pennington have championed the work of many LGBTQIA authors, publishing the early work of up-and-coming poets such as Ocean Vuong, sam sax, Christopher Soto, and Saeed Jones, and also recently launched the Undocupoets Fellowship, given to undocumented or previously undocumented poets, to help defray the cost of poetry-related submission fees. And in January the press published If You Can Hear This: Poetry in Protest of an American Inauguration, an anthology of work by seventy poets responding to the recent presidential election. The press also publishes three literary magazines: Adrienne, a journal of poetry by queer women; Assaracus, a journal of poetry by gay men; and Callisto, a journal of queer fiction. The press recently published Kaveh Akbar’s chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, and will also put out books from poets Franny Choi and Sarah Browning later this year. While Borland and Pennington publish work mostly by LGBTQIA authors and focus primarily on poetry, they are open to work of all genres from writers of all identities and sexual orientations. Manuscripts of any length can be submitted from March 1 through June 1.

Small Press Points: Aunt Lute Books

by

Staff

6.14.17

We’ve been publishing revolutionary queer women of color for thirty-five years,” write the editors of Aunt Lute Books on their website, “and we don’t plan to stop any time soon.” Editors Barb Wieser and Joan Pinkvoss founded Aunt Lute in Iowa City in 1982 to create opportunities for writers who they believed were excluded from mainstream publishing and feminism in the eighties. They have since published more than fifty books by over thirty writers, nearly all women of color, including feminist activists and writers Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Judy Grahn. The press has also published several anthologies of work by marginalized communities, including Filipina and Filipina American writers (Babaylan, 2000) and South Asian women in the United States (Our Feet Walk the Sky, 1993). Now based in San Francisco, the nonprofit press publishes two to four books each year of mostly fiction and nonfiction. Forthcoming titles include a reprint of Juliana Delgado Lopera’s Cuéntamelo: Oral Histories by LGBT Latino Immigrants in the fall and a critical edition of Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza next spring. Although the editors are particularly interested in work by queer women of color, submissions of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by women of all backgrounds (to be considered for inclusion in future anthologies) are open year-round via postal mail. 

Small Press Points: Twisted Road Publications

by

Staff

4.12.17

The whole truth requires complex, multilayered stories,” says Joan Leggitt, publisher of Twisted Road Publications, “and not just stories relating the known world as the author sees it, but also stories of what might be, as we imagine our best and worst selves.” Guided by this principle, Leggitt founded Twisted Road in 2014 with the financial backing of a friend who was going through the final stages of a terminal illness. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, the press publishes three to four titles of fiction and nonfiction each year. Leggitt, who has worked as a book distributor and editor, finds few books challenge mainstream culture, and says Twisted Road favors “books that depict the shadowy places where the disenfranchised dwell.” She adds: “It seems as though corporate media is convinced that no one wants to hear from people with lower incomes and less education because it is generally assumed they have nothing interesting to say, nothing to teach us.” The press has published books that push against that stereotype, including Connie May Fowler’s memoir A Million Fragile Bones (April) about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010; Tricia Booker’s memoir, The Place of Peace and Crickets (March), about her experience adopting children from Asia and Central America; and James Carpenter’s novel, No Place to Pray (September 2016), about two homeless alcoholics. Twisted Road is currently open to submissions via e-mail (submissions@twistedroadpublications.com). 

Small Press Points: Phoneme Media

After noticing that a lot of exciting international literature wasn’t reaching English-language readers—particularly books from lesser-known countries like Burundi and Mongolia, and those written in languages like Isthmus Zapotec and Uyghur—translators David Shook and Brian Hewes decided to do something about it. In 2013 they launched Phoneme Media (phonememedia.org), a nonprofit publisher “dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding, connecting people and ideas through translated books and films.”  Phoneme MediaBased in Los Angeles and funded by PEN Center USA, the press publishes twelve books of translated poetry and fiction each year, and also produces literary films—video poems, paratextual films, and short documentaries—that feature the press’s authors and translators. A look at just two months’ worth of Phoneme titles is a trip across several continents: In December the press released Smooth-Talking Dog, a poetry collection by Mexican writer Roberto Castillo Udiarte—also known as “the Godfather of Tijuana’s counterculture”—translated from the Spanish by Anthony Seidman. Richard Ali A Mutu’s novel Mr. Fix-It, translated from the Lingala language of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Bienvenu Sene Mongaba and Sara Sene, was also released in December. This month the press publishes its first Icelandic translation, Cold Moons by Magnús Sigursson, translated by Meg Matich; as well as The Conspiracy, a thriller by exiled Venezuelan novelist Israel Centeno, translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Parra. The Conspiracy is the second book in Phoneme’s City of Asylum series, which features works by exiled writers receiving sanctuary in the United States. Phoneme’s general submissions are open year-round, and can be sent via e-mail to submissions@phonememedia.org. The press is particularly interested in books by women and those translated from non-Indo-European languages.

Small Press Points: Platypus Press

by

Staff

10.11.17

When Michelle Tudor and Peter Barnfather started Platypus Press in 2015, they considered themselves a bit of an odd fit, since neither had worked at a press or published much of their own work. But with a love of reading and a willingness to improvise and learn on the job, the pair launched the independent press to “unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.” Two years later, Platypus Press has already released more than a dozen books, launched the online literary journal Wildness, and published a chapbook series through which it put out a poetry chapbook every day for twenty-four days. The press publishes mostly poetry but also nonfiction and fiction—next year Tudor says Platypus will make its “first proper lunge into the world of fiction” with a series of digital-only stories from five thousand to fifteen thousand words each. Based in Shropshire, England, Platypus mostly publishes writers from the United States and United Kingdom but has also released books by authors from Singapore, New Zealand, and India. The press’s first titles showcased the work of younger poets, many of whom are active on Tumblr, but Tudor and Barnfather have since expanded their catalogue. “As a press we are interested in all aspects of a poet’s career,” says Tudor. “We believe in giving a voice to poets at all stages of their writing journey.” Recent titles show this range, such as Shuly Cawood’s debut memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and a book of selected poems by L. G. Corey, who has been writing poetry for more than seventy years. In November Platypus will release A Portrait in Blues: Poems of the Body, an anthology that explores gender, identity, and the nature of the body. Submissions of full-length manuscripts and stories for the digital fiction shorts series are open year-round via e-mail.

Small Press Points: Platypus Press

by

Staff

10.11.17

When Michelle Tudor and Peter Barnfather started Platypus Press in 2015, they considered themselves a bit of an odd fit, since neither had worked at a press or published much of their own work. But with a love of reading and a willingness to improvise and learn on the job, the pair launched the independent press to “unearth innovative contemporary poetry and prose from a broad variety of voices and experiences.” Two years later, Platypus Press has already released more than a dozen books, launched the online literary journal Wildness, and published a chapbook series through which it put out a poetry chapbook every day for twenty-four days. The press publishes mostly poetry but also nonfiction and fiction—next year Tudor says Platypus will make its “first proper lunge into the world of fiction” with a series of digital-only stories from five thousand to fifteen thousand words each. Based in Shropshire, England, Platypus mostly publishes writers from the United States and United Kingdom but has also released books by authors from Singapore, New Zealand, and India. The press’s first titles showcased the work of younger poets, many of whom are active on Tumblr, but Tudor and Barnfather have since expanded their catalogue. “As a press we are interested in all aspects of a poet’s career,” says Tudor. “We believe in giving a voice to poets at all stages of their writing journey.” Recent titles show this range, such as Shuly Cawood’s debut memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and a book of selected poems by L. G. Corey, who has been writing poetry for more than seventy years. In November Platypus will release A Portrait in Blues: Poems of the Body, an anthology that explores gender, identity, and the nature of the body. Submissions of full-length manuscripts and stories for the digital fiction shorts series are open year-round via e-mail.

Small Press Points: Saddle Road Press

by

Staff

12.13.17

On a plateau at the center of the island of Hawai’i, Saddle Road runs between two nearly fourteen-thousand-foot volcanoes, one of which is active. “It is a strange, isolated, and terribly beautiful land of black lava and vast light,” says Ruth Thompson, the publisher of Saddle Road Press (saddleroadpress.com), founded in Hilo, Hawai’i, in 2011. A similar description might apply to the style of work that Thompson and her team of editors look to publish at Saddle Road Press. Michael Collins’s poetry collection Appearances (November 2017), for example, is a meditation on nature not as “some place you visit / some museum to nostalgia through,” but rather, Thompson says, as “a place of meeting and confrontation between nature and civilization, art and subject, consciousness and the unconscious, life and death.” Jessamyn Smith’s hybrid prose and poetry collection Gilgamesh/Wilderness (March 2018), a follow-up to her 2016 novel-in-stories The Inugami Mochi, addresses mythology, nature, and grief. Gillian Barlow’s essay collection, Nomad’s Home (February 2018), “interweaves the author’s experience in designing aboriginal housing with the ancient Japanese text ki, aikido, thoughts on the idea of ‘house,’ a long-buried family secret, Australian bars, racism, and the idea of translation,” says Thompson. The press publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, though the editors are specifically seeking collections of lyric essays and hybrid prose and poetry. The editors also plan to launch a chapbook series of work from or about islands in the Pacific. Submissions of full-length manuscripts are open until January 31 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Gold Wake Press

by

Staff

2.14.18

Every small press faces the choice of whether or not to charge submission fees, which can help keep a press afloat but can also exclude writers who don’t have the money to submit. Some publishers, such as Atelier26, Sundress Publications, and Gold Wake Press (goldwake.com), offer an alternative: A writer can submit a manuscript after purchasing a book from the press’s catalogue. While the cost of purchasing a book will surely still prohibit some writers from submitting, the model not only ensures that writers will get something in return for their submissions, but that they will be more familiar with the press’s aesthetic before sending their work. “We found the usual model of requiring a submission fee to be unethical,” says Nick Courtright, who runs Gold Wake Press with writer Kyle McCord. “We’d also heard so many stories of presses not really doing much to sell books once they were published, as if the whole point of the press enterprise was not to sell books but to elicit submission fees. Because we want to support our authors, this is a great way to get their books into the hands of prospective readers.” Located in Austin, Texas, and Des Moines, the press publishes about eight titles a year across genres. “We’ve done crazy poetry books, serious poetry books, novels, illustrated memoirs, short story collections, and flash fiction,” says Courtright. The editors look for work that combines “daring content with meticulous attention to form.” Recent titles, such as Erin Stalcup’s novel, Every Living Species, and Frances Cannon’s graphic memoir, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank, have blurred the line between image and word, while others, such as Glenn Shaheen’s short story collection, Carnivalia, have combined poetry and prose. In the fall the press launched a triannual journal, Gold Wake Live, which is open for submissions in all genres year-round via Submittable. For those who have purchased a Gold Wake Press title, the press is open to full-length manuscripts via Submittable from March 1 to April 15.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: Bottlecap Press

by

Staff

4.11.18

“To put it in Hollywood terms,” says Bottlecap Press (bottlecap.press) founder and editor C. A. Mullins, “we think of ourselves more as producers than directors.” Established in Skagway, Alaska, in 2014, the self-described “millennial publishing outfit,” now based in central Missouri, is dedicated to putting its authors first by allowing them more creative control over their books.“Our philosophy is that we’re the ones working for the authors, not the other way around,” says Mullins. The press, which publishes one to two chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction every month, offers editorial and design guidance more as “suggestions rather than mandates,” says Mullins. The resulting books, hand-printed by the editors, are diverse in design and aesthetic. Recent and forthcoming titles include Sarah Kennedy’s debut poetry collection, How to Find a Husband (April) and Andrew Duncan Worthington’s story collection A Very Small Forest Fire (June). In addition to traditional books, Bottlecap Press also welcomes mixed-media work: Kennedy’s collection, for example, incorporates photographs from her parents’ personal archives and is part of a larger performance project in conversation with Wendy Stehling’s 1985 book, How to Find a Husband in 30 Days. Mullins also plans to launch digital multimedia projects in the future, including a YouTube channel that will feature poetry, music, film, storytelling, performance art, and animation, and the editors have recently begun looking for artists to illustrate some of the press’s older chapbooks. The press accepts submissions in poetry, fiction, art, and video year-round via e-mail at bottlecappress@gmail.com.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: 7.13 Books

by

Staff

6.13.18

July 13 holds special importance for writer and publisher Leland Cheuk. Not only is it the day that, in 2014, he found out his life had been saved by a successful bone marrow transplant from a stranger, but it’s also the day that his first novel, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, was picked up by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography. Two years later, on the same day, Thought Catalog sent him an offer for his first story collection, Letters From Dinosaurs. So when Cheuk decided to start his own small press in 2016, he didn’t hesitate to name it 7.13 Books (713books.com). Publishing four to five fiction titles a year from debut writers, the press seeks to offer “a publishing experience that’s respectful to and even reverent of first-time authors.” Cheuk wants the press, which is located in New York City, to avoid the pitfalls of both traditional publishing houses—which he describes as elitist and at risk of publishing the same kinds of books—and indie presses, which he admits are often understaffed and unresponsive. Cheuk replies to each submission within four to eight weeks and offers brief constructive feedback even for those he rejects. The writing—not a writer’s pedigree—matters to him most. In July, 7.13 Books will publish Willie Davis’s Nightwolf, about a seventeen-year-old dropout whose brother has gone missing, and in the fall the press will release Jenn Stroud Rossmann’s The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, about a working-class family in California’s Silicon Valley. Cheuk says both novels have wit and humor, noting that his own taste leans toward literary comedies. Submissions of story collections and novels are open until November 1 via Submittable.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

by

Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: BatCat Press

by

Staff

8.15.18

“In the beginning BatCat was truly an experiment,” says Deanna Baringer, the managing editor and supervising teacher of BatCat Press. “I didn’t know if high school kids would be capable of, let alone interested in, publishing and bookmaking.” Nearly ten years later BatCat is no longer an experiment but a full-fledged indie press run by a group of about ten students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, Pennsylvania. The students do all the editing, printing, and binding by hand and publish two or three books per year, mostly poetry with some fiction and nonfiction titles, by debut and established writers alike. In June the press released Dustin Nightingale’s poetry chapbook, Ghost Woodpecker—which Baringer calls a “terse but punchy collection”—that was printed entirely via a handset letterpress, and Jessica Poli’s poetry collection Canyons. “The poems are quirky little lines that stick with you and make you think,” says Alexa Bocek, a BatCat editor from the class of 2019. The students work together to select the final manuscripts, a process they approach with great care. “Not only does it come down to whether or not the piece is good, but a lot of it is also whether it works for our audience and if there are aspects we can draw from to create design elements,” says Sarah Bett, who graduated in the spring. “Going through hundreds of manuscripts, it could become easy to just skim them and quickly decide that you didn’t like it. I had to grow more patient and able to look at each piece through a new perspective.” BatCat is open to submissions of full-length and chapbook-length manuscripts in any genre year-round via Submittable, though the editors read mostly in the fall. There is no age minimum to submit.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

by

Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: Unicorn Press

by

Staff

10.10.18

After four years as an apprentice at poetry publisher Unicorn Press, Andrew Saulters took the reins from Alan Brilliant in 2016, fifty years after Brilliant founded the press in Santa Barbara, California. Saulters, who edits and binds the press’s books himself in Greensboro, North Carolina, seeks to carry on the editorial vision of Brilliant and his longtime partner, Teo Savory, who died in 1989. “I’ve tried to follow Al’s editorial spirit in looking at publishing as a way that work enters the cultural commons,” says Saulters. “It’s not enough that the publisher like the work, but the work should also add something to what is already available to readers.” Unicorn Press publishes four to six books of poetry each year, at least two of which are full-length collections, and counts Robert Bly and Muriel Rukeyser among its many authors. The press recently published a haiku collection by the Carolina African American Writers Collective, One Window’s Light, edited by Lenard D. Moore, and in November will release Lynn Otto’s first book, Real Daughter, and Wayne Johns’s Antipsalms. Otto and Johns were selected from the press’s first-book competition, held annually in the spring; the press is open to general submissions of full-length and chapbook-length poetry collections from October through December.

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Spork Press

by

Staff

12.12.18

“To feature the work that amazed us,” Richard Siken says when asked why he and Drew Burk started the literary magazine Spork in 2000. “A parallel goal was to show that it was possible to start and run a magazine, and eventually a press, without external or institutional support and to maybe start chipping away at the notions of gates and gatekeepers. If you’re not asking for money or permission, then nobody can tell you no.” For the past nineteen years Siken and Burk have thus forged their own path through the literary landscape and in 2010, with the help of Jake Levine, Andrew Shuta, and Joel Smith, expanded the magazine into Spork Press, which now publishes chapbooks and full-length books of poetry and fiction. The editors, who are “invested in voice-driven work that evokes rather than recounts,” make all the press’s books by hand in Tucson, Arizona. “We’re looking for narrators that inhabit and enact,” the editors say on the website. “We want speakers that can render their investment in the subject matter.” Spork has published books of poetry by Kazim Ali, Sophia Le Fraga, and Ariana Reines, as well as books of fiction by Casey Hannan, Kathleen Rooney, and Colin Winnette. Recent titles include Jennifer Juneau’s novel, ÜberChef USA, and two poetry collections, Rae Gouirand’s Glass Is Glass Water Is Water and David Welch’s Everyone Who Is Dead. Looking ahead, the editors are experimenting with new production techniques—blind stamping, full-bleed wraparound covers, and designs that use overlapping transparent inks, for example—and are considering printing machine-made editions to meet demand. Spork will be open for submissions in the summer.

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: Acre Books

by

Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: BOAAT Press

by

Staff

2.13.19

When poet Sean Shearer started BOAAT Press in 2014, he wanted to combine his two loves: poetry and book arts. “Our aim was to create something beautiful as well as meaningful by publishing emerging writers and housing their words inside our signature books,” says managing editor Catherine Bresner, who joined the staff in 2015. That signature style is part of what has set BOAAT apart from the beginning: The press’s first titles, all chapbooks made from materials such as banana peels, seaweed, Spanish moss, cotton linters, and construction paper, resemble tidal waves, the seashore, or other nautical scenes. The editors even constructed some books out of wood to look like miniature docks, complete with fishing net and seashells. “These books don’t belong on bookshelves,” writes Shearer on the press’s website. “They belong out in the open, plopped on desks and coffee tables to turn heads and wow anyone in the room.” Today, in addition to handmade books, BOAAT publishes one traditionally bound chapbook and up to two full-length books each year through its two annual contests. The press also publishes BOAAT Journal, edited by poet sam sax, which has published up-and-coming poets including Cortney Lamar Charleston, Jameson Fitzpatrick, Emily Skaja, and Chelsea Dingman. The press’s forthcoming titles include Alison Stagner’s The Thing That Brought the Shadow Here, which Nick Flynn selected as winner of the 2018 book prize, and Alycia Pirmohamed’s Faces That Fled the Wind, which Camille Rankine chose as winner of the 2018 chapbook prize. Submissions to BOAAT Journal are open year-round; submissions for both the chapbook prize and book prize are open during the month of April.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

by

Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: Acre Books

by

Staff

8.14.19

As the founding editor of the Cincinnati Review, Nicola Mason has a strong track record of spotting talented writers early in their careers. Under her leadership the review published the early work of fiction writers Caitlin Horrocks and Jamie Quatro and poets Jill Osier and Mai Der Vang. As Mason explained to Cincinnati magazine in June, after watching these writers and other contributors go on to win prestigious prizes and publish books, she thought, “We’re becoming talent scouts for everyone else; why can’t we become talent scouts for ourselves?”

So in 2017 Mason founded Acre Books, an imprint of the University of Cincinnati Press, where, along with poetry series editor Lisa Ampleman, she publishes two poetry collections, two novels, and two story collections each year. The press also welcomes hybrid forms. “I’ve always felt the boundaries separating genres and disciplines to be artificial,” says Mason. “Why shake one’s finger at innovation?” Mason also hopes to publish literary nonfiction but hasn’t yet found a book that’s the right fit. “I find a lot of creative nonfiction has an ‘all about me’ quality,” she says. “We want work that is grounded in self but that travels beyond it.” In October, Acre will publish Faylita Hicks’s poetry debut, HoodWitch, which Mason describes as “an absolute knockout full of power, pain, beauty, and magick.” Submissions in all genres are open via the press’s website; writers should include a brief description of the manuscript and ten sample pages. There is no reading fee.

 

 

Small Press Points: Cooper Dillon Books

by

Staff

6.12.19

A poem can exist in a specific cultural or emotional moment, but it can also sustain and be revisited over and over again,” says poet Adam Deutsch, the publisher of Cooper Dillon Books (www.cooperdillon.com), a ten-year-old press dedicated to “the values that make poetry timeless.” Deutsch and assistant editor Christine Bryant Cohen run the press from San Diego and Seattle, publishing one or two books a year. So far they have released six full-length poetry collections and eight chapbooks by writers such as Jill Alexander Essbaum, Melody S. Gee, and William Matthews.

Cooper Dillon’s most recent titles are Linda Dove’s chapbook Fearn (2019), a meditation on fear, and Mónica Gomery’s debut collection, Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (2018), which Lillian-Yvonne Bertram says is “an exquisite study in the suddenness of numbered days and the radiant pain of living with love ‘tumbling forth.’” The press eschews contests and instead welcomes submissions year-round via Submittable with a $10 reading fee, which is waived if you purchase one of the press’s titles. Deutsch believes standard book-contest entry fees, typically $20 or $25, are too high and prefers the press to “remain open for when a writer feels that the time is right to submit.” He adds, “We see poetry as community, not competition.”

Small Press Points: BkMk Press

by

Staff

4.10.19

In the hardscrabble world of small presses, a ten-year anniversary is a major achievement, so BkMk Press, which is approaching its fiftieth, has much to celebrate. Founded in 1971 as an outlet for Midwestern writers, the press first published poetry chapbooks out of a local branch of the Johnson County Library in Kansas. Today BkMk’s office is located at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where editor in chief Robert Stewart also oversees the press’s affiliated magazine, New Letters, and the radio show New Letters on the Air. BkMk annually releases about six full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction; it has published more than eighty titles by local, national, and international writers. “Book publishing continues to be dominated by the East Coast, but BkMk gives Missouri and the Midwest a seat at the publishing table,” says managing editor Ben Furnish. In July BkMk will publish Lorraine M. López’s story collection Postcards From the Gerund State, and in the fall it will release Beverly Burch’s poetry collection Latter Days of Eve and Jennifer Wisner Kelly’s story collection, Stone Skimmers. In honor of BkMk’s origins as a chapbook publisher, the editors plan to launch a chapbook competition in 2020. The press currently hosts two other annual contests: the John Ciardi Prize and the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize, given for a poetry collection and a story collection, respectively. Both competitions open on June 1 and include a $1,000 prize and publication. General submissions are open via Submittable and postal mail until June 30.

 

 

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

by

Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Unnamed Press

by

Staff

10.9.19

Unnamed Press is an object lesson in thinking globally, acting locally. C. P. Heiser and Olivia Taylor Smith, two former staffers at the Los Angeles Review of Books, founded the press in 2014, drawing inspiration from the flourishing independent publishing scene in L.A.—and a sense that there was more work to do. “We saw that we could bring something different to the table, particularly through our initial focus on international voices and debut authors,” says Smith. Today the press publishes ten to twelve books each year, about half fiction and half nonfiction. Notable recent titles include Adam Popescu’s Nima (2019), in which a young Sherpa woman disguised as a man leads journalists to the foot of Mount Everest, and Man Booker Prize–winning translator Jennifer Croft’s memoir of sisterhood, Homesick (2019). Esmé Weijun Wang’s debut novel, The Border of Paradise (2016), remains a best-seller.

What does it take to curate such a dynamic, international list? “We travel a lot!” says Heiser. Favorite venues for connecting with new talent include the Dhaka Lit Fest in Bangladesh, the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the American Literary Translators Association’s annual conference. “We are a story-driven press that’s attracted to underrepresented or marginalized voices—not as a rule, but simply because, as editors, that’s what excites us,” says Heiser, pointing to Nima and The Border of Paradise as good examples. “Both explore important issues through some really surprising and refreshing points of view, which for lots of reasons bigger publishers found too challenging or risky.” Unnamed Press accepts queries and submissions via e-mail, and is open year-round.

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

by

Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: Trembling Pillow Press

by

Staff

12.11.19

Poetry can change your life, and it doesn’t happen on the page; it happens in the rooms and places where poetry connects you to people who change how you are in the world,” says Megan Burns, publisher of Trembling Pillow Press in New Orleans. This sense of poetry as a means of community animates all of the press’s work. Trembling Pillow was established in the late nineties with an initial focus on making broadsides and occasional chapbooks but turned to producing full-length poetry books in 2006. Today Trembling Pillow publishes four or five poetry titles a year, about half of which are debut collections.

Burns approaches these editorial collaborations with first-time authors with particular care. “I am giving someone an experience that becomes the basis for future relationships in the writing world, and I want them to have a high bar,” she says, noting the years of devoted work that goes into a project before it ever reaches the press and a publisher’s obligation to treat a work with that same devotion. Trembling Pillow’s sensibility is eclectic—its titles vary from “feminist manifesto to punk rock memoir to collaborative eco-poetics to lyrical experimentation or rural horror manifestations”—but its poets share a willingness to take risks and to surprise. Among the press’s 2020 titles are Marty Cain’s The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir, a hybrid text that mines the experiences of the author’s adolescence in Vermont; Erin M. Bertram’s It’s Not a Lonely World, about queerness and cancer; and Jenny Sadre-Orafai and Anne Champion’s Book of Levitations, a “modern-day poetic spell book.” Trembling Pillow is open for submissions year-round via Submittable; a $15 reading fee goes directly into producing more books and is waived in the month of December.

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

by

Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: The Cupboard Pamphlet

by

Staff

2.12.20

Consider the Cupboard Pamphlet your source for misfit books. “The Cupboard Pamphlet was formed to address the lack of publishing venues for prose chapbooks that are formally strange or conceptually bizarre,” say editors Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook. Founded in 2008 by Adam Peterson and Dave Madden, the press originally printed free, anonymous pamphlets and evolved to concentrate on single-authored chapbooks. “The first of these were tape-bound, designed to be inexpensive and mobile—pocketable,” say Seabrook and Dulaney. Today this feeling of experiment and nerve continues to guide the press as it publishes four prose chapbooks a year by authors including Chanelle Benz, Brian Evenson, and Courtney Maum. Most of these works are thirty to seventy pages in length, although Dulaney and Seabrook avoid placing strictures on submissions.

“We like works that provide play and surprise in terms of form, structure, and language in addition to a sense of emotional sincerity,” they say. Seabrook is based in Cleveland, and Dulaney in Denver; they collaborate via phone calls and e-mail. Dulaney relishes one-on-one work with authors, while Seabrook “enjoys the physicality of the chapbook—designing it, printing it, and seeing it develop on the page.” All of the titles produced by the Cupboard Pamphlet are selected through an annual online contest with a submission fee of $20; the 2020 contest will run March 1 through May 1. This year Cupboard will publish 2019 contest winner Lia Woodall’s Remove to Play, “a game-based, nonfiction work about the spaces left open in the wake of a suicide” as well as books by J. S. DeYoung and Thomas Israel Hopkins and a coauthored work by Kara Dorris and Gwendolyn Paradice.

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: Dottir Press

by

Staff

4.8.20

Even though millions of books are published each year, many stories remain either silenced or mistold,” says Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of Dottir Press. A journalist and author for more than two decades, Baumgardner established the press in 2017 on the heels of her tenure as executive director of the Feminist Press, where she “discovered she liked the business side of books as much as she liked the writing side.” When Baumgardner saw that a politically charged children’s book she believed in might not find a home, she created Dottir Press to provide one. (That book, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, is now a Dottir best-seller.) Located in New York City, the press publishes between six and eight works of fiction and nonfiction a year, including both adult and children’s titles. All are “books by feminists, for everyone,” as Dottir’s slogan declares.

“I believe in creating space for people to tell the truth about what has happened to them and to be vulnerable,” says Baumgardner. Forthcoming titles include transgender activist Cooper Lee Bombardier’s debut, Pass With Care (May 2020), a collection of autobiographical writings that explore masculinity, identity, and the body as systems habitually in flux; and Bett Williams’s memoir The Wild Kindness: A Psilocybin Odyssey (September 2020), which Baumgardner says is “funny and a real challenge to those who might colonize Indigenous knowledge of mushrooms.” The press is open for submissions by e-mail year-round. Baumgardner reads manuscripts with an eye for work that is politically engaged and will change its readers: “I love getting behind a book that truly could influence culture in positive ways.”

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

by

Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: A3 Press

I like to think that each chapbook is a journey,” says editor Shaun Levin of the immersive, imaginative volumes he publishes at the A3 Press. Founded in 2019 as an offshoot of the A3 Review and based in London and Madrid, the A3 Press produces between six and ten chapbooks each year, in a mix of prose, poetry, and art.

The press’s trademark is the unusual design of its chapbooks: Each is printed on a single sheet of paper that folds in the style of a map. “I like the fluidity that comes with the map fold, the sense of randomness and serendipity as you move through the chapbook,” says Levin. “You can move through the chapbook any way you want, start anywhere you want. It’s an adventure, a discovery.” Levin recently published poet Sara Eddy’s Tell the Bees, about “beekeeping and dealing with cancer,” and will release Elizabeth Briggs’s Made to Order and Mark Adams’s Peregrinus [Bede’s Walk] later this year. Submissions are open through October 1 via Submittable with a $20 reading fee, which goes toward production and paying the press’s authors. “Send us work that you feel only you could have written,” says Levin. “Deeply personal work that overshares and doesn’t hold back is particularly appealing to us.” 

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

by

Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Vegetarian Alcoholic Press

by

Staff

8.12.20

What makes a book a Vegetarian Alcoholic Press book? “Connectivity and transcendence,” says Freddy La Force, the editor behind the Milwaukee press. Inspired by the city’s vibrant poetry scene, La Force started Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2014. “The writers I found myself admiring didn’t have MFAs or literary connections,” says La Force, “and it seemed like there should be more outlets for their work.” More than sixty-five books later, he remains committed to seeking talent outside entrenched hierarchies. La Force prefers that writers forgo cover letters when sending work, and submitting is always free. “You wouldn’t charge someone to apply for a job, and writing is work,” he says. Vegetarian Alcoholic produces twelve books a year, primarily poetry as well as some fiction, drama, art, and comics. The press recently published travis tate’s Maiden, which La Force describes as “insanely cerebral, sexy poems serving common themes . . . through a very playful, loving, queer, Black lens.” And Kelsey Marie Harris’s collection Spit (Verb) in My Mouth, a “singular treasury of gorgeous foul-mouthed gospels,” was released in August. Submissions are open year-round via e-mail. “The name of the press seems to make people want to submit stuff that attempts to be edgy or abrasive for its own sake,” says La Force. “What I’m really looking for are new forms of expression and new concepts of beauty. I think the best way to uplift people, whether from a personal or revolutionary standpoint, is to instill infinite imagination. Send the work you love. The stuff you felt like you had to write, regardless of your confidence in it.”

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

by

Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

Small Press Points: FlowerSong Press

by

Staff

10.7.20

Edward Vidaurre, publisher and editor in chief of FlowerSong Press, describes the press’s authors as “an all-star team of healers” who are “not only invested in self but also community.” Founded in 2011 in McAllen, Texas, as VAO Publishing, FlowerSong “nurtures essential verse from, about, and through the borderlands,” championing writers from the United States, Latin America, and beyond. The press publishes poetry and prose, as well as titles for children and young adults in partnership with Juventud Press. New releases from FlowerSong include Dreaming With Mariposas by Sonia Gutiérrez, a magical bildungsroman in vignettes, and Luz at Midnight by Marisol Cortez, the “story of an ill-timed love that unfolds in the time of climate change.” Good Cop/Bad Cop, an anthology of art and writing responding to police brutality, is among the titles set for publication in 2021. An abiding commitment to both its readers and writers steers all facets of the press’s work. “The authors of FlowerSong know I push hard for them,” says Vidaurre. “For those who pick up a book from us, I want them to feel that these living words have been custom-made just for them in a beautiful book.” Vidaurre and his team also prioritize timely responses to submitters. “I read for the future of my community, my people that have been underrepresented,” says Vidaurre of seeking out new work for the press. “I want to read and say, ‘I see influences of Julio Cortázar, Allen Ginsberg, Miguel Hernández, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Anzaldúa,’ and then say, ‘But…this feels original, and there’s a truth here I haven’t read before.’” Submissions are open year-round through the press’s website.

Small Press Points: Threadsuns

by

Staff

12.16.20

A new teaching press based at High Point University in North Carolina, Threadsuns draws its name and its vision from the title of a poem by Paul Celan. In the poem as translated by Pierre Joris, “Threadsuns” refers to “songs to sing beyond / mankind,” and it is to those songs that editor and publisher Michael Flatt hopes the press can offer a home. Flatt, who teaches creative writing at High Point, launched the press in early 2020 with the vision of providing student assistants with the kind of hands-on publishing experience that so inspired him as an MFA student—and that expanded his sense of global literature and the literary community. The press plans to publish three volumes a year, one each in the genres of poetry, prose, and work in translation.

“Our inclinations lean toward experimental work that maintains a connection to human experience,” says Flatt. Threadsuns released its first title, Brian Henry’s collection Permanent State, in October, and Ryoko Sekiguchi’s lyric essay The Present Voice, translated by Lindsay Turner, will follow. While getting Threadsuns off the ground amid the pandemic has been challenging, it has also underscored the press’s ambitions to engender connection and inspire a new generation of editors. “Permanent State, while not written during the pandemic, really speaks to the dynamics of power and powerlessness that one feels right now. The press itself is like that for me,” says Flatt. “I’m doing something, which is great, but also, you have to question what it actually does in the world. How can you make it more effective, more significant? And for me, that’s where the teaching comes in. If I can pass on this practice to others, teach them how to create community through publishing, then the project has some meaningful agency.” Threadsuns is open for submissions via e-mail year-round.

594 Ways of Reading Jane Eyre

by

Bonnie Chau

2.12.20

Last summer, University of Oxford professor Matthew Reynolds, in collaboration with an international team of more than two dozen scholars, launched Prismatic Jane Eyre, a research project that explores the relationship between Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel and its many translated versions. In comparing the hundreds of translations that have been made across the globe in the more than 150 years since the book’s publication, Reynolds and his team hope to better understand the way a source text is read, absorbed, and transformed by translators, and the ways these translations reflect the culture in which they were created. 

The project grew out of Reynolds’s wish to do a “collaborative, comparative close reading of several translations in different languages,” he says. This idea soon led to questions about the larger context of those translations and what other translations existed in the world. Reynolds says he decided to focus on Jane Eyre “because its internal conflicts seemed likely to play out differently in different cultures, because it is a popular as well as a literary text, and also because translation has a role within the book.”

In the project’s first phase, a team led by Oxford postdoctoral researcher Eleni Philippou spent the past two years tracking down every single translation of Jane Eyre since its initial publication. They unearthed a total of 594 different translations into fifty-seven languages, including Irinarkh Vvedenskiĭ’s colloquial Russian translation from 1849, Amır Mas‘ūd Barzīn’s 1950 Persian translation that he abridged by omitting subjects “not interesting to the Persian reader,” Yu Jonghos  종호’s 2004 revision of his 1970 Korean translation that substituted the former’s ornate Chinese vocabulary for more modern Korean language, and Amal Omar Baseem al-Rifayii’s translation from 2014, the only known Arabic version by a female translator. 

A series of interactive world maps on the project’s website (prismaticjaneeyre.org) illustrate the scope and range of these many iterations, pinpointing each translation’s city of publication and noting its language, date, and translator. In this and other ways, the project emphasizes the individuality of translators, although, Reynolds says, “Usually all that is known of a translator is a name and often not even that—about 15 percent of the translators are anonymous, and an unknown number are pseudonymous.” The map’s color-coded display helps to illustrate where translations have proliferated. The website also features a time map through which users can trace the chronology of the translations, noting patterns or waves of popularity. For example, Jane Eyre was translated into Persian thirty times after 1950. “It was a surprise to discover how much those visualizations change one’s sense of where the book belongs,” Reynolds says. 

During the project’s second phase, to be rolled out this spring or early summer, the team will compare the language used in about twenty-five of the translation languages. For instance, different translations of the title—originally Jane Eyre: An Autobiography in English—highlight different interpretations of the book’s themes. Titles such as 简爱 Jianai [Jane Eyre/Simple Love] in Chinese, and Jane Eyre: Yıllar Sonra Gelen Mutluluk [Jane Eyre: Happiness Coming After Many Years] in Turkish emphasize the book as a love story, while titles such as Kapag bigo na ang lahat: hango sa Jane Eyre [When Everything Fails: A Novel of Jane Eyre] in Tagalog, and Yatim  یتیم; subtitled ژن ئر [Orphan: Jane Eyre] in Farsi might point more toward social issues. The team will also explore patterns in the translation of the book’s key words and phrases. The words plain and passion, for example, are repeated throughout the original novel to describe the protagonist; both have been translated in endless ways, in accordance with the translator’s readings of Jane’s temperament, and exemplify the ways narrative style can reveal a culture’s values. In the third phase of the project, scholars will use digital tools, including one that measures the uniqueness of words in a passage of text, to analyze how style shifts and stretches across different languages—a glimpse of how technology may contribute to the future study of literary translation. 

Reynolds and his collaborators hope the public will add to their understanding of the diversity of Jane Eyre’s translations. The team invites the public to alert them to missing translations, contribute personal translations of passages, and submit reflections, discoveries, observations, and theories. As the project proceeds, the Prismatic Jane Eyre website will be updated with findings, blog reports, and interactive features. In its fourth phase, in 2021, the project will publish a comprehensive volume of research, analysis, and essays, which will include a complete list of all the translations. 

Prismatic Jane Eyre is part of a larger Prismatic Translation project, hosted by the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation Research Centre, whose scholarship revolves around a set of theoretical stances on translation: “Translation is creative, not mechanical; it is a matter of growth as much as, or more than, loss. Translators are writers. Languages are not separate boxes but are rather intermingled areas on the ever-shifting continuum of language variation.” This attitude departs from historically conventional perspectives of translators as secondary or unoriginal. It also rejects the notion that translation takes place between discretely bounded languages and suggests instead that those boundaries are fluid and permeable. Reynolds hopes Prismatic Jane Eyre will further advance these ideas. “One of the main ideas driving the project is that everyone reads differently, and uses language differently, and that those differences are interesting,” he says. “The key thing in thinking about translation is not to reify standardized national languages but rather to recognize the great variety of textures and structures that language is made up of and the variability of the terrain that translation works across.”    

 

Bonnie Chau is the associate web editor of Poets & Writers, Inc.

The Endangered Poetry Project

by

Maggie Millner

2.14.18

Nearly half the world’s languages are endangered to some extent, with one language becoming extinct roughly every two weeks, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Barring swift revitalization efforts, more than 2,500 of the nearly 7,000 tongues spoken in the world today are predicted to disappear by the end of the century. More than two hundred, such as Peru’s Panobo and Angola’s Kwisi languages, have become extinct since 1950.

Losing a language is not like losing a precious ancient artifact, such as a piece of jewelry or a Grecian urn. A language is not a synchronic object, encapsulating a culture at a single moment in time, but rather a dynamic force that binds people together within a shared, ongoing history. When a language vanishes, it takes with it something intrinsic and irreplaceable about human experience in general and a marginalized culture in particular. Chris McCabe, the poetry librarian at Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library in London, had this in mind when he launched the Endangered Poetry Project, which seeks to collect poetry written in endangered languages and archive it in the library’s permanent holdings.

McCabe first conceived of the project, which launched in the fall, after coming across a striking bit of literary trivia: Instead of the official Latin expected of him, Dante composed the Divine Comedy in a medieval Tuscan vernacular. “That got me thinking about how many great poems there might be out there in dialects and endangered languages,” says McCabe. “After looking into endangered languages more closely, I realized how many languages are under threat.”

At the time, Southbank Centre’s National Poetry Library already included poems in more than two hundred languages. Within its first three months, the Endangered Poetry Project had ushered in over a dozen more, including the Shetlandic dialect of Scots as well as Kristang, a severely endangered creole language spoken in Singapore and parts of Malaysia by a community of mixed Portuguese and Asian descent. McCabe and his team crowdsource poems from around the world, and encourage anyone familiar with a well-known poem in an endangered language to submit it through the project’s website (www.southbankcentre.co.uk/endangered-poetry). After collecting both written and audio versions of each poem, staff members at the National Poetry Library then print them on handmade paper and store them in a specially made conservation box. Although the foremost goal of the initiative is to gather poems in their original languages, McCabe also strives to procure English translations whenever possible. There are also plans to make some poems accessible online, and McCabe says that the initiative will “continue in perpetuity to gather poems from languages under risk.”

The fear of losing language—and specifically losing the poetry of a language, which can often help crystallize and communicate the experiential and linguistic information of a given culture—is part of what motivates McCabe, who is also a widely published poet and writer. “Poetry has a place in most cultures and languages where other art forms might not have gained traction,” he says. “This could easily have to do with economic factors—poetry costs nothing to create, especially in oral forms—and also with the fact that when a language comes into existence, it becomes the material for the human imagination to capture events, ideas, and emotions.”

The Endangered Poetry Project owes some of its early success to a rousing inaugural event in October during the fiftieth anniversary of Poetry International, a biennial poetry festival in London founded at the Southbank Centre by poet Ted Hughes in 1967. During the event, called “Seven Thousand Words for Human,” multinational poets Joy Harjo, Nineb Lamassu, Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, and Nick Makoha read pieces they had written for the occasion in languages such as the Ugandan Luganda and Muscogee Creek. Southbank Centre translator-in-residence and festival organizer Stephen Watts furnished English translations of each poem, and a member of the public even volunteered to recite a poem in the Logudorese dialect of Sardinian.

Another highlight for McCabe was the moment, a few weeks later, when he received a selection of poet Claude Vigée’s “Schwàrzi Sengessle Flàckere ém Wénd” (“Black Nettles Blaze in the Wind”), a long Alsatian requiem written in tribute to the language, which was banned in schools in the Alsace region after World War II. The poem is special to McCabe because it captures the anguish of losing one’s native tongue: “Our hoarse voices, broken long ago / Suddenly stopped: / Already, on our school bench, / In the thrall of the forceps of language / We felt like tongue-cripples / Tangled up in our songs.”

 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at New York University, where she is pursuing an MFA in poetry. Previously she was the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine.

The National Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London.

(Credit: India Roper-Evans)

The American Prison Writing Archive

by

Gila Lyons

12.13.17

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Larson, who teaches literature and creative writing at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, first became involved with the incarcerated population when a friend invited him to a discussion group at Attica Correctional Facility, a New York state prison. Larson listened to men speak about how they were coping with being in prison and was “floored by the honesty and earnestness of those conversations,” he says. A few months later he started a writing group at Attica and became interested in prison writing as a genre. “I spent two summers at the Library of Congress reading all the prison writing I could. I wanted to start an undergraduate course on it. There are a few anthologies of [work by] political prisoners like Martin Luther King Jr. and some small collections from prison writing workshops, but I couldn’t find a wide, national sampling from currently incarcerated people.”

With more than 1,200 essays from people all across the country, the APWA fills that need. The database currently holds three million words’ worth of writing, enough to fill more than eighteen volumes the size of Fourth City, which is a hefty 338 pages. “While reading individual essays can be moving and inspiring, it’s reading in the aggregate that’s valuable and instructive,” says Larson. “One of the extraordinary things has been to see the same themes emerging: staff violence, neglect and abuse at home, drug and alcohol addiction, police aggression.” These shared experiences are part of what inspired Larson to name the collection Fourth City—to represent the fact that the prison and jail population in the United States is larger than that of Houston, Texas, currently the fourth largest city in the country,  and that stories told from inside any prison in the nation can seem as if they’re all coming from the same place.

The APWA is part of Hamilton College’s Digital Humanities Initiative. With additional funding for the archive from the NEH grant, Larson plans to continue to solicit, preserve, digitize, and disseminate the work of incarcerated people and prison workers and to hire a part-time assistant. The grant will also go toward finishing an online tool that will allow anyone to transcribe handwritten essays into fully searchable texts and to improve the site’s search functions so users can search by author attribute (race, religion, age, ethnicity), keyword, location, and more.

Larson hopes the archive will be a resource that people will use regularly for academic, policy, and social research. “In the age of big data, we’re trying to help create the era of big narrative, people writing very concretely about what works and doesn’t work,” he says. “Policy-makers might consult this to investigate: How much human pain might be caused because of this policy? When does the law become little more than legalized suffering?” Larson published a book last July, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration (Rowman & Littlefield), that compared prison writing in Ireland, Africa, and the United States; he is currently working on another book about the archive tentatively titled “Ethics in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”

The APWA doesn’t espouse any political view. “The advocacy is done by the writers,” Larson says. “You read ten Holocaust or slave narratives and no one has to tell you what the message is. The difference is that there is a fixed number of slave and Holocaust narratives. But this collection will continue to grow.”      

 

Gila Lyons has written about feminism, mental health, and social justice for Salon, Vox, Cosmopolitan, the Huffington Post, Good Magazine, and other publications. Find her on Twitter, @gilalyons, or on her website, gilalyons.com.

Doran Larson, founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. 

Lit Mag Gives Voice to Homeless

by

Adrienne Raphel

10.12.16

Every Tuesday morning, twenty to thirty writers gather in a meeting room in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street in Boston. Each member of the Black Seed Writers Group gets a pen and a yellow legal pad and, after catching up with one another, sits down and gets to work. The writing they produce will eventually fill the pages of the Pilgrim, a literary magazine celebrating its fifth anniversary this December. The Pilgrim looks like just about any of the small literary magazines lining the shelves of local bookstores and cafés, but it is different in one major respect: Its contributors are all part of Boston’s homeless community. 

The Pilgrim is the brainchild of James Parker, a contributing editor and cultural columnist for the Atlantic. In 2011, while on a sixty-mile pilgrimage with the MANNA ministry of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul, Parker was inspired to launch the writers group and journal with the idea of pilgrimage as a guiding theme. “Homelessness is a state of acute pilgrimage,” writes Parker on the journal’s website, “a condition of material and occasionally moral emergency, and thus a place where the world reveals itself under the pressure, or the pouring-in, of a higher reality.” When he returned from his own pilgrimage, Parker established the Black Seed Writers Group to give homeless people in downtown Boston an opportunity to gather, write, and share their work. The group is named for the nearby café where it first met, but its ranks soon swelled beyond the café’s capacity and it moved to the cathedral next door. Each week, Parker provides a few open-ended prompts to get the writers going. There is no formal workshop, and anyone who is homeless, recently housed, or transitioning into a home is welcome to join. Members of the group come and go, though each week there are at least a few regulars.

“If we’re the Black Seed Writers Group,” says Margaret Miranda, a writer in the group, “the people helping us are mission figs: They surround the black seeds at the center, they’re nurturing, and they’re on a mission. Besides,” she adds, “think of the literary significance of figs.” (When Miranda presented her metaphor to Parker, he asked her if that makes him a mad vegetable. Miranda replied, “In forty years, you will be.”) In addition to Parker, the other volunteers who help facilitate the workshop include Kate Glavin, an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston; Libby Gatti, a diocese intern; and James Kraus, a graphic artist who refers to himself as “the other James.” 

Miranda and several other regulars set the group’s tone: After a few minutes of greeting and banter, they settle into their various writing processes and work diligently through the hour. A man named Joe dictates into his phone and transcribes his recording; Steven thumbs through a dictionary; Cody paces back and forth before plunging into his work. Rob, a wiry writer in a Red Sox hoodie, brews the coffee.

“This is the most punk-rock thing I’ve ever been part of,” says Parker, who first connected with the homeless community through music. At age twenty-two, Parker was immersed in Washington, D.C.’s independent music scene, and discovered the city’s Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), a thriving facility for the homeless, through the liner notes of a music album. Parker lived at CCNV as a volunteer for several months, but soon moved to Boston and lost touch with the homeless community over the next two decades, until founding the writers group.

After each session, Parker gathers all the work and splits it among himself and the other volunteers to transcribe. He then prints the writing in packets that he distributes the following Tuesday. Within a week of attending the Black Seed Writers Group, therefore, every participant is a published author; additionally, the packet entices writers to return the next week. Parker then chooses work from these packets to include in the Pilgrim, which he publishes eight to ten times per year. The Pilgrim is printed right where it’s produced; the administration at the church lets Parker use its printers, and subscription fees—the journal has a circulation of a few hundred—provide funding for the paper and ink. 

As a writer himself, Parker believes fervently in the power of publication. While he was writing his first book, his wife had one of the chapters printed as a chapbook, and it transformed the way Parker approached his work: “It was so powerful to me to have something published,” he says. When he founded the Pilgrim, the heart of his mission was to publish as many voices as possible—particularly those that would normally go unheard. In 2015, according to government census figures, the homeless population of Boston was 7,663—a 5.6 percent increase from the previous year. Since it was established, in December 2011, the Pilgrim has published more than 150 different writers.

The Pilgrim does not have a specific style; instead, writers are encouraged to find their own style, and to push their voices deeper. Participants write poems, stories, memoirs, prayers, protests, and everything in between. One regular attendee, Rolando, is a journalist who catalogues various aspects of life at the shelter through a series of bullet points that create something between a list, a poem, and an essay. One week he wrote about lost property; the next week he categorized the various safety nets at the shelter. Cody writes prophetic images from his imagination. He describes a dream cover for his book, were he to write one: a rendering of the globe with a seven-headed serpentine monster crawling out of a deep chasm in the center.

In 2014 Parker expanded the Pilgrim to include a book imprint, No Fixed Address Press. Its first publication was Paul Estes’s science fiction novel, Razza Freakin’ Aliens, a madcap space opera featuring the intergalactic adventures of Dave the Spy, who encounters many multispecies creatures, such as rebel alien cats that yell, “Hairrbawlz, kill ’em all!” This year, the press published Miranda’s debut collection of poetry, Dressing Wounds on Tremont Street. The book is at once devotional and jocular, weaving together portentous subjects with light banter; think John Donne meets Kenneth Koch. 

 

Now, Parker says, No Fixed Address Press is concentrating on what he calls broadsheets—chapbook-length collections that are easier, cheaper, and quicker to produce than full-length books. Any profits that the Pilgrim and No Fixed Address Press might bring in from sales go directly into producing the next publications. Parker is excited to watch the group’s reach naturally expand, but is careful to avoid a “dissipation of essence,” as he puts it. As the group grows, it’s important for Parker to maintain an environment of openness, encouragement, and safety—an intimate space where members can nurture each other as writers. “We want growth that’s real growth,” said Parker. “Growth as writers.” 

Adrienne Raphel is the author of What Was It For (Rescue Press, 2017) and But What Will We Do (Seattle Review, 2016). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review Daily, Poetry, Lana Turner Journal, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University. 

Publishing, Empowering Teen Writers

by

Tara Jayakar

6.14.17

For Chicago teenagers with a passion for writing, there is no shortage of resources. Young Chicago Authors; 826CHI, a branch of the youth writing organization started by writer Dave Eggers; StoryStudio Chicago; and Writopia Lab, among other programs, have been offering writing workshops, open mics, summer camps, and poetry slams for kids throughout the city for decades. But a new organization has a more specific goal in mind for Chicago teens: to offer them hands-on experience in editing and publishing their peers. Launched last year by poet and educator Jennifer Steele, [Y]volve Publishing (YP) is an extension of Revolving Door Arts Foundation, which Steele founded in 2014 to empower and publish young and emerging writers and to get them actively involved in the publishing industry. Steele runs the organization almost exclusively on her own, with some help from a volunteer board that includes writers Fred Sasaki and Kenyatta Rogers. While Steele has other projects in the works for the organization, including workshops for young and new mothers, an anthology about postpartum depression, and a reading series, her primary focus is currently YP and its inaugural project, the Teen Chapbook Series, which features poetry chapbooks written and edited by teens. 

The chapbook series began last summer, when Steele asked four teenagers on the slam poetry team she coaches to each write five poems and then expand that work into a chapbook-length collection. The four young poets—Nyvia Taylor, Semira Truth Garrett, Kai Wright, and Jalen Kobayashi—worked with one another, along with Steele, to edit their poems. “Each book has been a personal journey for these writers, as they explore personal ideas and also think about how to expand the craft of their writing,” says Steele. “Semira, for instance, was really interested in learning how to write short poems. Jalen has learned about truth versus fact when writing a poem. And Nyvia has been writing brave poems that are confronting difficult, personal subjects.” 

The chapbooks, each featuring artwork the poets chose themselves, were published in May. Steele also invited four established poets, including CM Burroughs and Jacob Saenz, to write introductions to the chapbooks. For the young poets, seeing their words in print has had a powerful impact. “When you have a hard copy of something, it’s forever,” says Kobayashi in a video on the press’s website. “As poets, we share our work on social media, but that can only get you so far. Once you actually have that physical copy of all your words on the page, nobody can take that from you.” Wright agrees: “I’m just a little Chicago kid from the West Side, but to be able to put my work out there in a permanent way—these are just my words that are here and nobody can take my story, or my truth, or my life away from me as a result of that.” 

The Teen Chapbook Series will be published annually, and next year’s series will be expanded to include fiction and nonfiction. (Submissions will open this month, and the chapbooks will be released in Spring 2018.) Steele is also in the process of developing a teen editorial board, which will oversee the production of each book in the series from start to finish. “We’re hoping to have a full-fledged publishing program that includes graphic design, marketing, and promotion teams by 2018,” Steele says. Students will create a call for submissions, read and select manuscripts, and then be paired with a more established editor or writer to edit the selected manuscripts. They will also work on every stage of production, from layout and design to promotion. Steele plans for the press to release three to five chapbooks through the series each year and to put out other books as well. This summer she is working with a group of teens to curate, edit, design, and publish a book of poetry and fashion photography centering around the Gwendolyn Brooks centennial, which is being celebrated this year in Chicago. The anthology will be published in October. 

By teaching teens how to publish books, Steele believes she will help equip them with both entrepreneurial and collaborative experience that will be applicable within and beyond the creative industry. By taking on the role of an editor, publisher, or marketing executive, Steele says, the young people involved with the YP will acquire marketable skills before they even graduate high school. She also hopes to reach more teens by bringing YP books into classrooms. Starting in the 2017–2018 school year, she plans to provide the chapbooks to teachers in Chicago schools and help them develop lesson plans based on each book’s content or theme. “We often hear from teachers that they wish they had more books written by teens to share with their students, so we’re hoping this could fill that need,” she says. “As far as I know, there aren’t many collections of poetry being taught in the classroom, let alone collections by teens.” 

Steele’s commitment to empowering teens is partially motivated by her own experiences as a young person. “I didn’t know I could be an editor,” she says. “I thought if I got my English degree, I was just going to be a high school English teacher. But if someone had told me that I could be editing a magazine, I probably would have made different choices. We’re trying to create these experiences for kids at this age so they can make more informed choices about what they’re interested in doing. That’s the underlying point of all of this: creating, through the literary arts, skills that can be transferable to any career path they’re interested in.”

Tara Jayakar is the founder and editor of Raptor Editing. She lives in New York City.

[Y]volve Publishing’s poets (from left) Semira Truth Garrett, Jalen Kobayashi, Kai Wright, and Nyvia Taylor.

(Credit: Kikomo.p Imagery)

Amanda Gorman Named National Youth Poet Laureate

by

Maggie Millner

4.27.17

Last night in New York City, at a historic ceremony at Gracie Mansion, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman of Los Angeles was named the first national youth poet laureate. The unprecedented title, to be awarded annually, honors a teen poet who demonstrates not only extraordinary literary talent but also a proven record of community engagement and youth leadership.

For Gorman, poetry and civic outreach aren’t separate interests. The Harvard University freshman knows firsthand that creative writing can build confidence and a sense of community among young people whose voices are often underrepresented in mainstream dialogue. In 2016 she founded One Pen One Page, a nonprofit organization that provides an “online platform and creative writing programs for student storytellers to change the world.” She continues to serve as the organization’s executive director.

Gorman’s own writing often addresses the intersections of race, feminism, and adolescence, as well as the changing landscape of her native Los Angeles. For both her poetry and her advocacy, Gorman has been recognized by Forbes, the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, the YoungArts Foundation, and the OZY Genius Awards. She has also performed on The Today Show, ABC Family, and Nickelodeon News, and helped introduce Hillary Clinton at the 2017 Global Leadership Awards.

“For me, being able to stand on a stage as a spoken word poet, as someone who overcame a speech impediment, as the descendent of slaves who would have been prosecuted for reading and writing, I think it really symbolizes how, by pursuing a passion and never giving up, you can go as far as your wildest dreams,” said Gorman at the ceremony on Wednesday evening. “This represents such a significant moment because never in my opinion have the arts been more important than now.”

Amanda Gorman, national youth poet laureate.
 

The event represented the culmination of years of work by arts organizations across the country. In 2009 literary arts nonprofit Urban Word NYC, in partnership with the New York City Campaign Finance Board and Mayor’s Office, began bestowing the annual title of New York City youth poet laureate on one visionary poet between the ages of fourteen and nineteen. Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC, says the program was founded on a belief that “young poets deserve to be in spaces of power, privilege, and governance, and to have their voices front and center of the sociopolitical dialogue happening in our city.”

Since the inception of New York’s youth poet laureate program, arts and literacy organizations in over thirty-five cities have followed suit, launching their own youth laureateship positions. As it spread nationally, the program garnered support from the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and PEN Center USA, among other major poetry organizations. Finally, in 2016, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities partnered with Urban Word to bring the program to the national level.

Last July a jury of prominent poets, including U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, Brooklyn poet laureate Tina Chang, and Academy of American Poets executive director Jen Benka, narrowed the pool of local laureates down to five national finalists. Poets were evaluated on the caliber and subject matter of their poems, as well as their commitment to serving their communities through volunteer and advocacy work, and each finalist was selected to represent a geographic region of the country (Northeast, Southeast, South, Midwest, and West). Along with Gorman, Hajjar Baban of Detroit, Nkosi Nkululeko of New York City, Lagnajita Mukhopadhyay of Nashville, and Andrew White of Houston were named the first annual regional laureates and finalists for the inaugural national youth poet laureateship.

Each finalist received a book deal with independent press Penmanship Books, which published Gorman’s first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. Over the past year, the finalists have also had the opportunity to perform for large audiences at renowned venues, including the Poetry Foundation, the Kennedy Center, and the White House. As the national youth poet laureate, Gorman will continue to give readings and participate in events across the country throughout her yearlong term.

“The role of poetry, especially in marginalized communities, is to provide a voice to those who are traditionally silenced,” says Cirelli, “and the best way to effect social change is to provide platforms for youth to tell their stories. We hope to leverage our work to allow these diverse stories to be told in spaces that have historically omitted youth voices, and to energize and engage the issues that they are most passionate about.”

The ceremony at Gracie Mansion featured performances by three of the finalists, as well as a roster of current and former New York City youth poets laureate. The performers were introduced by a group of acclaimed poets, including American Book Prize winner Kimiko Hahn and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith. Nkululeko recited a poem about his hair, a metaphor through which he discussed his relationship with his mother and collective African American history. Baban, who was named runner-up for the national title, recited a sestina on language, family, and her Muslim name. Finally, Gorman delivered a poem about how her speech impediment led her to discover writing.

“I am so grateful to be part of this cohort of young creatives who are taking up their pens to have a voice for what is right and what is just,” Gorman said in her acceptance speech. “I don’t just want to write—I want to do right as well.”

 

Maggie Millner is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.  
 

Q&A: Yang Inspires Young Readers

by

Dana Isokawa

2.15.17

In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.

What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.

What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.

What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.

Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.

Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.

Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.

Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.

What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Academy Establishes Web Resource for Teen Poets

6.18.09

Yesterday, the Academy of American Poets launched a new online poetry resource targeted at teenage readers and writers of poetry. The initiative was conceived after the organization conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site and found that 75 percent of users developed an interest in poetry before the age of eighteen.

The new home page features writing resources and a collection of poems for teens, as well as links to the organization’s discussion forum and a comprehensive index of Web sites and reference materials for poets. A “Leave Your Mark” feature prompts teen users to share indispensable lines of poetry, upcoming events, and to create virtual poetry notebooks of their own design featuring poems, writer profiles, and interviews culled from the Academy’s site.

Young writers are also prompted to sign up for the “Street Team” newsletter, which will notify them of poetry projects and contests in which they could participate. Planned programs include the Free Verse Photo Project, in which a line of poetry is written using a temporary medium and photographed before it disappears, the National Poetry Writing Month challenge and pledge drive, and Poem In Your Pocket Day.

The home page initiative was funded by close to five hundred Academy members, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, which supports advancement of artistic inquiry and scholarship, and the graduating class of 2008 from Holmdel High School in New Jersey.

Literature and the Environment

by

Maggie Millner

8.16.17

In 1992 in Reno, Nevada, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) to promote interdisciplinary research and conversation about the connections between humans and the natural world. Comprising professionals in both the humanities and the sciences, ASLE encourages collaboration, supports environmental education, and convenes a community around the twin goals of literary excellence and ecological sustainability. Now, twenty-five years later, the organization is more robust—and necessary—than ever.

The intersections of poetry and conservation biology, or speculative fiction and environmental activism, may not seem intuitive. But in the early 1990s many scholars working at the crossroads of these increasingly siloed disciplines sought a way to share ideas and enlist creative, scientific, and ethical advice from specialists in other fields. With the advent of ASLE, members gained access to a directory of multidisciplinary scholars, as well as environmental studies curricula, a list of awards and grants, mentoring programs, and a bibliography of ecological writing, among other resources. In 1993, ASLE launched the semiannual (now quarterly) journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, which publishes academic articles in addition to poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews.

Since 1995, ASLE has also hosted a biennial conference, each event held in a different U.S. city, at which intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration can happen in person. The twelfth conference, titled “Rust/Resistance: Works of Recovery,” took place in June and doubled as a celebration of ASLE’s twenty-fifth anniversary. Hosted by Wayne State University in Detroit, the 2017 conference featured more than eight hundred presenters as well as keynote addresses by writers and environmentalists such as poet Ross Gay and historian and novelist Tiya Miles. According to ASLE copresident Christoph Irmscher, these conferences serve as “sustained intellectual experiences in which an array of amazing speakers complements the serious conversations that take place in individual panels.”

ASLE’s quarter-centennial comes at a critical moment. As an organization committed equally to literature and to environmentalism, ASLE and its membership are doubly threatened by the massive rollbacks in arts and climate spending proposed by the Trump administration. The White House’s 2018 budget plan, unveiled in May, would slash funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third, eliminating 20 percent of its workforce and leaving the agency with its smallest budget in forty years, adjusting for inflation. Predicated on a staunch denial of the urgent reality of climate change, the plan proposes crippling reductions to programs that clean up toxic waste, determine the safety of drinking water, and research and predict natural disasters, among others.

In June, President Trump announced that the United States will also be withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, an agreement between nearly two hundred nations to reduce emissions and mitigate global warming that was adopted by consensus in 2015. “As we have known ever since Rachel Carson, the environmental crisis can only be addressed globally, not within traditional national boundaries,” says Irmscher. Branches of ASLE have been established in nearly a dozen countries or regions outside the United States, including Brazil, India, and Japan, and this year’s ASLE conference drew around a thousand members from twenty-five countries. Irmscher describes the organization’s international, interdisciplinary conferences as its “pièce de résistance against Trumpian unilateralism.”

The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget would also eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities. Though such cuts seem unlikely at this point—Congress thus far having upheld federal funding for both agencies—the proposal itself is indicative of an attitude that devalues the importance of art and literature to American life and culture. In light of such threats, Irmscher looks to literature for models of political environmentalism. “Panels and presentations on Thoreau’s Walden—to mention one of the intellectual progenitors of ASLE—can no longer ignore the fact that his philosophy of resistance has assumed new importance in an era when the government systematically suppresses scientific evidence,” he says.

In a sense, the joint disavowal of both environmental protection and the arts can be seen as a confirmation of what ASLE has always known: that these disciplines are deeply linked and even interdependent—that, as Rachel Carson once said, “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” In the face of these most recent threats, ASLE will continue to serve as a meeting point. “In a climate that discourages innovation, scientists have adopted new roles as dissenters and protesters,” says Irmscher. “As they unite and march, they find new allies in the arts and humanities that have long spoken truth to power. ASLE, whose core mission is to promote collaboration and public dialogue, provides an organizational framework for such new alliances.”
 

Maggie Millner teaches creative writing at NYU, where she is pursuing her MFA in poetry. Previously, she served as Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.              

Writers, Editors Resist

by

Sarah M. Seltzer

4.12.17

The Wednesday morning after Election Day delivered a political shock for just about everyone, including writers—but hot on the heels of the electoral surprise came an existential dilemma: How could writers attend to the quotidian concerns of sentence structure, agent-hunting, and sending out work when America was so divided on seemingly every major issue—from reproductive and LGBTQ rights to immigration laws and the environment? Like much of America that morning, many writers turned to their friends and colleagues for answers. “On Facebook, everyone was saying, ‘Now more than ever we need fiction, art, and books,’” says writer Anna March, who had spent time in Pennsylvania that week, knocking on doors for Hillary Clinton with her mother. “I got a little bit panicky. I thought, ‘Oh my God, are people really thinking that art is going to save us?’ Because it’s really about organizing and getting out the vote.” Similarly, fiction writer Paula Whyman, based in Bethesda, Maryland, described the morning after the election as a rare world-changing moment. “As a fiction writer I had a lot of questions in my mind about what would happen to fiction and how we would go on working,” she says. “Does it really matter now?”

Both Whyman and March reached for similar outlets to channel their doubts and reassert the power of writing. Whyman answered a call on Facebook by her friend, the writer Mikhail Iossel, for help launching a new publication and with a small group started Scoundrel Time, an international online journal intended to foster artistic expression in the face of political repression and fear. March, eager to harness the energy of the arts community for political activism, decided to start Roar Feminist Magazine, an online publication that would provide a platform for politically informed fiction, poetry, and essays—as well as a way to strike back against an election that frequently devolved into disrespectful language, most notably the leaked Access Hollywood tape showing Donald Trump making lewd comments about women. “We wanted to do something that was both literature and revolution,” says March. 

These efforts are part of a growing number of projects and events started by writers, editors, and literary organizations in response to the election and the current political climate. Poet Erin Belieu and PEN America organized Writers Resist rallies, which brought out thousands of writers and citizens in cities all across the United States on January 15, five days before the presidential inauguration, to “defend free expression, reject hatred, and uphold truth in the face of lies and misinformation.” Poet Major Jackson started a collaborative poem, “Renga for Obama,” at the Harvard Review, while the Boston Review released the poetry chapbook Poems for Political Disaster, and Melville House published What We Do Now, an essay collection focused on “standing up for your values in Trump’s America.” 

Roar and Scoundrel Time both launched in late January—Roar on Inauguration Day and Scoundrel Time ten days later—and have since produced an impressive body of work and attracted large followings in just a few short months. “The idea of starting a new journal would be laughed at otherwise,” says Whyman. “There are so many excellent journals doing beautiful work that I in no way want to compete. But I think of this as something entirely different.”

Indeed, the interest both magazines have received in terms of financial support and submissions suggest that the audience is engaged. With a very small inheritance from her grandmother, who died shortly before the election, March was able to launch the Roar website and with her collaborators held a successful crowdfunding campaign that raised $12,000 in just a few months. The Roar staff includes Sarah Sandman and  Bethanne Patrick as executive editors, Jagjeet Khalsa as production editor, and several section editors, including novelist Porochista Khakpour and humor writer Cynthia Heimel. The title is a play on the “pussy” motif that appeared on posters and signs, and in knitted hats, after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood remarks were made public. According to March, the journal’s mission involves “roaring, not meowing.”

The most prominent feature of Roar, which publishes three new pieces each day, is a section called “My Abortion,” in which women relate their experiences with abortion. The daily column serves to remind readers of what’s at stake under the strongly antiabortion Trump administration. Other columns include the Roar Meter, which uses numbers to tell a story: “Number of votes by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: 2,864,974 / Number of Americans who receive Planned Parenthood services: 2,840,000” reads the beginning of one entry. A column called Fight This Hate highlights “a small selection of hate crimes and/or harassment,” alongside fiction, poetry, and art sections. “Think about if Guernica met the Nation or VQR met Mother Jones,” says March. “We want to be at the intersection of the finest writing and political activism.” The editors plan to expand in the spring by publishing six pieces a day and bringing on more explicitly political writers.

Scoundrel Time (named for the 1976 book by Lillian Hellman about the McCarthy era) is, in Whyman’s words, “a place for artists to respond as artists” to the postelection reality. “There are wonderful and thoughtful journalists and commentators, people at think tanks, and activists in every realm doing important things,” says Whyman. “But this is a place for artists to speak to what’s going on from their particular perspective. We can keep telling one another stories, and those stories will draw people in and give them some relief.” The journal is a registered nonprofit organization, and the all-volunteer staff plans to look into nonprofit partnerships. Slightly less confrontational in tone than Roar (though no less political), Scoundrel Time publishes fiction, photography, poetry, essays, and dispatches from around the world, with a focus on content that’s current. “The strongest argument I can think of for satire and parody is that despots and authoritarian regimes of all stripes hate it so,” Tony Eprile writes in a February essay tying recent Saturday Night Live sketches to a long tradition of political subversion through mockery. Fiction writer Jodi Paloni also spearheads an Action section, encouraging readers to make calls and show up to protests.

Scoundrel Time and Roar also drummed up support at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, D.C. in February. Whyman and her fellow Scoundrel Time founders gathered in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and read aloud from James Baldwin, Emma Lazarus, and Claudia Rankine. Meanwhile, Roar supporters wearing pink “pussy hats” handed out pink Roar-branded condoms and stickers at the bookfair. They weren’t the only ones making a statement at AWP: Split This Rock, a D.C.–based organization focused on poetry and social change, collaborated with organizations such as VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and CantoMundo to hold a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression outside the White House, during which writers such as Kazim Ali, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché delivered speeches about the importance of writing and art.  

Scoundrel Time plans to organize similar actions in the future, but for now it carries on that spirit of standing together and holding space, albeit online, for writers to freely speak their minds. With their new journals, both Whyman and March hope they can help writers to, as Whyman says, “hang on to our humanity and feel like [we] can gain understanding.” 

 

Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, journalism, and ill-advised tweets. A lifelong New Yorker, she is the deputy editor of the culture website Flavorwire.com.

Protesters march on Trump Tower in New York City as part of the Writers Resist rallies in January.

(Credit: Ed Lederman)

Dear President: A Message for the Next Commander in Chief From Fifty American Poets and Writers

by

Staff

8.17.16

In a little over two months, we the people will choose the forty-fifth president of the United States. Between now and then, the nominees will present their policy proposals and debate the issues, shaping a national conversation about some awfully big and important topics. But before we get to those televised debates (the first of three is scheduled for September 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York) we wanted to give some of our most thoughtful and articulate citizens—poets and writers—a chance to offer their perspective. Because, as former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove remarked, “Our nation needs to learn to value its independent writers and artists as the heralds of a richly textured, inclusive national identity.”

The request was simple: Imagine you are face-to-face with the next president—whoever that may be—and, in a few sentences, write about what you hope to see addressed in the next four years. It turns out something pretty great happens when you ask writers to convey, without a lot of political grandstanding, what is most important to them. The contours of some of America’s biggest issues—education, health care, gun violence, racism, immigration, and the environment among them—start to come into sharper focus, the collective discourse rises above the rhetoric of political pundits, and the pomp and circumstance of the political process falls away, so that we are left with a discussion of real problems, real concerns, and, if not solutions, then at least some honest ideas that may inspire action of real, lasting value. 

Dear President,

“The countless complex problems facing the world require complex critical thinking. Please reinvest in public higher education systems like UC, SUNY, CUNY, and the other once-strong and accessible state systems of higher education. Restore and privilege humanities and arts education at the K–12 and higher-ed levels. Reduce the military budget and make a real commitment to social and educational infrastructure.” —Kazim Ali

“Please listen to the stories being told right now by the scientists who study, and the citizens who live, amid the catastrophic changes taking place across the planet. They are not fiction; without courageous leadership they will become fate.” —Steve Almond

“Your critics, most of them, would have called me a superpredator back then, when the memory of the pistol was heavy in my palm—so that’s not my focus. But now, unlike then, you have power, and I’m left to wonder what you will call the young men and women lost in the system, those who walked down paths they regret. Do they earn your scorn, your mercy?” —Reginald Dwayne Betts

“I would like President Clinton to know that I support her and her agenda fully, especially as it relates to education, the arts, and the environment. The single greatest problem facing our species is the erosion of the environmental conditions that allowed us to evolve and thrive and tap out messages like this one on our phones and computers. We are doomed, yes, but later rather than sooner, I hope.” —T. C. Boyle

“Once the body arrives in the world it immediately becomes fragile—fragile in that it needs nourishment, protection, education, and endless chances; bodies of color, in particular, have had these basic human rights revoked, and it continues. I call for a protection of these bodies through a reassessment of the justice system and retraining of authorities who violate the civil liberties of citizens of color through racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, and abuse; human life is at stake, and my wish is that the next four years will reflect back the beauty and not the wreckage of our existence.” —Tina Chang

 

“America has often seen itself as a beacon of democracy, but the American project has always been about a settler project of inclusion and exclusion: democracy for those imagined as real Americans, and inequality for slaves, immigrants, black and brown bodies, and those who live in places the United States has colonized or destabilized, most recently Iraq and Libya. I hope that you can see yourself not just as a standard-bearer for a global economic elite, but as a force for equality and justice for all.” —Ken Chen

“There’s so much I could ask of you—a list of demands—but first to ensure our safety as citizens. Too many lives have been lost to gun violence—mass shootings, gang related, and otherwise—and now it is more than a false dilemma, it’s a reality that can no longer be ignored.” —Nicole Dennis-Benn

“There is no present or future without immigrants; white supremacy (and all of its sequelae) is one of the gravest threats to our democracy.” —Junot Díaz

“I want an America with tougher gun laws. I want an America that nurtures and embraces diversity.” —Chitra Divakaruni

“Eight million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. Our government has to get involved in legislation that reduces one-use plastics, invests in alternative-packaging ideas, and dramatically decreases pollution in the oceans, or by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.” —Anthony Doerr

“If we are ever to attain our forefathers’ aspirations for ‘a more perfect union,’ educating our young—not only in the sciences, but also the arts—cannot, dare not, be neglected. If our children are unable to say what they mean, no one will know how they feel; if they cannot imagine different worlds, they are stumbling through a darkness made all the more sinister by its lack of reference points.” —Rita Dove

“I would say to the president that she should work to dismantle the global culture of corruption present at all levels of society, which prevents any meaningful change or accountability, and whose primary victims are the powerless and disenfranchised. This complicity is a symptom of larger systems of discourse and economy that exist to preserve the status quo, and I would say that in the absence of means to transform those systems outright, she should start, at the level of the law and of media, to model ways of addressing concrete problems with transparency and tenacity, showing that even at the most entrenched levels of corruption, change can be effected.” —Robert Fernandez

“The stakes are too high for you to ignore the grievances voiced by those of us who believed you when you spoke of progress and equality. We can’t afford for you to go slow.” —Angela Flournoy

“Climate change—stop dicking around. War—use only as the ultimate last resort.” —Ben Fountain

“I’d like our next president to know compassion and compromise. I’d also like her to know how thrilled I was when I received a thank-you note from her husband after I sent Chelsea a birthday card when I was fifteen.” —Carrie Fountain

“The occupation of Palestine by Israel—mass incarceration, presumption of guilt, withholding of resources, wanton destruction of human life, all underscored by the creation of physical barriers and the emotional propaganda of persecution, exclusion, mythmaking, and fear—are mirrored, one by one, in the policies of institutionalized racism in the United States. Unless we face this singular fact, and acknowledge our collective culpability as architects and sponsors of state terrorism here in our American cities, and in our foreign policy regarding Palestine (which is the bedrock of all other foreign policy), we will continue to be unable to fulfill the potential of our democracy for our people, and remain excoriated abroad for our impotence and hypocrisy.” —Ru Freeman

“Dear Madam President, our undocumented families are not silent or invisible in our hearts. May they be just as present in your actions as we continue to build this home, this country, together.” —Rigoberto González

“None of the problems of this country will be solved without things getting messy, and without your commitment to listen, truly listen, and to govern for the people who have the least in this country—black and brown women of color, undocumented women, trans and lesbian women, poor women, the people you usually wish to have behind you at a podium but rarely invite to the room where decisions are being made. Invite us in and listen and then act.” —Kaitlyn Greenidge

“President Clinton, after celebrating with a tall flute of Prosecco, please make gun reform your first order of business. In four years, I hope to live in a country where the pen is mightier than the gun (and the money that keeps it in power).” —Eleanor Henderson

“Ms. President, I want you to know that the power of having our first woman as president doesn’t escape me; I’ve been waiting for this my entire life. And I want you, as the first woman president of the United States, to place the liberation and justice of historically marginalized people at the center of your work—
terrifying, hard, necessary work. We need this more than ever.” —Tanwi Nandini Islam

“I would like the next president to know that the 2016 presidential campaign has awoken a sizable portion of this country’s electorate to the limitations of a two-party system that is beholden more to its own status quo than the interests of its constituencies; that we are more awake than ever to the corruption of politicians who claim allegiance to ‘the people,’ but whose votes and policies are purchased outright by producers of weaponry and manufacturers of economic disparity. I would like the next president to know that we will be watching and taking note of their promises to Wall Street and the military-industrial complex, that we will call out their positions on trade deals that betray American workers, their complicity with a prison-industrial complex that seeks profit from incarceration, their commitment to a justice system that frees criminals in uniform while killing people of color with impunity, and that we will organize beyond their scarecrows of fear to create a movement capable of replacing this oligarchy with the highest of this nation’s ideals: democracy.” —Tyehimba Jess

“Madam President, thank you for sparing us your opponent’s dismal and clownish stupidity, his blind and blinding hate. I’m still scared, though. I’m scared that you think beating him will be the hardest part of your job, and I’m scared of what’s happening to the environment, to our schools and water supply and our tolerance, scared of people being out of work and people being hooked on painkillers and people not being allowed to use the restroom where they feel most comfortable. I don’t give a rip if you’re honest or transparent or running a thousand different e-mail servers, but I need you to be compassionate and smart and clear-eyed, to be decent and flexible and open-minded, to be afraid with me—with all of us—and despite our fears, not least yours, I need you to be brave and resilient and, well, hopeful.” —Bret Anthony Johnston

“I’d like to talk about government subsidies for mental-health care. We tend to speak about mental health after some extreme event, like a shooting spree, but mental health is an everyday thing. So many people—especially poor people and minorities—are suffering in silent pain.” —Tayari Jones

“Make fighting bigotry a priority—bigotry of all sorts, from race to sexuality to gender to class. I feel it’s especially the responsibility of our candidates this time around, as this very election unleashed a whole new wave of intense bigotry directed at all sorts of minorities—so I feel like it is the urgent responsibility of the elected official to face this and work to increase the dialogue, education, and awareness required to heal and advance.” —Porochista Khakpour

“I watch my students invest in cultural, economic, and financial change despite their pessimism and frequent belief that we live within a system that profits from their disenfranchisement. How do we convince the next generation of thinkers that their engagement and participation in the political system matters as they watch so much of the progress facilitated by activists of the past dismantled?” —Ruth Ellen Kocher

“Madam President, please pay more attention to, support, and build up public education. Our schools are the democratizing cornerstones of our communities—and this country’s future.” —Joseph O. Legaspi

“I’d like to trust that the voice of any suffering person, regardless of category, had as much currency with you as some power broker. I’d like not to doubt you knew that suffering was of a piece with the planet’s emergency, the ongoing story of oil, water, war, animals.” —Paul Lisicky

“Your country is complex; it is hard to imagine a foreigner being able to fix it for you. Keep this in mind when you consider invading another nation.” —Karan Mahajan

“What’s really important to me is the radical reconceptualization of our broken criminal-justice system that targets young black and brown people—increasingly girls and young women—for arrest, detention, and incarceration, thereby continuing the program of relegating generations of people of color to second-class citizenry. It is clear to so many of us that the increased presence of police in daily life, alongside the militarization of police forces, is the wrong path to go down, and that we have to think progressively in our imagining of the future we’d like to create.” —Dawn Lundy Martin

“Please put climate change at the front and center of our national conversation, and follow up by funding initiatives toward developing and using sustainable energy.” —Cate Marvin

Peace is a good word for politicians to look up, understand the meaning of it, use it once in a while, learn to practice it. You are committing environmental child abuse by poisoning our food, polluting our air, and totally destroying the environment so that a few of your cronies can make a few extra billion or two while the rest of us will not survive even to serve you.” —Alejandro Murguía

“The blight on ‘American exceptionalism’ is the recurring cycle of black youth raised in communities where poverty, inadequate education, and insufficient recreational and job opportunities exclude too many of them from the promise of the American Dream. It is urgent that you fund programs now to address this shameful problem.” —Elizabeth Nunez

“Dear Madam President, help us lift up the least advantaged among us. Put your strength and determination behind education, jobs, and equality. We have benefited greatly from the moral guidance of the last administration. Please keep the spirit of ‘yes we can’ alive. God bless you.” —D. A. Powell

“What the world wants, demands, deserves, and needs from you is that you guide your leadership and base your decisions on just one principle: love. Because isn’t that the whole point to it all—love? Isn’t that why we all keep on going?” —Mira Ptacin

“Madam President, the influence of the Israel lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many Palestinians who have been living in degradation and increasing terror under the Israeli occupation for the last half century, just as the influence of the NRA lobby is not as valuable as the lives of the many U.S. citizens who have been injured and killed due to gun violence.” —Emily Raboteau

“There should be a new cabinet post—Secretary of the Arts. For the inaugural six poets: European, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Native American, Muslim.” —Ishmael Reed

“I want the president to know that we are tired of having our voices silenced and our needs unmet. I want the president to know that we want better gun control, higher minimum wages, recognition of women’s rights, better education, and most of all a greater sense of our shared humanity—unity, not division.” —Roxana Robinson

“President Hillary Clinton, I live in Portland, Oregon, where every day I watch our homeless camps grow in size. Homelessness is a national crisis that has barely been discussed this election season. You’ve pledged ‘to direct more federal resources to those who need them most.’ As you do so, please don’t forget about some of your most vulnerable constituents: homeless Americans. It’s an issue at the nexus of economic inequality, joblessness, rising housing costs, lack of affordable housing, health care accessibility, and systemic racism. Please make connecting all Americans to safe, stable homes and services a priority.” —Karen Russell

“Madam President, where has all the funding gone for arts in the schools? Could those kuts be the reesen we are all getin dummer?” —George Saunders

“The growing disparity in wealth in this country undermines any hope we have for achieving social justice. Changing this won’t be easy, and will require more courage, conviction, and political leadership than you have exhibited in the past.” —Dani Shapiro

“Since arts and humanities programs enrich our American lives beyond measure, connecting and inspiring people of different backgrounds and inclinations better than anything else does, it would be reasonable to support them threefold or more, without question. The fact that Bernie Sanders, a Jewish American, found it possible to be frank about the injustice and criminal oppression that Palestinian people have suffered for the past sixty-eight years suggests other politicians might be able to do this too—injustice for one side does not help the ‘other side’ and everyone knows this but does not act or speak as honestly or honorably as Sanders did.” —Naomi Shihab Nye

“I would like you to know that we do not have any more time—at all—to postpone addressing the issue of climate change. And while you’re working to ensure the survival of the planet, please remember that some of us are dying at an even faster rate from poverty, lack of health care, gun violence, police brutality, war, and twenty-seven kinds of intolerance—so please use your authority to help ensure that we live to see (and help implement) the climate-change solutions you set in motion.” —Evie Shockley

“I want the next president to shout from the housetops that violence is not a source or sign of strength but of weakness, whether inside a home or between nations. I want us to address violence at all scales, from domestic violence and gun violence to our endless, failed, one-sided, expensive foreign wars to the subtle violence against the poor and the unborn among our species, against more fragile species, and against the earth and the future that is unchecked climate change and the brutal fossil-fuel industry.” —Rebecca Solnit

“Did you know we need to find more jobs for the unemployed? Also, Palestine and Israel need to work it out.” —Tom Spanbauer

“If you can’t do everything, at least do what you say. I just wanna live in a country that knows the difference between love and hate.” —Ebony Stewart

“Our public-education system is in desperate need of resources, specifically in marginalized communities, as well as a more learner-centered, diverse curriculum emphasizing perspectives across race, gender, class, nationality, sexual orientation, ability, and the multiple intersections therein to challenge all of us to be better human beings on this planet. And, Madam President, if I can focus our last few minutes on my beautiful, complicated city: Your support of Rahm Emanuel terrifies me. Thank you for listening. Please, keep listening. To all of us. Not some. All.” —Megan Stielstra

“Free Leonard Peltier. Free Chelsea Manning.” —Justin Taylor

“No language is neutral. To speak is to claim a life—and often our own. If more Americans speak to one another, in writing, in media, at the supermarket, we might listen better. It is difficult, I think, to hate one another when we start to understand not only why and how we hurt, but also why and how we love.” —Ocean Vuong

“The greatest threats facing the United States are not terrorism and illegal immigration but rather injustice, bias, inequality, and fear. To be a great nation we must focus on criminal-justice reform; the eradication of the vestiges of slavery; education; and human and civil rights for all.” —Ayelet Waldman

“Please stop separating families through deportation; let it be understood that they did not want to be in this country to begin with (which reminds me, please stop bombing children, stop invading countries, stop sending the young and poor onto the battlefields). Please create a path toward citizenship for everyone, not just the ‘dreamers,’ because we all learn to dream from our parents.” —Javier Zamora

 

Bullets Into Bells

by

Maya Popa

12.13.17

It has been just over five years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, during which twenty first-graders and six educators were killed. Since then, more than 150,000 Americans have lost their lives as a result of gun violence, and the public debate about guns in America—recently magnified by a mass shooting in Las Vegas in October and at a church in rural Texas in November—rages on. But a new anthology of poetry and essays aims to offer a different perspective on an issue that is so often oversimplified by the media.

Published a week before the fifth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting and coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press) is a powerful call to end gun violence in the United States. The anthology includes poems by dozens of celebrated poets—including Billy Collins, Ocean Vuong, Natasha Trethewey, and Juan Felipe Herrera—paired with nonfiction responses by activists, political figures, survivors, and others affected by gun violence. The anthology’s “call and response” structure showcases the direct relationship between specific acts of gun violence and the poems that were generated as a result. In the book’s foreword, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—who survived being shot in the head at a 2011 meeting with constituents in Arizona—and her husband, retired astronaut and Navy captain Mark Kelly, write, “Survivors, advocates, and allies can change hearts and minds—and move more people to join our fight for solutions—by telling stories about the irreparable damage that gun violence does to families and communities across the country.”

When they began compiling the book, the editors knew it would have a political purpose. “We agreed that the anthology would do more than simply collect literary responses to a political issue—it would need to be a political artifact in itself,” says Clements, for whom the anthology has a personal thrust. His wife, Abbey, worked as a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 and has since become an outspoken activist for gun control. Clements and his fellow editors envisioned the anthology as both a tribute to those who die by guns every year and a way to find common ground in the discussion about gun violence.

Several poets the editors invited to contribute, including Robert Hass, Tess Taylor, and Yusef Komunyakaa, chose to write new poems for the anthology. “These poems tend not to respond to specific events but are, instead, often deeply personal meditations on the poet’s relationship to guns or their individual experiences with shootings,” says Rader. He points to two poems in particular: one by Brenda Hillman about her family’s gun, and one by Bob Hicok that revisits the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where he was a professor at the time and even had the shooter, who killed thirty-two and wounded seventeen, in one of his classes. “Both of these poems move beyond mere ‘anger’ and toward some larger notion of individual and communal ethic,” says Rader.

With more than fifty poems and fifty responses, the anthology brings together many perspectives on a complicated issue. “A big part of the impetus for the anthology was that conversations in the media about gun violence often become a loop of the same few sentiments, without the range of voices that poets were offering,” says Teague. “Christopher Soto’s ‘All the Dead Boys Look Like Me,’ for instance, written in the wake of the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, draws together personal experience with the often fatal dangers that queer brown bodies face in our country, as well as with family connections, activism, and a call for reimagining this legacy of endangerment and death.”

In another of the anthology’s pairings, Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy who was shot by police in Cleveland in 2012, responds to Reginald Dwayne Betts’s poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which opens:

 

in the backseat of my car are my own sons,
still not yet Tamir’s age, already having heard
me warn them against playing with toy pistols,
though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t
like, not what I fear, because sometimes
I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears…

 

Rice responds, “When I think of Tamir as his mother, the woman who gave birth to him, I wonder why my son had to lose his life in such a horrific way in this great place we call America…Tamir was an all-American kid with a promising and bright future…. Who will govern the government when they continue to murder American citizens?”

In another pairing, Po Kim Murray of the Newtown Action Alliance responds to a poem about the Sandy Hook shootings. Antonius Wiriadjaja, who survived being shot on the sidewalk in New York City as he walked to the subway in 2013, responds to Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem “A Morning Shooting,” about a young man who is shot in a driveway on his way to work. “The poems themselves are exceptionally powerful, but the combinations of poem and respondent results in another order of emotional impact,” says Clements.

“Throughout the collection, the poets and respondents imagine how the lives of those killed by gun violence, and their survivors, could have been different if not for racial discrimination, homophobia, and other forms of violence that have replaced listening and supporting the lives and potentials of all our citizens,” says Teague.

The Bullets Into Bells editors hope to expand the project’s reach beyond the book. In the coming months, a number of events will be held across the country, featuring readings and panel discussions with the poets and essayists from the anthology. A related website for the project (beacon.org/bullets-into-bells-p1298.aspx) includes additional poems, statements from activists, opportunities for action, data on gun violence, interviews, and more. “One of my hopes,” says Clements, “is that this project—the book, the web content, the events around the country—will be part of a perhaps slower but more direct and more personal approach, bypassing the national media, that will encourage poets, readers of poetry, and literary audiences who might not otherwise have become involved in this movement to get more involved.”

Colum McCann echoes this hope in his introduction to the book: “The conviction behind this anthology is that we should be in the habit of hoping and speaking out in favor of that hope. It is, in the end, an optimistic book. The poems assert the possibility of language rather than bullets to open up our veins.”       

 

Maya Popa is a writer and teacher living in New York City. She is the author of the poetry chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled (New Michigan Press, 2017). Her website is mayacpopa.com.                  

Abbey and Brian Clements (holding an orange sign) at the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America march across the Brooklyn Bridge in May 2016.

The Radius of Arab American Writers

by

Marwa Helal

8.16.17

When poet Glenn Shaheen first started writing, he had little sense of community as an Arab American writer. He felt constrained from writing about Arab American issues or identity, and his undergraduate writing professors scoffed at “identity writing,” telling him it would be “a cheat to write like that, because you’d immediately get published.” But when fellow poet Hayan Charara introduced Shaheen to the Radius of Arab American Writers (RAWI), Shaheen found a community that supported and empowered his artistic freedom. “RAWI helped me be proud of my Arab heritage. Knowing there was a thriving community of Arab writers of all backgrounds and genres made me realize I was actually a part of that community,” says Shaheen. “I feel free to write about anything now after meeting so many other Arab writers—some working on science fiction novels or ecopoetry or experimental dramatic works. It helped me see that there isn’t a specific mold of an Arab American writer that I should aspire to or avoid.”

Shaheen is not the only writer who has found community through RAWI, a nonprofit organization that for the past twenty-five years has worked to support and disseminate creative and scholarly writing by Arab Americans. RAWI—a word that means storyteller in Arabic—was first established in 1992 by journalist and anthropologist Barbara Nimri Aziz as a seven-person group of writers that met in Washington, D.C. It has since grown into a thriving community of nearly 125 writers, artists, and journalists all over the world, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. Members include literary heavyweights like Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami, National Book Award finalist Rabih Alameddine, poet and translator Fady Joudah, and poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The organization now hosts workshops and a biennial conference that features panels, readings, and workshops for Arab American writers. The last conference, which focused on a range of topics including craft, publishing, and the effects of Islamophobia, was held in Minneapolis in June 2016 and cosponsored by Mizna, a nonprofit that promotes Arab American culture. The next conference will take place in Houston, Texas, in June 2018. In the meantime, RAWI has also launched In Solidarity, a series of daylong workshops and craft talks for people of color, members of marginalized communities, and allies in various cities throughout the United States. The series was spearheaded by fiction writer Susan Muaddi Darraj, and the first workshop, which took place in March in Washington, D.C., gave writers space to talk about identity, publishing, and being a writer in the margins. The second was held in San Francisco in April, and more are in the works around the country. “We hope these workshops foster communication and a feeling of solidarity among various communities,” says Darraj. “At least one writers circle has been formed as an outcome of these daylong workshops.”

In the coming year RAWI will be doing even more. In March the organization began advocating for the first-ever Arab American caucus, to be held at the next Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, and is currently planning a twenty-fifth-anniversary celebration. In October the University of Arkansas Press will publish Jess Rizkallah’s poetry collection the magic my body becomes, winner of the Etel Adnan Poetry Prize, a new award given for a first or second book of poetry by a poet of Arab heritage and cosponsered by RAWI. “Leading RAWI has always been rewarding and challenging, but it is especially so this year,” says executive director Randa Jarrar. “I’m dazzled by our community’s literary output—we have so many excellent books out this year and next, and on and on.”

RAWI’s growth hasn’t been without some pains. “The challenge is often fund-raising, and belonging to a nation that often doesn’t celebrate our work alongside us, but picks and tokenizes, or silences,” Jarrar says. Both before and after 9/11, Arab American writers have had to balance the desire to be read and recognized for the quality of their work with being hyper-visible spokespeople for their homelands while struggling to live and work amid ongoing hostility toward Arab people. With the president’s recent ban on travelers from several Arab-majority countries, Arab Americans face increased challenges. “More than ever,” Jarrar says, “I hope that RAWI can be a solace and provide its members and the Arab American literary community support and a sense of belonging and connection and resistance.”

For many writers, RAWI has done just that. “It has shown me that we exist,” says Palestinian American poet Tariq Luthun. “I think, like any population, we are at least vaguely aware of the fact that we aren’t the only ones of our kind. But seeing and experiencing this community firsthand is so vital to one’s resolve in continuing to do this work.” Emerging poet Kamelya Omayma Youssef agrees. For her, RAWI provided the foundation she needed as a writer. “Imagining that I can eventually read to a room full of people and be heard without the threat of reductive thinking or fetishization or demonization should not be as radical as it is for me today,” she says. “But it is totally radical. RAWI is that room.”        

 

Marwa Helal is a poet and journalist who lives and teaches in Brooklyn, New York. She is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Contest and the author of the poetry collection Invasive species, forthcoming from Nightboat Books in 2019. Her website is marshelal.com.        

Hayan Charara addresses attendees at the 2016 RAWI conference in Minneapolis.  (Credit: Makeen Osman)

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

Singapore Unbound

by

Melynda Fuller

2.15.17

Every month in New York City, thirty to forty writers and literature enthusiasts gather at the home of a fellow writer for a potluck and reading of American, international, and Singaporean literature. Established in 2014 by Singaporean writer Jee Leong Koh, these salons, called the Second Saturday Reading Series, have featured dozens of emerging and established writers from around the world and allowed Singaporean and non-Singaporean writers alike to connect over literature. Koh now hopes to expand on that cultural exchange with his new project, Singapore Unbound, which will celebrate and raise awareness about Singaporean literary culture. “We want to expand the idea of who is Singaporean,” says Koh. “You’re not Singaporean just because you’re a citizen. You’re still Singaporean if you move away, or you could be a guest worker in the country. We want to encompass both groups.” 

Launched in February, Singapore Unbound serves as the umbrella organization for the Second Saturday Reading Series and the biennial Singapore Literature Festival, which was created in 2014 by Koh and writer Paul Rozario-Falcone and was last held in New York City in Fall 2016. Under the same umbrella, indie poetry publisher Bench Press will join forces with the blog Singapore Poetry, which features cross-cultural book reviews (Americans review Singaporean books, and Singaporeans review American books). Koh hopes that by aligning these projects under one organization, he can provide Singaporean writers with a “prominent and independent platform for open and free expression of their views.” 

That platform is important to protecting and advancing the literary culture of a country that has not always supported free speech. While Singapore boasts a rich stew of cultures with four official languages—Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English—and a burgeoning indie literature landscape that showcases a diversity of cultures and ideas, literature is still restricted by the government. Although the state grants large sums of money to publishers and writers, giving them greater freedom to take risks on young writers in particular, the money comes with stipulations: The work cannot undermine governmental authority and must not advocate for what the state deems “objectionable lifestyles”—namely, those of LGBTQIA writers. In response, Singapore-based publishers like Ethos, Epigram, Landmark, and Math Paper Press have been pushing censorship boundaries for the past few years, and Koh himself doesn’t accept government funds. Kenny Leck, owner of the popular Tiong Bahru–based bookstore BooksActually, says, “At the bookstore, and with our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, we sell the titles and publish the content that most compels us. In that way, our government, the state, has no say in what we choose to do.” 

Singapore Unbound is committed not only to freedom of expression, but also to the idea that cross-cultural exchange leads to a healthier literary culture. Alfian Sa’at, who participated in the 2016 literature festival, where a portion of his five-hour epic play Hotel was performed in the United States for the first time, notes the positive impact of the kind of exchange Singapore Unbound fosters. “Having links with writers from other countries helps us learn from one another’s experiences,” he says. “For a long time I think we’ve looked toward a place like the United States for guidance on issues such as freedom of expression, how institutional solidarity in the form of something like the PEN American Center can aid writers who struggle with censorship and persecution.” Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean writer living in New York City, agrees. At the 2014 festival Tiang worked with the political arts collective Kristiania to organize a panel of two Singaporean poets alongside writers in exile from Indonesia and Nigeria. “I think the best conversations happen when people from different contexts are able to exchange ideas in this way,” says Tiang.

With the introduction of Singapore Unbound, Koh plans to further those conversations. He hopes to start a scholarship program that will pay for Singaporean writers to spend two weeks in New York during the summer to experience the culture of the city and collaborate with local writers. This past fall Koh also created a fellowship program designed to bring more voices to the organization, help it reach a wider audience, and build its online presence. “With Singapore Unbound we want to bring outstanding literature to a wide audience,” says Koh, “and by doing so liberalize our politics and sentiments.”

 

Melynda Fuller is a New York City–based writer and editor. She received her MFA from the New School and is at work on a collection of essays. Her website is melyndafuller.com. Find her on Twitter, @MGrace_Fuller

Correction
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the 2016 Singapore Literature Festival included both a performance of Alfian Sa’at’s play Hotel in English and a panel organized by Jeremy Tiang. Alfian Sa’at’s play is actually multilingual and Jeremy Tiang organized a panel at the 2014 festival, not the 2016 festival.

Jee Leong Koh speaks at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. 

Muslim Americans Take the Mic

by

Marwa Helal

12.14.16

On a recent trip to New Orleans, my friend and I went to a bar in the neighborhood known as Algiers. We met a local man there, who hung out with us for the rest of the evening. About three hours into our conversation, I casually mentioned that my last name means “crescent moon.” He backed away from the table with a fearful gesture and said, “Oh, so you’re definitely Muslim.” This is the M-word in action, and this is how it functions in everyday social situations. It can suddenly change the mood, discontinue or alter conversations. PEN America’s new initiative, “The M Word: Muslim Americans Take the Mic,” aims to address this social effect head-on through a series of events and stories that will give voice to some of the most powerful and innovative writers in the Muslim community. The two-year initiative, which launched last fall and is funded by a $225,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to advance the conversation about the challenges of self-identification and self-expression that Muslim Americans face in today’s social and political climate.

An organization devoted to advancing literature and protecting free expression at home and abroad, PEN America has highlighted Muslim writers by publishing their work on its website, pen.org, and by inviting Muslim writers to speak at the annual PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, where the organization is based. The M Word series continues this work by giving a more dedicated platform to the Muslim community. “We are for the first time focusing on the richness and diversity of Muslim American writers but also their deep contributions to the American literary canon and landscape,” says Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, the deputy director of public programs at PEN America.

For centuries, Muslim Americans have played a vital role in building America’s varied and inspiring cultural landscape. But their voices have often been marginalized, a trend that has accelerated in today’s political climate, as misinformation and the normalization of hate speech have given rise to divisive rhetoric and rampant Islamophobia. “PEN America wanted to counter this trend by giving Muslim American creators the mic, so to speak, to tell their stories, their way, and to challenge prevailing narrow representations of Muslims in popular media,” Shariyf says.

The series kicked off in New York City this past September with an event called “The M Word: Muslim-American Comedians on the Right to Joke,” which featured comedy sets and a conversation with journalist and award-winning playwright Wajahat Ali, and comedians Negin Farsad, Mo Amer, Hasan Minhaj of The Daily Show, and Phoebe Robinson of 2 Dope Queens. PEN plans to host similar events in Boston; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and other cities across the country. The next event, part of the Muslim Protagonist Symposium hosted by the Muslim Students Association at Columbia University, will be held in late February in New York City and will focus on Muslim American fiction writers.

To expand the program’s reach, PEN will also share original stories by Muslim American writers online. “We are inviting audience members, online followers, panelists, and others to share their personal experiences. The stories we collect will become part of the PEN American Center Digital Archive of Free Expression and may also appear on pen.org, Facebook, or other platforms,” Shariyf says. Videos of the M Word events are also posted online and sometimes live-streamed.

To help shape the series, PEN is collaborating with prominent organizations and individuals within the Muslim writing community. PEN cohosted an event in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival with Akashic Books and the Muslim Writers Collective, a volunteer-run group that organizes monthly open mics for Muslim writers and artists (the collective has active chapters in several cities, including Seattle; Boston; Houston, Texas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan). PEN has also solicited several advisers, including Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Ayad Akhtar; Sana Amanat, creator of the comic-book series Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan); novelist Zia Haider Rahman; religious scholar and media commentator Reza Aslan; and Ali, who moderated the September event. “Everyone talks about Muslims, but no one is really interested in talking to them or having them emerge as protagonists in their own narrative,” Ali says. “The M Word is not a politically correct, feel-good, liberal proselytizing series. It examines, dissects, uncovers and celebrates the diverse experiences that are too often silenced, stereotyped, or excised from the final draft.”The M Word

When asked what the M-word means to him, Ali explains, “Muslim is an identity, a signifier that means an individual in some way identifies with a religion that acknowledges the Allah as the Creator and the Prophet Muhammad as his messenger. It’s one of my chosen identity markers that denotes my spiritual path and religious communities. On 9/11, I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC Berkeley. Since that day, I have become an accidental representative of this word and the 1.7 billion people it allegedly represents. I became us and them. My career has been spent navigating the alleged divides, building this bridge and inviting others to cross it.”

Ali remains hopeful. “Change takes time and effort, it never comes without some friction. I hope the M Word helps cast a spotlight on these talented American Muslims who rarely get their voices heard in front of mainstream, privileged audiences. It’s education, entertainment, and an opportunity to bridge the divides.”

Marwa Helal is the winner of BOMB Magazine’s 2016 Poetry Prize. She lives in New York City and received her MFA from the New School. Follow her on Twitter, @marwahelal.

The Translation Tango: On Being an Emerging Translator

by

Megan Berkobien

10.14.15

I’ve never liked traveling. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed living abroad or visiting the various countries that have welcomed me. Rather, it’s something in the physical movement from place to place that unsettles. The movement between cultures and languages is a bodily experience; it marks you, and it can be exhausting to learn the new gestures, to contort your limbs into another semantic system, to conjugate your entire tongue. Even after years of not speaking Russian, though, I can still easily pull out the phrase: “My head hurts, do you have any aspirin?”

Last November I felt a similar body ache en route to Milwaukee, which was the location for the 2014 American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference. I entered the Hilton where the event took place—all high ceilings and polished marble floors—and pulled my carry-on luggage into the lobby, my arrival announced by a broken wheel. It wasn’t the romantic vision of becoming a translator—dreamily passing through the streets of Barcelona (though I’ve hallucinated those moments too)—but it was a momentous occasion nonetheless.

ALTA is something of a saving grace for literary translators in the United States. Having been around for nearly four decades, the organization has passed through several incarnations, the most recent transition being from its former institutional home in the Translation Center at the University of Texas in Dallas to an independently run nonprofit arts association in Bloomington, Indiana. Its annual conference draws hundreds of translators, editors, and critics to a different city each year for four days of events and after-dinner drinks. Though perhaps ALTA’s most ambitious undertaking is highlighting the work of its many members, including several special readings that celebrate a series of honors—the National Translation Award, the Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize, and the most coveted award for emerging translators like me, the ALTA Travel Fellowship, which gives four to six up-and-coming translators the financial support to travel to the conference and introduce their work to hundreds of expectant ears. 

I arrived intentionally early that Wednesday, a habit meant to work against my travel anxiety. As a student in a PhD program (at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor), there’s a general expectation for me to attend academic conferences. Having gone to one of those a year earlier—the Modern Language Association conference in Chicago—my expectations for ALTA were, well, skewed. Sometimes these formal gatherings can feel absurd, even at odds with their expressed missions; in my experience, many graduate students are so nervous about their own panel performances that they miss events while preparing to present their fifteen-minute papers. 

So I suppose I was on autopilot when I scurried up to my hotel room that November afternoon, cloistering myself for the better part of three hours, preparing for the group reading I was scheduled to participate in with the other fellows instead of venturing out to meet other translators. My translation from Catalan of Llucia Ramis’s “The Port” had to bear the bulk of my unease: a change in tense here, one word swapped out for another there, until I wasn’t even sure about my English anymore. I knew it was time to leave when I couldn’t quite tell if the was a real word or not.

When I finally headed down to the conference to look for familiar faces, I found the registration line, extending from what was usually the coatroom, growing. And by the looks of those around me, I had overdressed. My choice of black business attire—against that sea of more colorful and casual garb—betrayed that it was, in fact, my first time. 

One by one, my fellow fellows and I spotted one another, our photos having been posted on the ALTA blog some time before the conference. We huddled before the spiral staircase, and our small talk first revolved around whether or not to affix the Fellow ribbons to our badges. The wonderful Marian Schwartz, our mentor, laughed at our general uncertainty and gave us the push we needed. For the rest of the night, the eyes of other veteran translators dropped straight to our chests: “You’re a fellow, eh?” 

Or, my personal favorite: “You don’t look anything like your picture, you know?” 

Receiving an ALTA Travel Fellowship was the biggest honor ever bestowed upon me, to be sure. I remember excusing myself for a moment to hurry back up to my room before the opening ceremony, moving in that excited gait one takes when one’s expecting you. In the elevator ride the lingering disquiet—of having to prove that I deserved to be there among esteemed translators—was interrupted by three lively women who invited me out for celebratory cocktails. And though I opted for the free local beer at the welcome dinner instead, I remembered their laughter later that night—perhaps not better than aspirin for a headache, but just enough medicine to soften the day’s chilled travels and the anticipation of the adventures to come. 

How did I arrive in Milwaukee, as an emerging translator? I fell in love with a certain text, of course. 

Seven years ago I was deep in the guttural trenches of my Russian language studies when I decided to begin university classes in Spanish and Portuguese. Knowing there would be few classes offered in Russian during upcoming semesters—and that those classes would often only cover the wise-old-male masters—I skimmed the course catalogue and happened upon another world entirely, in the department of Romance Languages and Literatures. I didn’t know how the transition would go, because my own story was the normal one: a few years of Spanish in high school, nothing substantive—I probably couldn’t even hold a regular conversation. But at least there was a clear path to work my way up to the more challenging classes and, eventually, achieve some semblance of fluency. What a word—fluency—a spectrum of signs that appear and disappear against one’s will. If you ask an emerging translator just what it means to be fluent, the pause often says more than the response.  

However, as a junior in college, instead of packing my bags and flying off to Latin America, I overcame that first step in the serpentine climb toward bilingualism through textual immersion: translation, that is. This approach is a gamble; most literature on the subject says that you have to live a culture in order to communicate it. But after reading Cristina Peri Rossi’s short story “Rumores” in a class about imagined cities, inhabiting a text seemed the more sensible (or maybe even the only possible) route.

When I began my initial attempt at translating this story, I had both Peri Rossi’s Cuentos reunidos [Collected Stories] and Cosmoagonías [Cosmoagonies], from which the story had sprawled out, beside me. The books were not enough. I also had several dictionaries on loan from the library and a dozen open tabs on my browser, from WordReference forums to pictures of Berlin in winter (“and after dark they would scrawl the words der traum in leben on desolate station platforms or metal shutters”). I knew Tobias Hecht’s brilliant version of the story was already available in English, thanks to Words Without Borders, though it was important for me to resist consulting it. Instead, I poured out my first impressions rather carelessly, listening more to my own sense of the thing than to the thing itself. This is where your own vision of the world takes over, and you wonder how to translate even a simple verb like contemplar, whether or not you really “contemplate the color of the sky.” (I suppose it depends on your translation strategy.) I only spent a few days on the story before putting it away. That’s how it went when I was first starting out; whenever I got frustrated, I would simply swap one cuento out for another. The first story I finished was the penultimate in the collection, “The Uprooted”—six paragraphs about people who weren’t really people at all. 

I ventured my first e-mail to Cristina three months afterward. I mused about the things I loved in a language not my own, things I saw inscribed in almost all of her printed pages. I had written with the secret intention of asking permission to publish my translation of “The Uprooted” in the undergraduate translation magazine I was founding at the time (a low-stakes venue, to be sure, for only a handful of people would ever read it). I made no mention of rights, however; instead I tried to win her over by treating her like a distant confidant, by drawing little sketches in words like private doodles in a notebook. Translation is a lovers’ tango, after all. 

The surprise was that she responded. 

Cristina wrote of love, of Borges, of what it meant to translate and be translated. She asked for a photo so that she could better know the person carrying fragments of her voice to new places, to Ann Arbor, to a time beyond when I would eventually publish her stories (she was more sure than I was on that point). From then on, we would speak about our own cities (real and imagined) as each season passed. In one of my most vulnerable moments, I sent her a video of me singing a Nat King Cole tune, a side of me that I only share with those closest to my heart, and she responded in complete shock that it was her favorite song—something I’m still not sure I believe. I had never trusted Walter Benjamin’s line that some texts call out to be translated at certain times, by certain people, but if I needed a sign, that was it. 

Really, I can’t quite remember when I switched verbs about the work I was doing, from “I want to become a translator” to “I am one.” As I try to hone in on it, the moments simply heap up. I don’t think I was a translator when I completed that first story of Cristina’s, but was I when I finally “completed” the entire collection of Cosmoagonies? (My gut still tells me no.) Or when I won an undergraduate award for it? (The award money was carelessly spent, but kept my spirits high.) Perhaps when I received my first publication acceptance? (“…yes I said yes I will Yes.”) Maybe, finally, when I stood up onstage and delivered another text from the Catalan to an audience of my colleagues in Milwaukee? (The importance of this gesture of acceptance by my colleagues was crucial, and there was my badge to prove it.) More than anything, I suppose, it was hearing, first through e-mail, then in person, from Cristina that my work mattered, and that she granted me poetic license to reinterpret, to re-create her stories, our languages now like shifting tectonic plates, scraping against each other to split the soil. 

But maybe the truth is that it still depends on the company I’m keeping.

My close friends hate that I’m a morning person, that I’m so god-awful cheery in those first fuzzy hours. At 8:30 AM I slipped down to the “First Time ALTA Participants” panel and nodded much too vigorously throughout. Then there were the panels on getting published, negotiating contracts, and self-publicity—standard but important fare for tenderfeet like me. At lunch, I can’t remember eating much as I listened to everyone’s stories: of Sara, whose first novel, Girl at War, was just coming out with Random House; or of Tenzin, who had worked a few years as special assistant to the Representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

It was hard not to feel a bit intimidated, but I derived some courage from the book exhibition, where I came across Marcelle Sauvageot’s Commentary, translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley and Anna Moschovakis, published by Ugly Duckling Presse. I then attended several bilingual readings and enjoyed some exquisite coffee at break. At around 4:00 PM the other fellows and I met up for our practice session before the reading. Knowing that I first had to read from the source text (a beautiful Majorcan story with the ends of the first-person singular verbs cut off like dangling fingertips) seemed the real test. I stumbled through sentences like a drunk, my mouth too close to the microphone to make any sense. 

The ballroom was packed with about a hundred expectant audience members that evening. The room itself, with its velvety interiors and ornamental framing, demanded the kind of reverential silence one imagines to be truly “literary.” I was fourth in line, just enough time to let the anxiety eat me up as I waited. 

The first few words in a different language always pop out haphazardly, I think. Yet, when I saw all the smiling faces before me, even the Catalan words hopped out of my mouth. Record un eriçó devorat per les formigues…. I remember looking down and seeing my friend Julia’s face—Julia is another wonderful Portuguese-Spanish-Catalan translator—her eyes closed as she listened to me speak. It felt almost natural. Perhaps more natural than when I speak Catalan during my stays in Barcelona. 

After the event, I felt the high that only reading work to an audience can give you. A couple of friends greeted me at the back of the room, and though I gleefully received their congratulations (in measure, of course), my immediate reaction was: But how did my Catalan sound? 

“Your voice gets so deep when you speak it,” Julia said. 

Another friend, Nate, remarked how strange it was too.

“Like a man’s,” I said. 

Maybe not like a man’s, though. Maybe something completely different, like the voice of a bumbling alien. Or maybe like a foreign radio sounding out from between my teeth, the static getting in the way.  

We spent some time comparing our voices in Spanish, Catalan, and English. Only mine refused to stay put. If I were to point to a palpable aspect of my own transition to a serious translator (de debò), it’s just this feeling of performance. And I’m always hoping that it’s normal, that we’re all just actors in separate acts.

After the reading, a group of us ventured out into the snow. It was that time of year when snow is a welcome sight, when it’s new and soft and dreamy. Flakes that remind you of when you were younger.

In a sports bar a few streets away from the hotel, I ordered a cider and began chatting with Kaija Straumanis, editorial director for Open Letter Books. We didn’t really talk all that much about literature. It’s not that we wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but there’s a point when you’d rather know a person as a person instead of merely talking shop (this is, perhaps, the corrective to performance). For as much as our days are swept up between printed lines and promotional e-mails, the ALTA conference gives translators a good excuse—and rare opportunity—to truly meet those other individuals in the field. 

As one who lives outside New York City, these moments of connection are vital for me. Having worked for several different literary journals, I had only ever known the larger community of so-called emerging translators through digital interfaces: e-mails, Trello, Twitter. And the recent addition of the conversation forums offered by the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America (ELTNA) has made it even easier to get and stay in contact when difficult questions come up for new translators. For translators, perhaps unlike a lot of other professions, there’s still a lot of fog surrounding the process of making an entrance into the larger field, especially if you want to make a living at it. 

I hesitate to say it, but I think that many of us believe that the period of emergence ends with a first print book publication. It’s certainly a big question we all carry with us, and it often seemed on the tip of my tongue whenever I discussed my own work and the work of other young translators at the ALTA conference. Working as an intern for Open Letter this past summer, however, has partly changed my mind about that. 

Publishing, need I say it, is a complicated business. Many of the independent presses dedicated to filling their catalogues with books in translation are underfunded and overextended. Even when a translated title slides into an editor’s hands, even if it corresponds with a publisher’s specific vision, it’s more a question of timing—to avoid the term luck—than talent. Because if there’s one thing that became apparent at the conference last winter, it’s that a lack of talented translators is not the problem. 

One of the things that I love about the translation community as I’ve come to know it is how we actively read one another’s writing. Certain presses, I believe, become allies as well. If I spot an Open Letter or Two Lines Press title on a shelf, I can’t really help but go look, read a passage, negotiate how many meals I might have to give up for it (two, usually, depending on my budget). But I don’t mind paying that money, because sitting in front of a computer for hours while thinking about another translator’s writing—as well as being counseled by patient editors like Kaija—has made me acutely aware of the work behind editorial negotiation, especially at presses like Open Letter that actively collaborate with early-career translators. 

My first full-length translation, Peri Rossi’s novella Strange Flying Objects, is forthcoming later this year from Ox and Pigeon, a relatively new press dedicated to literature in translation. But the most notable aspect of their mission? They’re still completely digital. It’s a surprising fact, as some readers might already know, because the few translation-based publishing houses that first pursued the e-book route quickly discovered that many of their readers still want things: artifacts, collectibles, proof of an author’s life beyond death. And as a translator I feel that pull too. I want to see a book materialized before me in the form through which I’ve been taught to revere it.  But I think that if we’re really going to make space for emerging translators in such a tight market, we can’t simply ignore the e-book: We need to explore its possibilities and make it our own. I anticipate that some form of this topic will move out of private conversations and take center stage at the next conference, as more and more translators register with ALTA to stake a claim in the community to which they belong.

Almost a year after being named a 2014 fellow, and as I prepare for my trip to the upcoming conference in Tucson, Arizona, I think I’m coming around to something: Perhaps the figure of the emerging translator doesn’t really exist. I’m not saying this to be dismissive. Translation is a skill, one to be honed, and we should celebrate the recent initiatives that make room for translators in the early stages of their craft. I would not be writing this article, for example, had I not been chosen by ALTA to represent a new cohort last year, had I not been funded by my PhD program to pursue my translations, had I not been welcomed by Open Letter to engage in the thornier issues of the editorial process. But I want to question what it means to have “made it,” to be “present” on the scene, to be emerging, and to have emerged.

Instead, I find that being a translator is always a process of recognizing, forgetting, and retracing the routes we make through texts. Sometimes I look back at stories I’ve translated (few though they are) and can hardly remember working through certain lines. And I know that, whatever translation I might publish in the future, another reading will reveal infelicities—things that once made sense but that now suddenly fall flat—but also those tender spots, moments in which I recognize not only the author, but also myself and the many other translator-writers who have made their way into my consciousness.

And I know I’m not saying anything new. To quote Peter Cole in the Spring 2015 issue of the Paris Review, “Smart people say such dumb and disappointing things about translation.” But if we’re saying dumb things—if we’re articulating our fear of failure, of the status of the profession, of the worlds we’re trying to inhabit—it’s only because translation is such an impossibly personal act, despite the texts never really being our own. So we say dumb things, but in the right company—whether in the rooms of the ALTA conference or in forums online—those remarks tend to make the right sense. 

 

Megan Berkobien is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her translations from the Catalan and Spanish have been featured in Words Without Borders, Palabras Errantes, and Asymptote, among other publications.

How Do You Translate a Gunshot? Charlie Hebdo, Francophone Culture, and the Translation Conundrum

by

Jennifer Solheim

10.14.15

This past May, more than four months after the January 7 massacres at the Charlie Hebdo offices, I arrived in Paris for a research trip. On one of my first days there, I stopped in the Place de la République to see the vestiges of the impromptu Charlie memorial on the Marianne monument. In the words of Charlie Hebdo scholar Jane Weston Vauclair, the day after the killings, “people gathered in [the Place de la République] haltingly, haphazardly and almost confusedly. [There were] candles, and someone climbed the monument to put a black armband [on one of the statues of Marianne]. There was applause from the crowd at someone at least doing something, with sporadic burstings out of ‘Liberté d’expression!’” In the days and weeks that followed, graffiti appeared on the monument as well. On the bright May afternoon when I visited, it was mostly back to old purposes: People sat on its round base, eating sandwiches, talking on their phones; skateboarders used it to break their falls. But some of the armbands remained, along with Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) scrawled in various spots, fanzine-like images plastered here and there, and one of the Mariannes had a black X scrawled across her lips. 

I snapped pictures and posted a few shots on Instagram and Facebook. I was thinking about showing these pictures to students in my Paris literature and culture course at the University of Illinois in Chicago this fall. I could literally point to different elements of the pictures to show the layers of history and culture. We could, for instance, compare this current iteration of Marianne, with the black X on her lips, to the many artistic representations of Marianne in France since she first became an allegory of French liberty opposed to monarchical rule in 1792.

Of course I was also considering the awful events of January 7 that took place so close to the Place de la République. As many know, the Charlie staff was holding a meeting when two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, stormed their offices and shot twelve people to death. I thought about the blank horror of moving from the sound of familiar voices to the sound of gunshots. Did the victims know why they were being killed? Did they think of the Danish cartoon affair in that moment? Did they hear the first gunshots before they were deafened by the noise? Were they already deaf by the time the shooters proclaimed the vicious attack on behalf of Islam?

But the true stakes of posting my photos became even clearer to me later that evening, when I returned to the home of my friends Weston Vauclair and her husband, David, in the Bastille. Weston Vauclair is an independent scholar, translator, and teacher in Paris; she wrote her dissertation on Charlie Hebdo and its predecessor, Hara-Kiri. Jane and David have also cowritten a book about the history of Charlie Hebdo, forthcoming from the publisher Eyrolles. Needless to say, both Jane and David have been in demand on the lecture circuit since the attacks. Jane was heading to Belfast in a few weeks for a conference on the Charlie Hebdo attacks that was almost canceled due to alleged safety concerns. She was also wrangling with the cancellation of the two panels on Charlie Hebdo at the joint International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference and International Bande Dessinée Society Conference at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP), which were called off after the near cancellation of the Belfast conference. 

“But,” Jane wondered aloud as we sat with David in their living room drinking tea, “if we can’t utter the words Charlie Hebdo, why is the panel on the representation of Islam in cartoons allowed to stand?” This led to a series of satiric questions on Jane’s part, which she later posted online as part of her protest over the censure of Charlie at the conference: 

  • Is it okay to mention Charlie Hebdo out loud as a word in the building?  
  • If one encounters a ULIP student, may we ask them their opinion on the Charlie Hebdo panels being removed?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je suis Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ T-shirt?
  • Is it possible to wear a T-shirt that looks like ‘Je suis Charlie’ but in fact says something else? 
  • Is it possible to bring copies of Charlie Hebdo into the building?
  • Is it possible to bring copies of the old Charlie Hebdo (from the ’70s?) into the building 
  • Is it possible to mention Hara-Kiri but in fact mean something else when we say it?
  • May I talk about Charlie Hebdo but in a language only I can understand?
  • Is interpretive dance allowed?

Before I went to bed that night, I looked at the Charlie memorial photos again, this time in my Facebook feed. These photos were “liked,” of course, particularly the one in which Je suis Charlie was most prominent. Given everything, perhaps I needed to write a lengthy description of why this site for the impromptu memorial was significant. But the fact is, the image had already come and gone in my friends’ news feeds, and they wouldn’t necessarily look back at this point. That shift in context—on-site to online, local to global—made such a difference in understanding. And that’s when the question occurred to me: How do you translate those gunshots? They are the signal events that led to Charlie Hebdo’s global renown. We all know that understanding the society and history from which translated works arise can help the reader immeasurably. But how, as translators, can we render the texts related to particularly stark, awful, and uncrafted moments like the Charlie Hebdo shootings faithfully? 

As a teacher and researcher, my focus is on contemporary immigrant cultures from North Africa and the Middle East in France. I was introduced to Charlie Hebdo not through my research—although the connections, thanks to the January events, seem glaringly apparent now—but through Weston Vauclair, when we first met as lecturers in Paris while finishing our dissertations. 

When I mentioned to colleagues that I had a place to stay in Paris for this research trip prior to the January 7 massacre, I didn’t say I’d be staying with a Charlie Hebdo scholar—I said that my friend Jane works on contemporary political satire, because in our generation of academics, the great majority of us hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. In fact, the satiric newspaper was debating whether or not to shut down completely in the weeks before the killings due to flagging readership and state funding cuts. So this act of translation is not only across cultures, but a traversal of historic event. Charlie Hebdo is tricky to translate in time, to say the least, because its meaning changed swiftly, profoundly, and irrevocably following the attacks.

But while the connections between Charlie and Francophone cultures in France may only now seem clear and urgent, the field of Francophone studies is not new to this translation conundrum. Let’s begin once more with a question: Francophone is a great word, isn’t it? It sounds like a brass instrument. In introducing me at talks, scholars outside my field have at times hesitated over the pronunciation, and it’s not a term that has a clearly delineated meaning even within the field of studies in French. 

Indeed, Francophonie can be considered an instrument of change—and sometimes a war of words. The celebrated Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire called it back in 1946 with the title of his surrealist poetry collection Miraculous Arms, referring to literary language as a symbolic weapon. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “A Césaire poem explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket.” Rather than taking up arms, Césaire chose to pick up the pen. Literary language is itself the weapon in the case of Césaire, among many other Francophone writers. Francophonie—as opposed to the misguided, fundamentalist violence of the Kouachis—does not use guns to express dissent. Instead, Francophone language often embodies symbolic violence. It issues a vigorous yet peaceful call for social change. 

But as Francophone works move from language to language, or from page to stage to screen, some of the symbolic punch of the language is inevitably lost. For example, in the English translation of Assia Djebar’s Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade (Heinemann, 1993), in which the metaphor of writing the body parallels Djebar’s masterful retelling of the French invasion of Algiers in 1830, there are several footnotes to support the translated text. Lebanese Quebecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies was adapted for the screen in the moving Denis Villeneuve film of the same name, and yet much of the vital humor surrounding the stark and horrifying Lebanese Civil War was lost in doing so.  

These shortcomings are no fault of translators. To use a brutal but appropriate idiom, if a gun were held to my head to define Francophone, I would say that as compared to French, Francophone connotes a linguistic choice. These writers were raised in multilingual families, and were most often educated in French. They could also express themselves fluently (and likely eloquently) in Arabic, Kabyle, Wolof, and Mandarin Chinese, to use just a few examples; instead, they opt to situate their fictional works in the French cultural terrain, to be published by a Francophone press, ideally both in their home country and in France. Francophonie is not only a linguistic choice, it is often a sociocultural and political choice. Play across languages is often paramount in Francophone works. While we see play with language across social classes in French works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, which vividly brings to life the banter of Parisian street urchins, Hugo’s work still lives within one language, and one culture. 

These cultural translation issues have been brought to the fore with Kamel Daoud’s newly translated novel, The Meursault Investigation, released in the United States earlier this year by the independent publisher Other Press. When a French person picks up the Actes Sud edition of Meursault, contre-enquête from a thick stack on one of the display tables at a French bookstore (we can assume this sort of display, because the novel was heavily promoted, critically acclaimed, and widely distributed), they might first notice the red band around the book jacket announcing Daoud’s novel as the 2015 recipient of the Prix Goncourt for a First Novel. Next, they might notice the names: Daoud (an Algerian Berber name, not a French one), and if they are versed in twentieth-century literary classics, they will likely recognize the name Meursault as the name of the antihero in Albert Camus’s renowned 1942 novel, L’Étranger (The Stranger). They might then notice the cover art: an aerial shot of a young man with dark hair, striding down a beach. Even if this French reader hadn’t yet read about Daoud’s debut, these details would indicate that this novel has something to do with the murdered Arab in Camus’s novel. I use the word indicate as a sort of translation metaphor here, for the word’s derivation comes from the French word for clue: indice. These clues leave a trail, but you need to have both social and cultural acumen in order to follow. 

So it’s not nearly so easy to leave this trail of clues for Daoud’s novel in the U.S. context: Beautifully translated by John Cullen, its publication in the United States was heralded by an excerpt in the New Yorker and a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Where Daoud’s debut has been widely read in France, the nature of the publications that have lauded The Meursault Investigation suggests an educated and well-read audience—in other words, a niche readership. No one is expecting Meursault to become a best-seller; no one expects that Kamel Daoud will become a household name like Stephen King or John Grisham. This is one of the inherent problems for translation presses in the United States: Just as Charlie Hebdo was about to declare bankruptcy in January, due in part to new austerity measures that cut state arts funding, in the United States arts funding is a rare and precious commodity. So a work needs to hold the promise of sales in order to be published. 

Meursault—which is in direct dialogue, both in its reception and within the text itself, with Camus’s most famous novel—is ripe for publication in translation. And part of what makes The Stranger such a compelling work is its central act of violence. But how often does it occur to readers to imagine the sound of the gunshot in The Stranger? The victim in that book was described only as an Arab (as opposed to an Algerian like Camus, who was pied noir, meaning an Algerian of French descent). Has Meursault ever been called a terrorist? Not in any context I know. In the words of the Cure song that imagines the moment of the Arab’s death, he is simply “The stranger / killing an Arab.” And it’s with indignation that Harun, the narrator of The Meursault Investigation and the younger brother of the Arab killed by Meursault, says in the opening pages of the novel: “Good God, how can you kill someone and then take even his own death away from him?” Meursault portrays Harun’s struggle to overcome his mother’s obsessive mourning for Musa (the name given to Camus’s anonymous Arab in Meursault—two names that in French sound very similar) and an attempt to recover the identity of Musa. Harun was a young child when his brother died, and so he has to rely on the stories his mother told him as well as his own vague memories, with the gaps filled by his understanding of Algerian society and culture in the years preceding the war:

Most of Mama’s tales…concentrated on chronicling Musa’s last day, which was also, in a way, the first day of his immortality. She would [turn] a simple, young man from the poorer quarters of Algiers into an invincible, long-awaited hero, a kind of savior… In other [versions], he’d answered the call of some friends—uled el-huma, sons of the neighborhood—idle young men interested in skirts, cigarettes, and scars. 

Ultimately, Harun tells us, Musa’s body—in other words, his story—cannot be recovered. In other words, Camus’s Arab will forever remain untranslatable to his readership:

You’re here because you think, as I once thought, that you can find Musa or his body, identify the place where the murder was committed, and trumpet your discovery to the whole world…. You want to find a corpse…. But Musa’s body will remain a mystery. There’s not a word in the book about it. 

So the sound of a gunshot translates differently when the aggressor is someone like the Kouachi brothers, native speakers of French and French citizens whose last name bears the markings of a different country and culture. And the cultural effect is redoubled when the body penetrated by the bullet is a French artist whose work appears, when stripped of context, to be aggressive toward minority cultures, if not outright racist. 

It is here that the translation of words alone falls short as well. Charlie Hebdo not only publishes political cartoons that are part of a genre called bête et méchant (stupid and mean); it also publishes political essays thematically related to the cartoons that flank them. But those essays have rarely been mentioned in the debates over liberty of expression following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Setting aside the diverse backgrounds of the cartoonists themselves, those essays have been cut out of the frame in the aftermath and translation of the Charlie killings. Nor is the long history of political satire and caricature in France made clear, alongside the sacrosanct French duty to mock and question the role of religious institutions in society. This was a major stake in the French Revolution. The symbol of Marianne speaks to Charlie’s raison d’être as well: to extricate Catholicism from the French state following centuries of divine rule by monarchs and aristocrats who exploited French peoples and lands with the understanding that God gave them the right to do so. 

Just for the record, the best way I have found to explain Charlie Hebdo since the January attacks is to compare it to The Colbert Report broadcast in a different country with subtitles. If we take Stephen Colbert’s famous caricature of Bill O’Reilly and isolate his words; if we don’t know that the show was on Comedy Central and that the channel never broadcasts any kind of bona fide news or journalism; if we don’t know about Fox News or The Daily Show; then Stephen Colbert simply sounds like a scary-ass racist. So it goes when we look at Charlie Hebdo cartoons in isolation. It makes sense, when we think of the gunshot-translation problem, that so many great American writers chose to boycott the PEN Awards this past spring, and it makes equal sense that several great American writers and graphic novelists chose to take the boycotting writers’ places at the ceremony. 

We must stand at the intersection of writing, translation, and teaching to try to grasp for an answer to the gunshot-translation conundrum. When I think now about taking pictures in the Place de la République, it reminds me first and foremost of the privilege of translation work: I know this corner of the world in its historical and cultural depth. I teach, write, and translate French and Francophone cultures from the French into English. I am also reminded of how connected, and yet fragile, we all can be: As a gunshot passes from a handheld gun into the body of another, that shot and its morbid results can resonate across time, culture, history. How to translate a gunshot? What a strange and tenuous privilege to articulate such a question.  

 

Jennifer Solheim is a French scholar and teacher, fiction writer, and literary translator whose work has appeared in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder Series, Confrontation, Conclave: A Journal of Character, Fiction Writers Review, and Inside Higher Ed. She is working on a novel set in the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris. Her website is www.jennifersolheim.com.

Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

10.14.15

In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.

It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”

Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.

Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.

So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.

Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds:
I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.

The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.

But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.

My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.

CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines

I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves. 

Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.

Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!

I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn’t until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.  

Now, it’s thirty-one years later.  

Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.

After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.

Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.

At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch. 

I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.

The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!

Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.

The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town. 

What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.

Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.

In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.

I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.

Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers. 

Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.

It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?

Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.

What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
Post
: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.

This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.

Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.

For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.

Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.

Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.

However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.

To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.

Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.

In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.

I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.

Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.

I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”

Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.

To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.

Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.

page_5: 

We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.

This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.

I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.

I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.

I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or…?

Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.

Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?

When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.

Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!

Post: Cheers!

Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!

Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.

I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

An Interview With Translator Wyatt Mason

by

Max Winter

4.5.02

Wyatt Mason’s Rimbaud Complete, published by Modern Library in March, is a translation of the complete writings of French poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). The book contains all of his poetry—from his earliest juvenilia to his later poems, which Rimbaud wrote in his early twenties, before he stopped writing poems altogether. The volume contains fifty pages of previously untranslated material, including all the poet’s earliest verse, a school notebook, and a rough draft of his best known poem A Season In Hell.

Mason has also translated five books by contemporary French author Pierre Michon, and was a finalist for the French American Foundation Translation Prize for his first publication, Michon’s Masters and Servants (Mercury House, 1997). Mason’s complete translation of Rimbaud’s correspondence is forthcoming from Counterpoint in 2003.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Mason what drew him to the work of Rimbaud, what particular characteristics attracted him to the idea of translating him so thoroughly.

Wyatt Mason: I came to Rimbaud later than many. I remember reading A Season in Hell when I was sixteen and not liking it: It seemed to lurch around a lot, had an odd rhythm. I assumed-disastrously-that meant it wasn’t good. I was too young, too inexperienced, or just too stupid to realize that the very quality I disliked was one of its virtues, or, at least, I would later come to appreciate it as such.

P&W: So what changed your mind?

WM: Time, and dumb luck. About ten years ago, when I was living in Italy for the winter, I rented a house in an off-season tourist town. The house had a few books on its shelves. A Bible of course; Moravia, Calvino; and a translation of some Rimbaud, bilingual French/Italian. Initially, I used it as a sort of grammar-Rimbaud as Italian tutor-admittedly, not the most distinguished use of a great poet. That misuse was short-lived though. I soon found I liked the poems a great deal, and devoured everything.

P&W: Do you remember which poem first caught your attention?

WM: Absolutely: “Faim.” “Hunger” in English. The images in that poem were entirely his own. The narrator speaks of quenching his hunger with a meal of earth and stone, rock, air, loam. He eats pebbles underfoot, old church stones. And if that weren’t voracious enough, we get a wolf devouring a bird, spitting out feathers, the narrator comparing the wolf’s hunger to his own, not for a bird, but for himself. It’s lyrical and musical, and at the same time raw and unflinching. A balance apparent in Rimbaud’s best work. He takes Whitman’s grounding in the experiencing of the natural, his interest in self, but digs in his claws, bites.

P&W: Can you say a little more about Whitman and Rimbaud?

WM: There are lots of interesting connections, some meaningful, some just fun. Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass came out when Rimbaud was a year old, and his final expanded version the year Rimbaud died. Whitman’s book took 37 years to write; Rimbaud’s life took the same amount to live. Both poets are seen as sensualists of a kind, though that only gets us so far: There has always been the idea of the poet with a capital P. Sappho is as interested in bodies as Whitman; Wordsworth as interested in the natural world as Rimbaud. But the type and depth of engagement is different in each.

What seems new in Whitman is his self-consciousness, his depiction of himself celebrating what the poet traditionally celebrates: Portraiture becomes self-portraiture. The poem is not about a grassy field but about the poet grabbing handfuls of that field. There is a similar force at work in Rimbaud, as in “Hunger,” but Rimbaud is grazing that field. Whitman and Rimbaud both use “I” in their poems, but they define them very differently. Yes, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” features a celebratory “I” lusting through the landscape; yes, Rimbaud’s poem “Sensation” features a solitary “I” in nature, as happy alone, he says, as if with a woman. The difference is the guilelessness of Whitman’s “I”: It celebrates itself; it contains multitudes. It is democratic, is many in one, e pluribus unum. Rimbaud’s “I” is a separatist, is somebody else: “Je est un autre.” I see Rimbaud wearing many masks, adopting different personae and shedding them just as Pound would do later. Whitman’s “I” is always Whitman. Rimbaud’s “I” is a term of art, not a matter of confession.

P&W: So how did you end up translating all of his work?

WM: Well, I started translating a few of his poems when I found that book in Italy. He’s irresistible, because he seems so easy, so direct, so personal. Everybody tries to translate Rimbaud, and everybody, at least everybody sensible, gives up: He’s really very hard to convey in all his richness. I worked on various of his poems from time to time in my notebooks-in retrospect laying a sort of foundation-before many years later Modern Library asked me to do the complete works.

P&W: What makes translating Rimbaud particularly challenging?

MW: His entire lifetime of composing poetry was compressed into about five years—five years during which his style can been seen evolving from month to month. Like Picasso, he doesn’t have a style: He has styles. That changing voice is difficult enough to appreciate in French, and altogether treacherous in translation.

P&W: Given that his style changed often over the course of his life, what quality remains constant or “consistent” throughout?

WM: That’s difficult to answer, as it tends to become reductive. Too often Rimbaud is saddled with labels like “visionary,” “unsparing,” “bloodless,” descriptions that have more to do with our misunderstanding of his life than our appreciation of his poetry. A familiarity with all his work brings a reader to Rimbaud’s preoccupation with passage. That theme seems undeniable. I could say “departure,” but it puts too fine a point on things, leads us stumblingly to the “poem-as-prognostication school” that believes A Season in Hell is some sort of psychic itinerary for Rimbaud’s later years. Reading Rimbaud, I think of Joyce’s description, evolved from Flaubert, of the artist standing back, paring his fingernails in the face of his creation. Of course, Rimbaud would famously turn his back on his work entirely, but while he was still at it he achieved a distanced poise hinted at all along and perfected in many of the late poems in Illuminations. And yet, contradictorily, his passage to that remove is through experience, often of the dirt beneath the fingernails variety, the rending and devouring of flesh.

One might say Rimbaud’s inconsistency is what’s most consistent. Ultimately, though, what makes a poet different from another, and what makes his work lasting and essential, is his eye, which some call “voice.” Rimbaud’s eye roams a world of girls with orange and green lips, talking boats, descriptions of rabbits’ visions, children looking out rain-coated windows, all of it seen in passing. The only still points in Rimbaud are the fact of the poems. Perhaps a provisional answer to your question then would be that Rimbaud is always a poet of movement. Even a poem like “Faun,” a description of silence and stillness, is disturbed by motion. Rimbaud’s poems fidget, wander, won’t stay still.

P&W: How would you compare the experience of translating Rimbaud with the other translations you’ve done-of renowned French prose writer Pierre Michon for instance?

WM: Michon’s narratives are short: A novel from him weighs in at around 15,000 words. In place of length, there’s density. Sentences go on for pages, are richly musical, full of echoes to earlier passages and dependent on sonorities and rhythms for a great deal of their power. Roger Shattuck says Michon’s writing can at any time lift or lower into semi-hallucinatory effects that recall Arthur Rimbaud’s assaults on conventional perception. So there’s a kinship that isn’t accidental: Michon read Rimbaud early and often, and has written a super little book called Rimbaud the Son that I’m doing into English right now. Anyway, I’d say that translating Michon’s writing requires the same level of engagement necessary when working with a poet of Rimbaud’s complexity and rigor. This isn’t always the case. Some writing is more transparent.

While no one sensible would argue that Hemingway didn’t put as much thought and craft into his style as Faulkner did, translating Hemingway would be a hell of a lot easier. Translation is basically close reading, and Hemingway is an easier read than Faulkner (which is, of course, not a comment on their relative artistic merits). All translation requires a dedication to meaning, but to get a Michon or Rimbaud right requires an extra engagement to the musical qualities of their language. Not every prose writer is a stylist, though every serious prose writer must at some point engage the question of style in narrative. Every poet, however, is by definition a stylist. “Style” or “voice” or “eye” is how we tell them apart. In order to maintain that telling difference, the translator has to serve often contradictory impulses: to the truth of meaning and the truth of music. Without both, the original gets hopelessly lost.

P&W: Some would argue that literal translation is the only acceptable way of proceeding without losing the poem.

WM: Literal translation is a necessary fiction. Borges says the idea of literal translation comes from translations of the Bible: “If we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then every word, every letter, must have been thought out. It might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence.” Borges found the idea of literal translation distasteful. He liked to imagine a time when “translation will be considered something in itself . . . when men will care for beauty, not for the circumstances of beauty.” Because: A poem is always lost in translation. So the key is finding it again in the language you’re translating into. The whole “literalism and its discontents” kerfuffle can’t be resolved-both sides have their points-but at least it can be anecdotally fun.

There’s the story about Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. Nabokov, who never spent more than six years on a novel, spent twelve on his translation of Pushkin’s Onegin. He considered it the most important work of Russian literature, and dedicated himself to seeing justice done to it in English. The whole thing-notes, introduction, commentary-ends up being four volumes, around a thousand pages, Nabokov’s longest work. A masterpiece, one would think. When it comes out, Nabokov’s old friend Wilson reviews it. And trashes it. Says Nabokov doesn’t know Russian, gets words wrong. He also accuses Nabokov of being too literal, of stubbornly and pedantically refusing to put his considerable poetical gifts at the service of approximating the beauty of Pushkin’s Russian in English.

On one hand, Wilson’s response is just silly. Nabokov spoke and wrote English, French, and Russian with equal facility: In his phrase, he was born “a perfectly normal tri-lingual child.” Wilson was a dedicated student of Russian, but the idea of him correcting Nabokov on that count is comical. What isn’t so ridiculous is for Wilson to chastise Nabokov’s reluctance to come up with more lyrical solutions than he does. That’s an entirely reasonable point of view, one philosophically at odds with Nabokov’s position: He wasn’t trying to be lyrical. He was trying to be exact, to create a useful book for students, not a poem of equal value, which he believed was impossible. If he’d had the time, Nabokov would have translated a great deal more, and with the same objective. This was a man who taught comp-lit for over a decade at Cornell, fighting through what he considered abominable translations. If we look at his copies of the Constance Garnett Anna Karenina or the Muirs’ Kafka, he’s always correcting them. Nabokov’s allegiance, as a translator, was to students of the original, of whom he was one. Any translator’s ultimate allegiance must be to his readers, but always in the service of his writers.

Literal translations, like Nabokov’s Onegin, Wallace Fowlie’s Rimbaud, or Donald Frame’s Montaigne, are valuable scholarly works of unimpeachable integrity and seriousness. But none captures the very quality that makes each writer most unique: his style. Since most readers of works in translation will never read the original, translations destined for the general reader must convey style and substance in equal measure. To do so, the translator requires (in Nabokov’s famous formula) “a scholar’s passion and a poet’s patience blent.” How each of us interprets that equation is, of course, where the fun begins.

P&W: What value do you think reconsidering Rimbaud would have for contemporary readers and writers?

WM: When we look at Rimbaud, we can’t see him. There’s the same problem with Van Gogh. Van Gogh isn’t a painter anymore: He’s “the patron saint of the beaux-arts.” We look at a wheatfield and see a suicide; we look at a self-portrait and think about the whore he gave a piece of his ear to as a Christmas gift; we see squiggles and think of him dying for his art. We don’t see pictures: We see fame. Rimbaud’s mythic posterity has done a similar disservice to his poetry.

If we think of Rimbaud at all we think of the gay poet, or the adolescent poet, or the drug-addicted poet. These labels are problematic for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the facts of his life, which often don’t support the more exotic claims made for his biography. Regardless of what he may or may not have lived, we know without a doubt that he wrote poems. We even have them available to us. Yet it’s inevitable that when we go to the poems with such preconceptions, they’re all we end up finding.

The basic example: Letters and manuscripts bear out beyond any doubting that Rimbaud and poet Paul Verlaine were close friends. What follows from these facts is instructive: first, a supposition made by most of the biographers (variously corroborated through anecdote and documentation), that Verlaine and Rimbaud were lovers; then, in the hands of recent biographers such as Graham Robb, a deduction that Rimbaud was firmly gay; followed by an interpretation by writers such as Benjamin Ivry (in his Rimbaud of a few years back), that Rimbaud’s poems are gay poems; and finally, by Rimbaud critic Robert Greer Cohen, a conclusion that A Season in Hell, Rimbaud’s best-known work, should be read as the story of Verlaine and Rimbaud’s affair. This maddening plunge into conjecture, assumption, and narrow-mindedness is the rule of law in reading Rimbaud. Take the pages of critical space devoted to his self-proclaimed “long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses.” It makes him seem like a wild-man, a hell-raiser, an image to which many have grown attached: poet as party-animal.

I am not saying that Rimbaud wasn’t a wild-man. Rather, that I neither know nor care. What I know, after the chronological study that translating his complete works entailed, is evidence of an entirely different sort of fellow: a methodical poet who underwent a long, involved and logical engagement with the history of poetry. For when I translated those parts of his legacy that no one had bothered to translate before, a new Rimbaud emerged. Translating his student works, an early notebook, multiple drafts of key poems, and his fragmentary rough draft of A Season in Hell, I watched a poet deliberately forge an individual style by stealing from his predecessors. By looking, I saw-perhaps more clearly than with any other poet-how Rimbaud became Rimbaud. So many collected works of the Great Poets are these unassailable tomes. Eliot and Yeats and so many others pruned their Complete Works into a final, canonical form, discarding lesser efforts, or adjusting lines here and there, or, as with Whitman, rewriting one poem for 37 years. Rimbaud’s complete works are a partial mess, full of perfect and imperfect things. I don’t claim this makes him better or worse, only unique: His art remains forever unfinished. It’s full of false starts and wrong turns, and even a surprisingly happy ending. That happy ending, in the form of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, is the creation of a unique poetic voice, that, like all art, is one imagination speaking to another. And that’s always worth reconsideration.

What Is Written for You: From Starvation to Salvation in Bulgaria

by

Angela Rodel

10.14.15

How did I become a translator of Bulgarian literature? Americans love to ask me this, while most Bulgarians shrug this question off, saying, “Taka ti e pisano” (“That’s what is written for you”)—by the hand of fate, presumably. While I’ve never been much of a believer in fate, or a fan of starvation, I have always had a propensity for the exotic, the off-the-beaten-path. Not surprisingly, my first celebrity crush as a child was Cyndi Lauper, and I dressed the part with bracelets all the way up both arms and a turquoise shag-rug vest. This was followed by infatuations with punk rock and finally Bulgarian folk music. You don’t have to be Freud’s second cousin to figure out why the exotic might attract a white girl from Minnesota, where the closest thing we have to ethnic identity is a vague vision of Teutonic great-grandparents coming across the ocean to take up their poses in American Gothic. (And yes, I got hit by lots of snowballs from kids who didn’t appreciate my attempt at flamboyance.) 

So how could I resist when my high school suddenly started offering Russian alongside milquetoast German, Spanish, and French? My sixteen-year-old heart skipped a beat when I saw the Cyrillic letters frolicking across the Language Arts bulletin board, the frilly, coquettish Ж, the cat-tailed Ц, and poor “backward” Я. A happy coincidence or fate? In any case, the Cyrillic alphabet led me to study Russian literature and Slavic linguistics at Yale, where I got my first taste of Bulgarian folksinging thanks to the Yale Slavic Chorus. When I heard the choir sing the first few notes of a Bulgarian song, belted out in sternum-shattering voices, I knew I had found my newest obsession: the mystery of Bulgarian voices. The tightly packed, dissonant harmonies, the razor-sharp timbre of unapologetically loud voices meant to be heard across a field or across a mountaintop—it made my hair stand on end and my whole soul resonate. I didn’t know this love affair would last far longer than Cyndi Lauper or punk rock had, and that it would be even more deeply transformational. 

In 1996, after I graduated from Yale, I was off to Bulgaria like a shot to study Bulgarian language and folksinging at the source, on a one-year Fulbright grant. But when I landed in gritty, gray Sofia at the height of an economic and political spasm brought on by hyperinflation and inept governance, the Bulgarian voice I thought I knew was nowhere to be found; the haunting voice of the shepherd had been largely drowned out in the postsocialist cacophony. That didn’t cool my interest in Bulgaria but rather stoked it, as this turn of events forced me to pay attention to the other, more contemporary Bulgarian voices on the cultural scene. 

After bouncing back and forth between Bulgaria and grad school in ethnomusicology at UCLA for more years than I should probably admit publicly, in 2004 I landed a Fulbright-Hays grant to study Bulgarian folksinging. Again, was it happy coincidence or fate that the first week I arrived, a Japanese friend and fellow Bulgarian-music-o-phile took me to a party, which just happened to be the after party of a book launch? There we fell into an hours-long jam session with a pair of Bulgarian poets, who also happened to be musicians. At the end of the night they asked me to join the band they were starting. So I did, and what subsequently became known as an “ethno-rock-poetry band,” playing at readings, book launches, literary festivals, and art performances, introduced me to the world of contemporary Bulgarian literature. One of our earliest gigs was part of Liturne (Lit Tour), a flash mob before flash mobs were known in Bulgaria. We lugged a decrepit amplifier around downtown Sofia, begging electricity from coffee shops and screeching out poetry and music to any passersby who cared to listen. Our fellow mobsters included some folks destined to become solid names in the Bulgarian literary scene: Georgi Gospodinov, Dimiter Kenarov, Angel Igov, and others. Through these adventures I realized that the literary scene in Bulgaria was surprisingly vibrant: It seemed deliciously old-world, like Paris in the 1920s, with writers gathered in circles and generations, everyone knowing everyone else (for better or worse). There was a real sense of discourse; readings took place almost every evening, followed by brandy-, cigarette-, and feta-cheese-fueled debates in cafés and pubs. The writing itself was very raw, experimental in form and content, daring and provocative, not shoehorned to fit publishers’ or even readers’ expectations.

Speaking of pubs: I was sitting in one in 2005 as my Fulbright-Hays grant was winding down, laughing, drinking, and haranguing with a group of Bulgarian writers. I recall very vividly the thought that occurred to me in dead seriousness for the first time: I could just stay. And in comparison to the forbidding landscape that is academia in the United States, the landscape of Bulgaria in the early 2000s did not look anywhere near as starvation-prone: The country had just joined NATO; EU accession was around the corner; and the arts, including literature, were in an upswing after the lean decade following 1989. So with just four hundred dollars in my bank account and no clear plan, I snipped the lifeline to my American existence. 

As a linguistics geek in my heart of hearts, I had always thought translation would be fun, yet had never seriously considered it as a career. But now, faced with survival beyond the apron- and-purse strings of the university, I looked around and found a gig: translating for Vagabond, a lifestyle magazine of sorts for expats in Bulgaria, whose editor in chief was Anthony Georgieff (picture the quintessential cigar-chomping, green-visor-wearing editor of Hollywood lore, but with a cigarette and fedora instead). Not only did this gig stave off starvation, but to this day I am thankful for Anthony’s unminced words, which were a necessary crash course for me in nuts-and-bolts editing and translating, which my fancy Yale education in linguistics and literature hadn’t provided me with. I learned not to hover too closely over the original text, but also not to take too many liberties with the style and content. On the side, I continued translating literature informally as I had done over the past year, helping out friends and friends-of-friends who needed poems, short stories, and novel excerpts translated into English—as well as writing query letters to magazines and publishers. Most of these early efforts disappeared into the void that is the English-language publishing world, sinking like a brick in a bog. Who had heard of Bulgaria then, let alone Bulgarian literature? Bulgaria had no Nobel laureate, no Big Novel as most Eastern European countries had. My first “real” literary job with the promise of “real” pay was working with Georgi Tenev to translate his Party Headquarters—which had won the Vick Prize, given annually for the best Bulgarian novel, but which, due to a string of errors that I can in hindsight call comedic, has not yet seen the light of day. It will be published by Open Letter in February 2016.

Although there were good translators working from Bulgarian to French and German at that time, native speakers of English willing and able to translate Bulgarian literature were few and far between. So perhaps it really was “written for me,” or perhaps it was just a happy accident, but I turned out to be in the right place at the right time: I was a native speaker of English with close ties to the Sofia literary scene, and the wonderful Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF) had just fired up in 2007, beginning to lay the necessary groundwork to get English-language publishers and magazines interested in the black hole that Bulgarian literature appeared to be to the outside world. Thanks to EKF and its outreach efforts, I was eventually able to get paying jobs translating Bulgarian literature practically full-time. The threat of starvation receded, replaced by the hope of salvation: There was so much good meat for the soul out there, calling out to be translated. And finally some American publishers were ready to join the feast. 

The bulk of this new soul-meat—for me, at least—was the new prose coming out in the 2000s. To give a brief history of recent Bulgarian literature: The year 1989 remains a muddled boundary in Bulgaria. Unlike the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or the smashing of the Berlin Wall, what happened here was more akin to an ignoble perestroika, an internal coup in which communist insiders deposed the longtime dictator, Todor Zhivkov. While a change to democracy ensued, the state security apparatus and much of the nomenclature remained largely in place, with the communists-turned-socialists winning elections on and off for the next two decades while reformers struggled with the frustrating lack of lustration laws and political will to curb corruption. 

Against this tumultuous backdrop, it is not surprising that in the 1990s Bulgarian writers largely turned inward—producing highly psychological, confessional writing, often experimental in form. This was not only a rejection of communist-era monumentalism, but also a demonstrative way to give the bird to the perceived degradation of Bulgarian culture. During this time, poetry was the chosen genre for many writers, given its commercially antithetical nature. This, however, combined with the dearth of dissident prose from socialist times, made it difficult for Bulgarian writers to ride the post-1989 wave of interest in Eastern European literature, which was centered primarily on prose. 

Much of this changed with the international success of Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel, which was published in Bulgaria in 1999 and released by Dalkey Archive Press in English in 2005, and is both highly postmodernist and erudite yet infinitely readable. Indeed, the early years of the twenty-first century saw a surge of novels from Bulgarian writers who, like Gospodinov, were previously better known for their poetry, as well as from younger writers who had come of age postsocialism and who embraced an international idiom with the novel as its flagship form.  

So how I did I dig into this meat? Since I became a translator rather by accident, I had to devise my strategies from scratch. Unlike translators who work with “big languages” such as Spanish or French, I unfortunately didn’t have an MA program or even a community of fellow English-speaking natives, off whom I could bounce my linguistics woes (although plenty of English-speaking Bulgarian friends were invaluable in this regard). For example, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly five centuries, thus some of the most colorful words in Bulgarian today are Turkish borrowings that, when used in place of their Slavic synonyms, add a facetious flavor, like a good inside joke. (Juxtaposed against the dull Slavic turgoviya for “trade” or “business,” the Turkish borrowing alushverish, with its tang of not-quite-aboveboard wheeling-and-dealing, is far more vivid: To my great amusement, in Istanbul I have seen stores advertise their alushverish in broad daylight!) The liveliness these Turkishisms continue to inject in the Bulgarian language can most clearly be seen in Bay Ganyo, a late nineteenth-century fictional character invented by Aleko Konstantinov. In the novel of the same name, a group of college students tells stories about Bay Ganyo, an archetypal backwoods slyboots and huckster of rose oil who goes around Europe committing cringeworthy cultural faux pas. Interestingly enough, however, to the twenty-first-century reader, Bay Ganyo himself actually sounds more vivid and “contemporary” thanks in large part to the Turkishisms that pepper his speech, while the students describing his exploits sound irretrievably archaic and stilted to the modern ear—a testament to the enduring power of this lexical subset in Bulgarian language and literature. The anguish for the English-language translator is that we have no corresponding register that captures the tongue-in-cheek tang of this vocabulary—perhaps certain Yiddish borrowings such as putz and shyster in American English come closest, but they lack the whole corresponding cultural-historical paradigm that Turkish borrowings in Bulgarian bring in tow.

Socialist terminology is another bugbear for the American translator of Bulgarian literature, since we again have no sociohistorical parallel, while much of contemporary Bulgarian literature addresses the country’s socialist past. One hallmark of socialist-speak is its bombastic nonsensicality—highfalutin phrases that upon further inspection are devoid of content, or rather, the content itself is in the very bombastic sense of the words rather than in their meaning. Hence the translator is faced with the uncomfortable task of trying to capture this pathos-laden hollowness without sounding merely like a bad translation. This challenge has dogged me for years, most recently rearing its head in Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, my translation of which was published in English by Open Letter this past spring. The novel is a rumination on childhood, which for Gospodinov was lived out under socialism and hence inextricably linked with it; the author makes use of socialist-speak, often for comic or nostalgic effect, as in this “Letter to a Young Comsomol Member”:

Dear Young Man, 

There are moments in a person’s life that are never forgotten. Today, with trembling hands you untie the knot of your scarlet Pioneer’s neckerchief, replacing it with a red Comsomol membership booklet. This is a symbol of the great trust the Party and our heroic and hardworking people have in you. 

Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive of your youth and the wisdom of your mature years to that which is dearest to all generations—the Homeland!

Here at least I was saved by the fact that Gospodinov himself comments on the absurdity of the language: “Yet another stellar example of socialist-speak. I now see that it is a mouthful: Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive.… What are all those Ds, why make the tongue scoot along on its ass?” In Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters, however, another work riddled with socialist-speak, I’ve had to plunge wholeheartedly into the pathos, hoping the reader will follow suit and recognize this as a deliberate stylistic choice. 

The poetic aspect of Bulgarian prose is another challenge, with Gospodinov again as a good example. He cut his teeth as a poet, thus the sound of his prose, the rhythm, is extremely important. Indeed, much of the expressiveness of The Physics of Sorrow comes from this poetic sensibility—the emotional impact comes from his brief, poignant snapshots of being. I was lucky to be a translator in situ, living in the epicenter of Bulgarian literary production during the months I worked on the translation. I would get together regularly with Gospodinov to pick his brain, run ideas past him, and ruminate about the best ways to tackle a particular passage—all over coffee, of course. 

So, when asked another question Americans love: What are you doing in Bulgaria? My facetious answer is “Having fun!” But it’s actually not at all far from the truth. Being a translator of Bulgarian literature is one of the best, most intellectually and spiritually fulfilling careers I could imagine—despite the lurking specter of starvation. I prefer to see it as artistic salvation from the workaday world, an outlet for my own creativity, which also allows me to give back to this strange and wonderful country that has been kind enough to take me in and offer me a home. It has been an honor for me to serve as a bridge through which the international literary community has come to know wonderful Bulgarian works. And as portentous as it may sound, now that I have a Bulgarian passport, I seem to have gotten a Bulgarian state of mind right along with it: I just might agree that through some strange twist of fate, these books and this translator’s life that I have come to love were in some small way also written for me

 

Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter Books, 2015), as well as a 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant for Georgi Tenev’s story collection Holy Light. Five novels in her translation have been published by U.S. and UK publishers.

 

Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

by

Jeremiah Chamberlin

10.14.15

In the years I worked as a bookseller after college, I had the good fortune to encounter a wide range of literatures in translation. The indie bookshop I worked at, the now-closed Canterbury Booksellers in Madison, Wisconsin, had a section devoted to the work of Nobel Prize winners, as well as an international-fiction section. One of my fondest and most surprising reading experiences came after picking up a pale-green galley of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf, 1997), knowing nothing yet of this author, but soon tumbling in awe through Murakami’s (translated) prose.

It wasn’t until I began working with the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF), an organization dedicated to creating connections among Bulgarian, American, and British writers, that I truly began to learn about the challenges of international literature reaching our shores, as well as the importance of nurturing an audience for it. Only approximately 3 percent of the books published in this country are works in translation, and, as the editors of the website Three Percent state, “In terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7 percent.”

Yet what I was discovering each summer I visited Bulgaria was an incredibly rich and diverse literary tradition—one in which I deeply wanted to immerse myself but was unable to because so few of these books had been translated into English. And Bulgaria is but one small country in the region. What other marvelous books from nearby neighbors like Greece and Serbia and Turkey was I not finding on the shelves back in the United States? The world of English-language publishing suddenly felt extremely small.

Through my work with the EKF, I also started meeting the editors and publishers of presses and literary journals, each passionate about bringing the best of international literature to English-speaking readers—places like Dalkey Archive Press and New Vessel Press, as well as publications like Absinthe: A Journal of World Literature in Translation and Words Without Borders.

So, as part of this issue dedicated to independent publishing, I planned to sit down with five editors and publishers to talk with them about the state of international literature, the particular challenges of focusing on books in translation, how to find readers for their titles, and what the industry should be paying attention to in the future.

Joining me were Barbara Epler, publisher and editor in chief of New Directions; CJ Evans, editorial director of Two Lines Press and editor of the biannual journal Two Lines: World Writing in Translation; Chad Post, founder and editor of Open Letter Books and Three Percent; Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions; and Jill Schoolman, founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

How did you each come to publishing, particularly working with literature in translation? What drew you initially or continues to draw you today?
Michael Reynolds:
I never imagined a career in publishing until I woke up one day and had one. I was living in Rome in the early 2000s, at about the same time the founders and publishers of Europa Editions, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, were thinking about opening an American publishing house. At the time, I was doing odd jobs, among them running a writers festival in Rome with a couple of friends. Thanks to this work I was meeting quite a few Italian writers and publishing people. I got wind of what Sandro and Sandra were planning to do and decided to knock on the door of their Italian publishing house and offer my services—I had no idea of what those services might be.

As with most things in life, timing is everything. I was in the right place at the right time, because Sandro and Sandra were getting ready to announce the opening of Europa Editions at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That was the summer of 2004.

The seed of the idea started growing in them right after 9/11, when it seemed that once again the world was balkanizing, that the free exchange of ideas and opinions was being threatened, and that a surreal hysteria was enveloping the world—remember Freedom Fries? At the time, people all over the world, common people not intellectuals or academics, seemed to have fewer and fewer channels for communicating or communing. Sandro and Sandra [who founded Europa’s sister company in Italy, Edizioni EO, in the 1970s with the purpose of bringing unpublished, unknown, and under-appreciated authors from Eastern Europe to the Italian market] asked themselves what, as publishers, they could do to help overcome that communication breakdown. At the time, it also seemed to them—and, incidentally, not to anyone else—that an American publishing house focused on work in translation was a good business opportunity.

But beyond the business opportunity and the ideological motivation, there was also a more basic impulse: the desire to share something good. The fact that many of their favorite writers from Europe and elsewhere were not available to American readers because no publisher was in a position or of a persuasion to publish them in the States seemed almost unbearable. The explosion of social media demonstrates the basic human urge to share something that you feel strongly about with others. Europa was founded with this idea of sharing, of exchange, as its cornerstone.

My interest in international literature extends beyond the company that I work for, but I think it has found a natural home at Europa. And what continues to draw me to work with books in translation today is precisely this idea that something good is something that should be shared, in most cases with as many people as possible. I don’t believe that publishing work in translation should be considered a priori a noble endeavor. And I’m also dubious about the quantitative approach to evaluating where we’re at in terms of inclusiveness of literature in translation in the American culture of reading. I simply know that there are good, deserving, important, interesting, entertaining, provocative books being written in languages other than English. It’s a shame when those books cannot be read and talked about by people in America, the UK, Australia, etc. It impoverishes us all.

CJ Evans: Like Michael, I didn’t envision a career in publishing. I was working as the host in a “family brewpub”—which is as horrible as it sounds—in Portland in 2002 and a friend suggested I go up to Tin House magazine and see if they needed a poetry reader. I read for them for a while, then was hired as an editorial assistant for the magazine and to help with the development of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 2010, a friend suggested I check out the Center for the Art of Translation, which was, at the time, publishing an annual of international literature called Two Lines

I came on as the managing editor of Two Lines shortly thereafter. From the time I started, Olivia Sears, the founder of Two Lines and the Center, was talking about what the next steps for the journal might be. We had all of these wonderful contacts, primarily translators, built up from the nearly two decades of publishing, and felt that we could be doing more. We considered doing regional anthologies, but in nearly every issue we put out there was an excerpt from a book that we thought should be published in English, but couldn’t think of quite the right fit for a press to send the translator to. So, in 2012, Olivia; Scott Esposito, the marketing manager; and I decided we’d go for it and start the press to publish those books ourselves. 

Though I have always read literature in translation, my professional background had been much more focused on contemporary American literature. The way I like to think about it is that I don’t have any special interest in international literature. I’m, personally, very much not interested in the cultural dialogue aspects of it, even though I do see that there’s value in that. I’m interested in publishing the best books I can get my hands on, in a small press environment. And I firmly believe a huge percentage of the best books and writers are not in English. It is continually shocking to me how much amazing work hasn’t been published in translation yet. I think of a writer like Marie NDiaye, with whom we’ve done two books; she won the Prix Goncourt and was the youngest writer to ever be a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Someone of her stature would be unavailable to a press of our size in the US if she was writing in English. But because she’s French I’m able to publish her.

Barbara Epler: Not to be an echo chamber, but I also never thought I was going into publishing as a profession. If it is one!

I was disenchanted with staying on the professor track—and why I ever thought I would be one is long lost—and I was in love with someone in NYC and thrilled to get here. So I told my parents I was taking a year or two off before grad school and that I would get a job in publishing—thinking that that would be as easy as falling off a log. But then I couldn’t type and no one would hire me and it wasn’t until I met Griselda Ohannessian, who was running New Directions, that I met anyone who would talk to me.  

Now, it’s thirty-one years later.  

Jill Schoolman: I, too, sort of stumbled into publishing after having wandered around for a while trying various things. I started out working in film; I did a film course in Maine, worked on a few films in New York and then in Paris. In Paris I was also doing other things to make ends meet, like delivering pizzas on mopeds. After a few years of freelance film work, I started sniffing around for other possibilities. I then met Dan Simon and started interning for Seven Stories Press, where I learned a great deal about the business and about how much fun it could be to publish books. I was instinctively drawn to international literature. I grew up on a diet of classics from different parts of the world, I love traveling, and I love discovering a culture through its books and films.

After working as an editor with Seven Stories for a few years, I started dreaming out loud about starting a press devoted to international literature. It felt like a good moment to do it, and the people around me encouraged me to try to make it happen. I decided that if we set up Archipelago Books as a not-for-profit press, we might be able to be less dependent on book sales for survival. I’m very glad we did this. I was working out of my studio apartment for about a year, even after I hired a colleague and we enlisted a couple interns. My cat never seemed to mind, until our first books appeared in 2004, and she urged us in her way to find some office space.

Chad Post: After graduating from college, I worked at a couple of indie bookstores: Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I learned a ton of stuff from working in bookstores about the business end of things. But I ended up leaving [bookselling] because I wanted to get into the other side of things, helping decide which books would be sold, rather than hoping for someone else to make it possible for me to try and convince others to read these books.

At that time, Dalkey Archive had started a fellowship program, which was like grad school for publishing, but with a worse stipend. I was the first or second fellow to do this, back in the summer of 2000, and I quickly transitioned from working on editorial things to working with bookstores, and a year later was the director of marketing and sales. Fast forward seven years, and I ended up at the University of Rochester with two other former Dalkey employees, working on setting up a new publishing house that would support the literary translation programs the university wanted to launch. 

I think the thing I like best about being here in Rochester is the varied nature of what I’m doing as a “publisher.” Open Letter is a component of the University of Rochester, so our reader outreach and educational opportunities come more directly from a place geared toward expanding minds and whatnot.

The publishing side of things has been pretty tough. It takes a lot to get established sales wise, and although we’ve had some decent successes—Zone by Mathias Enard, The Golden Calf by Ilf & Petrov, The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra—there hasn’t been that true breakout title that changes your fortunes or gets the big mainstream media outlets to start paying attention to you. We have no Sebald or Bolaño or Ferrante or Knausgaard. One day!

Point being, if my job were only predicated on sales and our NEA grant, it would be fine, but maybe unremarkable? I think the things that define our organization, and the reasons I’m still in publishing—which can be grueling, especially if you started your press and are too close to it, emotionally tied to the successes and failures of the books—are all the ancillary things we do for readers: the Three Percent blog; the Translation Database, which, thanks to the wealth of data I’ve accumulated, is allowing me to work on a research project about how many books by women are translated from various languages and countries; the Best Translated Book Award; the podcast I do with Tom Roberge; even the World Cup of Literature and Women’s World Cup of Literature—two fun projects that I put together just to help get more people talking about more international literature.

The other thing that I really like about my position is working with young translators. Four to six translators come here every fall to get their MA, and I work with them all on a weekly basis, through the two classes I teach, by talking with them in the office, reading their samples, and organizing a weekly translation workshop for all the translators in the Rochester area—of which there are many, including Kerri Pierce and Lytton Smith, who are two of the best in the country. Without this sort of interaction, I think we’d really be cut off from the book world. Especially since there is no indie bookstore in town. 

What issues do you feel are most pressing for independent publishers in general and those working with literature in translation in particular?
Reynolds: In my mind, the No. 1 issue concerning the publication of work in translation is that of discoverability and promotion. I’m not entirely convinced that we have to dramatically increase the number of books in translation published here at all costs, but I definitely think that we need to grow the audience for those books that are published. Over the past ten to twenty years it seems to me that the focus has been on printing as many titles in translation as possible. But printing is not the same as publishing. I would like to see us all work more, and together, on innovative and effective ways of getting our books into the hands of a larger number of readers.

Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.

In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.

I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.

Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers. 

Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.

It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?

Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.

What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
Post
: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.

This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.

Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.

For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.

Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.

Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.

However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.

To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.

Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.

In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.

I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.

Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.

I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”

Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.

To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.

Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.

page_5: 

We, as an industry, have our share of the blame in all this. We publish too many books. We publish too many insignificant books. As a result it becomes very difficult for an important book, one that can be enjoyed and talked about by people from many walks of life, to make its way amid the dreck to readers.

This will sound like a cop-out—we haven’t really initiated or engaged in any specific outreach programs—but I think our publishing program itself, and the readership it targets, are both conceived partially as a response to this crisis in critical literacy.

I also agree that online journals, book sites, and the like can be a bit of an echo chamber and perhaps broadcast to a narrow audience. This is partly the reason FWR founded an annual daylong literary symposium in Ann Arbor, free and open to the public, called the State of the Book, and why we now are one of the sponsors for the Voices of the Middle West festival each spring—a similar event that tries to nurture a broader conversation about books in collaboration with the university and some local community organizations. We especially try to reach out to younger readers and college students through these various channels. I’m curious to hear from others about similar programs that you’ve found equally beneficial on this front, or initiatives that might be adopted elsewhere, whether they’re projects of your own or others. And, of course, those engines—whether online or on the ground—that are helping foster the most productive conversations.
Schoolman: I love the long-form critical essay, in which the lines between writer, reader, and critic blur, where there is room to explore the inner world of a book and its cultural context, where there is room for the critic-writer’s own ideas to emerge and breathe. There are still places where this is possible: the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Threepenny Review, Guernica, Asymptote, Music & Literature, the White Review, the Quarterly Conversation.

I agree with Michael that the best, most far-reaching conversations about books can happen in a local bar—the relationship between the overworked editor and the local bar is of course another question to explore—where people can express themselves without a lot of literary jargon. Archipelago has an ongoing relationship with a fantastic organization based in Staten Island, New York, called OutLOUD. It does an inspiring job of bringing people of all ages together from various walks of life to read and think about books and art. The conversations about our books and the worlds each has emerged from are always alive and move in surprising directions.

I’m intrigued by Michael’s comment about writers not necessarily counting as readers. Are you saying that they read in a different way? That reading is perhaps more essential to them than to other people? Or…?

Reynolds: Sorry, Jill. My comment about writers/readers wasn’t clear at all. I just meant that I am often surprised at how writers or those who have aspirations to be writers are not careful, prolific readers and converse about books in too businesslike a way, if at all. In addition, a high number of visitors to FWR and other similar venues may not be an indication of a largish public engaging in meaningful discussion about books and their place in the culture and society because many of those visitors may be aspiring writers engaging in the conversation in order to advance their careers rather than to pursue a genuine, disinterested engagement with the literary and artistic questions being raised. I’m not necessarily against writers advancing their careers! But this is not the kind of critical literacy, nor the kind of disinterested dialogue, I was talking about in my original comment.

Post: All the places Jill mentions are ones I would think to recommend as well. Drawing on Michael’s response, though, I do think there is a difference between the audiences reading the White Review or Quarterly Conversation—mostly people looking for high-minded discussion of capital-L Literature—and casual readers discussing books in a bar. To create and sustain a vibrant book culture we need to have outlets from both ends of the spectrum—along with Twitter conversations that range in quality from witty banter to knee-jerk reactions to measured comments [from] book clubs and mainstream reviews—since there’s no single way people can, or should, be interacting with and talking about books. Although what’s most important, in my opinion, is getting people who aren’t writers or publishing people talking about books. That’s what we exist for, right?

When I worked in independent bookstores, the sort of conversation Michael and I are pining for seemed to happen on a regular basis, both among booksellers and with customers. It probably still does, but there’s no bookstore in Rochester where this experience could possibly take place—something that’s likely the case in a lot of other midsize cities. My local bar, NOX, is actually book-themed, so it could be a bar where books are discussed. I would very much like that.

Reynolds: The conclusion to this whole conversation: books and booze, together forever!

Post: Cheers!

Epler: That sort of sounds like a wrap. Or last call? Just a final note so I don’t feel like a liar: I hands-down agree with talking up books anywhere and everywhere—which is why we have canaries here tweeting away, though I don’t know what they might be twittering—and we love any book talk from the highbrow journals to suburban book clubs to bar chats, but I do have to say—just to be honest—that New Directions just doesn’t do the sort of outreach that’s been mentioned, and much admired by me, such as Jill’s OutLOUD efforts and FWR’s engagement with local community organizations. We donate books to prisons and to some libraries, and give time to PEN and whatnot, but really we’re not that socially conscious. Maybe the old dog can learn new tricks, but that’s the truth these days. Now, back to the bar!

Evans: Practically, I’d love to see an organized effort in MFA programs and colleges to encourage the next generation who want to get into publishing to pursue some of the areas behind the scenes. If every person who starts a new literary journal in the next year would instead focus on hosting a book club at a local bookstore—or bar!—we’d be a healthier community. Or tackle the problems in literary magazine distribution. Or work at nonprofit fund-raising and/or lobbying for literary nonprofits. These are not as sexy as being an editor—although I assume my fellow panelists will agree that there’s very little that’s sexy about actually being an editor—but the same attention in the MFA programs to the real health of publishing as to pedagogy could do a lot for the industry.

I apologize for ending on a down note, but a certain amount of the reading audience is just gone—there’s simply other media that appeals more to a lot of the broader audience. But we’ve hopefully learned, after the rise and leveling of the e-book panic, that there continues to be an audience, and a sizable one, for literary books. But we need to rebuild the base of our industry and foster not readers necessarily, but rather those who will get the books into the readers’ hands. More book clubs. More diversity. More lobbying. More education nonprofits. More pop-up bookstores. More ideas and risks and people to start the casual conversations in the bar that end deep at last call.

Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he is the assistant director of the English Department Writing Program. He is also the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review as well as a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

Small Press Points: Damaged Goods Press

by

Staff

12.15.21

The two-person editorial team behind Damaged Goods Press operates with a clear sense of purpose: “We are doing this out of love and admiration for queer and trans peoples’ resilience in a world filled with bigotry and violence,” says Caseyrenée Lopez, the founding editor and publisher, who runs the press alongside prose editor Willy Miller. Based in Richmond, Virginia, Damaged Goods has published poetry and lyrical nonfiction by queer and trans writers since 2015.

While Lopez has seen the literary landscape become more inclusive with time, they note there are still few publishers that are exclusively dedicated to queer and trans voices. Damaged Goods Press offers a particularly liberated platform for these writers: “We like weird,” says Lopez. “If it’s complex and nonlinear, that’s even better.” They hope that Damaged Goods titles will challenge readers’ understanding of “personhood, the self, and of what literature is and can be.” Lopez cites the press’s most recent chapbook, disseueraunce by Tamsin Blaxter—“a story of love gone awry”—as well as When the Mo(n)ths (Dis)Appeared by Lydja Uta Szatkowska and void of pronouns by m/ryan murphy, as among the “offbeat books” that reflect the Damaged Goods ethos. The press aims to publish one or two chapbooks, full-length books, or anthologies each year, and the editors are currently considering submissions for publication in 2022. “If you are writing in a way that seems like it’s not represented in publishing, send it our way,” says Lopez. “I want to see math equations and foreign languages or created languages and new forms.” Damaged Goods Press accepts submissions via e-mail from October to February and does not charge a reading fee. 

Lambda Expands Writers in Schools

by

Brian Gresko

12.15.21

For over five years Lambda Literary—a national organization that champions lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) books and authors—has been changing the lives of students across New York City through its free Writers in Schools program. The program centers on a simple yet profound idea: Through reading books by LGBTQ authors, then meeting those authors in person to hear about their life experiences, youth will learn to celebrate queerness. In September, Lambda announced that in recognition of the program’s value, the New York City Council had decided to grant the program four times the amount it previously received in funding: $400,000, up from $100,000.

The program is designed for both clubs and classrooms, from kindergarten through twelfth grade. For classrooms, Lambda provides books along with curriculum materials to help teachers guide discussion, while for clubs, like a school’s gender-sexuality alliance, the books become springboards for less formal, more relaxed conversations about identity. 

Program manager Monica Carter, who has been involved with Writers in Schools since its inception in New York City in 2015, says the highlight for students is always the author visit. A writer might come to a classroom to facilitate a book discussion, chat with a club about their writing and life, or address a school-wide assembly. Lambda staff members are thoughtful about laying the groundwork to make each visit a success: For example, teachers are given guidance on how to prepare their students so that the experience feels safe for both the authors and the youth. 

Chinelo Okparanta, whose second novel, Harry Sylvester Bird, is forthcoming from Mariner Books in July, has been a part of the program since 2017 and has visited a number of high schools throughout New York City. Over e-mail she said, “I always expect that I will learn as much from the students as they learn from me, so it’s important for me to listen well and ask questions, too.” Through talking with students, she said, “I have stumbled upon new ways of understanding the world—and of interrogating my work.” 

Meredith Talusan, author of the memoir Fairest (Viking, 2020), worked with high school students this past spring in a virtual environment. Like Okparanta she was impressed by the students’ rigorous curiosity. “While I was discussing the relationship between my trans and immigrant identities, I remember one of the students not only referring to my book, but also quoting an article I’d completely forgotten I wrote and comparing the way I talked about my identities in the article versus the book. I doubt I’ve ever been so closely read!”

For queer students these events can be life-changing. “We’ve seen the number of students who feel safe coming out increase after the author visits,” Carter says. Sometimes students come out to the authors during the event itself. “These visits have real-life, real-time impacts that help increase the acceptance and affirmation of queer kids and queer identity.” A 2019 survey from GLSEN, a national organization dedicated to LGBTQ student rights and safety, supports what Lambda hears anecdotally: In schools where students have this kind of curriculum exposure to queer identity, 66.9 percent of queer students report that their peers are “somewhat or very accepting of LGBTQ people,” compared to 37.9 percent at schools without it.

In some cases the program has had a school-wide effect. The concept of talking openly about pronouns has been introduced to the school culture. According to Carter, some school administrators have even reversed their decisions against providing students with gender-inclusive bathrooms. 

With its increased funding, the Writers in Schools program will be bringing books and author visits to ten thousand New York City public school students this school year alone. As in years past, many of the schools will be Title 1 schools, where the majority of students’ families are low-income. Lambda also runs free poetry workshops, in addition to virtual citywide events with best-selling authors such as Charlie Jane Anders, Malinda Lo, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. These provide opportunities for an even broader group of queer students—and teachers, too—to encounter someone who models how to live with honesty and joy. “These events are celebrations of reading as well as queer life,” Carter says. “They become a touchstone for queer students and their allies.”

Darnell L. Moore signs copies of his memoir, No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, for students at Forsyth Satellite Academy in 2019. (Credit: Monica Carter)
 

Outside of New York City, Lambda has run pilot programs in Oakland and Milwaukee. Carter hopes that, with the success of this program in the nation’s largest public school system, other cities will reach out and the program can expand even further. 

But no matter how the program scales up, Carter reiterates that it all comes back to the books and the people at the schools who seek out these connections. “This wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for the authors’ work,” she says. “And the students, who open their hearts and their minds to other experiences, and the educators who are committed to doing the things that need to be done in order to make safe spaces for queer students and their allies in their school.” 

 

Brian Gresko is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, where he co-runs Pete’s Reading Series. 

Novelist and short-story writer Chinelo Okparanta (seated, second from left) with students at Vanguard High School in 2018. (Credit: Jennifer Cruz-Flores)

Craft Capsule: Queer Characters Who Behave Badly

by

Peter Kispert

2.15.21

This is no. 88 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

It did not occur to me, while drafting the stories in my debut collection, I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), that they might ever become a book. I had not considered anyone would ever read or judge or enjoy or review my writing, beyond some appearances in literary magazines. After a few years of writing stale straight characters, I had finally begun to write queer stories featuring queer people, who to my great relief felt alive on the page. Late at night on my bed, a dim bulb flickering in the kitchen, screen light white on my face, I conjured it all up, and let my heart lead. In my fiction, I tried to articulate the truth.

But the “truth” felt slippery, uneasy. My queer characters, as I found them, were often a mess of wiring: self-sabotage, deception, jealousy, rage—crackling in ways that risked flame. In various ways, in different stories, I can still recall the experience of channeling these things as I wrote. Underneath the elation of finishing a story, I wondered: Why am I writing this? I sometimes feared my rendering of queer characters who behaved badly would be confused as an endorsement of that bad behavior, but nonetheless the work consumed me.

While revising I returned to the question of why my queer characters were behaving badly. I held my ear to each scene to see if I could hear a human sound inside. I didn’t want to presuppose that these characters were liars, but many shared a painful compulsion for self-betrayal. It did make me wonder: Does a writer make decisions on the goodness or badness of their characters, and why? How?

One reflex I noticed in drafting was to complicate a one-dimensional character by working away from either direction. This character is “bad” and so should have “good” characteristics. This character is “good” and so we must find a flaw. But I found this approach yielded rote shattered vases, reminiscent of my two-dimensional straight characters, and tended to render in a kind of permanent sketch. A more holistic, embodied approach—without judgment—transported me into their lives, which rang with a conditional joy I found exquisitely rich. I had to let them breathe.

Many of the stories in my book feature a protagonist or narrator whose deceptions serve a great self-betrayal. They must be masculine enough, or successful enough, or have friends because they don’t, or even merely have histories that suggest these things, in order to be or feel deserving of the love they chase. Often the lies become the stuff of these characters’ undoing. They mean the best but fail in their pursuit.

It is sometimes suggested that we write to free ourselves, but this has never interested me. The great freedom of the page was that I did not have to run from what I felt, or once had. Acknowledgment of complexity felt like a kiss. Fiction, stories, had been where I went to be honest, through queer characters who had begun to habituate, at times compulsively, their desires to betray themselves. Imposing a sense of goodness on a character flattened them, suffocating a tenderness and kindness that I found my characters do often possess too. In the middle of Indiana, in the middle of the night, I trained my gaze on only what felt true. From that feeling, eventually, the book emerged.

 

Peter Kispert is the author of the debut story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin Books, 2020), which was selected as a Best Book of the Year by Elle and a Best LGBTQ Book of the Year by O, the Oprah Magazine. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in GQ, Esquire, them, Playboy, and other publications. He is finishing work on his first novel.

Thumbnail: Evie S.

Craft Capsule: Creating a Seasonal Writing Practice

by

Khadijah Queen

1.4.21

This is no. 84 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The pandemic, social uprisings, and a volatile political climate—superimposed upon family and work responsibilities, as well as health challenges—has made a regular writing practice impossible over the past ten months. Essays I pitched early in the year didn’t materialize, and only a handful of terribly sad poems arrived in usable condition. The one longform piece I did finish—a zuihitsu that appeared in Harper’s—was about the pandemic, written in April and May as I worried terribly about the health and safety of family members who were sick, and some who are still frontline workers. As a relatively prolific writer, with six published books since 2008 and four more currently in various stages of completion, I’m trying to see my current lack of time and energy to write as a side effect of all that’s happening in the world, but I don’t want to give up on a regular writing practice. To that end, I want to reenvision possibilities for that practice while taking into account the new reality. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to adapt to complicated circumstances; I’ve tried many different kinds of writing practices over the past two decades. My early years of writing consisted of recording lines on my lunch breaks and during lulls at my day jobs, and a few minutes in my car before entering the house in the evening. When my son got older, I somehow managed six years of a daily writing practice, usually a half hour at 5:30 AM with a cup of tea and a blueberry muffin. When I had an emergency appendectomy in 2015, my writing routine tanked as I recovered. Slowly I built back up to weekend flurries, and that lasted long enough for me to complete my fifth book. Then I wrote during intensely concentrated weeks and months for three and a half years of doctoral study, resulting in one book of poetry, the first draft of a memoir and a 270-page critical dissertation by the end of 2019. After all that writing, all I wanted was a break, so I took a couple of months. Then the pandemic happened, and the writing—didn’t. As a person who really needs an intentional writing routine, I felt at a loss. 

How, with mounting caregiving, health issues and work responsibilities, would I fit in regular writing time? I struggled for months, until I hit upon the one thing I hadn’t tried yet—seasons. Thinking in terms of seasons avoids the specificity (and requisite pressure) of calendar dates and days of the week. A seasonal practice could preserve writing goals more gently and flexibly. It might include thematic prompts—write about lightness and travel in summer, or perhaps reflect on freedom; focus on renewal and revisit the pastoral or the aubade in spring; delve into darkness, list modes of comfort, and maybe address grief in winter; autumn writing might spotlight transformation and beauty. Autumn is my favorite season. I love wearing knee boots and turtleneck sweaters and leather gloves, love the early October riot of color in the trees. You can of course define for yourself what each season means. Collect keywords over the year that can provide lasting inspiration. 

Let’s also pause here and define “writing goals.” For me that’s mostly meant books, and that hasn’t changed. But I’ve had to think smaller when it comes to productivity even as I continue to envision larger projects. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, maybe I’ll choose a single element to work on, such as order, or beginnings and endings. For a seasonal practice, choosing writing goals that can be adjusted as needed, and granting yourself the easement of non-specified time to work, seems more than reasonable right now.  

If you have an impending deadline in early February, maybe you’ll work only on the coldest days, when outside pursuits aren’t accessible. In summer, if you enjoy writing outside like I do, choose the sunniest days to work on a patio, or at a socially distant café. If you have a deadline that isn’t urgent, try softening it. Make one date—or date range!—for a first draft, another for draft two, another for draft three. After each draft, especially if it’s spring, buy yourself fresh flowers. Get as much done as you can, then reward yourself with an evening walk or morning drive, weather permitting. These are just a few basic suggestions, and you can adjust goals (and rewards) as you go along. I happen to like dark chocolate, so that’s my default treat. Make a list of yours and have it ready along with those seasonal keywords. I firmly believe we need as many reminders as possible that part of the work of writing is allowing for mental space, for infusions of beauty, for intentional nourishment—physical and otherwise. During these incredibly challenging times, I would wager that flexibility rules the day. Don’t abuse grace, of course; communicate clearly and continue to commit to due dates with integrity, but also make use of kindness—given, and received.

 

Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.

Thumbnail: Oliver Hihn

Craft Capsule: Writing Hot

by

Jordan Kisner

11.30.20

This is no. 80 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was a writing student, a professor once commented to me that my writing was a little intense. I don’t remember exactly what he said, and he wasn’t unkind, but it was something like “Your writing is always at eleven,” or “Your writing is always just so hot-blooded.” 

This comment elicited a mixed reaction at the time. I wasn’t proud. I didn’t sense that this was a compliment. He was giving me a note: Learn to tone it down sometimes. It felt respectful in its way, as if he were saying, “Okay, you can write like your hair is on fire, but make sure that’s not the only thing you can do.” Which is a good and teacherly thing to do, to discourage a student from leaning too heavily on the thing that feels good, to point out tics and habits. But as a young writer—a female writer, a queer writer—to hear an older male professor note that your work is unrelentingly intense can set off a clamor of questions, insecurities, suspicions, irritations, doubts, shames. This is maybe especially the case when the young writer is writing (as I was) about her own life and self, the source of this overmuchness. 

So I was a little embarrassed, concerned that “intense” was code for melodramatic, maudlin, tacky, purple. Childish. Overfeminine. Hysterical. But also, I wanted to be an intense writer. What was the point of writing if it wasn’t vivid and compelling, if it wasn’t transporting, if it didn’t make you rock back in your seat? I wrote then, and write now, I suppose, to express an intensity to the condition of being, an aliveness that feels full and bewildering. 

After that, though, I spent several years trying to write in a way that was hot-blooded, or full of feeling, but also somehow cool. Writing that was fierce and ardent while being unimpeachably in control of itself. I’ve tried a few ways to do this over the years. The first, maybe, we’ll call The Didion method: Bury feeling in a near-hysterical radiance of detail or texture when describing absolutely mundane things like sock brands; directly reference imminent emotional breakdown (or past breakdown) in prose so deadpan and commanding it seems like possibly a complex joke. Then there is what we might call The Nelson: Go straight to eleven, get poetic and hot about sex, love, heartbreak, pain, and then stave off accusations of mawkishness with theory and academically rigorous discussions of the sex. 

I love both these methods—and Joan Didion and Maggie Nelson—but lately I’ve been thinking about what you lose when you insist on cooling down your prose. Early this summer I had a conversation with Ocean Vuong on my Thresholds podcast during which he spoke about his reclamation of prose that some might dismiss as purple. “I am interested in using a style that a lot of men have deemed too prissy for them to use in the present,” he told me. “It feels like drag to me—to be extra! There’s too much glitter because we want to be blindingly present and seen.” He was speaking about the historical moment when emotional and beautiful writing was deemed feminine and therefore less worthy, and the way that as a [queer] man he might begin to excavate and subvert that. He reminded me, also, that you can find fun and even joy in just going ahead and writing at eleven, writing hot, writing like your hair is on fire—to be blindingly present and seen.  

 

Jordan Kisner is the author of the essay collection Thin Places (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). Her writing has also appeared in the Atlantic, the Believer, the Guardian, n+1, the New York Times Magazine, and the Paris Review Daily. The recipient of fellowships from Pioneer Works, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Art Omi, she is currently a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas. 

Thumbnail: Dmitry Bayer

Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet

by

Chen Chen

11.2.20

This is no. 77 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

1. I started to write poetry because of a secret that I had trouble sharing even with myself.

2. I continue to write poetry because, in the fifth grade, my short story about a pregnant witch living in Venice received the following peer critique: “You do know it takes nine months for the baby to grow inside the mom, not two?” I write poetry because I wish I’d responded, “You do know this is a witch baby???” 

3. I knew I would always be a poet after a barely audible “goodbye” in the doorway of a tenth-floor apartment. How there was no elevator and it was the middle of summer and I had to walk down and down those stairs. 

4. I wake up craving poetry because Sawako Nakayasu once said, “I work mostly in poetry because it claims to be neither fiction nor nonfiction, because it acknowledges the gap between what really was or is, and what is said about it.”1 

5. Poetry because French class, Russian class. Because Mandarin and English and Hokkien at home. Because English. Because I learn and learn, then forget so much Mandarin. Because I forgot all my Hokkien2 by age seven. Poetry because my first-year advisor in college, a professor of Russian Studies, asked me why all my three-page Tolstoy responses were so late. “Go on,” she said, “give us your narrative.” Poems because I loved how her prompt was a comment on the expected form of my response. Poet because I said, “Time management’s an issue,” which really meant I wanted every paper to be about everything and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character in Chungking Express and I wanted Takeshi Kaneshiro and was rewatching the film over and over and Googling stills. 

6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.

7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon.3 Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.

8. The violence of the state. The silence of the h in French words, like homme. How violent, many homes. To ask, “Where is home?” as if it’s ever a simple question. To say, “I have a home” as if it’s an unremarkable statement. To say “I have” in Russian, you use a genitive construction that translates to the awkward English, “At me there is.” At home the adults asked, “Why did you get an A-?” in three different languages; there were no questions about whether I would ever start hating myself for what and whom I loved.   

9. I continue to read poetry because it seems every poem has a big secret at its core and I always want to know if it’s a big gay secret. Because Anna Akhmatova wrote, “Sunset in the ethereal waves: / I cannot tell if the day / is ending, or the world, or if / the secret of secrets is inside me again”4 and that seems pretty gay to me. Because Denise Levertov wrote, “Two girls discover / the secret of life / in a sudden line of / poetry”5 and that sounds definitely gay. 

Because for years I had to settle for subtext and total projection. 

Because when I found Justin Chin’s Bite Hard in a college library, I glanced at just one poem then added the book to my stack to check out. Because I moved it to the middle of the stack, as if hiding it from both the sky and the ground. Because I was so moved to see both “Chinese New Year” and “ex-boyfriends” in one poem. Because was it hide or protect, and do I know the difference now? 

10. In English, I still have trouble with lie versus lay, which I always feel ashamed to admit, though I know English is a troublesome, troubling language that makes one want to lay down, to lie one’s body on its side till all one’s lies have tumbled out from one’s head and belly, and are lain out like one single shadow-body of a liar on the grass. 

11. I started off as a fiction writer. 

12.  I started as a reader of fantastical literature, a writer of both fantasy and science fiction. I started on the playground, telling friends that the jungle gym was a spaceship and we’d better hurry onboard before it took off: “Danny, you’re new to the cause, like me. Amanda, you’re the chosen one, our only hope.” I couldn’t get enough of the galactic, magic, any-kind-of-epic mission; the dueling-with-lasers-or-wands journey. I acted them out, wrote them down. 

Moments of poetry occurred in my stories when I stayed too long in the pocket dimension of an emotion; when I strayed too far into the magic of an image; when I mismanaged the time and leapt through the wormhole/plot-hole back to my implausible Venice and its witch baby. Poetry erupted when I couldn’t keep performing the narrative I was supposed to—that of a boy who liked Amandas, not Dannys. 

13. Looking back, dueling with lasers or wands sounds definitely phallic. 

14. I became a poet after my friends no longer wanted to play the games we made up. After they decided to only play games that would help them grow up. But growing up, for me, meant no longer just playing at, dancing around what I desired. And some days I wanted to grow up. And some days I wanted to die. 

15. I had to Google “coming out.” I had to Google “lie vs. lay.” I had to Google “gay and Asian” and found mainly what white men had to say about bodies like mine. I had to Google “gay Asian American literature.” I had to Google “queer.” I had to Google “fag.” I had to search for one sentence with “I” that eventually I could say out loud. 

16. Poems became my favorite way of telling stories because poems can tell a secret and talk about telling that secret and along the way become another secret.

17. Of course, all this can and does happen in other genres too. And when I write poems I’m drawing on aspects of fantastical fiction, autobiography, realist fiction, standup comedy, Tolstoy as much as Takeshi Kaneshiro, TV shows that got way too many seasons, and elements I don’t want to be able to name. In recent years, lots of prose poems and lyric essay–esque pieces have been showing their blocky faces to me. And very recently, a teensy spoonful of fiction. To call myself poet just makes the most sense, personally, creatively. Poet is where I feel freest to do this and that and wtf.

18. Some nights I just want to be an international sex symbol/pop star with Grammy-worthy vocal chops but still a ton of totally relatable habits, like eating bread. I envy the pop song that can end simply6 by repeating its chorus over and over, slowly fading out yet also burrowing itself into your ear. 

19. A barely audible “hey” in the collapsed year. The violence of state-sanctioned language. My own unbroken, snowy silences. To ask “Where is home?” as if there is one answer. To write home in a poem, like a poem could be a home—is this happy or sad? Strange yet not uncommon, to weep with and into joy. A form of power, a kind of language: to weep and disobey silence. My favorite silence is a space for thought, is spaciousness. A wormhole named Maybe. A parallel galaxy called Another Way. 

20. I continue to poet because now I have all these poet friends who’ll text me to ask what poems I’m writing and I have to start writing again so they’ll stop bugging me and I never want them to stop. 

I continue to poet because I’m not satisfied with the definitions behind, the narratives around “coming out,” “lie vs. lay,” “gay and Asian,” “gay Asian American literature,” “queer,” “fag.” I am always trying to say the everything I’ve lived, am living, but I never want to feel like I’ve said it all. 

For years I believed poetry was the only place where I could be all my selves, any self. I wrote, trying to answer the question, “How can a poem hold the myriad me’s and realms and loves and ferocities and shards and velocities—this whole multiverse that the life cannot, yet?” But can a poem do this? A book of poems? Is poetry a place? 

I am a poet because I ask poetry to do too much, and then it does it. 

 

ENDNOTES

1. From a working note that prefaced a set of Nakayasu’s poems published in How2
2. Except what my parents call each other. 
3. What joy! Poets! Not caring one bit how annoying we are when we go on and on about the moon!
4. “A land not mine,” translated by Jane Kenyon in
From Room to Room (Alice James Books, 1978). 
5. “The Secret” in
O Taste and See (New Directions, 1964). 
6. With the best pop music, this is no simple feat; the chorus has to be excellent.

 

Chen Chen is the author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and won the Publishing Triangle Thom Gunn Award. His work has appeared in many publications, including Poetry and the 2015 and 2019 editions of The Best American Poetry. He has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from Kundiman and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches at Brandeis University as the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence. 

Thumbnail: Romain Gille

Craft Capsule: We Are All Translators

by

Jenny Bhatt

9.21.20

This is no. 73 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Literary translation is about being a close reader in the source language and a skilled writer in the target language. Of course, a language is not merely words, phrases, idioms, diction, and syntax. Languages contain entire cultures within them, entire ways of thinking and being, too. Those of us who translate other writers’ works do so because we want to dive deep and fully immerse ourselves in another world—to pay attention to more than the literal content and preserve the emotions, cultural nuances, and humor from the source to target language.  

This is not unlike how, as readers and writers, we seek to inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. We are all translators. The process of reading involves translating and interpreting the writer’s meaning and intent. The process of writing involves interpreting and giving voice to our own thoughts, which are guided by the things we have read, seen, heard, and experienced. As Mexican poet Octavio Paz famously wrote, “No text is entirely original because language itself, in its essence, is already a translation: firstly, of the nonverbal world and secondly, since every sign and every phrase is the translation of another sign and another phrase.”

Due to the accretions of traditions and culture over centuries, it is not possible to seamlessly transpose two languages when translating. Similarly, due to our conditioning and subjectivity, it is not possible for two readers to read the same text entirely the same way. And it is not possible for two writers to create entirely the same story. A single piece of writing can have multiple acceptable readings and translations due to the flexibility of language, suppleness of imagination, and versatility of craft techniques. 

I was a writer before I became a translator. But I learned to appreciate linguistic, aesthetic, and cultural diversity more profoundly because of translation work. There are ten key practices of the discipline that pull me in each time:

1. Reading a work closely and repetitively to know it, sometimes even better than the original writer.

2. Listening to the tonalities, textures, rhythms, cadences, and diction in both languages to capture the writer’s voice as fully as possible.

3. Learning nuanced meanings of words and phrases in the target language by seeing them used with different specificity and significance in the source language.

4. Hunting for le mot juste that honors the complexities of both languages.

5. Discovering aesthetic reinterpretations of an original work to suit a new readership or audience linguistically, intellectually, and intuitively. 

6. Deliberating over the subtexts, cultural implications, and stylistic choices made by the original writer in the source language to recreate them in the target language without losing any literary merit.

7. Interrogating the politics of the writer, their text, and the source and target languages.

8. Meditating on the original writer’s themes to convey them with the proper intentions and emotions.

9. Deepening my understanding of the world, past and present, by transforming something foreign into something familiar.

10. Negotiating with what remains untranslatable.

With only one book of translation and a handful of shorter works completed, I am still developing these practices into technical proficiencies. However, as each translation project helps me hone and refine my skills, I am also leveraging these lessons more frequently in my reading and writing. Literary translation is, in the end, about actively co-creating a text with its original writer by adding more shape, context, nuance, and texture to it. Aren’t we all better off as readers if we learn to do the same? And aren’t we stronger writers when we draw from, build onto, and expand upon the world of literature that has come before us?

 

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.

Thumbnail: Patrick Tomasso

Craft Capsule: Doors vs. Corridors

by

Will Harris

8.17.20

This is no. 68 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

During the pandemic, with so many doors locked and shuttered, I lived in the corridors of my house. Thom Gunn describes the corridor as a “separate place between the thought and felt”—a place of uncertainty, where thoughts are unformed and feelings suppressed. It’s probably not surprising, then, that the few poems I managed to eke out were meandering, confused, and muffled.

As the architecture of my house extended into what I wrote, I started looking for poems about houses—either set indoors or using the “house” as a metaphor for the craft of poetry. I was trying to work out what kind of house poetry should be, and how much confusion that house might be able to contain. Soon enough I turned to Emily Dickinson: 

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

I always read this stanza with the ironic hint of the estate agent in her tone (“Superior—for Doors” is particularly funny), which seems to mock the idea you could ever really compare poetry to a house. Though it can feel like using a conceit means committing to it entirely, here the analogy is loosely held, self-consciously tenuous: “If you look to your right, you’ll see some windows. How many? Numerous. And if you look down there, yup, superior doors. You won’t get that with Prose.” The lightness of tone is part of the image she projects about poetry. 

But I read it with another, darker Dickinson poem in the back of my head, this one taking the house less as a metaphor for poetry than for the poet’s interior life:

One need not be a Chamber – to be haunted – 
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing 
Material Place

These lines suggest that when you forgo “Material Place” and build your house in “Possibility” you open yourself up to a particular danger: being haunted. Where the other poem began with a confident assertion of habitation—“I dwell”—here the speaker expresses horror at the idea of being dwelt in: “The Brain has Corridors.” The tone is repetitious, fevered, as though the speaker has been running up and down their internal corridors for hours. The effect of this is compounded by the use of the impersonal pronoun “One” and that definite article before “Brain”—not my brain but the brain—which suggests a traumatic detachment from the body; and “surpassing,” hanging at the end of the line makes it feel like those brain corridors are only getting bigger, longer, more labyrinthine. 

What’s missing from the second poem is a door of the kind Dickinson thought made poetry so superior—and without one, there’s no means of escape. Door and corridor may sound related but there’s no etymological link between them. The word door comes from the Old English duru and has always meant the same thing. Corridor is from the Italian corridoio, referring to a “running-place.” They represent two forms of possibility, each reliant on the other: The door is a portal, signifying insight, while the corridor is an in-between place, signifying uncertainty and confusion. 

An important way to understand the corridor might be via the horror film in which a shadowy figure always seems to be lurking at the other end, or the protagonist is trapped, running down an endless dark passage full of locked doors. Where the corridor represents terror, the door is freedom.

*

During lockdown I also turned to Bhanu Kapil’s book How to Wash a Heart and stopped at this section:

When what you perform 
At the threshold
Is at odds 
With what happens
When the front door is closed,
Then you are burning
The toast 
And you are letting the butter
Fester.

The front door is where the internal becomes public, even if briefly. But in order for an act to be meaningful, what you “perform” at the threshold must have some relationship to what happens behind it. Kapil’s lines make me think of those people in expensive houses who voted to privatize Britain’s National Health Service last December and then stepped out onto their doorsteps this spring to clap enthusiastically in support of nurses and carers. They make me think of what the threshold can conceal. The door only has meaning in relation to the corridor.

In early July, Bhanu and I did a reading together on Zoom. She began hers by lighting a small candle. She had some shallots next to her that she’d picked from Wittgenstein’s garden in Cambridge. The effect of these gestures wasn’t just to welcome the listener in. It was to create an open space into which the poem could emerge, where we could meet it. In trying to harmonize inner and outer, in letting out what festers, the distance between our two screens fell away.

After the reading, I thought back to Dickinson’s haunted house poem. It’s driven by a claustrophobic fear of the internal. Even the “External Ghost” or hidden “Assassin” (other threats that feature in Dickinson’s poem) are less terrifying than the prospect of “self encounter.” The self is a more ambiguous, volatile element. It could stay hidden forever: “Ourself, behind ourself concealed,” reads one line in the poem. You might think you’ve turned a corner, the front door in sight, only to find yourself lost down another passageway. 

But this is only a nightmare if you’re looking for a door. The beauty of Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart lies in its openness: “I want to be split / Into two parts / Or a thousand pieces.” The self that’s been split into a thousand pieces has nothing to lose. What’s not whole cannot be broken. Likewise, the poem doesn’t have to form a coherent whole—a portal to insight. It doesn’t have to involve finding the right door and standing outside of it proudly. It can also mean walking the corridors, afraid and confused.

 

Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Kilarov Zaneit

Craft Capsule: The Authority of Black Childhood

by

Joy Priest

7.6.20

This is no. 64 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Outside / its case, the mind is a beehive / fallen in the wild grasses / of an abandoned playground.

— from “Ars Poetica” by Joy Priest

It’s January 2, 2020. I’m traveling by car with a painter back to the artists’ compound that I’m staying at for a seven-month residency—a blip-stage between the MFA I finished in May 2019 and the PhD I will start in August 2020, a deliberate detour in the longer academic-poet road on which I find myself. About it, slightly in mourning. Alone in study, but wholeheartedly wanting to be closer to the people in this poetry thing.

The painter has found a way to subsist outside the university engine, working in the residency office, leading Zumba classes in the morning, painting in her studio at night. We’re talking about what academia does to artists, and, as we’re riding—from Wellfleet back to Provincetown, at the very tip of the Cape, isolated at the end of the land—she says, “I really do feel like this chapter for me has been about unlearning.”

*

“Sometimes a moment of liberation is suspended by the tight grip of contradiction,” my friend Bernardo says, which captures this moment I have in the car with the painter, as well as the larger social context we’re sailing through like a tiny, mobile dot on the periphery of the U.S. map. I was liberated by the painter’s articulation but jealous that I hadn’t pulled it out of my subconscious first: unlearning. This had been my project for the first three months of the fellowship, but I’d thought I was wasting time because that project had not yet been named. Wasting time—a feeling shaped by the values of academia, a microcosm of our larger society and its ailing imagination, which burdens artists and writers with paradigms of productivity and surplus contributions to an inaccessible archive. I had been unlearning that.

*

Usually, when stuck in a vehicle, poetry-talk is boring at worst, frustrating at best. A Lyft driver or seatmate on a plane will inevitably ask, “When did you start writing poetry?” I find this frustrating because I haven’t yet crafted a creative approach to the question, but, more importantly, because such a question precludes the true answer.

*

I was a better poet when I was a child.

During the nineties in Kentucky, I was a child in solitude. There was a lack of artificial stimuli, my technology limited to a Sega Genesis that I spent more time blowing dust from than playing. My single mother was at work. The only other person in the house was my grandfather, a man in his seventies, who—I didn’t know at the time—was white. He defined our relationship with board games, puzzles, basketball, or boxing on a box TV set—the technology of his time. With his racist perspectives, he attempted to define my identity, which I didn’t yet understand, but felt, intuitively. 

In place of understanding, in place of the internet, I cultivated a practice in noticing. This is how I developed my approach to the page, before I had an awareness of “craft.” Poetry wasn’t what I did or what I started doing in a single moment from the past onward, it was the way I thought, who I had to be in my grandfather’s household, the way my mind worked to make sense of something.

There isn’t a single event that led to me becoming a poet. There isn’t a beginning to me writing poetry—there is only the beginner’s mind. This is what I find myself trying to get back to in my unlearning: the authority of a child’s imagination—what we possess before we are fully indoctrinated into adulthood and the accepted ways of making sense of things. 

*

I spent a lot of time outside of my grandfather’s house, in the backyard. My mind was a beehive. A chaotic, intuitive knot of thought-impulses that I needed to wrest apart, investigate, ruminate on, understand. I found myself watching the ants at ground-level, making a daily visit to the carpenter bees and their perfectly round holes in the rotting wood. 

When I was inside, I noticed the difference between my grandfather’s skin and mine. I knew my hair was more like the hair of darker people, who he was always saying bad things about. I knew that he didn’t want me to be like them, but I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t understand why, but I could notice. I kept a record of these little noticings as a substitute for clarity around what I was noticing. This conversation with myself as a Black child supplemented what I learned, or what adults sought to teach me (what a white child learns or is taught by white adults). This practice of noticing, or overhearing, was my seminal craft approach. 

*

Pulling away the scaffolding of craft “knowledge,” which I’ve accumulated as an adult poet, has led me to this—notebooks full of little noticings and meditations, overhearings and mishearings, notions that haunt me, lines that keep coming up. Writing a poem this way becomes less strained: that accumulation of craft had become a cheesecloth through which I struggled to write. 

These little noticings are the only way I wish to start a poem, or any conversation about craft. It is how I get closer to an understanding of what something or someone—my imaginary friend, my ancestors, my intuition, the flora and fauna—is trying to tell me, and I embrace this as a spiritual craft as well as a technical one. It is my resistance to the limits of the U.S. popular imagination, which condescends to the childhood imagination in tropes and shorthand, which does not know, can no longer remember, what the child knows.

 

Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: Dustin Humes

Craft Capsule: Notes From the Cutting Room Floor

by

Sejal Shah

5.18.20

This is no. 60 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

An essay collection consists of more than several pieces between two covers. There is always the ghost manuscript: what is cut, what has been moved, shaped, revised. In my first book, This Is One Way to Dance, there are notes at the end of the text—they are narrative, include sources for quoted material, acknowledge readers and editors, and are not numbered. This essay is another kind of commentary. Each piece rewrites what came before. In a way, I am still rewriting my book and its notes—notes to oneself, to one’s reader, you; they are a conversation. 

I wrote the first draft of this essay in longhand; later, I typed it. At some point, I began numbering my thoughts as a way of keeping track. When I cut and pasted different sections of the text, I preserved the original numbers to trace the movement of information. In doing so, I attempt to show my writing process in the tradition of visible mending.

1. In Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, there are footnotes. There are three epigraphs at the beginning, each on a different page (I love this, the space). Many of the footnotes lead to Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page, and the footnotes don’t feel like an interruption, but pleasurable, recursive reading. There is an overture disavowing prologues. After the overture is a gorgeous prologue: “The memoir is at its core, an act of resurrection. Memoirists…manipulate time; resuscitate the dead. They put themselves, and others, into necessary context.” If I had read In the Dreamhouse while working on my book, I might have written a different prologue. So many beats to a book, architecture, a tonal range, a key. All of these elements are questions that ask: Who is your audience? To whom and how do I wish to explain myself?1 

3. Are prologues and codas forms of notes? Is an introduction?

20. Here is a ghost note, something I cut from the introduction of my book: “I grew up seeing and later studying with Garth Fagan Dance. A noted choreographer, Fagan is associated with the Black Arts Movement. Fagan technique draws from ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance. I learned: You could invent your own language. You didn’t have to fit yourself into someone else’s forms. You didn’t have to explain yourself.”

4. I wanted my notes to go before the acknowledgments, to be part of the body of This Is One Way to Dance. In the published copy, my notes follow the acknowledgments, per the press’s house style, which is The Chicago Manual of Style. I realize I don’t believe in style manuals.

17. Somewhere in a book (an introduction) or outside it (an interview), you will have to explain why you wrote your book. At each stage of the publishing process you use a different form: a proposal, a press sheet, a preface, a prologue, an afterward, a Q&A. Sometimes I still stumble. From the preface of Sonja Livingston’s memoir, Ghostbread: “I wrote this book because the pain and power and beauty of childhood inspire me. I wrote it selfishly, to make sense of chaos. I wrote it unselfishly, to bear witness. For houses and gardens and children most of us never see.” 

Part of me wants to never explain anything. Part of me worries I have explained too much and still missed what is most important. The settling and unsettling of the self. Navigating, meditating, mediating. Not identity, but movement. A book, through architecture or by words, must instruct the reader in how to read it. Both are important.

2. For a book review, I remember finding out, after already reading far into the text, that a glossary and notes existed at the back. This changed my reading of the book. With no table of contents and no superscript numbers, how would you know to look for notes and a glossary? Do you flip to the back of the book to see what happens, in case you die before you finish reading,2 in order to know what something means?

4. (a) My book ends with the last sentence of the notes: “And there are many reasons to dance.” 

5. I am talking to my friend Prageeta Sharma, a poet, about notes. She mentions Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, which begins with a section called “[A Note].” Blanchfield writes, “At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called ‘Correction.’ It sets right much—almost certainly not all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs to twenty-one pages. It may still be running.” This feels true to me about writing a book. Trying to right it, but in the end, it’s a series of notations and corrections, assertions and deletions. Traces.

6. The poet Rick Barot told me his second book had notes. Not his first and third. And not his fourth, the most recent, The Galleons. He says he is anti-notes now.3 I get that.

28. Are notes like parentheses? (Say it clearly or not at all.) 

7. The writer Michael Martone wrote a book called Michael Martone, and the chapters are written in the style of “Contributors’ Notes” and his contributors’ notes are stories. Contributors’ notes are stories we tell about ourselves; they are fictions. 

10. How are notes different than sources? I wrote notes for many of my essays, but not all of them. Notes were sometimes meant to be a place to credit sources, but they also became their own commentary. They sprawled. I credit writing prompts, editors, readers, and books. Some of that could have been folded into acknowledgments. I credited sources for titles and images. I wrote about the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage during the time and day of our ceremony and why this mattered to me. Actually, that was a kind of afterward.

13. I am writing for the kind of people who read notes. Those are my readers, my people. 

16. (a) In my book there is a coda titled “Voice Texting With My Mother.” I did not title it a coda. At some point I lost track of what needed a classification or title and what could exist as part of the invisible architecture of the book.

18. In her short “A Note from the Author,” Tyrese Coleman writes: “How to Sit [a Memoir in Stories and Essays] challenges the concept that a distinction needs to be made when the work is memory-based, because memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.” 

9. This winter I read Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays, Minor Feelings. I realized, when I reached the end of the book, I had been expecting notes. Her essays are muscular, theoretical, personal, and include history, cultural commentary, friendships, family, and literature—a whole essay on the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and her cross-genre memoir, Dictée. It surprised me to learn I liked the lack of notes in her book. It meant theorists and sources were often foregrounded in the essays themselves. In Hong’s work I saw a different model—the essay as a “coalitional form.” A model that foregrounds voices and perspectives beyond the essayist’s own—one that she credits writers in the tradition of Hilton Als, James Baldwin, and Maggie Nelson. 

19. An introduction is like a toast at a wedding. No, I cannot satisfactorily address so many audiences—pivot—who is an introduction for? Why not just begin? Whose job is it to host?

27. I read the acknowledgments and the notes in most books. I want to know how a book came together.

22. Sometimes I skim the notes.

14. I have to be honest: I am intrigued by the idea of no notes. Maybe for the next book.

 

ENDNOTES

1. After I turned in my proofs last December, I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Hong writes about Myung Mi Kim, “the first poet who said I [Hong] didn’t need to sound like a white poet nor did I have to ‘translate’ my experiences so that they sounded accessible to a white audience…Illegibility was a political act.” Yes. I believe this.
2. What Harry does in
When Harry Met Sally.
3. [E-mail from Rick] “When I say I’m now ‘anti-notes,’ this mostly refers to my last book, 
The Galleons. There’s a lot of background research in the book, but I didn’t want a notes section to make the book seem like a ‘project’ book.  After all, my research for the book was driven by lyrical sentiment and opportunity—it wasn’t systematic…”

 

Sejal Shah’s debut essay collection, This Is One Way to Dance, will be published by the University of Georgia Press in June. Her writing can be found in Brevity, Conjunctions, Guernica, Kenyon Review, the Literary Review, the Margins, and the Rumpus. She is also the recipient of a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship in fiction. Shah is on the faculty of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, and lives in Rochester, New York. 

Thumbnail: Judith Browne

Craft Capsule: Reading Backwards

by

Carter Sickels

3.30.20

This is no. 54 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA many years ago, a member of the workshop passed on a piece of advice he’d once heard: Read your manuscript backwards. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention (he was a bit of a know-it-all), but the advice stuck with me, clanging around in my brain, and I’ve since turned to it when line editing and hammering out bigger structural issues.

Reading backwards doesn’t mean you read from right to left, or from the bottom of the page to the top. What I do is print out the manuscript, start with the top of the last page, and work my way back to page one. This exercise works differently for me depending on where I am in the process. When I have a final draft, reading backwards helps with line editing. When I read backwards, I use my brain in a different way, and it slows down my reading. I focus on the words, not the story, and spot repetition and unnecessary words.

Reading backwards has also helped me resolve structural issues and build narrative tension. I was struggling with a short story I’d been trying to write for months. It wasn’t working but I couldn’t figure out why. I let the manuscript sit and cool, like a hot potato; when I returned to it after a few more months, I tried the backwards reading trick. The ending of the story worked, but how did I get there? There were holes in the plot, and too much exposition that glossed over important information. The first-person narrator, so focused on his lover, never stepped up or revealed any insight into his own interior. I hadn’t written any scenes with him alone or with other characters. These backwards-reading discoveries helped me restructure and revise the story; I cut exposition, wrote new scenes, and rearranged the scenes I already had to amplify the tension. 

When I’m stuck I’ll try looking at the story from a fresh angle—whether reading backwards, changing the font, hanging pages on the wall or spreading them out on the floor. I read the entire manuscript aloud. I retype. These are all ways to trick myself into approaching the novel from a different place. Sometimes it works. And when it does, it’s like seeing the project with a new pair of eyes—catching what I missed, or discovering a hidden door that leads me to the true story. 

 

Carter Sickels’s second novel, The Prettiest Star, will be published by Hub City Press on May 19. He is also the author of The Evening Hour (Bloomsbury, 2012), which was a finalist for an Oregon Book Award and a Lambda Literary Award. His essays and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Guernica, Bellevue Literary Review, Green Mountains Review, and BuzzFeed. The recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Emerging Writer Award, Sickels has also earned fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. He is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where he teaches in the Bluegrass Writers low-residency MFA program. 

Thumbnail: Amie LeeKing

Craft Capsule: Consulting the Tarot

by

Emma Copley Eisenberg

2.24.20

This is no. 50 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

I was raised in a house of reason where there was no God, no witchcraft, no science fiction, no astrology, and certainly no tarot. These things were for the weak, and we were not weak. But I’ll never forget when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin and it dawned on me why Tom prayed so much: He was just trying to get through the day. I was weak, I knew. To make it from dawn to dusk, I too needed all the help I could get. 

Tarot came into my life through the friend, the friend I lost, and it is the thing she gave me more than any other for which I offer her my supreme gratitude. To be fair, I acquired the deck itself—The Wild Unknown by Kim Krans—much earlier; I bought it on impulse late one night on the gushing recommendation of someone I’d met at a party. You are not supposed to buy a tarot deck for yourself, I learned later, perhaps because without the blessing of someone you love to imbue the paper and images with power, a deck of cards is just a deck of cards.

I cannot now separate tarot from the friend, and I cannot separate tarot from writing. She and I became friends during the period when the card of the moon, which according to my deck “encompasses the idea of the Wild Unknown,” was my near constant companion. She taught me how to do the simplest spread—past, present, future—and led me to Michelle Tea’s book on tarot, life, and writing, Modern Tarot: Connecting With Your Higher Self Through the Wisdom of the Cards. Past, present, future; beginning, middle, and end. My friend and I began to draw a single card to set the mood for our writing sessions together, held at a ramshackle coworking space in the neighborhood where we lived.

What I like about drawing a single card before writing is that it allows me a single place to put my feelings about that day’s words—all my fear that the words won’t come and all my fear that they will. Drawing a single card, the mother of pentacles, for instance, which offers an image of a deer and her fawn, gives me a door at which to knock when I can’t see any of that paragraph’s architecture. She excels in the home, the card says: Perhaps I’ll turn my scent diffuser on, or I’ll have a character bake a scone, or I’ll think about why some person in my book moved around so much from place to place. It’s not so much a place to start writing but rather a way to give the day’s writing a particular mood or scent or inflection. Draw the death card, which in The Wild Unknown simply means that “something in your life needs to end…something is trying to find closure,” and the idea of ending and closure will start bonking around in my brain until it hits something in my writing that needed either to finish or to begin. Each card is like a prompt I suppose, except instead of being wacky and contrived, it feels like a prompt I gave myself from the darkest recesses of my unconscious, a shortcut to the place I was trying to go. 

I drew a card every day while writing The Third Rainbow Girl, which explores a mysterious act of violence in Pocahontas County, West Virginia in 1980, the Appalachian community where it transpired, and my own time in the place as a national service worker. For nearly the entirety of the fifteen months when I was most actively engaged, sentence by sentence, in writing the book, I dreamed about murder—either murdering or being murdered—every night. Then every morning I went to the deck and chose a card. I am not exaggerating when I say that I chose the moon card almost every time, no matter how well I shuffled. The card’s overall theme: vivid dreams and fears. I read the card’s description so many times I can recite it by heart:

[The moon] is the shadow realm, the place where dreams, fears, and mysteries are born. Much darkness can linger here, and if you aren’t careful, this can lead to periods of anxiety and self-doubt almost as if you’ve lost your way in a house of mirrors. Many great artists have roamed this inner landscape. It’s where imagination and creativity drift freely upon the midnight air.

That about summed it up. Fuck the fucking moon, I began to say aloud each time I drew it. Fuck this fucking book.

But the moon would not be fucked and neither would the book I was writing; they would not go away until they went away and maybe not even then. Eventually, I finished the book and I lost the friend. I’m drawing new cards these days—a lot of pentacles, the suit of home and hearth. I hope I drift less and dig more in the next book, but of course, it’s not up to me. 

 

Emma Copley Eisenberg is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (Hachette Books, 2020). Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, the Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and other outlets. She is also the recipient of fellowships and awards from the Tin House Summer Workshop, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Wurlitzer Foundation, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and Lambda Literary. She lives in Philadelphia, where she directs Blue Stoop, a hub for the literary arts. 

Thumbnail: Altınay Dinç

Craft Capsule: Start, Stop, Change

by

Mimi Lok

1.12.20

This is no. 46 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

For many writers with long-brewing projects, starting a new year can stir up dread, excitement, grim resolve, or all of the above. Mid-January becomes a time of early reckoning: Have I stuck to my guns? Backslid already? Realized, aghast, that my goals were far too lofty? Resolutions are often focused on starting new things, but not enough is said about the value of simply carrying on, taking a moment to reflect on existing projects, and adjusting or even stopping the approaches that are no longer working. 

Whenever I feel stuck or overwhelmed with a writing project, I try to take a step back and ask myself three questions: What needs to start? What needs to stop? What needs to change? And then I make lists or action items in response to those questions. It might look something like this:

What needs to start? 

  • Write the scene or chapter you’ve been avoiding. Drink a shot of tequila and write the bloody thing. In one sitting. Tape over the delete button if necessary.
  • Admit that the work has reached the point where it needs to leave the house. Share it with the person who will tell you things you don’t want to hear but who will ultimately help you make it stronger.
  • Look farther afield for things that feed your creative brain and soul. Get your nose out of a book and get thee to an art museum, concert, or stand-up comedy show. It doesn’t have to be tangibly connected to your project, but it will wake up different parts of you and might even spark ideas.

What needs to stop?

  • Control. Release your characters from their toddler harnesses and let them do what they want to do instead of what you want them to do.
  • Narrator as bodycam. Stop treating your first-person narrator as a passive, disembodied set of eyes and ears, and turn them into an actual human being the reader can see, hear, and feel.
  • Procrastination. Specifically, the kind that’s rooted in a lack of interest and motivation rather than a lack of confidence. If some high power decreed you could only tell one last story before you died, would this be it? If the answer is “umm…,” then put this project aside and find the story that feels compelling and urgent to you, and that only you can tell.

What needs to change?

  • Point of view. Does it have to be the POV you’ve chosen? Why? What would happen if you changed it?
  • Scope. Recognize how you’ve been limiting the story and expand or shrink the world of your story accordingly. This could be related to the number of characters you want to focus on, or settings, or time periods. Or it could be about redistributing the amount of time spent with various characters and their world(s). See how it affects the intensity and focus.
  • Setting. How important is your chosen time and place to the story you want to tell? Would the story change if it were relocated, set in another time period?

The stop/start/change tool is something I’ve borrowed from my other life in the nonprofit sector (mostly in terms of assessing projects and organizational priorities), but which can be handily applied to other areas of life too: friendships, marriages, exercise routines, to name a few.

 

Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.

Craft Capsule: The End

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.30.19

This is no. 45 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When do you stop revising? How do you know when a poem is done? The short answer is that I consider a poem done once I have committed it to memory. I learned this from a revision exercise I borrowed from Danez Smith who, in turn, borrowed it from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The exercise begins: Open to a blank notebook page or Word document and rewrite the poem you are working on from memory. Following this initial rewrite, Van Clief-Stefanon’s exercise contains a series of prompts intended to clarify what is important to the poem, what it needs more of, and what is extraneous. Even without the prompts, rewriting from memory can, on its own, provide such information; what you remember will usually turn out to be what is essential to the poem, whether that is an image, a narrative, a line-length, a sound. If you remember the whole thing, it stands to reason that the whole thing is essential. 

Poets often analogize the writing of poems to other artistic practices: sculpture, pottery, the making of boats. Embedded in each of these analogies is a different perspective on when to let a poem go. Has a particular affecting figure been etched from the raw material of language? Is the poem both beautiful and functional? Has it carried you—or will it carry your reader—somewhere new? But I tend to think of writing poetry as being less like art making and more like a biological process, like life making. Poetry is a place where I develop, a skin I make in order to make myself. Once I have outgrown it, I can examine the poem from all angles. I can learn new things about it and about who I became inside of it. I can polish its exterior, but there is no way for me to get back inside.

This account of poetry can seem like a rather dismal proposition, especially for those of us who give readings, who return again and again to poems that have already taken shape. It sounds like I am saying that the poem and I were briefly alive together and then, once it has been put down, the poem is no longer living. A reading, in this account, is nothing more than a display of dead language. But here is how I think about it: In the third episode of BBC’s Life Story, there is a vignette about hermit crabs’ elaborate, communal ritual of changing shells. Once a hermit crab has outgrown its shell, it does not simply discard it and move on to the next. Rather, it waits for a critical mass of its fellow travelers to gather and arrange themselves into a line by size order, so that they can transfer shells, one to another. The biggest crab moves into an empty shell on the beach, the next in line takes the big crab’s newly abandoned shell, and on and on down the line until everyone’s soft interior, hopefully, has new room in which to grow. 

What I like about using memorization as a diagnostic is that it says nothing about the “quality” of a poem, so it discourages thinking about revision as “fixing.” Instead, what determines whether a poem is finished is the relationship between us, the poem and I. This perspective on poetry helps me to grow, helps me remember that I can be done with something and that it can be imperfect—it can be a shell with a hole in it—but that it might be precisely what someone else is looking for. 

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Thumbnail: Maximilian Paradiz 

Craft Capsule: Revising the Archive

by

Cameron Awkward-Rich

12.9.19

This is no. 42 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Several of the poems in my second collection, Dispatch, which comes out this week from Persea Books, are what I think of as the detritus of my academic book-in-progress about maladjustment in transmasculine literature and theory. In conducting research for this project, I have spent countless hours digging around in digitized newspaper archives, trying to get a feel for what it was like to live a gender-nonconforming life at other times in U.S. history. During the course of this work, I have repeatedly encountered traces of Black/gender-nonconforming lives that flicker in and out of the official record. Every so often I become obsessed with these traces. Mostly what surfaces is news of arrests—arrests for “cross-dressing,” discoveries of “cross-dressing” after arrest. Mostly what surfaces are dead-ends. 

One of the traces I came across: Lawrence Jackson, a Black person who was arrested in 1881 in Chicago wearing a dress and then fined $100. According to the newspapers, Jackson could not pay the fine, but tried to plead for alternate terms of punishment, suggesting that if the judge would accept a smaller fine—all the money they reportedly had, $25—they would self-exile by leaving Chicago forever. But the judge insisted on sending Jackson to jail because “a little punishment would be beneficial.” After this episode, Jackson seems to vanish from the official record, though months later this story, along with an image of Jackson, was reprinted in the popular, tabloid-like National Police Gazette. 

When I first encountered Jackson, I was a PhD student trying to write a dissertation. My first impulse was to put these traces of Jackson’s encounter with power to work in my academic writing—to use their appearance in the archive as evidence for an argument about the regulation of race/sex/gender at the turn of the twentieth century. But it turned out that I couldn’t do it—I lacked both adequate information and the desire to put it, put Jackson, to use. I wanted something from Jackson certainly—they would not leave me alone—but each time I tried to write about them, I was unsettled by the result. It was, in Foucault’s words, “impossible to…grasp them again in themselves, as they might have been ‘in a free state.’” All I could know of Jackson, really, was that they had once or twice been caught—arrested, documented on someone else’s terms. 

Eventually I gave up making an argument altogether and, instead, wrote a poem. It’s no surprise that poetry can be a place to work out our felt relations to traces of the past; the poem has always been where I go to develop a private language, to extend intimately beyond myself, and to stage an impossible, interior conversation. But I was surprised to find that poetry also allowed me to work through some ethical questions that had stalled my academic writing, questions like: What do I do with an archival record that exists only because a violence has occurred? What do I do with lives that, to cite Foucault again, “no longer exist except through the terrible words that were destined to render them forever unworthy of the memory of men”? What I wanted—what it was impossible not to want—from this encounter with someone like me in the past was a sense of historical continuity, a “we” across time. But what kind of “we” can I fashion if all I have are these “terrible words”? 

In writing the poem “Still Life,” I of course could not resolve these questions. But I could attempt writerly experiments that academic prose does not exactly allow. In particular, rather than attending to what happened—rather than being beholden to thinking of Jackson as evidence—I was free to roam inside my lyric room, to conduct a conversation, to put my life and Jackson’s life alongside each other, to imagine them free. 

In your own work, consider asking yourself: What are the traces of the past that will not leave you alone? Can you use those traces in order to imagine the ending to an endless story? Perhaps an ending other than the dismal one hinted at in the official record? What language in the archive is suggestive of these possibilities? What language in the archive is only used for the purpose of capture? Can you make even that language do something else?

 

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections, Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019) and Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Craft Capsule: Oblique Strategies

by

Kimberly King Parsons

7.15.19

This is no. 37 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

When I was getting my MFA in fiction, one of my favorite professors asked us to write a story using only single syllable words. At first this sounded awful—how could we possibly pull this off? It wasn’t easy, but very quickly it became a kind of game to me, an obstruction that brought out odd new rhythms. When we came back to class and read our stories aloud, it was a revelation. Every single student had done something striking and compelling. The sentences were strange and clipped, everyday phrases made fascinating. One student had something like “he who taught us of the past” to stand in for history professor. In my story, instead of an electrician playing checkers, “the lights guy played reds and blacks.” The formal constraint forced us to go beyond the easy, obvious choices. My professor stressed that this was a starting point, something to unlock us; there was no need to stick to these rules in subsequent drafts. Later, when I was revising, I found that because the work didn’t sound like me, I could brutally edit it. Now, more than ten years later, if something isn’t working in a story or chapter, I sometimes fall back on the one-syllable trick.

The weirdest approaches to process are the ones I find most helpful—the ones that have stayed with me the longest. There was the professor who encouraged his classes to narrate problematic scenes from the perspective of inanimate objects, animals, or the dead. A friend of mine takes the articles out of any story or chapter that’s giving him problems. He usually puts most of them back, but something about the extraction lets him see the work differently. There was another professor who forbade us from using adverbs, or giving characters first names, or starting any sentence with a pronoun—I loved his bizarre rules, even when I decided to break them.

When I’m writing I sometimes consult this strange little deck of cards called Oblique Strategies. Originally created in 1975 by painter Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno—yes, that Brian Eno, immensely talented musician, producer, and co-conspirator of the late David Bowie—each card has a single directive printed on it, a “strategy” for your creative process. These prompts are meant to assist with removing blocks, but the Zen-like aphorisms are more abstract than prescriptive (i.e., “Start at the end,” or “Emphasize the flaws,” or really strange ones like “Remember a time when you hid from something as a child.”) 

The deck my partner and I have at home is the updated 2001 edition, with a bizarre product description: “These cards evolved from separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were identified as they were happening, and sometimes they were formulated. They can be used when dilemma occurs in a working situation…The card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear.” These mysterious abstractions are part of the charm. There’s now a version of the strategies available for free online, although I still prefer the physicality of shuffling through a deck. Two cards I selected at random just now read: “Disconnect from desire,” and “Go slowly all the way round the outside.” It all sounds a bit wacky, and that’s exactly the point. I find the further I lean into the weird, the easier is it for me to get back to work.

 

Kimberly King Parsons is the author of Black Light, a short story collection forthcoming from Vintage on August 13, 2019. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Best Small Fictions, No Tokens, the Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com.

Craft Capsule: “Unlikable” Characters

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.25.18

This is no. 36 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

As writers we all have specific goals when creating our fictional worlds. Some writers value plot, others value humor. Some prioritize beautiful sentences or abstract ruminations about the state of society. When I write, my goal is to construct characters full of depth and complexity. I don’t need readers to agree with my characters, but to understand the why behind their actions. 

When I created Haemi Lee, the female protagonist of my novel, If You Leave Me, I focused on developing this complexity so that my readers would know her intimately. At the beginning of the novel, Haemi is a sixteen-year-old refugee during the Korean War, and by the last pages she is a thirty-two-year-old mother in 1967. By covering a wide swath of time, I want readers to watch Haemi survive, mature, fall in love, make mistakes, become a mother, and grapple with the difficulties of life in post-war South Korea. I want Haemi to feel as real as possible, which meant that she would have to be imperfect, flawed. As I wrote, I considered how she would behave as a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and lover. I considered her temperament. Growing up without means in a conservative time, there would be strict social and gendered guidelines placed on Haemi. I wanted her to bristle against those rules. The problem, I discovered, was that an imperfect female protagonist is often labeled unlikable. 

The first time I heard Haemi described this way was in workshop. I was surprised. It was a gendered remark, and I hadn’t been expecting it at the graduate school level. When did we ever question the likability of male characters? Complicating matters further, when did we question the likability of female characters when they were written by male writers? I simmered in silence as my classmates discussed Haemi Lee. (As the student being workshopped, I wasn’t allowed to speak.) Jisoo and Kyunghwan, my two male protagonists, were not always likable and yet the focus remained on Haemi. Why did she need to be likable when her male counterparts were not? Why were we concerned with the likability of women anyway? Who among us are always likable?

This conversation led me to consider the trope of the “unlikable female character.” I prickled at the phrase, the silly term that asserts female characters are valued for their docility and amiability. I decided that I couldn’t let other readers’ apprehensions about Haemi’s likability soften her. Haemi pushes against the social expectations of her time by not hiding her feelings, by wanting an education, and by speaking freely of the difficulties of motherhood. Haemi is giving and selfish, kind and callous. She is concerned with the welfare of everyone around her while also deeply concerned with her own happiness. If I succeeded in my writing goals, my readers will not always like Haemi, but they will feel deeply for her. They will want to guide her, argue with her, and root for her. 

When writing, our concern should not be a character’s likability, regardless of gender. As the writer, our focus should be on making the character feel true. When my students hesitate at revealing their character’s flaws, I encourage them to dig into the messy, ugly parts. Flaws are what make fiction interesting and realistic. Though we may not love our flaws, they are crucial for characters. When a student worries about the likability of their female characters in particular, this is what I tell them: We need more unlikable female protagonists to deepen the way we consider women in our society. Literature teaches us. Literature makes us question and broaden our understanding of the world. If “unlikable female” means a realistic, imperfect, complex woman, then we need to write as many of these characters as we can.

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Multiple Narrators

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.18.18

This is no. 35 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Before I became a writer, I was first an insatiable reader. From Curious George to Little Women to The Lover, I can mark the trajectory of my development as a writer against my reading choices. A particularly memorable turning point happened when I was eight years old. While at the library, I came across a chapter book called Morning Girl. The cover showed a young girl with dark brown hair and bare shoulders swimming in the open sea, and I picked it up because of the striking image. As I began reading, I fell for Morning Girl’s lush, bright voice as she described her fondness for waking early and searching the beach for seashells. I felt keenly for Morning Girl when her parents favored her younger brother. I had a younger sister, and I understood the mean yellow streaks of jealousy. 

The shock came when I turned to the next chapter. At the top of the page was the name Star Boy. This chapter, I realized as I read, was narrated not by the titular girl, but her younger brother. I remember the confusion I felt and how quickly it was replaced with giddy wonder. Up until that moment, I hadn’t known that a book could have multiple narrators. Morning Girl tore writing open for me: For the first time I recognized that writers were in control of how the story was told and that the possibilities were endless.

I’ve gravitated toward novels with multiple narrators ever since, so when I started writing If You Leave Me, I knew I wanted to try this format. However, I needed to make sure having multiple perspectives would serve my goals. My central character was Haemi Lee, a sixteen-year-old refugee in Busan at the start of my novel. Did I really need the voices of her best friend Kyunghwan, her suitor Jisoo, her younger brother Hyunki, and eventually, her eldest daughter Solee? Thankfully, yes. After some examination, I realized that having multiple narrators allowed me to show the secrets characters were hiding not only from each other, but also from themselves. By alternating these voices, I was able to investigate how one event could be interpreted in various ways, depending on the character’s temperament and circumstance. For example, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo all hungered in Busan during the Korean War, and yet their resulting traumas are each unique due to differences in class, gender, and family expectations. 

If You Leave Me spans sixteen years, from 1951 to 1967. Multiple perspectives also gave me the best means of capturing the landscape of Korea during this tumultuous time. Through my five alternating narrators, I was able to write about an ROK soldier in the Korean War; a college student in Seoul in the years afterward, when dictators ruled the nation; a factory worker forced to meet with a matchmaker; a mother yearning to escape her rural community; and a young daughter growing up in post-war Korea, when the vestiges of violence took on new forms.   

When my students say they want to write a novel with multiple perspectives, I’m secretly elated. However, I always remind them of the potential pitfalls. More voices may make your story feel fragmented, which can lead to readers preferring one character over another. In order to avoid this, it’s important to value each perspective equally. If you as the writer dislike one of your characters, the reader will feel that animosity in your words. The solution? Know your characters deeply on and off the page—know their desires, tics, fears, sexual preferences, favorite foods, secret dreams, worst habits. Develop them until you know them as intimately as a friend, in all of their complexities. In the end, I hope having multiple narrators in If You Leave Me enriches the reading experience. Haemi Lee’s voice is the center, but the four characters around her provide a lens not only into the larger history of Korea, but into Haemi’s complex, difficult temperament.

In my final Craft Capsule next week, I will talk more about Haemi and the necessity of “unlikable” female protagonists. 

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from the Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Who Are You?

by

Crystal Hana Kim

7.4.18

This is no. 33 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

“When did you start writing?” Writers are often asked this question, and I’m always curious about the story behind the answers, the paths we take to find our vocations. As a child of immigrants, Korean was my first language. When I began elementary school, I found myself mentally switching between my mother tongue and English, trying to match vocabulary words across language lines. I soon found myself gravitating toward writing; with a pencil in my hand, I could take my time and express myself more clearly. In the first grade, I wrote about butterflies hatching for my beloved teacher, Ms. Benz. The next year, I wrote about a girl with short black hair who wanted to get her ears pierced, but whose Korean parents refused. I presented the story to my mother and father, hopeful and full of glee at my cunning. (Reader, they fell for it and let me pierce my ears.) “I’ve written ever since I was a child,” I say in answer to that question. But when did I find the stories I wanted to tell? That was a more recent discovery.  

As a sophomore in college, I took my first formal writing workshop. Somehow, over the course of my teenage years, my writing had changed. I no longer wrote stories that were rooted in my desires and questions about the world. Instead, I created characters without clear identities—their race, appearance, and backgrounds were murky, undefined. These young adults frolicked and fought on misty hills, drunk with mulberry-stained lips. I was trying to shy away from what I thought was expected of me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the Korean American workshopper who could only write about “Asian” issues. But I sensed that something was wrong with my characters: They were vague, flat, lifeless.Who is this girl?” a classmate asked. “Don’t be afraid to write about what you know,” my teacher said. 

At first I resisted these suggestions, digging deeper into my no-name characters without a clear sense of home. That is, until the summer break between my sophomore and junior year. One June evening I had dinner with my parents. Over a meal of galbi-tang, rice, wine, and ice cream, my parents recounted their childhoods. My father described catching grasshoppers from his neighbors’ field, of cooking them on a skillet over an open flame. My mother told me of staining her fingers orange with bong seon hwa flowers, which I loved to do during my summer visits to Korea as well.  

The next morning, I found myself still mulling over my parents’ stories. I imagined my father as a child, his lithe body running through high grass in search of those plump green insects. I loved that the act of staining fingers with flower petals, which my sister and I did every summer in Korea, was not only a family tradition, but a Korean one. These stories stayed with me all summer and through the fall, when my undergraduate classes resumed. This time in my fiction workshop, I wrote with greater purpose and clarity. I developed characters with a culture and history behind them. Better, I thought.

The more I wrote, the more I sought my family. When I began my graduate studies, I turned to my maternal grandmother. A fierce matriarch and gifted storyteller, my grandmother shared her life with me—she lived under Japanese occupation, survived the Korean War, and forged a life for her daughters in the years afterward. I absorbed these anecdotes, sometimes taking notes and sometimes just listening. 

When I began If You Leave Me, my debut novel, I knew I wanted to write about the Korean War. More important, I knew I wanted the main character to be a Korean woman who was strong, willful, intelligent, stubborn, and full of contradictions. I wanted a female protagonist that readers would love one moment and argue with the next, someone who felt as complex as our best friends and lovers do. I created Haemi Lee, a teenaged refugee living in Busan during the war. I rooted her story in my grandmother’s experiences, but I added my own desires and questions and fears until Haemi became a character of her own. 

It took me a few wayward years, but I eventually realized that writing about my culture does not confine me as a writer. Instead, my history provides a pool of memory for me to draw inspiration from. Now, when I teach creative writing, I emphasize this process for my students. I encourage them to value every part of their identities.

“Who are you?” I ask. “Tell me what you know.”

 

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, is forthcoming from William Morrow in August. She was a 2017 PEN America Dau Short Story Prize winner and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Jentel, among others. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming from The Washington Post, Elle Magazine, Nylon, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a contributing editor at Apogee Journal and is the Director of Writing Instruction at Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband.

Craft Capsule: Tao Te Ching

by

Simon Van Booy

6.13.18

This is no. 30 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

The biggest little book in China is called the Tao Te Ching. One of its most famous sayings is Wu Wei, 無爲, literally, doing nothing or non-doing.

Whereas some people have used this to imbue passivity or laziness with spiritual significance, I think it has something to do with wholeheartedness.

The child at play does not stop to ask herself, “Am I playing?” She is not aware of time, nor constrained by it. Imagine you get so deep into writing, that you forget you are writing. The story just flows from you, through you, and out into the world.

How can you get to that place? Where the act of writing is so much of part of you, it’s effortless. A process of instinct rather than thought—

The first step is to give up the idea you will ever fail, or ever succeed. Prepare to serve only the needs of the story. Then move your hands, breathe.  

Have faith.  

Laugh.  

Cry.

Sleep.

Dream.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.

Craft Capsule: Find Your Metaphor

by

Sandra Beasley

4.4.17

This is the seventh in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

A friend of mine, a poet, was trying to figure out what bothered him about a draft of my poem. “A poem should be like a wall,” he told me. “You build it brick by brick.” He pointed out that, in his opinion, key bricks were missing.

I didn’t share his vision, but I admired that he had one. I’ve come to value developing a metaphorical model for your genre. A model can help you identify your goals, name your struggles, and proceed toward success.

Perhaps you follow the lead of “stanza,” the Italian word for “room.” You come to think of each poem as a house. How do the rooms differ in function, size, and occupancy? Where does your central drama take place? What comprises your roof?

Perhaps you come to think of your essay as a harp. Each researched fact glimmers, an available string in a golden frame. But you can’t play them all at once. Only in choosing which notes to highlight, and how to sequence them, can you create music.

Personally, I always think of memoir as an egg. I’m protective of the inspiring memory, smooth and undisturbed in its surface. But I have to be prepared to break the egg. I have to make the idea messy before I can make a satisfying meal.

Perhaps your novel is a shark. Perhaps your villanelle is a waltz. Perhaps your short story is a baseball game. Don’t adopt my metaphors. Find one of your own.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: The Egg in My Pocket

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.21.17

This is the first in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

As a project for school, my thirteen-year-old son, Will, spent several days carrying an egg around. His task was simple: Keep the egg from breaking.

The experiment was intended to show what it’s like to have a baby, to approximate the feeling of constant vigilance that never leaves you once you have a child. Ultimately, of course, it was supposed to make hormone-addled adolescents think twice before doing something stupid.

As a mother of three, though, I wasn’t convinced. A baby is nothing like an egg, unless it’s an egg that cries, wets itself, sucks on you constantly, and wakes you up four times a night. But as my son described the feeling of carrying his egg—he named it “Pablito”—I realized that it did remind me of something. “It’s always there,” Will said. “You can’t forget it or take it for granted. You feel protective and anxious all the time.”

Carrying an egg around is like writing a novel. No matter what else you’re doing, the fact of the novel is in the back of your mind. If you go too long without attending to it, you get nervous. It is always with you, a weight solid and yet fragile, in constant danger of being crushed. Like the egg, the weight of a book-in-progress is both literal and metaphorical. Within the accumulating pages, as inside the delicate eggshell, are the raw ingredients for something greater. Keeping it intact requires patience, time, attention—and, most of all, commitment. This concept applies to any stage of the process: The egg is both the idea that you nurture long before you begin to write, and the writing itself, which must be fostered and sustained.

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Good Sense

by

Christina Baker Kline

2.28.17

This is the second in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

The problem of beginning…

The Southern novelist and poet George Garrett, who was director of creative writing at the University of Virginia when I was a graduate student there, always said that if you’re having trouble getting into a chapter or a scene you should use all five senses right at the start, preferably in the first paragraph. Touch, taste, smell, hearing, sight. Your scene will jump to life, and you’ll have an easier time falling into the dream world of the story.

On a related note, Gustave Flaubert kept rotten apples in his desk drawer to evoke autumn when writing scenes that took place in that season….

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published this month by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Tolstoy’s Short Chapters

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.28.17

This is the sixth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Anna Karenina is more than eight hundred pages long. So why does it feel shorter than many three-hundred-page books?

As I read this novel recently I noticed that Tolstoy cuts his long scenes into short chapters, usually no more than two or three pages. This makes sense, considering it was published in serial installments, from 1873 to 1877, in the Russian Messenger. Tolstoy often ends a chapter in a moment of suspense—a door opens, a provocative question is asked, a contentious group sits down to dinner, characters who’ve been circling each other finally begin to talk—which propels the reader forward into the next chapter.

The psychological effect of these short chapters is that this huge book is easy to get through. Reading in bed late at night (as I tend to do), I’m tempted to put it down, but then I riffle ahead to find that the next chapter is only three pages long. And I really want to find out who’s behind that door.

Three pages. I can do that—as a reader and as a writer. 

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Visual Prompts

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.21.17

This is the fifth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

For many writers, visual and tactile stimulation is an important component of the creative process. William Faulkner used to map his stories on the wall in his study. If you visit Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, Mississippi, you can still see the notes for his 1954 novel, A Fable, in his precise, small handwriting. Edwidge Danticat has said that she has an evolving bulletin board in her workspace where she tacks up collages of photos of Haiti and images from magazines.

I, too, have a new board for each book I write. When I’m starting work on a novel I gather scraps like a magpie. My Orphan Train board was covered with postcards from the New York Tenement Museum depicting the interior of an immigrant Irish family’s cramped apartment, a black and white photograph of a young couple at Coney Island in the 1920s, a map of the village of Kinvara in Ireland. I hung a hand-carved Celtic cross on a green ribbon and a stone shamrock on a red ribbon from Galway; a Native American dreamcatcher from Maine; a silver train pin from a New York Train Riders’ reunion in Little Falls, Minnesota. I tacked up note cards: “Food in Ireland 1900s” was one (“wheatmeal, hung beef, tongue, barley”). Another listed ideas I wanted to explore (“links between misplaced and abandoned people with little in common”).

For A Piece of the World, I included a print of Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World; photos I took, inside and out, of Christina’s home in Cushing, Maine; some Emily Dickinson poems (“This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me”); and postcards of other paintings Wyeth did at the Olson house, including Wind From the Sea and Christina Olson (both of which make appearances in my novel). I photocopied sketches Wyeth made for his portrait of Christina. I even included a small handful of grasses I’d plucked from the field Christina sat in.

I find these idea boards fun to assemble and inspiring as I work. My mantra, always: Find inspiration where you can.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

An outline of A Fable on the wall of William Faulkner’s study at Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi.

(Credit: Joe Bonomo)

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Making Conversation

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.14.17

This is the fourth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Dialogue is hard to get right. It should sound like natural speech, but in fact it’s nothing like it. I like to send my creative writing students out to cafés and parks with notebooks to transcribe bits of overheard conversations. Then I ask them to type up these transcripts and turn them into dialogue between characters. Inevitably their written dialogue bears little resemblance to the overheard conversations. When you write dialogue you must eliminate niceties and unnecessary patter, and cut to the core of the exchange—unless the patter is crucial to the story, conveying a dissembling, depressed, incoherent, or boring personality. At the same time, it should sound natural, like something someone would actually say. The writer George Garrett called this dovetailing—trimming for verisimilitude and impact.

In direct and indirect speech, your characters should constantly be saying “no” to each other. Most of us (myself included) tend to avoid conflict in our real lives, but conflict is crucial in fiction. It keeps the story interesting.

Richard Price, in his novel Lush Life, allows his characters to talk and talk and talk. Price maintains a delicate balancing act; his characters’ words matter. What they say changes the direction of the story. But he never burdens his dialogue with exposition or forces it to convey plot points that don’t come up naturally. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway writes, “In order to engage us emotionally in a disagreement, the characters must have an emotional stake in the outcome.” Price’s characters are nothing if not emotionally invested.

Price’s dialogue is vital to the story because it moves the action forward. He constantly puts his characters in conflict with one another. Their conversations are full of surprises—self-revelation, inadvertent admissions, hearsay, evidence—and kinetic energy; they crackle with life. Real life.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: Beware the Indeterminate “It”

by

Sandra Beasley

4.11.17

This is the eighth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Beware the indeterminate “it,” I often say, when fine-tuning a draft.

But that word is so convenient. “It” carries the football from the previous sentence. Whatever “it” you just defined, you’re sticking with it for another ten yards, right?

Except that you’re fumbling the play. Too often, relying on “it” dissipates your language’s energy. Circle every “it” that leads off a sentence. Revising to avoid these instances will force your verbs into action, and clarify your intent.

This is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes an indeterminate “it” will remain, one that has earned its place on the field. The pronoun can be strategic—signifying not just gender neutrality but an absence of comprehension or known name, a fumbling toward meaning, the building of suspense.

In the right hands, “It” can be a potent force. Just ask Stephen King.

 

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections, including Count the Waves (Norton, 2015), and a memoir. Her website is SandraBeasley.com.

Craft Capsule: Deny the Accident

by

Christina Baker Kline

3.7.17

This is the third in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing fiction. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

***

Jackson Pollock’s reply to an interviewer’s question about how he composed his paintings of “accidental” splatterings has stuck with me. “I don’t use the accident,” he said. “I deny the accident.”

The sheer bravado of this is thrilling, and as a writer I find it to be a useful way to think about my work-in-progress. When I’m putting words on the page it’s easy to second guess, to question the often-unconscious choices I make as I go: the trajectories of characters’ lives, shifts in direction and focus, minor characters who gain traction as the story moves forward. The editor in my head starts whispering: You’re going in the wrong direction. Why are you spending so much time on that character? You need to focus, get back to the story you originally envisioned, stick to the plan.

Over time I’ve learned to trust my impulses. Whatever else they may be, these unanticipated detours are fresh and surprising; they keep me interested, and often end up adding depth to the work. Not always, of course—sometimes an accident is just an accident. But believing that these splatterings on my own canvas are there for a reason, as part of a larger process of conception, gives me the audacity to experiment.

 

Christina Baker Kline is the author of six novels, including A Piece of the World, published in February by William Morrow. Her website is christinabakerkline.com.

Craft Capsule: A Bird in the Sky

by

Simon Van Booy

6.6.18

This is no. 29 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Having a writing practice is like rowing out to sea in a small boat with a typewriter and sandwiches, hoping for the arrival of some strange bird in the sky. 

After a few hours you tell yourself, “It’s only been a few hours.”  

But when days pass with not even a feather, you wonder, “Am I in the right place? I should have brought binoculars.” You keep looking though—searching the empty sky for some sign, some intervention, a tangible indication that you’re good enough to write, educated enough, wild enough, rich enough, poor enough, sober enough, drunk enough, mystical enough, existential enough.  

Months pass. You’ve been rowing out to the same deep water for weeks and weeks. You’ve lost track of days. Seasons have changed. Where your hands once bled on the oars, there are calluses. You’ve survived heaving seas, blistering heat, and torrential downpours. 

At this point most people toss their typewriters over the side of the boat, and row for the safety of land. Without the bird, they say, nothing is possible.

But you remain in the boat, listening to yourself breathe, a film of salt on your skin. You sit down and pick up the typewriter, rest it on your sore legs, and start to imagine the story you once dreamed of writing. You don’t care about the bird anymore, the words are enough, the sentences are ropes you can use to pull yourself through the narrative.

Then suddenly you look up, there’s a dazzling light, like some mystical, winged creature with blazing eyes.  

As writers, we don’t wait for inspiration. Inspiration waits for us.

Don’t ever forget that.

 

Simon Van Booy is the author of nine books and the editor of three anthologies of philosophy. His latest work for adults, The Sadness of Beautiful Things, will be released in October from Penguin, and followed up in November by his latest work for children, Gertie Milk & the Great Keeper Rescue, from Penguin Razorbill.