Sundress Publications is thrilled to announce the results of the 2019 Poetry Broadside Contest. The winner’s poem will be letterpress-printed and made available for purchase in our online store. Orders for our broadsides will be open later this spring.
This year’s winner is Lisa Kwong for the poem “Searching for Wonton Soup.”
Born and raised in Radford, Virginia, Lisa Kwong identifies as an AppalAsian, an Asian from Appalachia. She is a distinguished creative writing alumna of Appalachian State University and holds an MFA in poetry from Indiana University (IU). Her poems and creative nonfiction are forthcoming or have appeared in Best New Poets 2014, A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, the minnesota review, Banango Street, Still: The Journal, Naugatuck River Review, Appalachian Heritage, Pluck!, The Sleuth, and other publications. Her honors include poetry scholarships and fellowships from Indiana University, The Frost Place, and Sundress Academy for the Arts, where she was the 2017 Appalachian Writer-in-Residence.
“The Inception of Bees,” Trista Edwards
“Columbia Gorge,” Brenda Yates
“Violence of Lush,” Elisabeth von Uhl
“Self-Portrait as Etola,” Itiola Jones
“Aubade Without Ice,” Amelia Gorman
“We Will Take Life After Death,” Ashley Inguanta
“A God Lives in the Amygdala,” Jennifer Martelli
“Self-Portrait with Sun God and Charred Bodies,” Jessica Lynn Suchon
“How I Knew She Was Mine Before She Was Born,” Katy Ellis
“This is the Beginning,” Rachel Cloud Adams
“To the Drone All Objects Are Beautiful,” Amy Miller
“Second Story,” Halee Kirkwood
A 501(c)3 non-profit literary press collective founded in 2000, Sundress Publications is an entirely volunteer-run press that publishes chapbooks and full-length collections in both print and digital formats, and hosts numerous literary journals, an online reading series, and the Best of the Net Anthology.
Sundress Academy for the Arts is excited to announce its first writing retreat for veterans on October 7-8, 2017. This two-day retreat at SAFTA’s Firefly Farms is for military veterans and current service members and will be a space for creativity, writing exercises, discussions on ways to write about trauma, advice on publishing, and more. This weekend will be an opportunity to express shared experiences and learn to write your story for a non-military audience.
A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, and all on-site amenities for $75. Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent.
The event will be open to people of all backgrounds and experience levels and will provide an opportunity to work with talented, published fiction writers and poets, including Jeb A. Herrin and Jan LaPerle.
Jeb A. Herrin was a medic with the 3rd Infantry Division during Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. He earned his BA in English and MFA in Poetry from the University of Tennessee, where he was the 2016 winner of the John C. Hodges Award for Creative Writing for Poetry. His work can be found in Political Punch and O-Dark-Thirty. Jeb has future plans of blending the world of composition with creative writing as well as finding ways to make the voice of the veteran heard. He lives in Knoxville with his wife, son, and two dogs.
Jan LaPerle lives in East Tennessee with her husband, Clay Matthews, and daughter, Winnie. She has published a book of poetry, It Would Be Quiet (Prime Mincer Press, 2013), an e-chap of flash fiction, Hush (Sundress Publications, 2012), a story in verse, A Pretty Place To Mourn (BlazeVOX, 2014), and several other stories and poems, and in 2014 she won an individual artist grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. LaPerle was on Active Duty at Fort Campbell for three years and has spent 12 years as an Army Reservist, most recently as a Career Counselor.
Sending rejection letters is one of the most difficult parts of editing a literary magazine. As co-fiction editor of Willow Springs Magazine, along with Andrew Moreno, I’ll agonize over sending a rejection. I know that you, as a writer, have lovingly crafted every word, every image in your story, and I know that a rejection letter can sometimes hurt and feel incredibly personal. At Willow Springs, we stick to the basics. “Thank you for submitting “[Title]” to Willow Springs for consideration. We have decided against publishing your submission, but we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere,” reads our standard rejection letter. It is short and sweet, without platitudes or frills. We subtly note that the onus is on us, as editors, for rejecting the piece—it’s not the quality of your writing (we have so many amazing pieces to consider)—and we encourage you to keep sending the submission to other journals. While I hope that our rejection letter doesn’t break hearts or hurt feelings, I still hate sending them out.
Although we at Willow Springs keep our rejection letters short and simple, there are other journals that attempt to soften the blow. Literary Orphans tells submitters to “never take rejection personally, at this level it becomes very subjective.” After Happy Hour Review notes that, “As writers, we’ve received many rejections ourselves; we know it’s never easy,” in their rejection letter. Cease, Cows writes “we’re writers, too, and we hate rejection.” It’s a lot easier to take a rejection when the journal notes that they don’t like the process any more than the writer does.
Most writers are happy to receive these reminders; these empathetic rejection letters show writers that editors understand a writer’s mind. These are good rejections to receive—a writer is often encouraged with the news that the piece sent to a journal is not sub-par, that there are other factors at play in choosing pieces to publish. These are the types of rejection letters journals should strive to write, but often, letters can miss the mark entirely. So, fellow journal editors, what makes a good literary rejection? What separates a good rejection letter from a bad one?
First, the bad. If an editor encourages a writer who was just rejected to subscribe to their journal in a rejection letter—that’s a major misstep on the part of the editor. It’s insensitive; it says, “We don’t want your writing, but we’ll definitely take your money.” Also, rejection letters that begin “Dear Writer,” and do not address a person by name are letters that persuade writers to turn their backs on a journal. Or, worse, a “Your status has changed on Submittable,” note tells the writer never to bother with the journal again. If the editor hadn’t taken the time to send a simple rejection, why should the writer spend her time sending to the journal again?
One of the worst things an editor can do is send a rejection that patronizes the writer. A journal (that will remain unnamed) writes “we encourage all of our contributors to utilize peer workshops and local writing groups to expand on their work. You may wish to submit again after working with one of these groups, and we look forward to seeing what you have to offer in the future,” in its rejection letters. The level of condescension in the rejection letter is entirely uncalled for; this letter stings like a wasp. Luckily, these rejection letters are few and far between.
Writers prefer rejection letters that are clear, crisp, and encouraging at the same time. Letters that state clearly whether a journal would like more work from the writer are often those that help, rather than hurt, a writer when he or she decides whether or not to send to a journal again. Katie Manning, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Whale Road Review makes it a priority to thank writers for their submissions. “My journal couldn’t function if writers didn’t trust us enough to send work in the first place. It’s an honor that anyone sends us writing at all,” she says about sending rejection letters. A good literary journal is good because they are excited to share the writing they have found with the world. A good rejection letter strives to respect a writer as an individual and a human being.
A simple litmus test: “Is this letter respectful?” separates the good rejection letters from the bad ones. When a writer is treated like a contributor, even in a rejection letter, a journal is helping the literary community at large.
Katherine Bell is a second-year MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers where she serves as a fiction editor for Willow Springs Magazine. Her fiction can be found in The Blue Lyra Review, Welter Literary Journal, and The Fem.
So maybe you’ve started a literary journal or a podcast? Maybe you’ve been rejected by presses and feel that it’s time to start a place that reflects your thoughts on contemporary publishing? Maybe you’re working in an English Department that’s looking to expand their scope? There are lots of reasons for starting a press, but before you do, check out Sundress Publications’ roundtable discussion with independent press editors about the highs and low of indie publishing.
Why did you found your press?
Carly Miller: I think one of the main reasons was to figure out a way to be a literary citizen outside of being writers and past literary magazine editors. When my cofounders and I started the press, we were five MFA graduate students sitting in a deli asking ourselves what books we love and why we love them. We found ourselves discussing literary theory in conjunction with how our favorite books “work” in their engagement with the reader, how we wanted to engage in this idea of “the creative act as critical act.” Poetry engages with so many different tensions, from subject matter to craft, and we wanted to create texts that could allow the conversation to become wider through the poet’s own voices and how they engage with various tensions. So, we founded a press to engage in these moments of tension, a.k.a. contemporary poetics alongside contemporary criticism, with hopes to contribute to this larger conversation.
Margaret Bashaar: Masochism? I mean, I have always found a deep sense of emotional fulfillment in promoting the art of others. There hasn’t been a time since I was 14 that I wasn’t editing some kind of literary publication. Little in life genuinely makes me happier than finding poetry that I feel merits an audience and working to connect that poetry with an audience. So masochism, definitely. And I like making things with my hands, and books of poetry seemed like as good a thing as any to make with my hands.
M. Mack: The phrase we use is that we wanted to fill a gap in the publishing landscape. At the time, in 2012, there was a real shortage of markets that both called themselves feminist and welcomed work from folks who did not identify as women. So we created Gazing Grain Press as a place for feminists of all genders. The landscape has changed a lot since then, which is really exciting, and we now have a number of contemporaries.
Juliet Cook: I started my Blood Pudding Press close to ten years ago now, so it’s hard for me to remember the exact details of how I felt at that time, but I know it involved a strong and genuine passion for poetry and a realization that it was mostly poets who published other poets. I had been a big fan of ‘zines in my late teens through mid twenties, then indie literary magazines in my twenties all the way until now. When I was in my early thirties, I became a big fan of frequent blogging for several years. My blog site was Xanga and my blogger name was candydishdoom. I met a few creative writers there (some of whom I’ve remained connected with ever since), right around the time when they were initially starting their own online literary magazines and/or small presses. For example, Rachel Kendall, who started Sein und Werden not long after we met and has kept it going for years now and Kristy Bowen, who started Dancing Girl Press around that time. I loved how small indie poetry presses seemed like unique artsy poetic variations of ‘zines and I loved the individualism of our Xanga blog style communication and I loved poetry and poetry chapbooks.
I think I’d had a little back burner of an inkling to start my own itty bitty press for a year or two before I actually did it, but I felt overly nervous that I’d somehow screw it up. But in late 2006, I had this sudden spurt of finishing a small series of Twin Peaks inspired poems that had been sitting unfinished in the back of a folder for about 10 years, and I felt really strongly about the poems, and thought they worked best together instead of individually, and so I decided that would be a great time to start my own small press and publish my own chapbook first, because if I had trouble with formatting, design, or anything else, I wouldn’t be affecting another poet with my fledgling difficulties. Kristy Bowen gladly shared information with me about how she formatted her Dancing Girl Press chapbooks, I followed her formatting tips, I designed my own cover art, and I took it from there. After I got more comfortable with formatting and design, I shifted away from publishing myself with my own press and started publishing multiwriter collections and individual chapbooks by others.
For years, I felt so passionately excited about choosing chapbooks, designing chapbooks, and uniquely hand-crafting chapbooks. I loved being a part of the poetry community who was not only focused on herself, but also helped support others too.
What were some of the early pitfalls you found?
Carly Miller: We’re only two years old, so we may still be in the early pitfalls stage. One of them is definitely funding—we started the press as grad students, who don’t make a lot of money in the first place, and we’re all trying to find jobs and stability in the real world. But we rallied, and we’re working on ways to figure out funding (a.k.a. we’re finalizing our Indiegogo campaign to run sometime during the summer).
Margaret Bashaar: Time. In the past I have over-committed myself, time-wise, and it’s been a huge problem. Essentially, Hyacinth Girl Press is two people—Sarah Reck (who is our prose editor and does all our layout and design work and runs our website) and myself. It was a struggle for us to find a balance with the number of projects we could realistically take on without overwhelming ourselves, and the chapbooks we put out suffering as a result.
Juliet Cook: I honestly don’t remember many EARLY pitfalls, aside from my initial nervousness. I remember feeling extremely drawn to, excited, and passionate about what I was doing for quite a few years.
Reading the responses above mine, about money and time, I agree, BUT I don’t remember those being major concerns of mine when I first started my press. As far as funding, I don’t expect nor do I want anyone else to help fund my press (other than buying the created chapbooks). I am an ANTI-fan of how much crowdfunding has grown in recent years. As far as time, that can certainly be a challenge, but I’ve tried my best not to take on more than I can reasonably handle.
For me personally, the pitfalls came later, when I started to feel as if my press was inundating so much of my time and creative energy, that I didn’t have enough time to read things not related to the press, to write and revise my own poetry, to submit my own poetry, and so forth. I think I have a high drive but a moderate to slow process of accomplishing certain kinds of things. I’m not a good multitasker; I’m a one focus at a time sort of person; and for various reasons, it seemed to be getting harder for me to split my focus in all the directions I wanted to and it got to the point where I sometimes started to feel bothered by my own brain’s slow pace. Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few small press editors/writers express that their press started to take precedence over their own writing—and that’s fine, if you WANT that to happen—but ultimately, I DIDN’T want anything to take precedence over my own writing, at least not on a long term, ongoing basis.
Some other pitfalls that came later for me were partly generated by social media and/or my own brain’s interpretation of certain aspects of social media. Social media, especially facebook, is so up-to-the-minute that it can rather easily cause you to feel like if you’re offline for a few days, then you’re not going to stay up to date and you’re not going to stay on top of things that are going on in poetry land. Plus sometimes on social media, certain poets or presses suddenly seem to get lambasted by a whole group of others and if you were offline for a few days, you don’t even know what generated the lambasting when you get back online, and even if some of the lambasting was deserved, it seems to quickly reach the point of fast-paced attack mode, like people are flinging an arsenal of pies at other people’s faces and the pies have weapons loaded inside and people seem to launch too quickly into taking the side of this weapon-loaded pie or that weapon-loaded piece.
Another social media related pitfall for me is that I feel like I see other small presses talking about their big influxes of chapbook sales and then I start wondering why is my press barely selling enough chapbooks to break even when other small presses sound like they’re selling more than double the amount I’m selling and so what am I doing wrong, etc. . . .
When I started to question my own way of doing things, that’s when I also started to reconsider my press—because I don’t want poetry to feel like some sort of competitive popularity contest, yet part of my mind felt as if it was starting to warp itself into that way of thinking.
Like one part of my mind couldn’t care less how I compare to others; but the other part of my mind was some mutant cheerleader doing little splits and wondering why this press’s splits and this press’s splits appeared to be spreading much further than mine, even though I didn’t necessarily want mine to spread that much further.
M. Mack: One of our favorite early pitfalls happened when we took on Meg Day’s chapbook We Can’t Read This in 2013. We had to (quickly) get permissions to print ASL sign images in the chapbook and then redesign the book with the images we got permission to use. We wrote many carefully worded queries to publishers of ASL dictionaries and spent many hours scanning and erasing backgrounds in Photoshop. We got outstanding images to use from the University of Alberta Press, for free, and that worked out great. The thing about running a press is that you never really know what is going to happen. Things happen, and you figure out how to respond. Often, you figure out that the response involves a carefully worded query.
This isn’t exactly a pitfall, but it’s important to remember that everyone involved with your press is volunteering their time and attention and energy because they believe in the work. One thing that often surprises people I talk to is that expanding a staff takes time. Expansion isn’t as simple as bringing more people on to handle a growing workload. We expanded our staff from two to ten in 2014, following six months of preparation, trying to make our processes as transparent as possible and making all of our policies and procedures as open to revision as possible, and preparing ourselves to let go of some control of our precious literary baby. Even with six months of preparing for expansion, it was a healthy learning curve for all of us. We operate as a feminist press, and it is difficult sometimes. It is important to be open about how much work is required to run a press.
How much marketing is a new indie press expected to do for its authors?
Carly Miller: I think we’re expected to do just as much as older presses! I mean, we definitely have to hit the ground running with promoting our books to the best of our ability, and finding ways to get the book in other people’s hands.
Because we’ve mostly created anthologies, we’ve taken advantage of Twitter by tweeting lines from the anthology. We’re always keeping an eye on our contributors, too, helping to promote a new poem or a new book of theirs. We also connected with a few reviewers and teachers who reviewed or taught our books in their classrooms. We’re also wanting to host more readings, whether they’re in San Diego (our hometown/location) or not. These examples lead me to say that we’re so lucky that our contributors want to help us in terms of marketing efforts—Angela Veronica Wong set up a Spotlight feature on Coldfront (here’s the link: http://coldfrontmag.com/spotlight-locked-horn-press-part-1of-8/) and Krystal Languell hosted a joint reading for us in New York when our first books came out.
Basically, I think authors are expecting marketing efforts, but are also willing to help with marketing because that is the landscape of indie press publishing today. We have our own set of people we contact to help us get a review or something, but we’ve also seen the power of what happens when contributors promote their own work—literally, one contributor shared our newest collection on their social feed, and one of their friends immediately bought the book. We hope our contributors want to share the book with their friends, but we’re focused more on our efforts to get the books where they need to go.
Margaret Bashaar: I think a tiny indie press is expected to do as much promotion and marketing as that press promises to do. I know some presses don’t send out review copies, some don’t bother to try to get their books in bookstores, some don’t maintain their websites with a page for each chapbook, some don’t do promos for their chapbooks, some don’t do pre-sales, some never attend AWP, some only attend AWP and eschew all other fairs and conferences, and some do all of the above and more. I think it’s a case by case basis, and I feel that as long as you are upfront with what you as an editor are capable of and willing to do, then you’re doing great. Be honest. Do what you can.
Juliet Cook: I think this is variable and largely depends on the press. The size of the press, the money of the press, the number of editors of the press, the time constraints of the press, the location of the press, the brainwaves of the press and what those waves are aiming to do.
My press doesn’t do a great deal of in-person promoting, overall. I’ve been to AWP a few times, but certainly can’t afford that conference regularly. I’ve been to smaller, more local conferences and events in my general area. But I’m limited because of location, my brain flukes, and other reasons.
I do promote new chapbooks quite a bit online (via facebook, twitter, my personal blog, my Blood Pudding Press blog, and my website), I do have an online shop offering my Blood Pudding Press chapbooks (https://www.etsy.com/shop/BloodPuddingPress), and I do send out quite a few review copies of each chapbook. I appreciate it when the authors help to market and promote their work too.
One positive thing about social media for presses is that it’s a widely available promotional tool.
One not so positive thing is it can shift your attention all over the place, looking at a little bit of this and a little bit of that and wondering how in the world you’re going to find time to focus on everything that interests you.
With everything that’s going on in social media, all at the same time, even though posts can direct attention towards your press, they don’t necessarily increase the sales of your press. Just because people like a bunch of things on social media doesn’t mean they’re going to buy all those things they like.
Margaret Bashaar: I completely agree with what Juliet says about social media—popularity on social media does not necessarily translate to chapbook sales. My top five selling chapbooks I could never have predicted. There doesn’t seem to be a very set formula for “this is what will make a chapbook sell,” and I do my best to not worry about that. I hope that if I feel passionately about a book that will translate to others and they will want to read the book.
Sometimes something totally unexpected and ridiculous happens that you could never in any way control—a chapbook that I published in 2013 was featured on Jen Campbell’s book vlog as her favorite book she read in 2015, and sales of that chapbook skyrocketed as a result. There was no way for me to control this, for me to make this happen, other than to publish a bunch of chapbooks and for them to somehow make their way to her and for that particular chapbook to speak to her.
I think it’s easier to say what will make a chapbook NOT sell. If the poet is non-present on social media, if you release the chapbook on a holiday, if the poet or editor is non-present in promoting the book. Things like that.
M. Mack: All of the marketing. (I’m kidding, kind of.) If you want to publish a book, you have to market the book. That said, you’re probably volunteering your time to publish books. Marketing is a very important collaboration between the editor and the author. Make the workload more reasonable by being smart about where you send materials. Ask your authors for ideas and feedback. Make sure you are sending materials to meaningful places. See who will accept digital press kits and digital review copies; more and more markets will. It’s often easier and more economical (and less risky, especially if you make your books by hand) to distribute digital marketing materials. That said, especially if you make your books by hand, you want to represent your books accurately in digital form by including photos and descriptions of how they are bound.
What are some of the differences between online chapbooks and print chapbooks? What are the benefits of each?
Carly Miller: While my press hasn’t ventured into chapbooks yet, we’ve had these conversations. Online would allow us to reach a larger audience, especially if the chapbook is available for free (think H_NGM_N Books and Sundress’s e-chaps). Printed chapbooks are such an experience, since the ones I own are that perfect size that fits so easily into my purse and make for that perfect lunchtime read. I know we’re leaning towards more of a book-arts approach with the chapbook, which isn’t currently possible with how large our anthologies are. We haven’t fully done the research to see what would be cheaper in terms of the printed chapbook to go with POD, or figured out the book-art approach, but we’re getting there.
Margaret Bashaar: A print chapbook will exist forever as an artifact. It will be a thing you can hold and touch and re-read and nibble on for as long as you want to. There is more freedom of design and obviously of material in a print chapbook. A print chapbook can be thrown at a rowdy audience member at a reading. As human beings in our current form, we read better on paper than on a screen. Can you tell I deal exclusively in print chapbooks?
An e-chapbook can be much more widely distributed. E-chapbooks have a much smaller overhead. E-chapbooks, once designed, do not need to be re-printed. They do not need you to spend hours and hours folding and binding them. There is less restriction on length with an e-book because you don’t have to force a staple through 13 sheets of paper.
I think we are still in a place where people take print chapbooks much more seriously than e-chapbooks, and while I don’t know if I agree with that notion, I do think it shows a certain commitment to a book to bring it into physical existence. Though if I’m being honest, I used to take that much more seriously than I do now, because lately a lot of presses are being funded by crowdfunding campaigns, and so it’s less a mark of willingness to put your ass on the line to put out a book in print now.
Juliet Cook: I personally prefer print chapbooks, visually and on a sensory level. I think they look and feel more unique and extra-special and one-of-a-kind and you can touch them and smell them and flip through their pages at your own pace.
I’m a big fan of online literary magazines, but when it comes to chapbooks, I definitely tend to be more positively drawn to print.
However, online chapbooks are more easily and widely accessible and thus could have a significantly wider potential audience.
M. Mack: We don’t publish e-books at Gazing Grain, but I teach them in my chapbooks courses. I think e-books can do really exciting things with design, and different people can have access to them. E-books are really great for use in classrooms. (If you want your print chapbooks to be used in classrooms, consider ISBNs or an ISSN to make bookstore ordering easier.) Print chapbooks can also do amazing things with book arts, of course. I consider chapbooks to be extremely intentional handmade objects. My favorite is when publishers make e-books of their sold-out limited edition handmade chapbooks, like Bloof and Big Lucks do.
What tips do you have on designing the layout of an issue or book?
Margaret Bashaar: So, you make friends with this really nice girl named Sarah when you’re both in 2nd grade and you stay friends for like, twenty years. And then it turns out that she is working for Hachette Book Group and wants to try her hand at book design, and you’re starting a press and she’s like “hey, can I do your books’ design?” and you’re like “that’s cool—I was just going to do it in Word or something” and then it turns out she’s amazing at it and that’s my advice.
Juliet Cook: I don’t have the best tips to offer. I’m a one-woman old school designer, who uses Microsoft Word to design my chapbooks’ innards AND covers and I’m not good at explaining how I do it, I just do it how I do it.
Margaret Bashaar: Okay I figured someone else might have some tips, but now that I see that we’re all sort of in the same position I’ll try to some up with something more practical.
1. Teach yourself Microsoft Publisher. It’s not the best program, but if you have the Microsoft Office suite, you’ll have Publisher and you won’t need to spend any additional money on a special program. Plus, unlike Word, it’s a program that is actually meant to be used for things like pamphlet and book layout. It is not a difficult program to figure out (I figured it out on my own in like, an hour).
2. If you have some extra scratch, spring for Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Photoshop. They are expensive, but I am told also totally worth it if you have the money.
3. Don’t be afraid to do things simply or with old school methods. Sometimes a clean, simple, text-based cover design is better than a fancy pants crowded looking one, and sometimes photocopying is totally the way to go.
M. Mack: I’m also not that helpful here, because I have been designing magazines and books since I was in high school, and for a long while I designed publications sort of professionally for a nonprofit. But, along that time I had to learn new programs and new ways of doing things, and it is possible to teach yourself design programs. If you’re starting from scratch, look for elements in books you admire. Choose a program and learn it. The internet is amazing. I once taught myself to code an e-book with Lynda.com in a weekend. Margaret makes a good point about affordability. I use Adobe because it is what I have always used. Try out different programs that are available to you. Think about what will suit your needs. Adobe has pitfalls not only in cost but also in availability (which is related to cost). Our editors are all over the United States, and sharing design files is nearly impossible. So, think about what your needs are (and will be) before committing to a program.
How do you determine fair pricing for cover art?
Margaret Bashaar: I figure out what I can afford, and fair price is probably like three times that. Honestly, Hyacinth Girl Press is infinitely lucky in that Sarah Reck, our co-founder, is such an amazing designer. When I’m dealing with an outside artist I am as up front with them as I can possibly be about our budget restrictions and I don’t ever try to force anyone to lower their prices for me. If it’s not a fit due to finances, it’s not a fit. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Often, if I really have my heart set on a particular artist I will offer to buy the original piece for my personal collection, and that usually moves things along, but that also depends on my personal finances being in a place where I can buy art.
Juliet Cook: I highly value visual art, but I can’t afford to pay an artist a hundred bucks to design a cover for me, or even fifty bucks. In my own experience, some visual artists value poetry just as much as some poets value visual art, and they’re excited enough about having their art appear on the forum of a poetry chapbook and being credited in the book and receiving a free copy of the book that they don’t require monetary payment. I’ve paid some artists a small amount (in addition to crediting them and giving them a copy of the book) to create a new piece of art specifically for a cover. I’ve also purchased an existing piece of art from an artist in appreciation for being given permission to use that existing piece of art on the cover of a book. I’ve also used parts of some of my own visual art creations as cover art for some Blood Pudding Press chapbooks.
M. Mack: Unfortunately, most of us pay what we can afford. My only advice it to make sure that you are upfront with the artist with whatever your price is. You don’t want to put yourself in the position where an artist has said yes, but you can’t afford the fee. Make sure the author knows what the budget is and can include it in any conversations they have with artists. If you’re seeking permissions to reprint artwork, have a conversation with the author about budgets and expectations before you seek them. You might get lucky, but it’s best for everyone to have all of the information.
How do you make the most of writing conferences like AWP? How can you network at a conference without going overboard?
Carly Miller: This last AWP in Los Angeles allowed us to connect directly with our contributors and give them the book right away, which allowed us to not only thank them in person for contributing their work, but save on shipping costs once we got home. For networking, it really is just remembering that people are people. I’ve been to AWPs where I’ve had to stand behind a pillar to calm myself down before meeting some of my favorite poets, but keeping in mind that people who approach your table or have already contributed to your press have some connection with you, it allows the nerves to settle. I’ve taken advantage of book signings and making my small talk there versus chasing someone down when they’re clearly on their way to something (and yes, I’ve just run into people and walked with them wherever they were going, too). Really, just be yourself and if you see that person you want to connect with, fantastic—and if not, then hey, there’s always email.
Margaret Bashaar: I’m really bad at not going overboard at conferences, but not so much with networking as with running myself ragged selling chapbooks. I tend to spend 100% of my time at AWP and other festivals/conferences at my bookfair table talking to people about my press. I honestly enjoy doing so, but I tend to exhaust myself. I’ve found that, as an editor, the best thing I can do for my press is be present at my bookfair table as much as possible. My co-editor has never attended a bookfair or festival with me, so I am the sole representative of my press at these events. I spend money to be there, so I want to make sure I make the most of it, and that means pushing myself that extra mile to be personable and chatty and helpful. I usually take a few days off from socializing afterwards to recover, and that helps a lot.
M. Mack: Network wherever you are. Always have materials for your press with you. I embroider Gazing Grain Press tote bags for our editors to carry. I think of myself as a walking book fair table. Speaking of which, walk around bookfairs where you are exhibiting and introduce yourself to your contemporaries. If you’re walking around with everything you need if a conversation comes up, it is easier to enjoy the conference as an individual as well as an editor. I don’t think staying static at a table is necessarily the best way to promote your press. You’re also (most likely) paying your own way to the conference, so I think it is just as important to set boundaries and make sure that you are fulfilling your own goals for the event (such as seeing panels related to your latest poetry project) as it is to promote your press. Often, these things can go hand in hand. I like to introduce myself to judges of our contests after they speak on panels. I get to hear the panel, and I get to say, “Hi, thanks so much, you’re great.”
What would you say writers expect from the editors of a new press?
Carly Miller: I think writers expect professionalism in all forms. Each interaction needs to be professional and show that the work is being handled with care. I think writers want to see that the press is making an effort to get their work out into the world, and having the work presented in a way that is really beautiful (as in the physical object of the book via design, even when it’s online) and shows a sense of community-building via reviews and marketing efforts.
Margaret Bashaar: I feel like expectations of new presses vary, and I feel as though editors more or less drive that expectation with how we present ourselves on our websites and in our initial communications with writers who want to work with us/we want to work with. It’s hard to say “this is what writers expect across the board.” I mean, I know what I, personally want from a press—I want the editor to reply to my communications in a decently timely manner, I want to be kept updated on the potential timeline for my book or chapbook’s release, I want to have open communication and conversation about my and the editor’s expectations and plans for the book and its release and promotion. So I would say the most important thing is communication. Juliet Cook: I think that depends on the writer and the press. For me as a writer, I’m fairly open, but I would like a press to offer me a tentative time frame of WHEN the book will be published (and offer me updates if that time frame changes), a reasonable amount of free copies of the book with additional copies at a discount rate, and a reasonable amount of help promoting the book. Since that’s what I desire as a writer, that’s what I aim for as an editor too.
M. Mack: Excellence. Writers should expect excellence and respect. If you can’t prove yourself with an existing catalog, you have to prove yourself with the way you treat your authors and your books in process. I think the best way to do that is to be lovely to work with while you create lovely books.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of beginning a new press?
Carly Miller: It’s the moment the books fall into our hands. As soon as we have them, we’re able to send them to our contributors and say “thank you” all over again. It’s really the vision coming to life and seeing how excited our contributors are about the book, and wanting to share that excitement with others.
Margaret Bashaar: I haven’t started a new press in seven years, but I think the most rewarding thing for me when I first started HGP was probably interacting with each of my poets in person for the first time. I do my best to actually meet the people who I have published face to face, and it’s almost always a really fantastic, heartwarming thing.
Juliet Cook: Feeling like you’re being a personal part of the poetry community. Feeling like you’re creating what is meaningful to you and making a small but powerful difference to a few others.
Spending some personal time and energy and creative attention and genuine care focusing on other poets you appreciate and admire and helping their voices be heard.
Receiving meaningful tidbits of positive feedback and support directed at your press’s chapbooks’ innards as well as their design.
Having a few people who seem to actually care about and appreciate what you do and genuinely enjoy it.
Being your true creative self and helping to share a few other true creative selves.
M. Mack: The most rewarding part of running a press is directly contributing to the publishing landscape. Sometimes this also feels daunting. Pay attention when you feel uncomfortable and see if you need to make changes. One of my favorite parts is when people handle our books and ephemera and explore them. I like exhibiting for this reason—showing people how things are made. It is also really great when I bring a Gazing Grain text to one of my classes as an example of a book form and my students get excited about it. One of the most fun things for us is that Gazing Grain is a project of Fall for the Book literary festival, so we launch our chapbooks at Fall for the Book’s two annual events. Our authors and runners-up come to read, and our local editors get to present the brand new book or ephemera to the authors and get to know them. This is another good thing about going to big events like AWP, getting to see your authors and put together events for them.
Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in a peculiar multitude of literary publications. She is the author of more than thirteen poetry chapbooks, most recently including POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press, 2013), RED DEMOLITION (Shirt Pocket Press, 2014), a collaboration with Robert Cole called MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015), and a collaboration with j/j hastain called Dive Back Down (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Cook’s first full-length poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX in 2008 and her second full-length poetry book, Malformed Confetti, is forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press. In addition to her writing, Cook creates other art too, such as semi-abstract painting/collage art hybrid creatures. She is also the editor of Blood Pudding Press (poetry chapbooks in print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (a poetry focused online blog style lit mag). You can find out more at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.
Margaret Bashaar is the founding editor of Hyacinth Girl Press with co-editor Sarah Reck. Her first book, Stationed Near the Gateway, was published by Sundress Publications in 2015. She has published three chapbooks; Rungs, written with Lauren Eggert-Crowe (Grey Book Press, 2015), Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011), and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt Press, 2009), and has a fourth chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, forthcoming from Agape Editions. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from journals such as The Southeast Review, Rhino, New South, So to Speak, and Copper Nickel, among others. She hails from Pittsburgh where she co-runs the annual arts anarchy event, FREE POEMS, with Rachael Deacon, and works to destroy classism in the literary world in whatever way she can.
Carly Joy Miller’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review,Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a finalist for the Stadler Fellowship. She is a contributing editor for Poetry International and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.
M. Mack is a genderqueer poet, editor, and fiber artist in Virginia. Ze is the author of Theater of Parts (Sundress Publications, 2016) and three chapbooks: Mine (Big Lucks Books, forthcoming 2016), Imaginary Kansas (dancing girl press, 2015), and Traveling (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015). Hir work has appeared in such places as cream city review, Hot Metal Bridge, Menacing Hedge, and The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Mack is a founding co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an assistant editor for Cider Press Review, and the monster maker behind What Is Reality Plushies.
Sundress Publications is pleased to announce the release of the 10th anniversary edition of the Best of the Net Anthology! This year’s anthology includes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction published in 27 different journals and features work by Claudia Emerson, Chen Chen, Jennifer Givhan, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Sandra Meek, Eric Tran, Harmony Neal, Jesse Goolsby, Kimi Traube, and many more!
This year’s judges included Bruce Bond, Brian Oliu, and Kate Schmitt.
Bruce Bond is the author of fourteen books including five forthcoming: Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press), For the Lost Cathedral (LSU Press), Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and The Other Sky (Etruscan Press). Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey and currently teaches at the University of Alabama. He is the author of three full-length collections, So You Know It’s Me (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2011), a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, Leave Luck to Heaven (Uncanny Valley Press, 2014), an ode to 8-bit video games, & Enter Your Initials For Record Keeping (Cobalt Press, 2015). essays on NBA Jam. i/o (Civil Coping Mechanisms), a memoir in the form of a computer virus, is forthcoming in 2015. His works in progress deal with professional wrestling and long distance running (not at once).
Kate Schmitt‘s Singing Bones won the 2013 Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award. A writer and visual artist, Kate Schmitt has an M.F.A. and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has been published in a number of anthologies, including Earth Shattering Poems (Holt, 1998), Light Gathering Poems (Holt, 2000), I Just Hope It’s Lethal (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and The Weight of Addition (Mutabilis Press, 2007), as well as the literary journals Paradigm, Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, and Louisiana Literature. She was a nonfiction editor of Gulf Coast and served on the journal’s Board of Directors in 2008-2009. She has also edited and written for the companion website to a pilot television series created by Shelley Duvall, a wind energy company, and most recently for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her courses include nonfiction and poetry workshops, 20th-century literature, young adult literature, and Chinese literature in translation.
You can read the newest edition of the anthology online.
How do you move from being a writer in the corner to a writer at the table? Writing may happen in solitude, but careers are built on community. This panel will explore how to create accessible writing communities—particularly among marginalized, underserved and non-traditional writers—where members provide feedback and share information about craft, publication, and more. Panelists will discuss existing resources for developing platforms and cultivating support in real and virtual communities.
How do writers find communities for peer support, mentorship, and inspiration, especially if they face geographical, social, or cultural barriers? This panel will provide vital information about how to build such connections through virtual learning, social movements, local writing groups, and online platforms. Panelists include prose writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters who have made it their mission to build communities that are inclusive, dynamic, and responsive to their members.
Tell me briefly how you came to writing.
Shaula Evans: I was an early and voracious reader. I wrote plays that my neighbourhood friends performed on the stage my father built in our basement. My brother and I also made up horror stories and recorded them on a cassette player; we’d play them back in the dark and scare ourselves to death. I had a disheartening experience with a university creative writing class that turned me off creative writing for many years, but I came back to creative writing as the house writer for a theatre group and I’ve been writing in a range of forms and styles ever since. When I lived in Japan, I was editor-in-chief for three monthly journals (in English, Japanese, and Portuguese) and wrote non-fiction for a number of publications, which was my start in post-academic non-fiction writing and editing.
Ashley C. Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and for a long time I assumed I would go into acting. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year of college that I realized I could give this writing thing a shot. I was quite content once I changed my major to English, but when I took my first class for creative nonfiction, I fell in love.
Colette Sartor: I came to writing as an adult looking for a way out of an ill-chosen career as an entertainment lawyer. While I was still practicing law, I took classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and at USC’s MPW program. I finally realized that I wouldn’t take writing seriously until I left law altogether. Once I quit, I spent a year writing, taking classes, and applying to graduate school, and then spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop completing my MFA. It was only in graduate school, though, surrounded by a community of writers who took themselves seriously and who were as in love with the written word as I was, that I started calling myself a writer.
Leigh Stein: At 19, I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and instead of getting close to the other students in my program, I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room posting stories and poems to my LiveJournal. I had my first short story published that year and realized that I could pursue this other thing I loved (writing).
Tell me about a specific community that has been critically important to you along the way.
Shaula Evans: I am deeply indebted to Francis Ford Coppola for the Zoetrope.com website he launched in 1998, which hosted a vibrant and dynamic community of screenwriters, poets, and short story and flash fiction writers. I was an active member in the early days of the site where I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly talented people. Those years were highly prolific for me, in no small part because of the stimulation and feeling of momentum that came from being around people passionate about writing.
Ashley C. Ford: The community of writers I’ve met and made online have been essential to any success I’ve had as a writer. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, online in 2010. Since then, I’ve been building community as authentically as I can, and trying to be as supportive as they are to me.
Colette Sartor: Both UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been essential to my development as a writer. As a student at UCLA Extension, I worked with gifted teachers who encouraged me and supported my decision to attend grad school. I also met lifelong friends with whom I formed a writers’ group that still meets today.
It was at Iowa, though, where I started thinking of myself as a writer. The beauty of being in an MFA program is that you become part of a community where people live, breathe, and talk writing. We compared ass-in-the-chair time. We read each other’s work and argued passionately over whether our characters were believable enough, real enough, driven enough by desire. Plus, many of the people I met in grad school became lifelong friends, the way my UCLA Extension friends did.
And writer friends are an essential part of being a writer. The actual act of writing may be a solitary endeavor, but on every other level, writing can be a communal experience. I rely on my community of writers—whether from UCLA Extension, Iowa, my UCLA Extension writers’ group or my writers’ group formed by women who attended my college—for advice, support, honest criticism of my writing. I can bounce ideas off these friends, read them rough drafts and cover letters, and I know I will get honest yet supportive responses based both on the work on the page and my vision for what I want that work to become.
Leigh Stein: I found a really supportive community on LiveJournal in the early aughts, and some of the people I met there are still my close friends today. More broadly, the Internet has always been the place where I go to find community: from LiveJournal to Facebook (I administrate a private group of over 30,000 women writers) to Twitter. I’m a high school drop out without an MFA. I would not have been able to write three books without the community I’ve found on the Internet over the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been pursuing writing seriously.
The word community implies a symbiotic relationship; there is as much give as take. While you gained a lot from community as a writer, you’ve moved on to create opportunities for others to access support, mentorship, inspiration, and connection. Tell me about that.
Shaula Evans: I have run two workshops within the Zoetrope site (in the private office area): a creative writing workshop for writers in different media to discuss craft and play writing games (for over 10 years); and a comedy workshop that explores the theory and practice of writing comedy (for over 5 years). In 2012 I launched a public forum for film, TV, and comedy sketch writers called The Black Board which ran for two years. My current website, ShaulaEvans.com, offers support and inspiration to writers—I have plans to expand it to build on some of the features of my previous projects but for the moment I’m too busy with my own writing, a good kind of problem to have. The focus of all my community-building efforts is to create safe and inclusive creative spaces.
Ashley C. Ford: Sometimes I’m simply enthusiastically supportive of the work those in my community put out, sometimes when I have to turn down work I direct it their way, and sometimes it’s just late night gchats about what’s hard, what’s good, and what we hope for our futures. Most of being a good community-member is the same as being a good friend.
Colette Sartor: I’ve benefited so much from being part of numerous writing communities: UCLA Extension, Iowa, my private writing students, the various writing groups that I’ve sought out. I wouldn’t be able to write without my community. My writer friends give me honest, brilliant feedback that bolsters me and inspires me to work harder, write better. My writer friends and students alike inspire me with their brilliance and thoughtfulness and willingness to bare themselves for the sake of their work.
I try to give back as much as possible by meeting with students and friends to discuss their options in pursuing their writing dreams: Do they go to graduate school or stay in Los Angeles and build a community of writers here? How can they meet other writers? What writing communities exists here? I’m constantly emailing students about readings to attend, new magazines to check out, podcasts to listen to, books to read. I plaster my social media accounts with links to inspirational articles and essays about craft and literary life. I’ve created a Writers’ Resources page on my website where I list links to online writing communities as well as links to posts about craft, publication, and blogging. And I’m always willing to write recommendations for friends and students whose work I know well. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without the encouragement and recommendations of some very generous teachers and mentors. I want to do the same for other people who are looking to expand their own writing communities and advance their own craft.
Leigh Stein: In 2014, I was so inspired by the online community of women writers of which I was a member that I had the idea to organize a conference, so we could connect face-to-face. This idea became Out of the Binders, a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, and BinderCon, our semiannual, bicoastal professional development conference. I co-direct the organization with Lux Alptraum, and we oversee a team of about 30 volunteers across the country. Organizing BinderCon has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.
What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks of writing communities?
Shaula Evans: Some of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered include:
1. (Lack of) Moderation
Whether a writing community convenes on- or offline, it is imperative to establish a healthy culture where no one is bullied and writers feel safe to take creative risks. Good communities don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of work, conscious decision-making and social engineering to make a community feel welcoming—and most of that work should be invisible to the community at large.
2. Social Pressure
I’ve witnessed a number of workshop-oriented communities where there was social pressure to write in a certain way. Some specific examples:
– Pressuring writers who are not white, cis, het, male, etc., to write in a way that conforms to the expectations of members of the local dominant culture, rather than writing in their own voices and writing from their own experiences.
– Subtle encouragement or rewards for writing to please the subjective tastes of a workshop leader or workshop regulars—i.e. writing for short term peer popularity vs writing to grow or excel in one’s own voice.
– An unchecked herd instinct to mimic the style of a popular member.
The unifying theme is the problem of one or more people imposing their own writing views and preferences on other writers. Going back to #1 above, good hosting or moderation are one of the critical strategies for making sure this sort of problem doesn’t happen.
3. Gaming the (Formal) System
I have belonged to a number of writing communities that had formal review systems, where participants had to write a certain number of reviews before they could submit their work for revision. The problem with setting up formal systems is that they inherently incentivize certain behaviours; in the case of formal review systems, some writers will feel they come out “ahead” by writing the bare minimum review in order to earn their submission opportunity, which shortchanges both the reviewer and the writer whose work is being reviewed.
Good moderation can mitigate this problem, but my preferred solution is not to set up formal systems at all. (Avoiding formal review systems may run into problems of scalability for larger communities but can work well for small- and medium-sized groups.)
Ashley C. Ford: Every once in a while, there’s someone in the community who feels like competition is more satisfying than being empowering of their fellow community-members. Those are usually people who only know how to be motivated by competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from celebrating your community’s wins. If you can’t do that—bring yourself to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success—it’s hard to be a healthy member of that community.
Colette Sartor: There’s always the danger of conformity. I don’t believe that MFA programs necessarily encourage or even demand that students produce a generic kind of writing. That’s something of a myth people like to pull out when bashing degree programs. In fact, I found that my fellow grad school colleagues produced a glorious array of writing styles and stories, each with unique, identifiable voices that they maintain to this day. It’s the same with my students, both from UCLA and in my private classes: these students come in with a spark, a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs. It’s my job to nurture and encourage that individual voice, not to conform it to my vision of what fiction should be.
The danger of conformity that I’m thinking about is more individual in nature, one that I’ve encountered and succumbed to myself. When you immerse yourself in a community of writers, particularly in a writing group, you find yourself tempted to produce writing pleasing to that particular group of people, whose opinions you so value and whose praise you grow to crave. It’s human nature, to want to please those you’re close to; however, that need to please can encroach on your writerly vision, stilt your voice in an unnatural way. When I first started writing and didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my own voice or in my ability to tell stories worth reading, I found myself trying to write pretty, flowery metaphors and similes to please my first writers’ group, or to craft happier, more uplifting endings in a story that needed to be darker simply because I knew I’d get a more positive response from my group. My writing suffered for it.
The solution is to take care in building your writing community around you. Trust your writing only with those whose goal is to help everyone in your community realize each individual’s vision of the stories that person’s trying to tell. Even more important, trust yourself to know what’s best for your own work. Listen to criticism with an open yet inquisitive mind: does the person offering critique understand and appreciate your vision? Is that person’s criticism geared toward helping you advance that vision? If so, then listen away, knowing that it’s your job to take whatever criticism you find valuable and incorporate it into your work in a meaningful way that reflects your voice and style.
Leigh Stein: Money! I’m not paid a salary by the organization, but I spend about 20 hours a week administering the Facebook group, organizing events, strategizing marketing opportunities, writing our conference program, booking speakers, etc., etc. It’s obviously a project I’m passionate about, but it’s ironic that I donate so much of my time to helping other women writers advance their careers (and get paid). So much valuable, necessary work in the literary community is being done by collectives and nonprofits, and they need our financial support, not only our high-fives and gratitude. I’m thinking of VIDA, WAM!, the Belladonna poetry collective, and Brooklyn Poets, to name just a few.
What are your top five community resources, especially for writers who face geographical, social, or cultural barriers to access?
Ashley C. Ford:
3. Blogs of writers you enjoy (and the blogs THEY follow)
4. Online writing courses
5. The library
Colette Sartor: Building your own writing community can mean going to graduate school, but that isn’t your only option. You can build your own writing community wherever you live. To do so, you need to meet other writers, both in your own city and around the world. This task is made easier by the numerous online resources and communities for writers. Here are a few:
– Most cities, no matter how small, have a thriving writing culture, if you know where to look. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where there are several great reading series (e.g., at Skylight Books, Vroman’s, the Aloud series, the Hammer Museum series), as well as writing classes and seminars. The key is figuring out where the literary “hub” of your city exists. Ploughshares did a great series of articles a while back called Literary Boroughs, which highlighted literary culture in various communities. Also look at libraries and local bookstores for readings by published authors. Writers flock to readings, both for the joy of hearing beautiful work read aloud, and to meet and congregate with other writers.
– Writers’ conferences are a great way to meet other writers and to experiment with being part of a writing community. When I was first thinking about becoming a writer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. At both conferences, I met writers and authors with whom I still stay in touch. Conferences can be pricey, but most of them offer some kind of financial assistance in the form of fellowships and/or work-study. Poets & Writers offers a great database of conferences and residencies to help you narrow down which conferences might be right for you.
– PEN Center USA offers a wide variety of resources to writers, from onsite, affordable seminars with outstanding writers, to posts and interviews about craft, to programs like the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship that provide new writers without access to writing communities various tools to help them launch writing careers—like mentorship by professional writers, seminars, public readings, classes, and a small stipend for eight months.
– There are vibrant writing schools/communities that have popped up all over the country such as Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and The Center for Fiction. Each of them offer classes taught by outstanding professional writers as well as other community components. Some also offer fellowships to facilitate writers in need.
– There are online literary communities like Figment and Fictionaut that offer writers the support of a literary community through discussions and chats, critiquing groups, etc. Many of them are free, or at least have free components. Take care, however, to explore the sites and make sure you’re comfortable with the tone of that particular community. Sometimes the anonymity afforded by online communities can result in negativity that is more easily controlled in onsite communities. And take care about posting work there. Many journals consider your work “published” if you’ve posted it online in a group that isn’t private.
Leigh Stein: The BinderCon scholarship program (we award up to 50 scholarships to each conference, and this fall we offered travel stipends to trans and GNC attendees, through a grant we received from the Esmond Harmsworth Foundation). Also, BinderCon NYC will be livestreamed (free!) for the first time ever, thanks to the Harnisch Foundation. Would also recommend checking out VONA writing workshops for writers of color, WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) with chapters and events around the country, The OpEd Project seminars, and Hedgebrook (fee-free writing residencies in the Pacific Northwest for women writers).
Lisa Mecham (panel moderator) writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Juked, and BOAAT, among other publications. She serves on the Advisory Board for Origins literary journal and as a Senior Editor for The Scofield. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Online at lisamecham.com and @lmecham.
Shaula Evans (not pictured) is a writer, editor and translator. Born and raised in Canada, and educated in Montreal, France and Japan, she currently resides in New Mexico after spending 6 ½ years traveling around North America in a Mini Cooper. You can find her online at shaulaevans.com and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.
Ashley C. Ford (not pictured) is an essayist and editor currently living in Brooklyn via Fort Wayne, IN.
Colette Sartor‘s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Carve, Printers Row Journal, Hello Giggles, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her colettesartor.com or follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.
Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, a collection of poetry called Dispatch from the Future, and a memoir forthcoming from Blue Rider Press in 2016 called Land of Enchantment. She co-directs the literary nonprofit Out of the Binders.
How do you place your manuscript with a good publisher if you don’t have a literary agent? Writers who have successfully done so will explain the process. This discussion will identify presses that consider unsolicited manuscripts and will explain how to use online listings to find reading periods and contests. The focus will be on submitting work without paying a fee. Panelists are fiction writers and poets who have successfully placed one or more books with a reputable independent publisher.
Publishing a book is every writer’s goal. But many manuscripts of literary merit go unread or unpublished because their authors can’t connect with the right editor or publisher. This panel will provide useful information on getting your manuscript read and accepted. We will discuss our own experiences—both the hits and the misses. We will encourage writers at all stages in their careers to act as their own agent to find the best home for their books.
Briefly describe the books you placed yourself at presses. Are they books of fiction, poetry? How did you find the presses and approach them? Was it difficult to find a press?
Joanna Sit: They are two books of poetry. The first one, My Last Century, is a collection of poems. The second book, In Thailand With the Apostles, is a book-length poem separated into parts, which can be read as “freestanding” poems as well. I sent the first book to book contests, small presses as well as bigger ones. I’d say I sent queries to more than 100 places, and the actual manuscript to about 40. This process took approximately three years, until I mentioned it to Nava Renek, who I’ve known from Brooklyn College and who had recently partnered in the operation at Spuyten Duyvil Press. She said she would take a look at it, which she did, and told me she liked it. Not long after, she showed the manuscript to Tod Thilleman, the publisher, who then agreed to work with it.
About a year later, at one of Spuyten Duyvil’s book parties, Tod and I were talking about long poems, and he told me how much he liked them. The poem, “In Thailand With the Apostles,” had been written years before, but no one was interested in publishing a long poem. So when he jokingly asked if I happened to have one in the back of my drawer somewhere, I answered, “Why, yes I do.” I sent him the manuscript, and the book was published a year later.
Meg Tuite: The first collection I published was Domestic Apparition, and I had published over two-thirds of the stories over a few years. I sent the collection out to five different publishers and waited. I got an acceptance from two of them, but chose San Francisco Bay Press, because I liked the availability and enthusiasm from this press. I had published many of the stories without thinking of any cohesion until the editor said, “Why don’t you rework this with the same family throughout and call it a ‘novel-in-stories.’ ” I realized that it had a seam that moved through it, and it was a nice and easy transition working the collection into a novel.
I published a few chapbooks with indy presses that were also beautiful and put together with deep commitment to the craft: Monkey Puzzle Press, Deadly Chaps and Red Bird Chaps. I have had positive relationships with my publishers and have always loved the final product they have produced.
My second full collection, Bound by Blue, was published with Sententia Books. This was the first time a press was able to send out to ‘small print distribution’ and send out copies for review. And I was very much involved in every part of it. Paula Bomer, who is the publisher, loved the cover artist I chose and worked with me on every aspect of this and was an exceptional editor. She pushed me to work flash stories into short stories which was an amazing experience, considering I teach flash fiction and am always working my students to condense and hone their work. Although, I was originally writing short stories that were at least 20 pages, so she brought me back to my source, which I am grateful for.
Thaddeus Rutkowski: Each of my books has its own story. I sent the manuscript for my first book, Roughhouse, to Kaya Press, which publishes work by Asian-rooted authors writing in English. I sent it cold, though I was familiar with the press. The manuscript went onto the slush shelf, but by chance someone I’d been in a workshop with was a volunteer at Kaya. He saw my name on the envelope and passed it along to the editors, who accepted it and made a big deal about publishing their first and only unsolicited manuscript.
I sent the manuscript for my second book, Tetched, to several contests. I’d won a chapbook contest in the early ‘90s—and this new full-length book became a finalist in the Starcherone Books competition. As it turned out, I didn’t win, but Starcherone was interested in publishing the book anyway. Before that could happen, one of my adult students accepted the book for a small press, Behler Publications, where she was an editor. Tetched came out in 2005.
I kept in touch with Starcherone, which means “Start Your Own.” I even drove from New York to Buffalo to read for the publisher, Ted Pelton, who was in the English department at Medaille College. A few years later, I had put together another manuscript and offered it for the Starcherone contest. The publisher said he’d read it outside the contest and he also sent it to another reader, Lily Hoang. They both liked the book, and it came out with the support of the New York State Council on the Arts—we didn’t have to do a Kickstarter campaign.
What was the publication/marketing process like? Were you happy with the finished book, as a product? Did you promote the book (get reviews, readings) yourself? Were the publishers helpful?
JS: The process was relatively simple and low-key. I prepared my manuscript complete with table of contents, acknowledgements, and pagination. The manuscript was sent first, and later, I sent the cover art and blurbs once I had them. Since there was no editing on the publisher’s part, I had to edit and proof all the contents. Even so, there were errors in both books. Overall, though, I was happy with the finished product. I would have to say that Spuyten Duyvil, as a small press, was not very involved in promoting the book in terms of getting it reviewed. I acted as my own publisher in that way, sending out copies to book reviewers. Because of my limited experience in this area, I missed the timing of sending out the book before it came out (such as Publishers’ Weekly). The publisher did make arrangements for a book-launch party for both books, and one other reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore in Manhattan for my first book.
MT: I had a friend who wanted to write a book titled So You Published a Book. Who the Fuck Cares?
I got that from the first book. The writing of a manuscript is one thing. Getting it out there is a whole ‘nother experience. I had a damn great time with my books. My book launches were parties at a kickass pizza place in Santa Fe, Back Road Pizza, that packed the house and sold many books. But, yes, I had to do my own marketing and if you are going indy, then get ready to work it in stages. It won’t come to you. You must go and find it!
Reviews are always an excellent way to get new readers. Also, GoodReads. Look it up. You can put your book up for a FREE GoodReads giveaway and decide how many books you want to gift. This is another way to get some readers and possible reviews from unknown folk from other continents.
TR: I’ve relied on publishers during the production process. They know about art, type, printing and Web presence, while I know about the text. After the book is produced, the review/promotion process begins. The publisher has often helped me with this–my first and third books were reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and American Book Review. Personal contacts also helped. Now, I’m working with a publicist (my wife, Randi Hoffman) to get my latest book out to reviewers.
I enjoy traveling and setting up readings, and I’ve been lucky to read in several countries and many U.S. cities. I think that having a background as a slam poet also helps. I’m no slam champion, but I can do a little performance. That little show helps to promote the work on the page.
In one case, I was planning to go to Santa Fe with my family because my wife used to live there. I contacted many local writers, and I was led to Meg Tuite, who told me to call a bookstore, where I was able to set up a reading. I asked a poet in Taos (who I knew from New York) to read with me. She brought a number of people, and it was a great event.
I’ve learned that a writer should use social media. You should have a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t have Instagram, because I don’t have a smartphone yet.
Would you advise other writers to take the same path to publication? If so, how would they get started?
JS: The way I finally got published was a singular one. I’m not sure the path can always be of one’s own choosing. However, reflecting on the process, I would say that talking to other writers and trying to get the word out about the work were very important factors in finally getting my book read. My sense was that the first book was the most difficult to get published, and after that, it might get easier. Maybe not. My advice, overall, is “always be prepared.” By that, I mean, keep writing no matter what. While you’re waiting for someone to publish your book, send poems out to literary journals and magazines, put your name out there. By the time someone expresses interest, you’ll be all ready.
MT: I started by checking the list of indy presses. Believe me when I say it’s a whole ‘nother job. Get ready to spend time reading books by presses and deciding which ones are sympatico to your collection, novel, or memoir. A great way to move through this is to find those books that you LOVE and write down the name of the publisher and agent. That makes the most sense to me and you also read more books, which is always a plus. FIND THEM! They are not out looking for you. Just go to one AWP conference and find yourself surrounded by over 12,000 writers and realize how much we have in common with ants.
I am a LOVER of INDIE PRESSES! They rock it and work with the writer. They trust in the abyss!
TR: I agree with Joanna and Meg. All writing activities are related. Take classes/workshops, go to public readings, read your work aloud (this makes you write something in the first place), go to conferences (if you can afford it). And, of course, do your research. There are websites that list hundreds of literary agents and break them down by the genre they handle. Likewise, there are websites, such as ones from Poets & Writers and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), that list small presses, their reading periods, whether they charge a reading fee, etc.
Amid all the non-happenings, something good is bound to happen. You have to be ready for it. You can’t just talk a good game. You have to back it up with good work. Yes, this is a big job. It’s a second life.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the books Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.
Joanne Sit is the author of two books of poetry: My Last Century (2012, Spuyten Duyvil) and In Thailand with the Apostles (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). Her poems and translations have appeared in Five Willows Review, Ezra, Natural Bridge, Seneca Review and other literary publications. Her “Mickey Rourke Rondelets,” appears in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II as “July 7” (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). She is working on a new book of poems, Track Works, and a ethnographic narrative, The Reincarnation of Red, about Chinese immigrants and Cantonese Opera.
Meg Tuite is the author of Bound by Blue, Domestic Apparition, Disparate Pathos and Reverberations. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize and is the fiction editor of the Santa Fe Literary Revew and Connotation Press. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and many pets, and she teaches at Santa Fe Community College.
Thank you for your interest in the It’s Awesome To Win and It’s Awesome to Lose Book Prize from the University of Pobiz Press. We take pride in our reputation for being the most transparent book contest in the publishing world, so please carefully review the following information to learn about our manuscript guidelines, ethical standards, and reading/judging process.
Authors who wish to enter our contest should familiarize themselves with our catalog. We encourage you to buy at least three books in each genre we publish.
We accept submissions in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic narrative, and multimedia sculptural affirmation. Please note that we are not interested in translation, genre, or social issues.
To preserve anonymity, all submissions are read blind. We endeavor to avoid our colleagues to the point that we cannot recognize their work without first and last name attached. Current students, former students, close friends, spouses, lovers, and housekeepers of the judge are allowed to enter, but to ensure fairness, we keep the judge drunk on whiskey throughout the process.
Manuscripts should be stripped of all identifying information prior to submission. Entrants with immediately recognizable names will not be disqualified; instead, we will personally remove the information and pass their manuscripts to our judge, unread.
We only accept single-author manuscripts accompanied by a statement affirming the work is the intellectual property of the author or untraceably plagiarized.
We are neither copy editors nor designers and therefore expect winning manuscripts to be of the highest, publishable quality prior to entry and accompanied by print-ready cover art converted to CMYK color space at a minimum of 300 dpi.
Manuscripts should be composed on a computer running an up-to-date version of Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or Red Hat Enterprise Linux; triple-spaced with titles in 13-point Neue Helvetica eText, body text in 10-point Adobe Garamond, and table of contents in 16-point Impact; conform to W3C’s XML 1.0 specifications; and be saved in MS Works (.WPS) format.
Improperly formatted or incomplete submissions will not be read.
Due to budget cuts, we can no longer receive manuscripts via postal mail. However, you may use our secure Russian e-commerce site to pay your entry fee.
Entry fees operate on a sliding scale relative to the likelihood of the title being made into a movie, selected for Oprah’s Book Club, or awarded a high-profile prize by a panel of anonymous judges who, for professional reasons, identify as cis white men.
Nonfiction fee of $45 includes $25 entry fee plus $20 for printing your electronic entry.
Fiction fee of $55 includes $35 entry fee plus $20 for printing your electronic entry.
Poetry fee of $55 includes $45 entry fee plus $10 for printing your electronic entry.
Graphic narrative and multimedia sculptural affirmation fee of $105 includes $55 entry fee plus $50 for printing your electronic entry.
51% of entry fees go toward the cost of the judge’s whiskey; 23.7% of entry fees are converted to small bills and used to fan our interns when they get overheated while carrying manuscripts from our office printer, 22.3% of entry fees fund future “investments”, and 3% of entry fees are spent on publishing and marketing our books. As you can see, we are committed to transparency.
You may enter more than one manuscript. Each manuscript, however, must be accompanied by a separate entry fee, as well as an additional $20 overproductivity fee.
Each entry entitles you to a 5% discount on a title in our catalog and thrice-weekly updates via our intern-staffed mailing list, from which you may unsubscribe for a modest fee.
Authors at any stage in their careers are welcome to enter. However, we are more likely to select winners with Oscar-winning performances and/or established audiences of wealthy patrons.
Semifinalists will be notified via Twitter; finalists will be notified via carrier pigeon. In the event that over 50% of our finalists are graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and/or residents of a New York borough, our interns will rank manuscripts based on the authors’ dexterity with shuriken and tequila limes.
Winners will receive ten copies of their book, the option to purchase copies from Amazon at a 55% discount, and anywhere between $100 to $500 in prize money, depending on anticipated royalties and the continued support of CEOs who cannot scan iambic pentameter. Winnings will be distributed biennially.
All authors are required to presell a minimum of 150 copies of their books, at least 100 of which must be purchased by individuals who are not friends or family of the author. Each presale must be accompanied by a notarized statement of relationship witnessed by a seventh son of a seventh son. The presale requirement may be waived if you pay 80% of the printing costs for your book.
We reserve the right to withhold prizes in any given year, should we deem all submissions unworthy of publication. We will not, however, refund entry fees as they will have been spent on Kentucky bourbon and Toyota Camry lease payments long before we announce semifinalists.
Thank you for your support of the University of Pobiz Press. We look forward to receiving your entry!
Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.
T.A. Noonan is the author of several books and chapbooks, most recently The Midway Iterations (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015) and The Ep[is]odes: a reformulation of Horace (Noctuary Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Menacing Hedge, LIT, West Wind Review, Ninth Letter, and Phoebe, among others. A weightlifter, artist, teacher, priestess, and all-around woman of action, she is an artist-in-residence at Firefly Farms, home of the Sundress Academy for the Arts. Additionally, she serves as the Vice President and Associate Editor of Sundress Publications.
We all have our literary pet peeves, our annoyances as writers, editors, readers, proponents of literary justice. But this year seemed a little heavier than usual on the literary scandal and questionable choices made by those in the literati.
Therefore, to launch this year’s Festivus activities, we begin with the airing of literary grievances:
8.) Journals that only send status changes instead of proper rejection letters. (Seriously, folks. It’s so easy to send an email on Submittable.)
9.) Writers who don’t know how to be good literary citizens. (Step one: Support other writers you admire. Step two: Support the presses & journals that you admire. Step three: Don’t bite the hand that publishes you.)
10.) People who only buy small-press books from Amazon and refuse to support the presses directly. (If you aren’t aware, Amazon takes a minimum of 55% of the profit off the top from small presses. If you order directly from the publisher’s website, you’re giving your money directly the press and not to the pockets of Jeff Bezos.)
Last December, I received an urgent text from my father: CALL ME. My father, like most fathers, normally reserves the use of brief text messages in ALL CAPS for important news or emergencies. Since he’s retired now, well into his 70s, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer—a cancer that should have been caught much earlier and should have been curable with simple resection—I assumed the worse, something health-related and horrific.
When I phoned, my father told me about an advertisement he’d seen for a poetry contest, a Christian poetry contest with a small fee and cash prizes. Instead of counting my inevitable winnings, I imagine my brow furrowed as if I’d just heard the compensation package for an adjunct teaching position. I thought immediately of Poetry.com and similar scams, suspecting that if I were to enter such a contest, the only plausible response would be solicitation of money that I, like so many emerging poets, just don’t have right now.
Google and a few anonymous netizens confirmed my suspicions. I thanked my father, skirting the issue of whether or not I’d enter by explaining how many other contests I needed to enter and stressing the necessity of book publication.
“Those are the only contests I enter now.”
And I sighed. A sigh meant not to be heard.
“I need to get my manuscript published to have any shot on the job market.”
I then launched into a tedious explanation of the academic job market, detailing the qualifications of those who were landing coveted jobs teaching creative writing and those who teach five classes on a hotdog, ramen, and generic cola budget. I must have explained just how winding, wending, and expensive the entire process can be. How the contracting number of jobs means that hiring committees at schools so small they may be imaginary now require applicants to have a book published by a “national” press. How applicants must develop pedagogical expertise in Composition, Literature, Creative Nonfiction, and, if at all possible, time travel. How we need to fly to the MLA conference—even if we pay with an overstretched credit card—to be herded into hotel rooms while avoiding the winged monkeys and remaining on the lookout for the Tin Man’s heart.
No wonder it takes time to realize that the wizards controlling our fate are mere women and men.
I’m not at all sure my explanation was clear or factual enough to help my father understand, but he told me to think about it and to keep working hard.
Then we talked about football.
About a month later, the book contest rejections, photocopied form letters announcing the winning title and perhaps a handful of finalists who wouldn’t be published, started rolling in. Sometimes the letters include a beaming author photos of the one person from 300, 800, or 900 entrants whose manuscript made its way to the final judge and beyond. Sometimes the letters include information about next year’s contest including the expected fee, which runs around $25, and the all-important deadline. In my mailbox, there were two from Ohio, two from California, two from Texas, one from Illinois, and one from Indiana. Sometimes that $25 gets you more than a form rejection. Sometimes if you include an envelope with postage you’ll also receive a copy of the winning manuscript. Sometimes you’ll receive a subscription to a literary journal associated with the contest. I have four or five such subscriptions coming to my house, though to be frank I tend to lose track.
There are, to be fair, a handful of independent book publishers that have open reading periods, sometimes without fees. Presses like Black Ocean, Milkweed, and even McSweeney’s craft beautiful books often of better quality than what the contest winners of university press prizes find in their mail. Yet from the perspective of many hiring committees (and perhaps many other such committees) the “best” presses now use the contest model to find any poet not already on their list. Consequently, if you need a manuscript published—even one with a score of publications at mid-tier, university-affiliated literary journals—you feel as though you must drop $25 per entry, even if the odds that you will receive a personal response rather than a photocopied announcement are exponentially worse than the odds of an applicant being accepted into Harvard’s Medical School (according to U.S. News, 4.1%).
Given such dismal odds, rampant rumors of malfeasance and nepotism should come as no surprise, even if Foetry and its epic, sometimes conspiracist, exposés on the connections between contest judges and prize winners has become a minor footnote to the history of literary publishing. My assumption, perhaps naïve, is that the vast majority of contests are now—if not wholly transparent—at least mindful of conflicts of interest and work assiduously to avoid them.
Nonetheless, some announcements still make my hair stand on end like that of a feral black cat surrounded by dogs—even when I do not submit to the contests in question. Indeed, recently Bruce Bond, a tenured professor at the University of North Texas, who already has nine well-regarded collections to his name, won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. That same week, the Cleveland State University Press also announced the winner of their Open Competition: Lee Upton, a tenured professor at Lafayette College. This will be her ninth published book of poetry.
Of course, I recognize that the vagaries of the publishing industry likely put both Upton and Bond in a position where they were once again without a contract and forced to play the contest game, imagine their books continuing to go unpublished, or turn to an independent press. Moreover, I’m willing to assume that the contests were run fairly, but what chance do mere mortals have when Bond, Bruce Bond, submitted a book of sonnets? Why shouldn’t the Tampa Review, upon recognizing the work as Bond’s, turn ever so slightly away from ideals of fairness to the many, many anonymous poets who dropped $25 in an attempt to get their first, second, or third book out there? Bond’s book will surely sell better, right? Imagine an industry where those who have been successful enough to begin contemplating what their Selected Poems might look like still shell out $25 and take part in a contest. What has the publishing of poetry come to?
Let me be clear that I fault neither Bond nor Upton, nor I suppose, the presses that may have simply seen an opportunity. Every system is subject to abuse, and here, it is crucial to be mindful of the position in which university presses now, somehow, find themselves. Financial pressures—particularly in a political environment where invaluable services like food stamps, unemployment, and Social Security are being cut—lead many university-affiliated presses to search for new streams of revenue to compensate for funding their home universities may be unwilling or unable to provide. What is peculiar, at least within an American context, is the notion that such funding is necessary and that sales alone can no longer support the viability of a press regardless of the quality or timeliness of the material they publish. So perhaps we should not be surprised if, when faced with production and distribution costs, a press might turn to contests to generate revenue. Even if this is just enough revenue to facilitate the “reading” of the 900 manuscripts that arrive and to cover production costs. In other words, I want to make abundantly clear that the process and conditions under which the production of poetry takes place are not, per se, the fault of the editors who work for presses that are perennially understaffed and overwhelmed. Indeed, given an avalanche of manuscripts by people who very dearly want and need to be published for their professional well being, how could you not be tempted to turn to the work of someone you, as an editor, already know? How could you possibly give each and every manuscript half the care and attention that we expect of college students when they first encounter contemporary poetry in an academic setting? Perhaps most importantly, how do you ensure that the next book is not the last the press publishes?
From my perspective, as a poet attempting to land a few pages carved from several years of work into the hands of a less-than-ravenous reading public, everything about the process feels onerous. To the point that I sometimes swear to read books from such and such press only if they arrive via library, gift, or review copy. To the point that I’ve frequently wondered whether I might be able to garner more readers via one of the many self-publishing services or, better, via the middle-class friendly wonders of the Internet. Indeed, the notion of giving my poetry freely to others is deeply appealing, whereas the notion of paying for the publication, however nominal the amount, summons images of those fat anthologies from World Poetry Movement where one must pay to see one’s “prize-winning” poem in print. In fact, since I began sending my manuscript to contests, I’ve probably paid out more cash than the “amateur poets” who fall for Internet-based poetry scams. All with the understanding that what is most compelling about those scam poetry anthologies—the unrelenting democracy of a project that documents the difficulties, pains, delights, and joys of lives lived—is precisely what is redacted, elided, and otherwise cut from a publishing experience with a more traditional poetry press.
Like so many in the poetry community, I find myself playing an elitism lottery. But it is a most peculiar form of elitism.
What then should I tell my father the next time he texts me urgently to tell me about a contest I can’t contemplate? Should I explain that I am amenable only to certain forms of exploitation? Or that I happily supported presses that I admire during a winter when I couldn’t afford new tires for a car that badly needed them? Or should I simply tell him that a prize like that, as opposed to a book contest, won’t salve the half-glimpsed desperation that follows, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster, those of us who would prefer to teach without being contingent?
Perhaps I just need to walk away.
Book contests are now profligate. Presses that formerly had open reading periods now charge for the privilege of having your book read. So the cost to any potential poet has become more and more astounding. It may one day be subsidized by a well-taxed prize of something like a grand and a few book sales—assuming one is luckier than a beagle who, through the vagaries of quantum mechanics, finds herself transported to a Texas chili competition while all the cooks are simultaneously taking cigarette breaks.
What those costs ignore are just who those people submitting to book contests might be, just how much work and dream is fused into those explosive fifty pages, just how many people might be forced to walk away from the possibilities that poetry affords simply because they can no longer rationalize the fees that precede the rejections. Many of those people are, of course, adjuncts and graduate students who still, against almost all that is rational, believe that their next choice to “support literary publishing” will be the one that takes them further into the fatty folds of that hibernating bear…or, perhaps, its jowls.
This is a symptom not of a community that is dying but of a community that has been forced, metaphorically speaking, to eat its young. Or, as a former professor once wrote in a letter of recommendation, this is a community focused on “training the young to read its work.” It is, in short, a maze of gate keeping that will lose us poets. Imagine, for example, how John Clare might fare now. How many Miltons might be made mute and inglorious simply because of fees?
Surely, there is a better way.
After all, in the United Kingdom, poets are asked to query with a sample batch of poems. They are not asked for payment. In fact, the United States is the only nation that has developed such a labyrinthine and expensive path toward publishing while still maintaining the cultural elitism that makes publishing through the burgeoning community of independent presses and micropresses an anathema to many hiring and tenure committees.
Thankfully, emerging poets have not yet been asked to pay for a single submission of a batch of poetry. We have not yet seen for-profit companies inserting their services into the long, storied, and difficult process of getting one poem to sing in front of the eyes of, perhaps, a thousand readers. That clearly would be immoral and would suggest that poetry is neither concerned with the truth nor with broadening the possibilities of who might contribute to its ongoing historical conversation. That clearly would imply that someone who must choose between paying the gas bill and eating lunch has no place in the utopia of letters. That clearly would spark fire-spewing arguments about moral obligations and financial necessity. That clearly would suggest that the community is not so far removed from its New Critical pinnacle of protecting culture from Others as I—and many others—have believed.
And that, clearly, is precisely what’s happening. But there is minimal anger. Let the adjuncts, the graduate students, the visiting professors pay what they do not have to publish those who will have stable, well-paid jobs if they don’t publish another word. Who cares if they find themselves thinking, I can simply eat a little bit more ramen?
Or maybe there is another way. What if we recognized that it’s only poetry after all and funneled the money that would have gone to this prize or that prize somewhere, well, different?
I have books that need to be published. I’m planning to submit myself to the contest machine through the end of the year. If I’m less lucky than a Harvard Medical School applicant, so be it.
Next year starting in January, I’ll only send manuscripts to venues that don’t charge or from whom I can receive a slightly more expensive than normal subscription. I’ll track those contests that I would normally submit to, and rather than submitting, I’m sending that money to Doctors without Borders.
Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.