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Indie Publishing: Two Questions, Many More Answers

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Many thanks to Brent E. Beltrán and Consuelo Manríquez de Beltrán of Calaca Press, Patrick Durgin of Kenning Editions, and Willie Perdomo of Cypher Books for their responses to my indie publishing questions.

I know my current series of posts (#1 | #2) on indie publishing isn’t garnering heaps of Harriet comments, which is fine, because I do know these posts are generating good conversation, and that others about small presses and independent publishing are happening elsewhere in poet e-world.

Over at HTMLGIANT, Rauan Klassnik asks, “What’s Right and What’s Wrong with the Small Press World?” Read responses from Reb Livingston and Justin Marks.

Reb Livingston discusses, among many things, the gift economy:

I like that much of the indie publishing community supports one another.  I love how individuals freely share information on the how-tos of publishing, like Shanna Compton’s DIY Publishing Cooperative (currently on hiatus) or how Mathias Svalina started a blog-store, Press Press Press for indie publishers to announce their new titles. Blog magazines like PANK, What to Wear During an Orange Alert and of course HTMLGIANT bring attention to all kinds of things going on in indie publishing. There are indie publishers starting book review sites like Eileen Tabios’ Galatea Resurrects. Countless individuals generously contributing to this gift economy.

Marks distinguishes between “independent publisher” and “small press,” a distinction I hadn’t previously made (I tend to use the terms interchangeably). More importantly, he talks about community:

This is all just my personal experience, but in the small press world I see a really amazing sense of community. Small presses are often being run by one or two people. When they have the opportunity to get together, they form friendships. They help each other out. Team up for readings. Divvy up the work of organizing somewhat larger events that draw much deserved attention to their poets and their presses.

Perhaps most importantly he says, “If there were more presses, we’d have more books, and that can only be a good thing.” Absolutely. Again with “filtering,” who gets to filter, and what criteria is used to filter poetry for publication.

Over at the Tinfish Editor blog, Susan Schultz discusses publishing as forming communities of destination, in addition to communities of origin:

Filling gaps in rather than accusing others of failing to do so is one way to acknowledge that the future is as important as the past, that origins are no more sacred than are the places we want to get to from here. Hence, the forging of connections between (overly) carefully delineated groups of writers strikes me as necessary. “It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination,” Bourriaud writes. Later he writes of the importance of the “itinerary, the path” (55), and the need for movement. Now history, too, is a kind of movement. We need not let the past go in order to imagine a future.

Finally, three more indie/small press founders and editors weigh in.

Question: Why did you start your small press/why did you become an independent publisher? What need was not being met by the existing presses?

Answer (Brent E. Beltrán and Consuelo Manríquez de Beltrán, Calaca Press): Calaca Press was founded in 1997 by husband and wife team Brent E. Beltrán and Consuelo Manríquez de Beltrán to help provide publishing opportunities for progressive, bilingual, Chicano/a and Latino/a writers. Recognizing a lack of venues for bilingual authors to get published we decided to create our own. I wanted to publish material that helps raise the social and political consciousness of my community whereas Consuelo wanted to produce relevant literature that her middle school students could relate to. With a background in community activism we modeled ourselves after the literary presses of the Chicano Movement era of the 1960′s and 1970′s: Bilingual Review Press, Arte Publico Press, M&A Editions, TQS, Maize Press, etc.

Calaca Press is a grassroots labor of love. There are no paid staff. No professional editors or book designers. The owners make no profit from the publication of Calaca titles. We do it because of our love for our community and the need to have our stories told.

Answer (Patrick Durgin, Kenning Editions): I founded my press (Kenning Editions) for several reasons. It began in 1998 as a journal, or “newsletter” as I called it. The first goal was publish at least three generations of authors working from, in my curatorial zeal I envisioned as, a resonant set of impulses, without reinforcing generational hierarchies that form within practices that are similarly motivated. The second goal was to challenge these authors to publish their writing under the sign of “progressive social discourse,” taking, initially, Williams’ statement regarding finding (or not) “the news” in poems, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” The third goal was to transgress geographic boundaries (as I had hoped to defang hierarchical/generational boundaries and also those of staid discourses). To some extent I wanted to transgress linguistic boundaries by publishing work in translation. Since 2006, the press has devoted itself to publishing single volumes (paperback books, occasional chapbooks), essentially under the same premises. I know personally I felt alienated by the creative writing industry’s lockdown on certain circuits of literary legacy-making, and wished to remain resolutely independent of this industry, to circumvent it knowing that doing so would expedite the fulfillment of these particular goals.

I saw some of this happening elsewhere, and continue to, but not often in this specific combination. At the time, Tinfish, Situation, Tripwire, Chain, and others were treading this ground, often with much better results. With the move to producing books instead of a newsletter, I felt existing presses were doing rather poorly by the criteria I had set myself (and against which it is unfair and absurd to evaluate them). The most vivid exception might be Tinfish. I’m interested in how Chain has done something similar with their Chain Links series, though, again, their goals are only comparable, not identical. In any event, the needs to be met are set by the actor-participant, which is a defining structural principle of independent literary publishing, if “independent” has any meaning left. And on that count, most every small press I know is a beacon.

Answer (Willie Perdomo, Cypher Books): Cypher Books was created out of necessity. In her essay,”The Function of the Small Press,” Cynthia Ozick says that the value of small presses is that they “concentrate on making room.” We make room for voices that are ignored, marginalized out of ignorance, fear and comfortable marketing, or excluded from the general publishing conversation.  When I presented the idea for an imprint to Rattapallax, I knew that I wanted to attract poets who had not been published (in Suheir Hammad’s case it had been almost a decade since she published) but had dedicated readerships and audiences, who were original and fearless. My first thought was to call Lisa Simmons, who I have received most of my professional publishing knowledge from (as well as from the literary agent, Marie D. Brown) and who I asked to be our Publisher.  Lisa is passionate about our mission and as you can see from the absolutely brilliant production of our titles, she’s doing a great job.

Cypher authors either do away with the restrictions of performance and spoken poetry definitions or completely own them.  They have been recognized and acclaimed on each end of the reductive spectrum that is the page/stage debate.  They are risk takers, unique in voice, personal and political, formalistic and free, but refuse to be pinned into a corner. breaking poems by Suheir Hammad was a big book for us.  It was a poet’s departure in style and the ultimate artistic risk, the ultimate “cypher,” if you will.  It won the Arab-American Book Award and the American Book Award (yes, we rock on both ends of the hyphen).

First books are hard to get published–we have three first books on our list of five titles. Cypher takes chances on new voices. We published Tarnish & Masquerade by Roger Bonair-Agard and we sold out before we could reach the bookstore. (We plan on publishing his sophomore effort, Gully, in Fall 2010 as part of our fifth anniversary). Rachel McKibbens is as hardcore as it gets. Her work personifies Truth and Beauty and her first book, Pink Elephant, just made the SPD Bestseller List. Then we have Up Jump the Boogie (Spring 2010) by John Murillo who has made the smooth transition from slam stage to academy hall, and is just as comfortable and confident in each camp. John’s book is epic. It comes with a foreword by Martín Espada and glowing endorsements from Junot Díaz, Yusef Koumanyakaa and Kimiko Hahn. Again, the necessary voices are what count at Cypher Books.

Most presses seem to have discriminating tastes and are very exclusive. We have a mission, of course, but we wouldn’t turn our back on a poet just because she comes from the Language Poets, is fond of writing flarf, or is a sonneteer. Yusef recently asked us to take a look at the work of a famous street poet from Chicago.  I told him to send the manuscript.  If said poet has the grits, Cypher Books will try to serve them. When I came up with the name for the press I did a brief survey of friends and fellow writers and asked them, “What comes to your mind when you hear Cypher Books?” Paul Beatty, poet and novelist, had the following reply, “A clandestine room where people with 190 IQs are decoding government secrets and rapping during the lunch break.”  Word. That’s what I had in mind, sin government secrets, but you get the drift.

Comments (5)

  • On November 10, 2009 at 6:59 pm Momotombo Press wrote:

    Thank you for including Calaca Press in this roster of Indy publishers. Of work they’ve put out, I especially enjoyed the bilingual journal they put out a few years ago, guest-edited by Manuel Velez. The cover art on that volume was stunning.

    Also, Barbara: I wasn’t aware of Cypher Books until you mentioned them over on your blog a few months ago. Up Jump the Boogie, I think, falls in that category of “long-anticipated” book. John Murillo inaugurated PALABRA PURA here in Chicago back in January. I love his work.

    • On November 16, 2009 at 4:29 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

      HI Francisco, thanks. Yes Calaca is very cool. They just (last year) inaugurated the Raul Salinas chapbook prize, and I believe they announced their first winner a few weeks (months?) ago. I read Tomas Riley’s mahcic and this was really very good.

      As for Cypher publishing John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie, I am hearing many positive things about his work and look forward to the book (his first, no?).

  • On November 15, 2009 at 10:40 pm evie wrote:

    barbara jane,

    i’m happy to see your post — always happy to see a spotlight on small and independent presses! i have now published two chapbooks and a full-length collection with small presses and have had great experiences in each case. i also buy from small presses frequently.

    this makes me think of a conversation i had recently with a poet-friend. we were talking about fred moten’s recent (and fabulous!) book, *hughson’s tavern,* which was published by leroy, a small press run by renee gladman. my friend made the point that you wouldn’t just stumble onto moten’s book, i think because it’s not going to be on bookstore shelves and because leroy doesn’t have a strong presence on the web. but my thought was: well, what percentage of new poetry books are going to be found on bookstore shelves these days? poetry sells by word of mouth — you hear (read) about it and go and look for it on the web. if the publisher isn’t online, there’s always spd’s website or sites for other indie bookstores (and the book distributor sites are the ones most book buyers would check first, i imagine).

    anyway, that’s one reason why i appreciate what you’re doing with your blogs here: creating some “word of mouth” (word of blog?) for some books that you believe other readers should know about. as a recipient of your generosity, i thank you — and i will continue to look for opportunities to do the same for others’ books (see above, re: *hughson’s tavern*!).

    peace.

    • On November 16, 2009 at 4:35 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

      Hi Evie, Thanks for your comment. Yes I think you are right, that many indie published books do not hit bookstores in a big way, and that online (via word of blog! I like that…) is the way these books find circulation. Also, I *heart* SPD, which I am so glad is local. Their open houses (readings, food, and book sales) are fabulous events. The first time I stepped into their amazingly stocked warehouse (?) I was in awe. It’s like being in a candy store.

  • On November 16, 2009 at 7:56 pm Joelle Biele wrote:

    Thanks for this– Makes me think of Gwendolyn Brooks a bit & Third World Press–

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, November 6th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.