The Chapbook Interview: Kristy Bowen on Chapbook Publishing

You started Dancing Girl Press in 2004 and you write on DGP’s about page that “I wanted to be able to publish the sort of work I thought needed a berth. To promote and propagate women’s writing in particular, which in the small press world, still only accounts for less than a quarter of all published.” Less than a quarter. That’s so sad. Do you feel during these eight years of DPG you’ve been able to add some berth by working to change the statistics for women writers?

While a lot of presses and publications have looked at the VIDA count and general statistics about the dearth of women authors being published, and have responded by making more of an effort to bridge the gap, just as many, and perhaps more, are continuing on as usual. I do feel like dancing girl  does a lot toward  making women poets part of the  general conversation that is American poetry, even if other entities are still falling short.

You said in an interview, “I can’t really think of anything bad about chapbooks. They’re an immediate way to get a small amount of focused work out there in the world. Cheap to buy, and can be read in one sitting. All good things.” I love that—immediate, focused, cheap, readable in one sitting. Is this why you decided to start a press that published the genre of poetry chapbooks, when you could’ve just as easily published anything (e.g. short story collections, novels, memoirs, art books, print ‘zines, etc.)?

At the time, poetry was really the only thing I was interested in publishing (we’ve since done more zine and visual art oriented projects, as well as hybrid poetry/prose and text/image collections). At the time, the ease of making and financing chapbooks was very much part of the appeal.   In the years since, POD technology has made longer book projects a  lot more feasible, but I’m still very much attracted to the simplicity of chapbooks, both as a physical object and as a means of disseminating content.  I think as publishing moves further and further away from paper and the handmade-ness of books and book objects, the more I move toward them.

You write that the goal of DPG was to “To publish poets who were emerging in the morass of contemporary poetry, poets who fell through the cracks between the mainstream and avant-garde. Poets who wrote interesting and surprising work that varied from the mundane. Poets who employed hybridity and collage. Poets whose work was like nothing else.” Beyond your goal to publish such work, what else influences your decision making?

I tend to gravitate toward collections that are tightly woven projects, where every poem within the manuscript works toward a concept and has a reason for being there.  There is always a lot of discussions about “project books” vs. “mix –tape” books and the pitfalls/benefits of using those approaches to guide a book-length manuscript. But I feel like chapbooks, because of their length, lend themselves very much forward the former. While both writing/reading an entire 50+ page collection of poems about X, Y, or Z might prove overkill or tiresome, a slender 20 page chap might be just the perfect length.

Many poets and readers know the head-over-heals feeling of falling in love with a chapbook of poetry. You do this every summer when DPG’s submission doors open. Have you given any thought to what makes that happen for you?

I love quirkiness.  Books that do interesting things in interesting ways  So far this year, we’ve published a meditation on academic gender politics featuring Hello Kitty (Sandra Faulkner),  a book of found poems culled from vintage texts (Mary Ann Abbott), a chapbook full of math problem poems  (Emileigh Barnes), a grammatical textbook inspired series (Gillian Devereux), and a strange little Alice–like illustrated book by Brenda Sieczkowski, And this is only a few of our titles.  I remember reading the Hello Kitty book in the submission pile and nearly hopping out of my chair with excitement because it was just so weird and absolutely wonderful and I’d never seen anything like it.

Have you ever had to pass on a submission that you loved because what was submitted wouldn’t “work” as a chapbook or it was beyond DPG’s production capabilities?

I try to take on whatever projects I fall in love with, which means we do tend to publish a lot of books.    I decided a while back that I would issue as many projects as I could manage given time and financial constraints.  I feel like the first couple of years we were publishing, the books were like this tiny trickle into the poetry world, but as we grew, it was more like a steady stream.  I feel like the more good books we put out in the world, the more people take notice of our work and get interested in what we are doing.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across something that I really loved and couldn’t somehow fit it into the publication schedule down the line  or make it work somehow.  Length and size are always a consideration, so I’ve had to explore alternative binding options on a couple projects that didn’t fit well into the usual paper size/saddle stapling model, but they turned out well.

Since you started DGP, has there been anything new in the publishing industry that has been destructive to the art of chapbook presses?

I feel like the rise of the internet actually has SAVED chapbook presses, making them easier to sell, easier to market, easier to distribute than they have ever been before. With a move toward digital content, I feel like chapbooks, which in many ways, have persisted because of their handmade-ness, the physicality of them, and as such, are actually in a better place than they were even ten years ago.

Regarding print verse online journals, you said in an interview, “I’m still a bit fonder of online publications than I am of print, since the distribution possibilities and immediacy are much better.” Have you ever thought about publishing echapbooks with Dancing Girl Press?

I’m very much a paper fetishist and a collector of ephemera, so dgp’s actual physical books won’t be going anywhere on my watch.  I have considered possibly issuing free pdf versions of our out of print titles to keep that work available.  Or maybe taking on other projects that lend themselves well to an online format (moreso than paper).  One great thing about physical chapbooks is their collectability. As for journals and literary periodicals, I feel like they lend themselves better to online media than print (there are a few exceptions of beautifully designed lit mags like Forklift, OH, but most seem focused more on delivering content and less on being a collectible book object.)

Since Dancing Girl Press’s debut, you’ve published more than 100 titles by lots great poets from the Chicago area, from the Midwest, and “younger poets in my own generation.” You’ve also grown and now have a production assistant (your sister, right?), a few volunteers, and a studio space in the Fine Arts Building. What’s the key to DGP’s success?

I think at the same time that we’ve grown, I’ve also tightened up the workflow and organization that I can do more of it myself and more efficiently . My sister moved away a while back, so mostly it’s been just me and occasional friends willing to help me out with folding and stapling when things get hectic (they might be convinced this is the only way they get to hang out with me at all since I’m always in the studio.).  Mostly I’m sort of a complete control freak, though so I like working by myself on the day to day stuff, like reading submissions, layout and design, etc.

Small presses tend to have small budgets. With a budge of $100/chapbook for production costs, how do you manage DGP’s fiscal income each year? Do you dream that one day you’ll be able to give up your day job in an academic library and do DGP fulltime?

Luckily, most of our titles pay for themselves within a couple of months of publication.  We do occasionally have slower selling titles (we publish a number  poets who are just beginning to make their way in the poetry world and haven’t built a following yet.)  Luckily, those books are balanced out by other books that sell like hotcakes.  Sometimes, a book will start out slow and then sell like crazy down the line.  As for month to month operations, some months are better than others, but we usually pull in enough to stay outfitted in cardstock and toner, finance new projects, and make the studio rent.   It’d be nice to be able to make enough to quit my day job, but I would probably never make enough to cover living expenses (which are sorta high in Chicago) and the full benefits I’d be giving up, so I’m probably not doing it anytime soon.

In a couple of interviews you noted the name for DGP was inspired by a French poster of a can-can dancer and in other interviews you note that you have a strong proclivity for the gothic (especially the Midwest gothic), horror, and the Victorian. How do these find manifestation in Dancing Girl Press?

I think, in with my proclivities for strange and quirky books, falls a proclivity for books that have some sort of darkness to them.  This isn’t true of everything we publish, but probably a vast majority of it.  I suppose it’s probably only natural that the elements I feel pervading my own work are reflected in the things I choose to publish.   I can think of a couple books, Kristen Sanders’ Orthorexia and Erin Mullikin’s Strategies for the Bromidic that would be considered somewhat dark, though in very different ways.  A history and research buff, I also tend to gravitate toward things that are historically based, books like J. Hope Stein’s [talking doll;] (about Einstein) and your own She Who Loves Her Father (about Cleopatra).

You recently spoke at AWP in a chapbook publishing roundtable with other editors of chapbook presses. Was there something from that roundtable discussion that you wish every poet and writer had been there to hear?

I tend to get nervous and worry through most speaking engagements then block them out, but I remember it was a great panel.  I was sitting next to Andrew Wessels from The Offending Adam which makes these amazing little chapvelopes filled with booklets and broadsides. I know we talked a bit about the process of publication, from the point where a manuscript is read and accepted on down to the day it’s officially released. A lot of people were surprised at the smallness of an operation that produces so many books.

Do you have advice for a chapbook press start-up?

I think the most important thing is to start small and simply and allow things to grow.  Around the time I was putting out the first chapbook, I was taking a small press publishing class.  People had committed to various sorts of projects, lit journals (my own project was a print annual of wicked alice ), zines, magazines, etc.  Some of them had these really amazingly detailed and ambitious (and expensive) business plans that were just not going to happen unless they won the lottery and could employ a staff of 10 or so people. Needless to say, pretty much none of the proposals actually manifested themselves outside the classroom.

You’ve had nine chapbooks published and two books (with a third forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2013), as well as a broadside, zines, postcards, and collages. What current projects are you working on?

I usually have a few different writing projects under way at any given time.  I just put together a zine/chapbook project for dgp release (Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan),  finished and began submitting a shortish narrative manuscript of prose poems (beautiful, sinister), and placed a small chapbook of epistolary poems that will eventually be published as an e-chap from Sundress Publications (IHATEYOUJAMESFRANCO). In the works are some poems that are part of a box project that will include art prints, letters, and booklets, as well as an art related series of poems that will be part of an interactive exhibit.   Also, a memoirish prosey thing about body image. I’ve also just started what seems to be a horror-esque prose poem series about road trips gone wrong and haunted hotels.

Number of chapbooks in your massive personal collection: I recently reintegrated them back into the general shelves, but when they were separate, it was about 4 shelves worth, so there were about 50 per shelf, so maybe 200?

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: There are a handful there I haven’t read yet that were eaten by the shelves before I got to them, so slightly less than 200.

Number of chapbooks you’ve published: It’s approaching 200 now total if you count the limited-edition stuff that isn’t in the current catalog.

Inspirations and influences: Plath and Sexton, Joseph Cornell, gothic novels, carnivals/sideshows, TS Eliot, horror films, diagrammatic things, postcards, ephemera, roadside motels, all things paper.

Residence:  Chicago

Job and education: writer/artist/editor, dancing girl press & studio
Library Assistant, Columbia College
MA – English Literature, Depaul University
MFA Poetry, Columbia College

Bio: A writer and visual artist, Kristy Bowen is the author of several book, chapbook, and zine projects, including shipwrecks of lake michigan, havoc, and in the bird museum.  She lives in Chicago, where she runs dancing girl press & studio.

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