Margaret Bashaar on chapbook publishing with Hyacinth Girl Press

How do you define “chapbook”?

For the purposes of Hyacinth Girl Press a chapbook is a cohesive collection of up to 30 pages of poetry, ribbon bound. That’s it.

You released your first chapbook from Hyacinth Girl Press in February 2011 and you write on HGP’s about page that you consider yourself a “feminist press” and are interested in “topics such as radical spiritual experiences, creation/interpretation of myth through a feminist lens, and science. We think outerspace, in particular, is pretty darn cool.” I think starting a micro-feminist is pretty darn cool, given the VIDA count, the general statistics about women authors being published, and the small number of other chapbook presses that publish women exclusively—Dancing Girl Press and you, come immediately to mind. What made you decide to start Hyacinth Girl Press?

I love publishing. I love bringing poetry that is not mine into the world. Honestly, I can’t recall if the VIDA count came out before or after I conceptualized HGP, but it did have an influence on me.  Look, I love men. Some of my favorite people on this planet are men. I’m married to one. I am raising a tiny one. Two of my very best friends in all the universe are men. This doesn’t mean that they are not disproportionately represented in the poetry world. I don’t publish exclusively women by policy, but I will admit I am drawn to women’s poetry more so than to men’s poetry. Perhaps it is a sense of shared experience, perhaps it is a bias that I’m carrying with me, or perhaps it is that the female voice resonates with me more. I will admit that to date I have only accepted one chapbook by a male poet, and it’s actually a collaborative chapbook with a female poet.

I guess when I decided to start Hyacinth Girl Press I saw a bit of what I liked being published here, a bit there, but there was no press that I felt truly captured the kind of poetry I loved and at the same time embraced the beauty of the chapbook as an art object in the way I am striving to with Hyacinth Girl Press. I deeply respect Kristy Bowen and her work with Dancing Girl Press. I own any number of the titles she has published and I absolutely love the work that she does. At the same time I feel like she and I, while we do have some author cross-over, have different tastes and different styles, both as editors and as artists/book-makers.

Other presses I have huge, huge respect for artistically, editorially, and otherwise are Blood Pudding Press, Greying Ghost Press, Bateau Press, and Flying Guillotine Press. Every one of them has inspired me in some way and I owe a lot to the editors of each.

You say in an interview on Menacing Hedge “In many spiritual traditions, to know a thing’s name is to have understanding of and power over that thing. There is a certain claim of recognition that comes with naming something or someone…As a poet I do see naming as something that is very powerful, but also potentially limiting.” Can you talk about the origin and inspiration behind the name of Hyacinth Girl Press?

The first poem I read that made me say “That. I want to do that,” was T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I read in class on the sly in 9th grade while everyone else was reading a sonnet or something.  I mean, I’d read and written poetry before, but this was the moment when I realized I wanted to be a poet. The Hyacinth Girl is a character in The Waste Land:

“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence

The hyacinth girl seemed to me to be this beautiful, youthful, ephemeral character – but not referenced again – she fades into the rest of the poem. These lines stayed with me, though, and I was left wondering who she was. Then, as I began reading more about feminist poetry (in particular reading Alicia Ostriker’s Writing Like a Woman) and then a few years later came to the decision to start my own press, I realized that I could, in a way, tell the rest of the story of this hyacinth girl, by giving that name to my press. Any one of the women I publish could be the hyacinth girl – beautiful, full of intelligence and life, full of something more than that brief moment of charming the speaker in Eliot’s poem.

I actually have a tattoo of a hyacinth on my thigh because of this press. Apparently I’m pretty serious.

In that same interview, you also say, “I was very interested in poetry as a shamanistic practice, the poem as invocation or spell.” Besides in your own poetry, does this manifest in the work HGP publishes?

I try not to push my own ideas of what a poem is on anyone else’s poetry. However, Crystal J Hoffman’s chapbook Sulfur Water has definite hints of poem as spell throughout, and I would say that Dana Guthrie Martin’s In the Space Where I Was certainly has a chant-like quality to it. Susan Slaviero’s work is full of echoes of the esoteric, with poems about tarot and fairy tales. Niina Pollari’s Book Four also leaves me feeling as though I have been transformed in some way that is beyond my immediate understanding, and isn’t that what a spell does in the end?

In your Dutrope interview last year on the ideal submission, you write “Make me need your poetry. In THAT way” and that other additional evaluations include asking yourself “Would I give my last cupcake to this manuscript?” Many poets and readers know the head-over-heals feeling of falling in love with a chapbook of poetry. Have you given any thought to what makes that happen for you “in THAT way”?

I love reading poems aloud – if your poem reads aloud well, that certainly helps. I also seem to appreciate a certain amount of yearning in poetry, I think. Yeah, that’s not particularly helpful. I know. Voice is important, too. A strong voice, fresh imagery, and the absolute need to get to know your speaker. I also tend to like poetry that goes beyond the familiar world, poetry that challenges typical associations. I feel like I am doing an absolutely terrible job at answering this question.

Can you describe a few more of your recent titles and what made you fall in love with them?

The first chapbook I published in 2012 was Susan Yount’s Catastrophe Theory. I read, I think, the very first poem in the chapbook and was so incredibly overwhelmed that I ran to Facebook immediately (like you do) and posted a cryptic update about the incredibility of what I was reading. What made me feel like that about Susan’s work is the amazingly gutsy voice she has. Susan herself is a truly amazing and strong woman and that absolutely comes across in her work. Susan holds nothing back, but at the same time is so incredibly careful with her craft, and I really think that’s a balance that not many poets are able to hit.

Dana Guthrie Martin’s In the Space Where I Was is one of those manuscripts that I read the whole way through the very first time I sat down with it. The experience of reading her chapbook left me feeling like I had crawled inside Dana’s subconscious, fallen asleep, and had very vivid dreams if that makes any sense at all. It probably doesn’t. Just read the chapbook.

You note that you’re trying to keep your chapbooks physical. I love the physicality of well-made chapbooks. They can be an art form in themselves. Can you tell me a little about HGP’s production process? How do you turn an electronic submission into a real book?

Oh! This is where I get to brag about how incredibly amazing Sarah Reck is!  Okay, so I can’t do layout for, um, anything. I mean, I could put something together in Publisher, but it would be passable, not beautiful. Sarah Reck, who is a dear dear friend I’ve known since we were in the second grade, volunteered to be my layout editor for HGP when I first announced I was going to publish chapbooks. Sarah is nothing short of a Godsend.

I send the manuscript to Sarah, Sarah does some sort of magic that I don’t completely understand, and sends me back a pdf of the manuscript. I send the pdf to the poet, and we go through as many corrections and proofs as we need to for the poet, Sarah, and me to all be happy. Then I print the manuscript on my industrial printer. I outsource the printing of the covers for the time being, but my husband and I are talking about purchasing a nice color printer soon, so hopefully in the next 6 months I will be doing all of the printing myself. Then I spend hours folding all the chapbooks and binding them with ribbons and stamping them.

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 HGP’s production capabilities?

I get submissions that don’t follow my guidelines sometimes (usually the length restriction), but as soon as I realize my guidelines aren’t being followed I stop reading and reject the manuscript, citing the lack of guideline-following. I’m actually trying to expand what HGP does creatively – Crystal J Hoffman’s chapbook is going to have a color page in the interior as well as a number of translations, including one in Arabic script, and another one of 2012’s chapbooks, Lisa Cicarello’s Sometimes there are travails is also probably going to have some interesting and different design elements. I enjoy a challenge. Hopefully Sarah does, too. So, no – I’ve never rejected a manuscript simply because I felt like it would be difficult to put together physically.

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

I feel like what I do is so far outside of big publishing that it really is not terribly effected by larger companies. Amazon and all the issues therein don’t affect me. Ebooks aren’t of concern to me right now. Being tiny can be wonderful.

I do think, though, that more and more people are looking to smaller presses as potential publishers for their work because of the problems they witness in big publishing. So it’s possible I’ve gotten more submissions and/or purchases because of what is perceived by some as the beginning of the end for large company publishing. Now, I have a good friend who works for one of the big five and could talk about that idea in a lot more detail and more accurately, so I’m not going to run my mouth and ultimately end up sticking my foot in.

Small presses tend to have small budgets. How do you manage HGP’s fiscal income each year? Do you dream that one day you’ll be able to give up your day job and do HGP fulltime?

I put my own money into HGP to start. Now the chapbooks pretty much cover themselves. I don’t think I could ever make a living wage off of HGP, but that doesn’t really bother me. At the size I’m at right now, I’m able to do the editing and reading and promoting on my own with huge help from my layout and design editor, Sarah Reck. I like it that way. If the press ever starts to become too big for me to handle with help from Sarah, I’ll probably scale back rather than add staff.

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

Love what you are doing. Don’t ever accept a chapbook you don’t love. If love is not involved, just don’t do it. Love love love.

You’ve had two chapbooks published, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt Press, 2009). Can you tell me a little about each and where they might be found

Barefoot and Listening is currently out of print – Tilt is defunct, sadly. I have three copies in my possession if you’re desperate to read, and Caliban’s in Pittsburgh has a couple of copies. Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel is in print, and it’s the one I would want people to read, anyway. I wrote it over the span of about 5 years and it’s about a real hotel located in Windber, Pennsylvania. The Midway is now a private residence owned by my dear friend, Blair Murphy, but he holds arts events there from time to time, and there is a group of artists, which I am a part of, who all work and create there together.  My chapbook chronicles 4 characters who at once live at the hotel and exist in these sort of parallel imaginary lives as figures from the Romantic era. You can get it here.

What current projects are you working on?

I’m in the editing phase of a chapbook based on The Ladder of Divine Ascent that I co-wrote with Lauren Eggert-Crowe. Lauren and I “met” because she submitted her chapbook, The Exhibit to HGP which I will be publishing later this year. We didn’t meet in person, though, until well after we had drafted our chapbook. I’m also working on what will probably end up being a chapbook-length collection with Kelly Boyker about a character we developed together. As for writing all on my own, I’m working on expanding the Midway poems and slowly slowly on a series of poems on saints from multiple traditions. I’m also working on getting 6 more chapbooks out into the world in the next 6 months and picking out the final line-up for HGP’s third year.

Number of chapbooks you own: Over 100

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Over 125 – I’ll admit that I don’t tend to read very many electronic chapbooks (I’m trying to get over this bias – I swear!), but I DO try to purchase ever single chapbook I’m interested in reading, which is why I own over 100 chapbooks.

Number of chapbooks you’ve published: 7 – though it might be 8 by the time this interview is posted.

Ways you promote other poets: I run readings and bring my poets into town for those, I try to table at the AWP conference whenever I can afford to, I talk about them and link to them on the internet whenever I get the chance, and, you know, I publish their chapbooks.

Where you spend your poetry earnings: More chapbooks!

Favorite flavors of cupcake: There’s a lovely little cupcake shop in Pittsburgh called Dozen that makes a cosmopolitan cupcake and good god it’s the best cupcake flavor I’ve ever had. I also like vanilla cupcakes with vanilla frosting. Vanilla is so underrated.

Inspirations and influences: Maria Sabina, Yusef Komunyakaa, my dad, Anne Sexton, Dadaism, Dr. Michael Dennison, typewriters, haunted spaces, documentaries on theoretical physics, lives of the saints/bodhisattvas, the Curiosity Mars Rover

Residence:  Pittsburgh, PA and sometimes a haunted hotel in Windber, PA

Job and education: I have a BA in Psychology with a minor in Creative Writing. I work as an account recovery analyst for a company called CDR Associates. Yup.

Bio: Margaret Bashaar’s second chapbook, Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel, was published by Blood Pudding Press in 2011. Her poetry can also be found in journals such as Caketrain, elimae, RHINO, New South, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere. She co-hosted and worked on The TypewriterGirls Poetry Cabaret with Crystal J Hoffman and currently edits Hyacinth Girl Press and occasionally runs a poetry reading here and there. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband, her son, and far too many typewriters, which she firmly believes are haunted.

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    September 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    What a wonderful, insightful and informal interview!

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