Risa Denenberg on supportive poetry community and the editorial work of a press

You are the editor and co-founder with Mary Meriam of Headmistress Press, a press that publishes chapbooks. You are also the author of three full-length books and the three chapbooks blinded by clouds (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014), What We Owe Each Other (The Lives You Touch Publications, 2013), and In My Exam Room (The Lives You Touch Publications, 2014). Talk about what makes a cohesive chapbook regarding the theme, narrative arc, storytelling, and sequencing of poems. 

My three chapbooks were written before I started reading chapbook-length manuscripts for Headmistress Press, for our annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest. And going back further, if I can detour here a bit, my first set of connected poems were written after reading my best friend’s journals. Jon died of AIDS in 1993, and I took possession of his private journals to safeguard them from his family. I really didn’t intend to read his journals, or at least gave great thought to whether or not I should, but I finally did immerse myself in them several years after his death. What I read left me devastated, to put it mildly, even knowing my own tendency to journal mainly at the most heartbreaking moments of my own life. And so I wrote. Although I would call this set of poems somewhat primitive, a number of my “Jon poems” were published by William Slaughter at his site, Mudlark, in 2001. Mudlark is notable for publishing collections of related poems, and Slaughter is an amazing champion of poets whose work comes from a deep emotional—at times personal—place.

My first chapbook, what we owe each other, published in 2013, was a larger collection of the Jon poems. It was published by O.P.W. Fredericks, a gay, retired nurse whose press, The Lives You Touch Publications, features poetry about health and healing, often by poets who worked in health care settings. In consultation, Fredericks and I decided to separate out some of the poems I had sent to him into a separate chapbook, In My Exam Room, published in 2014. Fredericks was a very hands-on editor, which I appreciated greatly at the time. Working with him, I learned important skills such as how to best order poems in a collection; how to leave out my “darlings”; and, importantly, when to argue for a position I felt strongly about when differing opinions arose.

In 2014, Margaret Bashaar published my third chapbook, blinded by clouds, through her small and wonderful, Hyacinth Girl Press. I had imagined that these poems were orphans, certainly not associated narratively. In this experience, I learned how poems may also belong together through voice or style.

These experiences prepared me to read manuscripts for our contest. Mary Meriam and I chose the chapbook format knowing that many of our books would be first publications for our poets, and that the poems in books we decided to publish would likely be focused on our mission: “to promote and market lesbian-identified poetry by publishing books of poetry by lesbian/bi/trans poets.”  Meriam has strong credentials as an editor, having published the online Lavender Review for almost a decade at the point we started Headmistress Press. She also produces all of our books, and I’ve relied heavily on her acumen and judgment regarding the editorial work that I participate in. But I have learned, over the 4 contests we’ve run, how to read others’ work with a critical eye. It has been the case that most of the manuscripts that are submitted to Headmistress have “themes” or “narrative” structures that connect the poems.

Your editorial work enabled you to “read others’ work with a critical eye,” and your interactions with editors taught you to “how to leave out” your “darlings.” Talk about the self-reflexive work of the poet-editor/editor-poet. In what ways does literary and editorial work sustain, inspire, and energize creative work? How does the community of poets support and empower, both the editor and the poet? Why do this work, right now, where you are in your life?

To say where I am in my life, I should first clarify: I’m a 68-year-old nurse practitioner who lives and works in a small rural community. But also this: I’ve read and written poems since grade school. I do consider myself a poet, although owning that identity was a long time coming. So you might wonder: Why would an insecure poet who happens to be an introvert and has a full-time job in health care step into the role of editor and publisher of books of poetry by lesbians? It’s a small niche market, and producing, publicizing, selling, and supporting poets is an enormous amount of work for scarce monetary reward. But I have grown in confidence as a poet with each of the poetry roles I’ve assumed. As reader, reviewer, publisher, editor and poet, I like to think I’m essentially doing the same thing using different tactics; that is, I’m connecting poems (my favorites, my own, poems of poets I review or publish) with readers.

I’ve learned that the best way to belong to a community of poets is to support other poets. I found many ways to do this before stepping into the role of editor/publisher. But I would not have had the audacity to think I was capable of those roles without connecting with Mary (Meriam), who has such passion for the project of publishing lesbian poetry and art. How could I say no? And to tell the truth, it’s not different than with providing healthcare, you learn by doing.

Talk about Headmistress Press and publishing. What advice would you offer to anyone who seeks to get a small chapbook press started? What strategies do you offer for an operating budget? What insights and opportunities should a fledgling editor consider as they begin? What have been some of your favorite moments as an editor?

Mary (Meriam) and I founded Headmistress Press in 2013 with the mission of promoting and publishing lesbian-identified books of poetry, with an emphasis on publishing chapbooks by lesbian/bi/and trans poets. By that time, Mary had been publishing the on-line journal Lavender Review for several years, featuring poetry and art that would appeal to a lesbian audience. Her initial impetus in founding a press was to publish her own work; like many lesbian poets, she had experienced that most journals were not interested in publishing lesbian-focused work, regardless of how accomplished the craft.

Mary designs and produces the books—and they are amazingly beautiful books—and my roles include bookkeeping, communications, promotions and sales. I staff a booth at AWP every year, and attend as many poetry events and book fairs for the press as I can. We are two editors with quite different temperaments and aesthetics; interestingly, this has taught me how to articulate what I love, and how to fight for it. My favorite moments as an editor have been when I really can see the hidden gold in a manuscript and can work with a poet to make the work really shine.

It is entirely feasible to start and run a small press these days. The main cost of publishing is, well, publishing the books. With print-on-demand publishing (there are several good options), there is no cost in getting books into the hands of readers. A small amount of start-up money (we started with a $500 loan) can get things up and running if you have the skills. In addition to being editors, someone needs to mistress desk-top publishing, and someone has to feel comfortable with handling the business end. We’ve managed to keep the press running with just the two of us.

These days, a press can pull in several thousand dollars in donations with a strong online campaign; we did an Indiegogo campaign in our second year, and that seeded our first contest. Rita Mae Reese joined us to produce our annual sets of Lesbian Poet Trading Cards, which have been a rewarding sideline. We set up an online store, sell books to our poets at a slight markup, and sell at events. Of course, I’m talking about running a small press on a shoestring budget; there has never been money to spare for salaries. Running our press is both a labor of love and an enormous amount of work. But I guess I’ve already said that!

How do you define chapbook? A small work of like-minded poems.

What makes a good chapbook? One that is assembled with sufficient care and craft to induce the reader to read it in one sitting, leaving her with the fervent desire to read it again. There is this joy with the best chapbooks—their concentrated effect can be mesmerizing.

What chapbook presses are inspiring you these days? My go-to chapbook presses are: Hyacinth Girl Press; YesYes Books; Seven Kitchens Press; Glass Poetry Press; Omnidawn; Sibling Rivalry Press; Bone & Ink Press; and (of course) Headmistress Press.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted and inspired you the most? Ones that come to mind immediately are: What Is Not Beautiful (Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Glass Chapbook Series, 2018); Boyishly, (Tanya Olson, YesYes Books, 2013); Portrait of the Alcoholic (Kaveh Akbar, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017); and Corporal Muse (Alison Joseph, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018).

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? When I notice that I can’t stop writing what feels like the same poem again and again, I think I may have a chapbook and start building on that momentum.

What’s next for you? I have a manuscript that I’m shopping around right now, that feels somewhat cohesive in tone and story, but has some reach beyond its core. What I’m doing now is tackling a section of it at a time, to see if maybe I have a truly cohesive chapbook. It’s like working backwards, but with similar challenges.

Number of chapbooks you own: More than 50.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: With the exception of the 30+ chapbooks we’ve published through Headmistress Press, I’ve read most of the chapbooks that I own, although some are still in the “to read” pile.  Also, I don’t think I’ve read any chapbooks that I hadn’t purchased. They’re inexpensive, don’t take up much room, and it’s so important to support other poets by buying their work.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Is there a chapbook community? I’d love to join. Oh, I get it. Here is the chapbook community and I am expressing my commitment by answering these questions. Also by buying more chapbooks than I have time to read.

Your chapbook credo: Buy them. Read them. Review them. Write them.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Chapbook earnings?

Residence: I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state in a small house overlooking Discovery Bay, where, on a clear day, I can see Mount Baker in the distance. In other words, a perfect poet’s perch.

Job: Nurse Practitioner

Chapbook education: Reading, writing, editing, reviewing. In that order over a couple of decades.

Chapbook Bio: Risa Denenberg is the author of what we owe each other (The Lives You Touch Publications, 2013), In My Exam Room (The Lives You Tough Publications, 2014), and blinded by clouds (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2014).

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Sarah Stockton
    November 24, 2018 at 5:41 pm

    I appreciated the insights offered in this interview very much. Thanks to both of you.

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