The Unsung Heroes of the Poetry World
11 Poets on What it Takes to Run a Small Press
Throughout April—National Poetry Month—I read countless features on poetry, typically in the form of a list of poets doing revelatory work. As I read yet another that contained, to my mind, no surprises, my frequent itch to shift the conversation returned; instead of one more look at the heavy hitters of poetry, let’s turn attention to the workers, who are also poets, whose labor makes the reviews, events, reprints possible. Readers can find recent National Book Award finalists and winners, Whiting Award winners, and National Book Critics Circle finalists on their own.
Readers should have the opportunity to learn more about the unseen and crucial work that goes into publishing books of poetry. This matter is urgent, as we see in some cases quick turnover when new editors burn out and in other cases an administrative role overtakes a poet’s reputation as a brilliant thinker and writer in her own right. I am encouraged by recent articles from Jennifer Tamayo and Eileen Myles (Myles presented by Stephanie Young) that directly address labor and money (and more).
Ideas about labor and ethics represent the core of my thinking. Sometimes a dear friend makes an observation about my singularity of mind. Bullheaded productivity is in my blood. My dad was a Teamster for 22 years, until his factory announced preliminary plans for layoffs in 2010. Savvy, he found a new job before those plans took effect. By Christmas 2012, the factory was closed. Last month, Harold Abramowitz shared a Facebook post by Samuel Delany in which Delany states: “Work matters. Labor is wealth.” I believe this too.
I asked over two-dozen poets who are also editors, administrators, workers, interns, and/or volunteers the following four questions:
1. How many hours per week do you work for small press(es) or other poetry organization(s)? Of those hours, how many are paid? (Make a note if you are interning for college credit.)
2. What is the biggest challenge of this work for you?
3. How do your senior editors/admins or your authors make you feel appreciated?
4. What book or event that you’ve worked on are you most proud of?
Gathered below are answers from those who were able to respond on a short deadline about the labor that sustains small presses and other poetry organizations day-to-day. I chose to present this information in the context of a National Poetry Month just passed, and many voices are missing. I welcome more responses and plan to continue advocating for transparency in small press labor models.
How many hours per week do you work for small press(es) or other poetry organization(s)? Of those hours, how many are paid? (Make a note if you are interning for college credit.)
Sarah Gzemski (Noemi Press): I work as the Managing Editor of Noemi Press for about 10 to 20 hours per week (a rough estimate). I often feel as though I spend much more time than that thinking and worrying and hoping for the press—it’s always on my mind.
Suzi Garcia (Noemi Press): On average, I work about 5 to 15 hours a week with no pay.
Ann Starr (Upper Hand Press): 65 hours. None are paid. One: I’m the owner. Two: we are far from making any money.
Mia You (Poetry International Rotterdam): I should preface my response by saying that I quit my job, as Central Editor of Poetry International Rotterdam, last week. Poetry International is the largest poetry organization in the Netherlands; it operates an annual international poetry festival, alongside a year-round website and digital archive.
I was paid for two to three days of work per week (16 to 24 hours). On average, this meant that my salary, as the head editor of a relatively well-funded poetry organization, was approximately 1,100 euros per month. Until a couple months ago, when my daughter started school, all of this went into childcare.
In reality, I worked for Poetry International every day, in the evenings, on the weekends—I was the only person in the office fluent in English, and I was in charge of making sure new features went up on the website every week, either by creating features myself or (gratefully!) receiving them from our various country editors; maintaining and updating the extensive digital archive; and managing all the English-language (and, therefore, international) publicity and social media.
I also was asked to write the website’s yearly reports, in addition to application materials for future funding. The suggestion was that if I did this successfully, I might get paid an extra day per week starting 2017.
Ted Dodson (BOMB Magazine and Futurepoem): I’ve worked in and around the small press publishing world now for about six or seven years in various capacities, working for presses, magazines, and for ancillary nonprofits and technical assistance organizations. I currently work for two independent literary organizations, Futurepoem and BOMB Magazine. For Futurepoem, I work as their Books Editor, which entails basic copyediting as well as the broader editorial duties of reading manuscripts for potential publication, working directly with authors on their work, planning/hosting readings, etc. This work is mostly unpaid, though I do receive $300 per book that I copyedit, roughly two per year. Futurepoem work is spread sporadically through the year, so some weeks I may not do much but others I might dedicate 10-15 hours to the press. For BOMB, I work as their Director of Circulation and Distribution. This is my primary source of income, and I work a typical 40 hour week.
HR Hegnauer (freelance book and web designer): I work 30 to 40 hours per week. 80 percent-ish paid. Time and pay scale varies greatly.
Ana Paula (Belladonna* Collaborative & Bone Bouquet): On average, I work four hours per week—although it varies depending on whether we have a reading on a certain week, or if I need to pick up books or chaplets somewhere. The social media work is also daily, but doesn’t require too much effort personally. Unpaid, but I receive college credit for it.
Daniel Owen (Ugly Duckling Presse): While it varies from week to week, this past week I’ve spent approximately 53 hours working in a variety of capacities for/with UDP. Of those hours, 32 were paid, in my capacity as a manager at UDP (we haven’t been able to settle on an adequate job title, but my tasks roughly fall under the umbrella titles of publicity director and/or managing editor).
Kim Koga (1913 Press): I’m currently volunteering as co-managing editor for 1913 Press. I’ve taken a bit of a backseat since January since I have been going back to school and currently have an internship. When I am active, the work ranges from just an hour here and there, to many hours per week! It just depends on what we have going on. There is a lot of flexibility, I think, in the small press world, that is part of what makes it fun.
Lynn Melnick (VIDA Executive Board): On average, I do VIDA work probably 15 hours a week but that doubles (or more) during our busiest times. VIDA is an all-volunteer organization. We work for all women in literary arts but I think so many of us working for VIDA are poets because perhaps poets are more used to working our asses off for little/no compensation. I think there is a misconception that VIDA is some glossy entity with an office and salaries and a copy machine—but no. We run on a shoestring and we run on passion, I think. But the incredible thing is we all work remotely with each other in this symphony of unglamorous duties that miraculously achieves great things like the various counts and the development of a publishing platform I’m so proud to be a part of.
Sheila McMullin (VIDA Managing Editor and Intersectional Survey Team Lead): For VIDA: Women in Literary Arts I would say I work a range of 10 to 25 hours a week, maybe a little bit more during count season. All of this is volunteer. I am also a paid hire for Shout Mouse Press, a nonprofit writing program and publishing house.
What is the biggest challenge of this work for you?
Sarah Gzemski (Noemi Press): I do small press work because I believe it’s important, and the days that are most challenging for me are not when something goes wrong at the printer or when books don’t arrive where they’re supposed to, but days when my time and effort are disregarded. My job is largely making books happen and fulfilling requests, but when requests are presented as demands, or I am made to feel as though I don’t have the authority to say no, I wither.
Suzi Garcia (Noemi Press): I really love working with our authors. I’m proud of their work, and I’m proud of our designers and editors. I truly love the work we put out, and I think they come from important perspectives from thoughtful writers. I want to spend more time with their writing, and I want to spend more time promoting them. I think we all have ideas we want to implement, but I at least feel as though I am consistently letting down our authors and other editors by not spending more time and money on them.
Daniel Owen (Ugly Duckling Presse): In some ways, the biggest challenge is actually doing all of the various things I commit to (a problem of my own overcommitment, not properly thinking through how long things take, saying yes to too many projects that sound interesting, etc.). Another major challenge is making the time to focus on my own work. Although here I question the importance of “my own” work and its primacy in my imagination.
How do your senior editors/admins or your authors make you feel appreciated?
Sarah Gzemski (Noemi Press): The editors/publishers at Noemi are my biggest allies. They always tell me they appreciate me. They let me vent. They ask if I need help. They say thank you. Authors who make me feel appreciated also say thank you. They understand when sometimes I don’t email back for a few days—I hope they know I am always thinking about their books. I do feel appreciated most of the time.
Suzi Garcia (Noemi Press): My authors are patient with me, and that makes me really feel like they understand. They reach out to me, as an editor, as a writer, and as a person. Our editors have always valued my opinion and included me in discussions even when I was an assistant editor. They have mentored me and sent me opportunities. I often go to Carmen (Giménez Smith) for advice, both professionally and personally, and I consider Sarah a real friend.
Ann Starr (Upper Hand Press): By occasionally thanking me; by garnering readings and sales; by being very happy that their books are being published in the first place; by supporting my press in ways not directly related to their own books (offering to sell other Press authors’ books at their book fair appearances, for e.g.).
HR Hegnauer (freelance book and web designer): By simply saying “thank you.” This goes so far for me. Just being acknowledged that I’m working for them; that I’m not a machine, but an actual person making decisions on behalf of a person’s work, and that I care about that work.
Sheila McMullin (VIDA Managing Editor and Intersectional Survey Team Lead): Most of our communication happens via email. So, every once in awhile I’ll send my teams a “check-in” survey I made through Google Forms. It asks general questions about the workload and any concerns that might feel easier to address through a formal questionnaire. I also invite them to share some exciting news about their past week. So, when I do a recap email with the entire team cc’ed, I can anticipate and acknowledge issues, game plan strategy, as well as dish out good pieces of news about recent publications, job acceptances, vacations planned, new haircuts, whatever. This helps us get to know each other better and remember that we’re not computer screens. We can feel like pen pals a bit and have each other’s backs.
What book or event that you’ve worked on are you most proud of?
Suzi Garcia (Noemi Press): It may sound weird but I love our contest. We spend so much time on these entries, and we read carefully and debate and I’m incredibly, incredibly impressed by the caliber of entries. I’m really proud that such amazing and innovative writers think of us as a good home for their work, and I’m not surprised we end up picking up several books each time. It’s one of my favorite parts of the year, learning who our new authors are gonna be.
Ann Starr (Upper Hand Press): Clyde Doesn’t Go Outside is a book that a barista at my coffee shop had begun when his 7-year-old was born. He had given up on it until he found out that I was going into publishing. He had never published anything, but was clearly both talented and had a kooky point of view. I worked with him to complete it, going through many iterations of pictures and texts. It’s an unusual book and exquisite… Just what I want my press to turn out.
Mia You (Poetry International Rotterdam): Although my involvement was minimal, I love showing off the website’s “Trilingual Renshi” feature, organized and edited by Yasuhiro Yotsumoto. He wrote a trilingual, collaborative poem with Ming Di (another PI editor), Kim Hyesoon and Shuntaro Tanikawa (both former festival poets). Along the way, they all translated the poem into their respective languages, and in English with the help of Don Mee Choi, and wrote accompanying essays. Think about it: a poem recalling the end of the Second World War, written across Japanese, Korean, Chinese (and English), bringing together some of East Asia’s most influential voices. It’s truly incredible that this happened.
This is the kind of international, cross-cultural, multilingual project that Poetry International could foster more often and would be a great platform for. I really hope more of these projects will develop there.
HR Hegnauer (freelance book and web designer): One book I’m really proud of lately is Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio. This was a difficult book to typeset, it’s received great reception from readers and critics, and it was a National Book Award Finalist and California Book Award Winner. As an author, Fred was wonderful to work with. All of this brings me such joy.
Ana Paula (Belladonna* Collaborative & Bone Bouquet): For the Queens College event [on March 14th, co-presented by Belladonna* and the English Department], I got pneumonia because I was already sick and had to walk in the rain all over the huge campus in a thin jacket and no scarf (my fault of course), but people were particularly affectionate that day, including our superiors, so the whole event was enjoyable (and the readings too were wonderful, Natalie Diaz and Sandra Lim’s chaplets were my favorites from the ones released this year, along with Rachel Levitsky’s).
After the event the seven of us [the readers and Belladonna* members] went to dinner together for pizza and drinks. We got to actually engage with the writers and our bosses, who are accomplished writers themselves, without a sense of hierarchy. I felt as if we were being heard, even if we’re just 20-year-old writers. The others asked personal questions directed to me and Shaun Harris [another Belladonna* intern], about our artistic predilections, which hardly ever happens when you’re the intern. We ate together as if we were colleagues, or friends, and I felt comfortable to the extent of giving them all hugs and kisses on the cheek: a very Brazilian thing that doesn’t always happen in this country. It felt like a community. Of course, eating for free is fun, but what really made it special was the chemistry between everyone.
Daniel Owen (Ugly Duckling Presse): At the moment, I feel most proud of working on Lyric Hunter’s chapbook, Swallower. Swallower was my first project as an editor at UDP. Working closely with Lyric and other UDP collaborators, I edited the text, designed the book, printed the covers, and organized and led the Saturday sessions during which the book was bound. It was a great joy to work with Lyric on her first chapbook, a book that, to me, represents an apotheosis of UDP’s publishing ethos: generous, conceptually acute, and excitingly unique writing that traverses the borders of multiple languages (English and French) by an emerging author whose work had yet to be widely read and considered.
In general, I find it’s really hard for me to actually feel proud of a book I’ve worked on, or to realize or recognize its reality in the world. But a sense of pride definitely comes on when I see the book living its own life. I had this experience recently with a well-worn and thoroughly read copy of Swallower that someone who I’d just met showed me. And, though I felt self-critical at the poorly registered printing (the purple pass was really off from the white pass on this copy…), I was overjoyed at how the book had that lived-in quality. Like, someone had actually read it, walked around with it, put it in backpacks and on bookshelves. I suppose this is a very basic function of books but very lovely and humbling to see.
Holly Burdorff (VIDA Count Director): Oh, I try to stay away from “most” and from “proud,” but I will say that whenever we got a note or a comment from some random person telling us that our work—the Count, an essay on VIDAweb, an event they attended—meant something to them for whatever reason, it’s always very lovely, especially when they’re writing to tell us about a new initiative they’ve started, lecture they’ve given, etc. I guess what I’m saying is: I’m proud that what we do is effective.
Lynn Melnick (VIDA Executive Board): I am really proud of the Reports from the Field column on VIDAweb.org. I conceived of it as a place for women to share experiences of harassment, everyday sexisms, etc. in the lit world so we could all feel less alone—and then it grew, through the power and bravery of the women who have written for us, into something that has been very important to many people. I am also very proud of this year’s intersectional VIDA Count and how VIDA has grown in scope and initiatives from when it started.