Wednesday, August 31, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Rena Rosenwasser and Patricia Dienstfrey on Kelsey Street Press

Founded in 1974, Kelsey Street Press publishes experimental poetry and short fiction by women and collaborations between artists and visual artists. The Press publishes a culturally diverse list and each edition is designed to resonate with the writing and priced to be affordable.

Rena Rosenwasser co-founder of Kelsey Street Press, served as Director of the Press for over two decades. In the eighties she initiated a series of collaborations between writers and artists. Her books of poetry include Elevators, (Kelsey Street Press, 2011) unplace, place (Leave Books, 1993) Isle (Kelsey St. Press, 1992) Aviary, (Limestone Press, 1988) and Simulacra (Kelsey St. Press, 1986).

Patricia Dienstfrey is a co-founder of Kelsey Street Press and an editor there. Her publications include The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003), co-edited with Brenda Hillman, and several books of poetry, among them Love and Illustration (a+bend press, 2000) and The Woman Without Experiences (Kelsey Street, 1995).

1 – When did kelsey street press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?

The Press began in 1974, inspired by two dynamic forces: the millennial impulse of the feminist movement and the agregious absence of women poets on publisher’s book lists and in anthologies.

The situation of women in publishing has changed, but our goals have remained the same – to bring out women poets and short fiction writers; experimental writing; a multicultural list appropriate to US society; and well-designed, affordable books. One goal which  we hadn’t originally anticipated is to continue to publish collaborative and hybrid works. Another is to explore possibilities for publishing cross-genre works, a rich field for creativity we couldn’t have anticipated when we began printing our books on letterpress in the seventies.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

The group of women that founded the press were all writers. They (we) were part of the Berkeley Poet’s Co-op and were dismayed at the lack of response of our male colleagues to our subjects. This lead us to form our own writing group and this in turn lead us to question notions about the “literary canon”. One thing lead to another and before we knew it we had installed an old Vandercook letter Press with cases of metal type in Patricia’s basement. I set the type and Patricia inked the rollers and Kelsey Street Press commenced.

The group of women that founded the Press, all writers, met in the Berkeley Poets’ Cooperative and Press in the early 70s. Feeling impatient with  the male members of the group who didn’t seem to get what many of us were after in our poetry – we formed our own group to create a more charged and focused critical atmosphere. Then when David Meltzer’s anthology entitled San Francisco Bay Area Poets came to our attention and there was not one woman in it, it was clear there was a gap to be filled and that it was only women publishers who would undertake to do it. Patricia bought a Vandercook Proof (Letter) Press and installed it in her basement. Rena and Marina La Palma set the type for the first book, Neurosuite, by Margherita Guidacci, translated from the Italian by Marina. The poetic energy was driven by rage and suffering at being diagnosed as mad by physicians according to masculine norms in a male dominated Italian culture.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

Our role as publishers is to bring out writing we believe in and love . In the beginning the work we loved and believed in was by women and experimental. Both at the time were being overlooked and belitttled. Now, in any group of Press members at any one time, each person has a somewhat individual slant on this common focus. Patricia and Rena continue to believe in the importance of publishing women. After being voiceless as poets for all of recorded history up until the last three decades of the twentieth century, it’s going to take many years and changes, with women taking active part in developments in technology, culture and scholarship, before we can be assured that the dynamic balance will not return to the historical norm in which the male was, in effect, sole creator of society’s institutions, which continue to shape our daily lives.

4 – What do you see the press doing that no one else is?

Focus on women’s innovative writing.

The priority we give to our love of the text and the book as an object.

Choosing to focus and stay with stand by our choice for almost four decades

Maintaining an unflagging commitment to the design of the book.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?

Readings and book parties.

Reviews in whatever media.

Online discussions.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

Earlier on we did more intense editing than we do now.

Manuscript editing at KSP has changed over the years. With a few exceptions, the early manuscripts required the by-word-and-line editing approach. It was our practice to work with writers to develop what we saw as the manuscript’s strength. This changed as the writers who sent us work became more accomplished and as our experience with publishing evolved. We began to look for work we could bring out pretty much as it was. Sometimes now we love a manuscript but have some reservation concerning it: it goes on too long – we prefer our poetry books to be short – or has a strong focus that is weakened by sections not of the same high quality as the rest. In these cases, we’ll accept the work for publication if the poet can agree to our cuts.

7 – How do books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

Our earliest letterpress books (1970’s-1987) were produced in limited editions that varied from 200-750. In the eighties we began to do offset runs that were usually 1,000, occasionally 2,000. Recently we are reducing our runs and reprinting with Print on Demand. Our first offering on e-book will be released soon.

We distribute books in three ways: directly through our website; (, through our main distributor; Small Press Distribution, and through Amazon.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?

Press Members often shift roles. All our editing is done in-house. Usually 1-2 members will work on a particular book. Usually one person in house is in charge of production. Design and printing, since we shifted to offset (in the 1980’s) is done outside the Press.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

Rena Rosenwasser-- I have become more aware of the shape of the page and shape of the book. What makes a book or poems work as a manuscript?

Sadly after almost forty years of poetry publishing I have become more reticent to publish my own work because of the difficulties I perceive in distributing poetry.

Patricia Dienstfrey-- Working closely with other poets’ writing has helped me become more attuned to nuances in my own.

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

We do publish our own writing, though this is occasional. All of us volunteer our labor and our time to the Press and all of us have a strong say in what we publish. 
We only publish our own writing if we (the group) feels the book represents an excellent example of a Kelsey Street Press book. This year, an unusual one, we released two volumes by press members. Prior to that it had been sixteen years since we published a book by a Press Member. I, Rena, don’t think the question is relevant.

11– How do you see kelsey street press evolving?

KSP’s membership is made up of women spanning a range of ages. And with this comes a range of views about the past, present and future form of “the book.” The new generation is assisting us in moving into realms of exploration of various electronic platforms. We are trying our first e-book. In 2014 we will celebrate our fortieth anniversary. We feel set for continuing at least for another five years.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?

Remaining a feminist press that publishes innovative writing.

The results of our attention to design and the pleasure it arouses in readers.

Our adaptability & longevity.

Our archives are housed at The Bancroft Library of UC Berkeley.

Several KSP books are in the Spencer Collection in the NYC Public Library.

It is frustrating that some of the fine writers that we have published have been overlooked. With all of us volunteering and working at KSP in the 25th hour of the day-- bright and young people passing through who have moved on quickly--because of the stage they are in in their lives, so we have lost many trained skilled people. Our meetings are often inefficient because of our desire to be inclusive and work by consensus.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

The early letterpress printers of the twentieth century. Many of whom were ex-pats who lived in Paris in the first part of the century: Contact Editions, The Hours Press (of Nancy Cunard), Black Sun Press (Harry and Caresse Crosby).

Hogarth Press was also an inspiration.

14– How does kelsey street press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see kelsey street press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?

Read and talk in writing programs, arts centers, publishing classes.

Participate in museums that feature collaborations with writers and visual artists.

Currently branching out into working with landscape artists who work with sound elements.

Early on (in the eighties)we contributed to and were inspired by the journal How(ever) founded by Kathleen Fraser, Frances Jaffer and Beverly Dahlen.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?

Book party launches and readings. Early on we were more regular in having widely attended bashes to launch books.

We see public readings and events as enormously helpful in promoting our titles.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Our website has a Listen Section where our poets read and discuss their work. Informations and updates on readings, reviews as well as a Blog are helpful in generating activity around our titles. We are now undertaking a collaboration to set up the Bay Area Correspondence School. The project, conceived by two women who wrote PhD theses on the letters of Emily Dickinson, will track Facebook, Twitter, and hand-made postcard correspondence among poets in the Bay Area in the context of an evolving literary tradition. 
17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

Our policies have varied over the course of almost 40 years. Some years we had a regular reading period. Some years we actively engaged in soliciting submissions of first books. Now our policies are determined on a year by year basis.

We are not looking for traditional narrative imagistic work.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.

Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: cross genre prose-poetry

Humanimal is the second book by Bhanu Kapil we’ve published. It continues Kapil’s cross-cultural explorations of the interconnections of mind, body, spirit expressed in an embracing and remarkable poetics.

Bhanu Kapil follows a film crew to the Bengal jungle to re-encounter the true account of two girls found living with wolves in 1921. Taking as its source text the diary of the missionary who strove to rehabilitate these orphans--HUMANIMAL functions as a healing mutation for three bodies and a companion poiesis for future physiologies. . .The humanimal text becomes one in which one in which personal and postcolonial histories cross a wilderness to form supported metabiology.

Kapil was born in the UK to Indian parents, Bhanu lives in Colorado, where she teaches in The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

Hazel White, Peril As Architectural Enrichment, poetry

Peril tests landscape as the subject of experience. Propelling awareness vertically and horizontally, it questions how limbs want to move in space, when convivial with treetops, views, and pollen. The poems greet danger—lost narratives/crops, a fall, inundation—and the refuge of a familiar curvature: the turning of long lines becoming the same as building shelter in the wild where a peril can be seen and felt, and to write is to know what's near. Like a designed landscape, Hazel White's poetry delivers a new sense of orientation/a long-sought spatial fluency:

Rena Rosenwasser’s Elevators, poetry and prose

Rosenwasser’s experimental poems seduce us with their verbal architectures as the book transports the reader visually and graphically across the globe, through time to the present, from Perugia to Egypt to Manhattan, where historical details mesh with real time haptic experiences of cathedral architecture, Egyptian monuments, and urban corridors that ignite the "wow" effect of the poet's New York City childhood. "This passionate psalm poem is a labyrinth inside a travelogue inside a dream"— Jane Miller

The books by Hazel White and Rena Rosenwasser have taken Kelsey Street Press into the realms and vocabularies of landscape and urban architecture. In this direction, we can already see possibilities for new collaborations and an extended audience for poetry.

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