Sunday, March 22, 2015

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Nicci Mechler on Porkbelly Press

Porkbelly Press is an independent (small) chapbook press based in Porkopolis (Cincinnati, Ohio), where pigs fly. We’re a queer-friendly, feminist press open to work by all, and encourage works from authors all along the identity spectrum.

We print in limited & open editions and handbind everything we make. We consider works ranging from literary to genre work, with a preference for speculative fiction and fabulism. Fairy tales make our little gold hearts go pitty-pat.

If you’re into things with attitude, with beauty and a sense or humor, you’ve definitely come to the right place. Welcome home.

Nicci Mechler splits her time between exploring, telling tales, and painting girls with inky tattoos. Her most recent work appears in Lines+Stars, Arroyo Literary Review, Room, and is forthcoming in Still and Yew. Deep in Flesh, her chapbook, and in these cups, a collaborative chap (both poetry), are forthcoming (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio with a pack of roomies & rescue animals specializing in troublemaking and joy. Nicci blogs at, runs Porkbelly Press, and edits the lit mag Sugared Water.

1 – When did Porkbelly 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?
Porkbelly Press was established in January 2014, officially, but our first title is actually a literary magazine (Sugared Water) that was bound and released the September before. The launch of the mag was proof a press would work (nothing caught on fire, and it was well received by contributors and locals alike). Feedback on the magazine, from both prose and poetry writers, affirmed that the aesthetic (handbound, illustrated and screened covers/handcrafted books) is one that appeals to writers, even in a world of glossy, perfect bound books and increasingly neat online journals.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
Poetry, art, and zines. A defunct high school lit mag became a major project for me, and it was under-funded in the extreme. We somehow achieved permission and enough funds to buy paper, and then had to pull an actual mimeograph machine out of some cobwebby storage basement to produce our pages—did you know that those things still work after decades of sitting abandoned? At least that’s how I remember it, the turn-crank, the endless sheets of poems and short fiction. I do know we were granted the absolute luxury of having our books folded and stapled by a copy center, but that was only after we hand-collated, and collated, and collated stacks and more stacks of papers we’d just cranked through the old beast.

When the boxes returned to us, we pulled out a freshly stapled copy with an actual photocopied cover on cardstock, tipped open the cover, and found that the entire text block was upside down. Upside down. (The rest were fine, though!)

That moment of panic prepared me well for the more respectable, serious work of a college lit mag. with a stream of funds entirely dependent on a student board, one always trying to talk us into bake sales to raise printing funds. (That’s a-frakkin’-lot of chocolate chip cookies, and we never actually had to do it.)

Happily, a wonderful campus print shop provided enough of a discount to us to allow production of many years worth of magazines, and we enjoyed an international submission pool. Given enough time and horrors, a person can become pretty adept at navigating cover letters scribbled with arcane symbols, typewriter copies with coffee stains, and the occasional handwritten, earnest letter from a high school poet.
3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

That question has so many answers, but it’s really simple: have the balls to print what you believe in, and never lie to your writers. Respect your own press & publications. I also think everyone involved in small press should support other small presses. It’s a conversation that thrives only when we’re reading and learning from each other.

I actively seek out first manuscripts to compliment established writers & poets. I’ve been lucky enough to print at least one first chapbook each season.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
We make books by hand, in special, limited, and open editions (depending on the title). We often screen print our covers (or solicit art, or handpaint images), then add little press nameplates so each is similar, but no two are exactly alike. We hand-design, mix inks, pull multiple designs, sometimes spray paint stencils, pull thread by hand through the text block, and stitch stacks of beautiful words. We hand number.

We publish a blend of lyric and narrative, love genre and nerdy science things, passionate letters, art, and the crafted truths of creative nonfiction. We publish many emerging voices as well as established folks—some of our writers are all over the small press world, and some have just begun to send out work. We like weird stories, strange stories, quiet and loud stories. We love nothing more than learning we’ve accepted a piece that makes our breath hitch, only to learn it was the first chapbook or poem or story acceptance from a fresh voice, be the writer 16 or 81 or beyond.

Are other presses doing each of these things? Sure, almost definitely. Do other presses do all of these things at once? Maybe. There are hundreds of magazines/presses/zines out there. We have the collection to prove it. Need more bookshelves.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
I’m not qualified to talk about the most effective—there are many approaches and presses out there working and producing sweet stuff. (What determines effectiveness in this case? Reach? Financial success? Streamlined production? Stress levels? Keeping the number of daily chai lattes low enough to prevent cerebral oscillation of some kind?)

When I’m looking for a home for a chapbook of my own, I look first for a press with a mission I respect, and then I go right to their gallery of chapbooks to check out their designs. If I like both, I do a thorough read of the guidelines. (I’m always on the lookout for markets my friends might enjoy and be suited to, so even if it’s not the right press for my lyric-leaning poetry, I might read up a bit more to share with my horror-loving short fiction friends.)

I do know that it always shows when an editor is excited about a new chapbook, so it’s important for that to come through. Why do you love this? Why did you choose to put your time and energy into supporting this poet/writer?

As an editor and artist, I spent a lot of time crafting designs, producing art (be it photo, digital, or screen printed), collating and hand-assembling books that are then bound by hand. It’s a lot of labor, and that’s why we print a maximum of 6-10 chapbooks, 2 issues of Sugared Water, and maybe a zine or a handfuk of micro-chaps in any given year. We have to be in love with something before we accept it.

That was a really long answer that can probably be boiled down to: print what you love, and do it the best way you can, be that hand-cranked letterpress or a blog on wordpress.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Each piece is different. We’ve asked for one word edits, free verse to be turned into a prose poem, and have even asked prose writers to cut as much as 1,000 words. Sometimes folks will send a story that’s captivating in places, but just gets a bit flowery in the middle, and sometimes we think it’d fit really well, but it’s 4,500 words and we just don’t have the pages in a particular issue, but we never ask for more than we believe a piece can bear. Sometimes we ask for 4-10 poems to be cut, and sometimes none at all. It’s a conversation that always begins with “What if…” and we listen to the answer.

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

Porkbelly prints between 55-100 for special edition releases for chapbooks, or an open edition (often an entirely different cover image, usually a friend of the press, but something that captures the aesthetic of the book) which is open-ended. We hand assemble each one, mail out as ordered, then replenish the small stock kept on hand for in-person tabling & shows.

Our zines are open editions, and Sugared Water is limited to between 100 to 200 an issue.

We currently distribute via zine distros and Etsy (, table at street fairs and do as many conferences as we can. We’ve been contacted by a couple of brick and mortar locations, and we’re working on that now that our first line of chapbooks is about 2/3 complete for the year.

Some of our catalog can be found at Nearsighted Narwhal in Tacoma, Washington. (

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?
Sugared Water is staffed between 4-10 people for each issue, but the chapbook line is read by 2, and all of the original art is either mine, or a collaboration with my friend Jonathan. We’ve chosen a few pieces of art by some really fantastic artists to serve as digital open edition covers for our first year chaps. Most of the editing/reading is done by a core group of editorial assistants and editors, but the largest part of production is in my hands.

It’s always helpful to have other eyeballs on the slush pile when editing. It keeps a bad day or mood from letting me say no to a beautiful poem or essay. The other voices broaden the spectrum of work accepted by the magazines. I talk them into things sometimes and they talk me into things sometimes. The conversation is vital.

It’s a reality check and a way to say, hey, stupid, this lemon tree fable-thing is ridiculously neat, let’s put it in a special issue and do a call for similar works. Or, hey, you missed how cool this story is because that interlude in the middle dragged on a bit, and you had too many chai lattes that day, then hit the eject button too fast. Go back and finish it, ask for some revisions. Maybe the writer needed to hear that, knew something was slightly wonky, and now we can make sweet, sweet lit. mag. together. You know, like that.

Benefits to fellow editors: many.

Taking on so much production (layout, printing, sewing, sewing, sewing, sewing, printmaking, sewing) means my desk lives with stacks of things waiting to be finished. I just have to keep my cat from artfully re-arranging things to a mixed up pile on the floor.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
My mind’s opened a little bit more each time I read something as an editor. It teaches me new and interesting ways to end a line or arrange elements in a story, reminds me that sometimes rough syntax is beautiful, and generally makes me a better poet and writer, just as listening to new music, walking through a gallery, or jumping into the ocean will.

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?
Each project is different. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to add your own voice to a collection of works if it enriches the whole. I find that every time I try to make a hard and fast rule, an exception comes along (in very short order) to make me look like a silly person. 

I prefer to collaborate in the process by sending my work to other magazines, presses, and publishers, because I want to see where it might be placed or where I might find a partner for my stories.

I’ve been thinking about publishing a collaborative collection of work of which I’m a part, but not the central voice, for example, but I’m sending it out to a few other places before I ask my fellow poets if they might like to step into the line up of Porkbelly Press chapbooks. (Particularly since I’ve accepted  5 more titles that I originally planned, and our queue is quite full of wonderful things already.)

11– How do you see Porkbelly Press evolving?
We just did our first year of micro chapbooks (chaps of 8-10 pages of poetry, fiction, or CNF)—sort of a taste of voices, a sampler to lead new readers to the other works of small press enthusiasts.

I’m flexible and open to new things as they come along (or old, but new-to-me things). We might do a line of broadsides or postcards of micro prose or some guerilla art of some kind. We might venture into the world of e-chaps to accompany the open editions of our chapbooks. I imagine we’ll get into some letterpress work at some point, since I happen to know the owner of an amazing little shop in Over the Rhine (Cincinnati), but all of these things need proper funding and time.

Our first year run of chapbooks all feature an original piece of art designed for that chapbook, hand printed in limited special edition. We release 55-100, and then do the open edition. For our second year, we have chosen to do open edition covers, handsewn, printed on lush Epson premium paper. That’s the beauty of doing all production in house—the combinations and possibilities are vast. That’s also one of the hardest bits, because we have to reign in possibility just a little bit by the schedule, however loose, that we’ve promised our writers. We will always strive for our best possible work. We agonize quite a lot over making sure our people are happy with their works all dressed up for the world.

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?

I’m most proud of helping new voices out into the world, or boosting the signal, as it were. It’s passion and excitement and love of words. Publishing is kind of a grand scale of finding something you love, then going, holy socks, this is fantastic. Friend, read this! Except, here, the friend is everyone you know, plus anyone you meet at a fair, conference, on twitter or FB, anyone who might google you, stumble over you on Duotrope, and get just as excited as you are by the things you say and what you show them. You also get to know your poets and writers, and their friends, other presses, and they tell you about fantastic stuff for you to read right now. Or later. When you’re finished bandaging yourself after that last sewing incident.

My biggest frustration is funding. Porkbelly Press operates on a tiny budget, and because so many things are handmade, we can do that. I would love to hire staff, provide more compensation to my writers, poets, essayists, and artists, and have the funds to travel to amazing literary events, zine fairs, small press fests, and book parties all over, but, really, who wouldn’t?

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I read and submitted work, worked for magazines, grabbed a BA, BFA, and MA before I launched a press. I’ve seen and heard so many things about publishing (from the hung over, the jaded, the over-the-moon excited, and the mellow editors alike), from other writers, veteran novelists, and that creepy dude who stares long at hard at you whilst reciting 7 minute poems from memory, but if I had to choose a few literary lurves to which I could go and always walk away with a new book, they’d be:

BOA Editions, Dancing Girl Press, and Sarabande Books. I’ve recently developed a crush on Hyacinth Girl Press. (And am flirting with several others. Shhh.)

Barring that, I will always look first to zinesters all over the world, or follow amazing poets to the magazines that they choose as homes for work. All poems and stories being equal, however, I’ll usually go for the handbound book with original artwork over a glossy perfect binding. That said, if a writer is fantastic, I can be persuaded to purchase machined, boring design. (Not all machined designs are boring, by the way, but I do have a few books full of astounding poems… with horrifyingly bad covers. Though that makes me sad, I just do my best to never look at them closed.)

14– How does Porkbelly Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Porkbelly Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Locally, we attend events hosted by folks associated with local universities—undergrads, grad students, professors and professionals. We’ve been known to crash art fairs and writing conferences, handing out cards, tabling, carrying around chapbooks, talking about some essay we read last week.

We find that often our communication is through poets we admire. My staffers are constantly sending me things with a ‘hey, have you seen this?’ note attached. I’m in some FB groups with pretty good taste and a minimum of drama.

I find myself purchasing books by poets and writers submitting to Porkbelly Press and other places. (We share a few poets with Dancing Girl Press, Black Lawrence Press, ELJ, Sundress, and loads of lit mags, for example. I specifically went to Hyacinth Girl Press’ site to pick up a couple of chapbooks by poets who’d submitted to us.)

When I find a poet I love, I go to their CV or cover letter to find out where they’ve been published before, and then I might go wander around that website for a while, mention it on Twitter, and before you know it, we’re tweeting back and forth or ordering books from each other—it’s like a really odd mixer, but if we didn’t have each other, we’d just be talking to ourselves. That’s only fun for a little while.

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

We’ve so far released seven chapbook titles and a few micros. Our book launches are primarily online, though we do our best to attend local events and as many festivals and conferences as we can. We use social media to get the word out about our writers, do interviews, blog posts, photo posts and tweets to support them and their work (that with our press and others), and encourage our authors to arrange local readings, which we announce. Our submissions come from all over the US as well as many countries abroad, so it’s difficult to get a lot of our people together in a physical location. We enjoy linking youtube videos of readings poets do, but most of our poets are abroad or a few states away (at minimum.)

Most of my staff regularly attend readings, workshops, lectures, and retreats. Readings and book fairs are incredibly important, and they’re another way to meet some really great poets. The trick is getting them together in one place. It’ll happen at AWP in a couple of years, I’m sure. It’s just a matter of schedules and funding (mostly funding).

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
The internet allows us to connect with artists and writers from all over the world. That’s pretty amazing, and we use it to spread the word, share things across oceans, solicit readers and all of our submissions are digital. Without the internet, Porkbelly Press wouldn’t exist. We use Facebook (calls, interview links, etc), Twitter (announcements, events), and Tumblr (press and magazine photos), as well as our blog& site on Wordpress.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
We read for chapbooks once a year. Sugared Water reads at least twice a year, sometimes more for special editions, and we’ll occasionally read for special projects. Love Me, Love My Belly (body image zine) reads once or twice a year for a yearly issue.

Things we find a bit difficult to like include rhyming poetry, two word, choppy lines, stories without characterization, or long-winded narratives, stalker poetry, poems or stories that include sex acts or colorful language purely for shock value. We don’t usually accept poems with the word soul or angel in them.

We don’t publish hate speech or body shaming. We’re glad to turn away work from people who think that feminist is a dirty word.

We adore: personal narratives, poems about the many layered, complicated elements of identity and experience, lyric language, narrative poems that run away with us, fabulist works, speculative things, image-heavy, beauty laden poems equally in love with deep green seas and moldy rib bones. We’re feminist & queer friendly.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
I find that it’s often best to let the book speak for itself, so I’ve selected a three of our 2015 chapbooks, and have pasted in an excerpt of each. You be the judge! If you’d like to see more, you can do so at, where we give each book a description that will tell you why we chose to print it.

l’appel du vide (Christina Cooke) – an excerpt:

“her, me”

her hair
falls against my chest
cowlicks curling up

reaching along her cheek, her neck
catching loose strands
as she cupsflattenscradles
palming my breasts.

fingers to warm skin
with both hands i hold her
just hold
swells of skin curving
not pale, flat

she exhales
makes space between her knees.

Vein of Stone (Sarah McCartt Jackson) – an excerpt:

“Kentucky Rose”

Five days and a riverside away from his wife Ora, Eli knows the rain
by whether or not his ankles slap through coalwater,
whether the sludgy drip of soil-seep oils his palm.

And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.

Skeleton Keys (Laura Garrison) — an excerpt:

“The Night My Grandmother Almost Ran Off to Join the Circus"

Music and dancing lights
draw her through the darkness
over bare boards to the attic window.
Strange chords thrum,
humming dissonant parodies
of Sunday's dreary organ hymns,
and colored lanterns bob,
bright as anglerfishes' lures.
Her fingers grip the windowsill
as she leans precariously
into the night,

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