Belladonna* is a feminist avant-garde collective, founded in 1999 by Rachel Levitsky. 2016 marks the 17th anniversary of the Belladonna* mission to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.
Interview answers from: Shaun Marie is a poet based in Brooklyn, studying Creative Writing at Pratt Institute. She has a chapbook titled In the Land of Women published through Thistlemilk Press. She is currently finding ways to marry film theory with poetry.
With additional contributions from:
ChiaLun Chang is the studio manager and intern coordinator at Belladonna* Collaborative.
Sarah Francois is a new graduate from Long Island University Brooklyn Campus with an MFA in Cross-genre Creative Writing.
Krystal Languell is the finance manager for Belladonna* Collaborative and her second book, Gray Market, comes out from 1913 this fall.
Monica Sun is an undergraduate student currently at Wesleyan University pursuing the Dance Major and the Writing Certificate.
1. When did Belladonna* 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?
Belladonna* was founded in 1999 by Rachel Levitsky. But for me, Belladonna started when I became an intern during the Spring 2016 semester of my studies at Pratt Institute. I had heard of the press from many of my poetry professors, who insisted I send in my resume. Once I started, it was such an easy transition (as it should be for any future interns). There is a collaborative spirit, a community of poets and writers supporting each other. When you hear about Belladonna* being a non-profit and existing and flourishing solely because of its team leaders, that’s the honest truth. Everything made by Belladonna* is the result of individual women dedicating their time and efforts to the creation of smart, progressive, and challenging poetry. It really is like a plant growing from the ground up. It needs water, it needs air; it’s an investment and it takes time. I have a new respect for how responsible my supervisors are and how they are able to keep Belladonna* thriving.
2. What first brought you to publishing?
I am a writer first and foremost. I am a poet. I study Creative Writing at Pratt Institute with a minor in Cinema Studies. I took a chance interning at Belladonna* and was pleasantly surprised by how immersive the editing process is. My internship responsibilities vary day by day, but I do partake in the publishing process. Seeing the drafts and final manuscripts of our chaplets, seeing events and readings come together and people coming out to support our featured writers is the best experience. It’s incredibly rewarding, and also reminds me that it takes a village, a community to allow art—good art—to reveal itself. Belladonna* dispels the misconception that people are just born with golden nuggets of genius; rather, people are provided opportunities and avenues by which they are able to create. Belladonna* is a vehicle for that, and keeps giving and giving and renewing itself.
3. What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Our responsibilities are especially condensed, and we are entirely reliant on one another. If one person is sick or out, another must step up to the plate. That’s why I’ve grown to really respect the women of Belladonna*. It’s a true commitment that they have integrated into their lives, this bond to a press that sometimes isn't easy or immediately rewarding. The reward is in the community; seeing a recent chaplet sell out, or watching new books win awards and get mentioned in the New York Times. To be a part of Belladonna*, you have to be willing to let go of your ego, or the individualist mentality. Our team is a support system, and that means a lot of people are shaping and changing the aesthetic and the makeup of the press. You have to allow for that type of change and realize the goal isn't to serve the self but to serve others by serving the poetry. And I think our team does that very naturally. These women have families of their own, are in school, are teaching, working, and moving all over the place—they still find the time to give what’s needed without expecting something in return. Sometimes you don’t always receive a thank-you in small publishing.
4. What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Belladonna* is very genuine. The aesthetic of a small press or underground poetry press can often be used to sell the press as this cool, up-and-coming organization. But Belladonna* is the definition of collective. It is a small press to its core and it doesn't try to be anything else. Its backbone is made up volunteers, interns, and collective members. You give what you can. It’s very fluid; people come and go like a wave. So I would say Belladonna* is the type of press that stands by its word. Not to say that this is uncommon, or not being done by other small distributors, but when you read a Belladonna* book, you know it's the result of many hands working together. You know it's a product of the community.
5. What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
That’s hard to answer as literature in general is becoming a medium that is accessible on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People are able to publish their work immediately. There’s definitely a sense of authorship, but a lack of ownership. Things are so easily accessed and distributed. You find yourself questioning the original source or the validity of the work. In terms of publishing, the most recent changes are the changes that render writing an easily accessible and digestible medium. Belladonna* has the chaplet series which features the work of poets still in the process of working through and editing their final manuscripts. So the chaplet is a medium of its own, and stands as this testimonial or documentation of the writing process. In a way, our chaplets have built this elaborate archive of works in their beginning and final stages. I was able to see Tonya M. Foster’s chaplet (#34, published in 2002) for A Swarm of Bees in High Court in the studio in its early stages. Now it’s become a celebrated work, but I have seen the amount of time and attention Foster dedicated to honing in on the sound and the word play, which has made it such a great success. I’ve recently found authors who ask for donations to provide access to their writing process online. To me, that’s such a fascinating idea. People are interested in the process, in the editing stages of a work just as much as they are invested in the final product. So in terms of new ways to release books, I think making the process visible makes it an act of community-building. It becomes a gesture to the reader. I think the goal is to sell books, but also to make the book a collaborative experience as a whole.
6. How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Towards the end of the semester, I did a lot of outreach and grant writing and researching. When we had more chaplets coming out during the middle of the semester, I did a little bit of copy-editing and was responsible for organizing the Studio Assistants chaplet, which was a great opportunity Belladonna* gives its interns to publish our work. This has been an annual event for interns since 2012 now. It’s an interesting process because poetry isn't edited like fiction. Of course, there’s the occasional typo or misprint, but editing poetry is like editing music and language and space. Nothing is fixed. Everything is intentional. The space of the page is engaged in a manner you don’t see in fiction, unless it’s prose poetry or experimental fiction, but even then, it can adhere to the formal aesthetics of fiction. I enjoy how Belladonna* is an open book. You have access to the emails and you can see how the process is coming along from one message to the next. You know when a chaplet is being finalized with the designer, Bill Mazza, and you know when it’s being sent to the print shop. We are in direct contact with our writers and contributors. The process is organic and I suppose because of that, it’s even more transparent. You understand fundamentally what this community is truly doing and why it’s so important, especially when you're working with writers who are producing content that is urgent and necessary.
7. How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We reach out to poets, and invite them to be a part of our reading series. They publish a chaplet of their work and participate in a reading with said chaplet and/or recent work they want to discuss. The writers are given a lot of authority and authorship. The chaplet exists as a medium small enough to open up a dialogue about the new work without stifling it with criticism. It’s like a mini writing group; a preview of the work that helps guide the authors in their final steps in producing their works. A discussion begins and the author can then work with it.
And we have our full-length books of poetry, which are of course more permanent, and these are really compelling. For most of these works, we do a first print run of 1,000 copies. Tonya Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is a favorite of mine, but you also have these amazing sound-based works like LaTasha Diggs’ TwERK that are very powerful and urgent.
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?
It’s a matter of determining what work is needed and how my time will help the quality of the work being published. Sometimes I’m not needed, but there are other small tasks that I can be involved with. As an intern, you realize that your time can sometimes inconvenience others if you overstep where you're needed. It doesn’t make sense for me to be involved in something that requires more expertise. In those cases I usually take on the role of shadowing so I can learn and adapt. I’ve also learned that listening in some cases is more beneficial than doing. I’ve been introduced to amazing writers and amazing organizations that support new writers. Belladonna* is extremely focused on the community and the volunteers that keep our organization alive. In terms of collaborating with other editors, the posthumous publication of Beth Murray’s Cancer Angel would be a great example of Belladonna* working together with writers and editors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cancer Angel stands as a collaborative work, one that I know proved how flexible and intuitive this collective can be in the hardest of circumstances.
9. How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I appreciate space now when I sit down to write. When you spend time studying and editing the way in which others use sound to support their work, there’s an appreciation for music. The form should match the content. When I say form, what I’m referring to is content as composition. Is the content self-reliant? Is the content contained in itself or does it allow for a discourse? In lyric, too often the focus is on the I and the I in relation to the object of desire, the you. I’ve enjoyed seeing this subverted, seeing the form allow for multiple accounts and perspectives, but mainly the I as ever-changing, ever-expanding. Is the form capable of caring for the content? Is it allowing the content to expand and develop as it’s intended? Is using a couplet here hurting or helping the content? It’s a composition; they communicate with one another. If you're worried about aesthetics, you're probably more concerned with writing something that’ll connect with or start discussions about trend writing, the writing that we all fall into when we attempt to write things uninspired. And of course it's not good. It’s impressionable. Working with Belladonna*, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a feminist. There’s a collaborative spirit a lot of the time with feminist literary works. There is reclamation of self and community, a celebration of supporting and recognizing each other. And this transpires into the space imbued within the poetry. The sense that you are cared for and acknowledged. You have to allow for that in the work.
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?
Being published by a press is always followed with the sense of accomplishment. The idea is: you worked with editors, your work was accepted, and someone found you worth investing in. But in opposition, there’s the reality that people have a lot of power in today’s age. You can self publish on a multitude of platforms, and although any work you self-publish is subject to your own outreach skills, there is a sense of reclaiming the authorship of your work. The deadline and release date are entirely the decision of the writer, which is a form of creative freedom, but what’s missing is the support system and tools you'd be able to access with a team behind you. But I suppose that’s why I appreciate small presses. They maintain a level of respect and empowerment with the author. I don’t think the writers compromise or give up their agency with Belladonna*; it’s a true partnership and that’s ideal.
11. How do you see Belladonna* evolving?
Though Belladonna*’s aesthetic is ever-evolving and changing, I’d like to see an aesthetic that is immediately acknowledged as a Belladonna* product. I like seeing beautiful books, books with evocative and alluring art that draws the reader in. I also see Belladonna* gaining even more participants, volunteers and collective members. I’ve realized how much my supervisors and peers pay attention to the ways in which our society engages with literature and poetry. I think Belladonna* has the potential to eventually make the writing process a medium to invest in, like featuring artists and their personal journeys with major projects they are undertaking. There’s a genuine connection to the writing practice and the finished product. They are inseparable. It’s of the body, it can’t not be.
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 enjoyed seeing the success of Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court. This book inspired me in my personal work, but also reminded me that a community is responsible for making good art accessible and visible. It reminded me of why the small press is such an important part of the literary community. You're reminded poetry must exist in a space where people are eager to engage and work with it. I can’t say that I’m frustrated by much; rather, I understand now that sometimes there simply isn't enough energy to go around. Sacrifices are made when running small publishing organizations, and you have to remember that the strides we make in the community affect the present and future. I’m most satisfied when the work I’m surrounded with is truly communicating and engaging with dialogues capable of rendering change.
13. Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I use Belladonna* as a model because I know how we work. I know how this press keeps itself alive and thriving and I know how this press deals with success and failure. I have a lot of respect for the collective and I think Belladonna* has taught me that a press relies on its community.
14. How does Belladonna* work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Belladonna* in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Until I started interning, I didn’t realize how involved our press is. We are in direct contact with a lot of small publishers like Litmus and Futurepoem. Our events are hosted at a multitude of locations that help bring visibility to independent bookstores and poetry-based organizations. I think the way we share resources with these other organizations is crucial for our survival.
15. Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Readings and events are the press’s backbone. Readings are a sign of community and a sign of outreach. I’ve learned so much about my work from going to readings and engaging with writers. It seems only natural that writers support one another at readings; it allows the work to exist in a space of care, but it also shows an amount of respect for the work and the time that was put into the finished product. Readings and events reveal the work that’s being done behind the scenes. It goes back to the idea that everything is sustained by a caring community, and that this community is responsible for making sure people are being heard and recognized. At most of our events, the host takes a moment to call out the names of all the Belladonna* members, volunteers, and interns who are present—and this roll call further highlights that behind the scenes labor.
16. How do you utilize the Internet, if at all, to further your goals?
I think the internet is as essential as drinking water nowadays. We not only consume media at a fast pace, but we also consume media as entirely image-based now. The internet is like a form of cinema. So it follows that small presses use social media to reach as many people as possible. It’s not that we’re selling the Belladonna* brand or capitalizing off of the system; rather, we’re adapting to the way people engage with work. It’s all one big conversation, and if the conversation must also exist online, then we adapt. It makes sense to do everything we can to make these dialogues possible, and to provide avenues and ways to connect with one another.
17. Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Belladonna* does consider queries as they come in via email, but we most often take on projects through the readings series and proposals by members of our collective. Sometimes, submissions are sent in that disregard or overlook that Belladonna* has a non-hierarchal, feminist, avant-garde collective mission. Nonetheless, we are always accepting new volunteers and interns who are eager to help build and shape the press.
18. Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is a beautiful ode to Harlem, race, identity and space. It’s sound-based, brilliantly written, and takes on multiple voices and perspectives. Another favorite of mine is LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TwERK. I think TwERK is extremely urgent and impassioned. Also, a lot of detail is given to the sound and music of the work. I also enjoyed R. Erica Doyle’s proxy, which I think is a very sexy and challenging book. It keeps me alert and sensitive in ways other books with similar content fail to do. It gets under my skin, and I feel like I have to properly metabolize it when reading it.