Sunday, July 09, 2017

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Sarah Heady, Amy K. Bell, Jill Tomasetti, Jennifer S. Cheng and Lauren Peck on Drop Leaf Press

Drop Leaf Press began at a round table in a living room. It was a place for making things and for sharing voices and textures. Each of us took turns playing the roles of curator and artist, host and guest, listener and storyteller, critic and teacher. Our press is a council of equal voices, advocating new and emerging writers and artists. We encourage the hybrid and the caught ephemeral, the self-conscious and the subconscious, the worldly and the unworldly. We seek joineries of the unexpected and the overlooked. We believe in flexibility and tactility. We want our books to be gathering places for artists from all locales and genres to join in the gesture of sitting down and sharing something new. And with each new voice, each new book, we create space: we add a leaf to the table, room for more.

Collective Bio: Drop Leaf Press is Amy K.Bell, Jennifer S. Cheng, Sarah Heady, Lauren Peck, and Jill Tomasetti. We met several years ago in the MFA program at San Francisco State, and we are mostly poets (Amy identifies primarily as a fiction writer, and Jill is working on her first children’s book).

Three of us live in San Francisco, two of us live in Oakland, one of us has a small child, two of us have 9-5 jobs (grant writer; copywriter), two of us are preschool teachers, one of us teaches undergraduates, all of us live with our partners, all of us are busy people who like to come together to make books and host readings sometimes. We are friends first and co-editors second.

1 – When did Drop Leaf 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?
Sarah Heady (SH): It all started in the winter of 2014 when a few of us went to AWP in Seattle and attended a reading in celebration of Berkeley-based, women-run Kelsey Street Press’ 40th anniversary. Bhanu Kapil, Hazel White, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Rena Rosenwasser read their work and talked, along with Kelsey Street co-founder Patricia Dienstfrey, about how meaningful it was to be published by an all-female collective. Bhanu, in particular, told the incredible story of how fundamentally life-changing it was to have her first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (one of our very favorites), published by Kelsey Street in 2001, at time when—if I recall her tale correctly—she was working at a McDonald’s in London and had mailed her manuscript to Kelsey Street cold.

There was lots of crying and gratitude and heart at this event, and we all left feeling so amazed at the longevity and impact of this women-run endeavor. When we got back to the Bay, we started talking about what it might be like to start our own little version of Kelsey Street.

Jill Tomasetti (JT): If anything has been a continuous thread throughout our various projects, it’s probably been the “crying and gratitude and heart.” It’s been a few years now, and we have all evolved from earnest young grad students to working professionals who travel all different roads. In response to these shifts, we have worked hard to create fluid yet taut timelines for our projects, maintaining faithfulness both to our authors and to ourselves and to each other. We have a passion for creating beautiful and spacious physical scaffolding - paper, ink, thread, spine - for the poetry and prose that our authors have entrusted to us. Over time we have learned that as a small press, we need to grant each other the same generous blank pages, the time to ponder, to get bogged down by life, to resurface, to find each other again.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
Jennifer S. Cheng (JSC): The Kelsey Street reading helped to crystallize our vision, but even before that we were spending weekends together making things--crochets, craft projects, zines, etc.--and that impetus is at the heart of our endeavors. We would gather on bright afternoons around a table to share food, materials, books, discoveries. We love language, we love tactile objects, we love sharing, so it was natural for us to be drawn to the intersection of these.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
SH: Operating without concern for “the market” and lifting up material that feels vital, for its own sake. At least that’s what I think we do.  

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
JT: We make the majority of our books by hand. There is a lot of physical labor involved. For our inaugural issue of the occasional magazine, OXALIS, we sourced (by which I mean combed through stacks of old posters, maps, wallpaper, cardstock, and art papers at SCRAP in San Francisco) and then cut to size recycled paper for the covers and bound each edition with brass fasteners to speak to the theme of the work, “Hinge.” While we haven’t (yet!) strayed into the seductive territory of letterpress, we have learned multitudes of bookbinding stitches, experimented with waxed thread, embroidery floss, copper wire, sewing machines, thimbles, awls, antique tapestry needles, carved our own rubber stamps, and touched a LOT of paper, in search of the perfect texture. While we can probably never make our authors rich and famous, we can give them these beautifully bound books, especially in the case of our chapbook series, which feel good in the hand and bear the marks of having been carefully and artfully assembled.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
SH: Haha...we’ll get back to you on this one. I don’t think we know what’s most effective...we just do experiments and see what happens. And I would say “effective” is not one of Drop Leaf’s watchwords, similar to the word “efficient”--but that’s all capitalist noise anyway, right? :) Seriously though, I think of us as spearheading our own sort of “slow literature” movement, which means we just do what we can, when we can, without driving ourselves and each other crazy.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
JT:  This is a great question for us, since we are a collective! We each have different styles of editing that we gravitate towards, and which inevitably causes us each to lean into different aspects of the publishing process. While one person may reliably give great, detailed line-by-line feedback, another may just as importantly step back and see the bigger picture. Someone else may take the lead on design, which will in turn help curate the work and art that fills the pages of a magazine. Another part of our big vision for our little press is that we want to publish work that we are excited about, even if it’s still under construction. So some of our manuscripts may arrive at our door ready to go, while with others we develop a much more back-and-forth working/editing/re-writing relationship with the author. Both have been fun and rewarding. It is really humbling for us when writers we love want to share their raw work and allow us to enter into its conversation.

7 – How do your books and broadsides get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
Lauren Peck (LP): We printed 300 of Jill Tomasetti’s full-length book, PRIMA VERA. We’re in the middle of publishing the fourth book in our chapbook series. Each time we publish is a learning process, so I think we come up with number according to the need. So, it depends on sales and if the author has a lot of readings slotted where the books might be sold. For the chapbooks, we print about 125 books per run, including a smaller portion of hand-embellished copies.

We tend to sell books from the Drop Leaf website’s online store, at readings, and also in local bookstores, usually in San Francisco and Oakland and anywhere that an author might be interested in selling--especially in cases where they live out of state.

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?
LP: We all do a little bit of everything, rotating tasks according to who wants to take on each project and has time. It’s good in that we’re able to take turns, but sometimes we realize that we have all have full lives, and sometimes unexpected things just come up that might delay this process. This summer, we’re excited to be working with two guest editors, Heidi Van Horn and Maude Tanswai, for our next issue of our sometimes-magazine, Oxalis. We have been working on other projects in the time since our inaugural issue in 2015, so we’re really excited to see how it turns out and to work with these guest editors on a second issue.

JT: Yes, and the idea of including guest editors really fulfills the “drop leaf table” metaphor we began our press with. We want to be as inclusive as possible, and love the thought of sharing both the tasks and vision that comes with putting together a non-traditional magazine like Oxalis.  

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
SH: Editing other people’s books (which I absolutely love doing) has certainly made me a better writer. The discernment and big-picture thinking required of an editor comes into play when putting together one’s own manuscripts. I think also just realizing that there is more than enough universal art-mojo to go around --there’s no need to compete or think that more for someone else means less for you. We’re all on the same trip together.

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?
LP: We primarily started the press to explore the works of others that really interested us. We did begin by publishing Jill’s PRIMA VERA, but the focus is really on new and emerging authors.

JT: I should probably weigh in on this question! By starting with my book, I think we were also acknowledging the fact that we were all very, very new to publishing and weren’t quite sure what we could promise to others. By experimenting on one of ourselves, so to speak, we were in safe territory. We learned so much with that first book, and hopefully gained a bit of credibility by having a beautiful, complete project on the shelf.

11– How do you see Drop Leaf Press evolving?
SH: Now that it’s been over three years since the idea for DLP was born, I personally have come to accept that we are apparently capable of a lot less, productivity-wise, than I first envisioned--which is actually totally okay. And not just okay, but wonderful. I’m typically very, very hard on myself and have been working on lowering my performance standards in all areas of life. It’s healing for me to have a project that is held very gently and with acceptance of human limitations and the need for rest and wellness. My co-editors really value work-life balance, and it seems we’ve all leveled out to a place where the first priority is always our own sanity and not the achievements of the press, and this has meant a real embracing of slowness and protracted timelines. (That said, we do our best to be accountable and to keep things moving for our authors’ sakes.)

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?
LP: I think it’s hard to really say that there was a book we were MOST excited about. I think that the first issue of Oxalis (the lit mag) was the most exciting. It was one of the first works we put out, and we actually went to Scrap together--which is this materials reuse center where you can find all of these unique materials--like paper to interesting prints to old film rolls. We found materials that we thought would fit the theme of the magazine and made different covers for each magazine we put out.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
SH: I thought of Sueyeun Juliette Lee’s Corollary Press, which, I’ve gathered, followed a sporadic publishing schedule based on the contours of the editor’s real life commitments and desires. And Kelsey Street, as mentioned above.

14– How does Drop Leaf Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Drop Leaf Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
JT: I see our press as a very tiny stream making its way down the mountains, picking its way over stones, following the lay of the land, as the snowmelt of the previous winter. Our handbound aesthetic can be quite time consuming, yet is very personal and highly textured. It is the work of the poet, of course, plus the designer, and many hands printing, cutting, folding, and sewing each copy. Eventually yes, the stream makes its way down to sea level by joining larger streams in the watershed. Most of our “dialogues” are bumping into travelers, stones, shy animals, weather. We travel outward, but many find us. For me, our best times are when I hear how having copies of her book opens doors to a poet as she lectures across the West Coast, or when a poet writes to us to ask for more copies to sell to the most amazing independent bookstore she found in her neighborhood. Those are the most meaningful dialogues. Sometimes it’s hard not to just give all our books away as gifts to people we know will love them. We just want to put our books in people’s hands and trust that they will do the work of reaching out and sharing themselves. But, on a more practical note, we do love seeing our books on the shelves of our local bookstores, which have their own rich communities. We also really enjoy hosting readings in our community, where we find a real warmth and pleasure of hearing the poets read with each other and share their voices.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
LP: We tend to do one reading for each book launch, and we might combine book releases to feature both authors at once (as we did recently with Lehua M. Taitano and Maxwell Shanley at Alley Cat Books). I think public readings are incredibly important for both the visibility of the press and authors...and also because it’s vital that these works be heard aloud.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
LP: We use our website to really showcase our purpose, the works we are putting out into the world, a blog, and host a store to sell all of these works. There’s also a focus on social media to make our audience aware of what we’re doing and to get them to interact with us. It’s of course, perfect as a promotional tool so that they’ll go to our readings and buy from our online store. Also, we put out an (occasional) newsletter via email and we try to show them other sides of what we do in Instagram and on Facebook.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
LP: We tend to ask people to send their work to us. We might be at a reading or have run across some work online that caught our attention--and that’s what gets us interested in asking others if we can publish them.  As a small press, we just don’t have the bandwidth to really read through a lot of unsolicited manuscripts. Admittedly, we wish we did have more time!

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
JSC: We are deep in the midst of our Chapbook Series, with three titles published and three more forthcoming. Inner River by Tanya Holtland carries us across the breadth of the page and into the depths of our darkest and saturated currents of being; Sonoma by Lehua Taitano is a beautiful and complex love poem examining displacement, rivers, dams, and queer identity; There Are Trees by Maxwell Shanley uses familiar objects, gestures, and relationships to explore the interplay of duration and instant, layers of history and the edge of the present moment. In addition to the regular handbound edition, we also release a smaller number of special editions, which is unique to each chapbook and its voice: Inner River contains certain pages with color ink; stitched into the cover of Sonoma is a burst of embroidery art; There Are Trees incorporates a copper coil in its binding. There is a through-line to the design of all our chapbooks--for instance, all feature cover art and lettering by illustrator and designer Mary Lundquist--but we also honor each text individually with its own aesthetic vision, and as a result the chapbooks span various sizes, layouts, and cover colors. We are a tiny press, so each title and author means something immense to us; a lot of love and curiosity goes into bringing every book into the world.

SH: Keep an eye out for the next three chaps in the series--Rural by Hailey Higdon, Redemption Center by Kevin Varrone, and Hammer & Consort by Roxane Beth Johnson!

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