KS (above, left). Who, and where, is Kattywompus Press?
SG (above, right): Kattywompus Press is an independent literary small press which was born on the north coast in August, 2010, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
KS. All editors know or learn the story of the conception, to follow the birth metaphor, of their press, but since KP is less than a year old, perhaps that story is still in the making.
SG: Since I don’t believe at bottom in the notion of anything static in the world, I’d have to say that, yes, KP is certainly still evolving as a press. I expect we will be evolving as long as the press exists. To be more concrete, I initially conceived the press in the mold of Pudding House, a thirty-year-old independent literary small press in Columbus Ohio where my first book was published. In fact, KP was founded on the core of Poets’ Greatest Hits, a chapbook line invented by Jen Bosveld at Pudding House and published there for its first decade. Kattywompus Press has taken over and is continuing this unique, invitation-only line, which is modeled after the recording industry’s greatest hits albums, and features nearly 300 poets (and counting). My original intent was to publish other poetry chapbooks alongside this line, which we are indeed doing. Straightforward, manageable, no complicated logistics. But I found myself rapidly expanding the scope of what we produce, in response to two compelling factors. First, the publishing industry is in rapid flux, and seems to demand some degree of innovation for small presses to persist. In particular, we lean in to the growing interest in book as artifact, which is a natural outgrowth of our commitment to publish books with not only excellent content, but high standards of physical production—well-crafted books which are esthetically appealing and will in every respect withstand the test of time. Second, I found myself personally attracted to a broad range of projects. So leap we did. This press is all about the passion of art through the book. We address this with elegantly produced chapbooks, with one of a kind artist’s books, with perfect bound books, and limited editions of a variety of special constructions, papers, and bindings. In other words, if it’s a book, and we are crazy about it, we publish it. I started with this same intention of diversity in authors and subject matter, and wound up incorporating those notions for the physical containers of writing, as well.
KS. Who are the people behind the press? Your bio on the Kattywompus website notes that you have been many things, including a physician. How is publishing different for you, after these incarnations, compared to someone whose trajectory might be English major, writer, press?
SG: I’ll take your second question first and segue into the first. I can’t speak very much to how this would be different if I had a more conventional entry path to small press publishing--my perspective, like my vocational trajectory, is necessarily kattywompus. No doubt my radically different past jobs have helped mold me. It’s probably important that I have worked as a crap-for-wages waitress who walked out on a boss who had me, literally, down on hands and knees with a whisk broom and a flashlight; and later worked as the attending physician in charge of the graveyard shift of a major pediatric trauma center ER. These are wholly different roles entangled with grossly disparate sectors of our class system and culture, and of course the map between those poles was, to be polite, interesting. But beyond that, do these previous jobs inflect my editorial or publishing work? Not in specific ways.
Philosophically, I am a radical anti-segregationist. My door as a publisher is not just wide open, it’s off the hinges, for any and all comers. I want strong work, and I intend to represent many viewpoints in the press. I mean this both in an author- and subject-demographic sense, and also artistically. I publish traditional rural voices, cutting edge experimental writers, every ethnic and racial perspective that I can pull in, multiple genders and gender-orientations; without genre boundary or restriction. The cherry on top, for me, is that I get to weave this artistic inclusivity in with my passion for social justice--there are some potent political voices among the Kattywompus Press writers. These are the things I have cared about my whole life, and small press work offers the avenue for their expression.
As to who we are, in a more prosaic sense, Kattywompus Press is a sole proprietorship. So, on paper, it’s me. I have an exquisitely wonderful associate editor, Bonné de Blas, head of Art Books Cleveland. I have the ear and good counsel of friends in the arts, and I’d not have leapt when I did without Jen Bosveld’s ridiculous generosity and imagination. I’m also blessed with the support of people who don’t know me, but know the work and volunteer to support it (thank you!)
One other thing I want to mention, in this era of massive expansion of MFA writing programs: though I have often been accused of being an intellectual—and only in the Crazy-town that our country has become could this be hurtled as insult—I am most decidedly not an academic. I have no relevant degree, either undergrad or graduate. I do not believe in recipes for success or for achieving a particular goal. I do not accept anybody else’s prescription or proscription for what I am qualified to do, and I do relish proving wrong every person along the way who tried to discourage me, to tell me I could not go where I needed to go. To be an artist you must be alive to the bone, and this includes being tuned to your own and others’ vulnerability and sensitivities. But to survive in our culture as an artist, paradoxically, you also have to be tough. You must have the unselfconscious persistence of water wearing down the stone. To circle back, perhaps that is the independent small press publisher trait, most imparted by my prior lives.
KS. Kattywompus is a delightfully loud word – what is the significance of it as the name of the press?
SG: Naming is a ritual, like doing a tarot card pull, to divine the spirit of the thing you are creating. If you prefer a less woo-woo analogy, it’s a way of enticing subconscious and unconscious meaning to surface. More pragmatically, the name had to do some work in the world for this enterprise, too. It took longer than I expected, after the decision to create the press, to settle on a name. There are some poems like that. Often I can name a poem quickly and directly, but some of them resist naming, and force the writer to dig deeper, or in a different direction.
The names I generated initially bored me and didn’t capture the right spirit. I started asking people from different sectors of my world what they thought I should name the press. My physical therapist gave me a great name that I still may use for a project, but it wasn’t welcoming enough to name the whole press. Another healer who has helped me a lot walked into the room one day when I was on her table for treatment, covered only by a sheet—she is a massage therapist, but her work goes far beyond the manipulation of muscle and joint—and she paused, frowning. I asked her what was wrong and she said, chuckling, “Oh, no big deal, just the sheet is all kattywompus.” I said, “Wait! Wait! What was that word?” I’d never heard it before, and when she told me what it meant, I said, “That’s the name of the press.”
Several people whose counsel I generally take to heart tried to talk me off of it. They gave me a list of reasons it was the wrong name but I couldn’t shake it. I surrendered to the wompus, and at AWP, we had so many people come over to the bookfair booth because they loved the name.
It was interesting how many folks had thought it an invented family word. Kattywompus is in the dictionary, in a plethora of alternate spellings. Its meaning is, slightly off kilter. Mainstream-anything, to me, is like rubbing a cat’s fur backwards: not a happy feeling (and you’d best watch your hand). So the notion of being slightly off kilter seemed just right, since the things I care about most, and the people with whom I most deeply resonate, are anything but tidy, plain vanilla, “normal.” There’s barely what my friends in disability advocacy would call a “Neurotypical” amongst us. We’re all a tad kattywompus in our various idiosyncratic ways.
Then there is the legend of the wompus cat, which I leave you to investigate for yourself, if so moved. Interesting tale, with some dark (and darker) twists, depending who’s doing the telling. I have nothing against sunny writing—a few writers can actually pull it off. But I do have a prejudice against the contemporary cultural trend to Disney-fy everything.
You know that tide, that strips away from the powerful and often bloody, dark fairy tale every deep or disturbing element, till you’re left with a cheerful smiley-face Disney version of unreality. I don’t find that tendency simply annoying. It kills spirit. It purveys the falsehood that life could be easy, bloodless, that our mortality is not the most imminent aspect of our existence. It breeds and leads to the cultural quicksand in which we now find ourselves lurching along, riveted on the most trivial and ugly Americanisms, propelling to center stage the least capable or appropriate role models for anything resembling moral, ethical, spiritual or esthetic life. When we lose touch with that deep, dark, often disturbing mythological undercurrent of human and earthly existence, we are numbed out equally much to the ecstatic and the truly joyful. We cannot get into focus the actual nature of reality. We’re cheated, trapped in the repeating loop of a static 2-D Crazytown being passed off as Happytown.
I know this sounds like a contradiction but it’s not: storytelling is a powerful and ancient human way of making meaning and making community. And despite what our schoolbooks teach, the nature of reality is as pliant in its way as our imaginations. In fact, there are realms of reality that cannot be readily accessed by any means other than the imagination. This is one reason literature will always be needed. It’s why some of the very best poems and stories walk a precarious line between bearing witness to the stark facts of our lives, and inventing what we have not yet encountered. There are a lot of examples where art precedes the artist’s or the culture’s conscious understanding of the world. When we are in flow with creative work, creative imagination, we are dipping into some pool, some rivulet at least, of a collective wisdom or unconscious or superconscious, and like a knight on a quest, bringing back what we find.
So I lean into most things that pull against our dominant culture’s dumbed down, numbed out, bleached out version of the world. Kattywompus Press is home to the wide awake, the insomniac, the dreamer; the struggling and the burdened; the marginal and the unnamable (to come back to your question). Those who won’t settle for the Official Version of their lives. Whose views take us off guard and keep us there—sometimes, as in your own beautiful poems in Bring Down the Sky, in the most unassuming and gentle of voices. These are the voices I want to read, and the ones I want to publish at the wompus.
KS. Thank you for your kinds words.
It’s gutsy to start any business in today’s economic atmosphere – and with all the doomsday predictions about falling literacy, the popular culture that is, as you say, dumbed down, and digital technology taking huge bites out of the purchase and consumption of books – how are you doing so far? Any surprises?
SG: It’s hard to answer that question, since I don’t have a good yardstick by which to measure. From a strictly financial standpoint, any new small business can take several years to hit black ink. That is an accepted generic expectation. No surprises there. We are flirting above and below the zero line, thus far. We’ve had the usual sorts of stumbling blocks with equipment. I want to be able to pay people who work for me, and I’m a ways from being able to do that.
A big part of what I am doing right now is establishing reputation or brand. I’m showing what the press is, and what we intend to be. This sort of branding does not bring in money directly but it is an absolutely essential up-front investment, like equipment. Web development is the same.
Maybe it’s gutsy just to get out of bed in the morning, in the world we inhabit. I guess it does take some courage to start a small press in this atmosphere. But really, what is my alternative? That sounds like a strange question but for me it’s trenchant. The course of my life has taken some hairpin turns. Arriving back at the desire to find some kind of right livelihood in the literary arts did not leave many possibilities that I could discern. I couldn’t face more academic indenture—one advanced degree is more than enough, for me—and I did not see myself happily teaching in university. Not to mention, attacks on unions and general belt-tightening are making it harder to earn a real living. We need to pay attention to what is happening with teaching positions. This is traditionally how most writers support their work, and the middle class opportunities are drying up. Schools are hiring part-time adjuncts without benefits or tenure track. Unions are under radical rightist attack in legislatures. The future is not so bright for these jobs, and meanwhile MFA programs are churning out people hungry to snag them.
I had been volunteering at Pudding House Publications, a respected independent literary small press in Columbus, Ohio, as I mulled these questions. PH was a viable alternative, a small press that put out high quality books and supported its publisher. This was before cut-backs in university book purchases, before unemployment rose. So my model has to innovate, against both the economics of the industry, and the digital culture. We’ve got finger to wind on the second one. We may wind up doing some online projects, who knows. But we’re also leaning even further away from that trend, to hand-bound, limited edition, uniquely crafted books, one of a kind artist’s books, and other book-as-artifact projects.
One thing that makes economic viability more difficult is the attitude of a lot of people in the literary community itself. Let me try to phrase this precisely. There is a lack of respect for the value of what we as writers, as well as our supporters (editors, publishers, etc) produce. We seem to have swallowed whole the devaluation of art perpetrated by dominant culture regressives. People who, for example, have pulled arts teaching out of our schools, as if the arts matter less and contribute nothing to the humanities and sciences and mathematics. Every bona fide research study disputes that, yet we have permitted this withdrawal, which coincidentally means fewer jobs for artists. And it ripples out to kids and their families, underscoring the general American lack of respect for the arts.
Parenthetically, I always think about other countries, other cultures which do not behave this way. In China, Korea, France, artists are honored by the community and by the government. Individual artists are declared national treasures, in China. In France, people of particular excellence in many fields, including mathematics, including the sciences, and including the arts, receive lifetime appointments through which they are guaranteed employment doing teaching or research in their fields. Imagine the enormous relief from pressure that this provides. And it assures continued innovation in these fields, within the home culture and country. Whereas American writers and musicians and artists have a tradition of self-exile, due to the vastly friendlier audience for the arts in, for example, Europe.
We watched big corporations and big box stores like Borders and Wal-mart accelerate production and sale of mass market books, books they expect to be best-sellers, more and more cheaply. We watched as the big boxes partnered hand-in-glove with big publishers and distributors, over the last two or three decades, and influenced the publishing industry away from anything not considered highly commercially viable. Our local Borders used to carry small press and local authors. Now they carry only what corporate sends—and this began long before the bankruptcy. You could argue that this turning away from community arts helped fuel the failure of that chain.
Some individual authors complain about my cover price of $12. The reality is that nobody who wants their chapbook and could afford $10 will be unable to buy it for $12. Paper and toner and electricity and gas and postage have all relentlessly increased in price. So eventually, if you want a small press like mine to be alive, the press must pass along some of those increases. If you want me to be able to produce books, over the long run I have to be able to make at least a modest subsistence income from this press, and be able to pay at least modest wages for some of the labor offered by others. People who brag about producing and selling books cheaply are treating this not as a cottage industry but a hobby. Of course you can sell a book for what it cost you in paper and ink to produce. I can’t afford to treat it that way, economically or artistically. I do extensive work with some of my authors. I edit and copy-edit relentlessly. My standards of excellence in preproduction and production are extremely high, and this takes more time, more energy, than any hobbyist could supply. This is my work. I value and respect it as such. It should be dignified by a fair wage, and the books should be respected with a fair price. Five dollar chapbooks not only don’t support the publisher. They undercut the market for serious presses like mine. They encourage a bargain hunter, Wal-mart approach.
I don’t understand the mentality of Americans. I vote with my wallet. I have not bought a tank of gas at BP since the Gulf spill. I don’t shop at Wal-mart. Until they close this summer, I will continue to spend my dollars at my neighborhood hardware store rather than the big box home improvement store. And I try to give most of my book dollars to local independent bookstores or directly to small presses and authors. Why does this matter more than the convenience and economic advantage, say, of ordering through amazon.com? Because with our money, we create the world we will inhabit and pass along. Money creates the material universe around us, and collectively we control the purse strings. I’d sooner eat rice and beans all week and pay Suzanne, at Mac’s Backs Bookstore, a few bucks more for a book, than get it on the cheap and risk not having her store to browse, and her wonderful presence in our community. I do not personally, or as a publisher, want to lose another single independent local bookstore.
What about this are people blind to, that permits them to act as if we are not all responsible for one another, and for the communities in which we abide? It’s hardly rocket science. We won’t have mom and pop shops, we won’t have small presses, if we don’t support them. Only hobbyists and the wealthy will be able to run independent small presses if we don’t pay some sort of fair price for books.
I watch the same people who are quick to advise me to lower my prices, buy $6 beers at a poetry reading in a bar. Two beers less this month, and you’ve paid for a Kattywompus Press chapbook. Or buy your beers by the six-pack for home consumption—it’s a lot cheaper—and have a cup of tea at the reading. Be awake, be deliberate in how you spend your resources. Be clear what kind of world you are co-creating.
Jennifer, at Pudding House, gave me a great piece of advice as an author. She told me, Always sell your own books at full price. Don’t give the message that they are not worth that much—they are! If you meet someone who really needs your book and truly cannot afford it, give it to them for free.
I give away a lot of books, both my own work, and now, books I’ve put out through the press. I consider that a cost of doing business. I’ve paid hundreds of dollars for paintings and other work by unknown artists, in the course of my working life. When I was poor I traded my own work or labor for art. I still have most of those art works. And I still have the wonderful books I have bought out of similar need for sustenance for the soul. A well-written, beautifully crafted book lasts longer than its owner. It’s not a pack of chewing gum or a pair of sunglasses—when was the last time you had a pair of sunglasses costing $12 last for more than a couple years? Kattywompus chapbooks and books are made to last.
The press might not make it. That’s certainly possible. But if I were a betting person, I’d bet on me. I have prevailed before, when every single expert, so-called, predicted I would not. I got into medical school, for crying out loud, without ever really having gone to college—barely having graduated high school. That is another whole story. I’m impressively stubborn when you put me in front of a cause I care about, with some halfway decent tools in my hands. If the front door is bolted shut, and the back door is bricked over, I am perfectly willing to scale a downspout and climb in an upstairs window. If the window is barred I’ll chip away at the wall, a little each day, till I’ve got a hole wide enough to climb in through.
So I’m optimistic that in five years I’ll be able to say not only that Kattywompus Press is solvent, that we’ve repaid in full our start-up loans, but also that we are producing wonderful and innovative and enthralling books. Books that wake people up, that bear witness, comfort, invent, sharpen our view. I aim to make this press financially viable, yes. But I do it for love. Love of books, love of writers and what they create, love of the world we bring into being through intentional, conscious, artful work.
Karen Schubert’s chapbooks are Bring Down the Sky (Kattywompus, 2011) andThe Geography of Lost Houses (Pudding House, 2008). Her work appears or is forthcoming in AGNI, Artful Dodge, DMQ, Water~Stone Review, diode, and Zoland Poetry. She has an MFA from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts, and teaches writing at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Sammy Greenspan is a onetime waitress, lab tech, painter, pediatrician, and homeschool teacher. Her 2009 chapbook Step Back from the Closing Doors (Pudding House) was a Pushcart nominee. Her poems and stories appear most recently in In Posse Review, Pudding Magazine,and The Examined Life. Sammy runs the Pudding House Salon-Cleveland poetry workshop. In 2010 she founded Kattywompus Press, an independent literary small press which publishes Poets’ Greatest Hits and other chapbooks as well as perfect-bound collections and limited edition artist’s books.