Robert Miltner interviews Alan Davis and Suzzanne Kelley of New Rivers Press, University of Minnesota Moorhead, and Kaitlyn Moessner, Ryan Christiansen, and Whitney Walters, Students in the Certificate in Publishing program.
RM: I’ve read that founding editor Bill Truesdale printed the first title by New Rivers Press in 1968 using an old Chandler & Price letterpress in a Massachusetts barn. The Press moved to Minnesota in 1978 to live among the thriving literary small press community in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Since 2001, the Press has been publishing from Minnesota State University Moorhead. As a former independent press that has been taken in by a university, you have a special kind of relationship. How does that shape the mission of NRP today?
AD: We now have two missions: to publish the best work of every kind that we can locate, especially by new and emerging writers, which has always been the mission of the press, and to create learning opportunities for students, now that we’re a teaching press. We offer a certificate in publishing and hope that we might interest some students who earn the certificate in a career in small press publishing.
SK: It is a relationship that has been working well. We retain our nonprofit status, which means that are able to maintain our mission and goals and the bragging rights for being one of the oldest small presses in the nation, having been established in 1968. But we are also associated with a university institution, which lends a certain gravitas to what we are doing. Because of the academic schedule, our release date is always in October.
RM: Can you talk a bit about the “many voices” and “many Americas” concepts that are featured with NRP?
AD: We value diversity. In the past, we've published anthologies that feature the work of under-represented populations: Tilting the Continent, for example, is an anthology of work by Southeast Asian American writers. Our annual Many Voices Project each year selects one book of prose and one of poetry written by a new or emerging writer. For that contest, we use finalist judges like Charles Simic, David Mason, Debra Marquart or Joan Connor to make the choices.
RM: What makes an NRP book an NRP book?
AD: We consider work of every character. We're especially interested in work with a strong sense of place and satyagraha, or truth force.
SK: Every student who has participated in the production is listed on the ISBN page. I think that lends character and a sense of history to the whole enterprise. Those who know us, recognize the collaborative efforts of the many people it took to bring this book to its final print.
RM: NRP publishes both fiction and poetry—why don’t you specialize in just one?
SK: Why should we limit ourselves? NRP has had a longstanding tradition of supporting the art of poetry, even though it presents its own challenges for distribution. Our distributor informs me that we are one of only a few presses that are willing to make that commitment. We publish at least one book of poetry every year, but usually we publish more. This year we have three excellent poetry publications.
RM: NRP is a teaching press, and as I understand it, one of the few in the country. How does that work? Do either of you teach in the program?
AD: Students take classes, serve as interns, and can work to earn a certificate in publishing. They assist in editing and marketing and otherwise participate in all areas of literary publishing.
SK: I teach the two required publishing classes for the certificate: Introduction to Publishing and Practicum in Publishing. While the Intro course does just what it states, the highlight of the semester is a day-long bus (coach) trip to The Cities, where we visit a couple of other small presses (Milkweed, Coffee House), The Literary Loft (a place where writers in residence can be found, and the Center for the Book Arts), and BookMobile, which publishes our books. In the Practicum, a limited number of students work on the actual copyediting, marketing, and publicity of six books per year. Students are divided into book teams. Each team is responsible for one title, including the correspondence with the author to make it all happen. I guide and facilitate the book teams in all their endeavors.
RM: Did you students choose to come to Minnesota State University Moorhead because NRP is a teaching press?
WW: No, I didn’t, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out after I had arrived that NRP was located on campus and is a teaching press.
RC: I chose to come to MSUM because it is my alma mater and because of the MFA program here. When I began pursuing my MFA, I learned about the Certificate in Publishing, which you can earn within the framework of the MFA degree at MSU and decided to pursue it.
KM: The fact that NRP was a teaching press certainly helped cinch up my decision to study at MSUM. I started college with my future plans lying in novel-writing; I had no desire to be an editor, but I wanted to know how the insides of a press worked in order to maybe give myself a leg up. I'm a hands-on learner and I knew it would really be perfect for what I wanted to know, which was more on a writer’s level than as a publisher or editor, actually. I very much liked the opportunity to get my hands deep into the inner workings of a press and the different type of learning it would provide.
RC: I see the Certificate in Publishing as a vital part of my MFA degree, because it has helped me to set my expectations not only as a writer, but also as an editor and publisher.
RM: What is it like working with the authors and the book team? What kind of interplay do you have between the manuscript and the book?
KM: Working with the author is so cool. That’s kind of an understated reaction, I know, but that really sums up how I feel about it.
RC: I was on the book team for Downriver People by Bea Exner Liu (New Rivers Press, 2011) and had the unique opportunity to complete a full developmental edit on a work that New Rivers Press published posthumously.
WW: I found there is a lot of give and take that comes with working with the author. And there are many perspectives between the book team members and the author. Sometimes you have to let things go and other times you have to think about different ways for the other people to understand.
KM: Right, I had always had sort of preconceived notion about how editors in a press would be and how they act toward authors and the other way around. Now I'm getting a feel for the truth of the relationship from the other side, the side I hadn't even considered being in before. The author is working with us, not against us, and that really helps. It’s a give-and-take relationship for our team, and it’s working out incredibly smoothly.
RM: Can you talk about a few remarkable moments for you working on a book project?
WW: As for remarkable moments, I would say that contacting the author for the first time and getting an email response from her was pretty exciting. It’s kind of humbling to know that as a student you're helping to publish someone’s work.
RC: I’d say the most remarkable moment for me came several months after we’d completed the developmental edit for Downriver People by Bea Exner Liu. I was speaking with a student who had read a galley of the book, and that student said she was disturbed by the ending, enough so that she had to read the author’s previously published memoir, Remembering China (New Rivers Press, 1996). It was then that I knew we had succeeded with our developmental edit. What a pleasure!
KM: My book team actually started almost two weeks later than the rest of the class. The rest got their manuscripts and we still weren’t sure if we were going to get a contract with our author. We waited two weeks with hopes that were consistently inconsistent. Finally, in joy and expectation, we received our manuscript and could get started. Other teams were done with their first run through and we hadn’t even started yet. It was pretty daunting, to be honest. We just churned through that manuscript—which was made easier by the fact it was a fantastic piece—and we’ve actually ended up pulling ahead of schedule. It’s been an exhilarating ride and our progress is due in large part to the promptness and patience of the author.
RM: Alan, would you recommend that other university presses be teaching presses?
AD: We have been contacted by several presses and universities interested in such a partnership. In an era when resources are hard to find, such partnerships can help assure the survival of not-for-profit presses and also contribute to the curriculum in such departments as English, Mass Communications, Graphic Design, and others.
RM: NRP books are beautiful. How do you come up with such terrific book designs? Do you have an in-house designer, or do students work on that aspect of book production too?
AD: Students also design our books, under the direction of our Art Director, Allen Sheets, who is a Graphics Design professor here on campus. We’re proud of their work, which has won several national awards. Three of our student designers for 2008 books, and two more for 2009 books, were selected to receive American Inhouse Design Awards for Excellence, sponsored by Graphic Design USA.
SK: This aspect of production is one of the most fun, as it is a step away from the literary work into the visual. The graphic design students imagine our books into being, while attending to all kinds of details. While many designers in the market only get to create covers, New Rivers Press designers engage in full book design, which the students can include in their portfolios and resumes upon graduation
RM: Are any of you students considering a career in publishing after working with NRP?
WW: I am. Ideally I want to teach, but now I find I am considering working as an editor in a press as well.
RC: Yes. I already have my own literary press, Knuckledown Press.
KM: After going through this program, I’ve really learned a lot about the whole system of the writing craft, beyond the initial writing, and it’s completely changed my outlook on the publishing world. Now, I’m hoping to find a job as a copy editor somewhere.
RM: You are all writers, yes? What have your experiences studying with a teaching press taught you about writing and publishing?
KM: Yes, I’m a fiction writer. I have learned so much from participating in this program. The amount of work that goes into the editing/publishing side is phenomenally more than I previously thought. I guess I had always been biased toward the writer’s side, naturally, thinking that it was mostly them that did all the work—because writing a book is certainly a lot of hard work and tears—but the editor has to do just as much, just in different aspects.
RC: My background is in professional, work-for-hire writing in both journalism and technical writing, but before coming to MSUM and New Rivers Press, I was pretty clueless about the book publishing business. While pursuing the Certificate in Publishing, I learned the nitty gritty about book publishing and now I have my own literary press, Knuckledown Press, and I’m working with three authors to publish their books in the e-book format.
WW: I am a writer as well. I’ve learned a great deal about writing and publishing. There are always more edits to be made and ways to make the manuscript better. I have seen how as a writer being edited you need to be flexible and willing to make changes. Editors are working to make your writing better. That being said, if you feel really strongly about something then have an open conversation about why you feel that way. Publishing is a much more complex process than I previously knew. For example, my book team was surprised to find that our author hadn’t used page breaks to move from one poem to another. We had to go through and eliminate all the hard returns. I think there is a lot to be said for looking at the electronic mechanics of a manuscript before going forward and editing. I am glad to have NRP here on campus and be able to see the publishing process on a small scale before potentially working in a bigger press.
RM: lan and Suzzanne, what are some of your happiest moments at NRP?
AD: Every Wednesday our Managing Editor, Suzzanne Kelley, brings a tureen of homemade soup to our offices. All and sundry are invited to join us for hot soup on a chilly day.
SK: These soup days are indeed happy occasions. Students are invited to drop in and fill up on nourishing varieties of soups and at the same time to share successes, to talk about the programs and writing, and mostly to talk about all things book.
Robert Miltner is the author of several chapbooks, including Rock the Boat (All Nations Press, 2005), Queen Mab and the Moon Boy (Kattywompus Press, 2011), Fellow Traveler (Pudding House, 2007), and Against the Simple (Kent State University Press, 1995). He won the New Rivers Press Many Voices Project for Poetry in 2009 for Hotel Utopia. Miltner teaches at Kent State University Stark and in the Northeast Ohio MFA in Creative Writing Program.
Alan Davis, Senior Editor and Co-director of New Rivers Press, won the Prize Americana for Fiction 2010 for his collection So Bravely Vegetative. His other two books are Alone with the Owl and Rumors from the Lost World. He teaches in the MFA programs at Minnesota State University in Moorhead and Fairfield University in Connecticut and was instrumental in bringing the press to MSUM, where it has resided since 2002.
Suzzanne Kelley is the Managing Editor and Co-director for New Rivers Press; she teaches two publishing courses for MSUM. Suzzanne holds a PhD in history and is currently working on two books—one co-authored with her husband about the Lindis region of Central Otago, New Zealand, and one about memory painters of the plains and prairies.
Kaitlynn Moessner is a senior of the English writing program at Minnesota State University Moorhead, with plans to graduate in May of 2012. Self-styled as a “national citizen,” she comes from a military family with no real roots, giving her no qualms about continuing on to graduate school away from her family. She is a published poet and author of several unpublished novels.
Whitney Walters, with an undergraduate degree is from Concordia College, is a second year student in the Master of Fine Arts program at Minnesota State University Moorhead where she is currently am a TA in the English Department. Her focus is non-fiction. She plans to teach in the future, but would also like to work at a press.
Ryan Christiansen is a candidate in Minnesota State University Moorhead's Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. He earned his Certificate in Publishing from MSUM in 2010 and following that, he started Knuckledown Press. Ryan is a career professional writer with a background in journalism and technical writing. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from MSUM in 1993.