NA: Red Hen Press looks like a fairly large and sophisticated operation. Located in Pasadena, you offer several awards in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And you have two other imprints, Arktoi and Boreal Books. And you offer literacy programs in the schools . . . How do you manage all that?
NA: Why is it called Red Hen? I keep thinking of the little red hen who planted the seed, and cut the corn, and took it to mill, and baked the bread and ate it all herself. Is there some reference here?
KG: You got it. In the beginning, we wanted to be a collective, but typically for sprawl cities, two of us ended up doing all the work, so when we became a 501(c)3 we decided to be Red Hen Press. In poetry, everyone wants to eat the bread—get published—but most people don’t want to plant the wheat and knead the dough. The actual work of putting together books and getting them out into the literary culture in such a way that someone will read them is daunting to most.NA: Could you talk a little bit about the different contests the press sponsors?
KG: We conduct three contests ourselves, and two in conjunction with other organizations. The Benjamin Saltman Award, for an original unpublished poetry collection, is named after my poetry teacher, a fine Southern California poet. It’s for $3,000 and has been won by some outstanding poets. Our first winner was Gaylord Brewer, several of whose books we’ve now published, most recently Give Over, Graymalkin. The last two winners are Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, whose But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise came out in March of 2012, and Brynn Saito, whose The Palace of Contemplating Departure will come out in March of 2013. We also have the Red Hen Short Fiction Award and the Red Hen Poetry Prize, both for $1,000. The winning pieces are published in The Los Angeles Review. We choose new final judges for all three awards every year and all the initial reading is done by the Managing Editor and Publisher.
Every year, we also publish the winner of the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, for the best unpublished poetry collection by a woman. Every other year, we publish the winner of the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Press Poetry Prize, for a second or third full-length collection by a Latino or Latina poet. Each of those winners also receives $1,000.NA: Are most of the writers you publish prize-winners? Or do you also solicit manuscripts or have an open reading period?
KG: Of the 20 books we publish each year, two are the imprints, one is the Ben Saltman Award, one is the AROHO winner, and every other year one is the Letras Latinas winner, so that leaves 15 or 16 slots depending on the year. Our core poetry authors take up the rest of the poetry slots, so we are not acquiring new poets. But our prose list is still in progress. Our open reading period is the month of June and we accept work from agents throughout the year.NA: Will you say a few words about Arktoi Books?
KG: I asked Arktoi’s Editor, the poet Eloise Klein Healy (whose new and selected, A Wild Surmise, comes out in March of 2012) to answer this one. Here’s what she said: “Red Hen Press was my first choice of publisher to approach about an imprint. I had come to the conclusion that lesbian writers weren't being published in the numbers I had grown used to and I wanted to do something to give them more opportunities. Also, I felt that the lesbian community had reached a new stage and the writing should reflect that literary and political growth. I felt I wanted to publish books that spoke to the whole world, that would find a way to many audiences, that would reflect the intelligent and challenging work I knew was out there waiting to find its way into books. And, a book is still a ticket, so Arktoi exists to put tickets in the hands of fabulous writers who happen to be lesbian women.”NA: And Boreal Books? I am such a fan of that book, Double Moon, by the artist Margo Klass and the writer, Frank Soos.
KG: Boreal Books brings out one title a year by a writer from Alaska. So far we've had a book by Eva Saulitis, a marine biologist who studies killer whales in Prince William Sound. Leaving Resurrection contains essays that deal with questions science doesn't let her ask. The second title is Double Moon, the book you admire--intricate box constructions by Margo Klass and brief responses crafted by Frank Soos. Full color and a sophisticated design make that book especially gorgeous. Our third title is a book of poems, A Measure's Hush, by Anne Coray, who lives subsistence on the north shore of Lake Clark. No road leads to her cabin, but these poems can get you there. She's an artist, musician, and poet. This year's Boreal Book is a novel in poems by Nicole Stellon O'Donnell. She went into the Alaska and Polar Regions collection at Rasmuson Library and found a cache of 600 letters to and from one of the first women to come to Fairbanks during the Gold Rush. Nicole got ideas for characters and a story line and wrote Steam Laundry. The Boreal Books series spotlights the finest new writing from Alaska.NA: How long has Red Hen Press been in existence? How has it evolved over time?
KG: We started in 1994 as a poetry press. By 1997, we were also publishing prose, and at this point, nearly half the list is prose. We’ve become a national press with four reading series in Los Angeles and four in New York. Our editorial direction has always been to embrace the work of outsiders, but now that has evolved to include publishing books by established authors whose new books are too risky for New York, like Ron Carlson’s Room Service, a hybrid work of poetry, prose poetry, and micro-fiction, or David Maine’s An Age of Madness, a truly haunting novel. We publish work by such disparate authors as Camille Dungy, John Barr, Doug Kearney, David Mason, Chris Abani, and Lisa Krueger.NA: Is there any way to describe what kind of writers you seek to publish? Or maybe what kinds of work you would never print?
KG: We are looking for great work. In the beginning we had more room for emerging writers, and we still do, but only if those emerging writers are working at a high level of mastery. The “MFA project book” is not what we are looking for. We search for excellence until we find it. Books I would never publish? Hard to imagine Red Hen publishing American Psycho or the Girl books from Sweden.NA: Could you say a few words about your newest authors?
KG: I am crazy about this new book by David Maine, An Age of Madness, which I mentioned earlier. It pulls together the madness that is America—convoluted families, therapy, the life of the tree house which is the mind’s secrets and love, yes, love.
The Arktoi title this year is a memoir for the first time ever, by Kelly Barth, about overcoming fundamentalism and learning how to be gay and Christian, called My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus. It’s honest and hilarious and sometimes heartrending.
This fall we’ve also got a novel from Geoffrey Clark, an old master, and poetry collections from Jessy Randall (Injecting Dreams into Cows), Gary Lemons (Snake), Carolyn Guinzio (Spoke & Dark, the AROHO winner), Alice Derry (Tremolo), Eva Saulitis (Many Ways to Say It), Rodney Wittwer (Gone & Gone), and Richard Silber (The Horses: New and Selected). This is a verse-heavy season for us, and it runs the gamut aesthetically, stylistically, and geographically. We’re excited by all these books, and by how different they are from each other.
Looking forward to next year, there’s Brynn Saito, our newest Benjamin Saltman winner, who is going to be a star. Her poetry is both lyrical and written in a honeyed language, and she’s a great reader. The Palace of Contemplating Desire will be a book poets fall in love with and non-poets as well.
Tess Taylor’s book The Forage House, on whiteness and privilege in America, written partly at Monticello where her ancestor Thomas Jefferson fathered both white and black children, will surely stir up controversy.
We’re also publishing excellent new poetry collections by both our imprint editors, Eloise Klein Healy and Peggy Shumaker, as well as by Dan Vera (the Letras Latinas winner) Katharine Coles, John Barr, Ernest Hilbert, Kelly Davio, Erin Hollowell (a Boreal author), Ron Koertge, Rex Wilder, Nicelle Davis, Gary Geddes, Veronica Reyes (Arktoi), and Jessica Piazza (AROHO). Another verse-heavy season full of exciting work by a range of voices working at the top of their game. And don’t even get me started on next year’s fiction titles.NA: What are some of the happiest or proudest moments for the press? Feel free to provide links to reviews, events, readings, etc.
KG: There have been a lot of great reviews over the years, but it’s the events that stand out now in my memory. Our reading at Poets House with Billy Collins, Katharine Coles, and Jim Tilley was amazing. Hearing Li Young Lee read with Amber Flora Thomas and Peggy Shumaker at Poets House. Ray Bradbury, Viggo Mortensen and Galway Kinnell reading at the very first Red Hen fundraiser. Having William Trowbridge and Peggy Shumaker and Katharine Coles become laureates of their states. Publishing Percival Everett and Ron Carlson, who were two of my favorite authors long before Red Hen published them. Having David Mason win the Colorado Book Award and become state laureate. And every time we publish a poet or writer and they say thank you. When that happens, it always makes me smile. I like to think that all of us writers are in the swim of it together, holding each other’s hands so none of us drown. So we swim on out past the waves to where the sun is rising.NA: I was thinking it would be nice to end with a poem from a Red Hen author.
Here’s an excerpt from Chapter One of David Mason’s Ludlow: A Verse Novel
And now the camp fell quiet. Lamps were snuffed.
The beaten man had sighed back into earth
and firing crews descended paths in moonlight,
their gossip happy under summer stars
with all of heaven blue, dark blue above,
a perfect dome from runneled prairies east
to all the coal camps under the Front Range.
And there atop that dome, the Greeks would say,
the eyes of Christ Pantokrátor, World-king,
watched all, saw more than J. C. Osgood did
from Redstone or the C. F. & I., saw more
than John Mole tamping down his corncob pipe
and cupping a lighted match against the breeze,
saw more than young Luisa Mole who waited
curled beneath a blanket in her bunk,
hearing the voices of returning men—
saw more, I would imagine, if he lived
as the believers say he did, than barons
hours later in Manhattan, one especially
thinking of Sunday school and frugal sleep,
and of investments in some mines out West,
and that his father, John D., Senior, would
approve the profit and apply the cost
adroitly as before. The will of God.
But the eyes of heaven are no living eyes
as we might picture them, compassionate
or fierce. They are the blankness over all,
beautiful and empty as deep space,
the diamond-hard reflections of the stars.
I know that sky. I come to know it better
year by year, the sky of passing time
that pools and vanishes. I have come back.
Dr. KATE GALE is Managing Editor of Red Hen
Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review and President of the American Composers
Forum, LA. She teaches in the Low
Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and
Creative Non-Fiction. She serves on the boards of A Room of Her Own Foundation
and Poetry Society of America. She is
author of five books of poetry and six librettos including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis
which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in
Milwaukee. Her current projects include a
creative non-fiction book Flight of the
Ugly Duckling, a co-written libretto, Paradises Lost with Ursula K. LeGuin
and composer Stephen Taylor, and a libretto based on The Inner Circle by
T. C. Boyle, based on Dr. Kinsey’s life with composer Daniel Felsenfeld.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort was published by CavanKerry Press in 2010. Follow Nin's blog here.