NA: I read on your website that you started Press 53 in 2005. What inspired you to start a press?
KMW: What inspired me to be a publisher was a short fiction anthology project I edited in 2001 for a New York City arts foundation. I loved finding the stories, working with the authors, designing the layout of the book, and then sharing it with the world. These were twelve stories selected from all the stories I read that were published in 2001, over 1,000 stories total, and we ended up publishing folks like Robert Olen Butler, Julie Orringer, and Bill Roorbach. What pushed me to actually take the leap and open my own publishing company was losing my day job in the airline industry in 2004, fallout from 9/11. My plan was to start small and stay small, publishing one or two books a year while looking for another job, but as soon as some of the authors we published in the anthology heard I had started a press, I began receiving manuscripts I couldn’t turn down.
NA: How many books does Press 53 publish per year?
KMW: We have published as many as twenty-three books in one year, but last year I made a decision to decrease that number to about fifteen: five short fiction, about six poetry, a couple of anthologies, and a couple of titles for our Press 53 Classics editions, which are books by North Carolina authors that are out of print. We consider this our way of honoring our home state and the wonderful writers who call North Carolina home. Our new titles come from widely published authors all across the U.S.
NA: What inspired the name, Press 53?
KMW: My lucky number was 7 when I was young, but then I learned that it was also my little brother’s, so I chose a new number. I figured that having a two-digit lucky number would decrease the odds of someone else having the same one. I liked the way 53 looked, so that was it. The number has popped up throughout my life in the craziest places, and I thought it would be a different kind a name that stood out, so I decided to use it for the press. And it has proven to be very lucky.
NA: What was/is your ultimate goal for the press?
KMW: My goal is the same today as it was when I founded the press: to publish writing I love and then set out to find readers who agree with me. I have also passed this mantra on to my editors: find writing you love and then build an audience of readers who will learn to trust your judgment. As a small press that is not set up on the nonprofit model, we can only stay in business if readers come back again and again and buy our books. We don’t publish for the market; we are working hard to build our own market.
NA: You publish short fiction, poetry, and anthologies? I was wondering if you could say a few words about these different endeavors.
KMW: Short fiction and poetry are the two forms of writing most overlooked and undervalued by larger publishers and most all booksellers. I have found the poetry and short fiction communities to be filled with active and appreciative readers, many of whom are also writers. Ask readers of short fiction or poetry to name the publisher of their favorite book in either category and they will most often be able to tell you. Ask novel readers the same question and they will probably shrug. Small presses need readers to return again and again, and readers of short fiction and poetry do if they learn to trust the publisher’s taste in writing. As for anthologies, they are another way for us to discover more great writers, authors who are working their way toward publishing a book. We have two anthology series: Surreal South, founded by Laura and Pinckney Benedict, and edited by Josh Woods, that we publish every odd year on Halloween; and our military-themed Home of Brave, a edited by Jeffery Hess. We have what we hope will become a new anthology series coming out this October: Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, edited by Clifford Garstang, who is not only an award-winning author himself, but also editor-in-chief of our digital online journal, Prime Number Magazine. Everywhere Stories will feature stories from different countries without duplication. Our goal is to eventually cover the entire globe.
NA: Tell me about the 53-Word Contest.
KMW: We began this a couple of years ago with Meg Pokrass, author of Damn Sure Right, who has also been called “The Queen of Flash Fiction.” Last year we turned the contest over to Prime Number Magazine and Clifford Garstang. Our fiction editor Christine Norris manages the contest with Cliff bringing guest judges in every month. Basically, our guest judge delivers a prompt, something like, “Write a 53-word story about crashing a bike.” There is no entry fee and we accept entries until the 15th of the month and then announce the winner the first of the next month when we also introduce the next guest judge and prompt. The winner gets his or her choice of Press 53 books and the winning story is published in Prime Number Magazine. Overall, it’s just a lot of fun and gives us another opportunity to discover more great writers.
NA: I recently came across a wonderful book, Useful Information for the Soon-to-be-Beheaded by Shivani Mehta, published by Press 53 and chosen by Tom Lombardo. I’d love to have Tom Lombardo say a few words about the book.
TL: I’d been looking for a good prose poetry collection for several years. Because I read almost all the poetry submissions that come through Press 53—contests and open subs—I tend to reject a lot of what I call “prose with line breaks” and I see many failed attempts at prose poetry. As you know, prose poetry follows a specific form that requires edginess, literary absurdity, intense focus on sound and figurations, and leaps of story and language. Not many can do it. So, when I open a submission and see prose poems, I tend to have this hopeful reaction: Oh, maybe this is the one! Unfortunately, I’m usually disappointed, longing for something that’s not there. And then one day, I saw one of Shivani Mehta’s poems at Narrative, the Internet-based magazine. Her excellent prose poem had won honorable mention, and I looked her up via the Internet (have you any idea how many Shivani Mehta’s there are in this world? A lot more than I anticipated), and finally tracked her down in Calabasas, California. I asked her to send me a sample of 10, which I read and loved and asked for more. And more. And more. At the end of a year and a half, I felt I had enough good prose poems in hand for a collection, so I began editing. I did not edit during the harvesting of her poems because I did not want to pollute her process. Shivani is one of this world’s two or three gifted writers who roll out of bed in the morning writing wonderful prose poems in nearly perfect form. The stories and the voice were vibrant, and during editing, I urged Shivani to the extremes in sound and figurations, especially in the area of synesthesia, which I believe to be a key figuration for prose poems because of its disorienting effects. Shivani and I also worked very closely on the order of poems, especially with the series of 8 or 9 “Letters to Grandmamma,” which told a continuing story and which had to be carefully sprinkled throughout the manuscript.
NA: Could we have a poem from Shivani Mehta’s collection?
TL: “The Butterflies” seems to be one that grabs readers for its unusual view of sensuality. But there are so many to choose from.
You unzip my dress, a curve from the side of my left breast to the top of my hip. My body is a column of butterflies. One by one, roused by the light and cool air, they wake from sleep. One by one they open their wings, answering the instinct to be free. They scatter in all directions; I learn what it means to be in many places at once.
And there’s also this:
When I saw the little guy, nose pressed to the glass wall of his cage, I knew I had to have him. He was just what I’d been looking for, as tall as a ball-point pen when clicked open. He weighed no more than a sprig of black sage when I lifted him, placed him in the breast pocket of my shirt where he settled, nestled into the warmth of my body. I wondered if marsupial mothers felt like this, if they gestated their miniscule babies as I carried my little man, forgetting he was there until he moved, jabbed a hand or foot into the side of my breast. That first evening in my apartment we got acquainted over spaghetti and meatballs. I opened a bottle of champagne, poured him half a thimbleful. He ate five crumbs from my plate and a sliver of shaved parmesan the size of a clipped fingernail. I take him everywhere, dress-shopping, tucked into my waistband at the gym, on dates with other men. They never know he’s there, pressed into my cleavage. At the office, I set him in a glass jar on my desk. He naps for much of the morning, sliding between the folds of an old dishtowel. Every evening, after supper I sit on the balcony, let him perch on my shoulder. I’m so happy, he murmured once, his breath teasing my earlobe, his fingers tickling my neck like a cat’s whiskers.
And there are so many more.
NA: How many poetry books does Press 53 publish per year? And how do you find your poets?
KMW: Tom usually brings Press 53 around three to four books per year, and Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root will bring us about one or two for their Silver Concho Poetry Series, which leaves me with maybe two that I pick up from poets who live in or near North Carolina. Tom, Pam, and Bill have no boundaries, other than I ask that the poets live in the U.S. purely for reasons of distribution and our ability to offer support.
TL: I find poets for my Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections all over the place. Above, I mentioned how I found Shivani in a Narrative magazine contest. I sample journals widely, and I have a number of contacts around the poetry world who recommend poets to me. If I hear a poet at a reading I like, I might ask for a sample. I’ve conducted several workshops, and when I notice a good poet, I’ll ask for samples. Right now, I’m working with an unpublished poet whom I met in a workshop, and I loved the poems I saw there. I’ve been asking for more samples and more samples, and encouraging this poet to submit to journals, and it seems to be working well. If things go along and go along, this poet’s collection could be out in 2016. I also get several submissions each year over the transom—via mail or email. I’m open to reading a sample or a collection from any dedicated poet. Another source: Our submissions pool. This year, we’re doing our first Press 53 Award for Poetry with a nice cash advance and travel expenses. Only one person will win that award, but there will be several submissions that I put aside for future consideration. I’ve already seen four in the early submissions who have very strong voices and have a good chance to be finalists, if not the eventual winner. Too early to go too strongly in one direction because our deadline is weeks away, but it’s nice to have a straw dog in the house to measure against. In past contests, there have always been a few finalists whom I have considered for my series. With only four slots per year, I must be very selective. I reject or ignore far more than I select. I could select many, many more.
KMW: I’d like to add that we chose to have a contest to bring attention to the manuscript Tom selects. Tom may read 300 manuscripts to find that one he wants to publish with us, and in today’s self-publishing crazy world, and the books coming out from what looks like legitimate publishing houses, media outlets are not impressed when someone signs a book deal, so unless you win a big contest, it’s very hard to get any attention. The winner of our Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and our poetry winner will both receive a lot of valuable media coverage, which is also valuable for our press.
NA: Tom, have you been with Press 53 from the beginning?
TL: No. I came on board at Kevin’s invitation in January of 2009. Kevin and I had worked together on my anthology, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events, which comprised 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations, and included some quite well-known poets and some very good poets who were not so well-known, writing about grief, war, exile, divorce, abuse, bigotry, illness, injury, addiction. It was a massive effort, and Kevin did all the design and production and printing work on that 300-some page collection. In the process, Kevin and I clicked in our poetic and publishing sensibilities.
KMW: I really enjoyed working with Tom, so when my partner left the press in November 2008, I had to rethink and in some ways re-invent Press 53. So I invited Tom to come onboard as Poetry Editor, which evolved into Poetry Series Editor so readers will know which selections are his.
NA: Could you tell me about one of your forthcoming or recently published poetry collections? Maybe provide a poem from one of them?
TL: It’s very difficult for me to single one out. I really don’t want to do that. To pick one would eliminate others, and they are all deserving of notice. I love them all. They are all wonderful poets. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Each is different, but each is special. I would urge your readers to go to my page of selections are view them all http://www.press53.com/TomLombardoPoetrySelections.html.
Forthcoming this Autumn, there are two new collections in my series: Frozen Latitudes by Therése Halscheid, and Paper, Cotton, Leather by Jenny Sadre-Orafai. Both are excellent poets with previous collections.
One interesting case: Usually, I do the selecting. But a few years ago, I got selected. David Bottoms, the well-known poet laureate of Georgia and professor at Georgia State University, whom I’d met through my work on After Shocks, asked me to edit his quite extraordinary volume of essays on poetry “The Onion’s Dark Core,” and Press 53 published it.
NA: What are some of the happiest moments for Press 53? Feel free to provide one or two links.
KMW: I’ve experience numerous happy moments: meeting John Ehle and then working with him to reprint his amazing novels and nonfiction in our Press 53 Classics series, which also led to us receiving a hand-written letter from Harper Lee thanking us for keeping in print one of her favorite novels, The Land Breakers, by one of her favorite authors. The Land Breakers was recently picked up for publication by The New York Review of Books, which was a huge victory for us. Sure, we’ll lose that novel, but The Land Breakers will move on to find a wider audience, which it and John Ehle both deserve.
TL: For me the happiest moment was when Kevin asked me to join the Press 53 effort, and it’s been wonderful ever since. And now I have a series of “happiest moments,” which occur when I hold the printed copy of a collection I’ve just edited, and when I open it, the poems are still very enjoyable and still revealing themselves in what is likely my 15th reading. I know I’ve made the right choice when the poems get better with each reading, even the 10th or 20th reading.
NA: How do you edit a manuscript of poetry?
TL: That is a corporate secret, sorry. My tombstone will read: I edit, therefore I am. But I will say this, I am an involved editor. Very. And I am very specific. I have told poets, “You need synecdoche, right here, at this point.”
One essential rule: I tell all my poets at the outset—I will make many suggestions, but you must decide whether to use them. This is YOUR poetry, not mine. Of course, if the poet ignores something I feel is critical, I will make a second argument for the change, but after that, I’m Pontius Pilate.
I enjoy the objectivity of my work—it’s not my poetry, so I can play around with it quite roughly, with no guilt, looking for solutions. It’s great joy to hear a poet say back to me: “Wow, that works! I didn’t see it that way!” And the point is this: The poet’s job is to write great poems. The editor’s job is to figure out the rest. I learned many lessons from a brilliant and effective poetry editor—April Ossmann—when she edited my own collection What Bends Us Blue (WordTech 2013).
Pet peeve: overuse of adjectives and adverbs. They are abstractions. Using too many destroys the concrete imagery that I like to see and hear and feel and touch and smell. When I edit a collection, I attack adjectives and adverbs. I urge my poets to see these modifiers as opportunities for figurations. (There, that’s one editing secret revealed.
NA: What do you look for in a collection of poetry?
TL: Poetry is figurative language. No figurations, no poetry. I have a list of 21 figurations of which I hope to see at least one early in a collection—like in the first poem. If I don’t see a figuration by the 3rd poem, I smell that I am not reading poetry. But I always listen further. Always. And when I taste rejection building on my tongue, I always go back and re-read what I’ve just read to make sure. I owe it to the poet. I also look for strong voice, strong diction, especially in the verbs, surprising language or what some editors have called “events of language, ” and I am a sound freak, especially fond of tracking the frequency (in Hertz, not number) of the vowels in each line or stanza. I like poetry that has an effective mood or tone. Finally, story is important to me. Anyone can write a poem that no one can understand, but it takes a good poet to communicate a story. Those are the things that grab my attention. About 10 percent of our submissions make it past that point.
Tom Lombardo is Poetry Series Editor for Press 53, for which he has selected and edited 15 collections and one book of essays on poetry since 2009. He also was editor of After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, an anthology of 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. His first full collection of poems is What Bends Us Blue (Word Tech, 2013), and he has a forthcoming chapbook The Name of This Game due out this year. Tom's poems have appeared in journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India, including Southern Poetry Review, Ambit, Subtropics, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Atlanta Review, New York Quarterly, Chrysalis Reader, and others. His poems have been translated to Hindi and Mayalayam. His nonfiction has appeared in several publications and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Press, 2009. His criticism has been published in New Letters, North Carolina Literary Review, and South Carolina Review. He earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. He lives in Midtown Atlanta.
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. Follow Nin on Twitter here.