KS: I am holding in my hands a copy of so she had the world, a collaboration between the poet Deborah Keenan and the artist Susan Solomon. I tracked down your booth at AWP-Minneapolis after hearing Deborah talk about the process of working with you and the visual artist.
The chapbook is small, just a handful. The paintings are startling saturated, some abstract landscapes. One page is edged by an impressionistic stained-glass window, with a kind of mottled sky making a background for the poem. Most poems are white-backgrounded with a juxtaposing painting. The book is hand sewn on beautiful paper. I am a bit haunted by the collection, the deft hand at work in the poems and the vivid images.
What kind of projects does Red Bird look for?
SH: It is such a beautiful collection and when you talk about the size of it, the vibrant colors, the way it is assembled, how it feels in your hands, you’re getting at the core goal we have for every chapbook we publish–we want every chapbook to be not only a collection of compelling writing, but also a work of art. By this I don’t mean to say that every collection we publish is illustrated in some way or that every collection is a collaboration between an author and artist or a work by an author/artist.
One of the core things that our editors look for when reading manuscripts is some sort of cohesion– an image, a theme, a thread, a building block. This is as important to us as language, syntax, style, subject matter because it underpins every phase from editing to design to publication. Ultimately these building blocks come to inform the physical size, the shape, layout, font choice, paper, use of images, the color and even the type of thread we use when binding a chapbook.
The majority of what we publish we receive through our open reading periods. Each of our editors reads all the manuscripts for his or her genre plus any mixed genre collections and selects up to three manuscripts to publish the following year. Looking back on recent years I’d say less than 20% of what we publish in a given year would be what we refer to as special project–meaning a project someone on our team decided to take on above and beyond their selected manuscripts.
I can’t say that we look for any one aesthetic or voice or school of writing. We’re open to author and artist collaborations, just as we’re open to authors working only in text as we’re open to authors working in both visual and written mediums. We’re equally open to emerging and established authors. We don’t mind if a collection crosses genre lines–we’re happy to look at hybrids, collections that defy categorization. We think everything has possibility and we start from that perspective when considering the work we receive.
KS: Why the chapbook? Is it more limiting or less limiting to have defined your press in this way?
SH: There are a few reasons we’ve chosen the chapbook as our main focus… The form is very accessible–even with today’s hectic pace, you can typically pick up a chapbook and read it from cover to cover in one sitting. I think its shorter length is less daunting for emerging writers when they sit down and think about putting together a first collection. And the length allows established writers to make brief explorations of a theme or idea. Chapbooks also lend themselves well to art books and author/artist collaborations. And, of course, it’s a form that can be produced affordably, allowing us to provide more of the sales proceeds to our authors.
Even though chapbooks are our primary focus, we don’t feel limited by it. As a form it really seems to be experiencing a resurgence in the broader literary community and we feel very fortunate to be part of that. We’re finding independent bookstores open to carrying chapbooks and online distribution has worked well for us–we get orders from all over the globe (and manuscripts, too).
If there’s one drawback to the chapbook, I think it’s the perception that chapbooks are a niche for poetry. I identify primarily as poet and I think chapbooks are great for poetry, but I think chapbooks work wonderfully for other forms, too. We don’t see as much fiction and nonfiction as we’d like–especially nonfiction. That’s something I’d like to see change–and it seems to be, slowly. We’ve certainly been working trying to promote the chapbook across genres. We even released our first children’s chapbook last year.
The shorter form allows us to release multiple titles in a year which, in turn, allows us to fulfill our mission of introducing more aspiring and inspiring writers and artists to a larger audience.
We’ve made broadsides and pamphlets in the past, and hope to work with those more in the future. We’ve done a star book and a map book. We’re considering micro-chapbooks and brainstorming some other ideas as well. Chapbooks may be our primary form, but our love of the book arts means we’re always thinking of and exploring new shapes and sizes, bindings, other forms.
KS: Tell us more about the children’s chapbook, and about a chapbook you worked on that you would like everyone to get for Christmas.
As to picking a chapbook I’ve worked on that I would like everyone to have–that’s truly a tough decision. There are two that have already been published that immediately come to mind–My Life as a Pencil which is a creative nonfiction collection and Peregrine which is a poetry collection. I spent the weekend assembling a poetry collection which will be released this week–Crossing Pleasant Lake–that I was both editor and designer on that I am also quite fond of. It is a many-sectioned chapbook length poem that is contained within a variant of a Japanese stab binding with a die cut cover.
I’ll focus on Peregrine since it is already available and is a poetry collection… Peregrine by Jolene Brink was published this year, released in September. The poems in the collection range in form including an intermixing of prose poems and free verse. They present beautifully on the page and are both intimate and expansive. I was really struck by how the author wove both worldly and identifiably Midwestern stories so deftly in a collection. Family is considered both in the context of the personal tribe and the human race. The collection treads the territory of loss and death but does so in a way that is often reflective, sometimes hopeful, rarely dark.
I’ve included a few poems from the collection that really spoke to me, even haunted me, from the very first reading.
The title poem “Peregrine” is the second poem in the collection–something I am not accustomed to seeing in a collection, though I think its placement early on, as with the order of the collection overall, was right.
Birdsong is the primary indicator
of habitats prosperous to humans.
— Gordon Hempton
We followed lichen for miles
along the water
until we found
peregrines in the clouds,
their black specs curling
in the wind.
We watched them
hunt down swifts and starlings,
flickers nesting on the shore.
We watched from the rocks,
wingless and apologizing
for what we can’t explain,
except the prediction of loss
our startled bodies carry.
You will find “Crossing the Anthropocene” near the mid-point of the collection, by which point you see more of a shift from world to home (though there is some interplay throughout the collection).
CROSSING THE ANTHROPOCENE
is a comma
falling out of place.
We rush in to fix the footnotes.
the open country
I feel the weight
of another earth shrinking.
I’ve read predictions
for my generation
on a capsized continent
for fresh for lettuce.
In another life we were rural
and our kin carried great forests
down to the river.
For rituals to bring rain.
a dozen bee colonies
An indifferent sip, a poisoned bud, a pistil.
We are made to love the sound
of flames cracking birch bark open,
to seek crevices of dark water running with snowmelt,
to love what waits for us at dawn. It does not matter
how we arrived. Whether we’ve portaged
a solo trip upriver, or returned seeking shelter
after a long time living alone. We are made to cross
the lakes together, to go back and revisit old waters.
To sit on the shoreline and wait for the moon to find us.
There are so many words for love: tinder, cup, bramble.
So many ways to ask, are you whole? And, will you teach me?
After a long time together we learn to budget for winters
with bog berries and light scraped from the bottom of a canoe.
We learn to drift inside maps with fading lines, reciting the prayers
of our families and seeking direction from strangers.
We do not forget the quiet spaces stored with awe,
or the smoke signals of a camp fire rising in the darkness.
KS: These poems are beautifully wordsmithy, sentient, poignant.
Where did the name Red Bird come from?
SH: Red Bird Chapbooks came in to being as a result of a bookmaking class our founder, Dana Hoeschen, took back in 2007 while studying at Hamline University. During the class the instructors insisted that each student come up with a name for their own hypothetical small press. At that time Dana chose Red Bird for its simplicity, its generic nature, its slightly whimsical appearance and the constant presence of red birds at the feeder outside her work space window.
The assignment to establish a name for a press and the variety of forms Dana learned in that class stuck with her. In 2010 she decided to launch the press.
In keeping with the idea of whimsy, what started out initially as the Red Bird Chapbooks logo became our “book” bird… A hand drawn outline of a bird that we put in each of our chapbooks along with edition information and publication year. The bird design changes each year, adding to the uniqueness of each of our chapbooks.
August 2015 marked the beginning of our sixth year publishing chapbooks. What started as a one person endeavor has grown. In the first three years (2010 to 2012) Red Bird published twenty-one chapbooks. We now have a team of ten volunteers–mostly editors–and we publish around thirty chapbooks each year.
KS: What are the challenges and opportunities of running a press with a large staff of volunteers?
SH: One of the biggest opportunities I see with our current arrangement is the diversity of the editorial team–because we allow our editors to select the titles they want to work on, it means we end up with a nice range of chapbooks each year. Of course there is also the fact that having a volunteer team keeps our costs low, which means we’re able pay our authors more. We keep only enough of the sales proceeds to cover our costs of producing and selling chapbooks. The remainder goes to the authors.
Our entire organization is currently volunteer based. This, to me, is also one of our challenges–I know the amount of time each of our editors put in to the work they do for us, and though I know there are some very real benefits for them, I would like for us to eventually be able to offer some sort of compensation–even if it’s just a small stipend. We do provide benefits to our editors–their work is acknowledged, they receive a copy of each chapbook they edit, they can take on special projects and of course we try to encourage our editors to publish a collection of their work, too.
The other challenges we face are pretty typical ones… communication with a large group of people working from dispersed locations can take some effort. And a large number of our editors have “day” jobs. They are working with us because they believe in Red Bird and are passionate about bringing literature into the world, but editing is just one of many things competing for their time.
We’ve been very fortunate to have a strong team of editors, all very talented writers themselves, who are very dedicated to Red Bird and have been with us long term. I am thrilled to have such talented colleagues and am proud of the work we all do.
KS: Who designs the chapbook covers? They are very different from one another, very striking. Where do the images come from?
SH: The majority of the covers, and chapbooks themselves, are designed by Dana Hoeschen. She reads every chapbook many times and considers the text extensively before determining the size and shape. Once those have been formed, the search for cover images begins. Dana is constantly looking for new ideas, new innovations in form and shape and size. And she strongly believes the cover is crucial to the chapbook.
Dana’s three main consideration for covers are:
- To attract potential readers. We all judge books by their covers on at least some level. The cover needs to be visually appealing.
- To intrigue potential readers. The cover should stimulate questions… How does the cover image relate to the title? What story is contained in the book? Is there a reason this image is on this book?
- To contain and enhance the book as a whole. The finished chapbook, its title, cover, text form should be a cohesive whole. All parts should work together to make a work of art.
Sometimes the authors have artists they’ve worked with or want to work with and maybe even an idea for their cover. We’re open to considering the author’s ideas, though we do have a list of things we won’t consider for the cover.
Our cover images come from a range of places, the majority being images that are available within the public domain. Occasionally we will also seek out an artist and approach them about a specific idea we have for a cover or for interior illustrations.
KS: At AWP, I attended many panels that included Minnesotan writers and poets, editors, and directors and staff of literary arts organizations. I heard people say, several times, that they are fiercely proud that Minnesota is first in state arts funding. Is Red Bird a beneficiary of this funding? Do you agree that it’s a good idea to tax all Minnesotans for arts funding?
SH: Red Bird isn’t yet a direct beneficiary of this funding, but we do greatly benefit from operating in a state that does so much to support arts and culture.
In order to qualify for the majority of the state funding Red Bird would either need to have fiscal sponsorship through an approved arts organization or we would need to be a federally recognized nonprofit. I am actively working with our team on the latter.
We have always operated on a nonprofit model–we only keep enough of the sales proceeds from our chapbooks to cover our direct costs, and all of the time that goes in to editing, designing, assembling and promoting our chapbooks is done by volunteers–our leadership team’s goal is to become a 501(c)3 so that we have access to more resources (financial and otherwise) to sustain and better support our mission.
The state (and nonprofits within the state) do an amazing amount of work in supporting the arts and I, too, am fiercely proud to live in Minnesota for that reason. We have such a vibrant community as a result of this being a priority in our state. We have The Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Center for the Book Arts, Rain Taxi Review of Books, an array of independent bookstores, and a host of other literary resources that are too numerous to mention. All of these benefit Red Bird on some level, as well as the readers and authors we serve.
I totally support our state’s leadership on ensuring that arts are funded. I think that art is a public good (necessity) and I am fortunate to live in a state where a large number of taxpayers agree with me. The Arts & Cultural Heritage fund that provides the funding you mention was the result of the Legacy Amendment which was established as a result of a 2008 vote to amend our state’s constitution. The amendment increased our state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent in July 2009 and is designed to “protect drinking water sources; to protect, enhance, and restore wetlands, prairies, forests, and fish, game, and wildlife habitat; to preserve arts and cultural heritage; to support parks and trails; and to protect, enhance, and restore lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater.” http://www.legacy.leg.mn/about-funds
Sarah Hayes is a writer and visual artist living in Saint Paul, MN. She earned her MFA from Hamline University and studies at the Minnesota Center for the BookArts. She has been a transportation executive, a number cruncher, and an airplane mechanic.
Sarah is editor in chief of Red Bird Chapbooks, where she also designs books and discovers new authors. Her chapbook, The Heart of Everything That Is, launched the Red Bird Chapbooks Editor Series. Her poems have appeared in Zenith City Arts, The Muse, Verse Wisconsin, and Dust & Fire.
Karen Schubert’s most recent chapbooks are Black Sand Beach (Kattywompus Press) and I Left My Wings on a Chair (Kent State Press), selected by Kathleen Flenniken for a Wick Poetry Center Chapbook Prize, and featured in the Best Dressed section of the Wardrobe by Sundress Publications. Her poems and interviews appear in Waccamaw, PoetsArtists, The Louisville Review and American Literary Review, and her poem “Autobiography” was selected by Tony Hoagland for the first William Dickey Memorial Broadside Contest. She is creative non-fiction editor for Ragazine and a founding director of Lit Youngstown.