DD: On your personal website, you have a great quote: “In a perfect world, Audre Lorde and Joseph Campbell would sit down over a few pints of Mudder’s Milk to speak about the way our dreams and magic connect us all, teach us all—the way both are vital to a full and vibrant expression and expansion of culture & self.” Can you start the interview by talking about these artistic forbearers, and what it means to you to run a poetry press in America in 2017?
NM: Thank you. No one’s ever asked me about that one before!
The book that most affected me in college, still the one I give to friends at any opportunity, is Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. We choose pieces for Sugared Water, our anthologies, and our Porkbelly chapbooks in the place where struggle, speculative work, humor, sure voice, feminism, and the intimate journey converge. Ray Bradbury might call it tipping out the “beautiful stuff” we hold inside of us, or the voices to help “lead [us] through the dark.” Everything, for us, is about the journey, and accompanying the poet or writer along the way. Our staff interests touch everything from hiking to graphic novels, expressionist printmaking to death positivity and queer theory. We bring that to our lit.
The majority of our writers are women or female identifying, trans, non-binary, queer folx. We support the work of immigrants and expats, multicultural and intersectional work. We love first books, those starting out, and books by poets and writers well on their way. Our poets range in age from teenage to octogenarian. We look to regional artists when we can, and make a lot of our cover art in house. Running a press in 2017 America is, for us, the work of citizens of the world making way for important voices, marginalized voices—voices we need.
DD: How did Porkbelly Press come into being?
NM: Sugared Water came first, a market for genre-straddling work, for speculative work, for new writers and experimental writers and established writers trying something new, for humans letting us into their internal landscape. I decided to go with a handmade approach, a callback to years of making zines, using traditional printmaking and bookbinding methods.
After a few people sent packets of poems clearly from a series (most of our chapbooks are clusters of poems), and many of those poets had no chapbooks listed in their biographical statement (why not?), I did a lot of thinking about the books I owned and what was missing. I’d read this book is the thought that convinced this artist-writer-printmaker-bookbinder to ask for those poems to make books of them. Some generous, lovely poets (and writers!) took me up on that, and trusted a fledgling press with their book.
A handful of our titles still come from poets and writers we find in our Sugared Water queue.
DD: Tell us about Sugared Water.
NM: Sugared Water is a handbound, limited edition literary magazine. Each cover is printed by hand using traditional printmaking methods. Our most recent issue, no. 5, combines screen printing and letterpress (vintage wood type individually inked with 2-5 colors and pulled on a Vandercook Proof Press). We made 240 of our first issue, but since our storage is a box in my closet, I’ve come down to about 100 numbered copies per issue. We’re currently staffed entirely by women,
We look for work that’s sharp and image-dense, work that makes us stop and look up from what we’re reading. Work we’re thinking about days after we’ve read it. We feature a large number of women and genderqueer folx, and we make space for trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, and those living in between or everything. No hate speech. Magic, yes. Speculative, yes.
Each issue is supposed to be 56 pages, but some seasons we’re a little greedy and hit 80.
DD: You’ve published some incredible poets, notably Chen Chen, E. Kristen Anderson, and Eloisa Amezcua. Amezcua’s Mexicamericana seems a particularly necessary poetry collection in the Trump era. Can you tell us a bit about this collection?
NM: Yes. We’re so honored to have these voices, established and up-and-coming, and I’m so, so thrilled to be part of so many literary histories. Porkbelly Press published Chen Chen’s first book. When I read a first book and have trouble believing it’s a first book, and I think—how has this ever been passed up? Why isn’t it already an object people can hold? Why aren’t people already gifting this to friends who need it?’—that feeling is why I started a press in the first place.
This collection is a light in the dark.
Mexicamericana is a cluster of poems about being, about identity, otherness, and the strength it takes to persist, to cross borders, borders sometimes separated by a dangerous line. It’s about people dying for politics, the resilience of self and identity and the convergence of selves, the fact that people are not illegal. People are not illegal.
People are not illegal.
People are dying.
And people are surviving.
And we won’t have a fucking wall.
DD: Tell us about the other amazing collections that are a part of your 2017 chapbook series.
NM: 2017 has sex and body autonomy and desire and infertility (fertility too) and so much strength. 2017 investigates survival and intergenerational trauma, erasures made from punk rags (more sex), ritual, feminist monsters with sharp teeth & blades, blood, bone, and power. Our authors this year: Amber Edmondson, Kelly Lorraine Andrews, Melissa Atkinson Mercer, Donna Vorreyer, Anita Olivia Koester, M. Brett Gaffney, Lindsay Lusby, Kristi Carter, Maggie Woodward, and Eloisa Amezcua. By the time this interview appears, we’ll have just released Apples or Pomegranates by Anita Olivia Koester, Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem by Kristi Carter (covers hand-printed in metallic ink!), and will soon release Found Footage by Maggie Woodward (including erasures!), and Blackbird Whitetail Redhand by Lindsay Lusby.
DD: Porkbelly Press also publishes micro chapbooks, collections of 8-10 pages. How does the micro chapbook as a form differ for you from a regular length chapbook?
NM: Micros tend to be single arcs or very tight clusters of work. It’s an opportunity for poets & writers to send a small sampling out into the world, though they’re curated with the same attention to design and detail as our chapbooks. It’s a taste that can be enjoyed easily in a sitting.
DD: How has Cincinnati influenced the press and your work as a poet/artist?
NM: My father worked close to the river for many years, and I often spent a portion of my weekend downtown at the jewelry manufacturing company where he served as vice president. He worked long hours, and I was there with him more than a few times when the rest of the shop was empty. My childhood is steeped in the architecture, landscape, and lore of this city, and I carry that with me today. It’s why my press is named Porkbelly, after the pork belly trade in Cincinnati. A fellow printmaker beat me to the name Steamwhistle (a local letterpress studio), paying homage to the shipping history of the city, which nestles into a wide bend of the Ohio River. Best American Poetry blog did an interview with Glass recently—Tony named his press after a major trade in Toledo; I suppose we Ohioans have a thing for industry.
DD: You are a talented visual artist. I admire the work on your website, particularly the assemblage to Emily Dickinson titled “Open Me Carefully.” How has your work in the publishing field influenced your art and vice versa? (Clearly, the stunning design of your books is one point of connection).
NM: Thank you so much. “Open Me Carefully” is an homage to a book of the same name, detailing the relationship and letters between Emily Dickinson and her childhood friend, Susan (who moved in across the hedge and married Emily’s brother). I spent a semester avoiding Henry James and mining Dickinson’s poems for erotic poems ostensibly written for Susie, of which there are many. My focus is inexhaustible now and again, always following the personal connection, the surprise, or the secret. Attention to detail and craft spring up from an education in art and writing. It’s inevitable.
Craftsmanship and the hand of the artist are important elements in Porkbelly’s line. I grew up writing stories, making art, and climbing trees to hide, to read, and to ambush my cousins with water balloons. Precision is very important in all of these endeavors.
My visual education certainly informs my writing, and when it came time to start a magazine, and then a press, it lent me the confidence and skills necessary to hand-produce books of a quality with which I’m happy, and which delight (I hope!) the recipients and authors. Though that means a double helping of self-criticism sometimes, and more stress about the occasional 1/8th inch variation in cover size than I’d like to admit, I am honored to help in bringing these books into being.
DD: What draws you to the chapbook? What can the chapbook offer that a full length collection can’t?
NM: At Porkbelly, each chapbook is made by hand from start to finish, and I love the variety of chapbook design and presentation. I can afford to collect more small works; I can afford to produce more. Most importantly, hand-binding and experimentation in production are valued in chaps. Chapbooks don’t give you time to be distracted—they feel intimate and quirky. Chaps may contain several arcs, but it’s a distilled potion.
DD: What’s forthcoming from Porkbelly Press in 2018?
NM: More first chapbooks investigating things like navigating chronic illness with body-love (first-generation Russian-Jewish-American Minadora Macheret’s Love Me, Anyway), a first book by a Muslim woman of color (Noor Hindi’s Diary of a Filthy Woman), a book of ekphrastic poems inspired by Diane Arbus’ photographs & a poet’s journey (How Darkness Enters a Body by Sarah Nichols), erasure poems imagining the voice of Elizabeth Short reclaimed from a crime novel about her murder (Dreamland for Keeps by Sarah Nichols), and a collection of prose poems which left us speechless (Lisette Alonso’s Wednesday’s Child).
DD: Could you end the interview by giving us a poem from a Porkbelly Press poet?
NM: Yes, absolutely. Below is a selection from Eloisa Amezcua’s Mexicamericana. This poem was selected for Best American Poets 2017 and first appeared in Public Pool. In her chapbook, it’s spaced a little differently, with a lot of white space for breathing room, and several page-turns to punctuate it.
Watching Underworld, Inc. Episode 3: Human Cargo
The Pima County Morgue,
approximately 110 miles
from my childhood home,
houses John Doe, Jane Doe,
[sexless] Doe. Dated remains
found in the Sonoran Desert—
nameless and alone. The medical
examiner holds a fragmented
cranium, points to where
the eyes would go.
I cross the border on foot.
My father waits for me
in the McDonald’s parking lot
one block into America.
I stand in the line
Francisco, a people smuggler
in Nogales, says his secret
is training others
to hide and survive.
I don’t remember much from middle school
US History— who lead the troops
that took Fort Ticonderoga or who forced
General Pemberton to surrender in 1863—
but I remember like yesterday
the sound of my mother’s voice
practicing the Pledge of Allegiance
before her naturalization ceremony.
A Border Patrol agent
explains how after five days
on foot in the desert,
skin begins to split
from the burning sun—
flesh exposed and open.
Nothing can be done once
the breaking has started.
Gratitude is a word that comes to mind.
In Phoenix, Magdalena buys and sells
moneyless migrants wholesale—
their families unable to pay off cartel
trafficking rates. Three women/girls sit
one room over, faces hidden with pillow cases—
they're background. And Magdalena, she talks
a tough talk, says business is business
and business is good. Her face concealed
by a black bandana and mirrored sunglasses
reflecting the camera back into itself.
When the show’s over, I’ll call my mother
just to hear the sound of her voice.
Como estas? she’ll ask. And I’ll lie,
tell her things are fine the way
she’d say the same to her mother
thirty years before when she moved
to this country alone
with her husband. I’m haunted
by that for her. I moved thousands of miles
away alone just to feel
closer. Before we hang up, she’ll say
Dios te bendiga, picture me signing myself
or kissing a crucifix I can’t bring myself
to wear. A blessing I don’t need
but I take it anyways.
Nicci Mechler is a graduate of Northern Kentucky University (BFA Studio Art, Masters in English). Between research, novel revisions, poetic alchemy, reading, retreats, and caring for roomies, rescue dogs, and rescue kitties, she makes art, edits the literary magazine Sugared Water, and runs Porkbelly Press (a micro press in Cincinnati, OH). She is also the editor and maker of several zines, including the body image zine LMLMB.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of two poetry collections: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016) and Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, forthcoming 2019). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Sewanee Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for the DIALOGIST. Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America, forthcoming from NYQ Books.