NA: I read on the website that SRP is “one of the country’s premier independent presses devoted to LGBT poetry.” Could you talk about the evolution of the press? How and why you started it? How it has expanded?
BB: Originally, I created Sibling Rivalry Press solely as a way to get my own first book into the world. Then a series of events happened that rearranged whatever plans I thought I had.
First, my father, who gave me $1,000 to self-publish that first book and to hire a book designer, unexpectedly passed away ten days after giving me that gift, so in my grief, I threw myself into book completion. Then, John Stahle, the book designer I hired with the money, unexpectedly died soon after we’d completed the project. He’d singlehandedly run a gay-focused literary journal called Ganymede, and he was well-connected within gay literary circles. When he passed away, many of those connections, especially the poetry connections, came to me because I was the last person with whom he’d worked. Ganymede died with John, but in its place, in John’s honor, and using those connections, I published a memorial for him called Ganymede Unfinished and founded Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry.
At the launch of Ganymede Unfinished, I met Ocean Vuong, also a friend of John’s, and put him under contract on the spot for our next book and his first chapbook. Meanwhile, Assaracus took off it its first year, and Library Journal named it a “Best New Magazine” of 2012. Suddenly we had instant credibility between Ocean and Assaracus.
After that, I just went with my gut. I signed poets like Raymond Luczak and Saeed Jones, who also published his first chapbook with us. I put Stephen S. Mills under contract, and his first book won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. But SRP isn’t just a gay-male press. Valerie Wetlaufer won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry this year. Megan Volpert was a finalist for Georgia Book of the Year and a Lambda Literary Finalist. Wendy Chin-Tanner was a finalist for Oregon Book of the Year. Theresa Davis is a former Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and she tours constantly for us. While we’ve received recognition largely because the quality of our gay-male and LGBT content, but we don’t require that our authors identify at all under the LGBT umbrella. We’re interested in quality work that deserves an audience. We’re interested in work that makes people feel less alone. I’m interested in getting books to people that can make them feel less monstrous. I needed books like that when I was growing up. Understand, I was, and still am, doing all of this from Arkansas. I think the uniqueness of our location has also been part of our success story.
NA: How did you come up with the name?
BB: When I was 13, my older brother died following a wreck. I started writing soon thereafter, and so when it came time to name the imprint for my first book, I thought it was only fitting to honor his memory. Sibling Rivalry. I started writing to compete with his ghost.
NA: You have had a great deal of success. What is your secret? Was there any specific event or turning point for SRP?
BB: I think for me, the turning point was realizing that SRP is a bridge. We’re a bridge between academia and the slam world. We’re a bridge between an older generation of writers and a younger generation. Being in the middle of the country, we bridge the literary coasts of New York and California. We bridge authors and readers. We bridge poets together at our readings in our journals. I mean real friendships form. And very real relationships. I married my co-publisher (and our art editor) Seth Pennington at AWP in Boston in 2013! That certainly was a turning point! SRP wasn’t just a Bryan Borland business at that point. It became our family business.
And, this is very idealistic, but it’s true, and anyone who knows me can tell you that it’s true. My goal with all this is to bridge people to their dreams. You want to do it? Do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You want to break through? Build yourself a door. Don’t wait on anyone else to validate you. Can your work save lives? Then do whatever you have to do to bring your work to its audience.
NA: You also publish three journals?
BB: Yes. I’ve already mentioned Assaracus. It’s published quarterly. We’ve been around five years and have never missed a deadline or an issue. We also have Adrienne, a poetry journal of queer women, and Jonathan, which focuses on gay fiction, although I can tell you that I want the categories to be less rigid going into 2016. I’m very interested in making sure the T of the LGBT community has a place in the journals of SRP. In making sure the Q, however one wants to define it, has a place with these journals. We’ve never policed the identity of our contributors. If someone feels as if they belong, then they belong, but I want to actively open the door wider. That’s my responsibility.
NA: Do you still operate out of your house in Arkansas?
We do. Ian Young, who operated an early gay press out of Canada, gave me some really solid advice when I started this thing. He said, “The presses who make it stay as long as they can in their kitchens, with someone’s mother at the table putting books into envelopes.” We still work from our kitchen table.
NA: How do you find your authors? And how do they find you?
MV: Outside of the open submission periods, where I assist in going through the slush pile, I hunt around for good potential additions to the SRP roster. Sometimes these are big names with solid professional reputations, sometimes these are fairly new writers that I randomly found in a literary magazine. After I feel out a prospect and it’s a good match for SRP, I loop in Bryan and we discuss how best to approach the ask. But this is pretty much me foraging in the jungle; I don’t take any unsolicited submissions or queries whatsoever. In the case of Denise and Maureen’s complete collected, I just love both of them so much and saw a need for the book. We had to pitch them on their own historical significance and they fortunately agreed to put the manuscript together.
BB: I also have a very bad (read: wonderful) habit of offering contracts on the spot, to the chagrin of those of us who are more business-minded.
NA: How many books do you publish per year?
BB: Eight or so. And not only poetry. We also publish novels. Bushra Rehman’s Corona has been massively successful for us. We’ve also just put out our first collection of essays and our first photography book. Poetry is my heart, though. It always will be.
NA: Tell me about some of the happiest moments for the SRP?
BB: The Library of Congress recently brought our entire catalog into its Rare Books and Special Collections Vault. That was a fun thing to tell our authors. Everything we ever publish will be housed there forever. My husband and I were invited to attend and witness the induction. I wish my father could have seen it. It brings me great joy to know that his last act of generosity turned into this whole… thing. This beautiful monster. That was incredible. But I also love when I get to tell someone we’re offering them a contract. Especially if it’s a first book. There’s this moment when they realize we believe in them. And we do. We absolutely believe in them.
MV: Every time I sign somebody, it’s just super exciting. For me, that’s the best—knowing I assisted in putting an author together with a publisher. The mission and personality of SRP are intensely beautiful and specific things, worth growing and protecting. It’s an honor when I can convince somebody to join our family.
NA: You just published a wonderful book, Caprice, by Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton. Could you talk a bit about the book?
MV: The historical significance of this book cannot be overstated. There are other books about collaborative poetry, even anthologies—but none that show the complete arc of a partnership as singular as this one. I expect it’ll be a very valuable teaching tool for MFA programs, or for anyone attempting to co-create. It also preserves an awesome body of work beyond the limited editions of the original chapbooks. Plus, Denise and Maureen are overdue for such treatment. Many less successful and less revolutionary writers have a complete collected. These two are serious foremothers in many ways and respect ought to be paid.
NA: I wanted to ask Denise and Maureen just a few questions about Caprice.
Denise and Maureen, your book came to me at a time when I needed a little light and laughter in my life. I think I had forgotten how much fun poetry can be. The collaborations are so delightful. Did you have as much fun writing the book as I had in reading it?
DD: We did! Maybe more. When Megan asked us for our collected, we had so many poems that had been published in magazines, but not in book or chapbook form. It was like a trip down memory lane revisiting that work and of course that led us to the new work and the book grew into “collected and new.”
MS: Writing with Denise is so beyond “fun,” I don’t even know what to call it. Really. I’m wordless. Ha. Every project we’ve taken on has been a joyous one. All the joys of writing, squared. And then some. (Yup. Wordless.)
NA: Could you describe the collaborative process? How do you begin a poem? End a poem? Edit a poem?
DD: We have done everything from line-by-line poems, exquisite corpse, and something we call “chunks” which are blocks of prose that we cut up and paste into one narrative. We have invented (or I think we invented) exquisite corpse sonnets, sestinas, and pantoums. We’ve dabbled in Oulipo as well.
MS: Similar topics appeal to both of us. We care about the same isms and the same silly stuff too. So we often start with a topic and play surrealist games with it or freewrite back and forth. With our first book, Exquisite Politics, we held on to the randomness of our first thoughts and refused to revise much at all. Oyl saw a bit of editing, and we’ve gotten really into it since. We’re practically ego-less as collaborators, so editing’s just easy. We trust each other.
NA: This is a very large collection. So you must have been collaborating for a long time and over long distances. How did you do it? Did you write every week or month? Do you always have a poem or two going?
DD: I think it’s fair to say we write in spurts. When we started, we left each other lines over the phone because email wasn’t around yet. Many were written in the same room together by hand, exquisite corpse, folding paper, totally old school. Now we can email one another lines.
MS: One of our favorites, “A Poem Cycle,” a longer piece commissioned by Danny Lawless for Plume, was accomplished over email while Denise was in Portugal and I was in New Mexico. It took us five sweltering summer days, and it was a blast. We once took a month-long writing retreat in Manhattan to compose Little Novels, meeting everyday at an old Barnes & Noble. And we wrote most of Oyl together in Astoria, Queens. We love sitting across a table from each other, but we’ll get creative if we have to.
NA: How did you become collaborators? Who or what inspired you?
DD: I saw David Trinidad give a reading with Bob Flanagan from a collaborative chapbook called Taste of Honey. That got the wheels turning.
MS: That was it. Denise said, Want to collaborate? I said, Yeah!
NA: Could you select a poem from the book to post and maybe say a few words about its collaborative evolution?
MS: We wrote dozens of Popeye and Olive Oyl dialogues based on the surrealist game of opposites (which we definitely treated “poetically”). Some made it into our chapbook, Oyl, and others stayed uncollected until Caprice. It was fascinating to observe the famous couple’s relationship morph around while we played.
DD: This was so much fun--and, looking back, it is really interesting, seeing even the difference in what Maureen and I saw as opposites--bottoms and pinnacles, or sewer and highlines. Of course, once again, I can't for the life of me remember who wrote what line. But I do remember that the oppositional stance between this couple became addictive.
A Love Poem
P: I loves ya from the bottom of me spinach-enrichked heart!
O: You hate me into the top of your bacon-bereft soul!
P: Ya loves yerself from the bottom of yer non-Koshker mind!
O: I betray myself into the pinnacle of my blessed body.
P: I stays loyal on top of the sewer of yer cursked hair.
O: You depart promiscuous under the base of the highlines of my lucky live skin cells.
P: I brought ya here, now swim.
O: You left me there, now sink.
NA: How did you find Sibling Rivalry Press?
DD: Megan found us! Maureen and I had just been talking about how great it would be to put all our poems together in a collected, but we talked about how we would find a press and sighed and gave up pretty easily. Then I went to the Decatur Book Festival in 2013 and met with the amazing Megan.
MS: It’s been a heavenly match all around. We are so incredibly lucky SRP found us!
NA: Back to Bryan and Megan –