This is the twenty-eighth in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our Small Press Database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Interview with Janet Holmes, Director
How did Ahsahta Press start?
Ahsahta Press, named for the Mandan word for a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, began in the mid-seventies as a project for three professors at Boise State University. Their aim was to ressurect and republish poetry from the American West that had gone out of print: books by Norman Macleod, Gwendolen Haste, and Peggy Pond Church started off the series called Modern and Contemporary Poets of the American West. They published Selected Poems by H.L. Long (a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1935), Hazel Hall, Genevieve Taggard, and Hildegarde Flanner, as well as a volume of Women Poets of the West. But they also began to publish contemporary poets, including first books by Linda Bierds, David Baker, and Cynthia Hogue. By the mid-1990s, they slowed down and, as they neared retirement, the professors moved on to other things. When I was hired at Boise State in 1999, I was given the press to revive under the auspices of the new MFA in Creative Writing. A few years ago, we made most of the old Modern and Contemporary series available for download through Albertsons Library at Boise State.
Tell us a bit about Ahsahta Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I think my influences are pretty eclectic. I was a traditional English major with a great love for Stevens and Yeats, but I was also working in an environment of scientists when computers became affordable for people to have at home. I programmed Stephanie Strickland’s hypertext “The Ballad of Sand and Harry Soot,” working at the most basic level possible so that the work would not degrade as operating systems became more sophisticated. (In fact, my fourth book, F2F, was conceived as a hypertext.) My graduate school professors did not teach the works of the New York School (except O’Hara), the Language School, the “Objectivists” (except Oppen), or Oulipo, so I spent a lot of time remediating my education by reading those poets, as well as Williams, Stein, Plath, and my contemporaries.
When I took over the press, I was looking specifically for the kinds of books that I thought were excellent but that I believed no other publishers would touch. David Mutschlecner’s philosophical meditations in Esse, a complex book about Moby-Dick by a then-unheard-of Dan Beachy-Quick (his first book from Alice James had not yet been released), Lance Phillips’s work, Lisa Fishman’s playful Dear, Read, and Charles O. Hartman’s amazing Island, which centers on a pi mnemonic, were among the early books. We published Ed Allen’s obsessive sonnet sequence in which all the sonnets were the same acrostic. I accepted Kate Greenstreet’s first book even before the poems in it began to be accepted by journals.
So the mission evolved to become this: “Ahsahta Press champions and promotes surprising, relevant, and accessible experimental poetry that more commercially minded small presses avoid; in making it widely available, we aim to increase its readership.” I have a stipend from the University that acts as a cushion against a book that doesn’t sell well, so I can “afford” to publish poetry without trying to determine beforehand whether it will meet some perceived popular taste. As a result, we publish a good number of first books—in 2014 alone, we published five. Many of our books receive excellent pre-publication reviews. A review by Djelloul Marbrook looked at seven Ahsahta books and concluded that “Ahsahta’s books represent the research and development in poetics that will shape our perceptions of poetry in the 21st Century when the next century turns . . . . [W]e have allowed the popular press to shrink our definition of poetry and thereby to marginalize its influences on us. Ahsahta is unimpressed by media mythologies. Ahsahta and its poets understand how integral poetry is to society.” I was stunned by that review and at the same time thought, well, that’s what I’ve been going for.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We’ve just released last year’s Sawtooth Prize winner, Aaron Apps’ Dear Herculine, and Lance Phillips’s gorgeous book Mimer, and we’ll have Anne Boyer’s book Garments Against Women and Susan Tichy’s Trafficke coming out in March. We’re aiming to have Mary Hickman’s debut book This Is the Homeland out at AWP.
Next season we’ll be doing new volumes by Brian Teare, Gabriel Gudding, Julie Carr, Susan Briante, Jasmine Dreame Wagner, and James Meetze—as well as a book from our open submissions period this May and the 2015 Sawtooth Prize winner, whoever that may be.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
The volume. There are presses proliferating everywhere! That’s a sign of a healthy culture, I think—though finding those small-press books is sometimes a hunt. (Thank you, spdbooks.org!) The decline of the independent bookstore was a blow to poetry—thank goodness for Facebook & Twitter so we can learn about new titles. I particularly love the handmade books that some presses put out.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Ahsahta Press?
By “cope,” I’m assuming you mean “survive as a press”? Well, we published nine books and one chapbook in 2013-2014, seven books and two chapbooks this season, and have eight books and one chapbook on the schedule for 2015-2016. I expect to taper down to four or five books in the years thereafter so I can focus more on my own work, which has suffered because of this heavy publishing schedule. We don’t have a business model that I’d recommend to anyone. We save on typesetting because I do it. (I put myself through my undergraduate studies as a typesetter.) I take care of writing and typesetting any advertising you see, manage our website, answer correspondence, produce our balance sheet, and populate our social media. I love what I do, but it is intense.
Poetry used to be published by big publishing houses who could afford to publish it because their other books made enough profit to permit it. Now those publishing houses are owned by conglomerates, etc.—you know this story. So poetry is largely published by small presses in small runs that make the books a little more expensive. Readers are used to getting things very cheaply or for free these days, and paying for a slim volume of poetry has become a luxury. I offer a tremendous discount on a subscription to the season to try to combat this, but it turns out many people don’t want to commit to books they haven’t seen somebody else review or “like” in advance of publication. (Thank goodness for those who do!) Yet I curate Ahsahta so that, if people do purchase a book, they know they’re getting a beautifully written volume that was produced to last.
When poets themselves don’t buy books of poetry, it baffles me. And the resistance to supporting a press, even through a reading fee, is sad. If people actually bought books, presses wouldn’t need to charge reading fees. It’s as if poets are demanding that presses only be run by people wealthy enough not to need readers to buy books! Ahsahta is helped by the $12,000 grant Boise State gives the Press every fiscal year, but the university is cutting whatever it can these days, and I’m not sure at all that we’ll be able to count on that from year to year. I call it a “grant” because think of that stipend the way other presses think of grant money. Most of our budget comes from book sales. And yes, all expenses have gone up; we still publish with sewn-and-glued bindings on our first print runs to make the books durable, and that costs; we have the vellum flyleaves on first editions; paper costs more; postage costs more. We break even at the end of the year, but the university doesn’t allow to operate in the red and at the risk of getting cut off, I’ve maintained that break-even balance. So far, so good.
Recent Ahsahta Press releases: