Submission Guidelines: N/A
Interview with Amber Nelson, Editor
How did alice blue books start?
alice blue books started when I was in grad school. alice blue review, the online journal, had been going for a long time at that point. Collectively, we had always meant to be involved in print somehow–print journal editions, anthology editions, full-length books. That part had never been decided on. But life, you know? Kept getting in the way, giving us excuses to not or making it seem impossible. There was grad school and weddings and babies and money and all the life things that happen. Anyway, while I was in grad school I went to my first AWP and while I had been a long-time fan of the chapbook format (being an early subscriber to chapbook presses like Cannibal and Effing Press), it was the most exposure I’d had to the real landscape of chapbook presses. I encountered a press, Pilot Books, that made these beautiful artist editions of chapbooks. I thought about it a lot in the months after and decided, ultimately, that I wanted to do it. My co-editors for the journal, Will and Sarah Gallien, weren’t in a place where they felt like they could be involved. For a while I kept trying, but in the end I just took off with it.
Tell us a bit about alice blue. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The journal started with this idea that we weren’t seeing the things we really loved being published as much as we wanted. If you were still able to check the journal’s “about” info (which you can on old issues, though not the newest issue) you’d see we said:
We’re a confused collective of marble designers who, after discovering a set of encyclopedias, decided to stick our pinkies into the asphalt parking-lot of words. We seek innovative poetry and prose, work that quivers nervously for attention, work that teethes endlessly on doorknobs. We could toss out a grocery-list of writers—from Spicer to Borges, or O’Connor to O’Hara—but that would confuse you. The best way to understand our editorial preferences is to read the journal. alice blue is published on a hidden mountain-top between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington.
And I think that pretty well sums up how we felt–literature that is good but that doesn’t necessarily take itself so seriously. But also modeling the kind of thing we wanted to see in our submissions. Very little gravitas and self-back patting. Our rejection letters, too, do this–form letters written using the language from the writers that we love. You’re bound to get rejected sometimes, so that letter might as well be delightful, funny, and well-written.
I think, over time, the work we published changed as we, too, changed. I’m not sure that the mission or aesthetics really changed theoretically, but rather we encountered new and newer things and so we grew too.
And since alice blue books began and continues to publish exclusively (with the exception of the Pacific Northwest focused Shotgun Wedding) writers that we had published in the journal, these same aesthetics hold. The difference being even more boiled down. All the manuscripts I solicited were by people who, when they came into my inbox, stopped me in my tracks. In the case of Monster: A Glottochronology, for instance, I was completely blown away by the selection of poems Tyler and Thomas submitted, and we subsequently published in Issue 10, that I solicited them for that chapbook instantly. In the case of Opera Trans Opera, Mel and Jenn had submitted a selection from this ms, but I was too late to accept it for the journal since that selection was published elsewhere. We had already published them both separately though, so I had the opportunity to ask them for the full manuscript for the press.
But I think the books vary quite a lot. Both of those are very different, though they both include a lot of language play and mania. But then you have the beautiful, long, narrative poem from Lucas Farrel and the tiny, natural lyrics from Brooklyn Copeland, the chaotic, dark personal narrative from Joseph Wood. These books are not really like each other. They are just all really good.
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?
The hope was that I would put out a second chapbook from Brooklyn Copeland. Personal circumstances have that on a hold right now. But coming in October we have a double issue of Shotgun Wedding–12 chapbooks!-of writing from the Pacific Northwest. That includes fiction, non-fiction, and a whole lotta poetry. I took the opportunity to publish chapbooks from my alice blue review co-editors–a short story from Will Gallien (aka Ofelia Hunt), and a sci-fi novel excerpt from Sarah Gallien (you can find another sci-fi piece from her in Asimov). We have poetry forthcoming from Stephen Danos, Brian Cooney, Janie Miller, Graham Isaac, Lillian Nickerson, Amy Ratto Parks, and Entropy‘s own Dennis James Sweeney, and fiction from Evelyn Hampton. And I’m super stoked to say I’ll be publishing the first Shotgun Wedding nonfiction chapbook, a real excellent selection from Ashley Benson.
After this, in the fall, I’ll be collaborating with Shin Yu Pai on a handmade book to go with a poetic art installation she has been doing in Seattle’s Carkeek Park. The manuscript is entitled Heirloom. After that, alice blue books will be closing down its doors. Probably forever. Maybe just for a time.
But all of our awesome books will still be for sale (unless I run out–chapbooks are not so good for reprint, but I’ll make them available online as PDFs when I have the permission from the authors). And you’ll still see me tabling at some book fairs for the next year or two.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I think the conversation for diversity and the active effort I see in a lot of small presses to address issues of gender and racial balance is really exciting. I like seeing POC specific calls and attempts for inclusivity. I know there are a lot more presses doing this, but the ones I see most frequently in my life (’cause FB) are Horse Less Press and the James Franco Review. It’s super admirable. I hope it continues and continues to expand outwardly to the big publishing houses. I’ve read so many more awesome things that I might not have encountered otherwise.
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 alice blue books?
alice blue, the journal, was pretty intentional for this, as was alice blue books. We didn’t want to charge anything for anything. I mean, we were all broke college kids and reading fees were a barrier for entry for me. I understand the need for them–I really do. But I simply couldn’t afford it. And I never wanted to create that barrier for anyone else to participate in the work that we were doing. We wanted as much unfettered access to writing that we found exciting.
For the press, this is more possible since I have only solicited manuscripts for the chapbook press, and the only full-length book I’ve done, The Tahrir of Poems: Seven Contemporary Egyptian Poets edited and translated by Maged Zaher. And, to be honest, I was surprised at how low the turnout had been for Shotgun Wedding submissions. I certainly got them–and I got a fair amount that were not from people from or living in the Pacific Northwest–but considering how many writers there are in this region, I was surprised. I ended up having to do more work trying to get the word out to non-poetry writing communities.
So, how do I do it. I made the first alice blue book, The Blue-Collar Sun by Lucas Farrell entirely on my own dime. What I made in selling that book went into an alice blue account and subsidized the second book, William Shatner by C. McCallister Williams. And so on and so forth so that so long as people were buying the books I made, I could subsidize the cost of making a book each time. I still have to throw some of my own money into the making of each book, but it’s significantly less now than it once was. I certainly don’t make any money. And when you account for time and labor I’m majorly in the red. But I’m majorly in the red for something I’ve loved doing, so… I don’t know. I’m always broke, so it never seems like a big deal to be a little more broke.
You’re coming up on alice blue’s 10-year anniversary! Talk to us about that.
10 years! It’s coming up this Fall. I can’t even say something like “It all went so fast!” because when I think of how it started, well that seems like a lifetime ago. I was 22 living in a two bedroom apartment in North Seattle with the not-yet-married co-editors Will and Sarah. We would drink Rum and Cokes and play Scrabble and then fight about Scrabble because rum and cokes and because we were all smart people who didn’t want our intelligence called into question over a poor Scrabble showing. We decided on the name inside the Comet Tavern in Capitol Hill which, under entirely new owners, just held a Bernie Sanders fundraiser. And since then we’ve had the extraordinary honor of publishing hundreds of people with incredible talent. And so we’re gonna celebrate. We’re gonna party. We’re gonna get together and drink nostalgic rum and cokes and make some of the hardest decisions we’ll make. There’s a special issue forthcoming this Fall. And when it lands on this planet we call the internet, I’ll pop a bottle of bubbly and say no more. 10 years seems like a good time to close our doors. Truly bittersweet. It’s been an honor.