This is the thirty-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.
Submission Guidelines: “We work by nomination and invitation.”
Interview with Jennifer Firestone, Member & Editor; Saretta Morgan, Studio Co-coordinator; Chia-Lun Chang, Events Coordinator; Krystal Languell, Member & Managing Editor
How did Belladonna* start?
From the Belladonna* website: Belladonna* is a feminist avant-garde collective, founded in 1999 by Rachel Levitsky. Belladonna* was started as a reading and salon series at Bluestocking’s Women’s Bookstore on New York City’s Lower East Side. In June 2000, in collaboration with Boog Literature, Belladonna* began to publish commemorative ‘chaplets’ of the readers’ work. This series continues today and has reached #180.
Tell us a bit about Belladonna*. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Jennifer Firestone, Member & Editor: The Belladonna* mission as stated on our website is “to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.” We are influenced by the writers of the feminist avant-garde, who in unabashed and uncompromising ways commingle their visions and politics to create risky, exciting works. Works that investigate and interrogate gender, race, sexuality and class at all levels but particularly at the level of language and language structures. We publish works that that aren’t easily categorized or commodified and that resist prescriptive modes.
Since we are a collaborative, almost 100% volunteer-powered, and by nature horizontally structured, we try to remain very conscious of our lived realities as individuals and as a community. Discussions and negotiations of self-care and labor are freely mixed with those of politics and aesthetics. We also support each others’ imaginations and the burgeoning imagination of the feminist avant-garde by creating a variety of spaces (from bookstore readings to intimate apartment salons) to discuss, read and perform feminist avant-garde works.
Currently we are working with Eugene Lang College (the New School) where Jennifer Firestone has created and is teaching a Belladonna* Feminist Avant-garde Poetics course in collaboration with Visiting Fellow Marcella Durand. There was incredible interest in this class and it has been a great success. Students are studying a gamut of Belladonna*’s books and chaplets in correspondence with visits to Belladonna*’s studio and current Belladonna* readings. The students are also reading each Belladonna* author’s “influences” alongside their works so that the students are able to engage with the broader dialogue of the feminist avant-garde. The class is currently working on curating their own Belladonna*-informed event at the university.
For 16 years (as seen through Belladonna*’s extensive series of chaplets) we have been creating a dedicated archive for the feminist avant-garde, making visible the work and the writers of this work that might not otherwise be visible. And yet as much as we are about preserving this history our ear is attuned to the ground to ideas and work that is present, amorphous, constantly shifting and not easily netted.
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?
Saretta Morgan, Studio Co-coordinator: I’m really excited about our newest titles. Theory A Sunday, All is Not Yet Lost, and A Swarm of Bees in High Court—all of which feel very long in the making, particularly Theory, a translation from French of essays collectively written by a group of Canadian feminists through Sunday meetings in Montreal over the course of several years, and Swarm, which is Tonya Foster’s first collection. We’ve been working with her in various ways for more than five years on her manuscript.
Recently at a reading, poet-scholar Shelagh Patterson quoted Belladonna*’s founder, Rachel Levitsky on the state of contemporary poets. I’m not sure where the language was taken from and I can’t reproduce the exact words now, but the spirit of it was that we as individual poets should strive to produce less and think more. Less publishing and public readings. More organizing. More activism. More discourse around work that exists and that is being written. More thinking in space together about ourselves as historical and political subjects. I feel that Belladonna* is trying to make more space for that kind of poet to exist and feel valued.
I hope that we continue to publish more slow and deeply thinking poets, particularly those who are engaging explicitly with the material lives of the communities we exist in and around, and whose thinking leads to direct action. Betsy Fagin, for example—author of All is Not Yet Lost—who is also a trained librarian, founded the Occupy Wall Street Library in Zucottii Park during OWS. That’s the kind of poet I want on my shelf, and one I’m proud to have representing Belladonna*’s Press.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Chia-Lun Chang, Events Coordinator: I am engaged in the fully, step by step process of publication and the organization of reading, and promoting female writers. Nowadays, the publication industry has became precise, atonal and mechanical. Having a small press is like growing a book by hand. We plan and communicate with our authors, readers, printers, book designers and assistants. Every step is professional and it’s made by humans.
I feel guilty when I buy a cup of coffee. Because I did not grow the beans or I did not even pay attention to the origin place and the making process. But I do not feel guilty holding a book from Belladonna* (and you would not, too).
We promote avant-garde female writers. By publishing their work, we’re involved with political, forms, cultures and genders. This is one of the most important topics and groups have been neglected and under the shadow. As one of them, working for Belladonna* made me find my space. And I believe it finds readers a space, too.
I remember one of my professors told me that I should intern in a bigger press because it’s more well-known. But why? How much attention does a press need? Does every press needs to grow bigger or becomes industrial?
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 Belladonna*?
Krystal Languell, Member & Managing Editor: Belladonna does not hold an annual month-long open reading period. Instead, what we do is select books by nomination and mutual interest. Rachel Levitsky once explained her opposition to an open reading period by pointing out that if we take submissions, we have to reject the majority of them; she finds the position of being the rejecter undesirable, maybe even in opposition to some of our collective ideals. Four of our books have been funded by a grant that mandates authors be residents of NYC and able to attend several marketing meetings, and thus our list skews to NYC area writers. This grant carried a direct author payment of $1,000 per book.
Lately, we print our new full-length books in editions of 500 or 1,000, off-set printing, and we keep our books in print if and when they sell out. After the first 1,000, subsequent print runs carry an author payment of $0.50 per additional copy printed. Our reprints are typically 300-1000 copy runs.
I was part of a panel at AWP on Literary Production and the Gift Economy where I talked about our finances in greater depth. I’d be glad to share that talk with anyone interested. In short, we are improving our budgeting to pay our workers fairly (rather than relying on volunteerism, unpaid interns, or other purity politics).
As for selling our books, we price most titles at $15, with exceptions for particularly expensive or labor-intensive titles, and we price everything at $15 or $10 at book fairs and other events. We dedicate a lot of time and thinking to being ethical with our financial practices. On the compliance side of things, I’m taking accounting courses so I can better protect our resources, in terms of money and time.
Recent Belladonna* releases: