Interview with Ross White, Executive Director; Matthew Poindexter, Editor, Inch; and Noah Stetzer, Associate Editor
How did Bull City Press start?
Ross White, Executive Director: I was working an office job with Bill Ferris and Jeremy Griffin, and we got a hold of blink, a delightful magazine Robert West published for several years. We wanted to get involved, but just missed the boat; the magazine had only recently gone defunct. We wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He kindly agreed, and a few months later, we published the first issue of Inch.
Bill and Jeremy were pretty happy with working on Inch, but I caught the book bug not long thereafter. My initial plan was to hand-make all of our chapbooks, but when I finally wrangled a manuscript from one of my favorite authors, Ellen C. Bush, I couldn’t imagine it as anything other than a perfect-bound book.
The press still operates from my basement, ten years later, though we’ve also expanded our operation to Inch editor Matt Poindexter’s living room. In 2015, we acquired Origami Zoo Press, which used to be based in St. Louis, so we have a full line of chapbooks in poetry and prose now.
Tell us a bit about Bull City Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Ross White: Our mission is to showcase unique voices and the vibrancy of compressed forms. We’ve always believed in the value of precision, and both Inch and our chapbook series give us a chance to explore the many expressions of exactness.
Matthew Poindexter, Editor, Inch: With Inch, I focus on immediacy and necessity. With poetry and prose as short as we publish, everything must be necessary. I want readers to finish an issue and think, “nothing could have been shaved off without the poem or story falling apart.”
Noah Stetzer, Associate Editor: The Grind Daily Writing Series is never far from my experience of Bull City Press: the invitation to pursue hard, solitary work, and not alone, but with other like-minded writers. For me this pervades the Bull City ethos… hard working writers celebrating the work of other hard working writers. That is the vision Bull City has of a community—to connect writers with writers as well as readers, to foster & challenge writers, and to celebrate/broadcast writers’ accomplishments.
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?
Ross White: Our first title this year was Anna Ross’s delicate collection Figuring. A collage of self-portraits and reports, Figuring collapses the national narrative into the personal in ways that really gripped me as a reader.
The next title up is the winner of the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition: Equilibrium by Tiana Clark. It’s a tremendous collection, full of praise and danger, selected by Afaa Michael Weaver. We’re also publishing one of the editors’ selections from this year’s contest, Chloe Honum’s Then Winter. And you’ll see Tommye Blount’s debut chapbook, What Are We Not For before the end of the year—that’s a collection I’ve been looking forward to since Tommye appeared in Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series.
We had overwhelming response to our first month-long open reading period, and I’m hoping we’ll publish at least two chapbooks from that before the end of 2017. We’re also planning to bring some out-of-print titles from Origami Zoo Press back into print, just as soon as we can get them into the design queue. That’ll expand the number of fiction chapbooks we have available, and bring a nonfiction chap by B.J. Hollars back to our readers.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Matthew Poindexter: What excites me most about small/independent publishing at this moment is that it has made experiments easier to undertake and access. Publishers and their authors don’t have to make their products fit the genre or physical format standards. That possibility has given rise to great work doing new things. I think it is slowly making readers more open-minded about where strong writing can come from and what it can look like.
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 Bull City Press?
Ross White: I’ve always been ambivalent about contest fees and reading fees. I don’t like the idea that presses and magazines have had to move to charging writers for a service instead of charging readers for a product. At the same time, we wouldn’t have made it to our tenth anniversary if we hadn’t partnered with The Frost Place for our chapbook competition. And the only reason we did that was that we believed that the prize, which includes not only publication and a cash prize, but a fellowship to a conference and a week to live and write in The Frost Place house/museum, was so unique that it had significant value for the winner, value that would far exceed just being published.
Noah Stetzer: I suffer from either/or thinking and running a business you have to think in black and white, and so I can see how reading fees get established. I have also been delighted to see things like Kickstarter or Pay-What-You-Can be successful—that shows me that there can be more than one way (one traditional way) to meet production costs. You talk about community—this is community—asking followers, “Is this worth it? And if so, pay what you can,” and then it happens. That seems to me to speak loudly to the value of what we are doing…and if the money didn’t come in then we know, maybe we need to do something else.
Ross White: For the first time this year, we had an open reading period, and we set a “pay what you want” fee. It was important to us that if writers didn’t have a penny to spare, they could still submit to us. We got a number of letters from writers in that very situation, relieved that their collection would be considered. Because they’re locked out from some presses who charge reading fees on every submission. And we got very generous donations from almost 70% of the writers who submitted collections, including a few who paid far more than they should have, but indicated in their cover letters that they wanted to help pay the costs for a few writers who couldn’t afford it.
Noah Stetzer: I think having a community of readers and writers means finding out all the different ways “costs get paid.” I think passing along rising costs directly into reading fees is a neither a creative nor thoughtful way to engage with the strong and loyal community of writers and readers.
Ross White: What I love about Bull City is that the staff is equally passionate. We’re all volunteers. We’re all part of the community that Noah talks about. I have been humbled, and consistently blown away, by the generosity of our editors, past and present, the staff at Inch, and Philip McFee of Flying Hand Studio, who has donated so many of our book covers. So, when we collect fees, all of those go directly toward the production of our books and our magazine. The trust and integrity of our community has meant that we’ve been able to stand behind each of our titles, even if they weren’t immediately selling a lot of copies, and expand from one title a year as recently as 2014 to four.