Interview with Mistral Celeste Khan-Becerra, Editor-in-Chief; Jennifer Skelton, Content Editor; Nathanael William Stolte, Acquisitions Editor; and Julio Montalvo Valentin, Content Editor
How did CWP Collective Press start?
In the spring semester of 2016 Mistral did a project for school that was basically a chapbook of her poems. Both Julio and Nathanael had chapbooks made by Michael Rio, a professor at Erie Community College, in fall semester of 2015. Julio and Nathanael were very impressed and we had an idea to make a bunch of our chapbooks and sell them at the Small Press Book Fair in Buffalo, New York in April of 2016. We made about 100 copies of each of our chapbooks as well as a second release by Nathanael. We did pretty well at that book fair and Julio compiled poems for his second chapbook.
We went on like this for a few months, selling our then rudimentary chapbooks at readings and local bookstores. Then we were approached by a Buffalo poet who asked if we could make a chapbook for her. We did and formed CWP Collective Press. The CWP stands for Cringe-Worthy Poets. To cringe is to feel embarrassment, and if humans are not looking around at the world we’ve inherited and made without some sense of embarrassment then maybe they aren’t paying attention. Anyway, we bought ISBNs and published Gross by Ellen Lutnick. Shortly after that we got a couple more requests from local poets and released Ruminations by Ian Brunner, On Burning Things in Sinks by Clayton Pitcher, and Fools’ Song by CWP’s own Nathanael William Stolte.
We then scouted and approached Jennifer Skelton to join us in CWP and she accepted our invitation and we were four. This is important because, as a collective, we communicate and vote on various things like manuscripts to publish, events to host, and what poets to bring to town to feature. Jennifer’s contribution to CWP has been tremendous. Having a fourth set of eyes and hands has allowed us to accomplish much more.
It was late 2016 that we published When Severed Ears Sing You Songs by Justin Karcher and by January of 2017 we were getting submissions from people we had never met as well as from some of the poets we’d met at various book fairs and readings we’ve attended across the country.
We are still learning and we aim to remain teachable and humble. We’ve come a long way in the past year but there is still far to go.
Tell us a bit about CWP Collective Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
At CWP we hand-make our chapbooks and own the means of production. We do not outsource our printing. Each chapbook we publish is printed, folded, assembled, and stapled or sewn by us. We commission artwork from artists for book covers. Our primary goal is to keep the art of the chapbook alive in tandem with building community.
Buffalo already has a powerful literary community and we simply want to contribute to that narrative. Another of our chief concerns is keeping publishing and poetry accessible. To instill in burgeoning poets that they have agency, that publishing is not just for the MFAs. We have published work this year from academic as well as street poets. Not that we don’t like academia (remember that’s our origin story), we just want to make publishing accessible for the otherwise unpublished poet. Each of us at CWP carefully reads the manuscripts that are submitted and meet weekly to talk shop. If we vote in favor of a manuscript we decide which one of us will do the primary formatting and editing. We then pass it along to another for a second set of eyes.
Our influences are mostly Rust Belt presses like NightBallet and Crisis Chronicles in Cleveland, Ohio; Low Ghost and Lillyput in Pittsburgh, PA. Individually we have many poets who’ve influenced each of us respectively. As poets we understand the importance of reading poetry. One cannot create art in a vacuum.
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 just published a split between Buffalo resident Meg Specksgoor and Kansas City poet Jeanette Powers called The Cosmic Lost and Found. A Dallas, Texas poet named James Rodehaver wrote a two volume chapbook illustrated by Nadia Wolnisty called Time Travel For Daydreamers. We did another split with Alex Gildzen and John Dorsey called In This Heat. Dorsey is a legend in the small press circuit and he’s opened a lot of doors for us. He’s become a very dear friend of CWP. Forthcoming we have chapbooks by Jake St.John, Fred Whitehead, Katie Lewington, Faith Wappat/Adrianna Roehmholdt (split), Alan Katerniski, and Brittany Carey. The forthcoming chapbooks coupled with the ones we’ve already published in 2017 will total about 20 individual titles. That’s only if we don’t accept any of the manuscripts we have in our queue. We get a new submission every 8-10 days.
Something else we have in the works is a national poetry prize for a first-time publication of a chapbook. We want to continue to publish the newcomer so a prize for an unpublished poet seems like the right way to do that. We are currently looking into grants and possible funding.
We currently have two long-term goals. First, to buy a binding machine (and learn how to use it) so we can hand-make perfect bound, full-length books. Second, to secure a sort of central hub that will serve as our printing and assembly space as well as a venue for events
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
I’m not sure we’ve been around long enough to speak on what we think needs to change. Our own experience shows that there is a strong community in the small press realm. We have met poets and small press publishers from across North America and all of them have been welcoming and inclusive. No one has tried to “Gate Keep” us from moving forward; the opposite of that really, they have been helpful and great allies. Perhaps they understand that there needs to be legacy. We need to pass this thing on. We’re new at this and pretty young (25-36 years old) so our elders and established small presses perhaps see us as a means to keep this alive for future generations.
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 CWP Collective Press?
We certainly don’t do this for the money. We have put 100% of the money we’ve made from book sales right back into CWP. We bought an industrial printer earlier this year to cut down on ink costs. We put on events locally and bring in poets from the national community to help meet our primary purposes of community and accessibility. It’s not about the money. When we first began, we charged the poets we published, but we didn’t insist on much input from us. Now that we’ve sort of developed a brand, we don’t charge. It’s not “self-publishing” anymore. So we reject manuscripts that don’t speak to us and we offer edits to many of the manuscripts we accept. We have enough coin coming in to keep us in ink and paper so we forge ahead. Once we recover from the purchase of our new printer we will invest in a binding machine. But we own our assets, have no debt, and do all the work ourselves.
We love poetry and are grateful. Gratitude is a verb, an action. So in our gratitude we invest our time. You cannot love something without serving it.