Interview with Genna Kohlhardt and Torin Jensen, Editors
How did Goodmorning Menagerie start?
Goodmorning Menagerie began when founding editors Genevieve Kohlhardt and Julie Strand were classmates during their MFA at Boise State University. The inspiration to begin a press came partly from their experience helping Publisher Extraordinaire Janet Holmes with Ahsahta Press, their shared admiration of fellow MFAer Zach Vesper’s vertiginous work, and the potent cocktails at the Modern Hotel and Bar. Simply put: publishing seemed fun and Zach Vesper’s work needed an outlet.
Tell us a bit about Goodmorning Menagerie. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
From the very beginning, we wanted to produce books that were not only exceptional works of writing but strikingly beautiful physical objects as well. To that end, our influences are many and we’re continually finding more: Ahsahta Press for their book design (often Jeff Clark or Janet Holmes) and their daring insistence on publishing first-books even when their authors’ don’t come with lit-world cache; Ugly Duckling Press for their collaborative/community spirit and their dedication to works in translation (and their book design); New Directions; Fence; Dorothy; Doublecross (such beautiful books!); Emily Books; Shabby Doll House; Open Letter; Deep Vellum. Ok, we’ll stop there.
Regarding our aesthetic, only in a larger sense do our own personal aesthetics determine the books we publish. With the exception of the Chapbook-in-Translation Contest, we don’t accept submissions. We pretty much just approach authors we admire and ask them for work. This puts our abstract aesthetic in the driver’s seat, but since we don’t always know what exactly an author is going to send us (and we encourage them to take risks they might not otherwise take with other publishers), each book we’ve done has expanded and stretched our own desires in poetry. And since we ask each “established” author we publish to select a less-established author to submit a book, this stretches us even more. We know there are loads of writers out there doing amazing things completely unknown to us, so why not trust our own authors in finding and publishing them?
We are doing this right now with the work of Lysette Simmons. CAConrad, who is a powerhouse and was generous enough to share some work with us, pointed us to Simmons and her wild, sprawling, intellectually dense, ransom-note poems. Simmons’ book is a technical challenge, one we’re thrilled to publish but would have never found had it not been for CA.
Our translation contest serves to expose under-represented writers working in languages other than English. So often, the writers getting translated and published in the U.S. are well-established. What about the writers breaking into the lit scene in other countries? That’s what we’re excited about. There are other presses publishing terrific works in translation; we’re just angling our own mission towards the translation side of things too.
Our official mission is as follows:
Menagerie is defined in the French Methodical Encyclopedia of 1792 as an establishment of luxury and curiosity. Goodmorning Menagerie is a chapbook press.
We intend for our limited-edition, hand-bound, woodblock-printed books to cultivate a contemporary community of literary and artistic kinship, and to that end we pair our solicited authors’ books with a book from a promising, relatively unpublished author of their choice.
We are increasingly committed to publishing bilingual, translated editions of contemporary voices under-represented in English, for which our annual Chapbook-in-Translation contest serves as our primary instrument.
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?
Right now, we’re working on the Series 4 companion to CAConrad: “Until I Get What I Want: Ransom Poems” by Lysette Simmons. It’s a collection of ransom notes/poems made from reassembled razor-cut printed text. Coming this fall, it’ll be a larger-format art book, so it’s something we haven’t done before but we’re tremendously excited about it.
Also coming out this fall/winter are two books that came from the 2014 Chapbook-in-Translation contest. We released the winner, “Sign Tongue,” in April, but just couldn’t resist the opportunity to publish more works in translation. The first will be “Semi Circle” by Turkish poet Nurduran Duman, translated by Andrew Wessels. And the other is a 1935 book by Tristan Tzara called “Guide to the Heart Rail,” translated by Heather Streckfus-Green.
Finally, starting next spring will be Series 5: books by Bhanu Kapil and Kenji Liu. Again, we don’t know what they’re going to send us, but how exciting is that?!
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
What’s particularly exciting in the small press world is the fact that so many enterprising people are continuing to take risks and create incredible books and presses and organizations in the face of a culture that is increasingly uninterested in paying for the work that artists do. And the ingenuity and badassery that continues to adapt to the industry (like e-book store 0s&1s) is especially encouraging.
That the small press world is slowly becoming less focused on the white male is also very exciting.
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 Goodmorning Menagerie?
Like any small press, we have a variety of coping mechanisms, some more successful than others. Beer helps. So do friends, who in exchange for pizza are often willing to fold, stab, and sew. Remaining inspired and driven and not too cynical is key.
Unfortunately, our insistence on beautiful book-objects comes at a price. By far, the most expensive part of the production process is printing the interior. We don’t have our own printer, so we use Fedex Office, Kinko’s, or various other local printers to do the job, and convincing them that yes, they can print booklet-style, double-sided, on custom-sized paper is a pull-your-hair-out process all on its own. Printing costs have ranged from $120-500 for editions of 100 or 150. We don’t know what our next books will cost, because, again, we’re in a new city, but it’ll likely be in that range. Someday, we’d like our own printer–maybe a kickstarter in the future? It’s hard to say.
The other costs aren’t as significant but do add up: art supplies for the cover, packaging and shipping, website fees.
Also, we’re not including labor costs here. Fellow small press people probably know why.
Long term, we hope each book will pay for the production of the next one. Sometimes we pull that off, sometimes not. When it doesn’t, our day jobs help to supplement our costs. We’re not particularly astute internet people, and many of the authors we work with have minimal social media presence, which makes getting visibility for our authors and books challenging. If our books sold more consistently, we’d not only break even, we’d have a little extra left over to invest in the press’ growth. But that’s simply the hardest part: marketing and selling the books. We’re working on that by attending more local literary events now that we are in Denver, including Small Press Fest, which just took place and was a blast. We like the in-person stuff a lot and think it contributes to the community aspect embedded in our mission.
Job interview question: If you could ask yourself one question, what would it be, and how would you answer it?
What does small press publishing need most?
Apart from many wealthy benefactors, small presses need more (reasonably affordable) venues to generate visibility for themselves and their authors. AWP, SPD, and bookstores are all great (most of the time), but their cost and cuts are often large enough that presses like ours can’t afford to take advantage of them. We could really use a soulful Amazon that doesn’t take 40% of the book price, which is sometimes the entire profit margin of our books. While small presses are trying to globalize the voices we represent, we also need a more localized book economy, including more readings and independent literary conferences, especially as AWP becomes more inaccessible and hostile to organizations and people who aren’t already in power in the lit world. We see small presses as a destabilizing and disruptive force, maybe even socialist in a way, and we would like to see that becoming more visible.