Interview with Risa Denenberg, Co-Founder and Editor
How did Headmistress Press start?
The press began in the mind of Mary Meriam, who has published Lavender Review since 2010; LR is a biannual e-zine dedicated to publishing poetry and art by, about, and for lesbians. In 2012, Mary invited me to share in her vision of starting a press dedicated to producing books of poetry by lesbians. In 2014 Rita Mae Reese joined HP, bringing with her the experience of having worked with the lesbian-run Naiad Press in Tallahassee, Florida, back in the eighties.
Headmistress Press produced our first books in 2013 and, including our 2016 list, we will have published chapbooks and books of poetry by 18 lesbians and bisexual women. Mary designs and produces our books; Rita Mae designs and produces our Lesbian Poet Trading Cards; and I manage our finances, sales, and promotional activities; we all share the editorial work. Amazingly, we live in three widely different regions of the US and have never had an in-person editorial meeting.
Tell us a bit about Headmistress Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The mission of HP is honoring lesbian existence, discovering a range of lesbian voices and promoting lesbian representation in the arts. As far as we know, there is no other press with this singular mission. We want to bring lesbian poets of all ages and backgrounds into the fold of publishing and create a market for lesbian-identified poetry.
There is also an economics to poetry publishing that we feel strongly about. As editors, our work will always be an unpaid labor of love. Our books sell for $10 and our contest submission fees are on a sliding scale with fee waivers for those who need them. We maintain a small fund to pay lesbian artists for cover art.
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?
In the current season (2016-2017), we have produced books by Ann Tweedy, Lynn Stongin and Jessica K. Hylton and will be producing books for an additional 10 poets, including Constance Merritt, Gail Thomas, Janice Gould, and Joy Ladin. We intend to continue running an annual contest, in which a winner is chosen blindly by a well-known lesbian poet. In 2015 it was Meg Day and in 2016 it was Ellen Bass.
We also plan to continue to produce our Lesbian Poet Trading Cards for the long-run. We’ve produced 12 cards each for 2015 and 2016 and Rita Mae is actively working on the 2017 series. In 2017, you can expect to see Natalie Diaz, Adrienne Rich, Pat Parker, and Gertrude Stein, among others.
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.
An important focus for HP is visibility and accessibility for lesbian poets and artists. Too many excellent manuscripts go unpublished and too few small press books are sold in independent bookstores. Headmistress Press is committed to publishing as many worthy books as we possibly can. To do this, we favor a strategy that combines an annual contest in which the winner is chosen blindly, but we also select a number of “editor’s choice” manuscripts for publication. We’re open to queries during our off reading season. We work hard to get our books onto the shelves of local independent book sellers.
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 Headmistress Press?
We do charge a reading fee for our contests, but on a sliding scale starting at $8.00. We do this so that we can offer a small monetary prize to a winner and a small gratuity to our judge. We are almost unique in offering feedback on any submitted manuscript for an additional $5.00. And our books have been and will always be sold for $10.00.
We do not expect to stay afloat on book sales alone. Our best selling books sell in the range of 500-600 copies, but there are books we love that don’t sell well. The Lesbian Poet Trading Cards have been a real boost to our income. Our Indiegogo Campaign in 2015 not only gave us the capital to expand, but also put our books and cards into the hands of our supporters, who then spread the word.