Interview with Margaret Bashaar, Editor & Founder
How did Hyacinth Girl Press start?
I have always really and truly loved promoting and supporting the art and writing of others. I edited my high school’s literary magazine from the tenth grade onward, I worked on my college’s literary magazine, and I co-founded Weave Magazine with Laura Davis about 8 years ago. However, I realized I wanted to work more closely with a smaller number of individual writers rather than less closely with a larger number, so I decided to try my hand at chapbooks. It wasn’t a long, intensely thought out decision, truthfully. But it was definitely a good decision.
Tell us a bit about Hyacinth Girl. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I have always loved work that touches on the weird and the macabre. I had a professor in undergrad who introduced me to Dadaism and Surrealism as well as formal poetry, and I feel like those two prongs of influence show up pretty prominently in what I select for publication at the press. I tend to lean towards work with a strong sense of musicality of language—I will give a manuscript with strong voice and rhythm/flow of language to it a second read over a manuscript that is more craft focused. My mission, as an editor, an events organizer, and a poet, is to expand the reach of poetry and promote what I call arts anarchy. I am particularly interested in publishing poets who work outside of academia, and in particular those who write without MFAs. I enjoy shaking things up a bit. I have also been working towards making the press a more truly intersectional feminist space. It’s conscious work and I hope I’m getting better with it all.
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 released Kimberly Ann Southwick’s chapbook, efs & vees, which is definitely one of those chapbooks that I feel really pulls you through with the rhythm and movement of the poems and how they spill into one another. I had a really wonderful time this year working with Pamela Taylor on her first chapbook, My Mother’s Child—she and her poetry are a joy to engage with as an editor and reader. We’ll be rounding out this year of publishing with titles from Neil Aitken and Allie Marini.
A few titles I am particularly excited about coming up next year are First Crush by Yinka Rose Reed-Nolan (such a gorgeous, raw set of poems) and i will dance when i am dead by Megan Lent (which might be the first chapbook manuscript to make me laugh aloud more than once as I read it) as well as our very first fiction chapbook, No Man’s Wild Laura, by Beth Gilstrap, which my co-editor, Sarah Reck, will be working on.
I’m planning on a bit of a shift in focus for the press in the next couple of years towards more detailed hand-made chapbooks and taking on a few fewer titles so I can really concentrate on the craft side of book-making. We also have been talking to one of our poets about putting out her first full-length book, and I really hope to see that come together in the next couple of years.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
The thing that has always been exciting to me about small/independent press publishing is the freedom it can afford writers and editors. I run my press, so I can do whatever the fuck I want with it, and I can publish what I want, how I want, and that is great and endlessly exciting to me. I love thinking “oh! I could do THIS thing for the press!” and then just, you know, doing it.
I am also both excited and grateful for the conversations of late on social media about inclusivity and intersectionality in publishing. I am endlessly thankful to those who take the time and energy to engage with the small press publishing world on those topics, because lord knows that we need them, and I know that I personally have learned a ton and know I will continue to learn more.
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 Hyacinth Girl Press?
Get me on my soap box, why don’t you! So here’s the thing—Hyacinth Girl Press has never charged a reading fee. We have never crowdfunded. We have never received any grant money. We have only ever taken money from anyone in exchange for a chapbook, and I am incredibly proud of that. I am not wealthy—when I started the press I was a single mother making less than $30,000 a year, and I was incredibly and acutely aware of how classist the whole business of poetry publishing can be. There are outrageous reading fees, print run purchase minimums, presses that ask poets to contribute to the printing costs on their books/chapbooks. All of this keeps poetry and publishing out of the hands of the non-affluent. $7-$25 reading fees add up, and not everyone will get the payout of a $200-$5000 prize with their submissions. We as poets and editors say we want the public to care about poetry and we want more people at our readings, more people buying our books, but we put roadblocks in front of the very first group of people who care about poetry—poets themselves. And these financial roadblocks assist in the continued homogenization of the publishing world. So I say to hell with that and refuse to take anyone’s money when it is not in exchange for a chapbook.
I started Hyacinth Girl Press with about $100.00 of my own money and the exceedingly gracious help and partnership of my friend of over 2 decades, Sarah Reck. In the first couple of years it was not necessarily easy going, and back then I probably put $20 here and $50 there into the press, but now the press runs itself very nicely, financially speaking, and we continue to hold free open reading periods as our main method of selecting manuscripts (I have solicited maybe 3 manuscripts total in the time Hyacinth Girl Press has been around). I outsource my cover printing, but I do all of the printing of the interiors of the chapbooks on my own printer. I hand bind every chapbook (hours upon hours upon hours of work, and I have the callouses to prove it) and I try to hand pick craft paper for the end pages for every chapbook. I charge $6 plus shipping for chapbooks and at this point I break even plus enough to do upgrades here and there, and that is all I need. Running a chapbook press will never be my full time (or even part time) job and I do not want it to be such.
I would never ask a poet to pay for anything but additional copies after their author and review copies. And then I sell them to the poet at cost. I will shut Hyacinth Girl Press down before I charge a reading fee. If someone wants to support my press, I ask that they purchase a chapbook and I am incredibly excited and grateful for every order I receive. If someone cannot or does not choose to support my press, I do not begrudge them.
My press will never be one that sponsors AWP (though that’s for more reasons than money related ones), it will never be a press that awards a $5,000 chapbook prize or gives a 2,000 copy print run (though we do give chapbooks print runs and reprints—we are not print on demand). But I make no airs about any of that. I will love your chapbook and I will try to do right by it and you so long as you (the writer) are a decent human/otherwise creature to work with. I will send out review copies and I will wrestle with university bookstores and I will give myself callouses to put your chapbooks together and I will never, never, never ask you for money.
Can you say a little more about what you mean by “arts anarchy”?
I co-run an event called FREE POEMS with a filmmaker named Rachael Deacon where the whole event and everything about it/at it is free. The space is donated every year, we’ve had breweries and wineries donate kegs and cases of wine, people have donated buttons and DVDs, and it seems like every year that attitude speaks to people and it goes all loaves and fishes on us and we end up with a whole buffet of amazing food and drinks and weird/awesome items, and all of it is free to all attendees.
On top of that (and more importantly), the event is pretty open stage. We have a theme every year (last year was FREE MONSTER POEMS ABOUT MONSTERS) and ask people to write poetry and create performances around that theme. We do ask a few people to be “headliners” so we have something to structure the show around, but the idea is that anyone can come to the event with a poem or performance on theme and we will find a way to showcase their work. If they are too nervous to read, someone will read their poem for them. We don’t censor anything anyone writes or chooses to perform (though we don’t stand for harassment or abuse of any of our performers/attendees and take steps to ensure everyone is completely safe).
The events have been crazy popular, with about 175 attendees at the first one, and over 250 at this most recent event. And Hyacinth Girl Press puts together an anthology of poetry on the topic each year, which we give copies of to everyone who makes (non-monetary) donation towards the event. We don’t even really go around asking for things in any sort of official way—we just post on Facebook things like “hey if someone brought cups that would be cool” and cups appear. It’s pretty goddamn magical.
And one of my other other other favorite parts of all of this, is that 85% of our participants and attendees are not “poets.” And they write amazing poems and do balls-out crazy performances and have fun at the event—so much so that we’ve been voted “Best of Pittsburgh” 2 years in a row for this event. And that’s really what keeps me keeping on with my drive to bring poetry out of the academy. People DO love poetry and they DO want to engage with it and be part of it and when they do it’s really brilliant and beautiful.