Interview with Patricia Dienstfrey, Co-Founder
How did Kelsey Street Press start?
Kelsey Street was formed to publish women in 1974; to bring out formally experimental poetry and short fiction; to produce well-designed books that were affordable; to publish a racially and culturally diverse list; and to run a literary press on the cooperative, non-hierarchical principles of the seventies Women’s Movement.
The founding members met at the Berkeley Poets’ Cooperative, a drop-in workshop. Many remarkable poets were regulars and we worked with a talented group bringing out early issues of the Coop magazine. The first Kelsey Street members appeared in it, for some of us our first published work. After about a year, a group of women split off to meet separately when we noticed that elements of our writing men in the group saw as weaknesses we saw as strengths, and we became interested in developing these strengths outside the margins. The group that split off included KSP’s founding members—Karen Brodine, Marina La Palma, Laura Moriarty, Rena Rosenwasser, Kit Duane.
The idea of bringing out the innovative, risk-taking work by women being turned down by editors at male-dominated presses grew, in part, out of the Coop experience. Virtually every literary press in the country in 1974 was run by men, one notable exception being Alice James Books, a feminist press formed on the east coast a year earlier.
Tell us a bit about Kelsey Street Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
In our mission statement, we say that we encourage women to write directly from their own creative imperatives—that has been the case from the beginning. We feel that this encourages formal experimentation without didactically advocating a specific framework. We are interested in the individual forms our writers find, what experiments and explorations in language are pressing to them in their lives and art.
Our original editorial policy invited submissions from women writers and stated a specific interest in experimental writing by women of color. In the eighties, we extended this to writing by lesbians and, more recently, to work by transgender authors.
Obviously, Kelsey Street’s interest in experimental work predated the eighties’ Language poets’ structuralist and process-based innovations that made their way into college teaching syllabuses, poetry magazines, well-publicized poetics debates. But, before this, in the seventies, Rena and I were reading the early modernist innovators back through Apollinaire and Paul Claudel to Mallarmé. To them, we added H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Virginia Woolf, Radclyff Hall, Djuna Barnes, Violette Leduc, Mina Loy, Dorothy Richardson, Nathalie Sarraute and many other women published in works of feminist retrieval and scholarship in feminist magazines such as Signs, Feminist Studies, Women’s Review of Books and How[ever].
Also, as founders of a new literary small press, we saw ourselves as continuing the tradition of small presses that brought out the innovative work of Joyce and Hemingway, which the established publishing houses of the time wouldn’t touch. Now, of course, they are the canonical writers of the twentieth century. We were immensely inspired by these adventurous projects, among them Hogarth Press run by V. and L. Woolf; Contact Editions by Winifred Bryher, H.D.’s lover, and Robert McAlmon; Black Sun Press founded by Caresse and Harry Crosby; and The Hours Press by Nancy Cunard—all presses that included women as writers, editors, and funders. We had a special place in our hearts for the collaborations of Virginia Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Stevens, and for French innovative writers like the poet Pierre Reverdy and visual artist Juan Gris. Our interests also included the visionary entrepreneur, Sylvia Beach, and the circle of writers who stopped to shop, gossip and trade notes at her Shakespeare and Company book store. When we were beginning in the early seventies, our comparisons between the productive lives of those women expats in London and Paris, on the one hand, and the absence of women from every part of the writing community in the United States, on the other, had a radical impact. Around that time, just to make the situation perfectly clear, we came across an anthology entitled Bay Area Poets (1970) and not one woman poet’s work appeared in it. The effect on us was of a horror vacui, the void that it’s a person’s first instinct to fill in.
Another mission was to bring out well-designed books in affordable editions. Our first were printed on a letterpress. In 1973, newspapers and small businesses were converting to photographic processes and I found a beautiful, hand-cranked Vandercook proof press and picked up random printing supplies for the cost of carrying them away.
We gave up letterpress printing in the late seventies, a hard choice. But the process is expensive in terms of time—setting the type letter by letter, locking up the type for printing, pulling proofs. I worked more slowly than others because of my inexperience with letterpress techniques which made me inefficient. Perfectionism also came into the picture. But we loved producing those first books. None of us had printing experience. Marina La Palma and I took a class from the charismatic fine-printer and poet, Clifford Burke, and Marina typeset and I printed our first book, Poems from Neurosuite, by Italian poet Margherita Guidacci, translated by Marina. Like all our poetry books, it included artwork, in this case a frontispiece by an early press member, Xenia Lisanevitch. Rena typeset and I printed two more KSP editions. We fell in love with the sculptural aspects of the letterpress page, with the sensuous feel of rag papers, with mixing inks and experimenting with impression on the page. As I said, it was to change. However, a growing interest in four-color separation and using contemporary women’s art on covers helped wean us away. We could still design books around their poetic content, create an aesthetic of the whole that didn’t have the feeling of “one size fits all” and keep books affordable. But when I hold those early letterpress books in my hands, I know what we gave up and what the book world lost.
In 1986, Rena and visual artist Kate Delos published a collaborative work entitled Simulacra. This became the seed of a series of collaborations between poets and visual artists from both U.S. coasts. Curated by Rena, these are true co-creations of artist and writer. Rena’s brother Robert Rosenwasser, the co-founder and artistic director of Alonso King LINES Ballet, worked with Rena as the art director for many of those books. In production, they involve a complex collaborative dynamic that includes the poet, visual artist, printer, book designer and producer. These books are in special collections in New York Public Library, the Whitney, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other museums in the country.
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 past few years, we’ve published several exciting projects. In 2014, we brought out Premonition, a brief but powerful prose work by beloved Lebanese-American poet and artist Etel Adnan. Last year, we published Nests & Strangers: on Asian American Women Poets, our first critical anthology, edited by Timothy Yu and with an Afterword by Kelsey Street Press member and poet Mg Roberts. The essays are by four Asian-American scholars—Sarah Dowling, Merle Woo, Sueyeun Juliette Lee and Dorothy Wang—writing on four Kelsey Street Asian-American poets—Myung Mi Kim, Nellie Wong, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Bhanu Kapil, respectively. The project grew out of the huge public interest in these writers reflected in multiple reprintings of their books. Bringing out a volume of critical perspectives offered new ways for these works to be discovered and read.
In the coming year, we have three forthcoming titles: Tell Me Every Anchor Every Arrow by Steffi Drewes (October 2016), Recombinant by Ching-In Chen (Pub Date TBA), and Cecilia Vicuña: New and Selected Poems (1966-2015), edited by Rosa Alcalá (Spring 2017). Tell Me Every Anchor Every Arrow is the first full-length book by Drewes, a talented Bay Area poet and a Kelsey Street Press member. Strongly connected to our 21st century American landscape, this is an exuberant debut that vividly reimagines the ode and the pastoral. Recombinant is Chen’s second book of poems. It’s an extremely elegant and formally experimental work that takes on issues of race, trafficking, and identity—a radical narrative of witness. Cecilia Vicuña’s Selected Poems has been in the works for years. Translator Rosa Alcalá received an NEA grant in support of her work on this book. It will be a bilingual edition spanning all of Vicuña’s writing, with selections made by the author. It combines poetry, a series of visual gestures, and performance notes to give a 360-degree portrait of Vicuña as an artist.
This fall, we will also reopen submissions to our Firsts! contest, a series of first books by emerging writers. The contest will be judged by Bhanu Kapil, whose first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, was published by Kelsey Street Press fifteen years ago. We’re very excited to add another volume to our Firsts! series which thus far includes: Seven Days and Nights in the Desert by Sabrina Dalla Valle, Rings by Jasmine Dreame Wagner, and Deus Ex Machina by Jennifer Pilch. This contest is open to women-identified writers and writers with non-binary gender identities who have not yet published a full-length book. Interested writers should visit our website for details.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
There are so many small presses now, and yet they’re not competing for sunlight. I’m thinking of presses like Nightboat, Litmus, Roof, Red Hen, Apogee, Ugly Duckling, Dorothy, Chax, Omnidawn, and so many others. These are presses that really seem to be inspired and focused on what they set out to do. They are in it for the passion of it, and it’s not a competitive vibe. It’s wonderful to be a part of that community.
There are also new opportunities afforded by technology, new ways to reach and communicate with readers. There is a certain pressure to change—or, maybe, put more positively—to adapt with developments in technology and industry trends. We are interested in those changes, but we also feel a strong connection to our history and our founding values. Actually, we have recently discussed producing an anniversary anthology for the press that would have a letterpress component and a digital component—an experiment in looking back while exploring new possibilities in publishing.
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 Kelsey Street Press?
In our business practices, as with our poetics, we are open to experimentation. In the past several years, we’ve begun charging reading fees, particularly for our first book contest. This has become the industry standard to make sustainable the regular publication of first books by new authors. However, this year we have chosen not to charge a reading fee for our Firsts! Contest. Prior to the start of our Firsts! series, we did not charge reading fees (we have never awarded prizes or advances), and it’s not something with which we are entirely comfortable. We continue to discuss among ourselves what publishing models make sense for us—not just practically, but in light of our history and identity as a non-profit women’s collective.
We’ve recently become more aware of storage costs as a concern. We have a substantial backlist, and most of our titles are stored with our distributor SPD in Berkeley. We’ve had to work with them to reduce storage space. And, when you take storage costs into consideration, we’ve realized that it is sometimes more reasonable to order smaller initial print runs for a title, and reprint as needed.
The need to reduce stock in storage has led to some opportunities to get our books to new audiences. Several year ago, Kelsey Street and several other Berkeley presses donated books to the Berkeley Art Museum’s Reading Room. This was a place where museum visitors could read and take books free of charge. It was a welcome opportunity to make new members of the community aware of the books we’ve published. We’ve also donated KSP books to the Freedom Education Project, Puget Sound in Washington State, a prison library program instituted by a former KSP member, Tanya Erzen.
As far as printing costs are concerned, Kelsey Street remains committed to producing beautiful and finely made editions. We continue to offset-print almost all of our first editions. We have never been able to pay our authors advances. We offer all authors the option of receiving annual royalty payments or a percentage of the book run at the time of printing.
As far as finances go, we are in many ways liberated by being a collective run entirely by volunteers. All the revenue from our book sales goes directly toward the design, printing, and promotion of future titles. The considerable unpaid labor of our members is our greatest asset. In fact, when we first read “How do you cope?” in your question, we thought of time, not money. Since we are all volunteers, time is the resource we are most likely to feel short on.
We have also had the good fortune to publish works by some now very established authors and continued interest in their work helps sustain the press. That said, we always need to supplement income from book sales. In a time of more active public support for the arts in the seventies and eighties, we regularly received grants from the federal National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and our county’s Alameda Arts Council. This is less often the case now. We have also been grateful for help from a variety of private arts funders such as the Lannan foundation, LEF and Friends of the Collaboration Series. Other sources of income have included a prepaid subscription program to KSP books and a series of fund-raising salons featuring KSP writers and artists, both successful projects undertaken in the eighties. The sale of KSP’s Archives to the Bancroft Library of University of California, Berkeley gave us a financial boost in the nineties. Currently, we are reaching out to individual donors in personal letters and making more use of our website. In other words, fund-raising is continual, ongoing, fundamental. Then, a few rare times, a gift falls into our laps like the Biblical manna from heaven.