Interview with Janet MacFadyen, Managing Editor
How did Slate Roof Press start?
Slate Roof Press was established in 2004 to promote the work of poets in rural Franklin County in western Massachusetts. Two friends wanted to build an outlet for their work, so they advertised a meeting in the paper, attended by the five original founding members of Slate Roof, including Ed Rayher, our master printer. Since then we have expanded to serve poets throughout the state and region, and from time to time bring in members nationwide. All members—at present we are seven—currently join through our Slate Roof Press Chapbook Contest/Elyse Wolf Prize.
Tell us a bit about Slate Roof Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
When we started, we followed the cooperative model of Six Rivers Press in San Francisco and Alice James Books in Maine, so our mission honors collaboration and consensus, from doing day-to-day tasks to deciding overarching goals. All of us volunteer our time to edit, produce, and promote each book, designed jointly by the author and our printer. Each member develops their own role in the press. For example, one of our members is blind, and thanks to her we now offer both audio books and books in Braille. In addition, our press evokes the history of bookmaking, from our letterpress covers to choices on typography and papers. We have gluing, sewing, and assembly parties when a book is in final production. We also want our books to be affordable and environmentally friendly.
On aesthetics, we favor poems with emotional and intellectual richness. We love beautiful craft, strong content, and rich music. We look for poems that take us on unexpected journeys. We have published poems of domesticity and the world, of nature-human interconnectedness as well as political resonance and strife.
We also strongly believe that a poetry book is a physical work of art whose presentation contributes to its meaning. Traditional “crystal goblet” bookmaking assumes a book to be merely a container for the word, so it doesn’t matter whether the reader reads a poem in a beautiful volume or in an email. However, we believe a book provides a theater for the words, where the stage starts with the cover and moves inward through the physical narrative established by the pages—a journey through time and space.
Each of our books reflects the poet’s aesthetic while echoing the poems within. Each is hand-sewn featuring locally obtained artwork. We use ingenious folds to create a cover, yielding a spine that can be printed on. The result is a chapbook that is as substantial and well-constructed as a full-length volume and can be seen, say, on a bookstore shelf.
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’re totally proud of the books we’ve put out to date, and we’re super-excited at our newest chapbook, Everything Begins Somewhere, by Amanda Lou Doster, just released this July (reviewed in the Boston Globe here). And we’re delighted, excited, and intrigued to see how our next chapbook is shaping up: The Wild Language of Deer, by Susan Glass, tentatively scheduled to be out early next year. Along with the standard text, we expect to be incorporating Braille into her book. Since we have never done Braille before, her book will be a foray into the unknown. But we are not unnerved because master printer Ed Rayher has an uncanny ability to design and execute wildly imaginative books and to work with all kinds of alphabets, including the Cherokee alphabet which he recently recast for the first time since the 1800s. Next up after Susan Glass’s collection is Richard Wollman’s Changeable Gods, a series of love poems (which began as emails!), which poet Alfred Nicol said “is strikingly like that of Eugenio Montale…without his having been consciously influenced by the Italian poet.” Richard will be using his own art for the cover and design elements of the book.
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.
The number of independent poetry publishers indicates to us this is a healthy cohort. Of course presses come and go, but the dedication and the infinite variety of expressions keep us hopeful. We would really like to see steeper discounts for small press advertising; when we’re budgeting for a press run of 250 or 350 books with quality production values, spending hundreds of dollars per ad for various publications is not an option for us.
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 Slate Roof Press?
Since we’re now in an open-ended future because of COVID, we’ve had to change our in-person meetings—once the glue that held our organization together—to Zoom. This has worked reasonably well in the short-term, but long-term may drive some changes for us, since what really distinguishes us from other presses is the physical book that can be held in your hand. (At the Washington, DC, AWP, someone came by our table to say that ours were the most beautiful books at the 800+ book fair.) So how do we illustrate this tangible quality through the intangible medium of the internet? We’re playing with numerous ideas on how to show online the intricacy and physicality of our books.
Money? We’re basically in hibernation: though our revenue stream has thinned out, we have no office or phone, so our only overhead is the website and Submittable contest site. A generous donor established our contest award, and we have kept a deliberately low reading fee (and considerable flexibility). Definitely we don’t feel the impact as profoundly as a performing arts group does—it must be heartbreaking for them. Amanda Lou Doster’s Everything Begins Somewhere was released in the middle of the pandemic, yet we are doing well with it through social media connections, even without a formal online launch. Perhaps one result of the pandemic is that people seek out the arts and poetry with more intensity than before—perhaps sheltering in place gives people time to sit with their inner lives more closely. People also seem to have an increased desire to help out and are buying books to support each other.