Interview with Jeanette Powers, Editor in Abetting
How did Stubborn Mule Press start?
Jason Ryberg and I were drinking whiskey from ball jars while sitting in the Gasconade River and throwing rocks at a burgeoning wall of thrown rocks. We spend a lot of time in the river. We’d been publishing together since late 2014 when we collaborated on a project called POP POETRY: #12poetsin12months under his imprint Spartan Press. The project was a huge success in KC and went on for a three year run. I mostly quit after the second year, though, because life, and Jason had spent a long time trying to con me into getting back into publishing. That day in the river, with witnesses of five Northern snakes, one blue heron and one prothonotary warbler, he convinced me we should start a whole new project together and Stubborn Mule Press was born.
We spent a few days throwing names back and forth and I was thinking of how to convince him to have a unicorn in the name when he sends me this logo of “Stubborn Mule Press” and the incredible Mark Hennessy (of Paw fame) reading a book to a mule (or maybe donkey, who knows these things!). Instantly, I was in. That night, I dreamt I rode a mule to the arctic and watched the sun chase circles around the sky, never setting. I knew it was our press. Also, I grew up around horses and mules, and have family who still are amazing horse-folk. My cousin Alix and her mule Gator are our honorary mascots, and she’s always sending me amazing photos of the two of them.
I’d worked with a few other presses over the years, and developed a real aesthetic and ethic about what I feel small presses should do and be about. It’s been a joy to sculpt and nurture the Mule in the direction that I believe in. Working with poets and creating really stunning books is one of the great joys of my life.
Tell us a bit about Stubborn Mule. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The mission of Stubborn Mule is really to bring attention to working class poets, the kind of lifers who aren’t trying to maximize a gimmick, aren’t trying to be famous, the kind of poet who is dedicated to poetry and developing poetry communities. I coined the phrase “radical country” to nutshell what we are about, I like it because it’s incredibly broad but has the flavor of being outside the broader paradigm of society. I like working with poets who push the boundaries of self through their poetry. It’s one thing to explore the world and its politics, but the Mule prefers poetry that explores the self. Of course that means the world and society and all the things are part of it, but if we can’t feel the big YOU inside the stories, the poems probably aren’t for this press.
I want every book the Mule puts out to be seriously beautiful, but also playful. Elim J. Sidus, our Cover Editor, makes amazing vibrant hand-drawn covers for books which absolutely speaks to our aesthetics. That doesn’t work for everyone, so we’re really lucky to have Jon Lee Grafton’s stunning photography ouvre at our access. These two artists very much set the tone for the look of our books. I also adore making art-poetry hybrid books. My own art vacillates between visual and verbal and it is really challenging to put them together in a way that works. There don’t seem to be many folks outside of the zine world who are doing this, but the Mule will definitely continue. It’s sort of a marriage of my beloved zine culture and the indie press world. Zines are a huge influence on my life, I thought I invented them when I put out my first “Question Authority” zine in high school. I am always inventing things that already exist.
I’d say my biggest influence, though, is the library. I’m a life-long library addict. That’s part of the reason that every Mule book gets a Library of Congress number and a copy sent to them. I mean, how cool, to have your book in the Library of Congress.
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’ve been incredibly lucky to get some amazing poets for our first year publishing: George Wallace is just huge in community creating, Daniel Crocker is pure country genius, Mike James has the rare gift of inspiring others to write more with his imaginative and glamorous works. Also, two art-hybrid books, “Dog Alley” by the artist Hugh Merrill combines his poems and drawings, and “To Grow a Hole the Size of Everything” which is a monster collaboration between my paintings and Jason Preu’s poem at over 100 full-color pages.
We definitely want to do more art-poetry hybrids, which is a kind of book I absolutely love to build. We have one coming out in 2019, “After the Flood” with paintings by Greg Edmondson and poems by a dozen different folks. Next year is also bringing some women voices into the press, including Steph Castor, Caitlin Vance and Macey Webb, and also the indie press goddess Dianne Borsenik. We also have the original working-class-bathtub-poet Damian Rucci on the books for his debut full-length, and we’re super happy about that.
We want to publish more books of verse that really translate to a broader audience, books with a sense of humor about the ennui and horror of the world.
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.
What’s most exciting to me is the world of small press festivals, and getting to meet and engage with other publishers and poets. I help run FountainVerse: KC Small Press Poetry Fest, going into our fourth year now (formerly Poetry Throwdown). Over the years, we’ve had dozens of presses and hundreds of poets over this three day festival, and it’s really changed my life and expanded my love of the small press community. In 2019, the Mule is headed down to NOLA’s festival, to a new one in Salina, Kansas, and FountainVerse will be back in October, and hopefully a few more. There’s nothing better than spending a weekend in the midst of folks who love the same thing you do.
I’d like to see more touring in the small press world, especially touring women. Last year, I took four femmes out on the road, and we were received everywhere we went with so much love and we had the best time. Connecting the disparate communities is totally essential in my mind, all us feral poetry addicts need each other.
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 Stubborn Mule Press?
Yikes. I hemorrhaged a small fortune in publishing over the last few years and I’m a very poor person. I’ve started writing grants for some of my poetry community building projects and have been blessed to be able to do bigger things thanks to wonderful sponsors. It’s a serious issue, though, because the cost of running a press makes it impossible for everyone to access that outlet. Each press has to go their own way for what is best, but I’ll share my philosophy.
I will never charge a reading fee. I will never charge for submissions. It’s about accessibility, I want to read everyone’s manuscripts. It’s not that a poet can’t afford three or ten dollars (sometimes), it’s that they can’t afford to do that dozens of times. Stubborn Mule still gives author copies. We pledge to continue to do that. If the poet can turn those ten $15 books into $150, then they can afford to buy more books to sell. No one should go broke in order to get their book out, except it’s likely I’ll go broke with that philosophy! ha!
So, how do I break even? I put my entire heart and soul into each book. I work tirelessly with each author to put out their best possible, beautiful, perfect book. A book they can really be proud of. I keep the website and social medias active and growing. I believe that if I do all that, the poet will want to sell their Stubborn Mule book, and they will work harder to get lots of copies out into the world. That’s where I recoup my financial investment, by selling more copies to the poet to sell. If they don’t sell, I go broke. So, I try to give them a good reason to sell their Mule book.
I’ll never be paid for all my time, most likely. So it’s a good thing that running a press and treating poets like rock stars fills me with total joy.