Interview with Kate Partridge and Alyse Knorr, Editors
How did Switchback Books start?
Switchback Books was founded in 2006 by the amazing poets and editors Hanna Andrews, Brandi Homan, and Becca Klaver. They were all students in the MFA program at Columbia College in Chicago, and they began the press with the goal of publishing feminist manuscripts by women—but with the understanding that feminism can take many different forms, and can find ways to approach any subject or aesthetic. We’ll refer you to some of their early interviews in publications like Ms. and the Chicago Tribune for a sense of Switchback’s founding spirit.
Tell us a bit about Switchback Books. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The mission of Switchback Books has always been a really pragmatic one: to take a pro-active approach to gender disparities in literary publishing by publishing and promoting books of poetry by women writers (including trans* women and anyone who identifies as female). We run one contest each year, which is the Gatewood Prize for first and second books. And we focus on supporting and amplifying the voices of our writers in whatever ways we can.
We want to continue the tradition of serving as a launchpad for emerging feminist poets. For us, part of that mission includes maintaining a broad definition of what can be feminist; over the years, Switchback has had many editors and contest judges who have interpreted that mandate differently, which is part of our strength. We intentionally seek manuscripts and readers with diverse tastes. We have some favorite writers in common, though, and our list of past judges gives you a sense: Dorothea Lasky, Dawn Lundy Martin, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Eileen Myles have recently selected our winners.
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 are excited to have two new releases slated for March 2019: Principles of Economics by Kristen Case, which Heather Christle selected as the winner of last year’s Gatewood Prize, and Grand Marronage by Irène Mathieu, which was the runner-up. Principles of Economics is a beautiful collection of interconnected elegies, which form a complex web of relationships with time and with text. Grand Marronage explores the lives of Creole women of color in New Orleans during the 20th century, and it includes more experimentation with narrative and persona. They’re very different books, which is delightful to us, but they are also collections that are both attempting to engage past and present simultaneously, and are deeply invested in using historical narrative structures to address present lives.
This might give you an example of the range of work we’ll be looking for when we open again in January for Gatewood Prize submissions—just about anything! We want to read collections that are the best of themselves, whatever their aesthetic aims. Keep an eye on our social media feeds in the spring for announcements about the contest, and to order Kristen and Irène’s books! They’ll both be reading all over the place next year, and we’ll be holding readings and signings for Switchback authors at the 2019 AWP Conference in Portland.
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 exciting to us, especially as a press that publishes women poets and only reads early-career manuscripts, is that we get to read poems that we aren’t encountering anywhere else. And as editors, it’s wonderful to be involved with a press in which we are able to work with writers every step of the way from production to promotion of their books (including many years after they’ve joined our family).
We are committed to supporting a diverse set of writers and readers, and are paying close attention to the conversations happening in our communities about access and inclusion. We’re also encouraged by the commitment of many readers to books of contemporary poetry, and we want to keep working to get books of poetry into the hands of even more readers who aren’t familiar with small press 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 Switchback Books?
We cope! Like other small presses, we do rely on book sales and contest entry fees to cover Switchback’s basic printing and operating costs. We try to be responsible stewards of those funds, using them to promote our authors’ work to the best of our ability. In the end, we bring in about as much money as we spend each year. (I’m sure you hear the same from just about everyone!) But we are a wholly independent press, and we rely on sales and fees for all the press’s expenses.
We’re very grateful to our authors, who do amazing work to get their books in front of as many people as possible and take a great deal of leadership in promoting their work. They fill many of the gaps in what we, as a press with 3-4 people on staff at a time, simply cannot address—but we also know that our authors are our best assets, and having them out front, speaking and reading, is the best way to draw in new readers. They are all active and engaging literary citizens, and without their work to keep promoting Switchback, we’d be reaching far fewer people.