Interview with JoAnna Novak, Tyler Flynn Dorholt, and Thomas Cook
How did Tammy start?
The idea for Tammy came at a kitchen table in Chicago, and we opened for submissions in the fall 2008. Our first issue was published in the spring of 2009. The three of us—Thomas Cook, Tyler Flynn Dorholt, JoAnna Novak—were all MFA students in different parts of the Midwest, and we were just starting to publish in journals. We were all a bit overwhelmed with the number of online venues for publishing popping up in those days, so we wanted to create a print journal. Our slogan, “from the esteemed fringes and unguarded egresses of American letters,” used to say something about a “physical home,” but at some point that language fell away
And, really, the idea/hope that we’d someday become a press was present from the beginning. I think that desire to grow as a publisher increased as each of us published our own chapbooks. By 2015 Tammy was prepared to work with writers on longer projects. For our first series of chapbooks, we published projects by Coco Owen, Andrew Seguin, and Anthony Madrid—three chapbooks that create entirely, even drastically, different reading experiences. Steuart Pittman, who designed the Tammy logo back in 2008 and whose art appears on the journal covers, contributed design for the chapbooks, too.
Tell us a bit about Tammy. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
We’re still a staff of three people, nearly ten years after our inception. Our influences are rangy and diverse, which is part of what makes reading for Tammy such a pleasure—how do you watch the editorial consciousnesses of three writers evolving?
Of course we could say the thing of, “the best way to get to know the journal’s aesthetic is to buy an issue or a chapbook…” but for real it’s true! I think a great way to understand Tammy is to look at the first piece in each of the six (soon seven) issues that we’ve published, or the differences between the chapbooks. Tonally, formally, conceptually—there’s such a spectrum of writing represented by Coco Owen and Andrew Seguin and Anthony Madrid.
Our issues embody that spectrum, too, though I think we have a fondness for the experimental. The pieces that kick off our issues are all somewhat indeterminate prose. Richard Meier, Rosmarie Waldrop, Lydia Davis, Andrew Wessels, Joe Milazzo, and Michael Martin Shea introduce issues 1-6 with smart, funny prose that’s neither here nor there in genre. But then there’s this whole other thing about us still being relatively new to the game, which is that our aesthetic is still evolving.
Part of what we love about editing the journal and the press is that we get to read writing from so many writers who we may never have known about had they not submitted work to the reading period. That’s part of our mission—the esteemed fringes, the unguarded egresses. We try, in each chapbook series and each issue of the journal, to balance both genre of work and writer identity in many ways, so this balancing also undergirds our aim.
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?
Absolutely. We just finished reading for our second series of chapbooks and selected work from Monica Berlin, Catie Hannigan, Ivelisse Rodriguez, and Saleem Penny.
What’s exciting for us is that these chapbooks represent different genres. We’re reading through the rest of the year for a third series. It wouldn’t be saying too much to reveal that we look to continue publishing the journal and chapbooks in the coming years, while we’re also making plans to announce our first full-length manuscript contest in not too long.
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.
Every time we see an independent or small press book get its due recognition—and that’s through reviews, awards, buzz, etc.—we’re more psyched for the future of small/indie publishing. Tammy is a passion project for us, which is to say, not a business, but we realize that the work we do for our writers has the chance to propel their art, their practice, their writing career…which, a writing career, is invariably built over time, through pages and publications, etc.
If there’s anything that needs to change, in our opinion, it’s that more people should be starting presses and publishing the work that needs to be in print. If you’re already involved, good on you. If you’re not and you have even the smallest inkling that you want to edit and publish a journal, a chapbook press, a broadside series: make it happen. The more this happens the better for writers whose work might otherwise go unnoticed.
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 Tammy?
Sure, why not. Tammy charges fees for reading so that we have the funds to publish issues. Over the eight years we’ve been doing this, we’d estimate we are about $5,000 in the red. That is to say, we spend everything that comes in on printing the journal and chapbooks and sending them out to contributors and folks who order copies, plus, especially early on, we had to pay out of pocket to make it happen. That’s not the case anymore, but we’ve still never made any money on the venture, overall. We’re totally independent of any institution, grant, fellowship, arts board, or trust fund. We’re three working writers who love to make Tammy as we can (potentially this explains the somewhat erratic publishing schedule on which we’ve operated!). That’s likely how it’s gonna be.
The conversations about reading fees are important, and we hear them, and it’s our long-term goal to be able to run Tammy without charging to click Submit. (We didn’t, at first, before we used Submittable, but you don’t want to know how frighteningly obtuse our Gmail system was…)
What question do you wish we’d asked? How would you answer it?
Here’s one: How do you read submissions? How do you select work? Answer: Without outside readers. Each editor reads every single thing that comes into our inbox and we comment on it independently. Then we have conversations—old-school three-way calls—about the work. Sometimes we read it aloud. Often we laugh or get choked up. Much of the time we marvel at the many brilliant ways different writers see the world. It’s a humbling and exciting process.
We say something to this end in our editorial policy, but as submitters ourselves we’re always curious about whether our work reaches the editors to whom we send. Part of the whole ethos of Tammy is that we wanted to be editors who read everything that came in so that everything submitted to us has a fighting chance of making it in the journal. You would be surprised at the number of times someone’s writing catches the eye or ear of one of editors the first time through while it has eluded the other two of us. To have one editor really fight for—and articulate his/her fight for—the writing he/she loves, is why we keep doing this. We’ll spare you what those fight-conversations sound like, but usually submissions like those—the hard-fought Yeses—are the most surprising and wonderful additions to Tammy.