Interview with Ellen Kombiyil, Co-Founder
How did The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective start?
The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective began one afternoon when Shikha Malaviya, Minal Hajratwala, and Ellen Kombiyil sat down for chai and biscuits one afternoon in Minal’s living room in Bangalore. Shikha had been toying with the idea of starting a collective poetry press after reading an article in Poets & Writers. She had met Minal a few months earlier at the literary festival Lekhana, and Ellen at the free weekly poetry workshop she ran at the time, and thought maybe. The afternoon the three of us first met, there was an immediate connection. Excitement pulsed through the room: together, we could build something greater than what each could do on her own. From the beginning, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective was about building community.
Starting the press was easy: we dreamed big. We decided the press would
- Be a mentorship model collective press. This is particularly important: there are no MFA programs in India and few opportunities for new poets to hone their craft outside of their own trial and error. This is a way to grow the skills of the poetry community outward.
- Publish emerging voices by focusing only first and second books of poetry.
- Specialize in publishing books in English from poets with a deep connection to India. (Taking up translations of the many Indian languages seemed like more than we could handle just starting out. This is something we will reevaluate in the future).
- Pay our poets for their manuscripts in the form of prize money.
Tell us a bit about the Collective. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The Collective’s mission is to publish the best new writing coming out of India and the diaspora, coupled with the desire to grow the poetry community in India and abroad. The mentorship-model is very much influenced by the Alice James Books model, and in fact Alice James shared with us some of their wisdom when we were first starting the press. Our aesthetic is wide-ranging, as is attested by the book we publish: each is wholly different from the next. We view each book as its own work of art, and aim to support each poet in envisioning their book as a complete creation: cover design, size and shape of the book, texture of the book, internal layout of the poems.
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 very excited to have three new books in the pipeline for later in this year: books from poets Subhashini Kaligotla (Emerging Poets Prize winner for Bird of the Indian Subcontinent), Ranjani Murali (Editor’s Choice Award for Clearly You are ESL), and Akhil Katyal (Editor’s Choice Award for How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross) all are nearing completion and ready to go into production.
The guest judge, acclaimed Indian poet Arundhathi Subramaniam, called Subhashini’s book “a finely poised work, dexterous and emotionally nuanced.”
The editors found Ranjani’s book to be a playful exploration of Indian linguistic rhythms, applying feminist and postcolonial ideas to navigate the complications of being an “Indian” voice, a “global” voice, and a female voice.
The editors saw in Akhil’s work a powerful activist voice bristling with questions for which there are no easy answers: When will the soldier come back? When will there be justice in Kashmir? Why can’t a man love another man? When will our children be safe?
We’re also super excited to share the announcement of our 2017 winners! Congratulations to Urvashi Bahuguna, Emerging Poets Prize winner, and Joshua Muyiwa and Divya M. Persaud for winning the Editor’s Choice Awards.
The guest judge, acclaimed American poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, found Urvashi’s poems to be “charming and powerful [with the] terrain and radiant heart of these poems prickling and shimmering with a vibrancy hardly ever seen in a debut.”
The selection committee found Divya’s book to be playful and exploratory, delving into trauma and identity. The poems are highly musical, at times experimental, and polyvocal. The collection examines various aspects of C-PTSD and historical trauma in a way that is both compelling and triumphant.
The selection committee found in Joshua’s work a powerful exploration of being queer in India. In poems that are bold and searing, the poet melds memory and imagination to create a world that is magical, surreal and yet wholly believable.
As for future years, we will continue to run our yearly fee-free manuscript contest. We are always astounded and grateful for the quality and variety of manuscripts we receive, and thank these poets for entrusting us with their work.
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.
We are hoping to be the change we wanted to see in the publishing world! By elevating marginalized voices to the global stage and, with the peer-mentorship, collaborating with our poets on a rigorous editorial venture to hone each manuscript into its final, shimmering form. As we stated earlier, our larger aim is to grow the Indian poetry community outward. Skills gained in one year of being mentored through the whole publication process—editing, reworking poems or sections, structuring a manuscript, working with a designer, organizing book events—are paid forward in the second year, as each poet mentors the next batch of new collective members.
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 The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective?
We have a lot to say on this subject! We never charge reading fees, and we will share with you our funding model, so it can hopefully inspire other small presses to think differently:
Our reasons for NOT charging reading fees:
- It is our goal to discover and publish the best new poetry from India/Indian diaspora and the last thing we wanted was for someone to choose whether or not to send to us because of money.
- We believe it is our job, as co-Founders and Directors of the press, to keep the press solvent and find creative ways to fund our projects.
- We believe that our funding projects are an integral part of what will make our press GROW, and we view them as opportunities to raise awareness about our press and our mission.
How Our Model Works:
Seed Money: Each of the three co-Founders put in seed money of 40,000 rupees, or the equivalent of about $600 (so 3 founders x $600 = $1,800). Keep in mind that printing costs are much lower in India than in the US, so we were really able to start quite small.
With the initial funds we were able to
- Pay a designer to create our gorgeous logo;
- Pay an artist to design our first book cover (we are very fortunate to have such talented friends as artists who collaborate with us at reduced rates);
- Pay a printer in India for a press run of 500 copies for our first book.
Crowdfunding: In 2014, we ran a successful campaign on Indiegogo, raising over $12,000 (the official number on the Indiegogo site is $10,056, but after we reached our target goal of $10,000, well wishers continued to send us checks directly to save on administration costs of the campaign). I can’t stress this enough: we used this campaign not only to raise needed funds, but to build our subscriber list, create pre-sales of our forthcoming books, and generally raise awareness about our press!
Focus on Subscribers: The more subscribers we have, the better: this helps us with our marketing of new titles, when we have a base of readers already built in. See above, crowdfunding.
Sponsors, Benefactors and Patrons of the Arts: Between the three of us, we brainstormed whom we could approach as larger donors to the press. This was an important strategy for us, as it helped us identify possible allies. Asking for targeted amounts of money (for us it was $250 for a Sponsor, $500 for a Benefactor, and $2,000 for a Patron of the Arts) from specific individuals helped us to reach our fundraising goals. Plus, each Patron of the Arts is acknowledged in the book they produced, which feels great as a press to show that level of support. We are grateful to have partnered with three Sponsors, three Benefactors, and two Patrons of the Arts so far!
Workshops: Part of our mission is to create workshops and teaching tools around Indian poems to make it easier for Indian poets to build their skills and for teachers to teach contemporary Indian poets in their classrooms. This is where funding and enacting our mission intersect: we now offer a variety of workshops in both the US and India, where the modest fees we charge are channeled back into the Collective. Our crowdfunding rewards also included custom poetry workshops, either for one’s own group or to donate to a group in India, both of which proved popular.
Keep It Interesting: With funds from our Indiegogo, we were able to not only publish another year of books but also to hire professionals to create a stunning new website, where we are able to update new content in our homepage carousel, where we announce new books, workshops, events, you name it. We also feature a new poem each week, curated for our poetry app, inPoetry. All the content is available on our website, which over time will build into a formidable archive of contemporary Indian poetry in English: a resource for poets, teachers, and poetry lovers everywhere. These endeavors help us with our mission, which goes hand-in-hand with our fundraising efforts.
Book Sales: Ideally, the sales of each previous book help pay for the next one. This is our vision of a self-sustaining collective press!
We are pretty pleased with our accomplishments so far: five books published, six more in the pipeline, and building all the infrastructure of a press from the ground up. The three of us have complementary skills so we’ve all learned from each other about everything from how to use WordPress, to how to file our taxes as a collective, to how to give critiques to the poets we mentor and publish. And, shiny and new for 2017, we are now able to accept tax-free donations within the US!
I and several other small press editors will be speaking on this very topic in more detail at AWP in Tampa this March. The panel description follows:
Side-Hustle Publishing: Sustaining a Small Press in Austere Times (Steve Halle, Laura Cesarco Eglin, Adam Clay, Sarah Gzemski, Ellen Kombiyil)
How do small presses confront issues of sustainability in an era when available resources like funding, time, energy, and people power for literary publishing are spread thinner than ever? Representatives from The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, co•im•press, Noemi Press, Shelterbelt Press, and Veliz Books focus on practical lessons they’ve learned along the way, including critical decisions and essential techniques for building a thriving, community-driven organization with limited means.