Interview with Joshua Young, Founder & Editor; Abigail Zimmer, Poetry Editor; and Ian Denning, Prose Editor
How did The Lettered Streets Press start?
Joshua: My father and I wanted to start a press for years, and he, along with my twin and myself, had started a few things while I was in college. But when I started my MFA, I was reading all these poets and writers that didn’t have books, and I felt like it was because they were just a bit weird or different or whatever. I wanted to run a press like a record label—don’t know if we’re doing that, but the spirit is there, hence the splits and the collective-like approach to the press.
The press sort of formed while I was living in Seattle, right before I moved to Chicago in 2011—then it was just an idea. But Ian Denning, who I went to grad school with, had been trying to move it forward. I saw Abigail Zimmer (who was a year behind me in the MFA program) read and I thought, Damn, she should be the poetry editor. Not long after, the three of us accepted our first book, Nicole Wilson’s Supper & Repair Kit, and started looking for our first split (by spring of 2013, we had signed on Alexis Pope and Aubrey Hirsch).The following year, I asked Beyza Ozer to join as social media coordinator. And here we are now.
Tell us a bit about The Lettered Streets. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Joshua: I wanted to run a press like a record label. I think that’s what we’re doing a little. I also wanted a place that published weirder stuff—stuff that might not fit at a lot of presses. I love hybrid/post-genre stuff and projects, so when a manuscript comes in that offers some version of this, I tend to like it. The definitions of hybrid/post-genre or project are so subjective and always changing that what we accept for one book may look very different than what we accept for another. I guess I want something that follows me around for weeks after I’ve read it. So far, everything we’ve put out does that for me.
Ian: I want to publish the kind of weird books that you find accidentally and love and then want to tell everybody about. In my own work I’m far from experimental, so I want to find books for Lettered Streets that are new and funky and blur some boundaries, but still feel like they’re telling stories. I think Julie Trimingham’s Way Elsewhere is a great example of that. It’s a fictional travelogue told in prose and bits of poetry. That’s not a form I’ve seen before, but the emotions—melancholy, a sense of internal and external inquiry, being open to the world in all its variety—all feel very real and concrete.
Abigail: I like work that is project-based, where I can follow a thread in all its iterations, nuances, narrative, distractions. Our forthcoming poetry selections, by Olivia Cronk and Lo Kwa Mei-en, both have a wild, urgent feel to them that sits you up, quickens your pulse. There’s a song / anthem / rally / lullaby in them, and that’s the best I can explain it. We’ve also published a lot of first collections, and I like the idea of us staying small, being a launching pad for newer writers as they go on to publish with a more established press or gain a wider readership elsewhere.
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?
Joshua: We just released Julie Trimingham’s Way Elsewhere in May. Next is Olivia Cronk’s Louise and Louise and Louise, a collection of horror-soap opera-fantasy poems on identity, changing genre, memory, and fashion. Later this year will come Split Volume III, featuring Lo Kwa Mei-en and Megan Giddings.
Each year we aim to put out one poetry collection, one book of prose, and one split (one poetry chapbook/one prose chapbook by two different authors—though that can vary. The “poetry” side of split Volume II, Seven Sunsets by Jasmine Dreame Wagner, functions more as an essay of poetics).
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
Joshua: So much. Accessibility. Interconnection. It can be overwhelming, but that’s what’s exciting about it. I know people who buy so many books and it astounds me how they can read all of it, but it’s these buyers who have pushed the culture of indie publishing/writing to be what it is. It’s because of them that it is flourishing.
Ian: The sense that there’s room for so many voices, so many forms. I don’t think money drives many decisions that small presses make, and that allows a certain permissiveness.
Abigail: The conversation pushing diversity to the forefront. I think it’s independent publishers who can—and do—respond more quickly and create change. I also love chapbooks—the handmade and book-as-art aesthetic that goes with them as well as the size and length restraints that spark creative approaches.
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 Lettered Streets Press?
Joshua: Fuck reading fees. If you charge readings fees, you’re limiting the number of people who can submit. It’s fucked up. I know so many poets/writers who aren’t submitting because of those fees, and those presses are missing out on the very voices they should be exposed to.
We partially follow the “buy a book to submit” model. Which is fair, I think—don’t you want to know who you’re placing your work with? BUT we’ve also said that you can email us if you can’t afford to buy a book. I’m more interested in finding our next project than selling one book, you know? We’re not holding it against a writer if they can’t buy a book. Publishing should be inclusive and open to all voices, not just the ones who can fork out $10-$50 so you’ll look at a book you probably won’t publish.
Ian: This is probably something we have in common with small punk rock record labels—we are basically constantly broke. I don’t mean that in a bad or complaining way. We run on like zero overhead, and all the money we make goes back into printing more books. It’s amazing to me the kind of community you can find without mainstream distribution, without your book on Amazon. I think that the hand-to-hand bookselling approach fits us and our books well, and I wouldn’t want to change it.
Abigail: I’ve loved Brooklyn Arts Press’s recent model of having a temporary “pay what you want” period, which is not only inclusive of those who can’t afford to buy the book but also pushes buyers to determine what art is worth to them. BAP has found that readers are quite generous. And that’s what I lean on when I’m giving a lot of my time and occasionally money to make our books happen—despite the smallness of our operation, we have really generous readers who value books and value what we do and keep us afloat. We’re in year three and still here, and it’s because of them.