Janet Holmes (Director of Ahsahta Press) Interviewed by Tanner Hadfield
I guess my first question would be this: Is there a romantic story surrounding the inauguration of the press? Did it begin, you know, in a garage with a glue gun and a pocketful of dreams? Were there any particular odds to overcome, inspirational ideas or words that kept you going?
(Note: I’m not trying to patronize by suggesting an underdog spin, just trying to get away from the “what have you done lately?” mentality that inevitably takes these kinds of things over.)
You’ll have to judge whether it’s romantic. Here’s the background from our website:
Ahsahta Press, a not-for-profit literary publisher, was founded at Boise State University in 1975 to preserve the best works by early poets of the American West, including many underpublished women poets. Peggy Pond Church, H.L. Davis, Hazel Hall, Gwendolen Haste, Haniel Long, and Norman MacLeod are among the early Western writers Ahsahta Press has restored to print. In 1978, press founder Tom Trusky edited a collection of Women Poets of the West offering a generous selection of the work of early Western women poets that remains a popular title.
Soon after its inception, the press began publishing contemporary poetry by Western poets along with its reprint titles. Ahsahta editors discovered and initially published a number of widely popular poets from the West—among them David Baker, Katharine Coles, Wyn Cooper, Gretel Ehrlich, Cynthia Hogue, Leo Romero, and Carolyne Wright. With the inception of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Boise State University, Ahsahta Press has expanded its scope, presenting the work of poets from across the nation whose work is selected through our national competition or by general submission.
I was hired at Boise State in 1999, and one of the reasons I took the job was to work with what was then a languishing poetry press. The three professors who had started the press (in addition to Tom Trusky, they were Orvis Burmaster and Dale Boyer) had either lost interest in it or passed away, and the press would have disappeared. With the help of grad students, we refashioned the press as one that would be a center of our MFA program, publishing writers from all over the U.S.
The original concept had been for a bare-bones reprint press, with books designed to look like academic monographs. A single typeface was selected for all cover, title, and text, and new authors were given the choice of a color for the paper used to bind the book; there was no cover copy. The professors who edited the press did nothing but look at manuscripts. Obviously, I had to change all that, adding to the editorial job creating books that could hold their own in a bookstore as well as marketing them with advertisements and publicity. In a sense, it was like starting from scratch. There were very very few submissions to the press by 1999, and I needed to come up with a way to encourage some. Together with our first classes of graduate students, I designed our first Sawtooth Poetry Prize contest, with simple expectations of getting maybe 200 entries. That first year, we had well over 700. Since I’d put myself through undergrad as a typesetter, I did all the interior design as well as the covers in those first years, and when we needed a website I did the (clearly very simple) web design for it. (I still do.)
One of the things I wanted to do, as a poet who was now a publisher, was to support authors by staying with them for more than one book. I wanted to publish people whose work I was crazy about, who might represent a “risk” for more standard small presses but who, because of our University support, could explore their literary interests without concessions to “market pressure,” such as it is. I’ve been able to do that and I’m proud of doing that. I think Ahsahta has a “brand identity,” if you want to call it that, as a publisher of innovative, forward-thinking works that are not tied to any single aesthetic. One of our buzzwords is “surprise.” I love that in a book. Publishers always say they publish “the best work out there” — which is baloney, really; there’s so much good work — but I like to publish work I can honestly say is surprising.
The odds to overcome? Mostly, being a one-person show. Grad students help a lot with editorial work, as first readers of the manuscripts for the Sawtooth (I am their second reader, and read everything), but because of their workload as teaching assistants and their own coursework, I can’t depend on them for everyday tasks. A few years ago I got a percentage of the time of an administrative assistant to help wrap and mail the orders and keep track of them; now I’m trying to get someone to help with the financial side of things, keeping our books. I campaigned for years for a managing editor but the University doesn’t think it’s necessary, so for now I have a part-time volunteer. A major distributor turned us down because of staffing issues (though I think we have a better track record of getting the books out and selling them than some of the presses they represent). I’ve just gotten a board together, and am beginning the fundraising process that most other presses assume from the get-go.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of moral support out there! Poets who’ve been judges for the Sawtooth like Brenda Hillman, C.D. Wright, and Carolyn Forché have been personally very supportive of me and what the press is doing. We have lots of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. We have loyal subscribers! Is that a romantic story or what?
Judge’s ruling: romantic. I really like the idea of the “surprise.” I often find myself most receptive to works that surprise me. Are there any other “buzzwords” you would like to share? People love those.
Also, I ran across Stephanie Strickland’s Zone : Zero recently and was surprised to find an interactive CD included in a small press book. Is that something you are looking to do more of, or just a one-off project you couldn’t pass up?
We’ve only done an interactive CD once, but we did a DVD with Kate Greenstreet’s THE LAST 4 THINGS and will do one again next year with Carrie Olivia Adams’ second book, FIFTY-ONE JANE DOES. So I wouldn’t exactly say we’re looking to do more of these, but I’m certainly open to the idea.
“Buzzwords” — heh. I was using the term to describe our ads. Often you’ll see our name at the top of an ad, followed by a word or phrase. For a long time we used the phrase “Poetry is Art” — and later alternated that with the word “Surprise.” I think both do a good job of describing the poetry we publish.
Now that you’ve become an established institution within the small press world, what lies ahead? Are there any projects you are hoping to work on in the future? Something you haven’t been able to do as of yet? Such as featuring more online content, or brewing an Ahsahta Press mead?
Ha ha. Yes, brewing mead is way high up on the agenda. I am one person. The institution I work for doesn’t believe that a press needs a managing editor, a bookkeeper, or a fundraiser, so I get to play all three roles (with the help of volunteers who change quarterly). I have projects lined up through 2016, so of course, there are many projects planned for the future!
I am looking for help with my website. For now, I think I am doing absolutely everything I can.
So you fill the roles of managing editor, bookkeeper, fundraiser, book designer, and so forth for seven titles a year. How does that level of involvement manifest itself in your life?
It means that I spend quite a bit of time working on Press projects! I don’t, like most professors, get to take the summer off to work exclusively on my writing. I work most weekends. And in the spring, when our grant applications are due at the same time we’re reading nonstop for the Sawtooth Contest, I can be a bit testy.
I get two course releases to work on Ahsahta Press, which equates to about 20 hours per week. I use that time up easily (and am grateful for it). I tend to do most of the book layout work in the summers, and work in the spring on writing catalog copy, website copy, and ads for the forthcoming fall. I keep up with the books (financial, I mean) monthly. Raising funds is something I’m completely new at! We just received our first NEA grant, so I’ll be keeping that up. I also do the website, which is undergoing some change — the University is asking us to move to WordPress, but they haven’t yet given us the template they want us to use, so I have to admit that I’m kind of playing a waiting game there.
So, safe to say it makes up a major part of my life. I’m passionate about publishing the great work we have a chance to publish, so it’s not a huge sacrifice, but this year I’m learning to rely on interns more for the small stuff and to carve out my own time to write. I have a new chapbook just out that’s published in association with the Trey McIntyre Project (a ballet company), debuting in December that I owe to that saved time.
Do you see the press as something larger than yourself, or does the level of intimacy make it a sort of prosthetic?
Oh, I definitely see it as larger than myself. One of my current campaigns is to get the University to recognize it as a university asset, instead of as a Holmes Pet Project, and to plan for its continuance. But because it IS intimate, of course I see it at a very close range. There’s no other way to make it work. If I had a staff, I’d be so much happier to concentrate on editorial and leave the business side to others, but that isn’t likely to happen in the current climate.
It’s an incredible amount of work. I don’t mean to suggest that you were bright-eyed coming in to the press, but has it hardened you in any particular ways? Has it changed your perception of art?
I don’t think I’m “hardened,” in the sense that I have maintained my determination to take books only according to aesthetic choices and not because I think something will sell a lot. The one good thing about being at a university is that there are traditions of universities subsidizing the production of books that make a contribution to knowledge regardless of the size of the potential audience. As small as our subsidy is, it gives us that freedom to select books that I think are important to publish. A case in point was Dan Beachy-Quick’s SPELL. When I read it, I loved it, but I also thought, There’s no way anyone else is going to publish this huge, atypical poetry exploration of MOBY-DICK! I was able to take that risk without worrying about potential sales. The same with Kate Greenstreet’s books — she hadn’t even published in a magazine when I acquired CASE SENSITIVE. Since then, authors like Sandra Doller, Susan Briante, Brenda Iijima, and Brian Teare have brought Ahsahta fearless books that really can’t be ignored. I can take on books that aren’t normative — the careful MFA-type manuscripts, well revised and completely unobjectionable. I can look for the surprise.
Has it changed my perception of art? Maybe it’s broadened it.
Has your work with the press impacted your own writing endeavors?
I think that’s a difficult question to answer — it’s like saying, “Does the amount of time you spend reading (or hiking, or playing music) impact your writing endeavors?” Of course it does, they do, and “impact” can be an extremely positive word. It would be wrong for anyone to suppose that I would spend ALL the time I spend on Ahsahta Press and its authors on my own work if the Press disappeared. But there are certainly times I can’t get to a writing project because I have to work on the website, or a grant, or making an ad, or typesetting. And I think my work would be the poorer without the experiences I’ve had reading the manuscripts I get and working with the authors I publish.
Would you care to posit some sort of lavish analogy between ballet and your gestures or role as bringer of culture with Ahsahta?
Ha ha. No.
Ahsahta Press Authors’ Statements:
Dan Beachy-Quick (Spell , Apology for the Book of Creatures ) on Janet and Ahsahta Press:
I sent my work to Janet on her colleague Martin Corless-Smith’s suggestion—this being some 9 or 10 years ago, amazingly enough. I sent her a book of poems based on Melville’s Moby-Dick, and felt certain it was unpublishable. Much to my surprise, even my disbelief, she accepted it. I suppose the fundamental thing about my experience with Janet, and with Ahsahta more largely, is that her enthusiasm for the work convinced me (the author it) of its potential. That is an extraordinary gift to get from anyone, but especially one’s editor and publisher. That enthusiasm has held froth through a chapbook devoted to Montaigne, and forthcoming a collaborative project centered on Marcel Proust. As that odd list attests, Janet has not ceased in her willingness to bring out to the world work that seems at first glance ill-fitting for it.
(Tanner Hadfield: I would love to hear some more about the decisions/process that led to the finished product of Apology for The Book of Creatures. It’s a very unique book. And can you tell me any more about this Proust collaboration? Who are you collaborating with?)
The appearance of Apology for the Book of Creatures is wholly Janet’s doing. She contacted an artist at Boise State, Stephanie Bacon, who Janet thought might be interested in creating images to go along with the poem. The fruit of the suspicion are the book itself. In many ways, Janet was herself a collaborator on the volume–as, I suppose, any editor ideally should be.
The collaboration coming out in Summer 2012 is done with the performance artist & writer Matthew Goulish. We had hoped, before I left for CSU, to teach a co-taught course on Proust at The School of the Art Instititue of Chicago. When that was no longer a possibility, we decided to write together–or, I suppose, right parallel to each other. We chose three areas: Swann’s Way as a whole, the infamous long sentence, and the idea of the fugitive. I wrote poems; Matthew wrote essays. The two genres play off one another in a variety of ways–interrupting at times, at times supporting, and so on. The book is called Work from Memory.
Susan Briante (Pioneers in the Study of Motion , Utopia Minus )on Janet and Ahsahta Press:
Janet is everything you could want in a publisher. First and foremost, she is a poet herself. She cares about the poem, the book, and the press. And she cares about her writers as people. She also has a lot of business savvy or enough that I don’t worry about Ahsahta disappearing. And yet she never makes it feel like a business.
She has also developed a list that includes so many really amazing writers. She has a vision for the press within which I am proud to be included.
When I went out on the job market, Janet gave me a list of questions to practice my interviewing skills. I suddenly felt like I had a coach . She also meet me for lunch at MLA. Helped calm me down. This was even before my book came out. And I thought: How lucky am I? I’ve got this person in my corner. She never hesitates to pass on the kind note someone might send about a particular book. She’s got a big list of authors, she takes care of us all.
Kate Greenstreet (case sensitive , The Last 4 Things , Young Tambling ) on Janet and Ahsahta Press:
I admire Janet Holmes—as a poet and as an editor—and I believe she’s the hardest working person in poetry publishing. Because of her, I’ve been able to do things that I never would have done otherwise. I feel really lucky to be on her team, and proud to be a member of the Ahsahta gang.
(chosen by Janet Holmes)
from In No One’s Land
(Selected for the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize by D.A. Powell)
You are sitting on the bed. The motel room is the color of breastmilk, nutritive water rinsing the palate of you. The sheets are not soft reminders of human capacity for forgiveness with their random tufts like a father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub. The lioness under some reeds growling like an unwound basket. Unthreading stalks like tight stitches in all the wounds you don’t mean to make, then abandon, embarrassed. Here is a man darning his sock. Here is a woman spitting into a sink. Here is all of Berlin in the creosote of the coughing, sitting primly at the windowsill, looking out. You lean back on the bed which is like curling into a giant yawn; pretty, ambivalent shrug. Any minute now someone will push his way through the door and announce something. Dinner is served. The surgery was a great success. I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ll have to come with me. Answer a few questions.
from The Last 4 Things
To leave home without making the bed,
it’s like building a house of cards.
You have to know what you’re doing.
Or be lucky. Or just very quiet.
I have had a Letter from another World . . .
To speak of method. Empathy. Our times, time.
Disappears with me. Sleep a minute.
Empathy is marked with
incomprehensible corrections. The camera must be open.
I know what I tell myself. Sometimes he seems to be the camera
(who we will be later).
Do you like boats? I see you around boats.
Built around an unseen principle: to float.
He’s come such a long way to think.
To bring to a stop and keep standing at the edge, when death won’t
take you. Hundreds of children.
The camera turns the corner. We’re never any closer.
Sometimes he is the camera.