An Overview by: Alexis Smith
From the Beginning to Now
Caketrain press and journal was established in 2003 out of Pittsburgh, PA.
Erected by the bright minds of recent University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg graduates, Amanda Raczkowski and Donna Weaver, the press seems to have come about due to an unceasing literary commitment. The two new editors quickly invited Joseph Reed, another UPG colleague, to join their endeavors as layout designer. In 2006 when Donna Weaver left the press to pursue a career in journalism, Amanda and Joseph became the sole editors of Caketrain. The couple married in 2008 and have continued to run the press ever since:
“The feelings we share about literature are what brought us together in the first place (we met when co-editing the student lit mag at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), and then we stayed together when school ended, and starting our own small press seemed like a natural progression and a good way to continue to champion the writing we love.” – Joseph Reed from a 2010 Interview
An editor dream team, they’ve made a distinct niche by consistently publishing innovative, fresh writing packaged beautifully.
The co-editors explained in a 2011 interview that “the design of the book is essential to the proper presentation of the work. All of our layout is done in-house, and our cover art acquisitions result from the vast scouring of images from visual artists all over the world. We look at thousands and thousands of images every time we prepare a new book.” It is this dogged precision that sets Caketrain apart in a world of evermore small press endeavors.
And Caketrain must be set apart−unlike numerous struggling small presses, this press has done nothing but grow. Since it’s initiation a decade ago, they have published ten issues of their literary journal and almost twenty books of poetry, memoir and fiction.
Each year the press holds a chapbook competition that alternates between genres of poetry and fiction. Guest judges such as Claudia Rankine, Deb Olin Unferth, and Rosemarie Waldrop have chosen the winning chapbooks; Tan Lin is currently judging for the 2013 chapbook competition. Needless to say, these judges provide fresh perspective for the press. Amanda and Joseph claimed in an interview from 2011 that the chapbook competition is “in some ways the most exciting part of the process each year.” These chapbooks are more like book-length manuscripts that fall nicely in line with what Amanda and Joseph have termed the “chapbook tradition” due to their limited edition and low cost.
Since 2008, Caketrain has managed to publish not only the winning manuscript from this competition, but also the runner-up. By 2010 the press was producing three books a year. This third book is just good writing. For example they published The Weather Stations by Ryan Call, a debut collection of short stories that went on to win the 2011 Whiting Writer’s Award.
Funding and Book Sales
Unlike a lot of other small presses, Caketrain has not gone the route of seeking grants or outside funding. Amanda claimed in an interview from 2009 that “they never thought about having the journal as a source of income.” So although things for the press are financially tight, they are still eking out enough to get by. The attitude that Caketrain is not a financial endeavor has allowed the press to persevere for inexpensive book costs. All of their books and journals can currently be purchased for the unbelievably low price of $9.00 from their website. Or, you can buy any two titles for only $13.00.
This insistence on low book price limits the press’s sales venues; they cannot sell through many bookstores due to issues of commission rates, and refused to sell their books on Amazon until recently. However, the press has maintained affordable access to good literature and set up a model where they control most packaging and sales.
A Little on Aesthetic
“We like to describe the works we accept as “language monsters,” but as much emphasis as we put on language, we also expect the work to be emotive.”- Amanda Raczkowski from a 2010 Interview
“For us, the innovation in writing comes at the ground floor of words. We don’t ever want the language to simply convey a meaning or message.” – Joseph Reed from a 2010 Interview
By publishing works so earthed in the level of words, Caketrain’s ever-growing repertoire begins to make a place. This place is one that can richly expand, allowing works in Caketrain’s catalogue to be in conversation with one another. The slice of a line or sting of a sentence are insistent sensations that repeatedly startle and captivate readers. The consistency of this captivation can be seen in what readers have to say in review:
– “meticulously crafted and full of sure-handed description”- Michael Kimball on Lake of Earth
– “words clamp on and refuse absolution”- Lily Hoang on Collected Alex
– “with verbal fire and range, these poems move easily”- Paul Hoover on Listening for Earthquakes
– “accidents, waste, and everything ‘unmarketable’ are transformed into tender and precarious verse, showing, forcefully, the poem’s power to redeem and renew” –Denise Newman on Mistake
– “Hemingway said somewhere that he wanted to write like Cezanne painted…Ernst be damned, I want to write like Sara Levine writes” –Michael Martone on Short Dark Oracles
– “Heidi Staples is one of the most sparkling, indelibly unique writers in English there is”- Mary Karr on Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake
All of these reviews grapple with language intrigue; words become the things worth talking about. Pristinely crafted, Caketrain’s aesthetic could be said to discard more traditional concerns of narrative, politics, form and conceptualism in favor of the word itself−one does not read a story or poem, one reads words that make.
Looking to the Future: An Interview
Joseph Reed said in an interview from 2009 that the two of them were reading “250–300 submissions a month.” Since Caketrain journal releases only one issue a year including “about 50 submissions, in whole or in part,” they have an acceptance rate ranging from 1-1.5%. Although earlier in the journal’s career there was time to send back personal rejections, their sheer influx of submissions no longer allows for such practices. As Caketrain has probably grown since even 2009, it becomes understandable that Amanda and Joseph recently took on two assistant editors.
These two assistant editors, Katy Mongeau and Tanner Hadfield, are the newest and only staff additions to Caketrain press and journal in several years. I am lucky enough to know Tanner Hadfield; he is a peer and good friend of mine at the University of Colorado. An MFA candidate, Tanner has done nothing but excel as a teacher and fiction writer. In honor of celebrating the Denver area literary community and indulging my curiosity about an assistant editor perspective, I asked if he could spare the time for an interview. He graciously consented and what transpired is as follows:
A: How did you come to be an assistant editor for Caketrain?
T: Good fortune, mostly. Amanda and Joseph announced their intentions to take on assistant editors through an open application period a while back. I’d been a huge fan of their aesthetic and catalogue and decided to throw my hat in that bad boy. I guess they liked my hat.
A: Do you have a favorite title from the press?
T: Oof, tough one. Every single one of our books rocks the sweet spot for me. I love Tongue Party by Sarah Rose Etter. I love our newest title, Lake of Earth by William VanDenBerg. If I had to pick one, you know, gun to the head and all that, it’d be Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake by Heidi Lynn Staples. It ruffles my mind most. There is not another book in existence so simultaneously cordial and deliriously peculiar. I adore it for that.
A: There is a distinctive style present in Caketrain’s publications. How would you describe the aesthetic mission of the press, if there is one? And does this alter your editorial decisions when reading submissions?
T: Lots of lovely words and ideas come to mind, but they’d sooner or later sell it short. It certainly alters my decisions, but not too much. That’s because I’m lucky enough to be someplace where any aesthetic mission informs / aligns with personal taste.
A: Does working for the press affect your own writing?
T: Absolutely. Not sure I want to qualify the affectation at this point, but I’d recommend a glimpse of the other side to anyone who’s looking to publish, with regards to the type of writing you’d like to get out. It’s terribly illuminating.
A: What are some more difficult aspects of working for the press? What are some aspects you absolutely enjoy?
T: Everything’s coming up roses!
A: Are you and your co-assistant editor, Katy Mongeau, in charge of similar tasks for Caketrain, or do your focuses tend to vary?
T: It’s kinda like Annie Get Your Gun. I forget who’s Annie, though.
A: Amanda Raczkowski & Joseph Reed are married and live in Pittsburgh; Katy Mongeau also lives on the east coast. Since you live in Boulder, do you ever feel a sense of disconnect from the other editors of the press? Does your specific location in any sense provide a variation of aesthetic?
T: Do I ever feel a sense of disconnect? Sure. We’re all quite busy and human. What makes it work is patience, understanding. Amanda, Joseph, and Katy are all terribly good people, and I’m quite blessed to be working with them in that regard.
As far as a variation of aesthetic, that’s a really interesting question, but the answer is no. None of us seem caught up in biases tied to locales or scenes or trends, which is key, given the limits distance inflicts on communication.
I feel it’s important to mention here that Amanda and Joseph are still very much the truth, and we’re operating under their vision. I’m really just an aide. So I’m not sure a variation of aesthetic would be perceptible regardless.
A: If you could choose one color to describe the work published by Caketrain, what color would you choose?
T: A soft dove gray. Muted, yet rich. Classic, yet chic. Undertones of both cool (blue) and warm (pink). Mwah!
A: Have your experiences with Caketrain, and possibly Subito and Timber as well, given you a desire to start a journal or press of your own at some later point?
T: Absolutely. However, I’m not yet ready to handle the whole of something like that, and I wouldn’t want to shortchange anyone’s efforts. There’s too much of that going around. Too much noise, too little beauty. It’s a huge commitment. But one day, yeah! I look forward to it!
Thank you for your curiosity about Caketrain [a journal and press]. I encourage you to visit their website. There, you can read free PDF portions from all books in their catalogue and judge for yourself whether this press is a personal fit.