That Which Quickens the Pulse: Neelanjana Banerjee, Lisa Chen, and Sunyoung Lee on Kaya Press

To celebrate The Conversant’s evolving relationship with The Volta website collective over its five year run, Senior Editors Ching-In Chen and Caleb Beckwith have selected pieces from our archives which exemplify that relationship for our October issue. This conversation was originally part of our March 2015 issue. Enjoy!

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Sunyoung Lee, Lisa Chen’s Mouth, Neelanjana Banerjee

In 2014, Kaya Press celebrated 20 years of publishing innovative Asian Pacific American and Asian diasporic literature, including books like R. Zamora Linmark’s seminal Rolling the Rs and Sesshu Foster’s City Terrace Field Manual. Since relocating to Los Angeles in 2011, Kaya continues its mission to publish “challenging, thoughtful, and provocative” work including American Book Award winning Water Chasing Water by poet Koon Woon, and Shoshon Nagahara’s Lament in the Night (translated by Andrew Leong)—a historical rediscovery of a writer originally writing and publishing in Japanese out of LA’s Little Tokyo in the 1920s. Managing Editor Neelanjana Banerjee, Publisher Sunyoung Lee, and Lisa Chen—Kaya Press author (Mouth, 2007) and Editorial Board member—discuss creativity in the editorial process and whether ethnic-specific publishing will continue to be relevant in the 21st century. This is the first of a series of conversations which will highlight the work of Kaya Press.

Neelanjana Banerjee: I wanted to start this conversation by trying to dig into Sunyoung’s editorial process for poetry manuscripts. I was aware of Sunyoung’s editorial prowess before I began work at Kaya Press in 2012, but working closely with her, I am continually inspired by her passion for the work and how that translates into a careful, intense process with the writer. For the past few years, Kaya Press has utilized a five- person editorial board that meets three times a year to vet manuscripts, which Lisa and I are both on. In order to accept a manuscript for publication, the decision has to be unanimous. Sunyoung, what makes a poetry manuscript stand out to you?

Sunyoung Lee: I’m always looking for poetry that somehow quickens the pulse. That’s what I’m looking for from all of our manuscripts actually—some new way of putting together words and ideas that have some kind of force or urgency behind them, that isn’t playing it too safe. It’s a highly subjective measure, of course—and so, though I’m willing to go to the mat for any manuscripts that I read that I believe in, I’m not the final arbiter of what gets published at Kaya, which is something of a relief. Having been at Kaya Press so many years, through bad times and good, I tend to like more than I dislike. But it’s good to have other perspectives—and in particular, the smart, savvy, very passionate group of people who make up Kaya’s Editorial Board, and who are often even more focused than I am on what kind of works make sense for Kaya, versus what could very well be published by another press.

NB: Sunyoung, did you find that studying poetry in the University of California, Irvine Master of Fine Arts program affected your editing? Do you feel like editing poetry—or all the editing you do for Kaya Press—is a creative process?

SL: My goal as an editor—and for Kaya Press as a whole—is to get great work out there, and I don’t necessarily expect something fully polished and realized. Plus, I’m generally confident enough about my editing abilities to know that as long as there’s good thinking or heart at the core of a piece of writing, it can be made to shine. By way of contrast—if the writing is fluid and polished but bland, by which I mean, no strong voice, no sense of urgency—it’s extremely difficult to work with. Kind of like soup that’s been diluted too much: even if you boil it for a long time, you’re not going to get more flavor out of it.

There definitely is a creative aspect to editing. But it’s the creativity of inhabiting something else that someone has created—or rather, of cleaving closely by it, like a shadow or a ghost. Mostly, however, it’s about paying attention to someone else’s work. You’re trying to hear the music in what someone has written and clear out the static, or at least figure out where the static is coming from, and whether or not it’s productive. I always like to tell my authors that they’re the final arbiter of what happens with their work. I might strongly suggest something—or strongly disagree with a choice they’ve made—but the ultimate decision lies with them.

In that sense, speaking to your other question, my studies in a poetry MFA program were instrumental in me understanding the unyielding rigor of language in poetry. Even poetry that deliberately turns about or plays with language is always working against the grid or logic of language—or, I could say, of a given language, since this grid changes with every language. So again, whenever a choice is made to deviate from that logic, it should be done consciously. Or rather, if it remains in a poem, it should be because the writer wants it there and wants it there in that particular way. I’m sure this infuriates the writers I edit. Especially those who need the most line editing. But, I figure, at least I’m paying attention. That’s the greatest gift, I think, an editor (or for that matter, a reader) can give a writer—the gift of complete attention.

NB: Lisa, what was your experience like working closely with Sunyoung on the manuscript for Mouth?

Lisa Chen: Sunyoung was really the first editor I’d ever worked with, and only now in retrospect, am I fully able to appreciate the care, thought and time she put into my manuscript.

My route to Kaya was unusual: My friend Sesshu Foster, who I had met at the Iowa Writers Workshop (and also a Kaya author) at some point forwarded what must have been my MFA thesis to Sunyoung—I think even without my knowledge. I went through a long period after grad school where I abandoned poetry; I was making crazy Cornell-inspired dioramas instead and working at a nonprofit. In that stretch of time, Kaya went on hiatus while both Sunyoung and her partner Julie Koo both went to graduate school. Sunyoung got in touch with me after some years had passed; by then the manuscript felt very distant, which was probably a good thing.

She did one thing that I now realize is very unusual: She asked me if I had any new work. I sent poems I’d been writing off and on. She reshaped the book by cutting old poems and adding in some of the new ones. The order of the book is owed entirely to her. I have never been very good at ordering or titling things. I think I just felt relief that someone else had a clearer vision than me for the shape the book ultimately took. I remember we had a back and forth over a poem that had been published in The Threepenny Review. She wanted to cut it. I wanted to keep it. I can’t even remember what our positions were except that I rolled. It wasn’t very hard. I trusted her judgment and I still do.

NB: I think Sunyoung’s passion and “complete attention” to the work is one of the most important things that Kaya Press has to offer, though it is also a challenge in terms of getting books out the door because it is hard to put a timeline on how long a particular book might take to edit. I work with another independent press (the wonderful Tia Chucha Press created and run by Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez) and we just don’t have the capacity there to give as much time to the individual manuscripts, so we can only accept something wholly formed and polished. When Sunyoung finds something that “quickens her pulse”—as she said—she is willing to do the work that you talk about, Lisa, and that is a huge gift for the reading public, and—of course—for the writer. Being a small, independent press gives us the space for that “development” of writers and manuscripts that doesn’t happen everywhere, and this is especially important as a press dedicated to Asian Pacific American writing. I often hear Lisa defer to Sunyoung’s judgment on a manuscript during an Editorial Board meeting, even if Lisa felt like the manuscript wasn’t completely ready because of the level of trust that was built between the two of them as poet and editor.

Speaking of us all being on the Editorial Board, Kaya Press is the only press in the mainland United States. (Bamboo Ridge publishes from Hawaii) that is focused on publishing Asian Pacific American literature, and we just celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2014. Sunyoung, after being invested in this work for 20 years, what do you see as the future of APA publishing?

SL: Man, I can’t see into the future! I’m just trying to stay afloat in the present! That said, there’s no denying that the world has changed since Kaya Press first opened shop. I have a perspective on what I’ve experienced, and the lessons I’ve learned throughout my time at Kaya Press, but I can’t really claim much insight into where things will end up. I’m not sure I can even conceive of what people who don’t know a world without the internet or smart phones or social media will do with literature over the next decades. But I’m eager to find out. In the meantime, the mere fact that we continue to exist feels like a triumph of some kind.

NB: Lisa, do you think ethnic-specific publishing will continue to be relevant in the 21st century?

LC: Yes. It’s no secret that publishing is a notoriously white industry. (“Industry” being shorthand for agents, readers of the manuscript slush pile, book editors, the MFA industrial complex, literary journal staff, publishers, booksellers, book reviewers and critics—all the gatekeepers who decide who ultimately gets put between two covers, distributed and read.) As the writer Daniel José Older put it in his trenchant essay on race, power and publishing, “There is a filter and the filter is white culture.”

In other words, by the time a book gets to readers, it has been shaped by, and adapted to that filter. A lot of the chatter within the Asian American community (or, more precisely, the chattering class I belong to) about the new ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” has been about the mechanics of this filtering machine: How much of the show is for “us” and how much of it is for mainstream audiences? Where is the overlap?

Which is to say, Kaya and other ethnic-specific publishers are decidedly NOT filtered through white culture. These publishers possess a different sensibility, a different origin, a different curiosity toward both literary recovery and discovery, and a different politics. They are not necessarily representative, but they are blasting full volume, unfiltered, from the source. If you value that, then you have answered the question.

I recently read a great interview with the poet Fady Joudah, in which he alternately bristles, resignedly accepts, and resists the “labelers.” His assessment of the status of the “minority poet” within the larger poetry world could easily apply to the “minority publisher”:

And this whole notion of the quota system—the involvement of the minority poet—it is also a reflection of this imperial democracy that America has become and exports to the world. There’s a very controlled sense of invitation to the minority, and not necessarily a real opening up to a deeper sense of critical consciousness, which is what my naiveté expects—that the arts, and the art of poetry, would be geared toward. But, of course, it is a historical naiveté because that didn’t exist anywhere in the history of the world. Art has always been closely associated with the courts of power.

Neela, I’m curious to hear what your thoughts are on this question, too, or alternatively, as someone who has worked for both an APA- and Latino-centered press, where if any, you sense the concerns are divergent.

NB: Before coming to Kaya Press, I had experience with Asian American journalism—the now defunct AsianWeek newspaper and as an editor with Hyphen magazine. I also co-edited a South Asian American poetry anthology. With all of these ethnic-specific projects, I’ve found myself facing—at some point—an existential crisis of sorts because I believe it is crucial to carve out a space from the mainstream to highlight issues—or in the case of Kaya and publishing, to highlight authors or narratives, that may being overlooked. Yet, it is also crucial to make sure these works are in conversation with the mainstream and not marginalized.

We often feel this sense of marginalization when we attend the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Often people—white people—will come by our booth, attracted by our well-designed books, and then ask what we are all about. When we tell them that we’re focused on Asian American literature, I would say 50-60 percent of them will say: “Oh, I guess that’s not for me,” and walk away. This attitude makes me think the work that Kaya Press and ethnic-specific publishing is doing is extremely important—especially because the people who are saying this are people who are studying or practicing writing! If they look at an ethnic-specific press and have no interest, than the reasons Kaya Press started in the 1990s and what Lisa mentioned about the white publishing industry is still very much true.

Though there are also times where we feel the restraint that we have set up for ourselves in being Asian-specific. For example, Tia Chucha Press publishes an extremely diverse group of poets: Latino, African American, Asian American, etc.—and we at Kaya definitely see ourselves interested in figuring out how to open and expand in this direction. And in this way, though we haven’t put this into practice in what we publish as of yet, we are very, very interested in ways to collaborate with other presses and organizations—especially those interested in destroying the white hierarchy of publishing as it now stands. As we say in our Mission: “We believe that it’s impossible to generate power without first finding one’s center, and that our API diasporic focus is a starting point, not an ending point.”


Neelanjana Banerjee joined Kaya Press as Managing Editor in 2012. A writer and educator based in Los Angeles, she has worked in mainstream, ethnic, and independent media for over ten years. She is the co-editor of the award-winning Indivisible: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press, 2010). She received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 2007, and has taught adults and at-risk youth creative writing through organizations like Kearny Street Workshop, WritersCorps, and ArtWorxLA.

Lisa Chen was born in Taipei, Taiwan. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Iowa. She lives in Brooklyn and works as a freelance writer and editor. Mouth, Lisa Chen’s debut collection of poetry, travels from parachute girls in Millbrae to Ezequiel the murderer at a border town, creating a cartography of geographic and bodily landscapes whose distances are measured by languages.

Sunyoung Lee is the Publisher & Editor at Kaya Press, where she has worked for close to twenty years. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine. She is a former producer for WBAI in New York. Under her stewardship, Kaya Press has published thirty-six titles (as of 2014). Kaya and its authors have been recognized by awards such as Gregory Kolovakas Prize for Outstanding New Literary Press, the American Book Award, the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award, the PEN Beyond Margins Open Book Prize, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Award, and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize.

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