Sarah Baker with Dawn Pendergast

Dawn Pendergast and Sarah Baker
Dawn Pendergast and Sarah Baker

The different strata of the small press ecosystem are bound and wound in collaborative action and influence. Within the world of small press publishing, everything, everyone, and every place (physical and digital) is interconnected, but often in ways that are not apparent. As publishers of Small Po[r]tions, a limited-edition Risograph-printed journal that focuses on experiment and innovation, we were interested in examining the practices of small press publishers who are also poets to see how they apportion their energies and how they situate themselves within this ecosystem. In these interviews we map small press connections through the discussion of collaboration among presses, editors, writers, book artists and readers. That is, collaboration in an expanded sense: influence, inspiration, community. Ecologies require study to sustain them. These interviews look to be a part of a broader and continuing conversation on the ways presses and poets sustain themselves and enrich one another.

Sarah Baker: I know of Little Red Leaves the journal, and you have the e-editions, and the textile series—how did you become involved with these projects and how did they begin?

Dawn Pendergast: Little Red Leaves was transferred to me this past year but it was actually around way longer than I have been involved in it. CJ Martin, Ash Smith, and Julia Drescher started Little Red Leaves in Austin. It grew out of Dos Press and into Little Red Leaves, the journal. Then they began doing some e-editions. I submitted to Little Red Leaves when I lived in Arizona because I liked the aesthetic. When I moved to Texas we became very close friends. And when we did the fifth issue, the ephemera issue, I mentioned that I really like doing that kind of handcrafted stuff. So I offered to start the textile series in 2008 and it became its own little monster. After Julia and CJ moved on to start Further Other Book Works, they asked me if I wanted to take over Little Red Leaves and I said yes. The journal is not as active as it once was. I’m still trying to find somebody to edit it but the textile series is going strong.

SB: Does it feel markedly different to work on your own now? Even if it was a small number of people before, it sounds like so many projects for just one person. How has that transition affected the way Little Red Leaves feels to you, how it operates?

DP: It’s always evolved. Everybody had always done their individual projects. We’ve never been a collective that had meetings with votes. We all trust each other’s aesthetic but also trust our differences. We didn’t all have to agree, which I think is important in an experimental context because if everybody agrees on things, like in a workshop setting, most of the time it means very bland results, a middle ground.

I’m still really close to Julia and CJ, and they’ll give me feedback on some of the things I’m interested in. The work that they publish and the work that they are interested in has always been more inspirational than anything else. They’ll show me new things, and hopefully I’ll show them new things. That’s the dynamic: not very organized or very democratic, but based on a common sensibility.

SB: I work on a small journal and we have just started to publish chapbooks as a small press. We are just beginning to navigate those kinds of tensions, but these tensions always seem very productive and interesting. I think it’s so important in a collaborative atmosphere to encourage different opinions, otherwise it does become too easy; that the work you publish isn’t challenging anymore.

DP: It’s hard for me to remember what it was like at the beginning, but I had read their writing, and I felt a kinship with their aesthetic way before I even met them, and hopefully they did with me. When you find people that challenge you and argue with you and inspire you it’s really easy to disagree and to still publish something. You can’t get five people to agree on things especially if you’re in the realm of more experimental material, the kind I like and that I’d like to think I publish.

SB: What do you like about publishing work that is more experimental?

DP: I like writing that challenges the way I think a poem should be written, or how writing should happen.

SB: We get so many submissions at our small journal and just the task of reading so much at once is really exhausting. When I go through them, I find myself clinging to writing that surprises me or that changes the tone. Sometimes it’s just someone who dares to make a joke in a poem.

DP: Sometimes it’s just about breaking up the monotony. I’ve realized that with a chapbook-sized submission, I can’t read more than ten in one sitting to be fair to the many people that submit poems to me. You get into this zone and it’s not fair to the eleventh person.

SB: It sounds like your experience in the workshops in your MFA program has influenced your reading style. You have different reading styles to approach the work, and I know that you also write your own poetry. How does your experience as a writer influence your publishing work?

DP: Everybody that publishes poetry writes their own poetry! I can’t think of anybody that’s purely a publisher and not actually writing too.

SB: Why do you think that is? In the small press world, it’s the poets who are the publishers, the writers who are the publishers.

DP: I think it’s a natural interest. When Dan Beachy Quick visited University of Arizona when I was there, he had this whole spiel about how reading is writing. I think that is the most succinct way of putting it: why poets publish poetry and writers publish writing. It’s because reading and being interested in what’s going on is just part of what it is to be in this world.

There are not a lot of poetry readers or writers in the world. You have to cull them in some way, in order to talk to them and read what they’re writing. My creative process is mostly reading and not as much writing as I probably should be doing. I can go a year without really writing anything of any merit at all, so publishing, reading and editing keeps me interested in it and aware that I love it.

SB: Is it mostly submissions-based or do you also solicit work for the chapbooks?

DP: In my first year I solicited about 50%, because nobody knew who I was to submit their work to me. It oscillates. Now, I would say 20% of the people I’ve published I’ve asked for work from them but 80% is all the open reading.

Sometimes I’ll email people, “What have you been writing lately?” Or I’ll read a poem I really like and email to see if it’s part of a longer work that might work in a chapbook space.

SB: What was the inspiration for making the chapbooks with the remnants of fabric?

DP: When I was a member of the Dusie Kollektiv around 2008, I made the first book I ever published: Nicole Mauro’s book Tax-Dollar Super-Sonnet. I wanted to make the chapbook look like an American flag, so I used fabric, and I stitched little stars. The deal in Dusie that year was that you made somebody else’s chapbook and they made yours. I thought it was really challenging to figure out how best to present a certain kind of text. I got enamored with that whole process even though I’d never been a book designer or even thought about any of that. The next book I did for Dusie was my own. I did it in fabric as well. It was my way of doing something that’s a little bit more special than just printed and it was cheaper to use the remnants. I’ve actually moved away from using recycled fabric because I run out of fabric so quickly.

SB: What is the run of each book?

DP: Usually, a run is about 100. It can be less, it can be more. And I run out. I don’t like to sell out of books. I don’t like to publish somebody’s chapbook and have it sold out on my website and then you just cant get it. So I try to make second and third printings of books after the initial run. I’m sure I will have to officially stop production on some chapbooks soon because I’ve published 53 now and I can’t keep up with that many reprints all the time.

SB: Over time, do you still see yourself as the one who is doing all or most of that labor?

DP: We’ll see. I also have a day job, a 9-to-5 but I don’t see myself handing it over to anybody else because it’s a labor of love. I don’t make any money—there’s no money to pay anyone to do anything. The people that help me read manuscripts for the open submission periods, they don’t get paid. I think that if I don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it. I doubt that anybody would do it. Maybe that’s pessimistic, but I don’t think that anybody would inherit it.

I run this out of my bedroom. I don’t work for an institution, and I’m not part of any non-profit, so I don’t have any of that support. There’s not any community like that to lean on except my husband, and he doesn’t like to help anymore. He’s a little over it.

SB: Was he more involved in the press in the past?

DP: He helped me with production when I was first starting out. He’s also a poet, so he will help me do read-throughs of the manuscripts. Right now I’m still getting the pool of manuscripts down to a smaller size but I’ll probably hand him 40 manuscripts and he’ll help talk me through them. He’s a sounding board more from an editorial perspective, more a creative perspective than a production assistant.

SB: Once you’ve received the manuscripts and chosen the ones that you want, do you have any back and forth with the authors to get the design right?

DP: It depends on the author. When they submit a manuscript during the open reading period, I ask the question, “How do you envision this chapbook made? Is there something special about how this is made?” Many people have really great ideas about what they want to do which makes my job really easy. All I have to do is follow their instructions and I’m done and sometimes people even send me cover art that they want to use. But it depends on the writer. It’s usually a collaboration in some way. The treat for me is always figuring out how the book matches the text, how to marry the form, within certain constraints.

SB: The way you choose fabric for each book: the textile, the technology fits the work. It’s choosing the medium for the work.

DP: Exactly. I’ll get lots of submissions that don’t work with the way I make chapbooks. Sometimes there are poems that I so want to publish that I’ll go out of my way in order to make that happen. For as many times as I reject things that are never going to fit, there are times where I think I might be able to make it work and it helps expand what I can do with a physical book. Jen Hofer’s Front Page News was one that took me a long time to figure out how to make material.

SB: Chapbooks can function very specifically, in a different way than a normal book. They are made in smaller runs and they’re more hands-on, generally—especially the textile series, the way that every feature is chosen. What role do you think the chapbook plays in the writing community?

DP: I’ve always loved them. I also love book-length projects, and the older I get, the more enamored I am with a longer project. But a chapbook is this great size to work with where you get to know what a writer is thinking about or inspired by. With a single poem it is sometimes harder for me to think about the writer. The 15-30 small pages is just the perfect length to get to know what somebody is thinking about. With a chapbook, you feel like you’re getting to know a writer even though it’s not a full-length book.

SB: To me the chapbook might be a good analogy for how the community works—it’s like a small conversation you are having with the poet but you can take it with you and it does make me feel very connected to the community. Like you said: poets are publishing these books, and the publishers are the poets. Little Red Leaves seems especially attuned to the way chapbooks are handled differently than book-length works. You say, on the website, that each book “fits into trouser pockets,” you note the uneven stiches, the folds. And inside some of the chapbooks it says “lovingly sewn.” There is a sense that this chapbook has moved from one hand to another, that there is a community created in that step.

DP: Yes, it does feel in conversation. It’s intimate. This is why I spend time to make them as handmade as I can and as special as I can. Books feel that way. They are dedications to writing and to the thinking that goes into them. I read plenty of writing online, plenty of writing that’s completely digital and that is fine too.

SB: There’s something about the short attention span the chapbooks allow which can maybe be a way to dismiss them, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the whole story of it, because the short attention span might also be related to the kind of place that we’re in when we read things online. Have you experienced this change over time, at all? While making this series of chapbooks, alongside the e-editions, has the writing universe felt any different? Even though it hasn’t been too long, has your perspective or your publishing style shifted?

DP: That’s a good question. In some sense, I would say that it’s a kind of evolution. If you look at the history of Little Red Leaves, Dos Press was very material. They published books that put together two or three different authors in one little very designed book. They “linked” authors together much like the online space, but using a wonderfully elegant bookmaking method. Michael Cross collaborated on the design of some of the original Dos Press chapbooks, which were very beautiful. (Cross is this awesome designer who edits Compline and designs beautiful books.) Coincidently, the e-books came when they wanted to start publishing longer projects. While the internet is blamed for decreasing our attention spans, it’s also providing a home for longer works that wouldn’t have found a home before.

Fads happen in writing. There are moments of longer projects and then it moves back to smaller more design-centered material. I think that there will always be that pendulum. I’m just glad there are spaces to publish all kinds of projects online and off.

SB: The way Little Red Leaves has these three parts—journal, e-book, textile chapbooks—the way that they take up space in the community really allows for that pendulum to swing. You don’t have to do just one, which may be an advantage for small presses.

DP: Yes, you can do what you want. My day job is in technology. I’m a techie kind of person, which is weird because I make all these crazy textile series books when I can easily print on demand and be done with the whole thing. That’s how I approach my day job: whatever’s fastest and most efficient, lets do that. Technology has allowed the ability to do all these different things. You can publish a 500-page manuscript with one word per page and that’s no big deal. Whereas, that’s really expensive to do if you’re actually printing a book. Technology opens up the space to do some really interesting things and you can pick your poison, you can pick the way that you want to publish each work.

SB: As you take this publishing project forward what do you see changing? You’ve mentioned that you had to change the way you sourced your textiles, from scraps to custom printed fabric due to production increases. How are those kinds of changes – in demand, the time you have and the submissions you receive – affecting how you run the press?

DP: Well, changing production is just a matter of trying to get better at what I do. It creates a little bit of a rut when you’re doing something by yourself from a production standpoint and so there are not as many opportunities to be fluid about the production. But I feel like the submissions and the editorial directions are constantly swerving all over the place because every year I get different people to read the submissions. So even though I do make the final calls on what we publish each year, those choices are evolving constantly which is actually what should be evolving. I look back at what I published the first year and what I published last year and there’s not as much similarity as I would have expected considering that I am the aesthetic that’s unifying all of it.

SB: There are so many presses and journals in the small press universe that arrive and burn brightly for a while and then go away. Is that just part of its ever-changing nature?

DP: It’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t make money doing it. I would love to be able to make money just publishing books. I don’t think that you can actually dedicate yourself full-time to publishing, especially the kind of aesthetic that I do, because there’s probably 500 people in the United States that would read the stuff that I publish, total. I know half of the people that buy books from me, or their last name is the same last name as the poet’s. When I think about the Waldrops and their press and how long that’s gone on—that’s just amazing to me but there’s very few small presses that can really sustain themselves outside of a hardcore academic funded thing and a lot of times academically funded presses aren’t as inventive.

SB: Or maybe they don’t have the same kind of flexibility?

DP: Yes. Micropresses like mine are kind of ramshackle things where it’s not about politics, it’s not about funding, and it’s not about getting grants. I just break even. And there’s a real pleasure in that because I can do whatever I want.

SB: Is there an element of your publishing process that is still business, without trying to make it all business, where you are trying to get to the next level, to ensure you break even, to increase your audience? How would you describe your business sensibility during the process?

DP: Well, I made $200 last year, but I didn’t pay myself for any of my labor. Even if I had paid myself minimum wage I would have probably been down. The business part is actually fun for me. I enjoy managing the complexity of shipping and budgets and costs. In order to break even I have to see it as a business. I couldn’t be an entrepreneur doing this. If the poetry I publish were selling out it just wouldn’t feel like mine anymore.

SB: I don’t think it’s as simple as small presses trying to be exclusionary, but it is a kind of in-group. It’s also that chapbooks are this special item that’s “for you.”

DP: If the writing is too accessible, I’m suspicious of it in some ways and that’s just a sensibility and it’s a way that I connect to writing and I don’t know if that will ever change. There are some popular poets that I would love to publish but there are not very many of them.

SB: Is there anything you are especially excited about this year?

DP: I’m always excited about January because it is when I do the final pick of the manuscripts. I’m doing the final round of manuscript reading and the final round of cuts. I hate rejecting manuscripts because there are manuscripts where I feel they are better than anything that I have written but I’m going to reject them because there are other manuscripts that are better. I’m constantly amazed at the craft that I read. January is when I feel most overwhelmed because I want to take everything and I have to reject so much of it. I get really ambitious and then around June and July is when I start feeling the weight of all of my commitments. That’s when I think, “Am I going to be able to publish everything by the end of the year?”

I also love things like AWP and going to book fairs. Those are my favorite, because it is when I’m actually talking about the books. When I’m thinking about the initial designs and when I’m sharing the work with a reading community, those are my favorite parts.

Dawn Pendergast lives in Houston, Texas. She’s written four chapbooks: Sea Quills (Beard of Bees, 2011), leaves fall leaves (Dusie Kollectiv), Off Flaw (Dusie Kollectiv), and Mexico City (Macaw Macaw Press). She is currently the editor for Little Red Leaves and produces handmade chapbooks for the textile series. More of her writing can be found on her website.

Sarah Baker lives in Seattle, Washington. She is a poet with an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from the University of Washington, Bothell. She has worked with Wave Books, is a co-editor of Letter [r] Press, and currently volunteers with APRIL, Seattle’s annual festival of small and independent publishing.

1 comment
  1. I feel such an affinity with Dawn Pendergast after reading this wonderful interview. Small presses are a “labor of love,” and it is a lot of unpaid work, but the work is its own reward.

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