As part of our on-going series talking to past Structo writers, I caught up with Lawrence Schimel over email during as he bounced between countries last month. His work is at the intersection of Structo’s commitment to gender equality and interest in poetry in translation. We talked about his press’ work addressing the gender imbalance in translation.
So, first off, it was good to have the chance to meet you in person (by accident) at AWP. With Structo‘s international character, our authors and translators are farflung and I rarely get to meet them face to face.
That’s one of the reasons I try and get to AWP when I can; not so much to meet international-based writers, editors, and readers, but because it is one of the greatest concentrations of English-speaking book-loving people. It’s a high intensity dose of English-language literary scene, which I don’t get much of in person in Madrid, Spain, where I’m based. Madrid is one of the key points of the Spanish-language literary world, and also a major center through which writers from many other languages pass through as well.
AWP has also become increasingly more important for A Midsummer Night’s Press with the decline in independent stores and fewer stores, in general, willing to stock poetry. AWP was 18% of our overall volume in 2012, but 40% in 2013, although back down to 20% last year. We’re not through with the year, so it’s impossible to calculate what percentage of our sales it will prove to be, although sales in Minneapolis were up 20% over Seattle.
At AWP, I attended a few panels by Open Letter. They run a site called The 3% Blog, referring to the fact that only 3% of the literature published in America is in translation. You’re addressing a subset imbalance of that imbalance. Could you tell us what led you to that and why A Midsummer Night’s Press took up this mission?
I wear many hats: my own writing, in both Spanish and English; my work as a translator (primarily from Spanish into English); and my publishing books of poetry with A Midsummer Night’s Press. A Midsummer Night’s Press has always had a good gender balance across its imprints (nine female-identified authors and eight male-identified authors, not including the two imprints devoted only to women writers, Sapphic Classics and now Periscope).
As a translator, I was very aware of the difficulties involved in publishing poetry in translation and wanted to try and use the press to address that, somehow. I’d also seen first-hand how it was often easier to place projects I’ve translated that were by male authors, or that the projects which received governmental or institutional funding were those by established male authors. Looking at the number crunching of the Translation Database compiled by Three Percent for 2012 and 2013 (the two years before I decided to start the Persicope imprint) wherein only 26% of all books published in translation in the US across all genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) are by women authors, there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that the translation project I needed to undertake was an imprint devoted to bringing more of those women’s voices to English-language readers.
Do you have a theory on the origins of the imbalance?
Power, plain and simple, and people with power both wanting to keep and perpetuate that power, often by belittling or dismissing any other voices, while declaring their own to be universal and valuable.
This happens in so many ways; you can see how the important work that VIDA does remains necessary, how so many people, when shown the hard facts of the matter, continue to justify and make excuses, not to mention many who continue to perpetuate the imbalance.
Which happens because of who is chosen to be published, even who has the luxury of time to write, or is able to study writing, or even feel herself having something worth writing, something people may want to read. It happens with who is reviewed, and then how they are reviewed. I remember how appalled I was when Jennifer Egan won the National Book Award for A Visit From The Good Squad and the LA Times ran a photo of Jonathan Franzen and made the story about his losing the award; even when a woman won a major prize, the media made it all about the straight white dude. I remember how when my first short story collection was reviewed here in Spain by El País, and the reviewer complained that the stories were, “written with skill and an understanding of the genre, but it was tiresome that all the characters were homosexuals”. Typical of heteronormativity to use such a dismissal of a book even while acknowledging it’s positive or worthwhile aspects.
It’s a shame that Joanna Russ’ 1983 book How To Surpress Woman’s Writing, which analyzes many of the ways that writing by women has systematically been suppressed over history, has been out of print for so long–that very fact is, in many ways, part of the problem of the system.
How do you find your authors and translators? Do you seek them out or do they come to you?
Oh, if only we could find readers as easily as we find authors and translators!
Our first titles were all from writers I had met, often at various international poetry festivals or workshops, although since the series now exists and we’ve been fortunate to get a lot of publicity for it (more publicity than sales, still, but I knew that it would be difficult to promote translated literature without having the authors present to do promotion, in most cases; my hope is that over time the accumulation of titles will have enough weight behind it to compensate) we are getting more queries from translators or poets, and also from the national literature or arts bodies of various countries, proposing titles that might work. Since we have no other funding, aside from sales and what I can put into it from what I earn as a freelance writer and translator (without an academic position or other support to fall back on), any help we can get for the translation and/or other publishing support, makes a huge difference.
Our publishing schedule tends to go in fits and bursts, depending on cash-flow, and also what projects we can afford to do at a given moment, or which might even be able to earn enough to put toward some of our other, riskier projects (such as the Periscope series).
So far our most-popular titles most consistently are those in our Body Language imprint, focused on LGBT voices; this is true whether from debut authors, whose first collection we’re publishing, or established and award-winning authors. Which underscores the ongoing need for more venues for these voices to be brought into the world, that there is a readership out there eager for these books. With Periscope, I am aware of doing things backwards: believing in the work and trusting that we’ll find a readership (eventually).
This is the advantage of being small, and autocratic; I am putting my money where my mouth is, and at the same time I am not responsible to a board of accountants, who demand X profitability within X time frame. If a book takes a few years to finally earn back the investment, that’s OK, even if it may mean we can publish fewer titles in a given year (unless I have an unexpected success of my own as a writer or translator and can kick in a bit more to the press to make up for the slow sales).
What I definitely don’t want to do is to resort to reading fees or contests as a way of subsidizing the press.
So I guess my best advice to any translators or poets wishing to publish with us is to tell everyone they know to buy books from us (we offer free shipping in the US, and internationally as well if people order at least two titles from us via the website) so we can afford to bring out new titles.
What are some project slated for 2015-2016?
Our publishing schedule is rather anarchic, dependent in large part on when we can afford to print more books. One reason I’ve avoided some sort of a subscription is not wanting to be tied into publishing on a set schedule.
So far in 2015, we’ve published a chapbook by Rigoberto González, Our Lady of the Crossword, exploring what it means to be queer in Mexico, the US, and the borderland between those two countries, and this fall we’ll be publishing a new collection by Julie R. Enszer, Lilith’s Demons, exploring that Jewish myth through a feminist lens.
We’re also working toward a large project in our Sapphic Classics series of reprints of important lesbian-feminist texts, in this case The Complete Works of Pat Parker which will be out in spring 2016. It is a much larger book than anything else we’ve published so far, and is requiring more time and energy as a result.
We’ve also got a few translation projects on our desk, but have not yet signed anything so can’t quite spill the beans just yet. The translations also have a longer gestation than many of the other books we publish, but it’s likely we’ll have a few available all at once in fall 2016.
As an editor there are lines that carry a special resonance or get stuck in my head. Maybe you could leave us with a snippet or snippets of a few such poems?
Here are three snippets from A Midsummer Night’s Press titles:
Once we had shared–
razors, toothbrush, a blanket,
like sea and air share the horizon,
reflecting, penetrating each other,
each better suited to any given thing,
—Michael Broder, “Words and Things” from THIS LIFE
When I Was Straight
Everything came to me vicariously–a promise,
a post-script, a preview of coming attractions.
Desire a quiet rumor that rippled through the halls.
—Julie Marie Wade, ‘When I Was Straight’ from When I was Straight
Any day I’ll get some boxes
and empty the storeroom of useless memories.
I’ll leave them in the street, beside the garbage can
in case they’re of any use to someone.
Any day I’ll see them, my memories,
in the hands of another woman
who knows how to appreciate them.
—Care Santos (tr. Lawrence Schimel), ‘The Great Atlas of the Human Body’ from Dissection