Poetry Contest Insider Interview, 2007
Shannon Cain became the fiction editor of Kore Press in 2009, after serving for four years as Executive Director. Previously, she was Executive Director of the Women's Health Education Project, an East Harlem-based social service agency; President of Cain & Company Fundraising; and Executive Director of the Amazon Foundation, a private philanthropy. She earned her MFA in 2005 from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has taught fiction writing at the University of Arizona. In 2006, she was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Her stories have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Her short story collection, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, was a Semifinalist for the 2006 Sarabande Books Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the Iowa Short Fiction Award. She is currently at work on a novel. Visit her website at http://www.shannoncain.com.
Lisa Bowden, poet, book designer and editor, co-founded Kore Press in 1993 and served as Executive Director for 11 years. She is currently the Publisher of Kore Press. Lisa was Production Manager at Chax Press, a publisher of innovative and experimental poetry; and Senior Designer at the University of Arizona Press, garnering two University Press Design awards. In 2005 she received an ADDY Award (the world's largest advertising creative contest) for a design collaborative on conference materials for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She has served on non-profit boards of directors for 20 years. A graduate of the University of Arizona English Department, Lisa also attended college in England and taught English in Spain. She is the editor of the audio anthology Autumnal: A Collection of Elegies, and is a poet who works collaboratively with dancer and musicians.
Q: The mission statement of Kore Press talks about women as agents of change. What kind of change would you like to see—literary, political, and otherwise—and how does the literature you publish accomplish that?
A: Shannon: For starters, we'd like to live in a world in which women are published at the same rate and prestige as men. We publish women because the historical imbalance of women's voices and perspectives in mainstream publishing doesn't seem to show signs of improving. In the history of the National Book Awards, only 29% of the winners have been women. Of the 137 authors in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, less than one-third are women. In 2005, women constituted only 17% of the opinion writers at The New York Times, 10% at The Washington Post, 28% at US News & World Report, and 13% at both Time and Newsweek.
The books and audio CDs and poetry broadsides we publish are important enough to accomplish change on their own—each contributes to the great rivers of literature and social progress in its unique way. But also the very existence of Kore Press and other women's presses is the thing that accomplishes change: we're doing interviews like this; we're putting out a monthly email newsletter and blog; we're sitting on panels; we're opinionating. We're framing the conversation. We're insisting on our space at the table. Sometimes, when those tables wobble too much—when their structural integrity is compromised by a narrow perspective—we just walk away and build tables of our own.
Lisa: I doubt the statistics regarding gender inequity that we see in the publishing and writing world are radically different than what we are seeing in politics. When we as a nation have consecutively elected two female presidents, perhaps our work as publishers of women will become obsolete. But then there is always the task of maintaining a strong, steady presence in existing conversations (political, social and aesthetic), and always insisting on new ones, pushing the envelope. As Shelley said, "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," so on the level of keeping a wide variety of creative intelligence in circulation, that work is ongoing.
I'd like to see some of the teenage girl writers we work with have easy access to the genius of women, both in their own minds and their classrooms. So that's about changes in the canon and curriculum.
Q: What common interests do women writers share, as a class, despite their diversity of artistic style, content, ethnicity and ideology?
A: Shannon: I'm not sure they share any common interests at all, given the staggering diversity of perspective that exists in such an enormous demographic. I do think we could find certain commonalities among the women who are published by Kore Press, chief among them an awareness of the world beyond their keyboards. This isn't to say that we only publish political writing—that's not at all the case. It is to say, however, that our editorial perspective tends to favor work that is informed by an awareness of the social.
Lisa: I resist to classify by content or style, but what I do see in many of our authors is a great interest in the work of their female peers and what the next generation of women writers have to say. There's generous care toward cultivating connection to one another's work and toward those who are coming next.
Q: Are women writers of poetry and literary fiction underrepresented or disadvantaged in the publishing marketplace today? In what ways? For what reasons?
A: Shannon: Pick up any literary magazine and count the number of men in the table of contents versus the number of women. Of course women are underrepresented. I'd speculate this has much to do with the same reasons women artists have been underrepresented for centuries: time and freedom and rooms of our own. And plain old-fashioned sexism, showing itself in a thousand small and large ways, chief among them the failure of magazines and presses to think more carefully about who makes their editorial decisions. I don't care how tuned-in and socially progressive a straight white male magazine editor claims to be: he's bound to have blind spots. He's bound to be unable to appreciate, on one level or another, what some women—especially queer women and women of color—have to say.
Lisa: The disadvantaging of women in the literary marketplace is driven by the same historical forces as in other fields, surprising as it may seem...we often think of literary anything as being civilized, reflective, equitable, fair-minded, and hard-working.
Q: Have the challenges and opportunities for women writers changed from previous decades? How and why?
A: Shannon: As feminism in this country progressed and made everyone's lives better, opportunities for women have absolutely expanded, in publishing as in most every other field. More women are getting MFAs, more women are heading up publishing houses, more women are editors and agents. More women are realizing they deserve rooms of their own and are finding ways to secure those rooms. Progress is progress: my life as a writer and publisher is far more open to opportunity than my mother's, for example, who might have had a brilliant career if not for the six children she was busy raising. When I was a child she wrote a memoir which she then destroyed because her work received so little support or acknowledgement.
Lisa: Sure, there are larger numbers of women in writing programs (and more writing programs) and in artist colonies. When it comes to sending work out, according to one poet I interviewed, and to getting published, the numbers change. Despite the access to programs and rooms to write in, the challenges for women are still there, existing on a deeper social level.
Q: Does Kore Press prefer to publish work that is not only by women, but also reflective of women's issues in some way? If so, how would you describe what makes a book "about" women's issues?
A: Shannon: We don't look for work that's specifically about women's issues, but when women write well and honestly about their lives, well…then their stories become universal and thus about women's issues. Really good socially-engaged fiction and poetry, for me, works the same way: when a writer attends to her craft and is unflinchingly honest, and when she combines that skill and truthfulness with an awareness of the larger world, the work becomes inherently political.
Lisa: We have no issue-oriented editorial agenda per se. The world is made up of stories, not atoms, according to Uri Gordon. It is that small but massively important thing—story—which creates a global sense of solidarity and connects diverse struggles and experiences of being human. I'm interested in following the thread of what is being said over time, by women in particular, and keeping that conversation alive, whatever the content. As the world changes, the question of what is a worthy Subject changes...
Q: Are there general trends in contemporary women's poetry (style, subject matter, tone of voice) that are different from the styles and strategies more commonly used by men?
A: Lisa: I myself don't see writing styles falling along gender lines in contemporary poetry.
Q: Is there a type of work that, while well-written, would not be an appropriate fit for Kore Press?
A: Shannon: Writing by men, of course (although this year we published work by a transgender man). We don't publish genre fiction, how-to books, self-help guides, etc. Our mission statement includes the phrase "highest literary quality." This is the standard, above everything else, that guides our editorial decisions.
Lisa: Poetry, creative non-fiction, and literary fiction. That's the lineup.
Q: Why a first-book contest rather than a contest open to writers at a later stage of their career?
A: Shannon: Until last year, when the brand-new press Switchback Books began a first-book contest, Kore Press was operating the only first-book award in the country for women poets. While it's definitely part of our mission to publish the work of prominent women writers who are in danger of being lost to history, we also see a great void in opportunity for poets who have yet to publish their first book. Plus it's great fun to play a role in launching the career of a terrific new poet. And when you're working as hard as we do in the service of literature, you really need a bit of fun.
Lisa: A First Book Award is a door-opener. I like to think of this contest as providing a potentially catalytic boost forward for the life of a writer...and as a beacon of possibility to new writers out there who struggle everyday in the solitary practice of writing. We are over here saying "I know you can, I know you can."
I do think about offering a Second Book Award for mid-career writers. Another crucial juncture of a different sort for writers. It is not out of the question, but it is not on the front burner.
Q: Tell me about the judging process for your contest. Who are the screeners, and what guidance do you give them? How many entries are received, and how many make it to the finalist judges?
A: Lisa: An esteemed female poet is selected each year to judge our contest. When selecting a judge we think about aesthetic, what region of the country she lives or teaches in, what her background is, etc, to offer submitting writers someone quite new each year. Out of an average of 300+ submissions the judge has ended up reading about 25 manuscripts, from which 4 are chosen—the winner and 3 finalists. The screeners, who are acclaimed poets in their own right, are simply asked to select the most meritorious manuscripts out of their batch. These are then sent on to another screener for a second read. A screener will recuse herself from reading any manuscript that is familiar to her in any way.
Q: Once authors have won a Kore Press contest, are they likely to have a long-term relationship with the press? Some publishers automatically accept subsequent books by past winners, whereas others require the author to go back into the general submission pool. What is your policy?
A: Shannon: We don't automatically accept manuscripts by our past authors. But we do have a history of publishing some of them more than once. We've published two books, an audio CD and two broadsides by Alison Hawthorne Deming, for example.
Lisa: Long-term relationships are great for everyone. We hope as careers are launched, that our First Book Award winners have a long writing life that gets better and better with age. We'd love to be a part of that.
Q: How do you promote your contest winners?
A: Shannon: We do everything we can to promote our winning authors' books. We send review copies, press packets, news releases. We set up readings, and we submit the books for award competitions. Authors fill out an extensive questionnaire, and we use whatever connections/networks/communities the author might have to promote the book. Because the winner of our first-book competition obviously hasn't had the experience of promoting a book before, we also try to do as much training and education as we can: we try to help the author not only understand her role in marketing, which is a huge one, but also support her as she takes her book out into the world to promote it.
In the last year or so, we've also increased our efforts to promote the press in general via a monthly blog, written mostly by our authors but also by special guests. Complementing that blog is a monthly email newsletter that goes out to a list of nearly 3,500 people, which reports on current events in the world of women and literature and also keeps readers up to date about what's going on with our authors and their books. Our first book winners are always highlighted prominently in that newsletter.
Lisa: Ads in Poets & Writers magazine, Ms. magazine, Small Press Distribution catalog; AWP bookfair; signings. Cultivating and maintaining good relationships with all our authors helps us to know them and their work which makes for good promotion. Plus, we care a lot, and that goes a long way with how we talk about new work and new writers. I've been seeing YouTube poetry videos lately. They're great, and I can see doing something edgy and fun like that.
Q: Which of your book titles have sold particularly well? What do you think accounts for their success? Please share any original marketing ideas that have worked for your authors.
A: Shannon: Our current First Book author, Sandra Lim, is doing a remarkable job promoting her book Loveliest Grotesque. She's accomplished this without any particular strokes of luck or unusual connections. She's gone about it the old-fashioned way: providing us with lists of friends and family and colleagues to add to our monthly email newsletter list; making calls to bookstores and other reading venues; tracking down potential review sources. She's just been plain dogged and persistent. Six months after publication, her book showed up in the top ten bestsellers list for our then-distributor, Small Press Distribution. (We are now with Northwestern University Press.)
Lisa: One of our authors made a commitment to using her award money for her own marketing/publicity. I think this was reflected in her sales. No one sells a book as well as an author...so don't be afraid to put yourself out there. No easy task for many writers who prefer to stay closer to the page than the phone, or bookstore clerk, or microphone in a radio station...let alone talk about themselves.
Q: What kind of mentoring would you like to see women writers provide for one another?
A: Shannon: We love the dynamic that's been organically occurring between our past first book winners and our current year's winner. The veterans welcome and embrace the new winner, and offer her lots of advice and ideas about how to promote her book. The result being that each new winning author benefits from the wisdom and lessons of her predecessors. They've become a sisterhood.
Lisa: Certainly there has been a lot of sharing of marketing wisdom, which is great, and teaming up doing readings. What is also happening, through one of our local community-based programs called the Grrrls Literary Activism Project, is that the art of writing is being taught to girls who write, and this is important work.
This interview was originally published in Poetry Contest Insider, a comprehensive online guide to poetry contests from Winning Writers. For a free 10-day trial, please go to http://www.winningwriters.com/contests/pci/pc_login.php