BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Books are a joy and gift. They teach us who we are, what we are capable of, and give us valuable lessons to remember. More importantly, however, they teach us and give us insight about the lives of others. Editors, in many ways, are the facilitators of these books, different portals into another world - and are the unsung heroes of books.
Trevor Ketner, a writer based in New Mexico, is also now an editor, taking on a very necessary role: to publish poetry and give writers a space. The press, Skull + Wind, has a fantastic mission, which Ketner described as publishing “work by people who have been told no one wants to hear from them because someone does—we do. As a press based in the Southwest we will always hold space on our list for Indigenous writers and Latinx writers. The importance of celebrating new and important voices while also preserving and highlighting the history and evolution of the many distinct cultures in the Southwest cannot be overstated and we will always do whatever we can to support as many of these voices and cultures as possible. Across two seasons (fall and spring) we will publish two chapbooks (which we hope will be bilingual) and two full-length poetry collections.”
Anyone interested in submitting can go to the submissions guidelines page here and donate here to help the press raise funds. I also interviewed Ketner about being an editor, the challenges, and more:
JV: What prompted you to create a press? What is its mission?
TK: Skull + Wind Press came together as the confluence of a few things. At the time the idea really formulated I was in pretty unfruitful talks with my employer to get the salaries of all the assistant-level employees in our division up to industry standards. I was looking for jobs and applying a lot. For anyone who has ever tried to find a publishing job in New York, I'm sure they know how it went: radio silence. I applied to maybe 150 jobs at major houses over the last few years and never received so much as an interview.
As I was coming to the realization that I would likely never find a job in NYC publishing, I learned that my mother, who lives back in the small New Mexico town (mountain village really) where I went to high school, was entering a health crisis. I won't go into the details, but she has an autoimmune disorder that has affected her health for many years (as long as I've been alive really) but has become more erratic lately. The only sure thing about her health is that it will decline. The process of coming to terms with this fact and the fact that I really wanted to be close to my family to support them through this was the catalyst for a kind of minor revelation.
I realized that even if I had gotten any of those 150 NYC publishing jobs, I wouldn't be working on the kinds of books I think are important. And what's worse, the likelihood that I would ever get to work on those kinds of books at a major house over the course of my career there were slim-to-none. When I took both my desire to move to New Mexico and my desire to work on poetry books and put them in the same frame the solution came to me: a small, NM-based, poetry press.
For my own peace of mind, I knew that if I was coming back to New Mexico I wanted to be able to contribute something to the community that raised me. The skills I've developed in my years in publishing at many different kinds of literary orgs made a press seem like the option for which I was best equipped. Not only that, but my three years in Minneapolis showed me just what a literary press can do for a community. Graywolf Press, Coffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions all do so much amazing work to build and sustain a thriving literary community in Minneapolis; I wanted to start something that could potentially develop into that for the place where I am from. Milkweed and its relationship with the Loft Literary Center as well as the brick-and-mortar bookstore, Milkweed Books, is definitely an aspiration I hope Skull + Wind can work toward.
Here is our official mission statement: Skull + Wind Press strives to publish diverse voices of national importance while we closely tend to our regional responsibilities. As an organization based in, and in love with, our local community in Albuquerque and our wider communities in New Mexico and the Southwest, we also strive to build and foster an inclusive community that can support these voices. The long history of art, artists, and artist communities in New Mexico—from the earliest Apache, Diné, and Pueblo artists up through the Taos Art Colony and into the present day—will always inform, guide, and inspire how we run our press and position ourselves on the land we occupy and the space we take up in our community. The press will always and intentionally hold space for Latinx and Indigenous writers.
TL;DR - We want to publish damn good books in a damn good place we love by damn good authors who aren't told often enough that they're damn good.
What's the actual process like with launching and creating a press? What are the challenges?
It's been a gigantic learning experience getting Skull + Wind started. From incorporating the press as an LLC to opening a bank account and finding a fiscal sponsor (thank you, Fractured Atlas), it has been stunning seeing how complex the bureaucratic underpinnings of a press are. It's been fascinating in a way I definitely didn't expect. I'm also doing this mostly on my own at the moment. My husband occasionally reads through materials before I send them out and lets me bounce ideas off of him, but for the most part, I'm building the press by myself which is kind of what I want.
I'm really committed to the idea that if a press can't pay people for the labor they do, like pay them their actual rates, then the press is over-reaching their abilities. That means I'm very wary of asking for volunteer labor, including internships. It also means the press might grow more slowly, but I'm fine with that. Also if there comes a point where I have to choose between paying myself (not enough to live on mind you, just enough to keep me and my husband going) and paying someone who works for the press, my pay will be the first to go.
But in all, it's been amazing seeing how other publishers have actually rallied in support and offered a lot of advice. Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens Press has really vocally championed and supported the S+W. Andy Hunter at Catapult and Bryan Borland at Sibling Rivalry Press have both been exceptionally generous with their time and advice. As has Carey Salerno at Alice James Books. Though truly, every person in indie publishing I've approached has been so open and excited for the project it's hard to say that generosity is exceptional. There's a very real community of publishers in the US, one we as writers hear spoken of, but I don't think I had any idea how real the bonds are between some presses.
By far the greatest struggle has been trying to secure funding. We have a big fundraising goal, $20,000 by 2020, which would allow us to do everything the way it should be done. Our fundraiser is live and hosted by our fiscal sponsor Fractured Atlas here. In all the places I've ever worked that depended on donations, fundraising is always the hardest and most stressful part of any project. These are places that have large yearly donors and massive lists with very popular backlists. I don't come from money and living in New York for three years certainly hasn't made me any more money than I had before moving here, so the entire feasibility of the press depends on getting people to support us in very real financial ways. Ask anyone who fundraises and they'll tell you it's no science and there's no one thing that will make it successful. You just grind and grind and hope other people get as excited about the project as you do. We have some new perks in the works thanks to some really generous support from other publishers and I'm stoked to let people know about them soon.
The literature and publishing community is so rich right now, despite that indie presses do come and go (as everything does). Who and/or what inspires you?
I mentioned them above, but Milkweed Editions, along with the Loft Literary Center which houses their offices, is a major inspiration for Skull + Wind. It's more than the caliber of the writing they publish (which is high) or the quality of the books, the actual objects they put out (also high), it's the way they think of themselves as a literary entity within their community. I think it is impossible for a press to really succeed if it isn't deeply invested in the success of the community around it. Seeing how Milkweed has supported other presses by selling their books in Milkweed Books and seeing the stunning programming and educational opportunities the Loft offers, it's impossible not to feel just how much good, real good, is done by these orgs and how it ripples out into the Twin Cities more generally.
But seeing what can be done is only part of the inspiration. New Mexico has a huge need for some literacy intervention. New Mexico consistently has some of the lowest test scores in the nation and the literacy rates are just as bad. By producing, featuring, and bringing more literature to New Mexico, a state with a rich history in the arts, I am certain a great deal can be done to improve the state of education there. And I don't mean schools (though I would love to work with public schools in New Mexico to get kids excited about reading), I mean real education. I mean of course in some ways education begins in school. But a real education, things that stick with you, things that change you, is found out in the world more often than not. I really believe that if you populate the world with opportunities for inspiration (publishing books, starting reading series, inviting poets to become part of your community) it's impossible for people to not be inspired.
That being said, what do you think the community could be doing more of? What is lacking?
One major problem is one I mentioned earlier: the near addictive dependence indie publishing has to unpaid labor. The other, which definitely intersects with the first, is the real lack of POC in upper-level editorial positions in book publishing.
I feel like this is kind of common knowledge, but I'll lay it out really quickly anyhow. There is only a very small section of the workforce (notably white, able-bodied, and upper-middle class) who can swing something like a three-month unpaid internship. Now that might not seem like a problem to some people. "Just don't take the unpaid internship." The problem is there are so few paid internships and even those that pay don't pay nearly enough for someone who has a minimum wage hourly job, say, to replace those work hours for internship hours and still make ends meet. A lot of these folks are from systemically disadvantaged groups like POC, people with disabilities, and the generationally impoverished.
So it becomes a fairly self-selecting and privileged group getting in on the ground floor of publishing. I think it's a real shame that internships have become a sort of de facto entry-level position into publishing because it means that, even with a degree, you likely will be out of luck if you haven't been able to also swing 10-15 hours of unpaid labor a week while trying to graduate. The only other route is impossibly expensive publishing courses in New York that have the same problem as unpaid internships; completely inaccessible without financial means already in hand. I got lucky that I made enough as a grad student (only just) to do two internships at Graywolf Press. But most students aren't that lucky.
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AND LO THERE WAS WEBSITE! We hope you'll take a look around the whole site which includes submissions guidelines (!!!) and our editorial focus (!!!) but we'll include here (in our bio) a link to our fav page—Support Us—where you can learn how to donate to Skull + Wind! Please share widely and donate if you can! If you know someone who would be especially excited about the emergence of a feisty poetry press in the Southwest, we hope you’ll let them know about us directly and tell them to get in touch. We’d love to hear from them. And from you. #smallpress #indiepublishing #fundraising
And I mean who can blame a press for not paying interns when there are dozens and dozens of very qualified (overqualified) people clamoring for the position every time they open for applications? Not to mention that all the projects a press has going actively depend on their labor and without them the press couldn't do all they set out to do. And there's where Skull + Wind is going to be different. I have a lot of VERY big plans for this press, but I think I'm less concerned with explosive or even regular, linear trends of growth than I am with sustainable models of production. The press, as a kind of organism of the larger poetry community and the local community of the Southwest, will operate based on the resources it has. We will do the most we can with those resources, but I don't plan on outpacing our ability to sustain projects.
I realize there is dissonance between what I am saying about having more POC in positions of power when I, as a white person, am starting a press as the sole employee. But here's the thing. I don't want to have an editor on board simply as a token. I want to bring on an editor, almost certainly a POC, when I can pay them, really pay them, for their work. I'm not asking anyone, especially someone who is societally disadvantaged in ways I am not, to do unpaid labor because it will make the press look good or because it will make my life easier. I want to start this press because I believe in the concept of the press, in the mission, and in the need for something like this in New Mexico.
I'm in a unique place to have resources and certain kinds of employment available to me that allow me to start Skull + Wind. I believe that once I get everything going the press will thrive and I will be able to bring on more people and plan on being very intentional about who comes on board. It might mean the optics of the press are a little weird as we start, but I'm more concerned about good ethics and what's good for the people who work for Skull + Wind than weird optics.
What kinds of books do you want to put out into the world?
I'm really excited about getting more bilingual books, especially chapbooks, into the hands of readers. I'm especially interested in getting more Diné writing into the hands of non-Indigenous people. I was taught by the really excellent poet and first Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation, Luci Tapahonso, early in my poetry life while still an undergrad at the University of New Mexico. In that class, she would read her own work occasionally and I was truly enthralled by how Diné felt so perfectly woven into some of her work. Another member of that workshop was Jake Skeets who is one of my favorite poets writing today. He would also incorporate Diné into his work and the conversations we had about his poems really showed me the breadth and depth of language.
To be clear, "bilingual" means a couple of different things to me. It can certainly mean straight translation with both English and the original non-English text. But it can also mean work that switches really effortlessly and regularly between language. I'm thinking especially of poets like Natalie Scenters-Zapico and Steven Alvarez here. I'm interested in publishing bilingual work not as an oddity, but as a very real and in some ways radically normal way to use language in poetry.
As a nonbinary editor, I'm also very excited to be able to potentially champion the work of other nonbinary and trans poets.
But, as I said before, we are really here to just publish as much damn good writing as we can.
Editing is gatekeeping, in so many gradients. How do you balance being both a helping hand for people and someone who has to reject manuscripts? Rejecting work is perhaps the hardest work (and most thankless) an editor has to do.
Rejection is truly the hardest part of being a writer or editor I feel. Which is why I reject rejection.
When I begin getting back to poets we won't be publishing I'm really committed to the idea of redirection over rejection. After spending time with someone's work, and even when I know the work isn't for us, I almost immediately have at least some sort of thought about what can be done to move it forward. For projects that still need some time developing this might look like a short exploration of what kinds of revisions might help the project come into its own or even poets I think it could be beneficial for the submitter to spend time with based on what I read. For work that is closer to its final form, it might look like suggesting other publishers whose aesthetic or mission or whatever might better align with that project or that poet. Sure this will take time (A LOT of time) which might slow down my response time. But poets take so much time to write their work and even more to send it out. They deserve more than a form rejection. Maybe that's naive but I've been in publishing long enough to know how this goes and I really think I can swing it.
It comes down to this I guess: I think it's an editor's job to see the possibilities in any piece of writing; for me, that extends even, as much as it sustainably can, to writing I'm not going to publish but have been trusted to read.
Do I anticipate negative responses to this kind of approach? Definitely. But I would get negative responses from form rejections, too. At least by investing what I can into any writing that comes across my desk, I can know I did what I could, even indirectly, to put more great writing into the world. And that's deeply satisfying in every way.
Trevor Ketner is the author of Negative of a Photo of Fire(Seven Kitchens Press, 2019), White Combine: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (The Atlas Review, forthcoming), and Major Arcana: Minneapolis, winner of the Burnside Review Chapbook Contest judged by Diane Seuss. They have been or will be published in The Academy of American Poets' Poem-a-Day, Best New Poets, New England Review, Ninth Letter, West Branch, Pleiades, Diagram, Memorious and elsewhere. Their essays and reviews can be found in The Kenyon Review, Boston Review, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. They hold an MFA from the University of Minnesota and have been awarded fellowships from Poets House and Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. They live in Manhattan with their husband.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) (forthcoming, Madhouse Press, 2019), and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente