Ross White is a poet and teacher living in Durham, NC. With Matthew Olzmann, he edited Another & Another: An Anthology from the Grind Daily Writing Series. He was the 2012 winner of the James Larkin Pearson Prize and the Gladys Owings Hughes Prize. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2012, Poetry Daily, New England Review, The Southern Review, and others. He is a four-time recipient of work-study and administrative scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and currently teaches poetry writing and grammar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
How did you start Bull City Press and what inspired you to do so? What was the original intent behind starting this publication and what kind of values does Bull City Press hold?
The press is a happy accident. I was working an office job with two friends, and we discovered blink, a tiny magazine Robert West had published for several years. Though we didn’t know it, the magazine had changed editors and gone defunct. But we were so entranced by it. We wrote to the editor and asked if we could become her staff; we sent in money for subscriptions. Several months passed. We asked again. Nothing. So we wrote to Robert and said, “We’d like to start a magazine like blink. If you’ll share your subscriber list with us, we’ll send our new magazine to them for a year.” He did.
My friends were content with our magazine, Inch, but I wanted to start working on books. My initial plan was to make all of our chapbooks by hand– saddled stapled on good paper, just as Inch is– but when I solicited a book from Ellen C. Bush, what she sent was so stunning I couldn’t imagine it as anything other than a perfect-bound book. So I got into publishing as a kind of hobby, and the quality of the work made me get really serious about it. I wanted to do a service to the authors who’d entrusted me with such fine poems.
Over the years, a number of volunteers have become part of Bull City Press. When Origami Zoo Press was planning to shut its doors, we acquired all of their titles and Rebecca King came aboard. One of our former contributors reached out to help us form a partnership with The Frost Place, which has led to astounding chapbooks coming our way and some very special opportunities for our winners. What’s so special about that spirit of volunteerism is that it’s made us such a community-oriented press. None of us has yet had to draw a salary from the press, so we’ve been selling our books as cheaply as we can and committing to our authors for their whole careers– whether or not they continue to publish with us.
Don’t get me wrong– we do pay authors for their work, and one of my goals for the press is to one day be able to pay our editors, too. I think that’s ahead. Our core value has always been treating people right and being great literary citizens.
What types of positions are there at the press and how do they fit into each other? What is a typical day like at the press?
There is no typical day for a tiny, volunteer-run press! I think that’s what I love so much about it. We use Slack to communicate, so in an average day, I might talk with Noah to let him know about some good news from a former Inch contributor, chat with Cameron about how we can help a new title reach its readers, or compare notes with Julia about a fiction manuscript she’s editing. If I’m lucky, I’m boxing and shipping orders for at least a few minutes every day. Some months, I’m reading submissions for our chapbook contest or reading period until my eyeballs are about ready to fall out. Other months, I’ll be more focused on working with an author on the editorial process or producing envelopes for the new issue of Inch.
Our positions generally break down into Associate Editors, who work on acquiring and editing books, our editors and readers at Inch, and some support staff who help with a range of tasks associated with getting the books into readers’ hands– publicity, social media, contributor news. And I kind of do a little bit of all of that, as well as running our little warehouse in my basement.
What are some of the major challenges you have faced in establishing your own press?
Since the press was a happy accident, I had to learn everything from the ground up. And believe me, there was a steep learning curve. I made mistakes on just about everything at first, and almost killed the press outright a few times by over-ordering some of our early titles. Thankfully, I had a day job for the first ten years, so I was able to pump cash into making books and magazines.
The wonderful thing about the publishing industry is that so few small presses feel like they’re in competition with other small presses. There’s a ridiculous amount of support out there, whether it’s from CLMP or directly from people at other presses. For example, Martha Rhodes at Four Way Books, who seemed to me like a big New York publisher, has never hesitated to answer any question I had, no matter how insane or inane.
How has your work experience prepared you for this job?
I’ve worked in some wonderful and bizarre places: public schools, comedy theaters, a factory that made water monitors for nuclear power plants, a comic book store. Each one had something to teach me about the writing life and this press.
In public schools, I became convinced of the infinite capacity for good created by a dedicated group of individuals. The national narrative around the “greedy teacher” that grew out of Scott Walker’s battle with the Wisconsin teacher’s union could not have been more wrong. Most teachers aren’t greedy, because if they were, they’d be in another line of work. These are people who show up, day after day, in some of the most discouraging conditions in our country, and they go to battle for their kids. Because they believe. They believe in the power of an education to change lives. I learned in public schools to empower those believers, and to keep cultivating a sense of opportunity, because they really could do just about anything– an experience that’s been echoed by the impossibly talented and dedicated volunteers that have built Bull City Press over the years.
From comedy theaters, I learned some hard lessons about creative anxiety. I was the artistic director and director of the training center for a theater where talented performers would sometimes struggle for months on end. When you live in your head, where you develop a vision for the world as it doesn’t yet exist, that can be extremely frustrating, and recognizing that the tools available to you to express that world are still developing can be acutely disquieting. I learned in that environment to anticipate that anxiety– and to orient creative people to it. It’s easy to assume, “Oh, your book has been accepted for publication, so everything must be peachy,” but in truth, the editorial and design process is punishing and vulnerable for a lot of writers, especially if they’re doing it for the first time.
While I was in college, I was a stockboy in a factory that made water monitors for nuclear power plants. My days consisted of counting and re-counting diodes and transistors, and passing orders for the requisite parts to someone at another location. The stockroom was 100 degrees most days, and I was the only person working in the factory who didn’t have a Ph.D. in chemical or mechanical engineering, so you can imagine what the lunch-table conversation was like. It was drudgery, seemingly endless drudgery, but it taught me a lot about the painstaking precision that goes into anything worth doing. I still marvel at the fact that as a 19-year-old, I could make a small contribution to a device so indispensable, but of course, all great efforts are the product of hundreds and thousands of smaller efforts.