Ross White Group Interview Part 3

ross-whiteRoss 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.


You’re a teacher as well as a poet and editor – how do those three jobs affect one another?

I think all three are born of a curiosity about the human condition and an unflappable belief that it is mutable. Mutable in the sense being apt, and perhaps likely, to change, but also in the sense of being inconstant in one’s affections. Editing is the act of allegiance to a manuscript while pushing for it to become something else, whether that something is a set of copy edits or a change in the project that steers it more clearly toward its true intention. Teaching is the act of allegiance to the student as a person, even as the education you provide changes who that person is. Writing is the act of allegiance to the human experience and a desire to transform it into something new.

I try to approach all three with tenderness. I try to approach all three with ruthlessness. The balance between those two is always in flux. What I learn on one side of the equation is often reflected on the other– as soon as I am smart enough to adjust. Though I am often not quick to adjust; so much of each of those roles comes first from the gut, and I often need a lot of time to reflect on what I have learned by doing. Only then can I transfer the knowledge from one discipline to another. Early in my career, I overthought so much of my writing and teaching, but I had so little experience and knowledge that the base of what I was thinking about was narrow. Whatever towers I was building were so easy to topple. The more I read, the more I experiment, the more confident I become in trying things that I haven’t seen before, in trying things where the outcome remains uncertain and mysterious once I’ve begun.

What is one piece that you have accepted for the press that has changed your perspective on reading and writing, and how has it done so?

I can’t say that there’s a book, poem or story we’ve accepted that changed my perspective on reading and writing. I can say that some of the pieces we’ve accepted changed my perspective on what it is to be human. They made the world at once more vast and more intimate, and I’m truly grateful for that. As poetry requires that the reader use imagination and empathy, so too does it provide an imaginative kindling, and the books that have changed me have left me with new space to explore what lived experience might mean. Tommye Blount’s What Are We Not For is a profoundly animate book, one I have savored every time I’ve read it.

What is your personal writing style and preferences, and how does this affect the works you choose for publication?

I always have the hardest time answering questions about my own style. I think that’s because I’d prefer not to have one– if there’s something I can’t do yet, I’m probably trying to learn. I don’t think anyone who reads my poems would call me a formalist, but I aspire to that; I don’t think anyone would accuse me of being an experimentalist, but I aspire to that too. I love reading a little bit of everything and when I sit down to draft poems, I find myself borrowing strategies from whatever has me enthralled at the time.

As a reader, I know I have a bias for the unfamiliar. I love strangeness in its many forms– the grotesque, the absurd, the dissociative, the transgressive– because strange poems are so often, for me, the jumper cables that recharge my own sense of wonder at the world. But when I encounter a poem or a chapbook that gives me that jolt, the editor in my brain almost immediately converts to the role of skeptic. I begin interrogating the poem like it’s a Russian spy. I begin wondering if I’m falling for a misdirection or deception because it supports my pre-existing view of the world.

I also want poems to feel lived in, which is something I try to do in my own work. I mistrust poems that rely on centuries’ worth of someone else’s feeling, and add little to that field of feeling. I generally call these poems “pretty birds and trees” poems out of snarkiness, but really, they’re poems that pretend to join the long poetic conversation, where poets ranging from Lucille Clifton to George Herbert to W. B. Yeats to Emily Dickinson are speaking to each other, without ever adding something new, something vital, about the world as it is today.

Part 2

Ross White Group Interview Part 2

 

ross-whiteRoss 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 has your definition of success changed since becoming an active member of the publishing world?

Becoming a publisher helped me redefine success in my own writing life. When I was starting out, editors were such mysterious creatures. I would invest a great deal of time in thinking about a journal and what its aesthetic is, agonizing over which of several poems would be the best ones to send in. I would take each rejection as a small failure– and, of course, let those failures pile up. Success seemed so far away.

Oddly enough, now that I’m an editor, I’ve come to understand that a rejection is still a success.

When reading through manuscripts– whether they’re chapbook-length collections for Bull City Press or a set of five poems for Four Way Review– I’m keenly aware of my own fallibility. There’s a lot of incredible poetry out there, far more than any one journal or press could ever print. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to turn away work that I thought was excellent, because it just didn’t fit with what we were hoping to do next. At Four Way Review, it might have something to do with a poem’s fit (or lack thereof) with a set of poems we’ve already accepted. At Bull City Press, we might pass on a great book because it’s too close to a project we’ve recently completed.

Editors, like writers, want to improve throughout their whole careers. So my strategy of obsessing over exactly which poems to send to a journal was foolhardy– I was sending poems to where I thought the editor was, rather than where they wanted to be next. And that’s impossible to predict. So now, I read the journal to get a rough sense of the aesthetic, but I don’t worry too hard about which particular poems I send, as long as I feel those poems demonstrate the craftsmanship that the journal will require and are in the ballpark of subject matter and aesthetic.

Maybe it’s not as painful as receiving the rejection, but I do feel disappointment each time I pass on work that I admire. So, on the writing side, I now view each rejection as a kind of success– I’m celebrating the fact that I keep sending work out, knowing that the road to publication is difficult. The more I have relaxed, the more pieces I have had accepted for publication in journals I adore. Dream journals.

When reading already established literature, one feels it is the reader’s duty to decipher meaning from the text. When reading submissions from un-established authors, do you feel the impetus is placed upon them to impress you, and, if so, how does that affect your reading of literary works?

I don’t think I read much differently when reading submissions. They’re really just books or poems or stories that aren’t yet published, but some– a lot of them, really– will be. I’ve read a number of chapbooks from my favorite presses over the last few years and thought, “Oh, we had the chance to consider this at Bull City Press. I liked this a lot.” The sad fact is that we routinely turn away great work. I mean, great work. If I had no shortage of time or money, we’d probably publish a ton of books.

So, yeah, I guess, when I open a submission, I work from the assumption that the work deserves publication. I’m just trying to figure out whether I’ll have a hand in that publication, whether I believe it fits with what our audience hungers for, whether it fills a space in our catalog or magazine that nothing else could possibly fill, whether it does so with a tenacity and exactitude that stuns me. When I first started editing, my litmus test was, “Do I think I’ll still love this so fiercely in ten years that I’d publish it again?” Now, a decade in, I’m feeling like the younger me made some pretty good decisions.

Certainly, I feel the responsibility to impress me rests with the book– whether Simon & Schuster just published it or it comes to us through one of our reading periods. I think the onus is always on the writer to present the information in the most compelling form appropriate to the material. And I think the onus is always on the reader to participate, to bring the requisite imagination needed to transform words on the page into a populated, textured world in which to live for a while. The transformation simply must be initiated by the words at hand, and while I may or may not reliably make the meaning the author intends (and may or may not make meanings that the author did not intend but are indeed both reasonable and quite satisfying), the richness of the transformation that the words instigate determines the success or failure of the piece.

How much truth do you believe the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” still holds? And with that said, what are some criteria you consider when choosing cover art?

I don’t know that it holds any truth at all. There are some lovely covers on bad books, and bad covers on lovely books. Sure. But I absolutely want Bull City Press books to be judged by their covers. From our earliest days, Philip McFee at Flying Hand Studio has been an indispensible partner in the creative process. He is exact in his attention to the manuscripts we’ve accepted, and his designs are often stitched together from various images. A few times, he’s presented a cover, and I’ve asked, “Hey, that photo is terrific… where did you get it?” And he’ll reply, “That’s eighteen different photos composited together.” He combs each manuscript looking for its relevant imagistic systems, but when it comes time to create the final art, he often steps just to the side of a literal representation of those images. So the covers almost always evoke, in some sly way, specific things you’ll find in the book, but they never give any part of the experience away. Philip has designed all but two of our books, and is even redesigning our re-releases of some Origami Zoo Press titles.

Part 1                                                                                                                                             Part 3

Ross White Group Interview Part 1

ross-whiteRoss 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.

Part 2