Interview with Rose Metal Press
Questions by Janice Weizman and Marcela Sulak
In honor of our hybrid issue we spoke with Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, the co-founders of Rose Metal Press, an independent, not-for-profit publishing house that specializes in the publication of short short, flash, and micro-fiction, prose poetry, novels-in-verse, book-length linked narrative poems, and other literary works.
We emailed Kathleen and Abby our questions, and they replied with responses that discuss how they got started in publishing, why they decided to publish solely hybrid writing, and how hybrid work deconstructs traditional genres and enables new and powerful forms of expression.
Abby Beckel has worked professionally in publishing for more than 12 years at publishing houses such as Pearson Education, Beacon Press, and Blackwell-Wiley Publishing, and for the magazine Physicians Practice. She is a published poet and magazine writer and lives near Washington, D.C.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding member of the typewriter poetry collective Poems While You Wait. She is the author of six books of poetry and nonfiction, including, most recently, Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press, 2012), winner of the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award in Poetry, and the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs (Counterpoint, 2010). Her debut novel, O, Democracy!, is forthcoming in Spring 2014, and her essays and criticism have appeared in Allure, The Believer, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.
RMP = Abby Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, Publisher and Editor (respectively) and Co-founders of Rose Metal Press
Could you tell us a little about the history of Rose Metal Press? How did you decide to start a press?
RMP: Shortly after our 2005 graduations from the MA and MFA programs in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, we co-founded the press in Boston in January of 2006. In observing the literary community, we noticed that many writers were doing brilliant work in what we considered hybrid genres, but that they had limited opportunities to publish that work since few commercial publishers accept such submissions due to concerns over profitability and marketing. Thus, we decided to make the publication and promotion of that kind of work—prose poetry, short short fiction and nonfiction, book-length narrative poems, image and text collaborations and so on—the focus and mission of Rose Metal Press.
To date, we have published 18 books in various hybrid genres and have 6 more in the works. We started one of the first chapbook contests for prose manuscripts in the U.S.—for manuscripts of flash fiction/nonfiction—which is now in its seventh year. We have a Field Guide series of craft guides to various hybrid genres that are now widely used in college and university courses. Though we continue to spend a lot of time and resources on creating beautiful print books—our books have won 9 design awards—in 2012 we began publishing e-books as well, to increase access to our books for readers worldwide.
What draws you to hybrid literature? What can hybrid writing do that more conventional genres cannot?
RMP: Because hybrid work is, by definition, a mixture of at least two genres instead of just one, it often has—when done well, at least—a richness and complexity of texture that is unlike that of any single-genre work. We like the depth and the layers that a book with one foot in the poetry realm and one foot in the prose one has, or the sophistication and options for reading that a book with integral images has that an image-free book lacks. We love conventional genres, too, of course, but the grain or consistency of hybrid work is particularly appealing to us, like a wood with a strange pattern or a food with really great mouthfeel. To continue with the food metaphor, hybrid genres at their best are the savory-sweet of the literary world—they are like the most delicious brunch: a combination of seemingly disparate items and flavors that cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts.
What do you look for in a manuscript submission?
RMP: We’re looking for projects that are formally audacious and, for lack of a better word, “concept-driven,” because we like those two simultaneous effects: the pleasure of the structure itself in addition to the content of the concept. When this balance is achieved, it feels like an invitation to the reader to be challenged (and hopefully rewarded for rising to meet the challenge).
That being said, we do not look for work that seems bizarrely structured merely for the sake of being able to call itself “hybrid.” We heard a review on the radio the other day that described a guitarist’s work as often being “more experiment than tune”—we want the balance between “experiment” and “tune” in our books to be more favorable. We want books that are innovative, but also satisfying and compulsively readable—page-turners that the reader will remember long after they’ve stopped reading, like a wonderful song that gets stuck in your head.
One of the ways we explain what we are looking for in a hybrid genre manuscript is that when we read the manuscript, the hybrid form should not feel like an apparatus or an experiment. The work should feel instead like it could take no other form than the present hybrid one—that the form is the essential vehicle for the fantastic, imaginative writing we are looking for.
How do you approach the editing process? Is it more difficult to edit hybrid work than conventional genres? If so, why?
RMP: We approach the editing process with the belief that editing is crucial, and that good editors don’t just fix up a manuscript, but really add value to it on a linguistic, sentence, plot, and structural level. We are very hands-on in terms of our editorial approach and love the process of helping our authors create the best possible version of their book for publication. Increasingly, large corporate publishers are unwilling to acquire a manuscript from a non-celebrity author that is not perfectly complete and ready to go sans major editing. At Rose Metal Press, we accept manuscripts that we love and think are good, but then we work collaboratively with our authors to push them to be even better. That belief in the importance of editing a work by an outside set of eyes is a huge part of why we also made the decision never to publish ourselves or our own work—we want to add our editorial effort to other people’s manuscripts, not just put out our own.
How do you promote your authors’ work?
RMP: As most presses do now, we cultivate an active online presence and encourage our authors to do the same, be it a blog, a website, Twitter, a Tumblr, a Facebook page, Goodreads, etc. But within that presence, we also try to select authors who seem to be interested not merely in sharing information about themselves and their projects, but also in mentioning, discussing, commenting on and reviewing work by other writers and artists.
We also send out 40-50 review copies of each book to media and review outlets and try to garner as many reviews and interviews for our authors as possible, both locally and nationally.
In addition, we set up lots of readings for our authors (25-40 a year), and therefore need authors who are willing and able to do readings. Because while online activity is good, we find that it works best—both in terms of selling books and in being satisfying for the author—when it is combined with real world activity as well.
What is the most exciting or memorable piece of writing you’ve come across as a publisher?
RMP: For me, Kathleen, the most memorable piece of writing so far has been Adam Golaski’s museum-in-stories, Color Plates. I will be diplomatic—and honest—and say that everything we’ve published has been exciting and memorable. We only publish three books a year, so we never publish anything we’re not utterly over the moon about. But Golaski’s manuscript—the way he reinvents the ekphrastic form, the way he plays with horror, fabulist, and sci-fi genres, the way he makes you look at nineteenth-century art in an absolutely fresh fashion—made time stop and everything else just fall away. I remember where I was when I realized how good it was: I was coming home from the airport in a cab, reading it there in the backseat, and thinking, “This book! We have to put it out.”
Like Kathleen, I (Abby) have truly loved everything we’ve published. We get so pumped about each book and how to promote it and get that author’s work out to more readers. For me, the most exciting works we’ve published are manuscripts that reinvent genres I love in interesting ways. I was a big fan of choose-your-own-adventures as a kid and was therefore thrilled by Loren Erdrich and Sierra Nelson’s re-creation of that form using poetry, image, and homophones in I Take Back the Sponge Cake. It was exciting to read a poetry book in a purposeful non-linear fashion and see all the directions both the poems and art could take me, and our readers.
I also love novels and have loved seeing our authors create novels using just flash pieces or prose poems. To craft a fully-formed novel arc from a group of pieces under 1,000 words is an amazing feat, and I’m constantly impressed by the way our authors find innovative ways to do it, be it through prose poems, like Tinderbox Lawn or But Our Princess Is in Another Castle, or through flash fiction pieces, like in Betty Superman, Shampoo Horns, or Kelcey Parker’s upcoming novella Liliane’s Balcony, to name just a few of the ones we’ve published.
What have been your biggest surprises—the most interesting things you’ve learned—since you started the press?
RMP: We’ve been surprised and pleased to find the independent and small press community much more welcoming and community-oriented than one might expect. Abby worked for various trade and textbook publishers earlier in her career, and bigger publishers tend to be very competitive about what other publishers who publish similar work are doing and producing. Of course, a lot of that competitive drive is essential to stay ahead in the field and keep profit margins high.
But the small press community, for the most part, is built around collaboration rather than competition. You don’t start a small press to make the big bucks. Most people start them with a mission that centers around creating more opportunities for writers to publish and/or getting more terrific books into the world. And so, we work together to reach those goals: there’s a lot of information sharing and discussions, small press fairs, joint promotion, and other ways to help each other out. It’s a really wonderful community to be a part of, and it’s exciting to see the work small presses are doing to expand the literary landscape.
It seems to me that as publishers of hybrid writing you are at the forefront and edge of the world of English literature. Do you agree?
RMP: This is actually not something we spend a lot of time thinking about; these are also not spatial or directional metaphors that we’d use to describe the world of English-language literature. The scene probably looks more like a 3-D Venn diagram, or a discontinuous interpermeable set of bubbles in which each one represents a different form or style or tradition. Rose Metal Press focuses on the points where those bubbles intersect.
We are, of course, interested in innovative writing, but we are just as interested in writing that provides clear points of entry and satisfactions to a wide range of adventurous readers. We view hybridity as authors using new forms to re-invent or better express truths that are very much at the center of most English literature.
Hybrid literature seems to be attracting a lot of interest lately. The last AWP conference had at least half a dozen panels on post-genre, trans-genre, and hybrid literatures. Do you think they’ve always been around, and we are just noticing them now? Or is this really a new trend in writing?
RMP: They’ve always been around. Many of the genres that we now think of as primary—the novel, for instance—arose as hybrids themselves. In the introductions to our Field Guides series (The RMP Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, edited by Tara L. Masih; The RMP Field Guide to Prose Poetry, edited by Gary L. McDowell and F. Daniel Rzicznek; and The RMP Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, edited by Dinty W. Moore), the editors each do a great job charting the long histories of the hybrid genres featured in the books. Hybridization of one sort or another has always been literature’s primary means of reinvigorating itself and evolving.
But to your point about AWP panels, there has definitely been an explosion of interest in hybrid genres and many more opportunities for writers in hybrid genres. Even just in the eight years Rose Metal has been around, we’ve seen many literary journals open their submissions to hybrid genres, particularly flash fiction and nonfiction but some with more open calls for non-traditional forms as well. There are even literary journals now dedicated to prose poetry and flash fiction and art and text collaborations. And many small presses are taking on inventive and interesting work, whether they label it hybrid or not. It’s exciting to see so many independent and small presses embracing hybrid genre work.
We’re not seeing as much enthusiasm for hybrid genres among the big U.S. publishers, who are more driven by the need for bestsellers and are afraid to take risks on books they can’t categorize. But small presses have a lot more ability to publicize books these days, with social media and internet sales, so as more readers become interested in experiencing hybrid work, we hope to see more and more opportunities for writers to stretch their work beyond traditional genre boundaries… and get published.