Publisher Profile: A Midsummer Night’s Press

An interview with Lawrence Schimel, head of independent poetry press A Midsummer Night's Press

A Midsummer Night’s Press started publishing poetry in 1991. Since then, the press has expanded to include three imprints. Fabula Rasa publishes works that draw inspiration from mythology and folklore. Body Language publishes writing related to gender and sexual identity. Sapphic Classics, in collaboration with Sinister Wisdom journal, rereleases works of lesbian poetry.

This fall, A Midsummer Night’s Press has launched a new imprint, Periscope, which focuses on poetry in translation. Lawrence Schimel, the press’s founder, answered my questions by e-mail before jetting off to the Guadalajara Book Fair. Read on for information on how to receive free international shipping on Periscope’s debut titles.

FR: How was A Midsummer Night’s Press born and how has it evolved through the years?

LS: The press has gone through two different iterations. Initially it was, perhaps, more opportunistic than anything else. There was a Vandercook letterpress in the basement of my dorm when I was an undergraduate, and not being willing to let this chance slip through my hands, I contacted some poets I knew (including Nancy Willard and Jane Yolen) and bought poems from them to produce as limited edition broadsides, numbered 1-100 for sale and lettered A-Z for use by the authors and the press. After graduation, the press went on hiatus since I no longer had access to a letterpress.

Meanwhile, I published dozens of books (as an author and anthologist) with many other publishers, commercial and independent, learning the ins and outs of publishing and establishing lots of contacts within the industry. And I got that itch to once again publish works of poetry, especially projects that might not otherwise get out into the world. I wanted to produce accessible books (in size, theme, and format) to try and get poetry both to regular readers of verse and also into the hands of people who might not otherwise be inclined to pick up a volume of poetry or who think they hate poetry, after having to dissect it in school and never having had a chance to read work that was relevant to their experience or interests.

The press continues to publish under both the Body Language (LGBT voices) and Fabula Rasa (mythic poetry) imprints. Some of the authors we’ve published include: Francesca Lia Block, Jane Yolen, Julie Enszer, Julie Marie Wade, Raymond Luczak–and even one translated title, from gay Slovenian poet and translator Brane Mozetic, as part of the Body Language series.

We also co-publish the Sapphic Classics series with Sinister Wisdom magazine, reissuing important feminist lesbian texts with new front and back matter to re-contextualize them for a new audience; the first titles have been Minnie Bruce Pratt’s Crime Against Nature and Cheryl Clarke’s Living as a Lesbian. And now we’ve added Periscope as our newest imprint, dedicated to poetry in translation, with a special focus on women writers.

FR: What changes have you seen in the publishing industry since first starting out in 1991?

LS: The biggest change over those years has unquestionably been both the rise and demise of physical bookstore spaces, and how we interact with books. Online bookselling has many advantages, but it is predicated on knowing beforehand what book you want (or think you want). What’s lost is the serendipity factor of wandering among the aisles and pulling a book off the shelf or off a table, because something catches your eye: a byline, a title, a cover, a shelf-talker, etc. Even with technology that lets you “look inside a book” it’s not the same experience, when everything is driven by purchasing patterns over any other criteria.

Bookshops have always and continue to hold a special place in my heart. I worked at two independent bookstores in NYC: children’s specialty bookstore Books of Wonder and LGBT bookstore A Different Light. But my primary relationship to them, even now that I am also a publisher, remains as a reader and lover of books and those spaces where people come together in search of the right book (for the moment, for their taste, whatever).

FR: Why did A Midsummer Night’s Press decide to launch Periscope, your new imprint for poetry in translation? Why did you decide to focus initially on women writers?

LS: I make my living these days as a Spanish->English translator, and while I would love to earn a living solely from translating poetry, the reality is (alas!) quite different. And while we’re seeing a new generation of independent publishers devoted to works in translation (like Deep Vellum or Restless Books) joining some now-veteran presses like Open Letter or Archipelago, the majority of the attention for literature in translation remains on fiction.

I already spoke above about the difficulties of publishing poetry in translation, and hence our decision to try and offer a series, where the sum of all these poetic works in translation would hopefully have more of an impact or impetus than just publishing an occasional individual title. As for why the decision to focus on women writers: I had already noticed, from my own experience as a translator, how it was often easier for me to place the male authors whose work I translated and pitched, and especially when looking at the funding bodies for many different countries and literatures, there is often a clear bias toward male-authored works being supported for translation.

So already this was something I was aware of and wanted to work against, if possible. While we are a male-operated press, the number of women writers we’ve published (even before this new series) has clearly been in favor of female-identified writers (we have published various transsexual authors, although not always writing about trans identity or themes). And by publishing not just an individual title, but a series, I hope that we can help raise attention not just to these authors but to the general lack of women’s voices being translated into English (some recent number crunching shows that around 26% of what gets translated from all languages is by women writers). There are movements afoot on social networks to read and promote women authors, and women in translation, so hopefully these will help redress those pitiful statistics. (Although again, most of those movements focus on prose rather than poetry, hence our decision to create our imprint.)

It’s also important to look at not just what gets published but how it is received. I remember how, when Jennifer Egan won the National Book Award for A Visit from the Goon Squad, the Los Angeles Times published an article whose headline read “Jonathan Franzen Loses National Book Award”. So even when a woman won one of the major awards in the US, the press still focused on a male writer, making the story about his loss instead of her win. And we just saw a redux of this, when Jacqueline Woodson’s recent winning of the National Book Award for Young Adult novel was hijacked by a tasteless joke by a white male writer, and once again many headlines focused on him and his experience instead of celebrating her achievement. 

FR: Can you talk a little about the three titles recently released by Periscope?

LS: The first three titles are by women writers from Estonia, Slovenia, and Spain. All have published at least three books in their countries (one has over forty!), so they are writers who are already established to some degree, not just one-book wonders, even if they had never before published a book in English. While I am limited in the languages I can read, I have had the opportunity to meet all of them in person and to hear or read their work, often at international poetry workshops or other events where we have coincided.

I met Kätlin Kaldmaa at a translation workshop of children’s authors, but we exchanged our adult poetry, as well, and I actually translated some of her poems into Spanish for her (using English as the bridge language), so I got to know her work quite thoroughly and thought it would work well in English in book form. Kätlin is probably the most playful of the three poets, but she also has a strong component of both personal and social justice; I think the combination works quite well.

A collection by Jana Putrle Srdic was published in Argentina, so I was able to read her in Spanish and again enjoyed her work and thought it would work in English. Her poems are very different across her three published books in Slovenian, although much of the work in Anything Could Happen is perhaps the closest in style or voice to what American readers might expect or be used to, perhaps because she is herself a translator of poetry from English (as well as Russian).

Care Santos is a Spanish author I knew from her prose, both her children’s books and her adult novels. She has published just one poetry collection, which won the Carmen Conde prize, and I had read it and really responded to the bitter, self-deprecating voice in her poems, and began translating some and asked her if she would mind if I tried submitting them to magazines. I did place a few of them, but then decided to launch Periscope, and since we didn’t have any further funding or support, but I wanted to publish at least three titles for our launch, I decided to use this as our third title (since I didn’t have to pay another translator).

FR: Do you think translated literature will one day have a better hold in the US publishing industry?

LS: I think that one of the biggest obstacles remains how predominantly monolingual most people, especially in corporate NY publishing, tend to be—a product, of course, of the educational system—resulting in few editors being able to read in another language. Coupled with America’s generally myopic attitude when it comes to the relevance of most forms of culture coming from beyond the US borders (where many British films or TV series have American remakes, or books like Harry Potter have the language “Americanized”).

Still, pleasure is one of the best ways for people to assimilate otherwise “alien” or foreign cultures. You can see how this happens quite often through food or humor; if you enjoy a meal or a joke, suddenly there is a pleasurable connection and feeling of commonality that overrides formerly-threatening connotations (from being unknown and hence strange).

American readers are enjoying crime fiction in translation, especially but not exclusively from Scandinavian countries, and maybe the trick to opening the floodgates, as it were, would be to try translating more work in some of the other, popular genres, like science fiction or romance. There tends to be a lot of snobbism in publishing, in general, but the largest book-buying (or book-reading) audiences tend not to be for literary fiction, which is itself a kind of genre, even though it is often used as the default and the measuring stick against which all works of literature are compared.

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