After the MFA: Good things come in small portions

By Natalie Singer-Velush

Sarah Baker, LB, Travis Sharp, Aimee Harrison, Terri Witek (the author of Letter [r] Press' first chapbook "On Gavdos Ferry) and Tracy Gregory.
Sarah Baker, LB, Travis Sharp, Aimee Harrison, Terri Witek (the author of Letter [r] Press' first chapbook "On Gavdos Ferry) and Tracy Gregory.

The time spent as a student in an MFA program, especially the early months, can be overwhelming. There are never enough hours to read, to spend with new ideas, to fulfill the requirements of the program, and also follow our own newly developing inquiries and impulses. The time, conversely, is often also highly charged artistically: These new ideas, however demanding and sleep-depriving, activate a desire to engage deeply with language and art and the process of making and investigating these.

One group of IAS’s MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics students responded to that charge by launching a micropress, a project that has evolved as its instigators have, and which has provided space for the incubation and expression of art and ideas within the realm of the program and, now, beyond.

Letter [r] Press publishes chapbooks, artist’s books and ephemera, along with the journal small po[r]tions, which publishes shorter work and multi/intermedia art. The press, as its website describes, “promotes the work of small po[r]tions contributors and publishes experimental and multi/intermedia writing and art.” A recent issue of small po[r]tions is a conflux of ekphrasis, videos of handmade books about depraved rabbits, erasure poems, deconstructed workouts, a paean to Sega Dreamcast, and many more delights.

For this first installment of our After the MFA blog series, I had the chance to ask three of the four current editors of the press—Sarah Baker, Tracy Gregory and LB—about their experience, the history of the project, and how it informs or connect to their artistic practice now that they are post-MFA. Here is what they had to say.

When was Letter [r] Press founded, and when did each of you get involved? 

LB: Travis Sharp and I met with Aimee Harrison (from the first MFA cohort) and discussed starting a literary journal in our first quarter of the MFA program (Fall 2013). We knew from the beginning we would like to also publish books, so while we were working on putting together the first issue of small po[r]tions, we were taking the steps to establish Letter [r] Press as a non-profit organization and publishing entity. We brought on Sarah Baker and a number of others (Billy Phillips, Lynarra Featherly, Breka Blakeslee) at the beginning. The following year, Tracy Gregory came on board in her first year of the MFA.

TG: Yes! I came on board officially in December 2014, after my first quarter of the MFA. At the time, the editors were Laura Burgher, Travis Sharp, Sarah Baker, Breka Blakeslee, Aimee Harrison, and Lynarra Featherly. Apparently, the editors initially planned on commissioning an intern from our cohort, so they set up a meet-and-greet in the Jik Ji studio [IAS faculty members Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas launched the Jik Ji Print Studio with a Risograph EZ 590 printer for bookmaking]. I guess I won them over with my charming personality and editorial skills after our first few meetings and instead of offering me an internship, they voted me onto the board in December. Since then Aimee, Lynarra, and Breka have become less involved, but they provide support when they can and occasionally discuss the possibility of future projects.

What were the goals of the founding members, and have those changed? How has Letter [r] evolved thematically, artistically, operationally?

LB: When we began small po[r]tions we were all excited about working on a literary journal and crafting handmade books and journals. At the beginning we saw the potential for entering into a community of writers, but I’m not sure that we anticipated how rewarding this would be. Our first impulse was to curate a journal of “experimental” works, shorter cross-genre or mixed-genre works. We were all excited about including visual and multimedia pieces on our website. Letter [r] evolved out of small po[r]tions when we started publishing chapbooks from our contributors. The nature of the chapbooks allowed us more artistic flexibility and we were able to emphasize many of the book art aspects of the press. Thematically we have been drawn toward works that dialogue around the marginalized body (race, gender, disability, mental/physical illness, motherhood, etc.) and our propensity has generally been to include a generous mix of lighthearted and darker pieces (though we have been trending more toward the dark).

TG: I can’t speak to the founding goals, but I can say that being involved and influential within the Seattle literary community was also my initial goal in joining Letter [r]. The founding members initially built Letter [r] to be more of a collective rather than role-based press, as in every editor has an equal say in every task and decisions are made by majority vote. The collective mindset allowed us to focus on building relationships with one another and our contributors/authors just as much as focusing on the work we were creating. However, as school, careers and personal lives started to have more of a priority in each of our lives, we realized that the collective decision making process was slowing us down. We then, somewhat forcefully, had to take on a role-based system (so-and-so does design, so-and-so does processing and shipping, so-and-so does printing, etc.) This is especially true now that Travis is in Buffalo and I am in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I’d say that community is still what drives us though, even if it’s a virtual or long-distance community we are a part of. It’s the connection, collaboration, and opportunity to provide a platform for our peers and artists we look up to that makes publishing worthwhile, at least to me. And creating physical spaces for artists and their work, like hosting readings or tabling at a book fair, is my main motivation for being in this press. Actually, Travis and Aimee recently hosted and participated in a small po[r]tions reading in New York with a couple of our contributors: Carrie Bennett, Kevin McLellan and Marco Maisto. And, we attempted to be present at AWP this year, but Travis’ flight got cancelled due to the crazy snowstorms. Our table was still there though with a few books a friend brought, and Aimee helped sell the books when she could (she was also tabling for Essay Press). I’ve personally been really bummed about my lack of physical literary community, not just as a Letter [r] editor but as someone trying to re-immerse herself in the Bay Area artist community, so I’ve been wanting to contact the Bay Area small po[r]tions contributors and plan a reading down here. Just need to get my life (i.e. source of income) a little more settled first.

SB: Our evolution has been so connected to being in the same graduate program. By far the biggest operational challenge has been to adapt to our increasingly distant and disparate schedules and locations. In the first two years of the press, a majority of the editors were on UW Bothell campus, where the print studio is located, multiple days a week throughout the year. This is the only thing that made it possible for us to edit and hand-make 200 journals, three times a year (not to mention the chapbooks published). I think we took our proximity for granted and were not prepared for how much extra effort it would take to keep the press going, especially now from three different corners of the country.

Another operational challenge is our collective tendency to say “yes” to every project we are excited about. This is not sustainable, and we’ve definitely over-extended or over-promised ourselves for writers and works we were excited about. I don’t want us to get burned out. It’s important to me that we choose our projects carefully, go slowly and set clear expectations for ourselves and our authors.

That’s a good segue: How did being in graduate school impact your approach to the project? And what type of support or influence did you receive from the program, from faculty, and from fellow students?

LB: Graduate school made small po[r]tions and Letter [r] Press possible. We all met in the program, received an incredible amount of support from faculty (Jeanne Heuving was instrumental), and utilized the resources in the Jik Ji studio on campus. During many Fall Convergences and Spring Festivals we were able to set up tables to promote our press. We’ve always felt a close connection to the MFA program and try to include at least one IAS faculty member in every issue of small po[r]tions.

TG: Yes, our press would have never happened if it weren’t for the MFA program. In fact, I might not even be pursuing a career in publishing if it weren’t for the MFA. But, as LB said, we all met in the program, Jeanne gave the founding members a lot of support in the beginning, Amaranth Borsuk and Sarah Dowling have given us plenty of guidance and also connected us with many writers and artists we have published, and if Aeron and Alejandra never created the Jik Ji studio, guiding us on how to use their equipment and giving us the opportunity to experiment, we definitely wouldn’t be the same press as far as our printing methods and overall hand-crafted aesthetic. Also, fellow MFA students have been our immediate community as far as inspiring the type of work we want to publish, create, interact with … they have also been our biggest supporters by attending our events and buying our books. Now that all the editors have graduated from the program, we’re now encouraging current UW Bothell MFA students and alumni to submit work to us, and because of that, we’ve already published work from a current student, Corbin Louis.

Being in graduate school while working on the journal and press was pretty insane, and it was rewarding. It was a relief to be working on creative work that wasn’t my own and discussing work with peers in a non-academic setting. It was actually quite liberating to have the freedom to indulge our weird artistic desires fully, without the fear of harsh critique or judgement. Not that the program was all that judgmental, but some things are just better left outside the classroom.

Okay, an easy question: Where did the name Letter [r] come from?

LB: In the early decision-making process for the name of our literary journal we were bouncing around the name “small portions” (inspired by a Richard Brautigan poem) and “small potions (something a bit witchier). In an early email sent out to the editors I referred to the journal as small po[r]tions as a way to encompass both titles, and the name stuck. We all became very partial to the bracketed [r] and decided this would be the name of our press.

TG: I wasn’t around for the naming of the press or journal, but I can say that people often confuse us for a letter press since our name is Letter [r] Press. Silly!

SB: I actually never knew the journal title came from a Brautigan poem! (“I cannot answer you tonight in small portions.”) The exact origin has obviously been a mystery to me, but we leaned toward shorter works in the beginning, and to me the bracketed r symbolized our affection for experimental and ephemeral works. “Letter [r] Press” was a convenient pun that allows us to expand beyond the journal, while still including [r]. For me, the confusion with “letterpress” is purposeful and aspirational—one day we’ll get our letterpress.

How has the experience of working on the press and its projects changed since you graduated from the MFA program? Has your approach to your art changed more broadly since earning your degrees?

LB: We have always been concerned with publishing important work, but that feels even more pressing (no pun intended) in the current political climate. While our early decisions for what we wanted to publish were more intuitive and freeform, I think we all have a much stronger sense of what we want to come out of our press and are much more intentional. We’ve also had to adjust to living in different places with different work schedules and time zones and that has changed the rapidity and volume of work that we can publish.

TG: Nice pun there, LB. My sentiments are very similar. Innovative form has actually been the main influence on the editorial decisions/input I’ve made for the press, sometimes, unabashedly, omitting the need for intriguing content all together. I suppose I’m a sucker for a good concept. Now that I’ve graduated and we’ve made the full transition into this political climate of resistance, content, particularly perspective, has become increasingly more important to me. While maybe the identity of the author was the major “perspective” factor I considered when publishing a piece before, now it’s definitely more about how is this piece presenting this perspective? How is this perspective/the content interacting with the identity of the author and potential readers? How is the piece commenting on relationships, identity, society, humanity, etc.?

SB: We’ve read thousands of submissions at this point and in the beginning we were much more self-conscious in our selections. We wanted to make sure we made the right first impression and attracted high quality writing to our submissions. But I think we missed out on a few fun pieces that we still talk about today, because we overthought them. Now, we’re more confident in our selections and more willing to take risks. It’s not a stretch to say the MFA degree is part of our increased confidence with the press and our individual creative work. Also, immersion in a program with a focus on poetics compels you to think about writing “in context,” which is exactly the editorial process.

Broadening out a bit (for context!): What is the role or roles of a micropress today?

LB: I think one important role of a micropress is to create community among writers. It feels very special and important to put writers’ voices out there in the world. Micropresses allow for art and ideas to circulate that otherwise might not (that wouldn’t be picked up by large or small presses). There is a lot of freedom for creativity in a micropress.

TG: Oh gosh, well, I agree with LB. Community. Experimentation. Providing an opportunity for writers/artists to learn and improve while also providing the editors the same. I know the term I am about to use is wrought, but I kind of see micropresses as “safe[r] spaces” for the emerging writer, editor, publisher to try things out. Kind of like the publishing equivalent to the open mic.

SB: Freedom is something a micropress affords, but it’s a specific type of freedom that comes with at least as much restriction. Letter [r] Press is more restricted financially and practically than a larger or university press, but we’re not restricted artistically. As editors, we are the gatekeepers. It’s still our editorial freedom, not that of the writers who submit — a word that’s always bothered me for exactly this reason. This is why I can’t completely agree with the analogy of an open mic. But I think something Tracy is getting at is that we can publish never-before-published writers! We have readings with amazing writers who have never read for an audience before. A micropress is also very flexible. We can change format, aesthetic, or medium at any moment.

How do you decide what to publish? Is there an aesthetic or message you are hewing to?

LB: We like to publish work of underrepresented voices that speaks to important issues, that pushes the bounds of genre. When we pick pieces for the journal we think carefully about how the pieces all speak to one another. When we choose chapbooks we consider the potential for book arts.

TG: I’ve already talked a bit about this in previous answers, but our decision process is equally what speaks to us as editors on a personal level as well as what kind of work we want our journal to provide a platform for. So, experimentation and underrepresented perspectives/voices within publishing. I’d much rather publish a piece of “lesser quality” as far as the ability of the writer/artist that has a unique perspective or is innovatively experimenting with form, sound, or visual aspects than a perfectly written poem with stanzas and enjambed lines or a short story from a published author with a strong academic background etc.

While our aesthetic has been in the realm of book arts—hand-crafted, pleasing to the eye, somewhat soft colors and nice to the touch—we’re moving more toward a loud, possibly obnoxious and educated kind of vibe (I wrote “obnoxious yet educated” initially, but those things are not mutually exclusive). We’re still figuring it out though since we’re doing most of the work remotely and may have to print on laserjet/inkjet printers in the future.

How does the work of the press influence your own individual artistic processes?

LB: Being exposed to so many submissions can be helpful and inspiring in itself, just seeing what people out there are writing about and how they are doing it. It’s also much easier to attain critical distance from my own writing after reading other people’s work as an editor.

TG: Yes, reading submissions has definitely inspired and deferred me from many avenues in my writing. Maybe someone else is actually accomplishing what I’ve been trying to do and now I can look at my work with freshly minted eyes. Or maybe so many people are writing about similar things or are using a form in a similar way (blackout erasure is a BIG one) that I have decided to move on to other forms etc.

Unfortunately, I now think about other people viewing my work in a similar vein to me viewing the submissions we receive … which can be a little disheartening at times. To expand on this: When I am looking at work to potentially publish, I have a very specific lens (what would fit in our journal?), and I also want the work to speak to me pretty quickly. Viewing my creative work in this way, especially as I create it, almost always causes some sort of disconnect with or failure to meet my expectations. In reality, I don’t think most of my work would be published in small po[r]tions, or at least the small po[r]tions we were making during 2014−2016, so it is very silly to compare my work to the work we publish. But, when I am able to completely separate my Letter [r] editor self from my Tracy Jane Gregory artist/creator/feminist warrior self, it is even more liberating to make the work I am (slowly but surely) making on my own, out of school.

So what's next for Letter [r] ?

LB: We just selected a couple of chapbooks from our open reading period. We are hoping to publish at least a couple of chapbooks and a couple of journals each year.

TG: Yes! We are planning to publish more chapbooks per year and are trying, as always, to publish more hybrid and multimedia work. As I mentioned earlier, I want to plan a Bay Area reading (possibly series). I really want to pick up on our small po_tion reading series (where we make a potion of sorts with work from our readers for the event), but logistically, not sure how that will work. Expect some silent periods though as we figure it all out! We did publish Issue 7 of small po[r]tions just a couple weeks ago, which has a free online issue and a print issue available for purchase (both on our website) smallportionsjournal.com (had to get that promotion in there, yah know!).

SB: More readings, new journal formats, more chapbooks and hopefully a new poetics-based project. I’d also like to see our multimedia and prose selections increase.

Thank you so much for answering these questions and for giving writers and readers these important venues and book art treasures! For our readers—about the editors:

Tracy Jane Gregory (TG) is a cross-genre writer, collage artist, musician, and feminist. She currently lives in San Leandro, CA where she is a freelance editor pursuing a career in scholarly publishing.

LB (Laura Burgher) is a cross-genre writer who is interested in the strange, unexpected, and coincidental, valuing art that makes positive social change, even if only a minuscule moment of connection between strangers.

Sarah Baker (SB) is a writer, designer and editor living in Seattle. She is currently a co-director of APRIL, Seattle’s annual festival of small and independent publishing.

Travis A Sharp is a queer poet and book artist, a Ph.D. candidate in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo, and an editor at Essay Press. Travis' work has appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Bombay Gin, LIT, Puerto del Sol, Entropy, The Conversant, and elsewhere.

Natalie Singer-Velush, '16, is a journalist, essayist, poet, editor and teacher. She is a former courts and crime newspaper reporter and chronic nostalgic obsessed with interrogating identities and cross-examining her own stories over and over. Natalie’ Master’s thesis memoir, California Calling, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books (March 2018). She is an invited 2016/2017 Writer Ambassador for On the Boards, a contemporary performing arts collective in Seattle; her critical responses to the season’s performances create a bridge of dialogue between artists and the community. She has taught poetry with Pongo Teen Writing to youth inside King County’s juvenile detention and at the state's psychiatric facility for youth. Natalie works as a communications manager.