Kate Gale, Managing Editor of Red Hen Press
Jendi Reiter conducted this exclusive email interview with Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press. Since 1994, this California-based independent press has sought to publish poetry, literary fiction and nonfiction by diverse writers whose work might be overlooked by commercial publishers. New and upcoming releases include books by Greg Sanders, Sholeh Wolpe, and Dewitt Henry.
Red Hen Press offers three annual contests: the Red Hen Press Short Fiction Award of $1,000 for stories up to 25 pages (deadline June 30), the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award of $1,000 for poems up to 120 lines (September 30), and the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award of $3,000 for a full-length poetry manuscript (October 31). Past prizewinners include Jim Petersen, Gaylord Brewer, Susan Thomas, Charles Harper Webb, Mariko Nagai, Tony Barnstone, and Erinn Batykefer.
In addition, their Arktoi Books imprint, established in 2006 by Eloise Klein Healy, specializes in works by lesbian authors. Genres change annually; in 2008, they are seeking full-length fiction manuscripts. See the submission guidelines on their website.
Kate Gale, the founder and managing editor of Red Hen Press, is the author of five books of poetry (Blue Air, Where Crows and Men Collide, Fishers of Men, Selling the Hammock, Mating Season), a novel (Lake of Fire), and a bilingual children's book, and the editor of three literary anthologies. She has recently completed the libretto for the opera "Rio de Sangre" by Don Davis. Read poems from Mating Season (Tupelo Press, 2004) here. She is a Graduate Humanities Associate Professor at Mount St. Mary's University.
Q: Tell me about the inspiration behind Red Hen Press, its history and development, and the same for Arktoi Books.
A: We wanted to have a collective like Alice James, but soon realized everyone wanted to eat the bread, but no one wanted to bake the bread let alone grow the wheat. So we started Red Hen Press, a nonprofit literary organization. When Sun and Moon and Black Sparrow closed, we felt we must build literary community in Los Angeles and began the reading series and the Los Angeles Review. Eloise Klein Healy wanted to work with us to publish a lesbian title every year. There is not enough LGBT publishing in the U.S., and we want to be part of changing that. It's an amazing collaboration because Eloise throws herself into every level of the editing and marketing process. The Arktoi authors are very privileged.
Q: Aside from essentials like craftsmanship and originality, is there a common thread running through the titles you publish? How would you describe Red Hen's unique "voice" or sensibility?
A: We like dark. Strange. Underneath. I like reading what isn't there. I like to look for the hidden staircase, the attic voice, the cellar voice, the story that hasn't been told. I'm not interested in urban, slick, out loud, cool, hip. I want to publish the next Kafka, the next Jean Rhys.
Q: Have you seen any interesting new trends in the style or subject matter of contemporary poetry and fiction submitted to the press? Are there particular techniques and topics you feel are over-represented, and conversely, are there others that you'd like to see more often?
A: I like the stories where there is no ending, because we don't know how it's all going to end. I like seeing experiments with language. I like stories about strange outsiders. I'd like to see more fiction by gay men and by Hispanic authors because we don't get enough from those perspectives. I don't like it when we get sent "easy stories", about shutting up your house on Martha's Vineyard as a metaphor for death etc. I can hardly bear the stories where professors fall in love with their students. Ron Carlson can do it well because he's mocking, but please, that's hard to do well.
Q: Which of your titles have been particularly successful, in terms of sales and/or impact on the literary community? What can other authors and publishers learn from these success stories?
A: David Mason's book did very well. He worked hard to get reviewed, got along well with my publicity and marketing staff, and he did a lot of events. It's good to do all three, but it helps, if like Mason, you write really well. Ludlow is a terrific book.
Q: What are some major challenges facing writers of poetry and literary prose today, and how have you seen (or would you like to see) them overcome? I'm thinking not only of the age-old problems of funding and marketing, but also how the wider culture affects our choices of subject matter, voice and style.
A: As a writer, you have to be willing to get out there and promote your work and be part of the literary zeitgeist. You can't wait for anyone to do it for you. And read in bars, coffee shops, colleges, universities, and libraries. Learn how to engage the audience.
Q: Where are Red Hen's books promoted, sold and reviewed? What venues and publicity strategies have you found most helpful?
A: The University of Chicago Press is our distributor. They get our books to all the chains and bookstores and to the online distributors such as Amazon. They also send books out for review. The author doing readings helps a lot. And radio.
Q: How long do your titles stay in print, and how many copies do they sell, on average?
A: We keep most of our titles in print and usually the first 1,000 sell in a year or two and then the author sells 15-20/year...
Q: Who screens the entries, and what criteria are they given? For instance, do you use a "point system" or is the evaluation more free-form?
A: I personally do all the screening. I get it down to 50 first and then painfully and slowly, down to 10-15. No points, free-form.
Q: How many entries do you receive, on average, and how many are forwarded to the final judges?
A: We receive about 600 for the Benjamin Saltman and 10-15 go to the final judge. We receive about 1,000 submissions for each of the other contests.
Q: Some literary publishers automatically consider an author's subsequent book for publication once she has won their contest, whereas others insist that she go back into the general contest submission pool for each manuscript. What is your policy?
A: Once you are an RHP author, we will consider your next book. I will read it. Period.
Q: How has your experience as a prizewinning author given you a different perspective on running your own contests, and vice versa?
A: I am very careful to be fair, to read blindly and to make sure my judges do the same.
Q: What factors make the difference between a collection of good poems/stories and a coherent, prizewinning manuscript? Any advice for entrants with respect to selecting and arranging their work into the best possible book? Please share any helpful insights from how you compiled and revised your own published books, as well as what you've learned at Red Hen.
A: Good writing. Don't put any bad poems in there. Put your best stuff out for awards. Editing my books is hard. I do a big spread and start sorting and resorting while listening to Lauridsen. Eventually the rhythm and language of the whole piece finds me and the manuscript is ready.
Q: What authors do you and the other Red Hen Press editors especially admire, and why?
A: We love C.D. Wright, Li-Young Lee, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, Paul Bowles and Jane Bowles, Muriel Rukeyser, Toni Morrison, T.C. Boyle, John Okada, Kafka, Jean Rhys. Because they are uncovering the dark underneath space in stories. If you can quiet...If you live long enough in your own head that you can feel the fist we all make against creation uncoiling and your own strange self emerging on paper. That's the writing we want to read and that's what we want to write.