Coldfront Magazine is pleased to bring you this two part interview with Becca Klaver conducted by Eva Heisler. In part one, Heisler explores Klaver’s relationship with LA and its influence on her book LA Liminal. In part two, Klaver will talk about the work she has done as an editor. Enjoy.
Note: Since this interview was first conducted, I’ve stepped down from my editing role at Switchback, but only to shine a light on women’s poetry by other means: I’m writing a PhD dissertation on experimental women’s poetry, feminism, and the everyday. The project includes research on groundbreaking women poets of the New American Poetry avant-garde groups—Diane di Prima, Sonia Sanchez, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley—and their heirs. —BK
EH: You, along with Brandi Homan and Hanna Andrews, founded Switchback Books when you were all students at Columbia College Chicago. Since 2006, six books have been published, most of which are spirited and sassy, and inventive in form.
Switchback refers to itself as a feminist press. Can you talk about what the term “feminist” means to you as both a poet and editor. I’m not really asking you to define the term; I’m more interested in what you think counts as feminist practice.
BK: We see Switchback as a feminist press because we do the feminist work of publishing, promoting, and generally geeking out about women’s poetry. Our definitions of both “women” and “poetry” are very broad (for example, we accept work by transgendered writers, and we accept verse plays), so this feels less like only publishing a limited slice of contemporary poetry, and more like opening up other categories (women, feminist, poetry). It’s also a matter of publishing what we love to read, and of transparency: when we started Switchback, the contemporary poetry that most excited me, Hanna, and Brandi was work by women, so we knew we had that bias, and we wanted to celebrate it by putting it front and center. So many presses have an aesthetic that’s never defined, and that’s fine — that’s standard. But if you have a preference, and that preference happens to help redress gender imbalances in publishing, like those exposed by VIDA’s The Count, then why not put it right on your “About” page? Switchback has received a lot of encouragement from feminist women and men, and many of our readers are men. But we’re women editing women, and there’s something about that that seems to lead to publishing books people get excited about.
I wouldn’t say the work we publish is explicitly feminist poetry, but I would say that you could read any of our books as feminist work. I’m partially referring to a “second-wave” conception of feminist poetry as confessional, first-person narrative, and often about identity issues or the body. Along with other presses like Fence, Belladonna*, and Bloof, anthologies like Gurlesque (Saturnalia), Not For Mothers Only (Fence), and Feminaissance (Les Figues), and websites like Delirious Hem — not to mention many individual poets! — I think we’re helping to define the next stages of feminist poetics. You could call it “third-wave,” or you could call it a tidal wave: there’s so much amazing writing by women out there right now, we only wish we could publish more of it.
In terms of my own poetics, I see those acts of “letting it all in” — the braininess, the gushiness, etc. — as feminist choices. “What styles and substances have been left out of poetry in the past?” is a question about aesthetics and subject matter, but it’s also a question about writers and speakers. It’s a question for women and other underrepresented groups. Being permissive about excess — putting the too-girly next to the too-heady — feels like my brand of feminist poetics, and it’s often Switchback’s, too.
EH: Can you talk a bit about the process of forming the press; how has the mission of the press evolved? What is the process of finding and selecting manuscripts?
BK: When we all lived in Chicago, Switchback was a lot of wine- and pizza-ful gatherings at apartments, bars, restaurants, and borrowed conference rooms. Now that Brandi’s in Denver, Hanna and I are in Brooklyn, and Whitney, Daniela, Colleen, and most of the rest of the crew are in Chicago, it’s a lot of Skype and conference calls, but we still get together at AWP and elsewhere for some girl-gang adventures. So, beyond feminism and aesthetics, I would say that Switchback has evolved because a bunch of bright-eyed MFA students who saw each other several times a week had to move on to other places and ventures.
These days, our books are mostly selected through the Gatewood Prize, a contest for first- and second-book manuscripts. A bunch of volunteers read the manuscripts, and then the editors select 10 finalists, which we pass along to a judge. Most recently, Harryette Mullen and Brenda Shaughnessy have judged—they chose manuscripts by Cynthia Arrieu-King and Stefania Heim, respectively. A certain judge will often attract a certain type of manuscript. It’s not an overwhelming difference, but a noticeable one. So we try to mix it up, which you could say is one of Switchback’s many mottos. (Our official tagline is “Skirting the status quo.” Another unofficial motto: “Hell, why not?!”)
We’re also trying to think about how to continue to publish work by our previous authors. So far, we’ve been able to do this once, with the spring 2012 publication of Four, a four-chapbook bundle by Mónica de la Torre. Mónica was already an established poet, critic, editor, and translator when we published her first book of poems in English (and Switchback’s first book), Talk Shows, in 2007. The book is close to selling out by now. She helped make us look legit from the start, and we were really excited to get to put out more of her writing, this time in handmade form, a new venture for Switchback.
EH: Has editorial work had an impact on your own creative process?
BK: Absolutely. With Switchback, I’m Mónica’s — or Peggy Munson’s, or Marisa Crawford’s – editor, but I’m also their extremely close reader, so I end up learning a ton from each book. We always hold lengthy editorial email exchanges with our authors about additions and deletions, ordering and structuring. I read each book so many times, from initial edits to final proofreading, that I’m sure something of the poets’ styles and concerns always seeps into my poems mysteriously. I can be susceptible like that, but being influenced by brilliant work that I also get to help deliver to the world makes me double-lucky.
Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and the chapbook Inside a Red Corvette: A 90s Mix Tape (greying ghost press, 2009). A founding editor of the feminist poetry press Switchback Books, she holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago and is currently a PhD student in Literatures in English at Rutgers University. Born and raised in Milwaukee, WI, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Eva Heisler is an art critic and poet who currently lives in Germany. Reading Emily Dickinson in Icelandic, a book of poems, is forthcoming from Kore Press. Drawing Water, a book-length poem on the line, is forthcoming from Noctuary Press.