Sarah Marcus: You’ve said that you left Soft Skull Press and began your own press, Bloof Books, so that you could focus on poetry. Can you tell us about the history of the press? What kind of poetry do you publish, and as an editor, what do you look for in a manuscript or collection of poems? Many of the beautiful chapbooks you publish are handmade. Can you please tell us about this process?
Shanna Compton: The press happened sort of quickly, but it was actually something I’d been thinking about for a while. Working with everyone at Soft Skull was amazing, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but the press was changing (and changing hands) and I also needed to move on for personal reasons.
Danielle Pafunda and Jennifer L. Knox both had second books ready (we’d published their first ones), and I also had a second book ready but the press that had published my first one had folded. Suddenly these books had nowhere to go, and I felt frustrated about the delay this was going to mean. Then I realized I knew everything I needed to know to go ahead and make them happen. We reissued Knox’s A Gringo Like Me and called the Soft Skull edition out of print, then did Drunk by Noon. Danielle’s Soft Skull debut Pretty Young Thing was still in stock with them, so we left it intact there and did My Zorba via Bloof, and my own For Girls & Others. I’m grateful that they trusted me enough to go along for the experiment. It helped that by that point we all knew each other well. So that’s our origin myth.
The chapbook series is relatively new, the first six being issued in 2013. But the handmades are actually a return to what I was doing prior to (and during) my time at Soft Skull with my tiny DIY press, Half Empty Half Full. I took a break from making chapbooks and broadsides but wanted to get back to doing those. I find them very fulfilling to work on, both editorially and physically. They’re really special to me, and I hope to the authors. All twelve so far (including the two coming this fall) have been selected in our annual Open Reading Period and are by poets we hadn’t published before, and who in a few cases haven’t had other chapbooks or books yet. I try to find a design, in collaboration with the author, that uniquely fits each one, so they’re all different shapes and materials.
People really seem to like them, and subscribe to the whole series, or snap them up individually (editions are limited to 100), so we’ve started putting them online as free PDFs and Issuu flip books after the run has sold out. I’d love to start turning the digital versions into something more like apps for mobile and web, but we’re not quite there yet. (We need a whole website redesign and I’m working on that, as well as our fall books right now.) We’re also going to release combined print annuals of the chaps, because people have asked about those, to see how they do. They’d be easier for libraries and teaching, for one thing. We treat the series like a magazine, except each issue is a single author, so we recently got an ISSN.
SM: You have a critical hand in many feminist publications and listservs. Tell us about Delirious Hem and the Pussipo listserv. How did you get involved with these projects and what role do these projects have in our feminist and literary community?
SC: Pussipo’s not a secret group, though it is private. (Any member can invite new members.) I’m one of several moderators there. It was started in 2006 by Anne Boyer. Danielle (Pafunda again) and I coordinate the features at Delirious Hem, the group’s blog/magazine, but that’s really a group project too—any member can propose and edit a feature, and they’re irregularly published, as things pop up. At the time the group was started, though I won’t speak for Anne, I think it was a response to a general frustration about the way certain poetry conversations were happening online. I think many women were frustrated to be shouted down in comment boxes, alternately skeeved, shushed, and hated on, and there was clearly a difference being a woman in the poetry blogosphere (it was mostly blogs then) vs. a man (not to mention being a poet with a disability, a poet of color, or LGBT). I was a bit naive, I guess, to have assumed our poetry communities (and all the ways they overlap and clash) would be naturally better at this than other social spheres. But who knew, people often behaved even worse online than in person. So the group was a place to discuss and connect on the internet, but less publicly than on our blogs, partially shielded from that. Delirious Hem came out of a question: Why aren’t there any women poets doing what, for example, Ron Silliman was doing then? Well, we learned why not.
Things have gotten better (or at least we’re no longer as shocked and can respond better), but the group is still there for us if we need it. It’s often very quiet for a long time and then gets busy again. And other groups and forums, like VIDA, are doing a lot of this work now too, making Pussipo less essential than it once was. I’m nostalgic for the MAIL YOUR PUSSI TO THE [MAGAZINE TITLE] sort of interventions though. Recently when another secret group for women writers was started on Facebook (it’s still technically secret but probably everyone’s read about it anyway), I opened Pussipo again to see if people still found it useful. As long as women are subject to various aggressions simply for speaking or existing, we need spaces where we can talk without being interrupted or dismissed or catcalled. So even when the groups go quiet for a while, they’re there as opportunities, as break-glass-in-case-of-fire options. It’d be terrific to feel so assured we no longer need these spaces that we could shut them down. Not yet.
SM: You are the author of poetry collections Brink, For Girls & Others, and Down Spooky, and several chapbooks. How exciting that Brink was recently reviewed by Stephen Burt in the Yale Review! What are you working on now, and how does feminism (explicitly or inexplicitly) factor into your writing?
SC: Oh, thanks. I’m really grateful for that review, and for all the reviews and readers my books have received. It’s always a bit awkward for me because I am in the position of promoting myself even more directly than most poets (since I’m an author in the Bloof collective as well as the publisher). But that’s a feminist move on my part too, and I don’t dwell on what’s “appropriate” anymore—I just keep doing.
As for how my feminism (and I’ve been reminded a few times this week about how our feminisms are not all the same!) factors into my writing, I naively thought, at first, it didn’t. I’m laughing at myself. Of course it does! It’s easy to spot in all the books, and most explicitly in For Girls & Others which was written as (spurious, stupid, ridiculous) advice to women on how to dress behave live look speak walk mother BE, based on centuries of advice from all corners: etiquette manuals, sermons, folktales, women’s mags, the internet. The world may never stop telling us how to Be Women (or even the Correct Kind of Feminist) so in that book I figured we might as well laugh, as we go on ahead being ourselves.
At one point early on I worried about being categorized as a “feminist poet” and even denied being one on my blog. But that was never true. By my denial I just meant “ugh, please don’t tell me how to do this too, along with everything else,” and I figured the label would be a handy way to dismiss my work. Probably true. The next book (in progress for five years and counting) is a speculative long poem, my take on the feminine epic in Notley’s sense.
SM: What question would you like to be asked?
SC: Have you had too much coffee? Yes. And after this and a panel this morning, I’ve been talking poetry all day. I think I’m done. Thanks, Sarah.
Shanna Compton is the author of the poetry collections Brink, For Girls & Others, Down Spooky, and several chapbooks. The Hazard Cycle, a book-length speculative poem, is forthcoming from Bloof Books. She is also the editor of a collection of essays on the topic of video games, Gamers.