Talking Poetry and Small Press Publishing Models with Rachel Mennies

Throughout our 50th anniversary year, we will be reflecting on our various publishing endeavors here at Texas Tech University Press. We’ll celebrate the past, certainlybut we’re also hoping to reflect on our next 50 years and to talk about initiatives that will begin soon. 

The Walt McDonald FirstBook Prize in Poetry is unique in the world of publishing. We do not have open submissions for it. Instead, we read through dozens of contemporary poetry journals and look for poems from up-and-comers that really excite us. If the poet has not previously published a book-length manuscript, we invite them to submit their manuscript to us at no cost. While it requires more legwork for our editors, our process presents fewer barriers to young poets. More and more often in this literary marketplace, poets are being asked to subsidize their own work (to say nothing of MFA programs that provide inadequate funding). We hope that this model helps launch the careers of a collection of poets who bring all kinds of voice and experience to contemporary literature.  

There is a lot of “we” in that paragraph, but–truthfully–it’s series editor Rachel Mennies (@rmennies) who shoulders the brunt of this work. Rachel is the one tasked with scouting out poets and helping to shepherd them through the publishing process. TTUP’s acquisitions editor, Travis, had a chat with her about the series and its purpose. 

Rachel, first, congrats on your new book (The Naomi Letters–preorder here from BOA)! Do you use your work as the series editor for the Walt McDonald Prize as a way to procrastinate writing? Or do you use your writing to procrastinate your work as a series editor? Also, what’s it like working on both sides as a publisher and a writer?  

The series editor work marks the calendar for me in two big rushes, surrounded by quiet (in terms of the editorial work). The first big rush is when I’m reading to solicit poets, so that’s usually when I end up ensconced in a fort of literary magazines from the previous year, reading to find the poets who’ve yet to publish a first book. I love that process, as I begin usually with close to nothing, or else just a few dog-eared pages and internet bookmarks of poems I’d previously stumbled upon in more casual reading. To emerge from that process with a list of poets I can’t wait to read more from is invigorating, primarily as an editor but also, for sure, as a writer. I love seeing what other editors have loved. It’s a powerful conversation to get to participate in. 

more equitable ways of acquiring manuscripts will unquestionably lead to a broadening of the voices that shape the poetic landscape in the future

The second big rush, which I’ll talk about more below, comes from reading the submitted manuscripts and selecting a winner. That feels like an unfolding: to see where else a poet might take me beyond the work I’d read from them in literary magazines. I find both of these rushes to be informative and inspiring in my own work. To be completely honest, these past ten or so months (from March 2020 onward) have been some of my least active writing months ever, in my whole life, both because of some ongoing mental health issues and just…the broader state of the universe, gestures wildly at everything, etc. I’d also, as you mentioned (huzzah!) been doing a lot of finalizing / writing and editing for The Naomi Letters over that time period, which is beautiful and fulfilling work in its own way, but more of a finishing than a beginning, in terms of a creative process.  

This is an awful question, but I wonder if you can attempt to describe how you choose the winner from the group of finalists. It is an intangible something that grabs you? Is it about locating a particular voice you think best fits into the series? Are you looking to expand the breadth of the series with every winner or to grow a particular stylistic canon?  

Not an awful question–I love it. For me, the winner usually emerges when I realize that what I’m holding is a portal to a new world: a complete book with a specific and coherent vision, as opposed to just a set of poems (which sometimes eliminates manuscripts from the list, for me), but also one that has taken me somewhere I couldn’t previously have accessed before reading the book. A new way of seeing. If I wake up thinking about it the next day, again the day after–that tells me something important. If I want to tell other people about it, to have them read it so I can discuss the book with them–that matters, too.  

I would definitely not say that I am looking to grow a particular stylistic approach or canon with the series, and I think taking a look across the three winners that I’ve been able to select thus far (Cassie Pruyn’s Lena, Claire Sylvester Smith’s Prospect, and C. R. Grimmer’s The Lyme Letters) reveals very few similarities in terms of poetic subject, approach, and/or voice. But they all flipped a switch in my mind when I read the collections for the first time, leaving me in a world made different than the one I inhabited prior to opening their manuscripts. The common thread is the singularity of their voices. 

This is an even worse question. I want to hear your state of the union on the “poetry industry.” Poetry can be really clubby. I’m imagining a 2,000word Ben Lerner prose poem in the New York Review of Books or the mindnumbing opacity of the some of the language poets. The audience for poetry is often people inside the MFA bubble. But, of course, poetry is also very public. We just watched Amanda Gorman’s wonderful reading at the inauguration, and we had a longstanding tradition of newspaper poets in the US of A. How do we as publishers navigate an insular world and try to bring it a readership that’s often intimidated?  

I often think the insular feeling of poetry depends on where you’re standing. I felt it most acutely in the years during and immediately after my MFA, as a younger and largely unpublished poet, when I’d internalized a lot of the publish-or-perish mentality that came from being in a program deeply concerned with The Job Market, albeit peripherally (we were attached to a PhD program, and all lumped in together as terminal degree holders). I graduated at 25 feeling intense pressure to convert my thesis into a publishable book and to grab the next ring, and the next, and keep on teaching, and get a tenure-track job–and some of that happened, and some of it didn’t. When I left academia after adjuncting for almost a decade in 2019, a lot of that insularity evaporated–but of course some of it remained, too. I’ve grown less and less interested in edifying that insularity in my own life, though.  

So the question then becomes how do small presses remove fees and stay solvent?

You mentioned in particular the size of poetry’s audience, and from where I sit now, with seven years having passed between the publication of my first and second book, a failed (artistically and publication-wise) book manuscript sitting in the middle of those years, I am more convinced than ever that the issue arising here is one of description. We’re not a single audience of poets. I know we’re often construed that way since our readership is far smaller, and more self-comprised, than for other more broadly read genres. Nevertheless, we poets all write for different audiences, and we reach different audiences with our work, and that is only good to me, a completely pure positive. My mom likes to ask me for poetry books to read, and she’s not a poet–but she reads more poetry than ever, especially now that she, like so many of us, is spending more time than ever at home, trying to make sense of a terrible world. I’ve recommended to her poets whose subjects I think she would recognize herself in, and I love talking with her about them. And since you mentioned Amanda Gorman–I know poetry’s reach is broader, and more complex, than just the NYRB and MFA orbits, on days like Inauguration Day, when my phone lit up for a full hour with non-poets and poets alike sharing with me how much they loved her work, either because they knew I’d want to talk about it with them as a fellow poet or because I am the only working poet they knew personally.  

For publishers, I think the task at hand is to shake off the assumption that poetry is a closed circle–to do whatever is possible within the constraints of cost and scale to reach as many readers as possible, and not to make any unprovable guesses about who those readers are and what they might reach for on their bookshelves. 

You’ve written before on pay-to-play publishing. Most journals these days, it seems, are charging reading fees if aspiring writers want to have their work considered. Besides shutting out writers who can’t afford to pay to have their work considered, this model of new literature subsidizing itself has unfortunate implications. The readership gets smaller, and the writing gets narrower. Concurrently, the broader publishing industry is now kind of reliant on celebrity and political memoirs to shore up its quarterly numbers. Can you talk a little bit about how models like the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize can help? And can you talk about how we can improve on what we’re doing and how small presses can positively contribute to and alter this ecosystem? 

I have, as you could probably guess, a LOT of thoughts on this! Since you linked to the essay about submission fees, I’ll offer first that the article covers the majority of those thoughts: the TL;DR takeaway for me is that there is no way to have true equity and access in a model that charges so much money for poets to publish their own books, period, and especially at the outset, on the first book. On the flip side, as you mention, small presses much more rarely have the budgets to sustain books that don’t make them enough money to cover the cost of their production, unlike larger indies and the Big Five publishers, who can put out a few books that make a ton of money to paste over other holes in their budgets. So the question then becomes how do small presses remove fees and stay solvent? I get into some solutions in the article, but an obvious one is to find alternate ways for presses to acquire books that both don’t rely on the pay-to-play contest model and also don’t rely on nepotistic channels, which perpetuate similar inequalities.  

they all flipped a switch in my mind when I read the collections for the first time, leaving me in a world made different than the one I inhabited prior to opening their manuscripts

The Walt McDonald Prize serves as one possible model for this alternate way forward: by appointing a series editor who solicits manuscripts in a mode with firm anti-nepotistic guidelines in place and specifically in search of a poet who’s not yet published a first book, this helps to combat the possibility of conflicts of interest while focusing solely on emerging poets. The prize also doesn’t charge a fee for solicited poets to put their manuscripts forward, which is deeply important to me as the series editor. However, one downside to this is the limits of any one person’s labor: I couldn’t read 200 manuscripts myself, for example, so I can’t solicit anywhere near as many poets as might submit to the big, fee-charging first-book contests, which often get well over a thousand submissions each year. This means that fewer poets get the chance to have their books considered without a fee in this particular prize’s model–but maybe if we had more prizes like it, that could shift. 

Until we find a way, more broadly, to publish books in less scarcity (more public federal and state funding for the arts, please!!! also a more robust social safety net for us all!!!), I suspect we will always be negotiating these economic limitations. But I do believe that finding ways to transition away from the contest model and towards other, more equitable ways of acquiring manuscripts will unquestionably lead to a broadening of the voices that shape the poetic landscape in the future, which also gets at your previous question about who poetry is “for,” and how big the poetic ecosystem could be if everyone could access it equally. I will say, though–and this is not a small-press problem per se but one that undergirds scarcity more broadly–one great way to reduce the burden of submission fees on poets would be a single-payer healthcare system, or student loan forgiveness, or a livable minimum wage, or expanding city and state budgets for arts and cultural programming–all this to ensure that the books we all love get written under economically just circumstances in the first place.