Introducing Barrelhouse, a poetry press
Has Barrelhouse published books before, aside from the journal?
Last year we published an anthology of pop culture non-fiction called Bring the Noise, which was kind of a greatest hits anthology from the magazine, but it had some new stuff too. That served as a nice transition from working exclusively on the magazine to doing books as well. We wanted to learn how book production would be different from a print mag and work with people we trusted and who trusted us to do a good job.
Barrelhouse has a big crew. Who’s driving the new endeavor? How’d it come about?
Like most things Barrelhouse, it’s a team effort. I’m heading up the poetry list. Non-fiction editor Tom McAlister did most of the work on the anthology. Joe Killiany is currently reading through the fiction manuscripts we received during our open reading period. Dave Housley has been doing a lot on the production end. We’re all in on the design and proofing and getting quotes from printers, etc. If this were a more corporate business, you might say our staff is cross-trained.
Mike Ingram is heading up everything for Lee Klein’s Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, due out March 4th. It’s a collection of rejection letters from Eyeshot magazine. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like it. Lee’s brilliant and his rejections are at turns hilarious, tender, mean, terse, sarcastic, and honest, but at the core they really deliver great advice for writers about writing and publishing. It’s going to be a great book.
After almost 10 years doing the magazine, we arrived at a place financially where we had a little more money and we wanted to reinvest that in a way that we felt would help us grow and continue to promote the good work of the people we publish. So we decided our two priorities would be paying writers and publishing books.
Publishing books is something that we’ve talked about pretty much since the magazine started, but we weren’t all convinced at the same time. We wanted to make sure that we in a good enough place that the magazine wouldn’t suffer and that we wouldn’t run into a situation where we do two books and then have to give it up. That wouldn’t be fair to the writers. Probably about two years ago, we came to a consensus that the time was right and we could sustain this for the long term without sacrificing quality on any front.
Barrelhouse is an ambitious journal. What are the ambitions of the poetry press? How often will you publish? What’s the aesthetic?
I feel a little funny about the word “ambitious.” I had a poetry professor in undergrad who always said a poem was “ambitious” when she really meant it didn’t make any sense. Barrelhouse certainly likes to try out a lot of different things—conferences,podcasts, reading series, T-shirts, what-have-you—but I hope it all hangs together somehow. We basically run everything we try through a decision process to ask if it is stupid enough to be good, or just stupid.
Overall, the aesthetic of the press will match the aesthetic of the magazine. The goal is to publish great stories, poems, and essay that engage with contemporary life. We’re not looking for anything Classical or magic realism or your personal memoir (if you pronounce it mem-mwah). All of those things can be done well, but they’re probably not for us. We’re open to a wide range of forms and formlessness, but I think it’s got to be real in the sense that it moves us and shows us something new about life on Earth in the Twenty First Century. Is that too much to ask?
We’re currently looking at two books per year. We’ll rotate through poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Beyond that, we don’t have a hard and fast schedule.
Will you have the same arrangement with your distributor?
Our distribution deals are separate. The magazine is distributed by Ingram Periodicals and Ubiquity Distribution, which puts us in both independent stores and big chains like Barnes and Noble. The books will be distributed by SPD, which we’re really excited about. They do such great work for the literary community and we’re psyched to have them bringing our books to all the best indie bookstores.
We talked about trying to hook up with a more commercial distributor, but we’ve seen some great small presses go that route only to face big losses and close up shop as a result. In particular when Borders closed and just pulped all those books or charged presses for returns, a lot of people got screwed. Now Barnes and Noble is the only real big box bookstore out there and if they go under and we have a distribution deal through a commercial book distributor, we could be in a really bad position. We don’t think it’s necessary to take that gamble to reach the people who will want to buy these books.
Besides, books like the ones you can expect from Barrelhouse are sold by word of mouth, that story collection that the local bookseller turns you on to, those poems that keep getting shared in your Facebook feed, the essay that your friend at the reading tells you she’s going to send you. SPD is the perfect backbone for that kind of hand selling indie lit infrastructure.
How’d you choose this book by Justin Marks to be the first?
A long time ago, Reb Livingston said in an interview somewhere that for No Tell Motel Books she really only worked with people who she first published in the magazine, because then she knew they weren’t totally crazy or at least she knew what kind of crazy they were and she was okay with that. I always thought that approach was smart because publishing a book isn’t like publishing someone’s poem in a magazine. It’s a long relationship with lots of back and forth and personal investment of time, thought, and emotion.
I reviewed Justin’s first book when it came out in 2009 and I loved it. It immediately struck me as a real human being writing, thinking, working things out through language. I’ve been a huge fan ever since. There are a handful of poets that I wish I could subscribe to, like an RSS feed, and just get everything they write right into my brain. Justin’s probably at the top of that list.
Over the years, we crossed paths a few times and I was publishing some poems of his in Barrelhouse 11 when we issued the call for fiction manuscripts. He asked me if we’d be looking for poetry manuscripts at any point and I told him I’d love to see what he had. We weren’t planning on doing poetry for another year or so, but You’re Going to Miss Me When You’re Bored blew me away. It’s personal and smart and funny and weird and inventive and feels like the kind of collection that people really connect to. I did. I believe it’s an important book.
When is it coming out?
Justin’s book is due out February 18th. It’ll be available at AWP so be sure to stop by the Barrelhouse table and pick one up. Just look for the Spinning Wheel of Destiny and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Preorders are also available now, here.