I Like __ A Lot
I Like Caketrain a Lot and interviewed them about it
When I say Caketrain never ceases to amaze me, what I mean is that Amanda Raczkowski and Joseph Reed are always amazing me. Even when I’m not doing anything but trying to fall asleep, even when I’m doing tons of stuff like negotiating printer maintenance costs for the Stamford office, I marvel: how do they do everything they do so well? The things they publish in the journal are continually new, smartly readable, and surprising. Their books are fun to hold. Their design is consistently impeccable. And they’re making it happen so affordably that anyone can buy and read them. What a great way to save literature, to not overcharge for it.
So one day, when I couldn’t take my publisher’s envy anymore, I sent them a few questions that first rattled to mind. They responded generously, taking my trivialties and forming from them genuinely interesting subjects. And even better than that, they included pictures and captions and links that fit seemlessly into the HTML Giant archives. Read the interview below the fold.
Q: How is it that you came to start Caketrain?
Amanda: My last semester at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, I went to AWP (in Baltimore that year) with Donna Weaver, a former Caketrain editor. It was our first time going to AWP and we were amazed. How couldn’t you be? All these people together who were writing and publishing—it was exhilarating. We went to readings, panels, book signings, talked to editors, talked to graduate students and managed to buy so many books that we were thankful we drove to Baltimore instead of having to take our spoils onto a plane. During the drive home we talked about starting our own literary journal. We all were fortunate to go to UPG; Richard Blevins, Judith Vollmer, and Steve Murabito were some of the most encouraging instructors that anyone could have. After graduation and spending a few months in typical, dead-end summer jobs, we became more serious about starting a journal.
Joseph: My interest in working on a literary journal started in 2001, when I encountered the fourth issue of 3rd bed at the University of Pittsburgh bookstore. I remember getting only as far as Jason Nelson’s “Diseases of the Horse” and already, the radical things that Standley &c. were positioning, so unassumingly, in the context and tradition of the literary journal were just so jarring and new and refreshing to me. Without ever having to make the case for experimentation, surrealism, etc., the work was utterly daring in a plain-faced, unadorned way—just clean type with room to breathe and let the words speak for themselves. I learned that the ways in which a piece of creative writing could be made of sentences and juxtapositions of words were far more myriad than I had previously imagined. And I realized that even after school ended, and I wasn’t entwined in the day-to-day efforts of workshops and lit courses and the like, I wanted to be connected to efforts like these—as a reader, supporter, maybe a writer, whatever—for a long time to come. So when Amanda and Donna—both classmates, workshop partners, and close friends of mine—asked me to work with them on their fledgling Caketrain project, I of course agreed. I started as the layout designer and gradually assumed more of an editing role, and in 2006, when Donna moved on from the project to pursue a career in journalism and nonfiction writing, Amanda and I assumed the reins as co-editors. And in 2008, Amanda and I were married. And so here we are.
Q: Is there a cool literary scene there in Pittsburgh? Do you know Karen Lillis? She lives there and she seemed pretty cool when I met her at a reading here in Baltimore.
Amanda: I know that there is a literary scene in Pittsburgh and from what I can tell it appears to be thriving so I feel bad for saying this, but we don’t really participate. We’re homebodies.
Joseph: Yeah, we completely support everything that’s going on from the privacy of our own home. But really, there is always great stuff going on here. From the start, when we knew no one and nothing, we found the able, immediate, open-armed support of an amazing peer network in the community; I’ll always be thankful for that. Earlier this year, we spoke on a panel with the editors from Autumn House, The New Yinzer, and Weave, and we couldn’t have asked for more forward-thinking, personable, uplifting company. And a few months back we had to decide whether to see Michael Kimball read at one nearby venue or Christine Schutt at another, and I thought, “Wow, things have really come a long way.”
Amanda: That was a difficult decision, but ultimately we went with Schutt because she was reading at UPG and we like to go back every once and a while to visit.
Joseph: …and she was introduced by Gary Lutz, which kind of clinched it. We both had the pleasure of studying under Lutz in an undergraduate business composition class. This was around the same time I discovered Stories in the Worst Way, and making the connection that this amazing fiction writer and my composition professor were one in the same was mind-blowing. I haven’t met Karen Lillis yet as far as I know, but I understand that I should in due time. She’s been involved in some very worthy literary initiatives in the city.
Amanda: I take back saying we don’t participate. We go to most of Chatham University’s readings (where I earned my MFA) and we used to go to 412, a local literary festival, and if anyone asks if we want to participate in a festival (having a table, being on a panel, etc.), we’ll do it. As long as we aren’t involved in planning.
Q: How do you sell a 250+ page journal for only $8? Do you get a lot of grants?
Joseph: We basically are barely making it by financially all of the time, but we’re okay, for now at least, and it’s my intention to hold the price steady until it becomes financially impossible. “Stuff” is expensive, and we’re a bit stubbornly committed to physically-packaged stuff in a post-packaging era—there are, after all, plenty of good, free, electronic journals out there to choose from, not to mention people like you, Adam, who shift gracefully between multiple media—but we like bound printed matter, and for now, so do a few hundred other people. The least we can do is charge a fair price. This brings its own set of issues to bear: we can’t work with too many bookstores because most of their commission rates, which would be perfectly reasonable for a $12 book, would cause us to lose money on every copy. We don’t bother with ISBNs for the same reasons. And I don’t dispute the need for things like commission rates and ISBNs, but I also don’t see the use in having our readers subsidize those things. Maybe someday we’ll be big enough to need and afford things like these, but right now everything seems okay and you get our stuff at a really reasonable price. I’m quite proud of that.
Amanda: I guess we never thought about having a journal as a source of income; it has always been about keeping the project alive and being part of the literary community. And independent–we don’t ask for grants or any other type of outside funding.
Q: Where do you get these cool mailing envelopes?
Amanda: Joe found them.
Joe: Greying Ghost sent Brian Foley’s book to me in one of those, and I immediately had to seek them out. I just got a good feeling about getting one of those in the mailbox. It really looked like care had been taken, before I even took the thing out of the envelope. They’re called Kraft Rigid Mailers, and they’re reasonably affordable, and you’ve further affirmed for me that they’re worth it, I think. And the stamp with the Caketrain logo came from Impress—very inexpensive from friendly people in Seattle.
Amanda: The nice handwriting on the envelopes is mine; the addresses that look like Metallica’s logo were written by Joe. We’re not big fans of mailing labels.
Joe: I don’t know why I do that—I get a Sharpie in my hands and suddenly I’m 13 years old. Writing other people’s names and addresses is fun. This one time I ordered some records from P.W. Elverum & Sun and my name and address were recognizably written by Phil Elverum on the envelope. That was neat. Also, once one of our contributors got his comp copy in the mail, and someone in the postal system had opened the cool envelope and replaced his copy of Caketrain with a copy of NADA: Motorcycle / Snowmobile / ATV / Personal Watercraft Appraisal Guide, January through April 2009. Having that story to tell was more than worth the trouble of resending.
Q: How many submissions do you get? What percentage of your rejections are personal?
Joseph: We get 250–300 submissions a month. We only release one issue a year, and we publish about 50 submissions, in whole or in part, so that’s about a 1–1.5% acceptance rate. I was just going to say that our Duotrope profile is accurate in this regard, as it was the last time I looked, but they have us at 0% as I’m writing this, so that’s obviously not right. We only send personal rejections now if we see a real potential for revision and resubmission of same, or if we think seeing something else from the same writer might do the trick. If the author is in high school or notes in their cover letter that they are otherwise unpublished, we try to be especially encouraging. It’s hard to run an effective business when your operations necessitate having to say “no” to your likeliest potential customers thousands of times all year round; because we can’t respond to everyone in specific, we try to offer the kindest and most encouraging and least dismissive responses we can.
Amanda: When Caketrain started, I signed every rejection we sent out. Now that it is only two of us and the amount of submissions has so greatly increased since 2003, I had to stop doing that.
Q: What are you most proud of with Caketrain?
Joseph: I live together with my wife in an apartment with a little office space where we select and present and distribute some of the best creative writing I’ve ever read to people all over the world. Every year, one of my favorite books of all time manifests itself from bits and pieces of things that show up in our mail and by the end of the year it’s a real book that I can keep on my shelf and go back to any time I want that feeling again. That’s an incredibly privileged existence, and the readers and writers who make it possible mean the world to me.
Amanda: That’s sweet! I think the fact that we started this journal when we were in our early 20s and have been able to keep it going is impressive. I’m surprised I was able to do anything in my 20s. I know six years may not seem like a long time, but six journals and five single-author titles produced by an outfit that at most was three people is admirable.
Q: Are you, uh, would you say you are prouder of your accomplishments as writers or as publishers?
Amanda: I have a MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. About six months after graduation I stopped writing; Caketrain requires a lot of work and my own personal writing has been put on pause. I’ve had a few pieces published and I give copies of the journals to my parents. I find it harder to submit now that I have worked as an editor for so long; I get really paranoid about my cover letter and then it takes me a month to send an electronic submission.
Joseph: I used to write before I became an editor, but I don’t anymore. Not only does the journal take the majority of my free time—basically evenings and weekends, as my days are occupied in the development office of a much larger nonprofit—but also, seeing as much of what our peers are working on in a given year as we do, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to add to that discussion. I can’t imagine myself producing anything that satisfies me the way a new issue of Caketrain does. I can’t imagine measuring up, by my own standards, to the work I’m putting out there. So I don’t write, and I feel okay about that.
Amanda: I work for a guru. When I get frustrated at my job I think about getting Caketrain to the financial point where I could be paid a salary. Or I think about becoming a stand-up comedienne.
Q: Is running a literary journal a literary endeavor? I mean, like, what percentage of what you do on Caketrain is just plain work?
Joseph: I can’t say that I savor an evening spent sending rejection letters, and we have to get up early on Saturdays to check our PO Box when we would rather be sleeping in, and I know Amanda does all sorts of running during the week to ship orders during her limited breaks at work, but all in all, yes, it’s a literary endeavor, and when it’s not, it’s still the work of a literary endeavor. The efforts are well worth the independence that comes with producing a product to our own standards, bringing into being the thing we want to see on our bookshelf.
Amanda: I’m fine with waking up early on Saturday. Don’t let Joe fool you. He wants to sleep all day.