Interview: Amber Nelson (alice blue books)

Quinn Gancedo: The first thing I’m curious about is the story of alice blue. How and why did you start the press, and what are some difficulties you’ve run into along the way? Did the press form more or less organically or did you set out with a pretty clear vision of what you wanted it to be? Who else is involved?

Amber Nelson: The first thing to keep in mind is that the press didn’t start as a press, but an online journal which is just getting ready to celebrate its 10th anniversary. I was living in Seattle with Will Gallien and Sarah then Burgess now Gallien. We’d all met in a writing class at The Evergreen State College. None of us were planning. At the time we felt that there just weren’t enough venues publishing the kind of work we found interesting, so we made one. Our intention was always to expand to a print venue, but life kept intervening — grad school, houses, families, etc. etc. You know, life? I was in grad school, had gone to my first AWP and was blown away by some of the handmade chapbooks. I found myself spending all of my money on letter press and art books. When I got back home I decided it was time one way or another. My co-editors just weren’t able so I went ahead without them. But I still wanted it to be connected. I conceived of a publication where we stayed dedicated to our people — where I published books from people I was particularly moved by in the journal. I solicited about 15 chapbooks and then picked two: Lucas Farrell’s THE BLUE-COLLAR SUN, and C. McAllister Williams’ WILLIAM SHATNER. I knew I wanted these books to be beautiful the way books I saw in the book fair were beautiful. I knew I also wanted to do an even more limited edition art book. I teamed up with two people I knew who did paper arts and book making. I had an idea for the first book — for the art book for Farrell I wanted this construction vibe, a book made of wood. I knew for the chapbooks I wanted high quality paper — my love of paper is never ending. Naomi Tarle made the cover paper for those two books, and letterpressed the cover for Blue Collar Sun. I hand carved a linoleum stamp for William Shatner. And so our aesthetic was born. I still work with Naomi Tarle for handmade paper on occasion, and I’ve worked with a person here and there as I’ve gone on. But by and large, it’s just me and a bottle of wine or beer slaving away in my apartment, my cat stepping all over everything.

Quinn: How would you say the Pacific Northwest has influenced alice blue? Obviously you can point to the Shotgun Wedding series, but I’m wondering if that influence runs deeper. Is there anything like a Pacific Northwest sensibility? I’m particularly curious about his one because I used to live in Olympia and miss the area quite a bit.

Amber: In some ways, at least with the journal, I think we were rebelling against what could have been defined as a Pacific Northwest sensibility–by which I mean certain kinds of narrative  nature poetry. As a writer, the PNW has obviously influenced me just because I’m such an outdoorsy kind of person. But the people we publish outside of the Shotgun Wedding series aren’t from the PNW at all, and I wouldn’t say that there is an overlying aesthetic in those poems. Each book is wildly divergent from the next. Long narrative poem excerpts, tongue in cheek odes to William Shatner, fake librettos written in fake German. If there is a wider influence in these choices, I’m not consciously aware of it. But I do believe things to be connected so it’s also perfectly possible. I wonder if you see something? (PS OLY RULES)

With Shotgun Wedding, it was more about getting the word about writers living in PNW. I think, often, we’re closed off from the wider community–hard to get to. And I met all these writers over here that were so great that nobody knew about, people doing all sorts of weird and interesting things of all types. I wanted people to know about all of this super cool vibrant shit happening over here.

Quinn: What is behind the decision to sell books on Etsy? Is it an effective method of distribution? Do you have any other ways of distributing alice blue books?

Amber: Oh gosh it’s because I’m lazy. Really it is. I have no web skills. My online journal web designer, Sarah, used to have a site linked directly from the online journal to PayPal and she designed a whole thing, but it got to be too much for her on top of her life. I really just needed something quick and easy to manage for a Luddite like me.

Otherwise, I distribute at book fairs and readings and through the authors themselves. At least in terms of Shotgun Wedding, I think the books move the furthest and most through them.

Quinn: What is the relationship between the alice blue review and the chapbooks? Do you value one side of the press over the other? Have you thought about doing a print edition of the journal? Also, I’m wondering if you think there is something about the alice blue review that sets it apart from all of the other journals out there.

Amber: No, I don’t really value one side more. They’re just entirely different animals from each other. When we first started, we had discussed making a print edition of the journal, but honestly as time has gone on, print journals seem more and more obsolete. And frankly, I don’t mind. The ease of the online journal, the ready access to so much reading material in that way, to discover new writers. It’s kind of a thing of beauty. Sure the market seems kind of flooded right now (sorry not sorry), but there really is something for everyone.

As for something that sets alice blue apart I’m not sure. If you’d asked me 5 years ago I’d say yes, now I don’t know. We seem to be publishing a lot of the same people that other people are publishing, or maybe they’re all publishing the same things we are. I can say that long before the VIDA count we were making an active effort to publish women in equal numbers as men, that we’ve managed to publish a fair number of persons of color, LGBTQ folk, and often without realizing it because really…how do you know? We have three editors with three different aesthetics which, I think, is often balancing for us but we also make allowances for each other to fight for something that might be risky. We’ve published young people–I think we published a high school kid once, and we were first publications for a few people. While I always feel like we aren’t high on people’s radar, I’ve heard from others that we are the kind of journal spoke of in “hushed tones” — their words, not mine.

But whether that sets us apart? Now, 10 years later, it’s possible that we are just one of the early ones, one of the longer lasting ones, and now we are just one of. I’m not sure, and I’m not sure how others see it.

Quinn: How do you make this all work financially? Does the press sustain itself? In general, how much time do you spend working on alice blue stuff? Finally, and if you don’t mind me asking, what is your day job?

Amber: So financially, I put all the money up front. And now, by and large though not completely, it sustains itself. Or that was true before I published the first full-length and sapped all of our resources. But, generally, what I make from chapbooks I use to print more chapbooks, which I sell to make more chapbooks. I’ve also benefited from the great gift economy–Naomi has offered a lot of her services free of charge. I try to pay for as much of the materials and shipping as possible.

As for a day job, I work in non-profits in donor relations.

Quinn: I appreciate that the alice blue website has a page with links to other sites. Can you point to any other journals/presses in particular that you think are doing it right? How important is this kind of affinity/community building?

Amber: Ha. I kind of forgot we still had that. This was just how it was done when we started. I don’t even know if it’s been updated in the last 4 years. But you started a journal and you set up a list of journals you liked and linked to them, and you asked other journals you liked to link to you and it became, again, this kind of gift economy. In poetry, you do things for each other, you give to each other. You give your time and resources and energy and receive in turn. It could just be the illusion of the internet but the whole community just seems bigger, and that “linking to other journals” thing seems to have been replaced by Facebook sharing and retweets. Either way, that community building is essential. We built our first issue from solicitation, but we built our reputation on the word of mouth of the people we reached out to, and that moved outward exponentially. In truth, as “marketing manager” I have done very little marketing. We just counted on creating a quality product and people wanting to be a part of it. And that’s worked out so far.

In terms of other journals doing it right, these are the ones I read every whole issue: h-ngm-n, Coconut, Typo. Journals I think are most excellent that are newer: The Volta, The Bakery (seriously check out their special issues and guest edited issues), The Economy (for their singular focus in each issue–they aren’t trying to do it all). I think Eleven Eleven and Columbia Poetry Review are both exceptional college run print journals. I’m sure there are others that aren’t coming to me, and I’ll think on that and see if I can’t bring you more names.

Quinn: Something that struck me about your story is that your first run of chapbooks was built entirely through solicitation. It sounds like you solicited based on work you liked in the online journal, but I’m curious how those people got published in your journal in the first place. Did you solicit pieces when you first started the online journal? If so, who did you solicit from? Friends? Writers you admired?

Amber: Most all of the work we publish in the journal is unsolicited. Occasionally I see someone read and I suggest that they submit. I have reached out to folks who I thought were great by email. But by and large, it’s all unsolicited. Maybe like 1 percent solicited… I haven’t done that math.

Quinn: What is your volume of submissions like for each issue? Has it grown throughout the years?

Amber: The number of submissions has grown throughout the years. It’s never become overwhelming or unmanageable, even without help, but it has grown. If it ever became much more than it is now (about 500 poetry submissions per issue), I’d probably need to get some help.

Quinn: I’m always interested in how editors describe what they are looking for. On your submissions page, you say “We’re a confused collective of marble designers who, after discovering a set of encyclopedias, decided to stick our pinkies into the asphalt parking-lot of words. We seek innovative poetry and prose, work that quivers nervously for attention, work that teethes endlessly on doorknobs. We could toss out a grocery list of writers—from Spicer to Borges, or O’Connor to O’Hara—but that would confuse you. The best way to understand our editorial preferences is to read the journal.” This tells me quite a bit already, but I am wondering if you could say a little something more about that quiver or that teething. Is there some quality in a piece of writing that makes you feel you have to publish it? I realize this may be difficult to articulate.

Amber: Ha. Difficult? Perhaps impossible. Ultimately, we wanted to be moved and surprised, and we might not know what that will be. But I think it’s that surprise–where you read it and you’re kind of like… “Damn. HOW DID THEY DO THAT? I have to read it again.” I feel like Aaron Apps is a great example of that–where I just read it and knew I had to have it. And Alyse Knorr’s “Sharp & Shiny” and Joshua Jennifer Espinoza will be coming out in the next issue and I accepted it early just to avoid the possibility it would be accepted elsewhere.

Quinn: Here are a few last logistical questions. First, where do you print? Do you have your own equipment? Do you take your stuff to a printer? Do you surreptitiously print at the office? Also, do you do all of the design work yourself? How much input does the author have? Do you design by hand or on the computer, using InDesign or something like that?

Amber: I actually paid my last job to use their printer. We had a fee that was basically their own cost to use. It was way cheaper than going to a printer to get anything done. But I don’t work there anymore and my new job doesn’t have a machine that can handle it so I’ll be going back to a printer. But that’s just the interiors (and the Shotgun Wedding series which are specifically photo copy books). The books themselves were done in Word–at least the interiors. Because, well, I can kind of fuss around in InDesign but to get what I want I should probably take a class. But who has the time and money? And I can get just about anything I want done in Word. So I just do that to not fuss. Because the covers for the standard chapbooks are handmade, I also do most of those covers by hand. Hand-cutting circles or Giant Ms out of the cover with a x-acto knife. Or hand painting white hearts all over 100 covers. Or hand carving linoleum stamps to do the titles on the covers. Or whatever. I use linen thread for those, beeswax, and have tons of craft and paper stuff at home that I work with.

Quinn: Finally, do you have any big future plans for alice blue?

Amber: Yes! We are celebrating our 10 year anniversary this year and are planning on a special issue. We are soliciting from among the people we’ve published over the last decade to submit to this special issue. I’m also working on a double issue of Shotgun Wedding for October–12 different chapbooks! And after that, we will be closing our doors and taking a much needed human being break. The journal will still exist online in one way or another, and books will continue to be for sale so long as I still have books in stock. But overall we’ll be closing our doors to focus on our own writing, families, and lives.