Interview: Gina Abelkop (Birds of Lace)

Karolyn Heimes: When did you become involved in the small press world?

Gina Abelkop: In spring of 2005 I was taking a feminist poetry class at Antioch College in Ohio, where I was a student, and also preparing to graduate. I wanted to make a chapbook out of my senior thesis and also decided that I’d like to make a literary journal with work from folks in my feminist poetry class, because I found so much of the work strong and moving and wanted it to be available to a wider audience.

KH: What inspired you to start Birds of Lace?

Gina Abelkop: Same answer as above! I should also add that for a few years I’d been ordering books from Persephassa, a DIY press that Roxanne Carter did for many years which published her own work, some literary journal projects and novellas by others. It blew my mind that you could just create your own literary world like that- publish books! I’d made zines as a teenager but hadn’t revisited that idea again until age 22, which is when I started BoL.

KH: Why did you choose to start specifically a feminist press?

Gina Abelkop: It never occurred to me NOT to have the press be feminist. I’m a feminist, that’s how I live my life, that’s the kind of work I wanted to publish. Even if a writer or artist doesn’t identify that way, the questions that feminism engenders- I wanted the work BoL published to reflect that. A questioning and blurring of sex, gender, social and political frameworks, though not always overtly and certainly not always linearly.

KH: As a newer press, less than 10 years old, what kind of obstacles did you face in launching your press?

Gina Abelkop: I approached it as this sort of punk, DIY project, so really the only obstacles, originally, were finding the time to do layout and printing. (Still true. I do all the layout by hand w/paper and scissors b/c I haven’t been able to teach myself InDesign.) I had to figure out how/where to sell the chapbooks, to make them available for purchase, which I originally did on the website and through livejournal, which I participated in at the time. I wish I were a better hustler because I want lots of people to read the work BoL publishes, but honestly the work that sells most (by which I mean is read most, b/c there is no profit here) is that which is promoted/has a lot of involvement from the author. So “marketing,” though that word feels wrong in this realm, remains a problem. If this were a full-time job I could probably make a better go of it but it’s not.

KH: Did it take any funding/financing to start Birds of Lace? If yes, how did you find that funding?

Gina Abelkop: Nope! I print pretty cheaply. I buy cover paper from Mr. French, a family-owned paper mill, and copy the chapbooks at the copy shop. I do all design/layout etc myself. I borrowed money, a relatively small amount, from my family to print The Birdwisher, so far BoL’s only perfect-bound book. I still haven’t paid it all back. Obviously not everyone can borrow money from family to publish books and this was a great privilege that also makes me laugh, because my family are sort of right-wing (but they do support the work that I do with enthusiasm, even when they don’t understand it.) I want to do more perfect-bound, full-length books and more beautiful screenprinted chapbooks next year and will probably use Kickstarter to (hopefully) raise the funds. I basically break even on the chapbooks and that’s it- no profit. I’d say it usually take about $40-50 to print a single chapbook, initially (that’s so I can send contributor copies, buy paper etc) and from there orders pay for themselves.

KH: Has increased use in social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, tumblr etc. affected the outreach of Birds of Lace?

Gina Abelkop: Yes? I’m not super sure, actually. I am on Twitter and Tumblr but not Facebook- I’m trying to be on Facebook but don’t actually have my own Facebook page so it’s a bit silly, a friend has been posting on the BoL Facebook for me. I am deathly scared of having my own Facebook but I need to suck it up because it’s a good way to promote the work to a wide swath of people. I think that when the authors of the chapbooks post about their work on Facebook that helps a lot. I’m decently active on Twitter and Tumblr but I’m not sure that that equals sales/reads. A little bit, I’m sure, but not a ton. Again, it seems that the authors who have built up their own reputation/hustle their own work are the best ways to get the work out there, to get people actually reading. My posting a tweet about something doesn’t seem to convince anyone who’s not already a BoL fan. That is a tricky problem and I’m not sure how to change that. There’s a certain cult-of-personality aspect to being a publisher, I think? And while I’m all over the internet, I am not a “personality” or a well-known writer.

KH: On your website, you accept many forms of submissions, poetry, artwork, videos, poems, stories, essays etc.. 8 years ago when Birds of Lace started did you accept so many types of submissions? If not, how did you grow to accept to many types of work?

Gina Abelkop: All those types of submissions are actually for the online journal portion of BoL, Finery, which used to be a chapbook-style journal but is now just going to be online. I have included CDs, DVDs and photographs in the older issues of Finery and I would LOVE to do multimedia books one day, but as of now that would cost too much. So for chapbooks and books we still just ask for words.

KH: Where do you see your press going in the future? Do you have any new plans or avenues you would like to explore?

Gina Abelkop: I’d like to publish full-length books and “fancier” (ie screenprint or lettpress) chapbooks. I’d like to be able to pay someone to build BoL a really beautiful website. I am going to explore the first of those projects next year, hopefully! Via a Kickstarter campaign. In my dream of dreams, BoL could publish art books with visual components, broadsides (that is actually do-able), films…I would love to have a tiny, self-sufficient empire where BoL published all the artists whose work I love best. I have no idea how I would get to this point other than a mixture of luck and hustle.

KH: How do you select which authors and work to publish?

Gina Abelkop: In the past I’ve always had open reading periods, though I have solicited some authors, having read their work and loved it. That was the case with the first few chapbooks. I’m always looking for work that’s playful, strange, fun/ny, smart in a non-didactic way, complicated, emotionally potent. Next year, however, I will only be soliciting work, because BoL will publish far less titles due to wanting to publish in finer quality.

KH: How do you come up with the concepts for the layout of the books? Is this something that you do solo as a publisher, do you leave it up to the author or do you collaborate together?

Gina Abelkop: If an author has an idea I’m open to it, but I would say most don’t. Some do, and that has turned out great- Anna Joy Springer commissioned Sam Williams to do the illustrations/cover for her novella, and Anna Joy did the layout/design herself. Jeanine Deibel did the cover artwork for her chapbook. JD Scott commissioned a friend to do the artwork for Funerals & Thrones, as did Rohin Guha with his Relief Work. Otherwise, it is just me rolling through my list of Victorian display fonts, trying to find something that fits, and then just playing with ideas. Sometimes a chapbook will have a theme or narrative that lends itself to a certain design, sometimes not. When it’s just me it’s all very basic, paper, scissors, computer fonts, tape. Sometimes I’ve gotten fancy with antique wallpaper, silver thread, Martha Stewart craft products, but I often end up regretting those undertakings because then it takes a long time to create just one chapbook…I mean, I regret it in the moment but it always looks great. This year BoL is publishing 12 chapbooks (insane, never again) so the design/layouts have been very simple and clean.

KH: I watched the video of Anna Joy Springer introduce her book The Birdwisher, she said that she wrote the book 10 years ago, and that you requested the book 4 years ago. How long does it usually take for a project to come to fruition?

Gina Abelkop: Well that was kind of a special case- Anna Joy had written that book years before I asked her if she had any full-length manuscripts, which was really just me wanting to read a full-length manuscript by her and I figured one way to do that was to publish it. The fact that it took four years to come out is a whole ‘nother thing- she was working full-time, I was working, we had to find an illustrator, she did all the design/layout herself, etc etc. For chapbooks it is a MUCH shorter timeframe- the longest it might take for a chapbook to come out is a year, but usually it’s just a few months.

KH: How much time do you put into the press to produce Birds of Lace projects?

Gina Abelkop: This year A LOT due to how many chapbooks we’re publishing! I spend a lot of time at the copy shop, the post office, on etsy, doing cut & paste layout, etc. I’d say about a part-time job’s worth of time. I’d be happy to do it full-time if I could, if I could pay myself or it were a non-profit; I generally enjoy the time I spend on BoL. It’s only the pressure to do other things (work for money, life, write my own books) that makes taking time for BoL difficult sometimes.

KH: As an author can you describe the relationship between being a writer, running a press and how it has affected your work?

Gina Abelkop: Hmm. Well, I don’t do much, or really any, editing of the work I receive. I basically accept the work as it’s sent to me and if the author wants to do edits it’s up to them. At this point I just don’t have the time to be a proper editor as well as publisher. My own writing, I’d say, is actually a very separate project from BoL; much of my literary community happens via BoL, though. So I’d say it has a bigger impact on me socially- and I mean socially like, literary-socially- than artistically. Obviously I love the work I choose to publish and it always makes my brain turn to read work I admire, but I think I have it set up in my head, for reasons of energy placement, that the two are different realms. I don’t promote my own work through BoL, I don’t publish myself. I need those realms of my life to remain apart even though they are obviously related. Perhaps it’s a false division but it opens up space in my brain for me, energy-wise. I am not a person with a huge well of psychic/social/artistic energy, I spend a lot of time having feelings (typical Pisces) so I need my BoL-work time and writer-time to exist on their own terms or I’d explode.

KH: Do you have any advice for a person looking to start their own press?

Gina Abelkop: Do it! You don’t need a ton of money (or any, if you publish via the internet) and you don’t need anyone’s permission. Ask your friends whose work you admire to give you some stories or poems or songs or whatever and put it out into the world. (Actually, getting people to give you their work is HARD, much harder than one would think!) But make it happen. Because that is how culture starts, how it’s kept alive, how we meet friends and allies. BoL has introduced me to many, many other artists and publishers whose friendship and knowledge have helped me tremendously as a human as well as an editor/writer. It’s fun and it doesn’t have to be deadly serious- we all know writers don’t make money. If you work full-time or more than full-time and/or have a family to care for etc then obviously time/energy is going to be harder to set aside, but you can maybe get out one issue of something a year. Buy work from other small presses and see what they’re doing. Email them and ask how they do it. People are generally friendly and happy to give advice. Xerox some poems, staple them together and call it a zine. The world of small press publishing really doesn’t have any rules and your goals needn’t be big to get going- that will all come with time. I’m eight years in and it goes sloooowly. But if you wanna do it, if you read work you love that isn’t being published- do it! Because you can!

 

 

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