Interview: Kelly Dulaney and Todd Seabrook (The Cupboard)

I’m curious to ask what led you to The Cupboard. What other work have you done in the arena of publishing, small press or otherwise?

Todd: I was an editor for the school newspaper as an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio, and it was there that I cut my teeth on all the sharp realities that go into producing a physical, readable object. Not only was it editing story after just-godawfully-written story, designing the pages, organizing content, but also appeasing the business office (who begged us to stop making fun of the advertisers), and dealing with the distributors and printers (what colors, sizes, pages they could print). It was a joyous nightmare, one which taught me that making a thing in this world is more complicated than most imagine.

During my MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder, our department decided to start a press, and they offered a publishing workshop to go with it. They called it Subito Press, why I don’t know, but I was brought in as a designing consultant since I had experience with InDesign. The real lesson of working for that press was that the design work is the easy part. Dealing with people is the hard part, from authors to printers to advertisers, and the difficulties in making a good product in a collaborative process. It was with Subito that I designed my first books and covers, also a more difficult process than originally imagined, and it was through Subito that I met Adam Peterson, the founder of Cupboard.

Kelly: Contrary to Todd, I avoided any activity that involved actual work as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until I too took part in the MFA publishing workshop and Subito Press that I discovered that I had any facility for the fundamentals of publishing, which in that context included clarifying and performing what others considered to be dull administrative tasks (sorting the physical slush pile, transporting manuscripts from one reader to another, aligning manuscript materials with the standards of the Chicago Manual of Style, packing rejection and acceptance letters, and so on). It also involved the more intensive work of editing: manuscript editing and managing author ego—which is perhaps the simultaneously most obvious and most surprising facet of small press publishing. After my time with Subito had come to a close, I focused my efforts elsewhere. I did act as reader for friends (i.e., Todd) who were preparing to submit work out, and then it was friends (i.e., Todd) who took me by the shoulder and led me back to the small press world.

Through some digging online, I managed to unearth some older Cupboard pamphlets with a different numbering system from before the current series of tape-bound books. How did The Cupboard get its start, and how has it changed between its inception and now (personnel-wise, format-wise, content-wise)?

Todd: I only know a desultory oral history of the Cupboard’s inception since I didn’t join them until they were on their third book. In fact, I have yet to ever see those original pamphlets. But I’ll tell you the tale I know. The founders were two MFA students at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln: Dave Madden and Adam Peterson. Madden was a non-fiction writer and Peterson was a fiction writer, and both of them seemed to agree that there was a distinct lack of prose chapbooks in the world. I joined the Cupboard as their designer in 2009, and they also added Emily Danforth as a submission editor sometime in there. After their MFA Madden, Peterson, and Danforth scattered across the country, eventually deciding that they could not dedicate enough time to Cupboard as it needed, and passed the project off to me in the fall of 2014. I, in turn, immediately brought in Kelly Dulaney as my co-editor, as Kelly and I had been friends since our MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and she is the best editor I know.

Remarkably, the books have not changed much. The design work has become more precise after years of practice, but we still use the same printers in Lincoln Nebraska that Madden and Peterson originally used. We are looking into switching to a perfect-bound format, but as of right now, the newest volume is very close to the first volume.

The content varies, naturally, from manuscript to manuscript, but we do not have a precise aesthetic. Fiction chapbooks and especially non-fiction chapbooks are odd creatures with few homes, and from the beginning Cupboard was set up to be a place for such manuscripts, whatever form those took textually.

What is The Cupboard’s editing process like? Do you tend to solicit work or is it solely submission based?

Kelly: Currently, the Cupboard only accepts work through submissions. We do so in three ways:

  • Through our annual contest (running currently)
  • Through open reading periods (running rarely)
  • Directly from subscribers (often and in six-month long windows)

This has provided us with the best work, as too many writers are sitting on shortlisted but unpublished writing. I am the primary reader of submissions and it is my work to cull the slush pile. Once I have done so and have a fine selection of front-runners, I entomb Todd in a flurry of texts and emails until he correctly guesses which works are my favorites and communicates which of those he prefers. If these come from the subscribers or from an open reading period, we send out acceptances and rejections and add books to our schedule for the upcoming year. We’ve not yet completed this process with our annual contest, but I assume it will be similar.

In either case, we do put together a tentative process outline for our authors, so that they will know what steps we will take in bringing their work to the page and what we might require from them. I’ve copied this below:

Transmittal n/a TBD
Contract OK n/a TBD
Begin MS Edit TBD TBD
Cover Design TBD TBD
Cover Design OK TBD TBD
Final Proofs TBD TBD
Final Check TBD TBD
Books Available to Ship TBD TBD

The process outline is not one to which we adhere perfectly, but it does allow us to keep an author in the loop and to standardize our approach to each manuscript.

Is there a guiding aesthetic for The Cupboard? There’s a wide variety in the back catalog: essays, prose poems, short stories… Even the three works we read for this course were incredibly diverse! What ultimately guides the decision to include a work in the pamphlet series, besides word count concerns?

Kelly: The Cupboard has no official guiding aesthetic and (as far as I know) never has had.

That said, I am the primary reader of submitted materials and there are items that will or will not attract my particular attention when considering a manuscript. Formally, I look for manuscripts that are well constructed in terms of structure and prosody. Given that the Cupboard is explicitly a chapbook press, manuscripts must prove their worth as cohesive, chapbook length works. For example, I have reviewed lovely manuscripts that would frankly better function as full-length books. I have also reviewed manuscripts that would be better suited to shorter story formats. In short, the word count is not an extraneous or an imprudent concern—I want to read works that understand the full abilities of their textual bodies and just how much stretch or constriction the chapbook form affords. Manuscripts must also manage their sentences. I read poetry for pleasure, and I want prose sentences to carry the same weight that readers assume of verse poetry. The sentence that surprises or that engages mindfully in its own construction is the sentence that compels me to keep reading.

Otherwise, I look for manuscripts that engage in some kind of strategic play. This means that I am most interested in manuscripts that depart from the standard narrative expectation of whichever genre they might claim in allegiance. In the fall or winter of 2015, for example, we will be publishing Jenn Marie Nunes’ the projector, which queers the apocalypse, in a tender, pink sort of way. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and that is the experience I like to have—This is new! This is neat!

Ultimately, we ourselves are too flighty to pin our urtext with words. We don’t discern based on genre or subject matter, but we do want to pass on to our subscribers a sense of the new and playful, whatever prose that newness or play might anchor in.

A large part of the Tiny Press class’ discussion focused on the design of the pamphlets sent, specifically David Hawkins’ Lorraine Nelson: A Biography in Post-It Notes, with its manila envelope exterior. What is the design process like for The Cupboard? Is it mainly handled by one of you? Both? A third-party? And what role, if any, does the writer play in the design of each pamphlet?

Todd: I have done the interior layout for nearly every book since Svalina’s Play (exceptions being Benz’ Our Commutual Mea Culpa and Stewart’s Magic—and I have no idea who those designers are). I have also designed about half the covers (including Hawkin’s Lorraine Nelson), but covers are exponentially more difficult for me, since, alas, I am not a trained graphic designer. Since joining Cupboard I have learned Adobe Illustrator, and I can handle Photoshop as well as anyone else, but I still keep my covers minimalistic because I have limited software skills.

What little process there is for designing a book begins with reading the manuscript and seeing if my co-editor(s) have any initial reactions for what the book should look like, such as general color schemes (bright, dark, muted) or image ideas. Sometimes the author has an image they would like to see on the cover, and if the image lands on this side of hideous, then we usually try to incorporate it. The design of a book should mimic the writing, reflecting its style, pace, and overall tone. Interior layout is done first as it is affects the reader’s experience of the book the most. The covers, then, are derived from the style of the interior layout. The Hawkins book for example is supposed to be a story told through Post-It notes, so I confined the text to the physical space of a Post-It. It left a lot of blank space on the page, which cost a little more, but it was still more accurate to the story. The covers then reflected another major aspect of the book—mailers. I like covers that don’t just represent the story on the inside, but are also part of the text itself. The cover of Volume 20—Chistopher Shipman’s The Movie My Murderer Makes—has a window covered in blinds, and it is supposed to instill a sense of spying, of peeking through the cover into the enticing/dangerous text within. Of course, by the time I’m done with any cover, I can’t tell if it’s genius or garbage, so I sent it to Dave and Adam (now Kelly), and they tell me whether it is good, or, in fact, garbage. Sometimes we send it to the author and they ask for tweaks, which we don’t mind at all. It is the author’s book, not mine, so I want them to be happy with it.

I’m a huge fan of the tape-bound format for these books. The texture of the binding feels wonderful in the hand, and gives the pamphlets some uniformity. Where did the decision to tape-bind come from, and what are the positives and negatives of the format from The Cupboard’s point of view?

Todd: They are tape bound because that was the only real option the original editors had. Perfect binding is more expensive and could not be done in Lincoln. That was not an exciting answer, sorry. Many people seem to enjoy the tape-bound books, saying it has an old-school, retro feel to them. And the tape-binding holds up remarkably well to reading wear. The downside is that they have to be cut by hand, and that makes the books imprecise. Each book we have is a slightly different size than the others, all hovering around 4×5.5 inches. Some people say this only adds to the charm. I am not one of those people. I believe in precision, and that is why we are looking into perfect binding.

As a person who is attempting to negotiate the starting of a print zine after completing Calarts’ writing program, I must admit I have a bit of a vested interest, but how is The Cupboard supported financially?

Kelly: I can’t speak to Dave and Adam’s financial strategies with regards to starting the press. I can say that when they left it and we inherited it, we also inherited their PayPal account and their remainder funds, which had been scrimped and saved from four years’ worth of subscriptions and book fair sales. These funds were not as robust as we might have hoped, so we initially emptied our own pockets into the press. Small press publishing is more than a labor of love—it is also supported by the paid labor you do during the daylight hours. Todd covered the cost of printing our newest releases (Christopher Shipman’s The Movie My Murderer Makes and Maya Sonenberg’s 26 Abductions). I covered the cost of our table at the AWP book fair in Minneapolis.

These initial investments have already paid off. The Cupboard was once capable of self-supporting and now can continue in that vein. We draw the majority of our funds from subscribers, single orders, and book fair sales. We also collect reading fees when we run our annual contest, which can be contentious (see some of the recent fluff-up surrounding the Offing). While we would love to forego reading fees, we simply cannot afford to do so unless we forego payment to our contest winners and abandon marketing outreach (through facebook, physical mailers, and so on and so on).

So, we’re covered currently. Future expansions are not yet covered. Within the next two years, we hope to register the Cupboard as a not-for-profit with the IRS, which will allow us to apply for and to take advantage of grants from federal, state and arts-based agencies. In the meanwhile, we are looking into fund-raising readings and into expanding our subscription base through better book-making (an issue Todd has already spoken to above and below, and so I shall say no more on that).

What are your future plans for The Cupboard? Based on the evolution of the project up to this point, I’m excited to see in what directions The Cupboard will go. If you were to receive a massive, no-strings-attached windfall tomorrow expressly for the purpose of fulfilling The Cupboard’s long-term goals, what changes would be made?

Todd: The first thing to be done would be to switch to a perfect bound book. We are also tinkering with ideas of making artist books, or taking some of our more popular titles and making die-cut, letterpress editions of them. If we had the money. If we had the money.

Kelly: Yes. If we had the money.