August 30, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiteratureReadingWriting

Present in Process: An Interview with Caryl Pagel

Caryl Pagel’s vision has shaped not only her own poems, essays, books, and chapbooks, but two presses, a literary magazine, and now a new literary fellowship focused on inclusion, equity, and social justice. Her behind-the-scenes devotion to the voices of others helps me consider what “best practices” might look like in the literary community, and what better practices might look like for all of us. While I know that no one person has it all figured out, I wanted to have a conversation with Caryl about her journey as a writer, literary leader, and literary citizen.

DM: You co-founded Rescue Press almost ten years ago now with Danny Khalastchi and you remain its Editor-in-Chief (or, rather, Editress-in-Chief, as per your bio), you are the poetry editor of jubilat, and you have directed the Cleveland State University Poetry Center since 2014. You’re also an assistant professor at Cleveland State, and you’re the author of two full-length books of poetry, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death and Twice Told, which is being re-released this year in a new edition by the University of Akron Press. You also write essays and have a background in visual art. On a purely logistical level, how do you fit all of these moving parts together? Like, spreadsheets or calendars or magic?

CP: I do keep elaborate spreadsheets and calendars; I write everything down. I am able to do all of these things because I work a lot, keep very detailed lists, and have surrounded myself with talented people who work a lot and keep lists. There’s a large amount of tedious administrative work involved in the roles you mentioned, but they all require one to relentlessly reimagine the future, a creative practice.

When I first began writing it felt important to find a way forward that wasn’t based in the (what seemed to me inaccessible) vision of becoming a solitary genius composing literary masterpieces in a backyard shed while weeping into my whiskey and treating jobs, students, editors, and partners like a nuisance (oh the jokes of the patriarchy!). The model I found—one that involved a lot of moving parts—existed in art schools, where I witnessed students and faculty collaborating on a variety of pragmatic, conceptual, and possible projects all at once. I liked the feeling of someone having a strange or ambitious idea that was immediately enacted in good-faith by their community. I liked finding spontaneity and wonder in procedure, which can only really happen if you’re involved in the minutiae. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and read about Black Mountain College and gradually came to believe that making art was a team sport, that isolation was the enemy of creativity, and that aiming toward being a capable and effective person—someone of service to their field or community in ways that are both exciting and boring, necessary, or logistical—shouldn’t be thought of as something to protect yourself from but a way of being present in process.

Another way of putting this is that I think meaning making is irrevocably social (we can weep into our whiskeys together!) and cooperation and conversation aren’t abstract ideas but engines. Unlike other genres—dance, playwrighting, filmmaking, etc.—we sometimes forget that few books are written alone (even if their authors think they are), an understanding that can lead one toward editing, teaching, organizing, or publishing.

DM: In terms of your work as an editor, how do you conceive of the distinctions (or overlaps) between Rescue, CSUPC, and jubilat? Could you imagine a poet being a good publishing “fit” for one and not another? Do they fulfill you in different ways?

CP: The presses are different aesthetically, historically, and operationally; what might be a good fit for Rescue might not work for CSU, and vice versa, although there is the unavoidable fact of me being more or less the same person in both cases. I see Rescue Press as an art-loving, DIY, genre-exploding investigative lifelong adventure that accurately reflects my (and the other editors’) tastes, dreams, and idiosyncrasies. All of my weirdest ideas find a home there and since we’re merely a decade old it still has the awe-invoking warmth of a family.

At the CSUPC I stepped into a 55+-year-old institution that had been run by a handful of previous directors and faculty members each with different goals and visions for the Center. At various times throughout the last few decades it’s focused more or less on readings, publishing, outreach, or pedagogy. I’ve been looking for ways of combining these endeavors, trying to create opportunities to integrate teaching with publishing, community partnerships with university resources, and student interests with author strengths, etc. There are so many people involved with the CSUPC (the department, the NEOMFA program, the university, the city) that it’s necessarily both wider in scope and more of a production. It also has a really incredible back catalogue and whole generations of poets who’ve supported its literary presence in Cleveland and beyond.

As for jubilat, the captain of that ship is Emily Pettit, a brilliant poet and publisher, and I love finding work that excites her and Dara Wier and the rest of the jubilat staff at UMass Amherst. To me, jubilat has always appreciated the bizarre, the humorous, the found, the surprising, the sweet, and the impossible.

DM: As a CSUPC author (my second book, Say So, was published by CSUPC in 2011), I’ve seen you really expand the scope of an already-exciting press in just a few years. Can you talk about your vision for initiatives like the Lighthouse Reading Series, the Essay Collection Competition, and particularly the Anisfield-Wolf Fellowship in Publishing and Writing, in addition to numerous other subtle moves (like revamping the website and making the names of the Open Book Poetry Competition judges public)?

CP: There was much to admire about the CSUPC before I arrived a little under five years ago—an amazing line up of authors, an interesting institutional history, a catalogue of beautiful books—as well as room to experiment with structure and programming. Mostly, I’ve just followed my interests in an attempt to expand the press’s catalogue and connect what we’re doing on a national scale to the city in which we live. I thought it was important to have a poetry-only reading series (we’ve since included nonfiction) in Cleveland and so, with the help of my students, we created one. I started the Essay Collection Competition in 2014 because it seemed like such a natural genre to pair with poetry and while so much incredible nonfiction is being written lately (a lot of it by poets) there are few presses with a dedicated essay series. The Anisfield-Wolf Fellowship in Writing and Publishing was born out of my thinking about post-MFA writing time, opportunities for mentorship in publishing, where those opportunities usually exist, and who is supported while having them.

I’ll also mention that Hilary Plum, who joined the Poetry Center a year ago as the Associate Director, has recently launched a new translation series, a Writers at Work symposium to accompany the Lighthouse Reading Series (which she now curates), and a new small press publishing class for undergrad and grad students. Basically, these are all things that didn’t exist in our world and so we made them, which is in itself, we hope, a useful model for students.

My goal for the next few years is to facilitate further projects or partnerships with existing Cleveland programs. There are a handful of great literary reading series, journals, and bookstores in Cleveland right now—Brews and Prose, Cleveland Drafts, Guide to Kulchur, Mac’s Backs, Twelve Literary Arts, Gordon Square Review, Sidereal Magazine, Barnhouse, Long Long Journal, etc.—and it’s exciting to imagine what we might make happen together.

DM: In thinking about what goes into these literary collaborations behind the scenes, what was your learning curve like in terms of administrative and organizational strengths, and what are the challenges (and pleasures) of that kind of collaboration? Do you have any particular insights in terms of best or better practices when it comes to literary collaboration, leadership, and mentorship?

CP: As mentioned earlier, I do this work in close collaboration with Danny Khalastchi and Hilary Plum, my partners at both presses, both of whom have strengths that I don’t, ways of thinking through a dream or problem that I don’t. One learns through example that it’s probably not a great idea to do everything yourself if you can help it; you’ll become less flexible and start hoarding authority out of fear of losing it or simply grow bored. In my experience, presses that do well (sans large donors or dedicated funding) are probably reconsidering their approach to marketing, fundraising, design, book production, and acquisitions every year in response to their own tastes, changes in technology, the dynamics of the larger market, and available resources, which means that everything is shifting and so one’s administrative processes and collaborative dynamics shift as well. In this case, it’s best to model and to work with people who have a sense of humor and can adapt quickly to change.

Learning to do this kind of administrative work well has taken decades of trial and error and the learning curve has felt steep at times since in publishing especially the approach that works for one book might not work for the next. One has to try to remain open, curious, and armed with goodwill and patience. I try to practice those things. It’s hard but seems worth it?

DM: I know it’s an ongoing process, but can you tell me about your journey in terms of the work of attempting to decenter the white, the patriarchal, the cisgender, and the heterosexual in your publishing and teaching?

CP: This decentering can take place in different ways, but it makes sense to start from the inside out, to be inclusive in one’s team (student staff, fellows, colleagues, judges), in who reads and works for a press, in who is given responsibility, whose ideas are heard, whose books are on the syllabus, and who has input into decision making. The Poetry Center’s most recent attempt at engaging with the problem of the lack of diversity in publishing is the Anisfield-Wolf Fellowship in Writing and Publishing, which launches this year. [The inaugural fellow is poet Leila Chatti.] The Fellowship is sponsored by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and aims to support writers with backgrounds and perspectives historically underrepresented in publishing and creative writing programming, by providing time to work on a first or second book, mentorship in small press publishing, and assistance in enacting a community outreach project of the fellow’s own design.

This decentering can take many forms in literature, and some examples of books I’ve recently worked on that are thinking through these issues are Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Caren Beilin’s forthcoming Spain, Paola Capó-Garcia’s forthcoming Clap For Me That’s Not Me, Nicholas Gulig’s Orient, Anna Maria Hong’s Age of Glass, and Shaelyn Smith’s The Leftovers.

DM: The publisher of your second book dissolved his press in the wake of allegations of unprofessional and abusive behavior; you’re now working with Akron Series in Poetry editor Mary Biddinger and editorial and design coordinator Amy Freels at the University of Akron Press to rerelease that book, Twice Told, this fall. Could you talk about what Mary and Amy (or other editors and publishers with whom you have worked) do to make your experience as a writer one that feels positive, respectful and mutually beneficial?

CP: Thank god for Mary Biddinger and Amy Freels! They’ve gone above and beyond to make me feel included and I’m so thrilled that Twice Told will have a second life with them. I’ve long admired the work of their poetry series as well as their insistence that #poetrylives.

It seems that so much is said about the latest publishing scandal, the latest poetry disaster, the latest rushed mistake and those are important conversations to have, important information to share, but I sometimes wish I heard more about poets who have literally dedicated their life to generously supporting their community. Mary and Amy are two of my heroes in this regard, as are Joyelle McSweeney, Rebecca Wolff, Sandra Doller, Sarah Gorham, Carmen Giménez Smith, Janice Lee, Emily Pettit, Elizabeth Robinson, and Janet Holmes. I list primarily editors of small presses because these places are often working with little to no resources, which means these editors are doing multiple jobs and often mending damage caused by other editors’ unprofessionalism or neglect.

DM: What are you excited about right now, in terms of your own writing and publishing and reading? The world is looking pretty bleak; are there works that are giving you hope, or at least eloquently reflecting or contextualizing our moment?

CP: I just finished a collection of essays that took about seven years to write, so that feels like something. A book I’m looking forward to working on this fall is The Selected Poems of Russell Atkins, edited by Kevin Prufer. Russell Atkins is a musician, playwright, and experimental poet—a Cleveland native—whose first and only full-length collection of poems, Here In The, was published by the CSU Poetry Center in 1976. Spending time with a selection of his work composed over decades (he’s currently 92 years old) gives me hope though the example he’s set of a lifelong relationship to poetry, music, art, and small press communities. To me, the act of reading itself still feels radical, hopeful, important.