Editor’s Corner #3: Janet Holmes for Ahsahta Press

In the third installment of Editor’s Corner, Janet Holmes from Ahsahta Press joins us. Holmes has been with Ahsahta for well over a decade, and here, she provides us with a detailed look at her aesthetic interests. Holmes is the author of several poetry collections, the most recent, The MS of My Kin (2009) from Shearsman, in which Holmes uses the art of erasure to reveal new and unexpected poems from the Franklin Reading Edition of Dickinson. Read more about the project here . You can also find Holmes’s work at Beloit Poetry Journal and at Poets for Living Waters. Holmes currently teaches at Boise State University.

Interested in learning more about Editor’s Corner? Contact Melinda Wilson at mwilson@vidaweb.org. 


On her press, her role and publishing philosophies:

Ahsahta started in the 70s with a much different focus from its current one: the editors then wanted to revive writers of the Western U.S. whose work had fallen out of publication. Many of those writers were women: Hazel Hall, Peggy Pond Church, Gwendolen Haste, and Genevieve Taggard. Then they moved on to publish poets from west of the Mississippi. By the 1990s, they’d lost interest in the enterprise; I was hired at Boise State in 1999 and was able to take charge of the dying press.

Here’s our new mission statement: “Ahsahta Press champions and promotes surprising, relevant, and accessible experimental poetry that more commercially minded small presses avoid; in making it widely available, the Press aims to increase its readership.”

In a word, we publish for a niche market—not just people who read poetry, but those who enjoy poetry that pushes the envelope in some way. Because we’re housed at a university that gives us a small stipend, we can operate differently from presses (even small presses) that need to turn a big profit by publishing more broadly popular books.  We concentrate instead on books that we believe are artful, absorbing, important works that need to be out there regardless of their sales potential.  Sometimes they even manage to become popular.

Library Journal called our books “weirdly wonderful,” which I loved. Of course, I don’t think they’re weird. I think the quality in Ahsahta books that people call “weird” is what I think of as “surprising.” It’s what I think of as “art.” And it’s why I use the term “accessible avant garde”—because these books aren’t frighteningly difficult. One understands the book as one reads.

The mission statement, above, characterizes best characterizes our publishing philosophy. The literary art aspect (aside from book art) doesn’t seem to be as much of a consideration for some presses as, say, humor does, or the latest trend, or the book by the celebrity hipster or Facebook sensation or Twitter artist. I like books that have coherence and the capacity to go for the long haul. I really like books that tell me something new, though they’re hard to find.

But in addition, I’d say that my personal belief is that a publisher should try to nurture her authors—that by committing to a book a publisher commits to an author’s vision. I don’t publish enough books in a year to be strict about this, but I have tried to support my authors through two or three books, so that they become identified with Ahsahta and Ahsahta with them. Some of my authors are much more prolific than I can keep up with, of course.


On the current publishing climate:

There are more books than ever before, lots of start-up presses and chapbook presses, lots of self-publishing. It’s a wonderful & messy & hypercharged world. Take a look at the AWP bookfair – miles and miles of books that aren’t making anyone rich, but are making lots of people happy. I like Joyelle McSweeney’s term “a plague field” for all this excess. What I like to publish gets to exist among all the other things other people like to publish.

The New York presses, and to some extent the big poetry institutions, don’t seem to have a clue what’s happening in the small press world, unfortunately, which means they’re missing a lot of the variety.

I guess that gender, class, sexuality, and race make for some of the most interesting work being written, so, of course these factors play a role in determining the sorts of work Ahsahta publishes. Ahsahta is probably becoming more diverse in the realms of gender and sexuality—we’re doing two books by genderqueer writers in 2014, and there was that month that both books we published were by ex-nuns (Barbara Maloutas and Kathleen Jesme), and of course Brian Teare’s Pleasure, which won the Lambda for Best Gay Poetry. Since I’m a pretty run-of-the-mill old straight married woman, it may seem unusual that we’re doing these books, but they are knock-it-out-of-the-park great, great work I’m proud to put my name to. TC Tolbert’s Gephyromania is fantastic, and Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Beast Feast was a near-winner of the Sawtooth that I just couldn’t let go of. Just. You. Wait.

I’ve tried to have people of different backgrounds, races, and gender as judges for our contest. That hasn’t resulted in as much racial diversity among our authors as I’d hoped. Insofar as gender, class, and sexuality go, I think we’re doing better. Of the 126 books in the Ahsahta catalog (including the “old” books), 62 are by women, almost exactly half.

In terms of my thoughts on the underrepresentation of women in publishing, I think it’s interesting to listen to men try to justify it.


On VIDA’s Count:

I was surprised that so many people were apparently surprised by the disparities. Any woman who writes is aware of them. It was good to come to a press that had a great history of publishing women—the “old” Ahsahta had published Women Poets of the West, which I reorganized and republished in a new edition back in 2002 or so; the original was from 1978. Considering that was in the midst of the Women’s Movement, I think Ahsahta was ahead of the curve.


On A+ Lit People:

I really admire the folks at CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses) and SPD (Small Press Distribution), who do so much to promote the work of independent, smaller publishing houses. I wish they had some leverage with the big reviews like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, who despite the heroic efforts of people like Craig Teicher and Barbara Hoffert, have very little space to devote to poetry. But since the presses that concentrate on specific audiences—whether they be women, LGBT, different racial & ethnic groups, regional groups, experimental writings, conceptual works (to name but some)—tend to be small presses, the work of CLMP and SPD promotes all these good things. A shout-out to the folks at Cave Canem, Kundiman, Tinfish, Arte Publico, and such, who are helping some great writers out into the world, and to wonderful enterprises such as Leon Works, Edge Books, Action, Les Figues, and Futurepoem, who look to the aesthetic minorities as well.


Janet Holmes‘s publications include The ms of my kin (Shearsman), F2F (U Notre Dame), Humanophone (U Notre Dame),The Green Tuxedo (U Notre Dame), and The Physicist at the Mall (Anhinga Press). Her awards include grants from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the Bush Foundation, the Loft-McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota Arts Board; the Minnesota Book Award, the Foreword Magazine Poetry Book of the Year award, the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Award, and two inclusions in the Best American Poetry series; and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Fondation Ledig-Rowholt (Switzerland), and Fundación Valparaíso (Spain). A professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Boise State University, she has been director and editor of Boise State University’s Ahsahta Press (http://ahsahtapress.org) since 1999, where she publishes eight books of poetry per year aided by a class of graduate students. She was recently awarded a Fulbright to Budapest, Hungary.