Moveable Type: Headmistress Press
October 7, 2016
A Conversation with Risa Denenberg, cofounder of Headmistress Press
How did Headmistress Press begin? What was the goal when starting the press? I think it’s fair to say the press began in the mind of Mary Meriam, who for the past 7 years has published the biannual e-zine Lavender Review, which is dedicated to publishing poetry and art by, about, and for lesbians. There was no press, then or now, explicitly and solely dedicated to producing books of poetry by lesbians, who often find few outlets for their work even in the larger LGBTQ literary community. Mary asked me for input and together we founded the Press in 2013. HP is dedicated to honoring lesbian existence, discovering a range of lesbian voices, and promoting lesbian representation in the arts. Mary designs and produces all of our books, and I “keep the books” and fulfill orders, attend book fairs, and in general support and promote our poets. In 2014, Rita Mae Reese joined us and has been producing our Lesbian Poet Trading Cards, which have been a big hit.
Describe your decision making process for selecting work to appear in the press’s publications. Mary and I have both produced our own lesbian-themed books of poetry through the press, and thus far have given the opportunity to 17 other lesbian poets, whose work we love. We have had an occasional manuscript come in over the transom that we couldn’t resist, but we primarily read submissions during our reading period, usually in late spring or early summer. After our first two open reading periods, we switched to a contest model where the editors screen manuscripts and then a winner is chosen blindly by a well-known lesbian poet: in 2015, Meg Day, and in 2016, Ellen Bass.
If your press has an ethos, what is it? Of course, we believe that lesbian voices should be heard loud and clear among the larger community of poets. We want to bring lesbian poets of all ages and backgrounds into the fold of publishing. This is why we offer feedback on manuscripts and work with poets to bring an “almost there” manuscript into a publishable one. There is also an economics to poetry publishing that we feel strongly about. As editors, our work is an unpaid labor of love. Our books are always sold for $10 and our contest submission fees are always on a sliding scale with fee waivers for those who need them. We maintain a small fund to pay lesbian artists for cover art.
After Headmistress Press, what’s your favorite writing venue? Speaking for myself, I love so many of the small independent presses that work passionately on a shoestring for what they believe in, that take time from their own writing and work tirelessly to publish and promote the work of other poets. Publishers who respond to a submission with more than a form rejection letter and offer encouragement with a shared deep love for poetry. They know who they are.
What is your plan for the future of the press? We plan to continue our annual Charlotte Mew Chapbook Contest and create an annual series of 12 Lesbian Poet Trading Cards. We’d like to be an annual presence at AWP and other major poetry events, selling our books and promoting our poets.