Small Press Interview Series: Perugia Press
a conversation between Erica Charis-Molling and editor & director Rebecca Hart Olander
Erica Charis-Molling: Let’s start at the beginning. How did the press get started?
P: The press was founded in 1997 by Susan Kan, who published the first book, Finding the Bear, after its author, Gail Thomas, had struggled to find a home for her collection. Publishing poetry is hard any way you slice it, and the process can be even more challenging for woman poets. Once the first book was published, Susan found she loved the process of making books so much that she founded the press. Not long afterward, Perugia launched its national contest and established itself as a non-profit. After working for about seven years as a volunteer reader and serving on Perugia’s board, I took over as editor/director in the fall of 2016 as we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the press. I’ve been honored to oversee the press as it moves into its third decade.
ECM: Tell us a bit about the press. What sets your press apart from other publishers?
P: The press was created to combat the existence of gender inequity in the publishing arena and the lack of publishers focusing on the strong work of emerging women poets. This combination of publishing work by women at the beginning of their publishing careers, and having that work be both stellar and welcoming to readers is our recipe for success. We also only publish one book a year—the winner of our annual national Perugia Press Prize contest for a first or second book of poetry by a woman (our contest is open for submissions from August 1-November 15, so be sure to give us a look if you are a woman-identified writer with no more than one published full-length collection). Because of our singular model, the chosen poet and her work get deep, undivided attention and she gets to participate intimately in the process of making her book, and that support continues as we market and promote the book during its lifetime. Our motto is “Excellence comes this way: one book at a time,” and this has proven to be true through reader testimonials, by the accolades and awards our books have received, and by the success our poets go on to enjoy after publishing with us at the start of their careers.
ECM: Can you give us a preview of what’s forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what in your current catalog you’re particularly excited about?
P: This year’s winner, Hail and Farewell by Abby E. Murray, is available for pre-order now and has an official release date of September 15, 2019. This debut is a bold examination of the intimate relationship between a soldier and a pacifist, bound together by choice. The collection reveals a wife’s perspective during her husband’s deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, including the whiplash of infertility experienced between tours. Inseparable by heart, their marriage is also built on disagreement. Military spouses are often expected to express absolute patriotism, and to conform to gender roles shaped by sexist, archaic ideals. But these poems don’t aim to accuse; rather, they call for compassion and community in the face of isolation. Capable of inserting levity into the most dire of circumstances, the poet never lets the reader forget what is at stake. Hail and Farewell is an expertly woven treatise on love, war, and politics. We are so excited to be bringing Abby’s work to a larger audience right now. We also continue to support the work of all the poets in our catalog, from last year’s fierce and tender Girldom by Megan Peak (which won the 2018 John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters), to 2004’s Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam (which won the 2008 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing, was an American Booksellers Association Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Book for 2005, won the Ohioana Library Association Poetry Book of the Year, and is our title that is used the most in classrooms across the country), to everything in between.
ECM: What are you visions and goals for the press? Where do you see publishing going in general?
P: We envision Perugia Press continuing to widen its circle, one book at a time, one woman poet at a time. That said, the circle also grows exponetially through our readership, so we are always looking to promote our poets, and poetry, by getting our books into the hands of students, helping to highlight the work of our poets in their new projects and with their Perugia books, and showcasing our press and our poets at book fairs and events both where we are based in Western MA and on the national stage at conferences such as AWP. We always love attending the Mass Poetry Fest and look forward to its next iteration!
ECM: I think we're all looking forward to that! I'm hoping to be able to make it to AWP in 2020, so I'll keep an eye out. In the meantime, at which local events should we be looking for Perugia in 2019?
P: Thanks for asking! Abby E. Murray will be reading in the Collected Poets Series at Mocha Maya’s Coffee House in Shelburne Falls with Ellen Doré Watson on November 7 at 7:00, and her official local book launch will be at the Center for the Arts in Northampton on Friday, November 8 at 7:00, along with Karen Skolfield. Abby will also be participating in conversations at Westfield State University and Smith College during the day on 11/7 and 11/8, respectively. Folks can check out our website for more details about any of these events, as well as for info about upcoming events across the country featuring all of our poets.
ECM: What’s in your reading pile, either from your press and from other presses?
P: I like to follow women poets who have submitted to Perugia and see where they end up being published. We put out only one book a year, but we encounter so many that are also worthy of publication, and we are so grateful to the poets who send us their work to consider. A couple of favorites of late from this group are Pamela Hart’s Mothers Over Nangarhar (Sarabande, 2019) and Anne Champion’s The Good Girl Is Always a Ghost (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). I also like to spend time with books by our volunteers, since the engine of our small non-profit press would not run without these folks. Examples of these include Perugia board member Sarah Sousa’s See the Wolf (CavanKerry, 2018), contest reader Cindy Veach’s Gloved Against Blood (CavanKerry, 2017), contest reader Jennifer Martelli’s My Tarantella (Bordighera Press, 2018), and contest reader Karen Skolfield’s Battle Dress (Norton, 2019). As mentioned earlier, Karen Skolfield will be reading with Abby E. Murray on November 8 in Northampton for a joint book launch. One of my favorite reads this year was All Its Charms by Keetje Kuipers (BOA Editions, 2019); she wrote a beautiful blurb for the back of Hail and Farewell, and her work is astonishing. Finally, I love to support Perugia’s poets by reading what they go on to publish after publishing with us. To name just a few: Lynne Thompson (Beg No Pardon, Perugia, 2007) has a gorgeous new book out (Fretwork, Marsh Hawk Press, 2019), Corrie Williamson (sweet husk, Perugia, 2014) has a highly anticipated second book, The River Where You Forgot My Name, coming out this year with the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, and Perugia poets Jennifer K. Sweeney (How to Live of Bread and Music, Perugia 2009) and L. I. Henley (Starshine Road, Perugia 2017) have written a collaborative manuscript together, so I am looking forward to reading that at some point.
ECM: What advice would you offer someone looking to publish with you?
P: We are not looking for a particualr aesthetic, and in fact, we intentionally publish a range of poetry to reflect the diversity of women’s voices and visions. The thing our books have in common is that they are all beautiful, strong, intelligent, interesting, and inviting. Taking a look at our catalog on our website is a great way to get a sense of the work that we have put out. Because we are a contest, there can only be one winner, so not winning is not a rejection by any means. I’d also encourage women to submit their work again in another year if they are not chosen at first. Several of our winning manuscripts had been submitted to us for years before winning the Perugia Press Prize. Our slate of contest readers differs from year to year, and so your manuscript will always have fresh eyes on it in a new reading period. We deeply appreciate when women send us their work, and we read with open hearts, looking to love the work sent our way.
ECM: What advice would you offer someone thinking of starting a small press?
P: I was able to step into a press that was already founded and had a fantastic track record of publishing and a strong mission to guide its work. I would recommend apprenticing with an existing press or publisher, as I was able to do, in order to learn the ropes from the inside. Volunteering with a press to work a book fair or read for their contest or open reading period are great ways to get experience and see if you really love the work you would be doing if you started a press of your own. It is a labor of love, and a privilege, to work in this field reading and choosing to publish the best new women poets. Having a guiding vision to work toward, and finding a need to be filled, can help hone the purpose of your particular press. Building community is key, too, within your press and within the larger world of small press publishers.
ECM: Does Perugia have any internship/volunteer opportunities at the moment?
P: Perugia doesn’t have current internship opportunities, but we are always looking to expand our fleet of volunteer readers who read manuscripts for our annual contest. This is a time commitment of about 10 hours over a two-week period of your choosing between the end of August and the end of January, and it is done remotely. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in this opportunity!
Erica Charis-Molling is a creative writing instructor and librarian at the Boston Public Library. Her writing has been published in Crosswinds, Presence, Glass, Anchor, Vinyl, Entropy, and Mezzo Cammin. She’s an alum of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and received her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University.