For our first spotlight of the year, we’re highlighting a press in upstate New York: Black Lawrence Press, a publisher of contemporary poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. We got the chance to talk to BLP’s Diane Goettel about press longevity, working through the challenges of COVID, and how to support indie presses. Be sure to check out BLP’s submission calendar and their socials on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—or see all their information on their website.
Diane Goettel, Executive Editor at Black Lawrence Press
Ashlyn Petro: What sets you apart as an independent press? What do you look for in submissions to find the piece that will ensnare readers and stay with them in the long term?
Diane Goettel: There are a number of things that set us apart. First of all, we’ve been around since 2004 and I’m incredibly proud of our longevity. I’ve seen a lot of other presses come and go during my tenure at BLP. Also, we have an extensive list. When we started out, we only published a few books each year, but now we publish about 24 titles annually. I’m also delighted that so many talented writers have made Black Lawrence Press their publishing home, meaning that they have continued to work with us, book after book. We work very hard to make the publishing process collaborative, productive, and as enjoyable as possible, and many authors have told me that this is the reason they’ve continued to send us their manuscripts. For example, we just released Department of Elegy by Mary Biddinger, which is her seventh title with us. We have published six of Jacob M. Appel’s short story collections. Abayomi Animashaun has published three poetry collections and two anthologies with us. There are nearly fifty authors on our list who have published two or more titles with Black Lawrence Press.
Coda: I have a lot of love for this corner of the publishing world, and because there are so many talented writers creating new work and so many readers who love the kinds of books we produce, I don’t ever feel like I’m in competition with other small presses. This is to say that, when I describe our distinguishing features, I’m not giving the side eye to my fellow small press editors. I love young presses that carve out new niches and create new publishing opportunities for writers. I delight in the work that comes from micropresses that only produce one or two new books per year.
It’s so hard to define what exactly we look for in manuscripts. I can tell you this: When I stop reading as an editor and start reading as a fan, that’s when I know I want to publish a book. This doesn’t mean that I stop clocking little typos here and there or ever cease thinking about fun marketing opportunities for the book. However, I do let go of ideas for major revision or reorganization and mostly just give myself over to the enjoyment of experiencing the book for the first time.
AP: What brought you to the decision to branch out and become an independent press? What keeps you going?
DG: Black Lawrence Press actually grew out of the literary magazine The Adirondack Review. The founder, Colleen Ryor, wanted to create a publishing home for the writers who placed poetry and short stories in the review. Many of our first authors originally came to us through The Adirondack Review.
What keeps us going? The great talent of writers working today. We held an open reading period during the month of November and I’m still working through the manuscripts that came our way. It’s such a delight to have a bird’s eye view of the latest poetry, prose, and hybrid work, such a privilege to select my favorites and build a new roster of forthcoming books.
AP: How have you adapted to the new COVID landscape? Has your outlook or mission shifted over the past two years? What are your goals for the future?
DG: The biggest change for us is that we attend fewer conferences. We skipped AWP in both 2020 and 2021 along with a number of other regional and national book fairs. It was so exciting to be back at the Brooklyn Book Fair in the fall, and we’re hoping to be at AWP in March. Of course, many in-person readings have been cancelled or postponed. In response to this, we created a virtual reading series, which has welcomed attendees from across the country and abroad. Other than that, not very much has changed. Like most small presses, our printers and distributors are offsite and all of our editors work from their home offices, so we never had a central workspace that we had to close down or reconfigure.
I have a lot of love for this corner of the publishing world, and because there are so many talented writers creating new work and so many readers who love the kinds of books we produce, I don’t ever feel like I’m in competition with other small presses.
AP: What would you say is most important when it comes to supporting independent presses and bookstores?
DG: The absolute best thing readers can do for us is to purchase directly from small presses and bookstores. Every order counts and makes a huge difference!
AP: Tell us about your most recent publications and what’s in the works—feel free to plug your new books!
DG: 2021 was rough in many ways, but it was a great year for books! Here are a few that came out in the fall:
The Stone Sister explores the power of family secrets and society’s evolving definitions of “normal”–as it pertains to family, medicine, and social structure. The novel sheds light on the beginnings of the disability justice movement as it follows one family’s journey to reckon with a painful past. Incredibly, the novel is based on Caroline Patterson’s personal story. As an adult, she discovered she had an older sister with Down syndrome who had been written out of her family history. In fact, that sister’s name was also Caroline Patterson.
The poem from which Black Under derives its title opens with a resounding declaration: “I am black and black underneath.” These words are an anthem that reverberates throughout Ashanti Anderson’s debut short collection. We feel them as we navigate her poems’ linguistic risks and shifts and trumpets, as we straddle scales that tip us toward trauma’s still-bloody knife in one turn then into cutting wit and shrewd humor in the next. We hear them amplified through Anderson’s dynamic voice, which sings of anguish and atrocities and also of discovery and beauty.
Mother/land, winner of the 2020 Hudson Prize, is focused on the intersection of motherhood and immigration and its effects on a speaker’s relationship to place, others and self. It investigates the mutual and compounding complications of these two shifts in identity while examining legacy, history, ancestry, land, home, and language. The collection is heavily focused on the latter, including formal experimentation with hybridity and polyvocality, combining English and Portuguese, interrogating translation and transforming traditional repeating poetic forms. These poems from the perspective of an immigrant mother of an American child create a complex picture of the beauty, danger and parental love the speaker finds and the legacy she brings to her reluctant new motherland.
I’m also delighted to announce our new publishing initiative, The Black Lawrence Immigrant Writing Series. The immigrant narrative is at the heart of the American experiment. However, despite the contributions of immigrants to the cultural, financial, scientific, and artistic makeup of the United States, there is no clear home for new immigrant writings in the United States. To remedy this, Black Lawrence Press proudly announces the Black Lawrence Immigrant Writing Series, an innovative program designed to provide a home for new immigrant writings in the United States and fill a much-needed gap in the American literary community. The Series will remain a self-standing body with complete autonomy within Black Lawrence Press, and its editorial and advisory boards will be composed of immigrant writers and/or authors whose works explore the immigrant experience.