For our April spotlight we have Belladonna* Collective, an avant-garde collective focusing on feminist, women, and LGBTQIA+ writers that are breaking barriers and expectations. We spoke to the managing editor/project coordinator, James Loop, about boosting the voices and exposure of women and queer writers, bringing community into publishing, and how books are like soup! Check out the full interview below.
Mary Rose Manspeaker: What sets you apart as an independent press? Where do your books sit within the broad conversation of independent literature?
James Loop: As an organization or organism Belladonna* operates somewhat amorphously. The earliest iteration was a reading series, first organized by Rachel Levitsky in 1999. Out of the reading series grew our chaplet series, which are short pamphlets we publish to coincide with readings, intended to offer authors a space to share works that are raw or in-process or somehow outside of or beyond the category of the conventionally publishable. Only about ten years in did we start to publish full-length volumes of poetry, and so our imprint has always been twofold, or manifold. While books are a major focus of our activities, a core aspect of our program has also always been making space for more ephemeral forms of literary experience, whether that be an event series curated around a particular theme in live space or a limited edition pamphlet, usually printed in proper zine fashion at our beloved print shop (Wholesale Copies in Chelsea).
Within the broader conversation of independent literature our books hold space for the really wild, unruly, and rigorous experimentation unfolding within contemporary feminist and queer letters; poetic approaches that take nothing for granted, and which chart and extend new lineages and germinations within the avant-garde.
MRM: What do your editors look for when considering a manuscript, as a press operating in the feminist avant-garde space?
JL: Aside from aesthetic and political affinity and formal rigor and expansiveness I think one aspect our of publishing process that is uniquely feminist is that we operate from a deep awareness of the material impact that book publication will have for an author. The kinds of opportunities that publication enables — increased access to prize money, teaching opportunities, residencies, further publication, etc. (access to writing time itself!) — none of these things can be taken for granted for women and queer authors operating outside the literary mainstream. Many of our authors are publishing books for the first time, after many years of writing. So while of course we celebrate our books as wondrous artistic achievements, we also consider the ways in which their publication might contribute to an enhanced material security for their authors.
MRM: Can you speak a bit about Belladonna’s commitment to community collaborations? How has this connected you to the NYC community and beyond, and what does that mean to the press? How does this aspect interact with your editorial vision?
JL: Belladonna* has a enjoyed many lovely working relationships with cultural organizations and event spaces in New York City, including Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library, the Poetry Project, Poets House, Unnameable Books, Queens College, and many others. As we don’t have a space of our own we are often beholden to the generosity and open-mindedness of our peer organizations to house us for an evening (at least this was the case before COVID). On a concrete level this allows us to present our authors to new audiences and to cross-pollinate our programming priorities and themes with others. And of course as an organization coming up soon on its 25th anniversary we have been the grateful beneficiary of innumerable acts of affection, good will, and material support from the literary community in New York City. There’s a strong sense of camaraderie which helps the work find its audience and also in some way functions as an end in itself. The space of community and conversation is also often how new people get involved with the project, how book projects or readings are first suggested. Affinity and relation. It’s not an exaggeration to say our activities are inconceivable without it.
The kinds of opportunities that publication enables — increased access to prize money, teaching opportunities, residencies, further publication, etc. (access to writing time itself!) — none of these things can be taken for granted for women and queer authors operating outside the literary mainstream.
MRM: Additionally, how does operating as a collective inform how Belladonna publishes and interacts with the community? What does this mean for the editorial process and the authors you work with?
JL: Our internal structure is loose — book teams, reading series, etc. usually arise from some individual impetus and a working group of volunteers will cohere to make a book, say, or plan a reading. This allows I think for a lovely diversity in our production, and also for new people to get involved in our activities really at any time. This is one of Belladonna’s community functions, I think — we have a pretty robust, if somewhat informal, internship and volunteer program where people who often are coming from a feeling of being “outside” the community can get involved, learn the trade, and suddenly find themselves “inside.” You make friends, work on things for a year or two. People get busy and move on, sometimes come back after long absence. The door is always open in a way that I think is really distinct from more conventional staffing structures.
There’s a lot of beauty in this way of doing things but of course it means we aren’t really able to function in a highly systematic way. It’s not a factory. Which means that a certain degree of financial precarity is always also in the mix because of course funders want you to be quite regular and consistent with what you produce, and you can’t really begrudge them that either. But because we don’t make huge numbers of books (usually just 2 or 3 a year) each project does tend to feel personal, and our authors are able to get a lot of attention and care in the editorial process. Many of them are publishing books for the first time, and so we try to give space and support for what can be a pretty emotional process rife with new experiences.
MRM: How have you adapted to the COVID pandemic landscape, and what are your goals for the future? Have the past two years changed your outlook?
JL: As I write we’re in the process of planning our first in-person reading since March 2020, which is making me feel emotional and a little disoriented. I feel as though there were a day I can only call “yesterday” that were two years long. We took our reading series online starting in May 2020, first as “In-Flux” curated by Zoe Tuck and Alma Valdez-Garcia, and later (and presently!) as “Close Distances” curated by Zoe and a rotating team of co-curators. The zoom era despite its obvious miseries has been in many ways very rich for us, allowing us to program poets and writers in all different time zones and locales; the spatio-temporal limitations of in-person readings having been suspended we were able to really find new breadth and also get to know our audience in a new way. People were able to show up to events from anywhere in the world. I think this de-centering of New York as the place for poetry is a good thing, and I expect like many other organizations live-streams will now be a mainstay of our programming. Unscrew the locks from the doors!
As an organization of course I think we feel immense gratitude to our community for the fact that we’re still operating at all — the early months of the pandemic especially were extremely punishing for small literary organizations and like most I think we have a feeling of having made it through by the skin of our teeth. So now with a return to incarnated space will come the question of where to go from here, which is an exciting one, not least because it requires a collaborative response. My hope is that cultural organizations will take seriously their capacity to create space for the collective processing, grieving, meaning-making, and celebration which I think individuals (or myself at least) are really yearning for after these many months in the void.
MRM: What would you say is the most important aspect and outcome of supporting independent presses and bookstores? Of bolstering the literary arts?
JL: It’s really only through an engagement with independent presses and bookstores that readers come into a living understanding and appreciation of what literary activity is, that literature is this vital, contentious, variegated and intensely social domain, built out of relationships, friendships, petty enmities, idealism, cynicism, careerism, sacrifice, generosity, collectivity. It’s us. The books are basically soup, something to gather over. You want the soup to be delicious, life-changing even, but the gathering is important too.
MRM: Tell us about your most recent publications and what’s in the works—feel free to plug your new books!
JL: Our three most recent full-length publications are : once teeth bones coral : by Kimberly Alidio, A Brief History of Burning by Cait O’Kane, and DAYS by Simone Kearney. In the coming months we’ll publish the second installment of our periodical Matters of Feminist Practice, and Matrix Lux by Lila Zemborain, translated from the Spanish by Lila’s son Lorenzo Bueno — keep an eye out for pre-orders soon!