Press 53, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was founded in 2005 by Kevin Morgan Watson as a publisher of short fiction and poetry. Although they put out a smattering of memoirs and novels for a short time, in 2011 they narrowed their focus to publish only poetry, short fiction, and flash collections. They publish about a dozen new titles each year, including winners of their two contests—the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, beginning every September 1, and the Press 53 Award for Poetry, beginning every April 1. The press has an imprint, Press 53 Carolina Classics, which republishes books of note by North Carolina writers that have gone out of print, and Press 53 also has an online presence with Prime Number Magazine, which has a downloadable app for its free 53-Word Story Contest.
While Press 53 clearly has a commitment to publishing southern writers, they also publish a wonderful range of writers from all over the country. Fiction collections include C.D. Albin’s Hard Toward Home, a complex set of stories set in the Ozarks, Jodi Paloni’s They Could Live with Themselves, interrelated stories set in a small New England town, and Damn Sure Right by Californian Meg Pokrass, sharp and funny flash that could be everywhere and anywhere. For poetry, there’s Hedy Habra’s Under Brushstrokes, poems inspired by great art, Linda Annas Ferguson’s Dirt Sandwich, a collection that considers the fleeting and interrelated nature of beauty and art and life itself, and the delightful Joseph Mills, whose latest collection with Press 53, Exit, pursued by bear, poems inspired by Shakespeare’s stage directions, was just published in April. Nearly all Press 53 titles garner awards and recognition regionally, nationally, and internationally.
For Ploughshares, Kevin Morgan Watson will provide readers and writers with his insights on the editorial process at Press 53, and what his team looks for in an author.
Kate Flaherty: Would you say Press 53 books have an “off the beaten path” feel to them, as though the writers, like the places their books or ideas are set, had been hidden gems prior to publication? Why or why not?
Kevin Morgan Watson: That’s an interesting way to describe our books. I think it’s accurate in that we are not paying attention to what styles of writing or themes are popular, and we steer clear of experimental and academic writing. Personally, I set out to find writing that takes me someplace new and interesting, that introduces me to characters who intrigue me, whose dialogue is natural and surprising. I ask our poetry series editors to do the same: go out and find writing that moves you and bring it home. Often these writers turn out to be debut authors and poets, those hidden gems you mentioned, who have been writing and publishing individual pieces for years but have not yet published a collection. But we’ve also attracted veteran masters like Pinckney Benedict, Kelly Cherry, David Jauss, Cathy Smith Bowers, Robert Morgan, and David Bottoms.