Indie Spotlight: BkMk Press

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In 1971, BkMk Press was founded by Dan Jaffe, English professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Roy Fox, head librarian of the Johnson County Library system in Kansas. Jaffe headed the press for 25 years, overseeing its transition from publishing only chapbooks to building a list with full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, creative essays, and a smattering of anthologies. Upon Jaffe’s retirement, James McKinley became executive editor, and now BkMk Press is helmed by executive editor Robert Stewart and managing editor Ben Furnish.

BkMk runs two annual contests, the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, both of which award $1,000 and publication of a book-length manuscript, and they also consider unsolicited submissions from Feb 1 through June 30 via snail mail only.

Housed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, BkMk is affiliated with New Letters, a literary magazine with a long history of publishing a remarkable range of notable writers that is also edited by Robert Stewart, as well as the radio program “New Letters on the Air,” which features writers reading and discussing their work and is the longest continuously running national literary radio series.

BkMk has a commitment to regional writers, in part through its Target Series for Midwestern writers, but their list includes writers from all over the United States and abroad. Just a few of their award-winning titles are Lauren Cobb’s Boulevard Women, an engaging book of linked stories set in Athens, Georgia about female friends who span generations yet come together over their all-too-similar challenges, Tongue of War by Tony Barnstone, an ambitious and affecting collection of poems “inspired by historical situations and accounts, letters, oral histories, and news reports of individuals from both sides of the Pacific theater of World War II,” and, most recently, Gary Gildner’s delightful and sweet short fiction collection The Capital of Kansas City, stories of love in its messy and myriad incarnations.

For readers and writers, Robert Stewart and Ben Furnish share what drives their editorial decisions and what’s in store at BkMk and New Letters in the foreseeable future.

KF: In an interview with South Carolina Review, you discuss how you prefer writing that “offers hope,” which seems like both a wonderful and difficult mission for an editor. How would you describe the process of discovering “hope” in a manuscript you’ve published? 

RS:  The quality of hope, as one would assume, can be both subtle and allusive in literature, but it comes across as desire on the part of the author for life-affirming results.  Our upcoming anthology of Native-American poets who have traveled to the Middle East (fall 2016, ed. by Diane Glancy and Linda Rodriquez) serves as a great example.  Whereby the history of both cultures easily could generate despair or cynicism, what actually results from those native poets is empathy and solidarity.  As Joy Harjo says in her poem located in Bethlehem, “I felt the hope of millions shimmering there in the middle of this country / torn by war.”  That contrast (hope and war), and all such paradox, actually creates the art of the poem, structurally, and makes us want to continue. Art needs complexity, and cynicism alone won’t transcend.

KF: While BkMk publishes the occasional collection of novellas, such as Catherine Browder’s Now We Can All Go Home, or the novel, Post, by Hilary Masters, your submission guidelines note that “it is highly unusual for us to accept a novella or anything aspiring to novel-hood.” Can you explain this editorial choice?

RS:  BkMk Press has been selective about the novels, or even novellas, it publishes, choosing those books mostly from authors who have a history with us and, equally, only books we can market adequately.  The books you mention have a distinctly literary appeal, and, given the resources of a small, literary press, we felt that we could handle such books, especially if we don’t take on too many.  My feeling is that larger presses, commercial or not, excel in marketing novels, so we at BkMk don’t want to take on such a book unless we can do it justice.

BF: Your question reminds me that Hilary Masters’ novel Post, a literary sendup of the mystery form structured after Petronius’ Satyricon, accumulated dozens of rejections over 34 years until BkMk accepted it. Post went on to receive a starred Booklist review and an award and went into a second printing, but no commercial publisher could take a chance on it.  But commercial publishers can for the most part no longer take chances on short fiction or poetry collections at all. Great literature and commercial success have long enjoyed one of history’s greatest oft-estranged marriages of coincidence.

KF: With BkMk, New Letters, and “New Letters on the Air,” you have a long and esteemed history of bringing great literature to life in a variety of forms, but maintaining all three must be a gargantuan task at times. How do you manage to juggle these ventures?

RS: Two words:  Dedicated staff.  We also have a building of our own, a three-story, brick house, which, as James McKinley used to describe it, is a kind of “rabbit warren” of hallways and rooms; so I am down the hall and through another room from BkMk Press’ Ben Furnish, and upstairs and around several corners from our radio producer, Angela Elam, and so on.  We have, essentially, two staff members dedicated to the press, two for the radio series, and two for the magazine, including me, with a general business manager in the center.  Of course, many of us teach, as well.

Sometimes, the stress is heavier for one venture or another, for sure.  My goal has always been to help the three units benefit, synergistically, from each other.  The magazine definitely benefits by its contact with guest writers coming for interviews.  Some others—such as Stephanie Powell Watts, Charlotte Holmes, Mariko Nagai, Gary Gildner—started out publishing in New Letters and wound with important books from BkMk Press, and then appearing on New Letters on the Air, as well.  Some writers, such as Rachel Hall, come first to the Press and end up later in New Letters, and so on.  I believe this is the only literary structure of its kind (magazine, press, radio series), and we are constantly trying to find ways each unit can benefit from the presence of the others.

BF: We also thrive in symbiosis with two other constituencies—our interns and Kansas City’s vibrant literary community, which includes Writers Place, Midwest Poets Series, our creative writing colleagues at UMKC and other area schools, and many others. Kansas City’s artistic ferment today calls to mind Paris in the ‘20s and Greenwich Village in the ‘50s—even if our modest Midwestern mien keeps us from crowing about it as loudly as we should.

KF: Your annual contests always produce a terrific duo of titles. Any plans to expand to include a nonfiction/essay contest? What BkMk ventures and/or manuscripts are you most excited about in the near future?

RS:  We would love to start a nonfiction-book awards program, but we have to be realistic about our staff load.  We also have dreams of a translation series, and some other things, always possible and might well happen at some time.  Of course, we do publish the occasional book of essays or memoirs—such as those from Kelly Cherry or Conger Beasley Jr.—and we would like to do more.  One of our most exciting upcoming projects, as mentioned above, is the anthology The World is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, which, coincidentally, includes prose passages, in which the poets describe their travel experiences and aesthetic reactions.

BF: I also want to mention that Rachel Hall’s linked stories, Heirlooms, which Marge Piercy selected for the Chandra Prize, ranges from Holocaust-era France to Missouri. Bonnie Bolling’s The Red Hijab, which H. L. Hix selected for the Ciardi prize, features poems that explore the Persian Gulf, where Bolling lives for part of each year. And Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s Wild Things, her most ambitious story collection yet, features what Bonnie Jo Campbell calls, “rural noir stories” that “unfold their wings near the Susquehanna River in a landscape graced by wildlife and haunted by lost prosperity.”