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.
KF: With your 53wordstory.com site, as well as flash collections you’ve published from writers such as Tara Masih and Meg Pokrass, you’re earning a reputation as a go-to publisher for flash. How do you think this came about? What do you find so appealing about the form?
KMW: The free 53-Word Story Contest is our way of challenging writers to think about telling a story in a breath, and to have some fun while strengthening their writing skills. Robert Morgan once told me that good short fiction is like a snake: it strikes quick and draws blood. I believe the shorter the art form and the more simple it appears, the more difficult it is to pull off. Short fiction, especially flash, is gaining in popularity because more people are discovering the power of a well-written short piece, and how it stays with you. Take Grant Faulkner’s Fissures: One Hundred 100-Word Stories: here’s a guy who is the Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, but he writes these brilliant 100-word stories that he publishes on his blog, 100 Word Story, along with stories others have written. Fissures is a fun read; it is edgy, sexy, and smart. Some of his characters are still in my head. I think it’s a gift to be able to say something profound in one breath. My grandfather could do that, and I guess I’ve always wanted to have that kind of intellect. As you can see from my answer to this question, I haven’t figured it out.
KF: You have gathered a terrific editorial staff, including poets Tom Lombardo, Pamela Uschuk, and William Pitt Root. How does the editorial process work at Press 53? Would you say it’s more independent or collaborative? How do you think your process contributes to the diversity of your titles?
KMW: Our relationships are independent when it comes to signing a particular poet, and it becomes collaborative when I begin work on layout and design for the book. Tom, who works from his home in Atlanta, and Pam and Bill, who are located in Tucson, operate like professional scouts. Tom brings the press four books each year: one through the Press 53 Award for Poetry, which he judges. He might pick up one more collection from the competition, but the other collections he brings to us, and the two collections Pam and Bill bring, are all done by finding poets in journals and magazines, by going to readings, conferences and festivals, or through recommendations from other poets and editors. Who my editors publish is their call. In rare instances I have turned down a collection from them if the poet becomes difficult to work with or if the collection, say a 600-page collected works, isn’t a good fit for us. As for diversity, we all reside in different circles and have differing tastes, which is why we created a reading series for each: Tom Lombardo Poetry Selections and Pam’s and Bill’s Silver Concho Poetry Series. We wanted readers to have a reference point for the poetry they find at Press 53 and want to see more of, and to help brand our editors. While I focus mostly on poets who live in North Carolina, Tom, Pam, and Bill cover the rest of the poetry community.
KF: Your website includes the succinct statement, “At Press 53, we don’t set out to be diverse or balanced; we set out to find great writing. The fact that almost 60% of our books are written by women shouldn’t be a big deal.” You’re so right, but there is still such a gender imbalance in publishing, your numbers are laudable. What do you think might be different about the editorial process at Press 53 that results in greater diversity and balance?
KMW: From my perspective, women writers have a slight edge because they tend to take me places I’ve never been. Their views of the world expand my own views. I believe that is what Tom, Pam, and Bill are looking for as well. I know of the gender imbalance in the publishing industry, and if it applies to writers, I don’t understand it. We’re finding plenty of women writers who set our minds on fire. We even have a page on our website called #kickasswomenwriters to celebrate this. I think the diversity we have came about organically since we don’t publish for the marketplace, but set out to find writing we love. After that, our job is to find readers who agree with us.