Indie Spotlight: The Backwaters Press

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Eighteen years ago, The Backwaters Press was established by poet Greg Kosmicki in Omaha, Nebraska, and immediately made its presence known with the anthology Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace: Writing by Women of the Great Plains/High Plains, which won two Nebraska Book Awards in 2003. The Backwaters Press has continued to produce illuminating anthologies celebrating the work of writers living and working in the Great Plains/High Plains, including Road Trip, a collection of interviews with Nebraska poets, as well as anthologies of personal reminiscences about unsung, brilliant writers Weldon Kees and Thomas McGrath. In addition to these titles, The Backwaters Press also has published literary fiction and nonfiction, but the bulk of its books are collections of poetry.

The Backwaters Press remains loyal to its Great Plains roots by publishing poets such as William Kloefkorn, Marjorie Saiser, Twyla Hansen and Mark Sanders, and the press also celebrates the work of poets around the globe through its annual Backwaters Press Prize. A small sample of The Backwaters titles include To Live in Autumn by Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck, We Grow Old by Taiwanese poet Yu-Han Chao, and Bulrushes, by New York native Michael Madonick.

Current Backwaters Press titles are Only the Dead Are Forgiven, by renowned poet Greg Kuzma, and Wakpá Wanági: Ghost River by Trevino L. Brings Plenty, a collection described by Joy Harjo as “poems of a hardcore rez visionary,” that was recently named Book of the Month by the radio program “Native American Calling.”

Having made its mark in the Great Plains and beyond, The Backwaters Press’s current editor Jim Cihlar shares with Ploughshares what’s on the horizon as Backwaters Press closes in on publishing its 100th title.

Kate Flaherty: According to its editorial mission, The Backwaters Press simply seeks to publish “literature of value and consequence,” yet your track record shows a deep commitment to writers of the Great Plains/High Plains. What’s the reasoning for avoiding the “regional press” label even while you clearly champion writers in your region? No matter what their geographic location, what qualities would you say all Backwaters Press authors share?

Jim Cihlar: Like many independent, nonprofit literary presses, we want to bring forward voices, experiences, and ideas that might otherwise be neglected by larger, for-profit publishing houses. I’m not sure that we’re consciously avoided the label “regional.” We value the effect that place and environment have on everything: community, psyche, vision, and more. And we recognize a gap in publishing. Despite the Midwest’s rich literary heritage, there isn’t a lot being published by larger houses that reflects our lives accurately. We’re not all farmers, we’re not all conservative, we’re not all white. The Backwaters Press sees ourselves as contributing to the national conversation by speaking up from our corner of the country. “Small” and “local” don’t have the same negative connotations that they used to have—in fact, many now recognize that those qualities are assets.

Backwaters Press authors are a diverse, many-voiced group. Their writing is grounded, honest, and bold. It is fearless and musical, moving and funny. Our authors are all saying something valuable about the human condition, and they model in their writing their attempts to figure out how to live in the world.

KF: The Backwaters Press has a terrific collection of anthologies celebrating the work of writers from or connected to Nebraska and the Great Plains/High Plains. How do you settle on the themes for these anthologies? Who is your audience for these books—academic, general, or both? Any plans for future anthologies?

JC: Thank you for that compliment! I believe many of the ideas for our anthologies originate with our authors, and take shape in conversation with us. The Backwaters Press is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and we have a very active and committed board. The idea for the anthology we are working on now, a twentieth anniversary book to be published in 2017, arose from discussions at our quarterly board meetings. We are currently soliciting new poems from authors whose books we’ve previously published, to be collected into one volume. We’re excited to see all the great work that is coming in already.

Our audience for the anthologies is primarily general but certainly includes schools, colleges, and libraries. If poetry audiences are small, they are also mighty. We reach them through a variety of channels. We are a proud member of Small Press Distribution, and our books are distributed by Ingram. Our authors deserve much credit for getting the word out by giving readings, visiting classrooms, and other grassroots efforts.

KF: The Backwaters Press promotes its titles through Twitter, Facebook, and even your own YouTube channel. How challenging is it for such a small, multi-tasking staff to maintain an online presence? Would you say an online presence is crucial for the independent press? Why or why not?

JC: I don’t know that it’s crucial, but it does seem advisable. Social media is addictive, and maybe part of the challenge is not expecting that if we tweet or post every ten minutes we’ll reap corresponding rewards. The effects of social media posts, like marketing in general, are hard to measure. Pacing things out, keying posts to our “real world” publicity, sales, and fundraising initiatives seems key. For instance, the Omaha Community Foundation sponsors an annual day of online giving, and our press takes part. We try to post very frequently on that day, regularly updating our followers on the amount total as it grows.

KF: What is the process for awarding the Backwaters Prize for poetry? How has the volume and range of submissions evolved since the prize was first established?

JC: Many locally and nationally renowned authors have served as judges for our annual Backwaters Prize, including Hayden Carruth, Hilda Raz, Greg Kuzma, Patricia Smith, Lola Haskins, and Heid E. Erdrich, as well as two Poet Laureates of the United States: Ted Kooser and Philip Levine. I’ve administered the competition for the past two years, and I’ve been impressed by the quality of the submissions as well as the credentials of the submitters. The volume has increased steadily. I know our judges have a difficult but rewarding time choosing, commenting that there is so much good work truly deserving of publication that it is hard to narrow down to one. The prize is open to writers in English anywhere in the world. As you mentioned, the 2013 winner, Zeina Hashem Beck, is from Lebanon and lives in Dubai—she has done an amazing job of promoting her book,  and has received much favorable critical attention. The Backwaters Prize winner receives $1,000 and book publication. The entry period is from April 1 to May 31 every year, and submissions are received via our Submittable site.

KF: How do you see The Backwaters Press evolving? Do you envision additional prizes in the future? What Backwaters Press project are you most excited about right now?

JC: I’m relatively new to the press, but I recognize that we have a lot going for us: a great list, a great board, and great friends and supporters. As we evolve, we hope to strengthen our base by increasing our marketing and fundraising initiatives. I don’t know that we’ll add more prizes, but we are hoping to increase the amount of money given for the Backwaters Prize.

I’m very excited about the two Backwaters Prize winners currently in the pipeline. 2014 winner Katharine Whitcomb’s The Daughter’s Almanac comes out this fall. Judge Patricia Smith calls it “a masterwork,” and Arthur Sze says it is “poetry of acuity and grace.” 2015 winner Kim Garcia’s DRONE will come out in fall of 2016. Judge Heid E. Erdrich praised the “great humanity behind this beautifully crafted book-length meditation centered on a woman’s perspective on war.”

There is so much to be excited about: our twentieth anniversary in 2017, the line-up for our 2016 reading series, our expanding marketing and fundraising efforts, and forthcoming books by authors we’ve published before as well as authors new to the press.