Carmen Giménez Smith is a poet and essayist. She runs Noemi Press out of New Mexico State University, and was previously editor of Puerto del Sol, the university’s creative writing journal.
We discussed the idea of risk and responsibility in the publishing world, as well as the differences between journal and book publishing and the symbiosis between MFA programs and journals or small presses (a topic with which the minnesota review is rather familiar.)
INTERVIEWER: Does the journal break-even/make a profit? If not, where does your funding come from?
Carmen Giménez Smith: The journal is a pedagogical tool supported by the university. My husband Evan Lavender-Smith is the editor now so I can focus on the press. He gets course releases and the university supplies a budget. We do earn money from subscriptions and orders, but not enough to sustain the magazine. The journal, which used to be two print issues a year, now puts out one print issue and one online issue, which is less of an expense, and I think Evan is continuing to seek out ways to make the magazine less costly, but the tricky thing is finding the sweet spot of resources and time that can turn a magazine into a self-sustaining venture. Many of the best-known literary journals have full-time staff and much larger budgets, so it’s tricky.
INTERVIEWER: How does being affiliated with a university affect the press? Does it afford you more or less freedom to push boundaries than you would have as a completely independent company/arts organisation?
CGS: Being associated with a university gives us resources—not the least of which is space and labor from our MFA students, but the university actually offers me very little in the way of financial resources. They give us space and support students, but we’re independent from the university, which I think I frame as an advantage because I’m not worried about the Board of Regents coming down on a publication decision, but I also would love to have access to the infrastructure the university offers because in many ways, we’re always flying by the seat of our pants. Our budget is about the same as the journal’s, although we put out 8-10 books a year. Ultimately it’s money that could improve our little venture, so I would welcome a little more university involvement.
INTERVIEWER: Does NOEMI have any kind of relationship with New Mexico State’s MFA program?
CGS: I’m currently teaching an MFA class on small press publishing and print culture. The students learn the history of print culture, the movements associated with literary publishing, editing, bookmaking, and more through direct work with Noemi. In the past students have volunteered independently or as part of an internship class. Many of these students end up working directly with Noemi as managers, like NMSU graduate Sarah Gzemski or our current managing editor and Tara Westmor and Nikkin Rader, our assistant managing editors. It’s been wonderful to see former editors like Krystal Languell and Mike Meginnis go on to start their own journals and presses, so historically the MFA program and the press have a long relationship.
INTERVIEWER: Do you know anything about the demographics of Puerto del Sol’s readers? Probably not I know! I’m just curious about who it is that’s reading lit mags – it feels likely that it’s just MFA students, writers, a few academics/students in lit departments, and that’s a little depressing, because there’s so much great stuff out there.
CGS: I wish I did, but that requires research. The journal has been around for 50 years, so many of the readers are people who’ve known the magazine in its long history. I think MFA students are drawn to it because historically the magazine has been known for publishing the work of emerging writers
INTERVIEWER: Is there any relationship between Puerto del Sol and NOEMI? Have you ended up publishing any authors who previously appeared in the journal?
CGS: We don’t mine Puerto’s submissions for books, simply because we get so many more manuscripts that we love and can’t take than we can bear already. Additionally, just because someone has some poems ready doesn’t mean they have a book done. However, we always keep an eye out and being a part of one certainly does not exclude you from being a part of another.
INTERVIEWER: How do you handle or think about issues of diversity? How does this vary for Puerto del Sol vs Noemi press? Presumably for the latter you have far more information on the authors?
CGS: We are a diverse group of editors on both staff, which luckily attracts a great deal of diverse writing. We do read contest submissions for Noemi anonymously, but we’ve never had any issues with too few excellent manuscripts from writers of color. I think that’s because we’ve historically been a press that publishes widely. As editor of Puerto, I implemented a VIDA check, an ongoing analysis of the table of contents to ensure that the issue is inclusive. As a woman of color I think it’s absolutely key to produce the best journal possible. The thing I would add is that doing this work is not hard nor does it reduce the quality of the journal. It improves it.
INTERVIEWER: Following on from that question, it seems that for the big four publishing houses writing by/about people of colour, women, LGBTQ people, or really anyone who isn’t a straight white middle-class able bodied man, is seen as a risk. Do you think there’s any truth in that? Clearly it’s something you are trying to push against, most obviously with AKRILICA and PdS’s Black Voices.
CGS: We are editors that fit those parameters of risk, writers that fit those parameters of risk, and we are people that fit those parameters of risk—we were looking to take risks, but instead address voids and call attention to the import of exciting voices. With that said, I think it’s not a risk, and in fact, we’ve had great success publishing a diverse list. Our books sell a lot and people are excited about Noemi because we’re seen as a robust press. The big presses are taking notice that the world is changing, that readers come from all sorts of backgrounds, and I imagine (perhaps with a tinge of Pollyanna) that in 10 years big publishing will look more like Noemi than people think.
INTERVIEWER: And again, following on from that question, do smaller/indie presses have a responsibility to be brave in what they decide to publish?
CGS: We have a responsibility to be critical, open, and true about the field, especially since this is a labor of love, but because it’s a labor of love, the terms of being brave are different for each press.
INTERVIEWER: What titles have been most successful for NOEMI? Have you ever been surprised by the relative success of something?
CGS: Books by Khadijah Queen, Shane McCrae, Douglas Kearney, and Suzanne Scanlon have been fantastic successes for us. In all the cases, we’ve been delighted at their success, but anticipated them to an extent. The success of a book is as much about how much work the author does to call attention to the work
Lotte Mitchell Reford is a first year fiction candidate at Virginia Tech