This interview was conducted over email during the Fall of 2018.
I don’t know if the right word to use is ‘stumble’ when YesYes Books has been publishing for close to a decade, but I stumbled across their booth at an AWP conference two years ago and have been an avid reader of their publications ever since. The poetry collection that caught my attention was Justin Phillip Reed‘s A History of Flamboyance (now sold out everywhere but the subscription package) initially because of it’s beautiful cover art, and then for the beautiful lyricism inside. Over the years, I keep finding some of my favorite writers in YesYes and its sister publication Vinyl‘s pages, both as contributors and staff. I approached this interview as a way to glean just a little bit of KMA Sullivan’s incredible work ethic, and of what makes these publications so strong and full with such necessary writers.
Makensi Ceriani: As the founder and publisher for the press YesYes Books and the coeditor-in-chief of Vinyl, how does reading submissions for a press compare to reading submissions for a literary journal? Do you engage with submissions differently for a press versus a journal?
KMA Sullivan: While I read every submission that came into Vinyl during the first five years or so, my reading has decreased significantly over the last three years and has been focused on the prose submissions that come in. Phillip B. Williams, who came on very early as Poetry Editor, is now also Coeditor in Chief of Vinyl and has been substantially responsible for building the brilliant poetry tradition we have at the magazine. We have only had one poetry reader assisting at Vinyl over the years and that was last year. From the beginning Phillip and I have been committed to reading everything ourselves.
Meanwhile, over at YesYes Books, I read about 1200 manuscripts per year. Stevie Edwards, Senior Editor of Book Development, reads these same manuscripts. And a number of the editors at YYB also contribute input on the various submissions that come in. Both at YYB and at Vinyl there’s a whole lot of reading going on!
In many ways reading for the magazine and reading for the press are the same. We read closely, carefully with our hearts, minds, and ears open. At both the magazine and press we have little interest in bios and frequently read them only after we have decided to accept the work. I believe this has a great deal to do with why both the magazine and the press have become known for releasing work by writers quite early in their careers: Ocean Vuong, Rickey Laurentiis, Fatimah Asghar, Nate Marshall, Lynn Melnick, Justin Phillip Reed, Emily O’Neill, Danez Smith, to name a few.
Naturally, reading for the press is different from the magazine because we are considering a manuscript as a whole. I am looking for not only the strength of individual pieces but also how the pieces talk to one another across the book. With both individual pieces for Vinyl and manuscripts for YYB, we are committed to functioning as editors to help each piece, each book become what it is trying to be.
M: What qualities do you look for in a piece of writing? What makes a poem riveting to you, both as a writer and as a publisher?
KMA: Our aesthetic is quite broad in terms of style, form, and voice but I am always looking for the same thing: that everything is at stake for the writer and that the heart of the writer is complex enough to acknowledge the humanity in themselves and in the humans around them.
Work that objectifies others, especially when those others are easy targets, interests me not at all. Gimmicks that serve themselves rather than the heart of the work will cause me to stop reading. I enjoy movement across the page, unusual grammar or syntax, new punctuation styles, etc but only if they serve the work.
M: How do you think about issues of diversity while you are selecting submissions?
KMA: There are a few different ways this question could be answered but I think I’ll attend to the heart of the matter as I see it. If editors are committed to reading as broadly as possible, a rich diversity of voice will emerge. Strength of language and sound and meaning is everywhere. Editors need to read beyond what is familiar to them. There is so much incredible writing out there. A lack of diversity in a publication goes directly back to a lack of full engagement by editors in the literary landscape that is currently available to them.
M: How did you first establish yourself in the publishing community? Was the goal to always create both a press and a journal?
KMA: The growth of both Vinyl and YesYes Books has been fueled by my love of poetry and language in general. I knew no poets other than my father when I entered the MFA at VA Tech but the sudden and brilliant love for poetry that emerged soon after I started the program caused me to read as much contemporary poetry as I could get my eyeballs on. While I loved much of the work, I was puzzled by the lack of diversity in what was being offered in current magazines both online and in print. That was the prime motivation for starting Vinyl which occurred in my second year. I wanted to see in a magazine what I was hoping to read: intense, courageous, take-no-prisoners work that engaged my heart and my ear. By the time I was wrapping up my degree at VA Tech, I realized I had to do something with this burning love for poetry and great enjoyment of editing. Starting a press seemed the right way to go.
M: In what ways has your insider, publishing knowledge changed your approach when you consider your own writing for submission?
KMA: The sheer volume of submissions we receive has developed my patience for the editors I have not heard back from when it comes to my own work. The process also makes it clear to me that rejections are not personal. We are able to publish 10 books out of the 1200 we receive every year. As writers we need to be patient. Editors are overworked and rarely paid and they do it all for love. We all need to hang in there and have faith in one another.
M: What advice do you have for individuals who may be looking to start their own small presses? Or their own literary journals?
KMA: Both endeavors are spectacular. There is not one moment of boredom. Frankly it’s a wild circus in the back room. But the workload is relentless, and you need to understand that before taking on the responsibility of releasing other people’s work into the world. Journals and presses take teams of people (though you can indeed start with just yourself). I am immensely lucky in the editors and designers I have had the joy to work with at both Vinyl and YesYes Books including Phillip B. Williams (of course), Stevie Edwards, Jill Kolongowski, Cole Hildebrand, Amber Rambharose, Alban Fischer, Amie Zimmerman, beyza ozer, JoAnn Balingit, Levi Todd, Carly Schweppe, and Hari Ziyad. Together we get the whole job done!
KMA Sullivan is the author of two poetry collections: Inclined to Riot (forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press) and Necessary Fire, winner of the St Lawrence Book Award (Black Lawrence Press, 2015). Her poems and essays have appeared in Boston Review, Southern Humanities Review, diode, The Rumpus, Forklift, Ohio, The Nervous Breakdown, Gertrude, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residencies in creative nonfiction and poetry at Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Summer Literary Seminars. KMA is coeditor in chief of Vinyl and the founder and publisher of YesYes Books.
Makensi Ceriani writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared most recently in Burning House Press, Z Publishing’s Best Emerging Poet Series, and Rag Queen Periodical. She is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry and Arts Leadership at Virginia Tech.