Poets & Writers

The Abundance, Joy, Beauty, Persistence, Power, and Potential of Independent Publishing

IN THE fall of 2020, when the United States seemed to be reckoning with multiple points of inflection—the COVID-19 pandemic, a highly contested election season, the #PublishingPaidMe conversation about inequities in book advances, and widespread protests against police brutality—I had the opportunity to ask five leading Black editors about the business of bringing new writing into the world. We were all working from home, from our locations on the East Coast and in the Midwest, the Great Plains, and the West. Using e-mail and an online document to record the conversation, they shared some insights into the nuts and bolts of their lives as editors, and they also let us in on some thoughts about how editors shape our literary culture.

I selected these five editors because I can’t imagine the contemporary literary landscape absent of their crucial contributions. I am grateful to Heather Buchanan, Kwame Dawes, Mensah Demary, Parneshia Jones, and Alexander Watson for sharing their thoughts during these particularly hectic times. Here are brief biographies of the participants:

Heather Buchanan is the owner and publisher of Aquarius Press, now in its twenty-first year. In 2007 she cofounded its flagship imprint, Willow Books, with Randall Horton, to serve a mission to develop, publish, and promote writers of color. Buchanan is a 2019 University of Michigan–Dearborn Alumnus Difference-Maker of the Year recipient. A former poet in residence for the Detroit Public Library system, Buchanan received a proclamation from the City of Detroit in 2009. Buchanan is also an award-winning film producer who develops stories by writers of color.

Kwame Dawes is the author of twenty-one books of poetry and numerous books of fiction, criticism, and essays. Dawes serves as the Glenna Luschei editor in chief of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. He is also director of the African Poetry Book Fund and cofounder of the Calabash International Literary Festival in Jamaica. In 2017 Dawes was elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets, and that same year he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the U.K. In January, Dawes will assume the position of editor of American Life in Poetry.

Mensah Demary is the executive editor of Catapult, Counterpoint Press, and Soft Skull Press and a founding editor of Catapult magazine.

Parneshia Jones is the author of the poetry collection (Milkweed Editions, 2015), winner of the Midwest Book Award and featured as one of “12 Books to Savor” by . In September she was named director of Northwestern University Press, where she has worked since 2003. Some of her acquisitions have been named Pulitzer Prize finalists, and others have garnered literary honors including the National Book Award, Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award,

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