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Interview by Erika Lastovskytė

Lawrence Schimel is an award-winning writer, translator, and publisher at A Midsummer Night’s Press. As a publisher he passionately looks for voices that need to be heard to make this world a culturally and socially rich place.

Enthusiastic about building intercultural dialogue, Lawrence also works as a Spanish-to-English translator. Splitting his time between Madrid (Spain) and New York (USA) Lawrence is present at every major publishing industry event. I caught him at the Lithuanian pavilion of the buzzing London Book Fair to talk about his press and his work with the Lithuanian poets Ilze Butkute and Rimas Užgiris, who translated Ilze’s Caravan Lullabies for A Midsummer Night’s Press.

 

 

Erika Lastovskytė: Could you tell us more about A Midsummer Night's Press? What is your aesthetics, mission, and influences?

Lawrence Schimel: We started publishing books ten years ago. A Midsummer Night's Press began when I was an undergraduate at university. There was a letter press in the basement of my dormitory. I contacted some poets and licensed rights to a couple poems to publish as a broadside, which is sort of like a poster of a poem done with movable type in limited editions. When I graduated in 1993 I lost access to the letter press and so A Midsummer Night’s Press stopped running until 2007 when I started publishing commercially printed books.

The press publishes primarily in three imprints: Fabula Rasa does mythic or fairytale-inspired poetry; Body Language publishes LGBT voices; and we started the newest imprint in 2014, Periscope, which publishes women poets in translation. Two years before we began, out of everything translated into English in the US from all languages and all genres—poetry, fiction and nonfiction—only 26% were by women writers. Women's voices were not being made available to English-speaking readers. All of the women in the series have published at least two collections in their own language. They are not one-book wonders, but writers who are already established in their own language, even though they've never had a book in English yet. Having a book published in English has very often opened doors for our poets into other languages. I'm very happy and proud when our authors are translated into other languages—A Midsummer Night’s Press doesn’t get a cut or anything, but our authors become a sort of our family, so it feels like being a proud uncle.

 

EL: Your work as a publisher fills a very important niche and contributes to making women's voices heard in English. Your publishing list reflects a lot of work that is done in the areas between different sensibilities, experiences, languages and themes. What do you find in those intermediate spaces?

LS: I think in general a lot of the voices that we're publishing are important and speak to a lot of readers, but they are not necessarily finding other ways of reaching an audience. The women in translation is one very good example of that. We also published a book a number of years ago in our Body Language imprint by a deaf gay poet talking about both the experience of being gay in the deaf world as well as being deaf in the gay world. It's something that could have easily fallen between the cracks and not found an audience. But it's found resonance with general poetry readers as well as people from both the deaf community and the gay community. There was really nothing talking about that experience of disability within the gay community or sexuality within the deaf community. It's something that readers who share part of the identity with him found especially meaningful, but also readers who don't share any identities with him still find it very interesting and meaningful to have a glimpse into this experience that was made available through poetry.

 

Ilze Butkute review 2Ilzė Butkutė, Caravan Lullabies, 2011 (book cover)EL: Tell us more about your experience in publishing Ilze Butkute's Caravan Lullabies.

LS: I had read the Lithuanian poetry anthology How Earth Carries Us, translated by Rimas Užgiris, after meeting some Lithuanian poets at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in the United States. Rimas studied with one of the poets that we published, Rigoberto González, and came to our table to buy his book. He gave me a copy of the anthology, and I responded very strongly to Ilze's work. I asked to read more of her work. In many ways it was through a poet that we had already published that I published Ilze’s work: there is a sort of lineage because Rimas was Rigoberto's student and now we publish Rimas's translation of Ilze's work. As I said, our poets are a poetic family in some ways.
It was a joy to work with Rimas as a translator and he worked directly with Ilze before sending the poems to me. It was really nice to have a chance to meet Ilze in person at the previous London Book Fair (in 2016) and hear her read her work.

 

EL: What did you find particularly striking in Ilze's work?

LS: The language and the images were very striking. I also liked the shape of the poems. I think that a lot of what I've been reading from the Baltics in general, not just Lithuania but also Latvia and Estonia, is very avant-garde in many ways. A Midsummer Night’s Press’s audience tends to like avant-garde less and prefer poems that have a definite shape to them. Even if the poems are not in a form, they open, they end, they have a sort of narrative to them. When I read Ilze's work I saw a cohesiveness to her voice that I felt I would be able to find an audience for. I might read avant-garde work and like it a lot, personally, but A Midsummer Night's Press readers don't necessary look to us for that kind of work. We offer them books that are grounded and have solidity and strength.

Having an English edition has very often opened doors for these poets into other languages. I'm very happy and proud when our authors are translated into other languages. I've been sharing Ilze's book with festival directors and editors and I'm hoping it will result in poems being translated somewhere along the way.

 

EL: Have you noticed any peculiarities with Lithuanian poetry in general or in comparison to the other Baltic countries?

LS: I was interested in the work of Dovilė Kuzminskaitė. She not only translates from Spanish into Lithuanian, but she's also someone who has risked writing directly in Spanish (as I do). She's part of a long Lithuanian tradition of multilingual writers and translators.
I'm always fascinated that there is such a long tradition in Lithuania of speaking many languages, writing in many languages, publishing in many languages. This is certainly the case with Yiddish. The preeminent institution of the study of Yiddish, YIVO, was founded in Vilnius in 1925. Many important Yiddish language writers were Lithuanian writers, even if they wrote much of their work in exile in other countries.

 

EL: Is there any project that you would like to pursue if certain conditions were more favorable? In other words, if you were to have all resources at your disposal, what would you do?

LS: A lot of times what gets done while publishing poetry in translation is publishing selected poems. I think it is also important to translate individual books, but that's not done as much. In Caravan Lullabies we draw from two of Ilze's collections. So one thing I would try and do more is publish individual books, not just selected works.

I would also try to build a community of readers. There is a difference between selling books and finding readers. I am not limited the way commercial publishers are, by how many copies I need to sell in order to recover the investment. There is no pressure on the books; I publish them because I believe in them. If I had unlimited funds I could publish more books I believe in. They never expire. Commercial publishing is an avalanche of new titles every month. They are visible until they become too old, and then they usually disappear. We continue promoting our books and authors for years and years after the books are published. Our two most successful titles are the first and the third books we published. One is my own collection, Fairy Tales for Writers, which I published as our first title so I could make all of the mistakes of a new publisher on my own book without inflicting those errors on another writer who trusted me with their writing. And the other is a book by a Cuban writer living in the US named Achy Obejas. This Is What Happened In Our Other Life is her first and only poetry collection to date. They continue to be our strong, steady sellers over the years.

 

Interviu su Lawrence Schimmel 03EL: Why do you think people decide to buy your books?

LS: People like the small, trim size of our books. We wanted to make books that are physically appealing. Their size is not intimidating. If there are many unknowns, such as a writer or their origin country, something attractive that draws readers in is very helpful. Thinking about a big book by an unknown writer, you don't know if you want to commit to reading them. We also try to make books relatively inexpensive, as much as we can, to make them accessible. The biggest challenge in publishing is always distribution, getting the books to readers. We're most successful at book fairs, where we are actually finding the audience directly. A lot of bookstores don't like to carry poetry in general. Their range is very small and the types of poetry they carry tend to be by more canonical authors that are already well established. It's much harder to find bookstores that would like to take on new voices. It's hard to guess what bookstores are planning. Your book might end up in the window just because it has a pink cover if booksellers are making a pink books display. These are things that don't have anything to do with the content, but they can be a make-or-break for the book. There are a lot of elements of luck in publishing.

 

EL: What is on your agenda? What are you currently working on and planning for the future?

LS: More titles in the imprints that we have, especially now that the Periscope series has four titles. The more titles we have the more attention we can bring to women's poetic voices, which haven't been getting as much attention as they should in the English-speaking world. We're also working on two new titles in the mythic series and a translation from the Dutch for Body Language, the LGBT series.

 

 

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