Interview About Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize

Author: Henry Israeli

What makes Saturnalia Books a unique part of the publishing community?

Our work is challenging, intelligent, not afraid to be experimental, but above all, exciting. It’s also important to us that the books themselves look good. We pride ourselves on having covers that are interesting to look at and books that are solid and well made, not print on demand. When people pick up a title by Saturnalia Books they know they are in for something surprising, something unexpected.

Please describe the contests of Saturnalia Books? How long have you been running these contests? What motivated you to start the contest?

Saturnalia Books has one contest per year, the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, judged by a nationally renowned poet. This year Lynn Emanuel judged. Next year Yusef Komunyakaa will judge. In previous years we’ve asked a variety of major American poets to judge. We hope that having judges as diverse aesthetically as Mark Doty, Bob Hicok and Forrest Gander (to name a few) ensures that we won’t be over-representing a single strand of poetry. The motivation to start a contest comes from wanting to cast a wide net out there to find out what people are writing, and what kind of concerns, both literary and not, are engaging poets today.

What sort of qualities do you look for in a manuscript or piece of work that you are considering for publication or for becoming a finalist in the contest?

We look for something that will both fit into our present catalog and also expand the “voice” of our press at the same time. We don’t want people to say that a book feels out of step with what we value in poetry, but we also don’t want to fall into the trap of picking the same kinds of book over and over again. We are opposed to the idea of having a preset aesthetic.

Do you have a specific aesthetic preference? How would you describe that aesthetic?

We like work that shows a deep understanding of poetic tradition but also builds on it in a unique and interesting way. Our books tend to be avant-garde but not to the point of being esoteric. We like distinct voices that really carry the poets’ DNA in the words as well as work that challenges any aesthetic established by work we’ve previously published. We like work that makes us see the world through different eyes, work that is passionate and meaningful and also attentive to the music of words and the expressiveness of language.

What is the most exciting part about running the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize? What has been the most challenging?

The most exciting part is finding new talent. We’ve been lucky enough to discover so many incredible writers that have garnered a lot of excitement. We feel honored that we were the first to publish Sabrina Orah Mark, Kathleen Graber, Sarah Vap, and Catherine Pierce.

The most challenging part is keeping our heads above water financially. I don’t need to tell you that poetry doesn’t sell well in general, and work that is more challenging or unexpected is even more difficult to sell. Raising money from grants and donors is also always an enormous challenge.

What is the next exciting thing happening with Saturnalia Books?

We have exciting new books coming out from Sarah Vap, William Kulik, Natalie Shapero, and our most recent contest winner, Hadara Bar-Nadav. All of our new books are coming out in digital editions as well and we’re hoping to eventually have our entire catalog available as e-books. We’re also putting out an expanded digital edition of our infamous anthology, Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetrics, and we’re planning ahead for an anthology of selected works from our first ten years.