For Books’ Sake talks to: Kate Gale of Red Hen Press

7th Mar 2014

For Books' Sake talks to: Kate Gale of Red Hen Press
Nestled between the tinsel and tears of Los Angeles there's a literary diamond called Red Hen Press.

Red Hen Press, an independent publisher of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry, turned twenty in February of this year. For Books’ Sake caught up with founding editor Kate Gale to celebrate.

“At Red Hen we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles,” Gale explains. “So it’s a big year with a lot of events and much to look forward to including a reading at AWP with Robert Hass, Gary Snyder, Eva Saulitis and moderator Peggy Shumaker.”

Although LA’s literary scene is somewhat overshadowed by bookish big sister San Francisco, Red Hen Press is part of a strong literary tradition on the west coast.

“The city inspired me to want to start a press in the first place,” Kate Gale explains. “I wanted to make Los Angeles into a more literary city. And I feel the press, like the city, is adventurous, edgy, gritty, wild, over the top, grunge and wickedly cool at the same time. In the loop. In the sunshine. Understanding shadow. Etched against the sky like palm trees which were brought to Los Angeles from another country, we thrive.”

With three imprints, an accomplished school outreach program, several annual awards and the LA Review in its remit, Red Hen has indeed thrived. There’s plenty for Gale to feel proud of: “I am pleased with the breadth of aesthetics Red Hen has published,” Gale reflects. “I like to think that we are striving to find work that has a level of mastery and excellence in whichever aesthetic camp it lives and that we embrace both excellence and aesthetic diversity.”

As founding editor, Gale is dedicated to finding fresh meat to add to Red Hen’s literary line up. “I get excited,” she says, describing the moment she realises a fresh manuscript is a winner.

“The last book I read—on a plane, which is my favourite manuscript reading time—was called Good for Nothing. I was so excited, I wanted to call my marketing guy from the plane and say, Billy! Read this. It rocks! We have to do it.”

In retrospect, is there anything Gale would have done differently? “Let me count the ways,” she replies. “There are books we wouldn’t have published. There are covers we would have told the author—no on that art work you’re so in love with. There are people we wouldn’t have hired, but, like having children or getting married, the journey makes it worth it.”

I wanted to make Los Angeles into a more literary city. And I feel the press, like the city, is adventurous, edgy, gritty, wild, over the top, grunge and wickedly cool at the same time.Like For Books’ Sake, Red Hen actively strives to counterbalance the male bias in literary fiction – and beyond. “Ah yes. The men who talk at us, down to us, around us,” Gale muses.

“I want to hear female voices and stories and I want female literary power to come through. Red Hen has a lesbian imprint—Arktoi Books—which has been very successful with such books as My Almost Certainly Real Imaginary Jesus, a memoir, and a new novel, about to be released, Spheres of Disturbance, by Amy Schutzer.”

Red Hen have championed another unsung literary hero over the last two decades: the poet. Poetry is a medium that’s all too often overlooked by the everyday reader, but why is that? What stops poets from topping the bestseller lists?

“Reading poetry is work. I just gave my new poetry book to my hair dresser and I think she was finding it a bit challenging. She says poetry is for smart people,” Gale laments.

“I think most people would go further and say that poetry is for people with graduate degrees in English. So, finding an audience for poetry is hard because you’re up against the anti-intellectualism that most football-loving Americans live and breathe.”

Red Hen isn’t afraid of rolling the dice though, and nor is Gale. “On the other hand, I believe that you can find that audience; it just takes work. I also believe in publishing at least some poets that you can understand without a graduate degree.”

Red Hen Press currently run a further two imprints in addition to the aforementioned Arktoi Books: Boreal Books, specialists in literature and art from Alaska; and Xeno Books, the imprint reserved for titles whose form go against the conventions of traditional Red Hen publications.

“I wish we could publish more Latino books,” Gale says, when asked about any plans for further expansion. “We do a prize with Letras Latinas, a program of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, which publishes a second poetry book by a Latino author every two years. We do not plan to expand our publishing program though. What we plan to do is get better at the books we are publishing in terms of marketing, publicity and foreign rights sales.”

Gale herself has many strings to her bow, stretching from opera composition to poetry, teaching and philanthropy. “I would never say to anyone, even my energetic crazy daughter: Hey, why don’t you teach at a couple universities, be the managing editor of a press and be responsible for fund raising, run marathons, train by running sixty miles a week, write books and librettos to operas, have a family, work on transforming a large Western sprawl city into the next literary city, the next Paris, and have fun doing all this,” Gale says.

“I don’t say it because they might think I’m crazy. But, that is what I do. The advice I give is to create a sustainable literary life. Don’t try to do more than you know how to. And make sure you’re having fun or you’re doing it all wrong.”

And what’s next for this prolific literary editor?  “I am revising four librettos this year: Gargoyles—a children’s opera, the Kinsey opera, Che Guevara and one called Ravi’s Dream. I will probably do more revisions of my lyric memoir and I plan to start a new poetry book between my spring book tour and my fall book tour. I always look forward to what future Kate is going to do.”

Red Hen titles are available from the website. Kate’s latest poetry collection, Mating Season, is available from March 13th 2014.