Michael Tager, managing editor, and Ian Anderson, editor in chief, run the Baltimore small publishing house, Mason Jar Press. The press is committed to displaying unique, diverse voices and publishing pieces that challenge contributors on both professional and personal levels. Their recent poetry anthology Not Without Our Laughter:Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality, edited by celeste doaks, is the focus of the following interview, giving us insight into what it takes to select poems and work through the process of publishing a chapbook. The Black Ladies Brunch Collective has an interview in LPR’s Winter 2018 issue and each member also contributed a poem. Enjoy!
Little Patuxent Review: What inspired the idea to publish Not Without Our Laughter?
Michael Tager: Ian and I had worked with celeste Doaks before, when we hosted her for Writers & Words, a reading series we used to run together. She read from her book Cornrows and Cornfields and we (Ian especially) were blown away. What I really liked about celeste was her attitude—friendly, engaging, professional and amusing. In short, the kind of person I like working with. When Ian broached the idea of approaching celeste and seeing if she had a concept ready for publication, I was about it.
We assumed celeste would have a manuscript of some kind, but she pitched us a different idea: an anthology of black women poets inspired by Langston Hughes’ Not Without Laughter. Ian and I definitely weren’t expecting it, but it was such a great idea that we couldn’t possibly say no. Anthologies are such different animals, mixing of forms and styles and imagery. We’d never done one before, but we welcomed the challenge, and the mission inspired us to greater efforts.
LPR: What was the most challenging part of publishing the anthology?
Tager: Between the six members of The Black Ladies Brunch Collective (BLBC), Ian, and myself, we were incorporating eight different artists’ ideas into one cohesive product, and I would say that was the most challenging part of publishing Not Without Our Laughter. Poets can seem to operate on a different wavelength than the rest of us, and sometimes even amongst themselves. It was no different here. The women of the BLBC are brilliant, talented, passionate women, and theyhave their own ideas about how their art will be created and showcased. Valid concerns, too, since the book would have their name on it. Making sure we honored everyone’s voice and vision was an issue which Ian and I kept in mind throughout the project.
Working with a group creates a difficulty that doesn’t appear when it’s one poet and a publisher because the authors have their own idea of what art needs to be, and Ian and I have our own spin. Not to say that the editing or creative process was particularly contentious, because it simply wasn’t. It took more coordination and communication to be sure. For example, there was a series of emails, and meetings, and phone calls about—wait for it—line breaks. Because line breaks in poetry matter. The book was going to be a certain width, and some poems might need to be adjusted. Normally we can try to shape a book to a poet’s style, but that wasn’t going to be an option with six poets. Adjusting line breaks might not sound like a big deal, but it required thinking, adjusting, and compromise. Luckily, as grown folks who know how to communicate without hurting feelings, we were able to work through the necessary changes. That’s just one example, but you can imagine the complexity. It was challenging ,but ultimately incredibly rewarding.
LPR: What are the most prominent themes in Not Without Out Laughter?
Tager: The book is broken into sections because certain themes arose. There were initially 10 or so sections which were combined and reorganized into seven sections. The BLBC are very different poets, of different ages and places in their lives, so, of course, each poet’s voice is distinctive. But there are certain commonalities that you’ll find in any friend-group, or in any human-group. We all love Prince, for example, (and anyone who doesn’t is lying) so there’s a couple of poems about Prince (and Zeppelin) in “Our Divine Chords.” There are also sections on mood and food, the body, sex, and lists and litanies. Really, I think the sub-title of the anthology is indicative of the themes: Poems of Humor, Joy & Sexuality.
LPR: Why does Mason Jar Press publish chapbooks?
Tager: Well, first, I’m not sure that Not Without Our Laughter is technically a chapbook. It’s around 70 pages and 30+ poems, which is past the parameters to meet the definition of chapbooks, which are generally much shorter. Before NWOL, we published a book of nonfiction by Michelle Junot–Notes From My Phone–which was well over 200 pages, and we’re about to publish our first book of fiction which is 250 pages. But we have published chapbooks in the past and may continue to do so. Chapbooks function differently and live in the world differently. At Mason Jar Press, we’re interested in whatever is weird and out-of-place, but still accessible. If a writer comes across our way with an incredible chapbook, we’ll publish it. We aren’t held to strictly one venue or another.
LPR: How did you select the pieces?
celeste selected the pieces with minimal input from us, which is why she’s credited as the editor. The BLBC isn’t just a clever name; they’re a legit brunch group, as in they meet over brunch and talk about poems, books, and the people in their lives. The poems came out of that association, so we didn’t see all the poems that celeste did. We had our opinions on the pieces that came our way, though, and we asked for edits, for poems to be moved around and—perhaps our biggest ask—we requested that the ladies write response poems as a way to tie the collection more firmly together. Initially, it felt like the poems were dancing around a larger unity, but the response poems tied all the authors and voices together a little tighter.
When I say response poems, one example is Katy responding to one of Anya’s pieces and coming up with a different poem that speaks to it, as in the first two poems “Leaving the House” and “Depression Insists We Stay In” or celeste riffing off of Teri’s Prince poem. The response poems are lovely additions to the collection, but are rooted in the amazing work already present.
LPR: What can we expect next from Mason Jar Press?
Tager: Well, we’re in the final stages of Dave K’s wild novel, The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado. It’s the first novel we’ve done, and it’s been a good time. It’s a weird, weird book and really dark and cynical. We’re into that, just as we’re into poems about Prince and depression. So it’s not a total pivot from Not Without Our Laughter, because Dave has poetry in his soul, but it’s definitely different. We just sent that to print (yesterday!) and we’ll be releasing it in November. Our venue and date is 90% concrete, but we can’t quite announce it yet since everything is subject to change. But we’ll be putting it on our website as soon as we lock it in.
We’re also cooking up some other ideas, some of which I can’t really get into, because, similarly to David’s upcoming event, who knows what iterations our projects will see. I can say that we’re looking to bring some new people on board to help since Ian and I are at capacity with projects and workload. We’re looking for a media person right now, for example. Some other positions (unpaid, sadly) will also be opening up in the near future.
In addition to Bong-Ripping Brides and general expansion, our first open submissions period ended in June and we’re sorting through 250 manuscripts that we’ve received from all over the country—and the world! There’s some dynamite stuff in there. This effort will be our first foray into working with a wholly new author (we’ve known all of our authors to one extent or another), and that’s going to be a lot of fun and a new kind of challenge. Now, what we’re going to pick I couldn’t tell you, but we have some ideas of how to expand the Mason Jar Press brand. We hope to announce the manuscript(s) by the end of August, but it might be a little later.
In other words, it’s an exciting time. We couldn’t be more stoked about it all. It’s a lot of hard work, but we enjoy it so much that it doesn’t always feel like it.
Bio: Michael B. Tager is the Managing Editor of Mason Jar Press, the Book Reviews Editor of Atticus Review and the writer of many stories, essays and poems.
Bio: Ian Anderson is a writer and designer living in Baltimore, MD. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing Publishing arts from the University of Baltimore in 2014.