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Bryan Borland, whose newest book is Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems From the First Year Without My Father, is a poet and the noted publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press (SRP), which he began in 2009. His first book of poems, My Life As Adam, was acclaimed by the American Library Association through inclusion in its Over the Rainbow list of recommended LGBT reading. He is also the publisher of Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, which in three years has become one of the most talked about and critically-acclaimed new journals to succeed in gay publishing in years. SRP recently also launched the inaugural issue of Jonathan, a journal of gay male fiction, edited by poet Raymond Luczak. A native of Alexander (Little Rock), Arkansas, Borland brings a whole new model for entrepreneurship and excellence to small press LGBT publishing. Generous of time and spirit, and welcoming of a diversity of creative voices, he has helped a whole new generation of poets and writers join a list of the best in the genre. Everything ahead is potential and possibility. He talked with poet and artist Philip F. Clark to let us know how it all started, where he is, and where he wants to go next.
To say you’ve come a long way would be stating the obvious.
Philip, it’s unreal. What is this? What’s happened? It’s not normal yet. I’m not sure if it will ever feel normal.
In light of your most recent published collection of poems, Less Fortunate Pirates: Poems From the First Year Without My Father, I’d say your dad would be damned proud of you right now. It’s an extraordinary effort of love and memory. Tell us about the new book and how it came about.
My father died just before Sibling Rivalry Press came to be. On Thanksgiving 2009, I pitched him an idea that would allow me to publish my first book, My Life as Adam. Because the poems were so personal to my family, I felt I needed his permission, and I certainly needed his financial assistance. He said I had both, and on December 10, he deposited one thousand dollars into my bank account. That money was to hire a book designer for Adam. On December 20, ten days after giving me the money, my father died. He was working late, and he left his office to run an errand. Either leaving or returning from that errand, I’m not certain which, his vehicle left a bridge and fell into a lake. He was able to get out of the vehicle, which both gives me hope and devastates me, but his body was found on the lakeshore early the next morning. So I had a manuscript, a book designer, an imprint (which I’d named Sibling Rivalry Press), but no father. Like many writers, I suppose, I began to scribble my way through the year, the grief, and the trauma. Those scribbles turned into poems, and soon, those poems turned into a manuscript. I didn’t originally have any intention of turning the poems into a book. I was simply writing them as distraction. My mother needed me. Through my day job, at a law office, I was handling my father’s estate. I was handling the life insurance claim. My mother and father lived in separate residences during the week due to his job; it was my responsibility to gather, pack, and clear his belongings from his residence. The duty was sudden. The weight was heavy. As the year progressed and the poems piled up, I realized I was chronicling something special. Not only was I recording my grief and revelations, I was documenting my father. I was making him immortal, in a way, with these poems. I was making him forever. Because my father’s generosity (both my parents’ actually — that seed money was also my mother’s) led to Sibling Rivalry Press. I knew I had an obligation to use it to honor him. I believe he’d be proud. Yes.
SRP has also just published the first issue of Jonathan, a new journal of gay fiction edited by Raymond Luczak — one of the first poets to appear in Assaracus and SRP’s lineup. Tell us how Jonathan came about. By the way, that beautiful cover of a handsome bear sleeping on a lover’s chest made me think of Auden’s “Lay your sleeping head my love…”. Just sayin’.
Jonathan represents the natural progression of Sibling Rivalry Press. While poetry will always be our focus, there’s a place for prose, too. After the success of Assaracus, which will always be my baby, I realized the formula of a small number of authors in a journal really seemed to work, but I can’t take credit for the idea or the push to bring Jonathan into the world. Jonathan is Raymond’s brainchild. I have a wonderful working relationship with him, as his Road Work Ahead was the first full-length book published by Sibling Rivalry Press after my own Adam. He’s a veteran of the business, and he’s played a hand not only in the strategic development of SRP but also in the cover art, which typically receives positive attention. Rarely a cover goes to print without his input. I trust his eye. The photograph on our first issue is by Bill Pusztai and was found by Raymond. We wanted to make a statement with that first cover — that the gay world is not represented solely by skinny, beautiful boys. Although I have no problem with skinny, beautiful boys.
Do you remember the first moment when you decided to become a publisher?
I think it’s fair to say I stumbled into it by accident. I wanted my book published. I was impatient. I say, jokingly, that I’m the guy who wanted to be a lawyer so he founded a law school. But it’s true, and I don’t feel it diminishes or belittles the press, because the press is succeeding. I’ve learned on the job. I’ve learned valuable lessons, sometimes in trials by fire. I’ve made mistakes, but I won’t make them twice. Readers who have been with Assaracus from the beginning have seen me grow (just look at Issue 01 and then at Issue 09!). I’m proud that I didn’t wait until I was perfect to begin. That’s perhaps the biggest lesson. You want something? Do it.
I don’t think the words “Whoa boy!” will ever apply to you. From the moment you began your venture to create Sibling Rivalry Press, you have not stopped bringing more and more of the best gay and lesbian poets to the attention of a national and international audience. Your impact in a short period of time — what, three years? — has been downright meteoric.
I say yes more than I say no. But I’ve learned to say no, too. I push myself, but I know (or I’m trying to know) when to stop pushing. I drink. I laugh. I sing (badly). I let myself say I love you. I don’t pretend I’m not in awe of seeing a book with the SRP logo on it. I don’t pretend it’s normal to get to speak to Michael Klein on a regular basis. Or receive phone calls from Ian Young. Or see SRP titles in 10 of the top 20 Amazon spots in the gay poetry category. I say thank you. I don’t take it for granted. And I know, I really know, that one of these lines from one of these poems in one of these books will, or perhaps already has, saved someone’s life. Because that’s what poetry did for me.
Lady Business was your first foray into publishing lesbian poetry. It’s doing beautifully, and has garnered a lot of critical and performance attention around the states.
Lady Business has been a pleasant surprise. So much so that I already know there will be a second volume. Actually, and ideally, Lady Business would become a quarterly like Assaracus, but there’s no way I could continue being its editor in terms of time constraints and demands alone. (Hint, hint, hint. Any potential Lady Biz editors out there? Call me.) By the way, I do get a kick out of the fact that my name is listed as editor of Lady Business in the Lesbian Poetry category of the Lammies. I have to wonder if I’m the first male submitted in that category.
SRP books are sexy. But they are also prismatic in the range of experiences and poets you publish. You do not have a micro-niche mentality, yet you’re completely focused on a specific audience. How do you keep everything charged up and yet so expansive?
Well, SRP isn’t LGBT-exclusive in content or lineup. Look at some of our top-selling authors. Jessie Carty comes to mind, whose chapbook Fat Girl was one of our top-selling titles of 2011. Matthew Temple, who authored Things Said in Dreams, our first novel, is a raging heterosexual. Virginia Bell’s husband gave me flowers at our joint reading in Chicago. I tried to turn him on with sultry verse, but he only has eyes for Mrs. Bell, author of SRP’s From the Belly. That said, SRP is known, and has received acclaim, for being a press that allows its LGBT authors and content to shine. Assaracus was named as a Best New Magazine by Library Journal. My first book, along with titles by Ocean Vuong and Kevin Simmonds, were honored by the American Library Association through inclusion on its Over the Rainbow list of recommended LGBT reading. Matthew Hittinger and Michael Klein are soon to be mentioned in Poets & Writers — which will be huge for us. There’s no doubt, at this point, that Sibling Rivalry Press is a legitimate publishing house. We make quality books, and most of those happen to be by LGBT authors. Not all of them are. It’s as simple as that.
You’ve put Arkansas on the map as far as gay and lesbian poetry is concerned. Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, as well as your catalog of publications at SPR have been lauded, purchased, placed on library bookshelves, nominated for prizes, and read all over. Was creating SRP easier to do because of where you live?
Absolutely. It absolutely was easier creating SRP and Assaracus in Arkansas. There’s nothing here even remotely like it. The cost of living, and, in turn, the cost of running a business, is cheaper here. And it makes a great story. A journal called Assaracus is produced in Alexander, Arkansas. Population 700? Sometimes you need that little “in” to get noticed. You need the lead-in to the story. But once you’ve got that attention, you better be damn sure you have the goods to back it up. You better be sure the work is solid, because that’s the only way you’ll keep that attention.
With a nod to Shakespeare, your motto could be “The past is prologue.” You always respect and have given props to the older generations of gay poets who have come before us. You understand their value in creating a history for us, from which we continue to add to that history with our own experiences. Assaracus is very inclusive in terms of the ages of its poets. Why is this important, especially now?
I think it started for me because my introduction to gay poets came from Gavin Dillard’s anthology A Day for a Lay, and most of those poets are at least a generation ahead of me. They are my heroes. I tell anyone who reads submissions to Assaracus that I like to give spots to what I call legacy poets — poets who were published in the 70s and early 80s in publications like Mouth of the Dragon, who have earned their stripes and deserve to be read in 2013. These are the poets who busted the doors down for me to do what I do, and not only to write what I write and publish what I publish, but to kiss the man I love. I walk with him in public — in Arkansas — holding his hand. That’s not lost on me.
You are in love. Head over heels, as they say. Tell me that’s not a great inducement for creative juices! What is it like having someone beside you every day who completely understands, supports, and contributes to your work?
Unexpected. I never understood the term “soul mate,” or even love in its purest sense, until I experienced life with Seth. That boy can sing. We’re Johnny and June. We’re Chris and Don. Do you remember in A Single Man, how some things George sees are dull and some are enhanced and colorful? With Seth, everything is colorful. He gets me. He gets the press and its vision, because it’s his vision too. We read poetry to each other. I fell asleep while he read Ginsberg to me. My head was on his chest. And he pushes me. The redesign of Assaracus? The website overhaul? Those things are all him. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of us. The first two books of my literary career were about loss. Adam was about my brother; Pirates, my father. The third, I’m thinking, will have a different theme. Can you guess what that will be?
You’ll be at AWP this March. This will be the first time that SRP will be presented as a company in such a large and important venue. What does that mean to you, and how will it affect the new year ahead?
I’ll be honest. I wrestled with the idea of whether to have a table at AWP because there is so much potential to be lost in the crowd. I’d rather focus on smaller book fairs and events where we can shine. Still, I do believe SRP owes it to its authors to be there. Last year, I walked around and sold books out of a backpack. I’d be perfectly comfortable doing the same thing this year. We made a profit at AWP in 2012, but with the table cost, etc., we’ll see how that shakes out this year. I’m a big believer in breaking the “supposed-to” rules (from a business point of view) — Don’t self-publish. Don’t opt for print-on-demand. Don’t publish your work on a personal website. Bullshit. Do what works. Be smart. Be frugal. Be passionate. As for how AWP will impact the new year? AWP is a cluster. It’s overwhelming. But it’s fun. We’ll sell a lot of books. I’ll hug a lot of necks. I’ll be star stuck the entire time. Will this ever get normal for me? Not a chance. And that’s what I love about it.