Kore Press and Literary Activism: an interview with Lisa Bowden

Since 1993 Kore Press has been dedicated to publishing women’s literary art.  Situated in Tucson, Arizona, it embodies the spirit of “literary activism”.  Kore, pronounced (koray), is the Greek word for daughter and another name for the goddess Persephone.  The press was founded by Lisa Bowden and Karen Falkenstrom, and Shannon Cain is currently the Director of Sales and Marketing and editor of fiction.  Kore’s mission is “to publish and distribute excellent works of literary and artistic value by a diversity of women, those traditionally underrepresented in the cultural mainstream; to promote those voices; and to educate young people about bookmaking, printing, the literary arts as social activism, and publishing.”  The press has printed works by authors/artists such as Alison Deming, Ani DiFranco, Adrienne Rich and Faith Wilding.  Next to these activities, Kore promotes literacy through The Grrls’ Literary Activism Project, a community arts program for girls and young women from ages 14 to 18.

Lisa Bowden, co-founder, poet and book designer talks about literary activism à la Kore-style, and what that entails in practice.  She also discusses Kore’s latest publication, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Renée Turner: Both you and Karen Falkenstrom were the founders of Kore.  What were your backgrounds, and how did the two of you decide to open the press?

Lisa Bowden: Karen had been working at the University of Arizona Poetry Center coordinating readings and otherwise very active in the larger literary community as an organizer, director of the Tucson poetry festival, and poet. I had just come off of working for 5 years with the Chax Press studio doing letterpress printing, binding and helping with readings, etc. I have a background in English and came to the work as a reader and lover of language and visual art, as well as a great need to work with my hands. I was ready to do my own presswork when Karen and I began having conversations about doing a project together, and how there were no feminist presses in the Southwest. Charles Alexander of Chax Press was moving and selling his equipment around then as well, which I bought. So it was very good timing all around.

RT: When reading about Kore Press, one of the things stated is that it was built out of “the energy of the Women in Print movement of the 60s and 70s”.  Can you talk about that movement and how it specifically inspired Kore’s activities?

LB: The Women in Print Movement emerged to pursue justice and equality for women by putting women’s writings into print. This contemporary movement developed in the late 60s and was focused on lesbian and feminist print activism.  Carol Seajay, who has 20 years experience in publishing and running a feminist bookstore, talked about how “little of what we needed to know was available. . . experiences of domestic violence, sexual harassment, pay inequity, racial discrimination, lesbian relationships, and so on. . .When we did get coverage in mainstream publications, our ideas were distorted and trivialized, and it became increasingly clear that if we wanted feminist ideas in print we would have to do it ourselves. Freedom of the press, we learned early on, belonged to those who owned printing presses.” (MS. Magazine, July/August 1992)

Women established their own typesetting shops, binderies, wholesale distribution, and bookstores to put literature into women’s hands. The development of the movement was a part of that drive for women’s independence and radical social change for women—and men—concerned about women’s writings, women’s rights and politics. Most importantly, it promoted alternatives against the gatekeepers of public discourse by generating cultural product that was also a tool for organization.

That’s the back-story. Specifically, I liked the creative and editorial power, and autonomy, operating my own printing presses afforded me. We, of course, were publishing poetry mostly, not radical feminist content. The politics of it came from the fact that we only published women as an attempt to level the literary playing field. But, the literary playing field easily became a lens for all kinds of equity issues. Our first publication, actually, was a manifesto by Alison Deming about what it takes to be a woman artist, a la guerrilla grrls. 

Snippet from Girls in the Jungle, Alison Hawthorne Deming, (view larger image of the publication and read the full text)

RT: Throughout the Kore Press site,  the words, “activism”, “social activism” and “literary activism” appear.  Can you speak about what that has meant to Kore Press in terms of its overall mission?

LB: I have always considered the work of this press to be activist work not only because the focus is on women writers—the voices of whom I believe contribute to changing the world—but also because small press publishing is by definition a mission-driven enterprise based on the idea that books elicit change in the minds of readers, in the lives of their writers, and in the marketplace in which they circulate (if you accept the view that the work of small presses presents a non-normative/ie, non-commercial perspective). In thinking about the effective use of media as an instrument of change, a concern we return to at Kore Press has to do with the number of women getting published. Given that about half of the writers in MFA programs are women—though fine arts programs are by far not the only place writers come from—we know women continue to pursue degrees in the field, and given the number of submissions we, for example, get—about 700/year; and the Feminist Press gets, as another example—about 100/month—we know women are submitting their work for publication.

We also know the following:

  • In the history of the National Book Awards, only 29 percent of the winners have been women.
  • The NYTBR last year lists the 10 Best Books of the Year: 5 fiction titles, all by men; and 5 non-fiction titles, 2 by women.
  • A full-page ad celebrating National Poetry Month in 06, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and listing more than 100 institutional sponsors (government, private foundations, universities, nonprofit presses and magazines, media outlets), prominently feature excerpts of five famous poems—none of which were written by a woman. The official poster for National Poetry Month 2006 included eighteen such quotes—no more than 25% by women poets.
  • Of the 137 authors in a recent Norton Anthology of American Literature, less than one-third are women.
  • In early 2005, women constituted only 17% of the opinion writers at The New York Times, 10% at The Washington Post, 28% at US News & World Report, and 13% at both Newsweek and Time.
    6.5 years ago, only 28% of all books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review were written by women.
  • In 1995 40 feminist presses existed in the U.S. and 40 in the rest of the world; there are now roughly six. Not to put to fine a point on it. Identity politics is reductive and passé, most say in 2008. It is also hard not to look at these numbers and think about what is going on, and wonder if it weren’t the case, how different our culture might be, how different the historic record we leave behind. Not enough women writers getting into intellectual circulation, and we don’t have enough women Senators yet.

RT: On a practical level, how does Kore Press fund itself?  Are you subsidized by an arts council, private donations and/or corporate sponsors?  How does your funding (or perhaps even lack there of) impact what you do?  I ask this because financial survival for any cultural organization requires a great deal of work and is crucial to getting projects realized.

LB: We fund ourselves through all of the above: local and state arts councils, private foundations, individual donations, business sponsorships, fundraising events, submissions fees for contests, and book sales. We don’t take on too much that we can’t get funding for anymore because we want to stay current with projects. A few projects never made it off the burner because they either were too big in scope or we just didn’t have the capacity to bring in what it took to realize them. Or, we lost energy around them. Every project has a life. Really, anymore, we complete projects within a year or two of starting them, once we pull them out of the air and get them on the ground. Yes, the business of staying afloat is ongoing work.

RT: You’ve just finished co-editing Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq.  How did the project come about?  What was it like for you to work intensively on the collection?  What kind of discoveries did you make concerning women’s voices in what is traditionally understood as a male space?  Arguably, not just the military is male dominated but also the field of poetry.

LB: Shannon heard a young, male vet read a very horrific and moving story a few years ago. She brought the question to the table “where are the women vet’s stories and what would they be like?” We did some research and found that no such collection had ever been published. We were 3 years into the Iraq war and there was a lot of conversation about women going into combat, but not being trained properly because the military didn’t actually acknowledge that women were going into combat situations. Post Traumatic Stress Disorders from sexual trauma and harassment in addition to other stresses of war continues to be an important topic for all Vets, but for women in particular. We also were involved in some anti-consumer holiday peace actions here the last year—so all these things were feeding this project.

It was a tremendously editorial project because we were working with a lot of non-professional and first-time writers. We did a lot of close reading and editing on a  majority of the work we accepted for publication. It required great care to enter these stories and poems critically, to help the writers bring out the best of what was there, and in them. The material, of course, was mostly very sensitive. Gorgeous, moving work.

What we found was a lot of divergent opinions and experiences, though there were recurrent themes that emerged, sexism being one, silence being another. (The preface to Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq can be found here )

RT: Can you discuss The Grrls Literary Activism Project ?   How did it emerge out of Kore Press’s activities?

LB: The grrls project is an afterschool workshop for teenage girls led by local artists and writers, to write and bring their voices, opinions and creative ideas out of the classroom or studio and into public space. It’s kind of a guerrilla grrls 101, with a using language creatively to talk about issues important to them. They came up with a project called “Period Pieces” where they revamped a tampon machine and filled it with tampons wrapped in their poems. It circulated around a few public bathrooms in town. People really respond to it. Other Grrl “actions” have included making and distributing homemade cookies with anti-hate slogans on them, writing and hanging up valentines to the earth, making and wearing t-shirts with their own words/poems on them, and hanging “signs of disturbance” (their versions of “do not disturb signs”) on doorknobs in public places with odes they wrote to extinct species printed on them.

LB: The project is a natural extension of my own interest in using writing and art as a means for staying socially engaged as a citizen and artist. Educating our future leaders, our teenage girls, to value and cultivate their voices through writing at crucial developmental stages is important thing to do. Every woman writer and artist I know says how much they would have loved to be in classes like this as a teenager. Maybe it’ll save some of them some time down the road, if their writer or artist selves are listened to now and taken seriously, they might learn to listen more deeply to themselves instead of everyone else.

RT: When teaching in art academies, I often experience that my female students want to distance themselves from feminism, not because they don’t relate to feminist concerns, but because they worry about being ghettoized.  They associate feminism with a kind of essentialism, or something reductive.  Have you experienced this type of reticence to embrace feminism in the context of your activities at Kore Press or during your workshops with The Grrls Literary Activism Project?

LB: All the time. The interest, beliefs and sentiments are there, but they are so not into the “f” word!

RT: Looking back at Kore Press’s history of publications, which works altered or expanded your own thoughts regarding women and writing in unexpected ways?

LB: “Rooted Heart” by Sylia Sohn Um  (written when she was dying of lymphoma at age 26); Powder (for a new understanding of what it means to take heart—courage—in deed and on the page, no matter the adversity); Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” delivered at Seneca Falls as part of women’s suffrage (I typed the whole thing into my computer! It is a beautifully wrought argument, persuasive, with gorgeous language, and quite moving. It worked, and reminds me the right to vote was hard won, and of the power of language throughout history. And, not to be lazy.)

RT: Do you have a project in mind that has not happened yet, let’s call it your dream future project?

LB: There are two anthologies in the hopper—-a trilingual collection of indigenous women writers of Latin America; and an international collection of avant garde language projects by women artists in the US, UK and Europe. But, a dream project for awhile has been to do a collection of contemporary literary erotica by woman, with photos by a Tucson artist Valerie Galloway—which are kind of noir and weird and beautiful to begin with. I like her work very much and like the idea of collecting writing after these images, rather than the other way around of illustrating text or looking for art for a cover. The visuals came first.

RT: Last but not least, if there were three quotes that you believe encapsulate the Kore Press ethos what would they be?

LB: …………….

The future will be gorgeous and reckless, and words, those luminous charms, will set us free again.
— Carole Maso

…Like amnesiacs in a ward on fire, we must find words or burn.
— Olga Broumas

For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts.
— Gertrude Stein