Small Press Spotlight: Belladonna*

For this Small Press Spotlight, we are so pleased to feature an interview with Krystal LanguellJennifer Firestone and Saretta Morgan at Belladonna*, a small press whose mission is to "promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language." We would like to thank Julia and the Belladonna* team for the interview and hope you will come visit our small press section at our 112th St. location, showcasing unique publications from Belladonna* as well as many other presses locally based in New York City.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history and mission of Belladonna* press?

Belladonna* is a feminist avant-garde collective, founded in 1999 by Rachel Levitsky. It was started as a reading and salon series at Bluestocking’s Women’s Bookstore on New York City’s Lower East Side. In June 2000, in collaboration with Boog Literature, we began to publish commemorative ‘chaplets’ of the readers’ work. This series continues today and has reached #180.

This year marks the 16th anniversary of the Belladonna* mission to promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.

Belladonna* has featured over 225 writers of wildly diverse age and origin, writers who work in conversation and collaboration, in and between multiple forms, languages, and critical fields. As performance and as printed text, the work collects, gathers over time and space, forming a conversation about the feminist avant-garde, what it is and how it comes to be. We are committed to building publication and literary community between women writers who write off-center—poetry and prose that is political and critical, that is situational rather than plot-driven, that is inter-subjective or performative or witnessing rather than personally revelatory, that reaches across the boundaries and binaries of literary genre and artistic fields, and that questions the gender binary.

In celebration of Belladonna*’s ten year anniversary in 2008-2009, we shifted the style of production to include beautiful multi-authored full-length volumes, publishing The Elders Series, which highlights continuity and transformation of the ideas, poetics, and concerns we circle through. We released 8 titles in two years, representing writing by Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Bernadette Mayer, Laynie Browne, and others. Later, we expanded to publish single-author perfect-bound editions.

Above: The Wide Road
By Carla Harryman & Lyn Hejinian

Belladonna* is an evocative name--a belladonna is a deadly nightshade, yet the literal translation is “fair lady.” How did you arrive at the name Belladonna* for your press?

Rachel Levitsky would have to be the one to answer this as founder, but I can say with certainty it’s no coincidence that it’s deadly nightshade—in fact, the asterisk goes to a vertical line of text on the chaplets that most readers miss: “deadly nightshade, a cardiac and respiratory stimulant, having purplish-red flowers and black berries.”

Belladonna* is organized in a collaborative, rather than hierarchical, manner. How does this impact what Belladonna* publishes?

Rachel once explained her opposition to an open reading period by pointing out that if we take submissions, we have to reject the majority of them; she finds the position of being the rejecter undesirable, maybe even in opposition to some of our collective ideals.

When it comes to our process of choosing manuscripts, we mostly develop our reading series and publication list through affiliation and invitation. We work with poets with whom we are collectively in conversation; we look for new poets who are doing what we think is resonant and interventionist. In this manner the collective expands as new poets join our conversations, often volunteering to help with our projects. Anyone who feels aligned with what we are doing can participate, volunteer and contribute to what Belladonna is becoming. Writers who are published by Belladonna often participate in the process of publishing their work and the work of others, and then become involved in the collective. Also, four of our books have been funded by a grant that mandates authors be residents of NYC and able to attend several marketing meetings, and thus our list skews to NYC area writers. Our methods also mean that we are much slower with each individual book project than most presses, and this is deliberate.

Above: Mauve Sea-Orchids
By Lila Zemborain
Translated by Rosa Alcalá & Mónica de la Torre

You publish the work of writers who are “politically involved” and “dangerous with language.” Do you think being dangerous with language invites pushing political boundaries, and vice versa?

Yes, and it is important to us to allow for this kind of political and “dangerous” writing, but more so, to provide a space where poets voices that are not heard by or do not want to be affiliated with the larger presses can belong. We are open to change, and we are excited about change. For 16 years (as seen through Belladonna*’s extensive series of chaplets) we have been creating a dedicated archive for the feminist avant-garde, making visible the work and the writers of this work that might not otherwise be visible. And yet as much as we are about preserving this history our ear is attuned to the ground to ideas and work that is present, amorphous, constantly shifting and not easily netted.

One current project that we are excited about, both to generate interest for and knowledge about Belladonna*, but also to expand our collective to include younger voices, is a class Jennifer Firestone is teaching at Eugene Lang College (the New School). She has created and is teaching a Belladonna* Feminist Avant-garde Poetics course in collaboration with Visiting Fellow Marcella Durand. There was incredible interest in this class and it has been a great success. Students are studying a gamut of  Belladonna*’s books and chaplets in correspondence with visits to Belladonna*’s studio and current Belladonna* readings. The students are also reading each Belladonna* author’s “influences” alongside their works so that the students are able to engage with the broader dialogue of the feminist avant-garde. The class is currently working on curating their own Belladonna*-informed event at the university, where the students will be honering Akilah Oliver by reading her work collaboratively. This is an important way that Belladonna* as a press, and as a reading series is moving forward into new and exciting territory.

Above: A Swarm of Bees in High Court
By: Tonya M. Foster

Belladonna*’s writers are adventurous and experimental. What does it mean to write adventurous and experimental poetry? How does the work of your authors differ from that of more traditional presses?

Recently at a reading, poet-scholar Shelagh Patterson quoted Belladonna*’s founder, Rachel Levitsky, on the state of contemporary poets. I’m not sure where the language was taken from and I can’t reproduce the exact words now, but the spirit of it was that we as individual poets should strive to produce less and think more. Less publishing and public readings. More organizing. More activism. More discourse around work that exists and that is being written. More thinking in space together about ourselves as historical and political subjects. I feel that Belladonna* is trying to make more space for that kind of poet to exist and feel valued.

Above: Theory, A Sunday
By: Louky Bersianik, Nicole Brossard, France Théoret,
Gail Scott, Louise Cotnoir, Louise Dupré,
Lisa Robertson, & Rachel Levitsky

What can readers look forward to from Belladonna* in the future?

I’m really excited about our newest titles. Theory A Sunday, All is Not Yet Lost, and A Swarm of Bees in High Court—all of which feel very long in the making, particularly Theory, a translation from French of essays collectively written by a group of Canadian feminists through Sunday meetings in Montreal over the course of several years, and Swarm, which is Tonya Foster’s first collection. We’ve been working with her in various ways for more than five years on her manuscript. 

I hope that we continue to publish more slow and deeply thinking poets, particularly those who are engaging explicitly with the material lives of the communities we exist in and around, and whose thinking leads to direct action. Betsy Fagin, for example—author of All is Not Yet Lost— who is also a trained librarian, founded the Occupy Wall Street Library in Zucotti Park. That’s the kind of poet I want on my shelf, and one I’m proud to have representing Belladonna*’s Press. 

Further on in the future, we’re interested in returning to the bilingual publication model of publishing book-length translation (which we last did with Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids) and continuing to publlish first books by underpublished women writers, including Astrobolism from Caroline Crumpacker in Spring 2016. We also plan to continue partnering with other presses and organizations for books, chaplets and events, including Asian-American Writers Workshop, Brooklyn Public Library, and on June 4 find us at La Casa Azul Bookstore in Harlem with Christina Olivares, JP Howard, and Tonya Foster!


Questions by Arielle