A Conversation between
Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington
Chelsea Station asked their friends Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington at Sibling Rivalry Press to talk about the inspiration for Joy Exhaustible, the remarkable Issue 14 of the successful literary journal Assaracus, which looks at the work, through poetry, prose, and memoir, of both contemporary and history-making gay publishers and editors. Joy Exhaustible features work by James Mitchell, John Lauritsen, Donald Weise, William Johnson, Michael Hathaway, Felice Picano, Steve Berman, Ian Young, Charlie Bondhus, Ron Mohring, Kirby Congdon, Charles Flowers, Perry Brass, John Stahle, Jameson Currier, Lawrence Schimel, a cover poem by Paul Mariah, as well as a collaborative poem by editors Borland and Pennington.
Seth Pennington: Joy Exhaustible is an anthology of queer publishers’ and editors’ written work, both old and new. Bryan, what gave this idea cause?
Bryan Borland: I have too many ideas for my own good, and since you married me, probably for your own good, too. Thankfully, you help me figure out which ones will fly and which ones will likely crash and burn, but sometimes projects are so worthy even a burning might end up beautiful. Honestly, though, I don’t think we were ever worried about this project falling short. Joy Exhaustible came about because you and I are involved in a constant struggle between our roles as publishers of Sibling Rivalry Press and our roles as poets. Many writers we respect also juggle or have juggled those same roles. I put out a call to several of them. I explained the concept and invited them to send me anything at all—poetry, fiction, memoir. The only restriction was that the contribution had to make the publisher/editor feel like a writer. I told them: Send us what you love writing. Instantly there was interest. Felice Picano sent his recollection of visiting his own papers at Yale, along with some previously unpublished poems. Don Weise sent a piece about interviewing Gore Vidal, a man he credits with giving him his first break in the publishing industry. Ron Mohring sent a series of poems he built from lines of Seven Kitchens’ chapbooks he’s published. William Johnson sent an essay on Camp—with a capital C. Steve Berman sent speculative fiction. Kirby Congdon, who I think may outlive all of us, sent new poems and an interview. And that’s just a sample of what’s included. It’s really a diverse collection of work, but it’s my hope that through what the publisher/editor chose to send, our audience will get a glimpse of the men behind their respective presses or projects. The only thing working against us was time, especially because we decided to release the anthology simultaneously as Assaracus 14—and to get a finished product ready to sell by the Rainbow Book Fair in late March. That gave us two months to put Joy Exhaustible together. I’m happy to say we met our deadline, and I’m very proud of the result. The audience at the Rainbow Book Fair was excited about it, and the copies we had sold out quickly. We’ve received some really positive feedback, which is gratifying, and there have already been calls for a second installment featuring the work of women publishers (which I’ll mention to Valerie Wetlaufer, editor of the sister journal to Assaracus, Adrienne.) I’ll admit to another reason the project came about. I wanted our names alongside these publishers’ and editors’ names. These are people we admire. Many of them, through their early, groundbreaking work, made it possible for SRP to exist.
Pennington: Yes, and that’s why we felt this project was so important. Our enthusiasm grew as we assembled the contents. We already respected Perry Brass, for example, but to learn how he created Belhue Press from the ground up, or to learn how Jim Currier (who graciously provided the space for this conversation) worked—really worked—his way into publishing, or to read the poetry of Charles Flowers, publisher of BLOOM, who says he hardly ever sends out his own writing; these things were wildly pleasurable. I also want to mention that Joy Exhaustible was dedicated to a pair of very important men in contributor Ian Young’s life, Jamie Perry and Wulf Higgins. The dedication was symbolic. Dedicating the anthology to the “men behind the men” is an act of humility and respect, I think, especially for the work that goes into loving and supporting a publisher. In a lot of ways, the job can be another marriage.
Borland: Absolutely. When Wulf learned of the dedication, he was appreciative, but a little baffled. I’m not sure he understands how much of a role he’s had in gay literary history. Just thumb through Joy Exhaustible, and you’ll see his name mentioned multiple times by multiple authors. He’s included in Ian’s essays, of course, but also in John Lauritsen’s writing, and even in our own collaborative poem. I thought that it was fitting that we acknowledge the important partners to Ian’s groundbreaking work, but in doing so, we’re also acknowledging all those partners who have supported us. All the husbands, the boyfriends, the friends. Writing can be an isolating undertaking, but publishing as a profession, particularly as a small press, can be even more isolating. The responsibility you carry for your authors, for their voices and for their visions, is weighty. Add to that weight the responsibility of publishing for a cause like gay rights (or simply gay visibility), and it intensifies.
Pennington: You mentioned the juggling act between publishing and writing. We can only speak of our own experiences, but it’s safe to say that publishing is demanding. You and I both have full-time jobs in addition to Sibling Rivalry Press. It’s hard to make time to write between it all and stay motivated as poets, but we are both writing and pushing each other to be better. We’ve studied the men in this anthology, which you introduced me to. And we’ve studied poets like Rich, Merwin, and Hughes, which I brought into your life. Between editing the next Assaracus or full-length, we send each other drafts throughout the day for feedback. Having fallen in love with your poetry before I fell in love with you, I think your portion of the collaborative poem we included is indicative of growth in your style, and I’m excited for people to get to witness your growth as a poet. I think that’s important, for you to continue to develop as a writer, because Sibling Rivalry Press turns four this year. As a poet, you are two books in now and working on a third. You have grown as an editor since the Ganymede tribute issue, Ganymede Unfinished, where you published everything just as you received it. Now, we get as many eyes on a project as possible to ensure it’s strong. I’ve seen this change in your poetry, too, not only in structure, but content as well.
Borland: Early on, I don’t think I knew enough as a writer to be an editor. I certainly wasn’t confident in my editing skills, but I think, especially in the last year, as my writing has evolved and as I’ve read more, and as we’ve discussed more, my editing skills have improved. I’ve developed, I guess you could say, an opinion. I think that’s a necessary and essential thing for a publisher to have.
Pennington: There was a time at SRP when you didn’t have an opinion?
Borland: Well, no. I’ve always had an opinion, but in the early days, I was a yes man. I was suddenly surrounded by people I was reading as a fan, and they were looking to me as a publisher, and how could I say no to any of them? And with the rare exception, most of those yeses ended up rewarding SRP in spades, fortunately. But rather than my decisions at that time being all instinct, I think they were a little bit of instinct and a whole lot of luck. A right place, right time sort of thing. Now I have to say no. We have to say no. And I think I’m more informed now as to what we should green light and what we shouldn’t. I’m terrible at saying no, but I’m learning. As for my writing, I piggybacked off your senior year of college, Seth, where you were lucky enough to be able to study under poet Nickole Brown. I think she pushed that year’s students, you included, as hard as any graduate students in any MFA program in the country are pushed. Witnessing your study was transformative for me because I came to poetry through another route, a route that had been harmed, I think, by academia. The poetry had nearly been schooled out of me. But witnessing poetry through Nickole’s education of you and your classmates made me fall in love with it again, and it’s true that I didn’t come to Hughes, or Merwin, or Rich, until I came to you. The title of our collaborative poem is “The Desire to Show You To Everyone I Love,” which is a line from Rich’s masterpiece, “Twenty-one Love Poems.” Throughout the poem we mention Sexton, Hughes’ Crow, poems by Merwin, and Rich herself. But we also end with the lines, “Fathers or no we have / what we need: / a thousand poets growing / us into men,” which is a nod to the entire roster of writers we included in Joy Exhaustible. As the poem took shape, we wanted it to represent so many who, combined, influenced and continue to influence us as both poets and publishers. The poem, and the anthology as a whole, is our gratitude.
Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington are the publishers of Sibling Rivalry Press and the editors of Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry. Joy Exhaustible: Assaracus Presents The Publishers is available from www.siblingrivalrypress.com.