By Jeanne Henry
Sometimes I think about the people that poke at my insides and the longer I try to ignore them the more I feel their prod. My Dad. My parents. I haven’t seen my parents in a year and this is how it spirals with me: a year and then two. A missed birthday, a holiday slept through, a plane ride never planned. Silence divides and floats over my head until I have no grasp of it. I only feel cold. I have not seen the only man I cared to love in a couple of years and am sure I must have stopped seeing him years before that. No matter. Sometimes I find him inside my writing, where I erase him as I wish: again and again, more violently each time. “Fiction,” he says, and I smile, disappointed, again: “Fiction?”
Maybe I think of this now, today, because it’s my Dad’s birthday. I finally called him and he explained to me that he is fine―going blind in one eye, nearly there, but fine. The doctor pokes his eyeball with a needle hoping to force it to respond, refocus, come back. But I know. I hear the echo. Like him, I can’t have the life that I had a year ago. I can’t get it back. Some other person lives in my apartment and smokes on my balcony. She has the keys and I’m locked out. San Francisco? Fine. The weather is mild and there is plenty of dirt to dig holes, which is good since I’ve got a hard on to dig to the equator because I won’t only read the writing that is readily in front of me or I’d be mostly reading, land-owning, straight, white, men. I’d mostly be reading established voices. Have you been to the bookstore? Have you read the mainstream paper? The voices that aren’t on the table, the ones that don’t make it into the crowd, the ones that have to be scoured for―I live for those. I grew up with a Mother that talked to herself nonstop: crazy as a bat, but you better believe that I listened. That I hoped liked hell to hear something coherent, telling, some tiny mumble of something previously unheard, something that would help me understand.
Being an editor at a small press that focuses on underserved writers seemed like a natural progression of wanting to further partake in any iota of a platform that could shine a light on the many underserved and omitted writers that are out there, but that doesn’t mean that I sit back in my apartment, with my growing mold and books and self-importantly think to myself I’ve got it covered. The small press has little to no regard for commercial success, or even, “success,” as understood by money, and Unmanned’s guidelines for “freakishly awesome fiction” is about as subjective and loose as it can come. Much of the fun in books is publishing “what we fucking like.” Publishers are inherently exclusive. Small presses are not the exception. Some small presses might publish 1% of the work they receive. Is that more fair than any other process, large or small? I don’t know. Unmanned does not solicit individual writers and having open submissions provides some degree of inclusiveness and opportunity, and access is part of the battle. And in that work, is it diverse? Is there a range of voices? Do the editors take responsibility and efforts to attract many voices or a variation of one? Some say small presses are best suited to a niche market because their output cannot reflect a diverse range by virtue of volume. But I don’t subscribe to the mentality that bigger necessarily equals better. Many bigger publishers, bigger book reviews, bigger players, with all their wealth of opportunity, fail time and time again at publishing a diverse set of voices. So I don’t know if they see or hear. I used to adore The New Yorker, collected it like the worst hoarder you know, and I still like a lot of the work they publish (and some of it pisses me off), familiar writers or not, but I just don’t have time anymore to put them and people like them on my reading map. Give me a subscription to Black Lawrence Press. Feed me every last poem from Pavement Saw Press. Dig with me. Trade a book with me.
To me, small presses have an ear at the street level and below, where a bigger publisher won’t venture. We take the subway. They are in a cab, oblivious, stuck in traffic, speaking to no one. Many publishers started off small. They did well, grew, and got bought, only to still become part of an ever-growing conglomerate. Independent? Probably not. However, now there is an indie movement and those seeds aren’t being sowed. Instead, being part of a small press is a permanent frame of mind. A belief that the small guy must exist, that there will always be a voice that is not being fought for. When one wins another one has lost. We carry Ulysses by Tennyson in our empty pockets: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” We look at it when we feel lonely. There are so many of us, struggling, and so many opportunities to make friends of the mind.
The loveliest thing about words is having them read―a connection, and we’ll take it in any way we can get it. For our part, Unmanned publishes twelve short works of fiction a year and fewer books than that. The establishment party is a prize we may have coveted, if we were still young enough, but we were always sort of bad children anyway, dissing our homeland, and rallying against majorities, haters of bullies and lovers of underdogs. We are traditionally poor with a low annual sales income and your mother has definitely never heard of us. Don’t be afraid of that. Don’t get bloated and bogged down, there are thousands of wonderful small presses, but don’t be fooled by the wonders of publishing. It is half the battle, maybe less. And like many others, we willingly give our blood, tears, time, and relentless effort to get fiction out into the world. Take it, it is yours. Be smart and do with it what you will. Our staff is 100% volunteer. We do it only out of love, no reason other than love, and “love” is almost as fine as the word “Yes.” Almost.
Jeanne Henry retired her glasses in New York City and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is an editor at Unmanned Press. She wants to be your friend.