Curator Spotlight:  Carey Salerno, executive editor of Alice James Books

Why the Definition of “Good Writing” Needs a Transformation

Carey Salerno, Executive Editor of Alice James Books and a Literary Arts Curator  supporting the launch of Pen and Brush’s new programming, shares what she has learned throughout her career in publishing and her experience as a poet and a writer.  Read on for both installments of our conversation, including Carey’s thoughts on diversity, e-publishing, and challenges that exist in the industry.

Janice Sands (JS): Alice James Books (AJB) was founded over four decades ago, on the principle idea of allowing women access to publishing and involving authors in the process. What do you believe was the biggest lesson learned in order to grow and be successful in this endeavor?

Carey Salerno (CS): Yes, the press was founded to give women writers a chance and a voice. A little known fact is that of the seven founders of AJB, two were men, and the press does also publish men. One of the biggest lessons, I think, is one we are always learning—that of balance. We are constantly negotiating how to continually adapt in the evolving field of publishing, how to remain open to change and possibility, and how, at the same time, to remain present in our mission and its resolve.

JS: What are the biggest challenges facing the publishing world right now?

CS: Gosh, there are so many. For poetry, it’s the digital market. It remains difficult for us to completely integrate our books for e-reading, and we still need to restrict elements of some of the work we publish when creating an eBook. For instance, one challenge we face with eBooks is line integrity; it is impossible, given the liberty of the individual reader to customize their reading experience (font, font size, etc.) to ensure the purity of the line communication between poet and reader. This can present an impasse for poets. There are ways of working through it, like suggesting font and font size for “maximum reading enjoyment,” but really there’s no control over what will happen once a person has the eBook in hand or how the final communication of the text’s formal elements will transpire. I think this, in turn, calls into question the ways in which poems are read and intended to be read, widening the gap and potentially causing a breach of understanding.

Other challenges we continue to face are finding enough spaces for women, transgender, and racially diverse voices. Yes, there are more publishing opportunities available to writers with the existence of online venues now, but when we consider mainstream literature we still have a dramatic imbalance of representation. There needs to be more validation and equity. There needs to be less marginalization and dismissal of subject matter based on it being gendered or racial. There’s a strong sense of what makes good writing in our culture, and that definition sorely needs reconstruction, but of course that type of sea change won’t happen overnight. Consider the creation of AJB; what was at the forefront of its founders’ minds then is still at the forefront of ours today.

JS: Why did you decide to sign on as a Literary Curator for Pen and Brush?

CS: What excites me most about Pen and Brush is its commitment to women artists. There’s incredible energy at the organization right now, and I felt it so immediately in speaking with you, Janice, and Associate Director, Dawn. Since its inception, the institution has focused heavily on the visual arts, but now has created an opportunity for writers, which is amazing. Pen and Brush is really trying to do something. The organization is the real deal, and at the same time, it is intensifying its programming. Pen and Brush is also moving into a new space in the Flatiron District, which is exciting. When you first approached me about doing this work, I was immediately moved by your dedication to women artists and inspired by the possibilities for artists via the organization. The new space and programming will even allow for all types of hybrid expressions of art. I certainly don’t want to miss out!

JS: You review and publish a diversity of poets at Alice James Books (AJB). Do you believe this model can be adapted to the publishing industry as a whole? What do you believe the future of publishing holds in the next few years?

CS: We do publish a broad range of voices, yes, and this model could absolutely be applied elsewhere, though to a degree, it takes a high level of attentiveness in one’s list to accomplish diversity. We are able to do it as a boutique publisher, because we focus on publishing just six books of poetry a year.

As far as the future is concerned, I continue to place all my chips down for the physical book. It is an entity that can be imitated but not absolutely replicated, so I don’t believe it will ever be rendered obsolete. I do think that readers are going to continue to demand high quality from their book publishers, as they become more and more choosy about what they buy to place on their shelves. AJB strives to publish books with the highest level of complimentary aesthetics for a book’s respective texts. It’s been a high priority of mine since coming to AJB in 2008 to continually raise the bar for the physical poetry book. We work very closely with our designers to achieve the production of volumes that are harmonious and that please and enliven readers. There is an experience to opening a book for the first time, to running one’s hand over the cover, to dog-earring its pages, and to coming across it on one’s bookshelf over and again. We want to enhance that experience. The future of book publishing is, to some degree the same as it has always been, about creating work that people will deeply cherish.

JS: What advice would you like to give to emerging or mid-career writers?

CS: My advice to both groups would be the same; follow your gut and find a trusted editor. It is incredibly important, especially for women, to heed this first piece of advice, since really how many times a day are we asked to ignore our instincts? Women are incredibly susceptible to dismissing their feelings, because we are taught they aren’t of value or use to us. They are not practical. We are often conditioned to value logic, which of course has its place, but really is the exhaust pipe of poetic endeavor.

After instinct brings you to your work, your own heart, your own vision, your own stake in the world, then find someone who you love and trust that can give you critique–and allow yourself to take the critique. Feedback is a critical element in the artistic process, as art is a communication between individuals: the creator and the audience. Feedback on our work gives us checks and balances. It helps us affirm that we are saying what we are trying to say, how we are trying to say it. It’s hard to produce art in a vacuum. At the same time, don’t create for feedback.

JS: In your experience, what is the common denominator shared by successful working authors?

CS: In terms of success in their work: heart. In terms of success in their promotion: gregariousness (whether strained or otherwise). Sharing beyond the medium within which an artist creates can be incredibly challenging, yet so often artists are expected to do just that incredibly well. It is counterintuitive for many, since the original expression occurs in the particular body of art for a reason. Book promotion is so often completely counter to the desires and disposition of writers, yet sharing work and being energetically assertive in the sharing is what often brings others toward it. Though, once the effort has been made to bring in an audience, the love affair can only be sustained if there’s substance. You can’t fake art. The writers I return to again and again are all writing from this wild place in the mind. Their voices sing and resonate with purpose.