Pressing on

Pasadena’s Red Hen Press celebrates 19 years of ‘literary excellence’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/21/2013

The world of publishing may be changing rapidly, but for one local literary press life has never been better. Its success shows there is still an unquenchable thirst for exceptional literature in Pasadena and beyond.
This month Red Hen Press, which has been operating out of Pasadena since 2010, marks its 19th year publishing high-quality poetry and prose. Last week, the nonprofit press hosted its anniversary luncheon at the Westin Hotel, which included speakers such as Charles Yu, C.D. Wright, Alice Sebold and Sean Carroll.
Founded in 1994 by Kate Gale and Mark Cull, Red Hen has grown substantially from a “micro-press” to what it is today — a critical local publishing house that supports diversity in literature and promotes literacy in underperforming schools. The press was located in Granada Hills until 2010, but now Gale and Cull are very happy to be in Pasadena.
“What really brought us here was community interest in an arts organization, in a press, specifically,” said Cull. “Mayor Bill Bogaard wanted us here. He wanted to be the mayor who brought a literary press to Pasadena.”
“Obviously, Pasadena has everything else,” said Gale. “It has music, it has art, it has JPL and Caltech. It’s an iconic arts community.”
In 1997, Red Hen decided to publish prose as well as poetry, a milestone for the small press, which would have remained small had they not made that decision to branch out. They felt it was a better model economically and continue to be excited about publishing a combination of styles. Along with moving to the Crown City, Gale said that acquiring the University of Chicago as a national distributor in 2008 was another major factor for the growth of Red Hen. She said it made them grow up as a press.
Now Red Hen publishes 20 titles a year, holds series of readings in greater Los Angeles and New York City, awards $5,000 a year to poets and authors, publishes the Los Angeles Review and teaches poetry and donates books to schools under their Writing in the Schools (WITS) program.
“We started Writing in the Schools in 2003 because part of our mission statement was around building literacy,” said Gale. “The fact that we were giving out books to schools where kids didn’t have books was really exciting.”
“We deliberately targeted schools that were underperforming,” said Cull. “A number of times the books we gave the classes were the only books they had in their English classes that year.”
It takes a village
Gale and Cull agreed that running Red Hen in Pasadena as opposed to Los Angeles has been very beneficial for them. Gale said that there’s not a lot of publishing companies in Los Angeles, which she described as a less than ideal place for a smaller publisher because of the high cost of living.
“There’s this sense that we belong in Pasadena, which is hard to have in greater Los Angeles, when you’re sort of flopping around in a city of 8 or 10 million,” said Gale. “The ideal place would be a small community that’s already literary and you could be embraced and where the cost of living is much lower. One of the biggest issues with publishing in LA is the cost of living is so high so your payroll is necessarily going to be higher than it would be if you were in Kentucky.”
She believes that it really does take a village to have consistent success and exponential growth in this business. Red Hen Press is named after the story of the little red hen who asks for help making bread. No one wants to help but everyone wants to eat the bread when the work is done. In the beginning, people wanted their work published but didn’t want to do the work needed to get the press off the ground. Now, Gale says, the little red hen can’t do it by herself.
“Somebody has to be a visionary and somebody has to be running the show,” she said. “What has to happen is that a significant group of people get excited about what you’re doing and jump in and are willing to advise you, help you, write checks, just tell you you’re terrific and what you’re doing is terrific. We’ve been so fortunate, particularly in Pasadena. People have really made it clear that they believe in us and that they know this can happen. That’s what pushes an organization to last 20 years.”
Cull added that it’s important for the community to support an organization like theirs, as well as local independent bookstores, such as Vroman’s. He said that while people know they can get books conveniently and cheaply from Amazon, in the end they’re hurting themselves.
“This is a community where people realize they’re hurting themselves by not supporting independent writing and literature, because if they don’t it’ll go away, and then what?” he said. “Pasadena is a perfect place for a press like this. People care about what we do. They realize this is in no way something that’s financially lucrative, but it matters a great deal.”
‘Excellent’ reads
Red Hen has several imprints that help further their mission of promoting diversity, such as Arktoi Books, which publishes a lesbian writer every year. They also seek to publish literary excellence, which admittedly can be subjective.
“Red Hen has a certain aesthetic,” said Gale. “There’s a tendency toward work that’s sort of Kafkaesque, that has this dark, strange thing going on. What we’re looking for is a level of mastery and excellence. However, what one editor considers excellence varies a lot. For the writer wondering why their work gets rejected? Maybe their schedule was full or possibly their aesthetics didn’t match up with the writer’s. So Red Hen has its own aesthetics, but I feel what we’re looking for is something that has layers of meaning going on and a level of excellence. We’re shooting for the best.”
What they end up with is a canon with a wide range of authors and styles. That canon includes several Pasadena-area poets and authors, including Lisa Krueger, Douglas Kearney, Ron Koertge and Bart Edelman. Red Hen had already been publishing those authors when they moved to Pasadena, but Gale said they’re open to picking up new Pasadena authors.
“We have one month a year, which is June, when we take on new submissions,” said Gale. “Our authors get to continue to submit. We’re a press that really believes in authors rather than books, so once we’ve acquired an author they’re welcome to submit something else year-round.”
In anticipation of its 20th anniversary, next year Red Hen and its poets and authors will continue their reading series on both coasts, including events at Boston Court Performing Arts Center and Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.