A lot of the most serendipitous moments of my writing life have happened at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. It was there in Boston in 2013, at a marathon reading of LGBTQ+ writers called Queertopia, where I first met Lawrence Schimel. We heard each other read, and afterwards, Lawrence introduced himself as the founding editor and publisher of A Midsummer Night’s Press.
Since our fortuitous first meeting, A Midsummer Night’s Press has published two of my poetry collections—When I Was Straight in 2014 and Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems in 2018. I have also become an avid reader of other books on the three imprints of A Midsummer Night’s Press and even wrote a feature article on this small press run by a man of big vision for The Rumpus in 2015.
But Lawrence Schimel wears so many hats in the literary world, and I wanted the opportunity to ask him about his own writing and translation projects as well as his editing and publishing endeavors. What follows is the rich conversation we had about Lawrence’s life, work, and phenomenal literary citizenship.
The Rumpus: I often think of myself as a “busy person” with a “full schedule,” Lawrence, but when I talk to you or read your status updates or see what new books you’ve shepherded into the world, I’m consistently stunned by how much you accomplish and how relentless and joyful you are about your literary commitments. However, I don’t know much about how your life began as a writer, translator, editor, publisher, and all-around first-rate literary citizen. Can you take me back in time and introduce me to little Lawrence?
Lawrence Schimel: While I’ve always been (and still am) a voracious reader, and started writing because I ran out of stories and so started to write my own; my dream since I was really little was to grow up to be Jacques Cousteau. I even started at Yale University as a marine biologist, although I happen to be deathly allergic to fish (to consume), and it was just too dangerous a career path for me to pursue. I had always been multitasking, I guess one could call it, studying science (in high school and college) while also, for fun, taking literature classes, and I wound up getting my degree in English.
So perhaps in some way my current life as a person-of-letters does reflect what I was always doing, even if my aquanaut dreams of devoting myself to exploring (and preserving) our underwater world had to be left behind. I am still an insatiable reader, so in many ways I’m still true to that dream/reality. (Checking my notes on what books I’ve read so far this year—not counting things I am still working my way through or have abandoned—in the first few months of this year I’ve read: Jan: thirty-three books, Feb: thirty-three books, March: twenty-six books, April: forty-five books, May: thirty books, June: twenty-two books. Not including the books I’ve translated during this time, which I’ve obviously also read—and “rewritten”!)
Rumpus: You’re a prodigious reader, clearly, and you said that your own writing habit formed as a response to not finding enough new stories to read so you had to write more. I’m interested to learn how you came to be both a translator and a publisher. Let’s start with publisher, though, since I know you started A Midsummer Night’s Press when you were a student at Yale University back in 1991.
Schimel: The beginning is perhaps prosaic, or at least fortuitous: there was a Vandercook letterpress in the basement of my dorm at university, and I just fell in love with the whole idea of hand-setting type. I had already been publishing my own work in magazines and anthologies at that point, and thus had a small network of other writers I’d met. I asked some of them, like Nancy Willard and Jane Yolen, for poems to publish as broadsides, sent them contracts and very modest payments, and eventually shipped them the print runs of one hundred numbered copies to be signed and returned to me, with the twenty-six lettered copies for them to keep as part of their payment.
The thing about broadsides is they’re often gorgeous and unique items, but they’re beastly to ship—or to transport home if you buy them in person—so selling them has always been a problem. At first, I mostly sold them when I traveled to a convention or something, since at the time I had no ideas of turning the press into anything more—it was mostly a chance to have fun with the letterpress, and when I graduated and lost access to the press, A Midsummer Night’s Press went on hiatus.
I was living in Madrid and was printing in what is an A6 size, basically one quarter the size of the European A4 sheet of paper. I liked the size, and decided to revive A Midsummer Night’s Press and try publishing some perfect-bound poetry books in that format. The idea wasn’t to self-publish my own work, but I did print a small chapbook of my own poems, Fairy Tales for Writers, as a way of making all my mistakes on my own work instead of inflicting them on any of our authors. I reached out to my dear friend, Achy Obejas, who is best-known as a fiction writer, and told her I wanted to bring out a collection of her poems. I visited her in Chicago and basically wouldn’t leave until we had put the book together. I went through the bookcase where she kept all the journals and anthologies where her work had been published, and once we had copies of all those poems plus some new ones, together we started to arrange what the book should look like. Her agent wasn’t happy that I was distracting Achy from working on her next novel, although when the New York Times decided to run a Small Press Bestseller List, and it happened that Achy’s collection This Is What Happened In Our Other Life was #2 on the list, she forgave me.
As for the name, I had been nicknamed Puck in the sci-fi community (both at conventions and online on GEnie, one of the early bulletin board communities) and was also a Shakespeare geek, so it seemed a fun and almost logical bit of wordplay to use for my little letterpress endeavor. And when I decided to make a go of publishing commercially printed titles, it made sense to resurrect the name I already had, and just set it up officially.
One of our imprints, Fabula Rasa, is devoted to poetry based on myth and fairy tale, so that ties in nicely with the name. Body Language is our imprint celebrating LGBT voices. And Periscope is an imprint I started in 2014, to counteract the dearth of women’s voices being translated into English. I knew from my own work as a translator that it was easier for me to find homes for the projects by male authors, and then some number crunching was done using Three Percent/Open Letter’s database (now housed by Publishers Weekly ), which showed that for the two previous years, books by women authors, translated from all languages and in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, comprised only twenty-six percent of all translations published in the US.
So I put my money where my mouth was and created an imprint, devoted to publishing translations of work by women writers who’ve published at least two books in their own language (so they’re already established, not a one-hit wonder) but had not had a book published in English. So far we’ve brought out collections from Estonia, Slovenia, Spain, Lithuania, and Latvia. (We’ve also published translations in our Body Language series, as well as a book that’s not in any of our series, A Tree Whose Name I Don’t Know, the first English translation by Kurdish Syrian poet Golan Haji, translated by Stephen Watts with the author.)
Rumpus: Wow, Lawrence! It makes me so happy to hear the history of A Midsummer Night’s Press, and of course I want to loop back around to the topic of translation. I know you are bilingual (English and Spanish), and I’m wondering if the fact of speaking, reading, and writing two languages led you toward translation in the first place? Or perhaps it was the other way around? Did an interest in translation lead you to pursue fluency in a second language? As I was reading and preparing to blurb your recent translation of Luis Panini’s Destruction of the Lover (Pleiades Press, 2019), I kept thinking about what an act of patience and deep respect translating another author’s work must be, particularly translating creative works as opposed to, say, instruction manuals or other purely logos-driven texts. What has being a translator taught you about the nature of creative writing itself and how has translating the work of others informed your own writing?
Schimel: It was definitely the fact of my being someone who writes in both English and Spanish that first led to my being asked to do some literary translation, but my driving factor is probably my being a reader, and becoming excited about a text, and wanting to share it with more readers in my other language.
I love the act of translation itself, and very often I’ll read something and want to translate and I’ll write to the author to see if I can (if no other translator is already working on it) and try and place it with journals or a publisher, and that’s where I am constantly feeling guilty: if managing one’s own career as an author is difficult enough, for every new author one translates, especially into English where the burden of clearing the rights usually falls to the translator, it’s like adding a whole other literary career, trying to get visibility for each author, and I’m terrible about submitting, and even when I do I still feel I’m not doing “enough” for my authors. It’s a terrible juggle. Even when a publisher comes to me and asks me to translate a book, so I know it will be published, I still often feel like I’m not doing enough (placing poems in journals pre-publication). Not so much impostor syndrome as the responsibility of being the poet’s voice in English, and juggling so many careers (my own and others).
At the same time, I love the actual translation process so much; it is perhaps the closest reading of a text one can make. I’ve had translators flag errors or inconsistencies in my own published books, that none of us (author, editor, copyeditor, etc.) caught, but the translator needs to make sense of everything and figure out how to recreate it, and those mistakes (which, as an editor, I’ve learned will always happen in every book—no matter how many times we reread it nor how many people check things over, something always slips through) become stumbling blocks.
Because I do a mix of projects I initiate and books or texts I’m asked to translate, I’m exposed to a wide range of different literary styles—and even though I write in many different genres myself, I wind up translating works that are often very different from the kinds of writing I do myself. For instance, I’ve translated many poets whose work is much more experimental than my own—or writers who work in hybrid forms like Luis Panini’s Destruction of the Lover. I tend to be much more formal in my own poetry, in English at least, even if I love deconstructing forms like the sestina or the villanelle. I also feel it’s important to use what privilege I have as a white man (even if gay) to turn the agency I have as a cultural agent or mediator into amplifying or promoting the works of writers of color, women, and queer writers. So I am not necessarily translating the writers I want to write like, but rather translating writers to help increase the diversity of voices we have access to.
I also struggle, as a full-time freelancer, with juggling deadlines, and it’s often hard for me to carve time from my schedule to work on my own writing when I have so many deadlines for translations that will be published. I also find translation to be intellectually stimulating, without being exhausting or draining in the way that my own writing can be. I can translate more steadily and more productively than I can create my own work.
Rumpus: It strikes me that you have carved out your own very full and distinctive literary life, one that looks quite different from many other writers and translators I know—a life my own students may not even realize is possible. A good number, perhaps the majority of young writers, pursue an MFA and/or PhD in creative writing and then go on to teach creative writing in academic settings, and I suspect it can be hard to find models of people who have built their literary careers in different ways—especially when English professors are living the life of the teaching writer and thereby inevitably modeling this life for our students from the start. So—I’m wondering if you ever pursued, or thought about pursuing, graduate study in creative writing or translation and if have you have ever taught or been interested in teaching? Do you know/can you trace how you found the courage or confidence (or however you would describe it) to find your own path in the literary woods?
Schimel: I started writing at a very young age, basically because I ran out of books to read and so started to write my own stories. And I started to publish at perhaps too young an age, too—my parents had to sign my first contracts since I was under the age of eighteen. I did find some community online and at science fiction conventions, but have been largely an autodidact. There were certainly a number of “pro” writers who helped me when I was starting out, and who taught me to “pay forward”: they didn’t need me to return favors to them, but instead I should offer aid to those who came after me. But I do think I’ve missed out on both the camaraderie of having both mentors (or even mentees) and especially classmates or a workshop group or something like that, both during the formal study and also the group of what often survives or gets assembled in the post-degree real world.
When I graduated from college, there wasn’t a poet I knew of who I wanted to study with right then, so instead I put up some posters at a few bulletin boards, offering to adopt any unwanted poetry books people might have so I might try and read widely in lieu of an MFA program. I didn’t get a lot of responses, but I did get some, and those were very meaningful to me, and again, I’ve tried to use that same pay-it-forward by giving books to younger writers.
Because I never went through the MFA or PhD system, I don’t have the pedagogy or the tools to teach writing; my understanding of how writing works is all intuitive, and that’s hard to impart. What I have done instead of teaching, though, is to edit, both through the anthologies I’ve compiled and the press, which is a one-on-one relationship where I’m fairly hands on, working closely with authors, to tease out and develop and ask questions to help them produce the best piece of work that best fits the project in question.
As for how I found my own way, a lot has to do with my being a runner. It was obligatory to take part in a sport when I was in high school, and I was and am the most unathletic and largely useless, especially in team situations, so I wound up on the cross-country team. I was always a slow runner, but I was also the only freshman (competing with and often against older classmates), and I lost every single race I ever took part in during my four years of high school. But I always finished, even if it was a long slog. And that helped me to build up a tough skin, emotionally, that came in handy when I started submitting my writing to journals (also during high school) and the rejection started coming in, but I kept sending the work out again, even when it was a long slog toward publication.
Rumpus: In the spirit of paying it forward, Lawrence, I’d like to end this interview by inviting you to offer any advice you might have to young and/or just-beginning writers.
Schimel: It might sound trite, but I guess my advice would be to try and ignore as much as possible the market and publishing, and be true to the work. All of the submitting, building a “platform,” etc. is secondary. And it is easy to get caught up in all the other aspects of being a writer that get in the way of actually writing. Yes, often a lot of times, that stuff is important, but it’s also all distractions, important as it might be to answer an email or apply for a grant, etc.
Also, when it comes to submitting your work, don’t self-reject. I know rejection sucks, but a lot of times it’s not personal. This doesn’t mean to submit scattershot; you want to publish in the places that you are also reading, where the writers whose work you care about are also publishing, and so on. It’s true that some venues might still be an uphill battle for writers of color, women writers, and queer writers; but put the burden of rejecting you for being who you are on them. I’m tired (as are many of us) of having to justify that our lives are worth writing about; let them justify their homophobia, racism, and misogyny.
Photograph of Lawrence Schimel by Nieves Guerra.