A Conversation with Kate Gale
By Rick Marlatt
You have a truly fascinating background. To what degree did your childhood experiences inform your early writing?
I grew up in a cult. As cults go, this wasn’t glamorous. No sex or drugs. I lived with them for 15 years, and during that time I had never read a newspaper, slept in a bed, or listened to a radio. When I left at age 18, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. But I started writing. And I found that I enjoyed the writing process. Because I had lived through such a deeply frightening experience, I really felt like the worst was over, and that really gave me the confidence to believe that I could truly do anything. So when I first started writing, I wasn’t actively trying to become a writer, it was just a natural evolution. I couldn’t afford therapy, so my writing kind of worked that way. A lot of this really comes out in some of my early works such as Lake of Fire.
You founded Red Hen Press in 1994. How has publishing changed for you, personally, and how has the industry evolved from your perspective?
When we first founded Red Hen Press 15 years ago, we just wanted to be a force for poetry. Later, we came to include fiction and nonfiction. Along the way, we’ve clearly learned valuable lessons in sustainability models. Obviously, it’s been extremely gratifying to develop a national presence. In terms of the industry at large, the legs have fallen out of two main facets: the middle sized publishers and the distribution aspect. Now, a lot of distribution falls into the hands of middle groups, or third party distributers who are very often just the larger presses. As times have gone, there aren’t so many big presses out there nowadays, and the ones that are left want strictly big movie books. So the upside for presses like ours is that a middle of the road, 5,000 copy author who might have previously landed with a mid-sized publisher is now finding homes with the smaller presses. One of the downsides is, as an editor, you end up reading more than average and having to say no to really great work just based on sheer volume of submissions. It’s a different world, obviously, and insane, but one that I happen to love working in.
How do you feel about MFA programs, and how do you gauge their value?
I feel that there are two things one should walk away with having earned their MFA. One is the habit of writing everyday, and the other is a community of writers. It’s so important to learn to write everyday and to find that group who is going to encourage you to do that. I speak at a lot of MFA programs around the country, and I see both sides of the spectrum. Often times, a student has chosen a particular program because a writer he or she admires is on faculty there, or there was some other connection that drew them in. And more often than not, that relationship is going well between teacher and apprentice. But I do see some people whose experience has turned out badly, and it’s such a shame. Far too often, the expectations can be askew going in, and this can be very damaging. What unifies all the MFA students is that they are paying a lot of money. You have to remember that the MFA is much more of an artistic endeavor than a marketing tool. To stand out, you must have a strong, unique voice, that can learn from those around you, but then assume its own trajectory. You have to make sure that the program, your teachers, and your community is not machining your voice for you. If you’re honest about why you’re there and what your goals are, you are on the right track.
What’s your take on contemporary poetry? Do you see particular trends or themes that hold it together? Is it truly as divided as many people think?
As an editor, I want work that is dazzling. Red Hen has done a lot of different kinds of things. Since the beginning, I’ve wanted to be diverse and not be known for just one thing, not just formalism or free verse. I believe that forms don’t die out; rather, they reformulate and are recreated by talented artists. I like to use the analogy that there is still great classical music and jazz being written by young, vibrant artists, and the same is true for literature. I want to be able to capture that variety, that sense of constant creation. I want a wide variety. We’re looking for well-written work in its own tradition of good American poetry. For instance, I personally don’t write formal poetry, but we’ve published several formalists, and so on. It’s absolutely the case that editing great writers makes me want to be a great writer. As a literary citizen, I think the divide in contemporary poetry is actually more geographical than it is philosophical. It’s my experience that west coast people may not understand everything that comes out of the east coast traditions and schools of thought, but they are willing to read the east coast writers. But lots of people in the east have no idea who the western writers are. The literary epicenters popping up along the west coast like Los Angeles and Portland are producing some of the country’s premiere contemporary talents, and it’s a shame not to acknowledge those contributions. I’ll always say, regardless of form or philosophy, at the end of the day, the bottom line is good writing.
What are some of your current projects?
You know, I have a daughter out of the house now, and that has really opened up some time. I’ve had a number of writing projects and teaching projects I’ve wanted to start for some time now, and I’m starting to see some opportunities to finally put some things together. There are a couple of collections I’m working on, one is called Wild Horses. And I still write librettos. Between those projects and reading for Red Hen, I just try to be the best informed literary citizen that I can be.
What does it take to become a writer in your estimation and to eventually discover one’s voice?
I say this to people all the time. Let’s just be honest: to be a successful writer, you have to be willing to be lonely. The commitment to loneliness is key. To succeed, you absolutely have to work at it. Magic happens only because you practice. And you practice and practice and practice. We find our voice when we find the courage to be quiet for a while, to hear our own voice come through. The secret is really to be still and to write. Someone told me once, just connect your ass to the chair. I think that’s good advice.