Rural Poetics: Part 2 with Nancy Bereano

Wed, 07/28/2021


Alec Pollak, Doctoral candidate in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University

Nancy Bereano, Founding publisher and former editor of Firebrand Books


Nancy Bereano (00:00):

There was a period of time where women had manuscripts that they had had in their drawers for years, that they couldn't imagine possibly getting published. It was very fertile. It was all tingley, all over the place.

Alec Pollak (00:23):

I’m Alec Pollak, and you’re listening to the Rural Poetics series on The Humanities Pod, housed at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University. In each episode, we focus on matters of rural poetry and small press literature, featuring interviews with publishers local to our own region of Ithaca, New York, and discussions and readings from rural poets elsewhere.

Alec Pollak (00:48):

Today, I’m talking with Nancy Bereano, founder and former editor of the groundbreaking lesbian and feminist publishing house, Firebrand Books. Based right here in Ithaca, NY, from 1984 to 2000, Firebrand Books published exceptional writing on lesbian and feminist themes, including award-winning works by authors such as Audre Lorde, Alison Bechdel, Jewelle Gomez, Leslie Feinberg, Cheryl Clarke, and Dorothy Allison. The press itself earned four American Library Association and 12 Lambda Literary Awards during its lifetime, including the Publisher's Service Award in 1996. Shepherding more than a few now-feminist classics into print, including Alison Bechdel’s “Dykes to Watch Out For,” Dorothy Allison’s "Trash," and Leslie Feinberg’s "Stone Butch Blues," Nancy was a leader in the field of lesbian and feminist publishing for sixteen years.

Alec Pollak (01:54):

Thank you so much for talking with me today, Nancy.

Nancy Bereano (01:57):

It's a pleasure.

Alec Pollak (01:58):

I'll just jump right in and ask you, what brought you into the women's movement and feminist publishing specifically? I know that you were politically active before you became involved in the women's movement, and so can you talk a little bit about that?

Nancy Bereano (02:12):

Yes I was, but it was not primarily in the women's movement. The work that I did--I'm proud of the work, but I can't say that I wasn't involved in the women's movement early on and feel good about that with hindsight. I sort of thought, "oh, I didn't really need that," because I had, I had a very active out in the world life. And so I didn't see myself as somebody who was sequestered at home and oppressed in all of those kinds of domesticated ways. But anyway, my former husband was able to get a teaching position at Cornell for a couple of years and obviously I went with him. And, in addition to becoming very involved in anti-war stuff in Ithaca, I became, because of my work at HEW, I wound up becoming a welfare organizer and there was a welfare rights group in Ithaca that I was the advisor to... I had never done any organizing. I had a big mouth, but I hadn't used it to some functional, bigger purpose than, you know, I don't know, dealing with NYSEG or something, if there was a problem with the bill. Eventually, one thing led to another and after the Black takeover of the student union building, there were several structural things that happened at Cornell. Africana--the Africana Center--and the formulation of something called the Human Affairs Program. And the Human Affairs Program was a way for students to get academic credit for doing community organizing work. And that happened because there were friendly faculty people in various departments throughout the university who would authorize independent studies and the faculty for that program were a number of people like myself who were not necessarily qualified to be teaching at the university level--or certainly only at the instructors level if we were officially sanctified, which we were not. And so I taught a course on the American welfare system, the politics and economics of the American welfare system, which by this time I had done a huge amount of reading on and had been experiencing in the flesh. You could call me up at two in the morning and I could do a welfare budget for you and train students how to do that kind of work and deal with the welfare department. And we operated out of a storefront that ran a free clothing exchange and did criminal justice, a lot of stuff, a lot of local organizing kind of stuff. And one thing led to another, and there were women who may have started out as my students, but became peers very quickly in terms of the work that we were doing, who basically said, "how come you're not involved in women's stuff?" So I then had to look at, "well, how come I'm not involved?" Fast forward: I became involved in women's stuff. But I wasn't the first to sign up! I mean, it really took several consciousness raising groups and having my personal world split open and all kinds of stuff like that, as opposed to, "I really am terribly oppressed and I better do something about it." I didn't feel terribly oppressed at first because I had led a pretty insulated, Middle-class kind of life. And my former husband may have been a whole bunch of things that wound up not working, but he was not an awful, oppressive man in the way I thought about that stuff. So that's how I got involved, slowly, in the women's movement. And then it became what I was--I mean, that was my life. I learned after a number of years of organizing and stuff that I didn't want to take on anybody else's issues, that it was not responsible. I thought I had learned to organize on behalf of other people when you do not bear the consequences of whatever that organizing brings about. I could always walk away, but people who were potentially deciding to go to jail or have benefits suspended or something like that, they couldn't, they needed to live on the money that that was coming. So it was a very big change for me. And the women's movement gradually led into LGBT. It was over time. To me, it seemed like one very logical thing leading to the next very logical thing, rather than waking up one morning and saying, "my marriage is over! I'm going to do this, I'm going to leave." It just--it was all around.

Alec Pollak (06:50):

Can I ask how you found your way to feminist publishing, specifically? I know that you were the editor of the Feminist Series at Crossing Press, right before you founded Firebrand. How did your women's movement work feed into what would become ultimately your signature role?

Nancy Bereano (07:09):

So, I started reading and for a long time I read and I thought, "well, you don't have to be a lesbian to love that." And so I read Adrienne and I read Mary Daly--you know, I did what many women did during that period of time. And I needed a job and Crossing had this feminist series. And I thought, first of all, I thought that editing meant you put commas in and you took commas out, and since I had been an English major, that seemed perfectly reasonable. And so I applied for the job. The person who had started the series was leaving town for whatever. I think there were five books in it when I got hired to do this, and it totally changed my life. I came out at the same time that I was doing this. Each book took me to a different place. I was reading all of these amazing magazines, a plethora of wonderful feminist magazines existed at the time. So there was always new literature to read as well as articles that talked about substantive things that you had to then stop and think about--and what did this mean in terms of your life? And all of that kind of stuff. In any case, I got fired from that job. 20 or 21 books--I don't remember--I did, so, a bunch.

Alec Pollak (08:25):

I didn't know you got fired. Okay.

Nancy Bereano (08:27):

I got fired.

Alec Pollak (08:28):

Wow, they fired you after you published Judy Grahn and Audre Lorde for them?

Nancy Bereano (08:33):

Yes, yes.

Alec Pollak (08:33):

That's wild!

Nancy Bereano (08:33):

Yes, yes. I got fired. And it was because of lies. I mean, it really was. It's not like goody two-shoes, it's like they kept saying "the books aren't making money for the press," and I understood that the books had helped put the press on the map because I could read those figures as well as they could and I knew what was going on. So, I got fired and basically within two weeks of getting fired, I figured out what had to be done and I started Firebrand. And I had a really good reputation within the women's publishing world and the lesbian publishing world by that point. I'd been to conferences, they saw the books that I produced and that I had edited at that point. It was like, yes, I started from the very beginning, but it wasn't like I was a total newcomer. And how did I build relationships with authors? Well, the lesbian literary world was a pretty tight world, relatively speaking. Now, my guess is that there are similar things that go on now in the small press world, not queer necessarily--maybe even queer!--but in terms of the meetings that people have, the conference every year that goes on, AWP, there was just a whole bunch of conference stuff. So people met people and one thing led to another. And it was sort of like, you know, lesbian and feminist cocktail party things, only they really weren't cocktail parties, there were just topics and we were all there.

Alec Pollak (10:16):

Were you going to Women in Print while you were editing at Crossing?

Nancy Bereano (10:20):

The first Women in Print I had nothing to do with. The second Women in Print I did go to. I had just started working at Crossing, so I was editing their feminist series. I didn't have a lot of experience. I don't remember how many books I had done for Crossing at that point--not many. And I think one of the things that happened at that Women in Print was this huge blow up between the women of color and white women within the conference and how that was handled. It really changed the way I saw it possible for a white woman to act. And that I had done different kinds of political work before I was doing any kind of publishing... and although I can't say that I played this huge active part in anti-racism work locally, I was very not only aware of stuff but there was stuff in fact that I was engaged in. I had been part of a team doing apartment applications and documenting how interracial or Black couples did not get offered the same apartments that white couples got offered. And this wasn't in the lesbian realm, this was actually before I came out. But I had all of this experience of having done some work--some, not a whole lot--with Black people in Ithaca around issues of class and poverty and welfare and those kinds of things, not about feminism at all. So when I got to this conference and I sort of saw how it unfolded--and of course I had been reading everything that anyone published, Elly Bulkin, the "Yours in Struggle" stuff. When I got to this conference and everything unfolded, I realized how much I knew, that I was not a newbie to the subject matter, even though it's not where I had done major work. And really, unfortunately--I mean, from my point of view beyond unfortunately--I hadn't participated in the Civil Rights Movement! I was a middle-class white girl, and when they were picketing Woolworths in Manhattan on 42nd street, I thought it was very good that people were doing things, but that was not me. I wasn't an activist and I hadn't developed that kind of commitment. Anyway, so I got to this conference in some kind of light bulb went off in me. One of the things that happened was the women who had planned the conference, they realized that the only way that they were going to get women of color to attend this Women in Print conference was to raise the money to bring them, so there was a pretty sizable number of women of color. And so what happened is there was some panel--I don't remember the specifics, I think it involved bookstore women, white women--and someone said something on the panel that really aggravated, upset, and angered women of color who were attending and there was this big blow up. And instead of it squaring off against each other, the women who organized the conference understood that there might very well be a blow up because if they were savvy enough to get women of color to come because they raised money because they knew that's what they had to do, then they understood that there might be a blow up. So they had one or two liaison people going back and forth between the various groups that were forming, trying to not make everything nice but hear what was going on. And maybe I'm going to say a dozen of us--I don't know if that's accurate--but a dozen or so, maybe a little smaller, white women basically got up on the floor and supported the women of color and basically took responsibility, saying, "there but for the grace of whatever, go I," in terms of the bookstore panel women, and, you know, and this is the nature of the issue and all of that kind of stuff. So it's not like we became, uh, outstanding, good friends, but it was a different kind of response than I had seen at like a National Women's Studies Association conference or any other comparable conference. And it was pretty amazing. It was pretty amazing. And that's, you know, I was one of those women and that's how, I don't know, then I was in the fray. I mean, it just, it felt that way, you know, that here's what I'm going to be involved in.

Alec Pollak (14:41):

I, as somebody who learns about this stuff by reading periodicals and archival materials from that conference, you know, I have the outsider's perspective and there was that Women in Print conference, and then by the next Women in Print conference, I believe Firebrand had been founded and you were coming out with your first three books and two of them were by women of color, Pat Parker and.

Nancy Bereano (15:05):

Beth Brant.

Alec Pollak (15:05):

And watching that from, you know, the researcher's perspective, what was clear to me was that something, something happened, you had made a commitment of some kind to focusing that writing in your press.

Nancy Bereano (15:17):

Yes. And I think there must have been maybe five years differential between or four years between that conference. I don't know how long I had been at Crossing when that conference happened, but between that conference and the first Firebrand list, which came out very shortly... I started Firebrand in October. I was fired in the early fall and I started Firebrand literally within a month. When I got fired, my old boss really wasn't interested in publishing women's books. So the books that I published--that first list--had been under contract to Crossing, meaning I had put them under contract. I mean, Elaine was the one who legally signed the contracts, but I was the one who had recruited the books. And I got in touch with whoever the appropriate people were and I said, blah, blah, blah, been fired, starting Firebrand, and I would like to publish your book as part of the first list, and who would say no to that? I mean, I say that seriously, not because who would say no to me, but who would say no to not having their lives completely disrupted because their editor got fired! Like, okay, so it's coming out in April, your book's coming out in April. Then I figured out how to make the book come out in April. And I knew Beth, Beth came at some point. I don't remember whether it was in relationship to that book, to "Mohawk Trail," or a subsequent book, but she came to Ithaca and she stayed with me and we wound up having this really fascinating conversation where she said to me, "I don't know how you people did it," and I said, "what do you mean, 'you people,'" she said, "Jews, I don't know you, people did it. You didn't have land," because she's Native American and that's what it was. And I said, "yeah, but we had the Book." And I'm not very religious, you know, so it's not like I went and pulled out my [laughs].

Alec Pollak (17:06):

I know.

Nancy Bereano (17:07):

But, yeah, that's how we made it, because we certainly didn't have land. So, anyway, the working relationships were much more than "send me your manuscript, I'll publish it, I'll redline it and get it back to you," poof, over and done with. And then we'd wind up seeing people at some other conference. I mean, that's the way a lot of acquisition was done. Somebody told somebody told somebody... it was a contained, but a very rich world because nobody had ever paid attention to it. So there was just the sense of it just bubbling up, bubbling up, bubbling up was very tangible, very tangible.

Alec Pollak (17:47):

In your capacity as the editor of Crossing Press's Feminist Series, you published Michelle Cliff's "Abeng," you published "The Work of a Common Woman" by Judy Grahn, and you published a "Zami" and "Sister Outsider" by Audre Lorde.

Nancy Bereano (18:01):

But I need to say that "Zami" and "The Work of a Common Woman"--those had been published by other women's presses that folded, and I was able to negotiate to buy the rights. It was the kind of thing that I knew how to do--I don't mean the negotiation part, that I learned, but that I knew how to do because I knew that world and those books. I had negotiated "Zami" and then "The Work of a Common Woman" had been done by Diana Press in Oakland, California years before Crossing was doing any kind of feminist anything. And I write about it--I'm working on a memoir--and I write about my dealings with Audre because she was very... she made a difference in how I thought about myself. She would not take any kind of "aw shucks." "I'm just Nancy from the Bronx, and you're..." And it's like, "you're gonna edit me? You better do your thing," which is basically how she dealt with anyone about anything. You know, "don't tell me it's your first poem. You're writing a poem? Write the poem and then we'll deal." She was the big find. Pat Parker... several times in several incarnations I reissued Movement in Black, and eventually it got reissued at Firebrand with other people commenting, you know, other black women authors commenting.

Alec Pollak (19:14):

So at some point, you got a job at Crossing Press and then fast forward five years, you went from, "it's a job" to "this is my life." Can you tell me about why?

Nancy Bereano (19:26):

I don't think it was rational. I believed and the significance, the importance, of doing this work. I saw a blossoming of lesbian culture. I was entering into it. I had a history--not a personal history but a lesbian history--that I really wanted to learn about and honor. And there was a lot of work to do to get stuff out there. It was a period of time where women had manuscripts that they had had in their drawers for years that they couldn't imagine possibly getting published. It was very fertile. It was all tingley, all over the place. Many magazines, many, many publishers, just a lot of excitement. And this became my work. It's like all of the stuff that I had done for organizing, all of the skills that I had learned about getting people to a demonstration and planning backwards and what you needed to do, that's how a book got produced. Do you know what I mean? It was just different stops along the way. But in terms of thinking about it, that was how a book got into bookstores. And I was, you know, I was a reader. I had been an English lit major. So yeah, it was me, there was a growth in me concomitant with the growth in the press. And I trusted, I did trust myself to make the judgements in terms of accepting and soliciting or turning down manuscripts. And that was sort of a balance because sometimes you wind up publishing things that you didn't necessarily love, but you had to pay the bills and you had to make a lot of different kinds of people happy. Commercially, I had a gut response of, "how much stuff needs to get out there in order to have the bills be paid?" All of that is not just about loving something. But when Minnie Bruce Pratt's Crime Against Nature came in and I looked at that manuscript, I said, "this is award-winning." And I sent it off to the poetry society, whatever the major group was. And they had changed their regulations in terms of when nominations were due. I got the manuscript to them by that time and they told me it was too late and I called them and I said, "it can't be too late. You have to change your rules, because this is not like I had a book like this every year. This is a great book and you need to understand." And she won. And there we all were in the Museum of Modern Art... Adrienne was there, all kinds of famous, big people were there because it was in New York, plus lesbiana from New York City. And there was Minnie Bruce reading about the loss of her sons. I had an eye and I don't know how I had the eye. I honestly don't know that. But I had an eye and I learned to trust it. I had an open submissions policy, so anybody could send me anything. They didn't have to go through a whole system, because I wanted first dibs on it! How did I know what was going to come in? So that meant that I had to have a filtering system that allowed me not to be totally overwhelmed by the number of unsolicited submissions. So I would get approximately 500 a year of either letters of inquiry and/or submissions. And if they were fiction, then I had a person that, once I decided by just reading the query letter--again, trusting my gut--but if there were like, I don't know, a dozen things that came in that I thought required looking at, I would pay her for her summary of, "should I do this, should I not do this?" I mean, I got "Stone Butch Blues," because Amber, who had been lovers with Leslie, got in touch with me and said, "You need to read this, you need to read this, you need to read this." So of course I listened. I mean, you know, I wasn't a fool. People are out there and they know what's going on because that's the life they're living, and when she tells me, I have to read, I have to read it... So anyway, so I gave it to Ellen who stayed up all night reading it, and then she came in in the morning, she was not a morning person, she stopped by on her way to work and she said, "okay, you have to stay up all night and read this. I'm not even going to tell you what it's about. You just have to read it." Okay, so I stayed up... I had never done that before. I couldn't put it down. I just couldn't put it down. And that's what happened. And then I figured, "oh my God, I have to learn so much, I don't know anything!" I read it on the power of what was in the book. I did not read it as the anthem for a whole new movement. I mean, and the more I learned as I went along, the more I understood that, but it's not, like I said, "oh, this is going to change the world." Because I didn't know enough.

Alec Pollak (24:09):

How has it been to watch these books enter their third and fourth print runs between presses? Stone Butch Blues has become a movement classic, Alison Bechdel is perhaps one of the most famous lesbian authors ever...

Nancy Bereano (24:28):

And the only genius that I've ever worked with. I mean, to the extent that I understand genius, I don't know that I understand it. But Alison strikes me as a genius because she took raw material that was in her--she was doing this stuff in college, you know, as opposed to the, the oil painting she was supposed to be doing--and she has made her life's work out of it, she supports herself. I mean, who else supports themselves on their book? Virtually nobody! Virtually nobody in the feminist small press world.

Alec Pollak (25:03):

But I will say...and let me read something that she wrote on her blog a couple years ago about you. "She discovered me and published my first book when I was a punk kid, so I feel a very deep connection with her. She also urged me to write a graphic novel long before the current craze, and that was the beginning of 'Fun Home.' So you introduced her to the publishing world.

Nancy Bereano (25:23):

Yes. And I wasn't a comic book person, I mean, that was not anything I understood or read. I just thought she was hysterically funny, and she was doing stuff, you know, her individual things, "Political Dykes to Watch Out For," I actually bought from her the original. I just thought, "this is too brilliant. This is just... she has got the head." And then she gradually developed the skill, the tech in her, she's really worked at that, so that if you look at the quality of the later panels, versus just in the drawing sense, they have gotten that much more sophisticated, the amount of material that she can fit in. But she's a genius, not only that she has this amazing skill and she's very smart... she has figured out how to do a professional life out of it. I mean, some of that has been luck, when she was getting, you know, 25 newspapers at $50 a week or something like that, but some of it has been because she was able to parlay herself into something that was, you know, nerve wracking, I'm sure, but steady. And I'm still in touch with her. You know, periodically we speak, or I read something about her. When "Fun Home" opened on Broadway, I said, "okay, look, I've never asked you for anything. This is what I want. Can I have two tickets to opening night?"

Alec Pollak (26:44):

And I'm sure she was like, "please, can I give you something more than just two tickets?!"

Nancy Bereano (26:48):

It was great. She's great. She really is. And a lovely human being, a really lovely... And that's the kind of person, you know, she never missed a deadline. She would always say, "I'm running a little late." Well, of course I always made my deadlines... there were drop-dead deadlines and there were deadlines, you know, I mean, an organizer, so that's what you do. But she always called to say, "I'm going to be a little," I said, "okay, how late? I think we can handle that. That's fine." And then it would arrive in FedEx just the way she said it would. And there was very little editing. I mean, I was the one who said, "you need comments here." But I wasn't changing any of her drawings, certainly. And she's, you know, she has a certain kind of perfection in her. So she wasn't just scrawling some things and saying, "I think I want this kind of text." She had spent a lot of time with her material before I ever saw it.

Alec Pollak (27:36):

You had all of these instincts that guided you to the books that you decided to publish. I imagine some of them were risky investments. You talked at conferences about risk-taking as a form of survival for feminist presses. Can you talk a little bit about that ethos and how it played out with Firebrand?

Nancy Bereano (27:56):

There was a lot of time that Firebrand was on the edge, financially. I don't mean at the end when a lot of things changed, the industry changed, everything changed. There were just a lot of times when, "okay, are we going to be able to pay royalties?" But for the most part there was a rhythm doing a balance of books so that Alison paid for poetry. I mean, not every book was like Minnie Bruce's, which certainly paid for itself. I could do stuff that wasn't going to pay for itself. Well, who knew what the economics were? You do 3-5,000 copies of the first printing, and then the book does better than you thought that it was going to do, so you have to go back to press, because the worst thing to do is not go back to press. You go back to press on money that you don't have because the payment schedule is such that they are all--they, bookstores--90 days behind what your real expenses are. And it's like, why does anyone go into publishing? It's such a ridiculous business. It is, it's a ridiculous business. It continues to be a ridiculous business. Then you have to go back for a second press run, and you're going back to a second press run which you have to pay for at the printers even though you were not going to see money from that second press run for another, probably, four to six months.

Alec Pollak (29:14):

Were you ever thinking about risk-taking in terms of the authors that you took on or the manuscripts you decided to publish?

Nancy Bereano (29:20):

That it was a risk to publish them, a particular author?

Alec Pollak (29:25):

I guess so.

Nancy Bereano (29:25):

Each book was a risk. I mean, who knew? Because part of what I was doing is saying that there were all kinds of things that constitute a lesbian community. And I was trying to learn about what constituted a lesbian community. It's not like I had such a broad base of diverse friends, et cetera, that I said, "well, it should look like mine, only they should all be authors!" You know, the magazine world was very, very significant at that time. The literary world, Sinister Wisdom and Conditions, and on and on, small little local ones. And I read as much of that, as many as I could get my hands on, because that was the way to do acquisitions. Yes, people started sending manuscripts, but in terms of being aggressive about acquisitions, if I read something in a periodical that-- especially if it was more than one thing that I had seen the person's name--and I thought it was good, I got in touch with her and said, "what are you working on? I'd love to read a manuscript when you have one." Sometimes people were just totally amazed because they never thought anyone would say anything like that, and sometimes they were hoping that that would happen, but it was a very good way of making... I did pretty aggressive acquisitions, not aggressive against other presses, but I wanted to get there first. I didn't have a lot to offer. People did not get advances because I didn't have the money to give them advances. The royalty rate was the going rate, so they weren't being screwed, but they certainly weren't going to get rich. So anything was a risk, I mean there was no blueprint. The thing that I tried to pay attention to was I looked at what the big presses were doing in terms of, what are the structures, when do books come out, what does it mean to have a spring season and a fall season? How far in advance do you send advanced copies and what is an advanced copy? How far in advanced do you send advanced copies to Publishers Weekly for possible review? I mean, there was just all of these... the rules of the road and the way that I tried to figure out what to do was to see what the big boys were doing. Not so much in terms of content, because I, you know, I didn't live in their world and wasn't interested about that, but in terms of the structures of the publishing world. How did that work? How did you make contact with people? And it was, it was a very fruitful, very full time. It just felt like it was bursting all over the place.

Alec Pollak (31:56):

You published, if not the books that became movement classics, books by authors like Bechdel. And I'm wondering if you ever felt encroached upon by mainstream publishers or like mainstream publishers were trying to take your authors?

Nancy Bereano (32:15):

I got out before a lot of that happened. First was university publishers who understood that there was a lesbian market because they have less financially at stake than large commercial houses, because they have the support in many ways of the institutions that they're a part of. They may not have to be editorially responsible to them, but there is certain kinds of in-kind support that they get. So it's not like somebody setting up an office in New York and saying, "I'm going to be a publisher." So first with those folks, and a lot of the books that I published were not books that they were going to be interested in because they were just too popular kind of books. I don't mean in terms of how much they sold, but just what their line looked like. It took a long time to get to a place where you could read one of their books and not have more footnotes than text. That's just the nature of the game. In terms of the large houses, the commercial houses, they were not encroaching at the time that I was doing the work. I never felt pressure from them. I know that there were authors who would have loved to have moved to a commercial house because there was more money, but it was women's presses who were publishing their books. It's not like they thought that it was going to be possible to make an appointment with, I don't know, with Harper, somebody, and go and have somebody say, "yes, we want to do this." But certainly then I could do a 5,000 run, a lot of books for a small press. That would be the minimum that they would have to do and sell before they felt like they could make their money back. And part of that was because they have to meet the needs of running a place in New York. I was in Ithaca, New York, where the combined rent of the office that I was in and the warehouse that stored the books along with the mortgage on my house was less than what the last person who worked for me, the last assistant that I had, had in rent when she moved to New York. So you can see that the scale that they had to make money on, how many copies of a book they had to sell in order to make money. So in that sense, they weren't so hot to get my books, because if I was going back to press after 5,000 copies, that was a lot of books. Yeah that was Leslie, that was Alison, that was Audre. But for most books... somebody said to me, "well, do you ever think trying to have an imprint?" I mean, somebody in the industry. And I thought about that for a while. And this is very honest--I think in some ways I saw my own limitations, that I had been pushed from where I came from and what I had never imagined that I would do, it was not something I had been plotting my whole life and then it happened. It happened, and then I rose to the occasion and was able to grow. I mean, that's one of the things that I write about, that I'm working on, how the stuff in my own life overlapped with the stuff in Firebrand's life, so that I've had a much bigger life than I ever thought that I would and how I'm exceedingly grateful for that. But I did not come from a generation that assumed that I was going to have professional business success. I mean, that was just... really? It never entered my mind at the beginning.

Alec Pollak (35:38):

For the context of the recording, you're writing

Nancy Bereano (35:41):

a memoir, really interweaving my personal life, the things that have happened in my personal life, with stuff at Firebrand, because for me I could never have done Firebrand if I hadn't experienced certain awful things in my life because the door would never have opened in my heart, in my brain, to be able to see that deep connective tissue. So anyway, I decided, no, I'm not going to talk to MacMillan about do they want me to have an imprint. Also that wasn't who I was. I didn't want to be with those people. I know can look the part, I can do that and I know how to act at cocktail parties but that's not me. At some point people said to me, because I had been successful--you know, what people think is successful... They assume there's money. And I knew that I was being successful in terms of the reputation of the press, that I understood fully. You know, it was always a question, was I going to be able to meet my medical payments on my health insurance and my assistant's health insurance. So you're always behind. Okay, two things. One, there was somebody who had enough money who would loan me $10 or $15,000 as we got to royalty season so I could pay my royalties on time, and then money would come in from the new season, the new books, and then I could pay her back basically right away. So that worked very well. And then Carol Seajay, at Feminist Bookstore News, let everybody know that Wells Fargo, which was not a bank I ever dealt with, I live in Ithaca, New York, Wells Fargo was running a special program for women-owned small businesses where you could get up to $50,000 in a line of credit and all you had to show was your own owner's personal federal tax form. So I got a $50,000 line of credit. I loved that it wasn't local, that I did not have to go through sort of the humiliation of trying to prove to them I had done this for X number of years, and this is how publishing works, and yes, always six months behind, and okay, fine. So that became the place I borrowed the money from. And I knew it was time to close Firebrand two years before I actually did it. I planned for two years how to close the press, a year and a half, and come out even monetarily because I used the full $50,000 and it was not being paid back. I mean, I was paying it back, but it was not being paid back in large amounts. And I understood that although many, many, many small businesses operate at a deficit, I emotionally couldn't deal with it. It was about, was I waking up at three in the morning in a state of utter panic, because this was not a corporation... it was, it was me. I was the owner, I was going to owe this money. Plus I had my honor, I wasn't gonna screw anybody out of money, I absolutely committed to that. And in fact, when I closed Firebrand, nobody was screwed out of money. The only one who got screwed out of money ultimately was me. Not because I planned that, but because the people that I sold Firebrand to, who were paying... I was getting a very nice amount of money given it was a small press, so no complaints from me. They were my distributors, so they had all of the books in their warehouse and we arranged payback over a four year period of time because that was good for them, that was fine for me, and then they went bankrupt after two years. The first two years with money that was all paid out to people that I owed money to. The second two years was going to be my money, which I didn't get, which was going to be my retirement money. I mean, I'm really not crying about it, I'm just saying that it was very important for me to do this honorably. I saw myself as part of a community. I just wasn't going to screw up that way, I don't think I could live with myself, and I could no longer live with the level of anxiety that I was holding about all of this. And someone else might have, you know, someone else who had different kinds of money issues might've said, "what's the big deal, $50,000 that you keep paying back," and then they increased it to 60 and you're a hundred thousand dollars in debt, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, then you figure out how to get out when you have to get out" and all of that stuff. And the other thing is, I think that I was pretty astute about what was happening in the publishing world, structurally. And I understood that this was dead, that my piece of the world was dying, that lesbians were different, that everyone wanted to be like everybody else. There was a conflation of equality with assimilation that made the kind of books that I was interested in basically not the ones that people were interested in reading. Because I didn't do mostly lightweight fluff, which I can understand people want to read that, but that wasn't what I was doing. I wanted more serious kinds of things. And the world was changing. It was enough time, and I had to figure out how to get out and make the cookies and milk be even.

Alec Pollak (40:57):

Which you did successfully.

Nancy Bereano (40:59):

I did. I'm not so noble hearted. I mean, I want to say this. I was an organizer and I understood you to produce the goods if you want it to be successful, whatever the successful thing is. You can't be an organizer and have no people show up. I mean, you can be, but then that's not good organizing. It was just time for it to end, you know? And then all kinds of people say, "oh, we don't know how you managed to do it for this long." Not everyone acted so well. A lot of people were disappointed. Even though they weren't making a lot of money, their writing needs had been met. They were taken good care of. Somebody paid attention to them and did right by them. And there were people who were spoiled, who were not Alison Bechdel, who couldn't understand why they shouldn't be able to get all of the existing copies of their book back for free when I was selling the press to somebody else. And I said, "I can give you a production schedule and you can see the cost. And that's what you can buy at." That just made perfectly good sense. Nobody was making money on that. We would have to negotiate the shipping charges. I was probably going to pay for those. And, you know, it took a third party to step and in intervene before it got really ugly... because of course that's what had to have happened. That wasn't like rocket science. This was not a charitable organization, it was a business.

Nancy Bereano (42:14):

Is there a discernible path forward for small lesbian and feminist presses? I don't know. I don't know. And I don't know that there are presses that think of themselves that way as opposed... I mean, it's not that they wouldn't think that they're doing lesbian poetry, but is there some grouping or awareness of others or is, you know, a small poetry presa not any different than a small lesbian poetry press? I mean, part of it was that that readings, social gatherings based around published work or soon to be published work, were very much at the heart of how lesbian community got made. You'd get 50 people at a poetry reading. Can you imagine getting 50 people at a poetry... at any kind of reading? It was those kinds of things and softball. And then there were bars. But poetry was really a cultural phenom and there just isn't anything... in the society at large there isn't anything like that, it's not just in the lesbian world. I mean, there wasn't even a lesbian bar. But it really used to be a thing on social calendars and stuff like that. So I don't know. And I don't live in a big city like New York where there are women's bookstore and t-shirt emporium and meeting space all together intentionally, not just because they sell t-shirts and that'll help to keep them afloat financially. So I don't know, I don't know what the lesbian social scene looks like. Because I'm too old to have that life. My body, I can't do that. And that will happen eventually to you, but the point is at your age, there was a lot more going on that was very specifically lesbian.

Alec Pollak (43:57):

Even in Ithaca?

Nancy Bereano (43:59):

Oh, yes. I mean, we had a gay bar owned locally. That was pretty incredible. You know, no mobsters, no... I mean, really, it was, it was not owned by straight people, it was owned by gay guys. And then this huge softball scene. I have no idea what that's like now. Firebrand sponsored a team, the Firebrand Flames.

Alec Pollak (44:21):

Oh my God.

Nancy Bereano (44:22):

Yeah. Yeah. It was just... It was just a different world.

Alec Pollak (44:31):

We've been talking today with Nancy Bereano, founder and former editor of Firebrand Books. Rural Poetics is part of the Rural Humanities Initiative, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and housed at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities. Our thanks go to Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences and to the Cayuga Nation, on whose land Cornell resides.

Black and White Profile photo of Nancy Bereano