Black Lawrence Press

Issue #104 — November 22, 2011

Caketrain

For this week’s feature article, we interviewed Amanda Raczkowski and Joseph Reed, co-editors of Caketrain Journal and Press.

Interview conducted by Kit Frick

Sapling: Caketrain is a Pittsburgh-based journal and press—being from Pittsburgh myself, I have a soft spot for all things black and gold. Can you tell us a bit about how Caketrain got started, how you landed in Pittsburgh, and if there’s a good story (there has to be, right?) behind its sweet-and-speedy name?

CaketrainAmanda Raczkowski & Joseph Reed: We’ve been in Western Pennsylvania from the start. We met while attending University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduate English Writing majors, where we were fortunate to study under professors like Richard Blevins and Judith Vollmer who are experienced small press editors and publishers themselves (Zelot Press and 5AM, respectively). They were the ones who really inspired our initial interest. We worked together at Pitt Greensburg’s student-run literary journal as well, and the desire to champion writing we believe in has never abated. If you had asked us then whether we thought we would still be doing this eight years later, I’m not sure I could’ve imagined it, but every year there’s more reason to keep going.

The name Caketrain has no great story behind it—just a nonsensical neologism cooked up by our former co-editor, Donna Weaver—but it hits all the right buttons, somehow: it’s relatively short, both alphabetically and syllabically, and it sort of has a this-journal-has-been-around-since-forever ring to it, where even those first encountering it seem to feel a sense of familiarity. It’s friendly, and friendliness is important to us. As editors, we reward courage and adventurousness in our writers and readers alike; you’re going to be taken to some unusual places in the work we publish, and perhaps being on a Caketrain allows you to remember to take in the beauty of the strange ride, to have fun on the journey.

S: How would you describe the press’s mission or philosophy, if one exists? What can you tell us about your editorial process?

AR & JR: Because there are only the two of us running the journal and, as a married couple, we’re about as simpatico as an editorial team could be, we don’t have to articulate these things too often, but finding work to publish is a fairly intuitive process for us, and the submissions that make the cut stand out in such stark relief that we realize it almost immediately. We don’t always agree, and we keep things civil by having a mutual no-veto process in place—if one or the other of us is certain about a piece, it goes in; that said, more often than not, we’re engaging in a dialogue together about the work, each looking to the other for a second opinion. We’re a bit wary of being more specific than that; the more guidelines we give in terms of a “house style,” the less likely we are to be surprised by the discoveries. Nothing makes us happier than finding something great, going back to read the bio, and seeing “this is his/her first publication.” There are three such statements in our latest issue, and we’re very proud of them.

S: How does the Caketrain staff go about selecting the chapbooks for your annual contest? (Incidentally, I’m curious about how the annual contest evolved as achapbook contest, as the books seem to be full-length or close to it. Why the choice to of chapbook over book?)

AR & JR: The chapbook competition is in some ways the most exciting part of the process each year, as we don’t know what we’ll be publishing until we hear it from the final judge. As far as the “chapbook” moniker goes, it’s interesting you mention it—from the start, we knew we wanted to make perfect-bound books with full-color covers, which at the time seemed a deviation from the normal definition of a chapbook, and since then, the books have gotten longer and more “book”-like each year. But they’re still very much in the chapbook tradition in their limited release and low price-point. Hopefully we’re giving readers the value of a book at the price of a chapbook; that seems a worthy aspiration.

S: Your cover art is consistently amazing, for the journals and the books—it’s actually possible to identify (if not judge) a Caketrain book by its cover! How would you describe the role that design / visual art has taken in Caketrain’s aesthetic?

AR & JR: To us, the design of the book is essential to the proper presentation of the work. All of our layout is done in-house, and our cover art acquisitions result from the vast scouring of images from visual artists all over the world. We look at thousands and thousands of images every time we prepare a new book, and in the case of single-author titles, we sometimes try as many as fifteen or twenty mockups, as it’s important to us that the author be as happy with the cover as we are. Our stance on layout is keep it simple and do no harm—clean layouts with generous margins and line-spacing are essential, as is simplicity.

S: As editors, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?

AR & JR: The hardest part of our job is having to say no. Last year we considered about 4,000 submission packets for publication, and we accepted work from about thirty. It’s an inescapable fact that you have to decline the other 3,970 or so, so we do that as politely and respectfully as we can in a way that encourages their further submission—not only because it’s important to us to stay in touch with anyone and everyone who has an interest in what we do, but because we’ve seen authors finally get through on their tenth, fifteenth, and twentieth attempts.

The best part of the job is seeing a reader respond to a writer and knowing we’ve been a conduit for that connection—whether it’s a positive comment on Goodreads, a review on a blog, or the Whiting Writers Award which Ryan Call just received (we’re still reeling from the news)—the knowledge that people are interacting with the text, hopefully being inspired and enriched by what they’re seeing, is what makes all the work worthwhile.

S: In addition to the standard wisdom of purchasing a copy of Caketrain and following

 the submission guidelines, what advice would you give to writers who are interested in submitting to the journal? To a future chapbook competition?

AR & JR: There’s nothing to recommend but to do it—be unafraid of rejection, be confident in your work, and send it out. It’s sad to think of the writing that might be out there that we’re not seeing because the author simply isn’t sending it out.

S: What’s going on in the small press world that you’re excited about right now? Either within the scope of Caketrain or further afield.

AR & JR: A short list of can’t-miss stuff on the horizon would certainly include Joanna Ruocco’s Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith from FC2, Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! from Europa, Ben Mirov’sHider Roser from Octopus, and Brian Evenson’s Windeye from Coffee House. Gretchen Henderson’s Galerie de Difformité from Lake Forest just arrived in our mailbox and looks amazing and is a huge brick of a book we’re excited to dig into. In our own immediate future, we’re publishing a memoir this spring, which probably sounds out-of-character to anyone who’s read our books, but it’s a Caketrain title through-and-through, as you’ll soon see.

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To learn more about Caketrain, visit: http://www.caketrain.org/.

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Amanda Raczkowski and Joseph Reed are co-editors of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Caketrain Journal and Press. Their work consists of editing and publishing an eponymous literary journal, nine issues to date; and a press imprint, which has issued chapbooks and full-length titles from Elizabeth Skurnick, Tom Whalen, Claire Hero, Matt Bell, Tina May Hall, Kim Parko, Ben Mirov, Lucas Farrell, Ryan Call, Sarah Rose Etter, and Sara Levine.