Friday, September 19, 2008

Writer Profile: Kim Dana Kupperman

(An occasional series, in which I'll talk with writers I know—or want to know—about the craft of writing.)

Kim and I met when she and I were both applying to be the Women’s (Womyn’s) Editor at City on a Hill, the college newsweekly at UC-Santa Cruz. (The former women’s editor, Kerry Anna Cobra, I think was departing to join a coven in San Francisco). We ended up sharing the position as co-editors, for a time, coming up with such features as “The Joy of Bundling.” Our section for the April Fool’s issue featured fashion makeovers: from punk to conservative, dyke to earth mother.

Needless to say, we were not universally liked in the university’s and town’s feminist communities. Some wrote the paper complaining of our frivolity in light of such pressing issues as clitorectomy in Africa and the ongoing, chronic subjugation of women in all parts of the world. But we both agreed, without needing to talk about it much, that feminism needed to lighten up sometimes and not always take itself so seriously.

Kim went on to live in Los Angeles, France, NYC (her hometown) and Maine. She taught English by phone to French people, taught English as a Foreign Language, French, and creative writing stateside, worked as a journalist and as a writer and community educator for nonprofit organizations before earning her MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She is the founder of Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit independent publisher whose mission is to publish and celebrate the essay, in all its forms. For her day job, she works as managing editor of The Gettysburg Review.

Through the years and our various addresses, we’ve always managed to keep in touch, sometimes reconnecting after a silence of several years. That’s 25 years of correspondence, longer than I have kept up with most people, though in recent years, admittedly, most of it has been by e-mail. I miss our pages-long, handwritten and typed missives, where we used to plan out our futures and analyze our presents. Hard to imagine anymore putting so much intent into something that only one person will read, gone forever into that sealed envelope. When I write a letter now, on my laptop, I can just as easily send it to a thousand as I can send it to one, and I can archive it in a variety of ways, where it might sit silent but searchable for many years.

Kim has published extensively in the last several years. Her essays have appeared in Agni online, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her essay “Relief” (Hotel Amerika, Spring 2005) was chosen for the anthology Best American Essays, 2006. For more, see Kim Dana Kupperman.

WH: Why do you write? And, why did you choose writing instead of some other form of creativity?

About ten years ago, someone told me that writers weren’t listened to as children. While I’m sure this assessment is not universal to all writers, for me it made sense. One of my mother’s favorite admonishments was “children should be seen and not heard,” and while my parents certainly paid attention to me and did listen to me in many ways, in many other ways they didn’t. I’m sure everyone could claim their parents didn’t listen to them in some fashion. The point is that writing is all about finding a voice, not necessarily the one with which you speak to your family, loved ones, friends, co-workers, or acquaintances, but a voice that expresses what is really happening in the interior self. That’s the first part of my answer: I started writing to satisfy the need to speak out and up, to raise my voice with the authority I didn’t necessarily have as a child.

The second part of the answer is that crafting language into art seemed to fit me as a form of creativity (I’m thinking of Rumi’s delightful line, “Wine gets drunk on us, not the other way around”). I did dabble with visual and performing arts as a young person, but writing complemented my sensibility in deeper ways. I have half brothers, but because they had a different mother and were quite a bit older, in essence I grew up as an only child. My mother, when I lived with her, left me alone to the point of neglect. And so I learned to amuse myself, seeking refuge in my imagination, which was a territory of unending possibility and joy. It was also a place where I resolved my fears and this is very much akin to what writing is all about, especially writing personal essays that seek to examine the unexamined life.

The third part of the answer is that I am both a storyteller and a very visual/aural person. Writing allows me to use all those capacities. Plus, when I was in my twenties, I thought it important to learn everything associated with writing, even the act of writing. I became a calligrapher. I tried my hand at translation, journalism, grant writing, and, as you know, I was a great fan of the epistolary tradition. For many years, my best writing happened in letters I wrote. Later, I learned to make books, which satisfies my desire to fashion things with my hands. I still like making books. I like it so much that I founded a press that will incorporate letterpress printing and traditional book arts into many of its projects.

WH: What was the first piece of writing you ever had published?

An article called “Journey out of Silence,” about women artists and the indecent lack of exposure for women who paint or sculpt. It was published in 1980, in Matrix, A Women’s Newsmagazine, a monthly tabloid produced by a collective in Santa Cruz. It was a very exciting experience to publish that article, especially because it combined my love of visual arts with my proficiency as a young writer (not to mention the hope it gave me to be able to voice my opinion in a public forum about inequity in the arts). I even made the collage that was published on the cover.

WH: What are you working on now?

A second collection of essays. I’m hesitant to say what it’s about because I don’t want to jinx the project.

WH: What are you reading now?

Truth in Nonfiction, essays edited by David Lazar; The Unequal Hours, essays by Linda Underhill; Walking the Wrack Line. On Tidal Shifts and What Remains, essays by Barbara Hurd. I also read the New Yorker and the Sun. I just recently finished reading the entire February 2008 issue of the Sun, which has some remarkable essays in it, most notably the one by Derrick Jensen on zoos (he compares zoos to pornography, a brilliant and all-too-true notion).

WH: Are you exclusively writing nonfiction or do you work in other genres as well?

I have been writing nonfiction pretty exclusively for the past four years, but I’ve also written quite a bit of (bad) poetry and some fiction (one piece was published some years ago). I’ve been working on a project for some time that uses all three genres.

WH: What does a managing editor at a literary journal do?

The primary and most pressing task consists of shepherding the journal through production. This involves readying manuscripts for the typesetter; copyediting, proofreading, and communicating and/or negotiating with authors about edits; coordinating and communicating with the designer, typesetter and printer; ensuring that graphics (we run an eight-page art feature and ads from other journals or presses) meet our print-quality specifications; and basically making sure everyone involved in the process meets deadlines in the production schedule (which I also set in advance of each publishing cycle). Other responsibilities include supervising student interns, writing grant proposals and managing grant contracts, processing contributor and vendor payments, overseeing the annual budget, managing single-issue distribution, dealing with distributors, and attending conferences and book fairs. I used to also be in charge of marketing, but because of my responsibilities as coordinator of our summer writing conference, I no longer coordinate marketing activities. Managing editors at other journals have assorted other responsibilities, including setting editorial policy and selecting work. I’m lucky as I get to work with authors once they’re accepted (i.e., I never reject anyone!)

As coordinator of the Review’s summer conference for writers, I make sure everything that needs to be in place—i.e., advertising, publicity, contracts, scheduling, housing, transportation, catering, etc.—is in place. I make sure people will have the information they need to get from one event to another; it’s a details job. Once faculty and students arrive, I spend a great deal of time solving problems and making sure everyone feels welcome and satisfied. It’s a customer-service job more than anything. When the conference ends, I supervise the compilation of evaluations.

WH: What do you hope to write (or accomplish) in the next five years?

I hope to get my first collection of essays published, a scary proposition considering how essay-phobic the publishing world is (the other reason I founded Welcome Table Press was to address the need for a publisher to focus on the essay). I’m working now to get the press up and running, and to bring the idea of the essay to the fore in terms of contemporary letters. And I want to finish more reading! Always more reading, including rereading. In prose, Woolf, Sontag, Pamuk, Didion, Baldwin, Jeff Porter, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, June Jordan, and that’s just for starters; the list is endless actually. In poetry, everything!

--Interviewed (and introduction written) by Beth Blevins.

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