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January 27, 2014

Roundtable Discussion with Four Founding Members of Kelsey Street Press

November 16, 2008, Patricia Dienstfrey’s living room, Berkeley, CA

In 2008, on the occasion of the 34th anniversary of Kelsey Street Press, four founding members discussed the impetus for forming the press, and its early days. The participants were Marina La Palma, Laura Moriarty, Patricia Dienstfrey, and Rena Rosenwasser. This conversation was moderated by Frances Phillips and recorded by Ramsay Breslin.

This discussion took place only six years ago, yet many aspects of KSP have changed in recent years: the composition of the press has continued to develop, and there are five new members since this discussion was recorded; not only have we all seen a Kindle, we have published our first ebook; and, in discussing the aims and existence of KSP today, members seem less hesitant to refer to the press as a feminist project. Yet, the focus of these conversations—the process of starting a press from scratch, the excitement of challenging the status quo, the intense and thoughtful consideration of poetics—remain fascinating and relevant to the press today, and to anyone who is interested in its history.

Section One (20 minutes)

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Introduction by Dienstfrey: background on the press and participants; connection with Berkeley Poets Cooperative; Karen Brodine and Kit Duane’s involvement; Second Wave context; the all-male San Francisco Bay Area Poets anthology; the example set by other small presses; printing materials and learning how to use a letterpress; Poems from Neurosuite, and KSP’s early interest in translation; Other Voices anthology; book design with Robert Rosenwasser; printing and office changes; purpose of the panel.

Individual influences before forming KSP: La Palma on Gallimard, performance, sound. Rosenwasser on women’s consciousness groups and feminist art programs at Cal Arts; protests at MOMA over the exclusion of women artists; typesetting; the Bacchanal on Solano Ave.

Section Two (23 minutes)

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Rosenwasser’s memories of the art and feminist movements in the 1970s. La Palma on dances that she and Karen Brodine participated in; moving toward poetry as performance. Moriarty on her different trajectory into the press; being an undergraduate at Cal when KSP started; moving to SF with Jerry Estrin.

Discussion about KSP not having an explicitly feminist mission statement in the beginning. Moriarty on political and poetic oppositions that felt heated at the time and, in hindsight, appear to have dissolved. Dienstfrey on gender oppositions; her initial thoughts on Language poetry. Differences between Language poets and the How(ever) group. Moriarty on becoming aware of Language writing in the late 1970s. The nature of group identity. Discussion of a specific debate between Language poets and the How(ever) group. The intensity of debates about embodiment versus process.

Section Three (17 minutes)

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Rosenwasser on how the women’s movement made it possible to bring more parts of life into art; the impetus to separate from Berkeley Poets Cooperative. Dienstfrey on a particular poem by Karen Brodine that was critiqued by men in the Berkeley Poets Cooperative. La Palma on how work by women writers was deemed feminine in an inherently limiting way. Rosenwasser’s memory of hearing Kathleen Fraser read a poem about heavy legs in her high school as part of a Poets in the School program, and her (male) English teacher’s disapproval of the subject matter. Moriarty’s sense that being a few years younger and from a working class background changed her experience; remembering the Language poets/How(ever) debate of which Dienstfrey spoke, but ultimately finding the dichotomies false. Language poets like Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Leslie Scalapino. Moriarty’s sense that rhetoric influenced the ways poets read one another during that time.

Discussion of group identity and academia. Moriarty on male Language poets like Ron Silliman. Moriarty’s memory of giving a talk “On Pleasure” and being surprised and amused that men in the audience argued against pleasure. Dienstfrey on a Feminist Presses Panel at Duquesne, Third Wave, inclusiveness and non-hierarchy. La Palma on the grueling process of starting the press, decisions by consensus, trying to balance desire for diversity with aesthetic interests. Discussion about inexperience in the early years.

Section Four (15 minutes)

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Discussion of models for publishing that influenced KSP. Moriarty on how the issues for small presses today are similar and different. Becoming educated on the business aspects of publishing. Discussion of fundraising, grants, and diversity. Discussion of the poetry scene in the 1970s and today. KQED recording in 1976. Salon events: Fraser and Barbara Guest, Barbara Christian and Carrie Mae Weems.

Rosenwasser on how artist collaborations came about; Simulacra with Kate Delos; Guest and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s interest in collaborations. Dienstfrey on artwork in the early books; frontispieces by Robert Rosenwasser; Hair-raising; Desert Flats by Rena Rosenwasser; Girl Named Hero by Kit Duane; Poem for a Single Pallet by Fanny Howe; she talks to herself in the language of an educated woman by Frances Jaffer. Discussion of HAIR-RAISING, and the 1970s feminism ethos. Making the Park. ROOMS.

Section Five (22 minutes)

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Discussion of rifts and conflicts in the press; changes in the composition of the press. Dienstfrey on the split with Karen Brodine. Moriarty on her decision to leave the press. La Palma on Brodine’s departure from the press, as well as her own. Rosenwasser on transitioning from a collective model to a business model. Dienstfrey on how life changes affected her involvement with the press; how the reorganization of the press made it possible for it to continue for so long; the community of press members. Rosenwasser on how she and Dienstfrey provided continuity for the press.

Dienstfrey’s concern with the historical record; how culture is preserved and perpetuated. Small presses as a connection to a community. Moriarty on defining the success of a small press; the importance of SPD and distribution. Rosenwasser’s love of the book as a made, physical object; concerns about losing that with a shift to electronic publishing. Generational changes in feminism; the now-global perspective of feminism. Dienstfrey’s concerns about continuing to counter patriarchal forces in culture and in consciousness. Discussion of legacy of KSP; moments that stand out as highlights; the aesthetic of KSP—space, openness, tactile, visual; realizing that KSP was on the map. Conclusion from Frances Phillips.