Q&A: Kate Gale Tends to Red Hen Press

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The managing editor of the Pasadena, California–based Red Hen Press is a busy woman. She is a poet and fiction writer whose publishing credits include several books issued by her own press, and the poetry collections Mating Season (Tupelo Press, 2004), and Goldilocks Zone, forthcoming in March from the University of New Mexico Press. But what keeps Kate Gale busiest is leading Red Hen, the nonprofit she cofounded with Mark E. Cull in 1994, and planning events to mark its big anniversary year.

Red Hen Press was founded nineteen years ago this month, right?
Yes, we’ll be going into our twentieth year. Since we’re in Los Angeles, we’re amazed to still be around. [Laughs.]

Why amazed?
Well, publishing has traditionally thrived in New York City and Minneapolis, and to some extent in the Northwest. Los Angeles is difficult for publishing for a couple of reasons. One is that creative work is overshadowed by the film industry, and also architecture and music at this point. So when you think of Los Angeles, you don’t think of publishing. Having a [successful] publishing company in a city that’s as expensive as Los Angeles, and where there isn’t a general feeling that this is what the city does best, is extraordinary.

So how is it that you’ve managed to survive for almost two decades?
Ray Bradbury spoke at our first fundraising event and said, “It’s great to have a publishing company in Los Angeles, because people are always doing crazy things here.” I’ve always liked that, because L.A. is both a place where you go to reinvent yourself and a place to try out your wildest ideas. If we’d been in New York or Chicago, someone would have sat us down in the early years and said, “This is impossible, given this city, given how expensive it is to live here, given how much money you’re going to have to raise.” But in Los Angeles, it’s all about making the impossible possible.

What led to the founding of the press?
I came to L.A. in 1987 to get a master’s and then a PhD at Claremont Graduate University. I was in a writing group, and felt that everyone in our group deserved to be published. One person in our group started a small press called Garden Street Press; it published my first book, and also published some other people in the group. Then he started to fall apart as a publisher, and that was that. And I thought, “If this guy can start a press”—he didn’t even own a computer; he was renting computers from Kinko’s—I thought, “I know that I can do this.” I liked the idea of being a collective, and I thought everybody in our group would help out. But collectives are very hard to run, especially in L.A., where people don’t want to get off work and then have to drive another two hours to wherever you are. And we weren’t even sending e-mail attachments back then. In the end, there were just two of us doing all the work. Everybody wanted to be published, but they weren’t as engaged in the work part. And so when we decided to start a nonprofit, I thought of the story of the Little Red Hen.

Refresh our memories, would you?
There was this bunch of farmyard animals, all of whom wanted to have bread. So the Little Red Hen said, “Who’s going to plant the wheat?” And they all said, “Not I! Not I!” So the Little Red Hen planted the wheat. But then she asked who was going to take care of the wheat, who’s going to harvest it? “Not I! Not I!” At the end, when she’s made the bread, she says, “Who’s going to eat the bread?” And everyone’s like, “I will!” And the Little Red Hen says, “No, I’m going to eat it myself!” [Laughs.] The story for us was a good image for getting going on something. Fortunately it didn’t keep on that way. Now we have a great staff, a great board, great shareholders, so the burden is not just on one or two people.

You have a whole flock of Red Hens.
Exactly. Otherwise we’d still be a micro-press. I love micro-presses, but that wasn’t the direction we wanted to go.

What’s the scope and size of the press today?
There are five parts to the press. There’s the Los Angeles Review, which comes out twice a year. We have a writing-in-the-schools program in Los Angeles and Pasadena, an awards program, and a reading series in L.A. and New York City. And of course the biggest part of the organization is the press itself, which publishes twenty titles a year. We’ve always been heavier on poetry, but we have more and more prose writers. That growth, I think, has come about because the middle has sort of dropped out of commercial publishing, and we’ve picked up several prose writers who would otherwise have been with bigger publishers. In general, in fact, I think independent publishing is going to pick up the mid-list.