Category: Opera

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Kate Gale, Poet, Editor, Publisher, Librettist, interviewed by David...

Kate Gale, Co-Founder of Red Hen Press
(photo credit: Emily Petrie)

January 3rd, 2022

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Kate Gale, Poet, Editor, Publisher, Librettist

interviewed by David Garyan


Kate Gale’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: Your new book will be released in the spring. Can you talk a little bit about this upcoming project, along with the inspiration behind it?

KG: This is my darkest book to date.  The book before this, The Goldilocks Zone was a fun cheery book in comparison.  To give you an idea how dark, the original title for this book was The Stoning Circle and then because of the cover, it was changed to The Loneliest Girl which is so much more upbeat.  The inspiration behind it was that I had myself descended into the well of loneliness.  I survived my childhood in an abusive cult and out of that escape decided to found a press to build community, but I risked too much and made mistakes, and I found myself at the bottom of the well, and I wrote this book from down there.

DG: In 1994, you co-founded Red Hen Press, a non-profit institution that has received great praise and published some of the most notable writers of our time. You now serve as the managing editor of this publishing house. Can you talk about how it all began, the motivations behind starting your own press, and how this work ultimately complements and informs your own creative efforts?

KG: I have enormous gratitude for having published writers such as Camille Dungy, Percival Everett, Cynthia Hogue, Chris Abani, David Mason, and many others.  I started Red Hen to build literary community and because I wanted Los Angeles to be a literary city, and also because I felt there were writers being ignored by the big New York presses.  Having said that, I feel that working with great writers is a privilege, but it does cannibalize your literary capital.  You don’t end up with as much time and energy to write, and the writers in your circle don’t ask how your writing is doing.  My husband and I are both writers and we are each other’s literary champions and first readers.  But I like being a maker.  I am deeply honored to be entrusted with manuscripts.  Being a writer and an editor is messy, complicated, and difficult.

DG: You’re one of the few poets working today who writes libretti—an endeavor perhaps more difficult than drama or fiction, as it’s the music which ultimately guides the tempo and rhythm of words. Many poet-librettists, for various reasons, end up failing; having written, however, seven libretti over the course of your career, including one with the famed author, Ursula K. Le Guin, you’ve managed to resist that. Can you talk about your fascination with opera, your experience of both crafting and seeing Paradises Loses performed, and how working in this genre is simultaneously similar and different from the other projects you’re involved in?

KG: I love working with opera.  I am always listening to opera, planning my next visit to the opera and thinking about the opera that I am working on.  I am working on a libretto now for the singer Hila Plitmann.  Ursula K. LeGuin was amazing to work with.  She did a reading with me when my book came out in 2014, and when she walked into the room, she said, “Kate, I’ll have a whiskey straight.” And I brought the whiskey and she said, “Thank you; this is good, keep them coming.” She gave me some great advice about writing.  She said, “When you kill off an army in your story, the reader doesn’t feel it, but if you want the reader to understand the malice in a character, have the character kill a dog.” She also explained how much she loved editing because of the precise nature of it.  I had always loved the freewheeling first draft, but listening to her made me want to pay attention to editing and the music of paying attention to each word.  I love libretto writing because you have a partner.  Writing is lonely.  But when you work on an opera, the composer is waiting for each draft and sending back comments.   I like the team effort, and I like listening to music while writing and the swim of it.  I like feeling like someone is in the room with me.

DG: You’ve taught creative writing in various settings and institutions; there are certainly many detractors and proponents of this approach. Two questions: Why do you think there’s such controversy surrounding the teaching of creative writing, when all other disciplines, such as medicine, law, philosophy, and history require formal training, and what benefits have not only you, but also the students you’ve taught over the years received from such teaching?

KG: Here’s the thing:  You can’t teach writing.  Right.  Nobody taught me to write.  Here’s what most people come away from their writing program with:  1. We are in the habit of writing.  2. We have someone who will read our work.  3.  We know how to edit our own work.  4.  We’ve learned the art of discernment, how to tell our work that should be thrown out, but what needs more editing. 5.  We’ve read a lot of other people’s writing that was really good, and we have something to reach for.  6.  We understand that writing is a discipline and if we want to achieve a level of mastery and excellence, we must do it every day, edit our work, and edit to find the cream.  I think all that makes it worth it.  I like to give my students everything when I’m teaching, and being in the classroom is exciting.  It’s one place where I’m appreciated, and who doesn’t like that?  I think you should only go to school to learn to be a writer if you want to get your game on and if you get there and you feel you’re in a good place that fits for you.

DG: You were born in the state of New York, but ultimately made your way west and settled here. LA is often in competition with NYC for the literary city of America—and why not also say this the other way around: NYC is often in competition with LA for the literary city of America. As someone who runs a very successful publishing house and also edits The Los Angeles Review, how is what’s being done here different from what’s produced on the other side, and do you find this rivalry to be amusing, senseless, important, futile, influential, vain, empowering, or perhaps all of the above, and why?

KG: Let me start by saying that I love smart books and many smart books are published in New York, and I buy many books from New York publishers.  At any given time, I am reading three or four books and a lot of them are New York books.  I am not in rivalry with New York publishers.  I am in admiration of the great publishers of New York.  At Red Hen, we have published stories that really matter on the West Coast, books like Eat Less Water which is about making better water choices in your kitchen.  In my own writing, and in the books that we publish, I like to focus on stories about the issues that matter on our side of the Hudson.  The stories I’m writing and the stories I’m looking for are about sky, clouds, water, hiking, boats, wide open spaces, grasses, mountains, caves, racks of antlers, mustard seed growing, wild orchids, waterfalls, imperfect people, people who live in trailer parks, truck drivers, soldiers, nuclear bombs, test sites, Las Vegas, military bases,  women with no teeth and curlers in their hair in case they go out later, and all of us eating the dark that is America.

DG: Red Hen Press is known for its inclusiveness, community outreach, and support for writers who are often overlooked by large, mainstream presses. Erica Jong, one the authors, said the following in a 2019 Publisher’s Weekly article: “Without a publisher like Red Hen, poetry would languish …. They publish books based on their quality rather than their financial potential,” and, indeed, your programs like Writing in the Schools (WITS), which, so far, has shared “free creative writing workshops and literary anthologies with more than 4,000 low-income students in Los Angeles schools,” is just one testament to all those aforementioned qualities. Can you talk about some particularly memorable experiences related to this work, and also how the pursuit of quality instead of financial considerations have been instrumental in allowing you to amass the unique roster of authors you now have?

KG: You don’t start a nonprofit publishing company in Los Angeles because you care about money.  I care about books and stories and giving young people a chance to write stories.  There was one Red Hen benefit where we were raising money and Paul Muldoon had come to read and one of our Writing in the Schools students read this quiet poem about her perfect day.  It started with pancakes with her brother, and then they went to the park, and they flew a kite, and they came home and her mama made them tacos, and then she kissed her brother goodbye, and he went back to prison.  After that, Paul Muldoon said, he had to catch his breath before reading.  I’ll never forget that young poet’s courage.

DG: It would be interesting to hear a bit more about some of the people whose efforts have been instrumental in sustaining the activities of Red Hen, and also some of the people, perhaps, who’ve come and gone over the years that have made this press what it is today.

KG: The people who have believed in Red Hen in the biggest way are Joe Usibelli and Peggy Shumaker. They really wanted us to have a sustainable organization, and they have been part of making that happen.  We also are grateful for the help of Ann Beman, Gina Knox, and Linda Horioka.  It takes a lot of work for a nonprofit press to make it to twenty-eight in Los Angeles.  A few of the many authors who made an impact on Red Hen’s success include Percival Everett, Kristen Millares Young, Aimee Liu, Steve Almond and Martha Cooley.

DG: Let’s turn to your own work, which is both powerful and immediately accessible. When did you start writing poetry, who were your influences in the beginning, and how has the reading you’ve done over the years gone on to inform your current projects?

KG: I started writing at eighteen and studied with Norman Dubie at Arizona State University.  The writers who influenced me were Judy Grahn, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Anne Carson, Ishion Hutchinson, C.D. Wright, and Adrienne Rich.  I always have been an outsider, I grew up in a cult and never quite understood the commercialism of America.  I want my writing to run along the edge of wild, not  walk, not skip, not climb, and certainly not crawl.

DG: The titular poem of your 2014 collection, Goldilocks Zone, published by the University of New Mexico Press, ends in the following way: 

Happiness isn’t something you stumble into.
It’s the intersection between light and water.

We’ve been there, indeed, we’ve been there.
We just didn’t know it at the time.

We thought we were in the goldilocks zone.

Given that happiness is something few and far in between for people born with the creative impulse, to what extent was not only this poem, but the composition of the entire collection an attempt to find your own goldilocks zone as an artist, and do you think artists can actually have ideal existences, or is the very lack of a model condition precisely what defines their existence, their purpose?

KG: Happiness only happens in moments for me.  I can’t speak for other artists.  I am loved by my children, and by my husband, so I feel so much gratitude that I have a family who loves me.  I have moments of great happiness with my family.  When I am writing, I also experience deep happiness.

DG: Let’s conclude with the future: What can we expect from Red Hen going forward and what goals for yourself have you set for this upcoming year?

KG: Red Hen has some great books in the next couple years that we are excited about.  We are doing more hardbacks, more books with large print runs.  We are working up our publicity and finding stories that we can’t put down ….  Red Hen is becoming a bigger West Coast publisher, and we have an amazing team that keeps getting better.  I have a poetry book coming out next year, and a memoir I’ll be sending out so I can focus on writing my novel. I dream of a world where I do a better job in publishing and yet, find time to carve out dreaming blocks of space and time.


About Kate Gale

Dr. Kate Gale is co-founder and Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review, and she teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction and in the Ashland, Ohio MFA Program.

She is the author of the forthcoming The Stoning Circle from the University of New Mexico Press and of seven books of poetry including The Goldilocks Zone from the University of New Mexico Press in 2014, and Echo Light from Red Mountain in 2014 and six librettos including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis, which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee.

She speaks on independent publishing around the US at schools like USC and Columbia and she speaks at Oxford University. Her opera in process is The Web Opera.