Vision 2020: Brenna Crotty

Women have read male-centered narratives their whole lives, says the CALYX editor: "Men would benefit a lot from reading female-centered narratives as well"

On its 25th anniversary, feminist literary publisher CALYX Press was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a literary survivor.” It surely is – that was way back in 2001, and Corvallis-based CALYX is still in the game, even as other journals have run their course and publishing houses have closed shop.

The journal was founded in 1976 by Margarita Donnelly, Barbara Baldwin, Elizabeth McLagan, and Meredith Jenkins. In 1986, CALYX expanded into book publishing. Barbara Kingsolver, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Julia Alvarez, and Natalie Goldberg are among the writers whose careers were helped early on by CALYX. Literally thousands of writers and artists have had work published there.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


We talked with Brenna Crotty, who has worked as the senior editor for CALYX since 2015. Her book reviews and humor articles have been published in CALYX, Cracked, and College Humor. She lives in Portland.

Brenna Crotty, senior editor at CALYX, says Oregon literature has a wonderful ecological/environmental slant: “We are all, maybe a little, dreaming up our words in a William Stafford forest-soaked fever of ferns and dappled sunlight.”

Oregon is full of readers, and yet there are surely those who have never heard of CALYX Press. What would you like people to know?

Whenever people ask me this, glib excitement always leads me to say, “Oh man, CALYX is rad!” And by that, I mean that CALYX is awesome and that it is also delightfully radical. We are a nonprofit literary journal that came about in 1976 simply because four women wanted to create a space in a male-dominated industry for art and literature created by women. I’d love for that not to be a radical idea but, even now, in 2020, it is.

The most recent issue of CALYX, October 2019, features cover art “Mom,” by Ho JiaHui.

CALYX publishes two print journals a year: one in summer/fall and one in winter/spring. They are gorgeous little coffee-table books with glossy covers and a full 16-page insert of art. The other pages are filled with poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and occasional interviews.

We are open for submissions every year (from Oct. 1-Dec. 31) to all women and nonbinary writers. We publish material over the course of two issues, and any submissions that are held for final consideration but not accepted are given personalized feedback by our editorial collective. We also have two competitions over the course of the year, one for poetry and one for prose, and the winners receive cash prizes and publication in the journal as well. We accept art and book reviews year-round.

CALYX has published work by authors and poets such as Sharon Olds, Julia Alvarez, and Sandra Cisneros, but we have also always had a focus on publishing new and emerging writers.

What else? We are hardcore proponents of the Oxford comma.

Obviously, feminist activism goes back hundreds of years, and there is no shortage of extraordinary figures — Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman, etc. But it’s interesting that CALYX came into being during the women’s liberation movement, and now we’re in the #MeToo era. Could you speak to that — the arc, what it’s been like?

Winter/Spring 2015 celebrated the life and work of CALYX co-founder Margarita Donnelly. Photo by: Jim Shulman

One of my favorite anecdotes is that Margarita Donnelly started this publication with the idea of working toward equal representation in publishing. Not just seeing more work by women published, but valuing literature written by women and about women’s experiences, the way we value literature written by men. She thought it would take five years, maybe 10, and then CALYX could close its doors, mission accomplished.

So, with that in mind, it makes me both happy and sad that CALYX is still here. It’s a little depressing, but I would say that while this generation’s engagement with feminism has created a wonderful diversity of art and literature by women, there are still many ways in which our work is considered “niche” or “for women only.” I think we’ve been fighting against being pigeon-holed our entire run. We have published literature about subjects still treated as taboo or not discussed openly such as menstruation, menopause, childbearing, breast cancer, abortion, and sexual assault, and it infuriates me to think that means people dismiss us for being about “women’s issues.” Women’s issues are people’s issues! Women have been reading male-centered narratives our whole lives, and I think men would benefit a lot from reading female-centered narratives as well.

For the record, we have also published work on surreal pig heads, Persephone on a cellphone, giant tusks hidden under floorboards, police brutality, AIDS, grief, immigration, caretaking, and nature. A large part of my job has also been reminding people that we publish work on literally any subject and from any perspective — that being part of the women’s liberation literary movement is about allowing women to focus on any and every subject that matters to them.

“Raquel’s Request,” by Jessica Perry, graced the cover of Summer 2008.

How has CALYX evolved with the times?

When we started, we were radical as hell, but I feel as though in some ways we have fallen a little behind. The more accepting our society becomes about the fact that gender is a spectrum and not a binary, the more a women-only platform starts to feel exclusionary, notably to the trans and non-binary writers we really want to include and support. I have always thought of CALYX as a welcoming place, and I want it to be viewed the way we treat it — as a space for underrepresented writers to have a voice and be valued.

The publishing industry has seen tectonic shifts since CALYX was founded in the 1970s, in large part thanks to technology. So much has changed, so many have been swept aside or chewed up by it. And yet, you’re still here!

Honestly, the one thing that’s kept us going this long is the community. We are still using the print medium for the journal, so technology has made things easier but not that different for CALYX. The tenacity of our founders and the conviction they had that the work they were doing was of vital importance created a stunning international community of writers and readers. We still get letters and donations from people who have been subscribing to CALYX since the very beginning.

I think we owe a lot of that to the passion and sacrifice of our volunteer readers and editors, who care so much about this that they’ll read slush piles tirelessly for months, argue passionately in favor of new material, schlep suitcases full of books to and from conventions, set up readings, and send fundraising letters. We have two staff members, Beverly McFarland and Cheryl McLean, who have been volunteering their incredible skills and energy since the early 1980s. CALYX publishes incredible literature, but it’s also a project that people feel passionately about.

Winter 2001-02 saw “Calling the Rains,” by Camie Davis, on the cover.

I do want to address the tectonic shift that technology has created, though. One of the aspects of the digital world I’m very excited about is that there are a lot of new online publications focused on women’s literature and art. Over the past few years, we have started partnering with various other feminist publications — first Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian journal that also started in 1976, a few months after CALYX; then Cordella, a quarterly online magazine of women-identified and non-binary creatives; and most recently VoiceCatcher, an online journal empowering female-identified writers and artists in the Portland/Vancouver area. They send us work curated from their previous publications, and we publish them in our own pages, ideally finding new readers for both organizations in the process. I love the idea, as a feminist press, of collaborating with other journals instead of competing with them. It’s a very supportive space.

How would you characterize the general state of Oregon’s literary culture — not just for women, but the whole scene, the big picture in which CALYX operates?

The Oregon literary scene has a wonderful ecological/environmental slant. We are all, maybe a little, dreaming up our words in a William Stafford forest-soaked fever of ferns and dappled sunlight. A lot of workshops and journals like Fishtrap, Timberline Press, and Willawaw Journal reflect the meditative quality of the West Coast’s natural beauty.

CALYX operates in a slightly larger picture than just Oregon, though. In a lot of ways, we are a distinctly Pacific Northwest journal, but we are also looking for voices outside that sphere. Our readership and many of our authors are on the West Coast, but we get hugely diverse work from the East Coast, the Midwest, and the South. We have also published work by people living in places such as Singapore, Germany, Belize, and Israel. 

What would you say to a girl who expresses an interest in writing as a vocation? What should she know?

The cover of Winter 1997 featured a photo by Kathy Sloane, “Education da Future.”

Tell your truth. Write authentically, even if your lived experience is belittled, shamed, dismissed, or devalued by the culture you’re living in. If you do, there will be other people out there who will connect with your words and who will find value in what you write.

The United States is obviously in a period of social and political turbulence that is likely to go beyond the next election. What is the role of a small publisher in such an environment? What is the writer’s role?

In an environment like this, I think the role of any writer or publisher is to remember empathy and honesty. There are groups of people in our society who are being targeted by our current administration. Their stories are not being told, and they are not being valued. I’d say it’s imperative that we make sure we are representing the stories that are repressed, or at the very least that we are rooting out and refusing to write or publish work that inflames discrimination or promotes hateful, bigoted beliefs about others.

What does CALYX have in the works for 2020?

We have a new special issue of the journal coming in Summer/Fall 2020. We don’t normally have themed issues, choosing instead to simply showcase diverse, quality literature written by women. This issue, however, will be centered around the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While I believe this is an event worth celebrating, what I’m hoping we’ll get from this special issue is work that focuses on the myriad ways women have engaged with and challenged political and social movements over the years.

American women won the vote in 1920, but their civil rights and access to power have varied wildly depending on if they are women of color, LGBT, disabled, immigrants, or participants in any number of religions. So while the 19th Amendment is a landmark that I frankly think we should celebrate all year long, it is not a simple success story. It’s a single checkpoint in a very long journey toward equal representation in the United States and the world at large. We’re excited to publish an issue devoted to examining that journey through different lenses.

Lawrence Paul Kirkland designed the cover of the first issue of CALYX, Summer 1976, playing on the floral allusion in the journal’s name.

Any other goals and expectations for the coming year?

We have been working for some time on ensuring that CALYX is available more easily to everyone, and with that in mind, we’re hoping to create digital copies of CALYX’s entire catalog of journals and books. We’ve partnered with Oregon State University Press to make these digitized versions free to the public.

What’s on your reading list for 2020?

My library holds list is a hot mess right now, but I am hoping in 2020 to read everything ever written by Jacqueline Woodson and N.K. Jemisin. Also Dina Nayeri’s The Ungrateful Refugee and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer. And maybe Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah eight more times before it becomes a TV show.

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This is the seventeenth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.

Previously:

  • Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
     
  • Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
     
  • Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
     
  • Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
     
  • Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
     
  • Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
     
  • John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
     
  • Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
     
  • Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes Washington County’s renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

  • Martin Majkut. “The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools.” Rogue Symphony Orchestra’s conductor talks about audiences, money, and music for troubled times.

  • Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.”

  • Sean Andries and Carissa Burkett. The leaders of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center provide “a fertile ground for people of all walks of life to cross paths and connect,” from performances to visual and culinary arts.

  • Yaelle Amir. A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and makes her mark again.

  • Connie Carley and Jerry Foster. Almost four decades in, the leaders of PassinArt: A Theatre Company continue to set a strong stage for Black theater in Portland.

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