When LBC member Mark Sarvas read the Funders acknowledgement by Coffee House Press on the last page of Garner, he noted a mention of an NEA grant - which prompted him to get in touch with David Kipen - author, former San Francisco Chronicle Book Editor and, most recently, Director of Literature for the NEA - to talk about how the work the NEA does with small presses. Herewith, their Q&A:
MS: Thanks for joining us and for agreeing to answer some questions about the NEA and its small press support. In the back of Garner, Coffee House Press specifically acknowledges the NEA for its support. What sort of support is the NEA giving to small presses these days?
DK: We do an annual literary publishing round of grants, for which nonprofit presses with specific projects are encouraged to apply. We only fund project support, not organizational support. Coverable costs are things like printing, salaries, distribution, promotion, marketing, travel perhaps to tour your writers, definitely payment to writers. Panels often like to see that you pay your writers. Know that if you end up getting a grant, you won't likely get what you asked for (such is the climate here at the NEA). So, for example, an applicant may ask for a certain amount, say $40,000. If the organization is recommended, it's likely I'd come back and say you got, say, $15,000, and that you'll have to revise your budget accordingly (e.g., do fewer books for the grant). Make sure this can work for you.
MS: So I'm a small press and I want a little NEA love. What's the process?
DK: If anybody out there is interested, the deadline is March 13th, and that's a postmark deadline. Be careful of that. Anything after that date will automatically be sent back. Remember to FedEx your package. Snail mail to the government is a messy business these days (because all our incoming correspondence gets routed via Ohio to get irradiated). I'd encourage you to apply online if you can. You have a choice this year, but soon you won't have a choice, so you might as well get used to the online application while you have a fallback. You'll need to have your own 501(c)3 status by the deadline. We do accept independent component relationships, which it to say that if you're a journal that's part of a university, the university can apply on your behalf. Last year our largest grant was something like $60,000. Grants are more likely to be about $10,000-$25,000. You can check out our website at www.arts.gov to see last year's grants in this category.
MS: You've gone from being the chief book critic at the San Francisco Chronicle to the head of a sizeable and probably underfunded federal bureaucracy. How do the imperatives differ? Presumably, you're less free to follow your idiosyncratic nose? How are you adjusting?
DK: As Peter Marshall used to say on The Hollywood Squares, I'm afraid David doesn't have a bluff for that question. Translation: So much for the boilerplate -- I'm winging it from here on in. First of all, don't overestimate how restrictive my government paymasters are -- or underestimate how restrictive my newspaper paymasters used to be. I have all the freedom I need at the NEA. Besides, the two jobs are fundamentally different. My imperative as a book critic was to find interesting books to write about in interesting ways. My marching orders at the NEA are to dragoon smart people into sitting in judgment on literary grant applications. That, and to get America reading again, so that America's few remaining book critics will still have a public to write for. As for my adjustment, I'm coping -- especially since I moved onto a houseboat on the Potomac.
MS: No one will consider us alarmist for suggesting that there is a legitimate reading crisis in the country. Even if we allow that every age considers its problems to be uniquely dreadful (radio kills reading; TV kills radio; internet kills TV; etc.), the percentage of the population reading serious literature seems smaller than ever. Short of hand-delivering a copy of Gravity's Rainbow to every citizen of the republic, what's the best way to arrest this slide?
DK: As the NEA's own Reading at Risk study showed two years ago, your alarmism is well-founded. Reading is down in most if not all demographics, and it's sinking fastest among the young. We're unveiling a program in May that won't turn this around overnight, but may just help get those numbers inching back up where they belong. More anon, Mark. As for Pynchon, I think hand-delivering a copy of 'The Secret Integration' (from Pynchon's 'Slow Learner' collection) to every citizen of the republic will work better. That's your gateway drug. Gravity's Rainbow is the hard stuff.
MS: Tell us about some of the specific plans and innovations you hope to bring to the NEA.
DK: Point of order, Mr. Speaker. My boss and fellow Californian, the poet Dana Gioia, is the one with most of the specific plans and innovations. Still, he recruits folks he believes will be innovative and energetic, and so far I've got him snowed. In other words, Mongo only pawn in game of life. As I said, he's given me the charge of helping to get America reading again, and a fair degree of latitude in going about it.
MS: What's the NEA doing to support small presses that focus on literature in translation?
DK: In addition to our literary publishing grants, we also do an annual panel to fund worthy individual translation projects. Also, to promote wider access to literary voices of Mexican artists in the United States and American writers in Mexico, the NEA, the US Embassy in Mexico, and Mexico's National Fund for Culture and the Arts have joined to support a proposed three-year program of anthology publication and public outreach. In the first year, Sarabande has been named publisher of the poetry anthologies. Contributors on this side of the border include Kay Ryan, Larry Levis, Thomas Lux, Marilyn Nelson, Ron Silliman, Molly Peacock, Amy Uyematsu, Jorie Graham, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Naomi Shihab Nye, and more. As part of our literary publishing grants, we also provided seed funding for and continue to support Words Without Borders, the terrific online magazine of linternational literature.
MS: Many small presses like Coffee House are doing great work, and yet struggle to create awareness of their books in the marketplace, particularly with the decline of book coverage in newspapers - something you are uniquely well placed to understand. Is the NEA aware of this problem? If so, what is the NEA doing to help?
DK: Other than hiring curmudgeonly book critics away from their newspapers, you mean? As a matter of fact, the NEA has been running annual Arts Journalism Institutes around the country to develop the next generation of classical music, theater and dance critics, and I'll do everything I can to ensure that book critics get their turn as soon as possible.
MS: Given that you are now smack dab in the heart of the vast right wing conspiracy and this is an administration that doesn't exactly appear to value the arts, how much support do you expect to receive for your efforts? (It's worth noting that the majority party has been working for years to do away with the NEA.) And how can you show some ROI (Return on Investment) to an MBA presidency? And if you can't - given the intangibles of such things - what do the NEA's long term prospects look like?
DK: I'm afraid your givens aren't as given as you -- or, once upon a time, I -- might have thought. The NEA budget has increased every year under the current administration. The '07 budget is scheduled to give us level funding in a year when many agencies in the discretionary budget have been cut. Near as I can tell, that level funding is a show of faith in the NEA's mission, and in the Chairman's vision for the endowment. In other words, support for the arts isn't nearly as partisan an issue as it used to be. Having said all that, there's plenty of Return on Investment in arts funding if you know where to look. For every $1 the NEA gives, $7-8 more are generated. Cripes, an NEA panel picked Maya Lin to design the Vietnam Memorial, and that's been known to bring the odd tourist dollar Washington's way. And the taxes that erstwhile NEA writing fellows like Jane Smiley and Oscar Hijuelos pay constitue a pretty handsome return on our investment in them. This isn't why we fund literary excellence, of course. ROI is not king, except in France. But for those who doubt the value of literature for its own sake, examples like these should help take some of sting out.
MS: It's 72 degrees here in L.A. and its 32 in D.C. with piles of snow on the ground. Not to rub it in or anything but what do you miss most about L.A.?
DK: Besides you, Mark? It sure isn't the weather. The trouble with the great weather in California is that it blinds folks to all our other advantages. Frankly, I'll be ok for another couple of months. But when May rolls around, if i can't find a stand of jacarandas to rival the one on North Palm Drive, south of the old Santa Monica Blvd. railroad right of way, I may just prove inconsolable.