By Sean Patrick Hill
Nearly hidden on a nondescript side street off Bardstown Road in Louisville, Sarabande Books is a nationally recognized, oft-reviewed press publishing an array of contemporary poetry and fiction.
The modest house it occupies on Dundee Road suggests the simplicity of Sarabande’s beginnings. Founded in 1996 by husband-and-wife team Sarah Gorham and Jeffrey Skinner, poets themselves, Sarabande Books began at a time when many big publishers were giving up on poetry and short fiction. “My husband and I came to this project with two decades of writing and publishing literary works—our own work,” says Gorham, who serves as president and editor-in-chief. “We had wonderful contacts, distinguished writers and publishers and editors willing to endorse the press.”
With the help of a key benefactor, the press held its first manuscript contest, receiving 850 submissions of fiction and an astounding 1,800 submissions in poetry. Clearly, the press hit a nerve. In its first year, Sarabande published four books, and within a few years, it reached 10 annual titles, which is where it now rests. “We’ve been blessed with excellent coverage,” Gorham says, “many generous donors, an excellent relationship with the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] and Kentucky Arts Council, and lots more.”
Though Sarabande publishes many fine national writers, it has a particular allegiance to Kentucky authors. With the help of Linda Bruckheimer—herself a fiction writer—Sarabande established the Bruckheimer Series, which has published native writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction for nearly 10 years. Gorham points out that books in the Bruckheimer Series have been highly successful—selling well and being reviewed in national newspapers, journals and literary magazines. This year, the series—which is open not only to natives of Kentucky but also to writers who have lived here two years or write about Kentucky—received double the submissions of previous years, a clear sign of rising popularity.
The press maintains a high standard, which earns reviews in The New York Times, as Jeffrey Skinner’s book 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets recently enjoyed. What kind of literature does Sarabande look for? “We distinguish between literature that had to be written or was written under an inescapable pressure to redeem a life,” says Gorham. “We love strangeness and innovation, writing that makes us look at objects, people, places and makes us wonder how we could not have seen this all along?” They eschew trends and cleverness, instead looking for poems, stories and essays that “magnetically possess a combination of music, thought and feeling.”
One local Sarabande author is Kiki Petrosino, a graduate of the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a faculty member of the University of Louisville. Sarabande published her debut, Fort Red Border, in 2009 and is set to release her second collection, Hymn for the Black Terrific, in 2013.
“I was—and continue to be—thrilled to join such an impressive and diverse catalog of authors,” says Petrosino. “Sarah Gorham and the whole Sarabande team treated my book with energy, enthusiasm and care. They worked closely with me on revising the manuscript, invited me to help design the book cover, collaborated with me on a coast-to-coast reading tour, and generally guided the book into readers’ hands. It was a remarkable experience in every way.”
In fact, Sarabande contributes to its regional community beyond publishing its writers. One notable endeavor is the 21c Reading Series, held in the galleries of the venerable 21c Museum Hotel on Museum Row in downtown Louisville, which brings together two poets or prose writers and a local musician for readings on the last Monday of each month. Gorham said the series invites writers not necessarily associated with Sarabande, introducing them to Kentucky readers. One recent reading with Lexington poet Nikky Finney, a National Book Award winner, was standing room only.
Sarabande’s “Sarabande in Education” website, the Go Write to the Source program, is a free resource that provides a substantial reader’s guide for each title the press publishes, including study questions and writing exercises designed by the writers themselves, plus interviews, reading lists, literary links and live chats with authors. “It is a magnificent way to reach out to readers and writers who find themselves outside the academic setting—in rural areas and the like,” says Gorham.
“In Louisville and beyond, Sarabande is a powerful force for good,” says Petrosino. “The monthly reading series that Sarabande hosts at 21c Museum Hotel has brought world-class authors to the city. Sarabande’s website is an important resource for teachers who want to incorporate Sarabande books into their classes. As an assistant professor at UofL, I value the way Sarabande reaches out to local young writers, inviting them, online and in person, to interact with working authors.”
Though the offices of Sarabande appear small, it is evident the press’ audience and circle of published authors are growing by leaps and bounds. Picking up where other presses have failed or thrown in the towel on new literature, Sarabande has created—and maintains—an invaluable niche of its own.