PRESS ON! is a series of interviews with publishers who are pushing the boundaries of the books industry.

Circumference Books is a US-based press for poetry in translation established in 2019. Their debut release, Camouflage by Lupe Gómez, translated from the Galician by Erín Moure, was a finalist for the 2020 Best Translated Book Award for poetry. Moure describes Camouflage, an elegy addressed to a mother, as “a beautiful, stubborn salute to Galician memory and life.” We talked to co-founder and publisher Jennifer Kronovet about how the press went from a journal to becoming an internationally acclaimed publisher of groundbreaking poetry.

Circumference was a journal for poetry in translation for almost a decade before it evolved into the press Circumference Books. Can you tell me a bit about why and how you decided to make that leap in 2019?

Believe it or not, Stefania Heim, Dan Visel, and I started Circumference, the journal, almost two decades ago: our first issue came out in 2003. Whoa! It was a really thrilling time when each issue had new translations from dozens of languages and from all over the globe. Each issue felt like a snapshot of translation at that moment through our curatorial lens. 

Then the labor of putting out a journal without institutional backing or staff or any kind of salary became untenable for three parents of young children. Parenting, even more so now, is so unsupported in the US. But we were also ready to hand the journal off to new editors and see how the project might grow and change. We did that, and now the journal is in the hands of a terrific third generation of editors, who are launching their fantastic reimagining of what a journal for poetry in translation can look like now.

We publish books of poetry in translation that don’t sound like anything you’ve read before. Our books are beautiful objects, each designed toward the complicated, thrilling relationships they encompass. Our books draw attention to the fact that they are works of translation, that they connect multiple voices, languages, cultures, nations, poetics together in intimate and expansive ways.

But back to books. Even though there are more presses in the US publishing books in translation than there were 20 years ago, there is still so much fantastic work that doesn’t make it to US readers. I found that after all that time away from editing, I still really missed the excitement of getting to share poems that have blown my mind. And I also, every day, have more and more admiration for the unit of a book—how you can live inside a book, a mind, a mode, and take that time with you into the world. The idea of editing a book, of supporting, in a creative and sustained way, this fascinating collaboration between poet and translator, this essential interaction between cultures—I really wanted to do that. 

Also, I missed working with Dan so much. And Stefania, too but I still have to miss that as she’s working on other amazing projects.  

How would you describe the ethos behind Circumference Books? 

We publish books of poetry in translation that don’t sound like anything you’ve read before. Our books are beautiful objects, each designed toward the complicated, thrilling relationships they encompass. Our books draw attention to the fact that they are works of translation, that they connect multiple voices, languages, cultures, nations, poetics together in intimate and expansive ways.

A lot of the work of publishing each book, on my end, is letting the world know it exists. I try to imagine every possible reader who might love each book, and then I plan ways to reach them with the news that this book will rock their world.

Since starting out in 2019, you have published two titles and your first release, Camouflage by Lupe Gómez, translated by Erín Moure, has already been shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards 2020 in the Poetry category — many congratulations! What led you to pick Camouflage as Circumference Books’ inaugural title?  

I reached out to Erín right when Dan and I decided to start the press. We’d published translations of hers in the magazine, and I’m such a fan of all she writes and translates. She had Camouflage ready and waiting. I don’t remember it being a choice. I read it. I fell in love. And then we got married. 

Could you briefly walk me through the process of how you decide to publish a collection, through to finding a translator, and actually publishing and distributing it? 

So many translators of poetry work on a project well before there is any chance of publication. It’s hard to imagine, even though I’ve done it too—all the years living inside the words of another, changing English and even yourself to accommodate a voice in a book that may never even exist. My work is to find translators already engaged in this process, and to specifically reach out to translators working in languages or with poets from places not often translated into English. 

A lot of the work of publishing each book, on my end, is letting the world know it exists. I try to imagine every possible reader who might love each book and then I plan ways to reach them with the news that this book will rock their world. I also try to make a place for the book inside the life of American poetry, reaching out to reviewers and booksellers, the people who keep poetry alive. I love that selling a book is about making our book world bigger by imagining all the ways a book connects to communities and individuals. We also have a fantastic distributor, SPD, who gets our books to bookstores across the US.

Of course I’m just talking about what I do, but there’s also Dan, who designs our books with so much devotion and care. Not to mention that he programs and designs our website, our store, our bags and postcards, and writes our blog, which has fascinating posts about designing translations.  

I am endlessly grateful to translators of poetry. They’ve brought me my favorite books in the world, books I can’t imagine living without. And also, essays and books on translation are my favorite investigations of how we communicate in a multilingual world.

As a publisher, how closely do you oversee the translation process? 

With all three Circumference Books, my editorial work has been really different, so I’d say, it depends. Camouflage was very finished when it came to me, and Erín and I worked a lot together on her translator’s note, a piece that Erín put so much time into and beautifully situates the work with layered depth.

With Tell Me, Kenyalang, Pauline [Fan] and I talked a lot about punctuation, how to translate punctuation from one language to another, and also diction, in terms of how terms might sound different in the English spoken in Malaysia and in the English of some parallel writers in the US. And because the book is trilingual and the translations themselves are multilingual, the glossary became an important collaboration between Pauline and Dan and me.

With the Severo Sarduy book that’s coming out next, there’s so much play going on with syntax, double meanings, and innuendo, and I play the role of an outside reader to a translator, David Francis, who’s been living deep inside this work for a long time. From that vantage, it can be hard to see where things get tangled in themselves, for good or bad.

In addition to being a publisher, you are also a translator, a poet and a linguist. Given your background, what is your perspective on poetry in translation?

I am endlessly grateful to translators of poetry. They’ve brought me my favorite books in the world, books I can’t imagine living without. And also, essays and books on translation are my favorite investigations of how we communicate in a multilingual world. They are essential in helping me think about how we can reach each other across borders. So I guess my perspective is one of grateful enthusiasm.

The pandemic has slowed down our schedule … But I think that we’ve all learned to be more fluid in terms of scheduling, and I’m not sure that’s a terrible lesson: to be accommodating to the world we’re living in. To put our energies toward those in crisis first, while maintaining our long term goals.

The global pandemic has affected many independent presses as a result of economic instability, lack of book fairs and promotional events, reduced foot traffic to bookstores, and more. Has Circumference been affected at all and in what ways are you responding to this?

We definitely missed several book fairs this year, but we are also new, that it’s difficult to tell how much the pandemic affected bookstore and online sales. We offer a membership to the press, and we are super lucky because our members not only helped us found the press, but also help us sustain it. 

The pandemic has slowed down our schedule. We decided to push our third book back so we are sure to have ample time to give it the attention it deserves. But I think that we’ve all learned to be more fluid in terms of scheduling, and I’m not sure that’s a terrible lesson: to be accommodating to the world we’re living in. To put our energies toward those in crisis first, while maintaining our long term goals.

Footwork: Selected Poems of Severo Sarduy, translated from Spanish by David Francis, forthcoming from Circumference Books in 2020

What’s next for Circumference Books?

It’s an awesome book: Footwork: Selected Poems of Severo Sarduy, translated from Spanish by David Francis. Cuban writer Severo Sarduy was one of the most groundbreaking Latin American literary figures of the 20th-Century. Gabriel García Márquez once called him the best writer in the Spanish language. Hello. Sarduy was born in Cuba in 1937, lived his adult life in Europe, and died due to complications with AIDS in 1993. David Francis, the translator who I’ve known for many years, teaches in the Program on Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale.  

I was drawn to Sarduy’s poems for several reasons, they are heady and playful, acrobatic in content and form, groundbreaking in their homoeroticism and also part of a deep lineage and web of connection. They are deeply embedded in Spanish—in playing with the language with love and tension—which makes the translations themselves amazing feats of language. I can’t wait until the winter when I get to go to the post office and mail these books out into the world. 


Interview by Salwa Benaissa

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