Our second interview is with Terra Oliveira, an organizer with the Philadelphia Liberation Center, an outdoor educator, and the founder of Recenter Press. Their work has been featured in Prolit Magazine, Protean Magazine, Peace, Land, and Bread Magazine, Hooligan Magazine, and others, and they were the Artist-in-Residence at the Schoolhouse at Mutianyu at the Great Wall of China in March of 2017. You can follow them on Instagram @terraoliveira and @recenterpress.
The following interview took place via email in January of 2022.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Terra! First, could you give us a description and history of Recenter Press?
Thank you for having me! I founded Recenter Press in the summer of 2017, shortly after I moved to Philadelphia. Since its founding, I’ve published four issues of the Recenter Press Poetry Journal, and five poetry books from emerging authors throughout the U.S. Initially, the project included essay publications (which authors were paid for) on a rolling basis, though I have since taken them down as the vision for the work I put out has evolved.
My main goals for starting the press were and still are paying authors fairly (each author gets 60% of the proceeds, and the press keeps 40% of the proceeds which goes to things like website costs, printing and shipping review copies, and my own labor which at the end of the day ends up being pretty minimal compensation), keeping books at an accessible price for readers when sold via our website, and selling books at a sliding scale or on a donation-basis through in-person events and on social media. The themes of the work I publish have taken a more explicitly political turn since I initially founded the press as my own politics and interests have changed as I became more involved in organizing, though the personal and mystical are still of importance to me in the work I publish.
What have been your biggest influences and motivations for Recenter, both literary and political?
I am primarily influenced by the communist movement, the Black liberation struggle, the labor movement, agricultural work, gender and relationships, theology and mysticism, trauma and addiction recovery, and our relationship with the natural world, so I am interested in publishing creative work that contributes to the collective body of work around any of those themes.
As an editor, do you ever experience a conflict between your political principles and the nature of editorial selectivity?
First and foremost I consider the ideological standpoint of the work I’m publishing. I think editors and publishers with any sized platform have a responsibility to filter out ideologies that are harmful, and as a person who is a member of a communist party, I am primarily operating from an anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist framework which has a huge influence on my selection process. I also put a special emphasis on publishing emerging authors, LGBTQ authors, authors of color, and women, though ultimately I place the content of an author’s work over identity. Since Recenter Press has a relatively small platform and I am the only editor, I also consider my own personal taste in poetry form and style, which is a completely subjective process. There are so many independent publishers out there willing to publish work that I may not be interested in publishing, and so many opportunities for free and accessible self-publishing, so I personally do not feel an obligation to publish something that doesn’t align with my political views, personal views, or personal taste. I think independent publishers especially reserve the curatorial right to be critical and selective when publishing, as we have a responsibility to be intentional about the work we uplift. If Recenter Press were a cooperative project with a larger audience, and where there was a more democratic process around publishing selections, I imagine the curatorial considerations would be different.
Could you describe for us how your publications get made? For instance, how do you make and distribute your books and journal; how many people are involved; how are things funded, etc.?
Recenter Press is ultimately a collaboration between myself and the authors I publish, and once a book is out in the world, we are solely dependent on the support of the literary community. From the submissions process all the way through editing, design, and promotion, I am working one-on-one with authors throughout the entire process. Personally, I do not feel comfortable relying on volunteer labor for Recenter Press besides my own. I would only want to employ people at a livable wage, which unfortunately the press doesn’t make enough income to pay anyone a livable or even minimum wage, including for myself. At the end of each month sometimes I barely break even after all expenses, so Recenter Press is something I’ve been doing of my own volition without much compensation for the work I put into it.
As far as some of the details of publishing, I host the Recenter Press website and journal on Weebly and use Kindle Direct Publishing (previously CreateSpace) to print the Recenter Press books. To be completely transparent, I have found print-on-demand models to be the most financially accessible for a press that receives zero outside funding. Rather than needing to invest money into buying books in bulk from a local printer for more money per book, it’s much more financially sustainable for me as a person with a very low income to buy each book as it’s ordered, while keeping the books at an accessible price for readers and being able to pay authors as much as possible. For example, we sell most Recenter Press books for $16 USD including shipping, and with domestic printing and shipping costs costing about $6.32 per book, plus Weebly taking a fee of $0.76 per order, with the remaining proceeds I am able to pay authors $5.35 per book order and Recenter Press keeps $3.57 per book order. Recenter Press is exclusively funded through those book sales, and authors are paid monthly. On average, a Recenter Press book might sell 50-200 copies in its lifetime, so author and publisher payment is quite minimal for the amount of labor that goes into each book, but we do our best with the resources available to us. I primarily distribute books through the Recenter Press website, at book fairs and zine fests when those are happening in person, through social media, and increasingly at local bookstores in Philadelphia. I rely on our own promotional efforts and the generosity of independent reviewers to share our work.
What aspects of publishing do you feel are the most challenging for someone committed to anti-capitalist politics and ethos? How have you handled these challenges yourself?
I think one of the major challenges independent publishers face is the lack of funding, the cost of production, and the difficulty of accessing a wider network of distribution. Plus most of us in the independent literary world may be working multiple jobs in addition to our creative work, have family obligations, are busy with political organizing, are engaged is therapy or recovery, or we’re just trying to make ends meet or to make it through the day, so giving publishing the work and attention that’s needed for more success is obviously a huge feat. I really appreciate when readers and authors have a sensitivity to this, and the realities that all working class people are facing.
Of course, the question of printing has presented a huge moral dilemma for me since I have been relying on Kindle Direct Publishing’s print-on-demand service, which is owned by Amazon. The insidiousness of monopoly capitalism and how it seeps into most areas of production is very real. After a ton of consideration of Recenter Press’ material circumstances and looking into other printing options, I currently hold the position that the most politically significant thing we can be doing is to actively be organizing against capitalism and for socialism, to be supporting Amazon workers in their organizing struggles, and to emphasize the content and distribution of literary work than to have a puritanical “abstinence” viewpoint of the capitalist means of production. As an aside too, because I have faced criticism for this choice before, I think shaming people for relying on more affordable products from places like Amazon or Walmart despite how horrendous these companies are will isolate leftists from a lot of poor and working class people who can’t afford otherwise. Ideally I would be supporting small printers or printing everything DIY wherever possible, though I don’t find individual or extremely small scale abstention from Amazon in particular to be the most politically effective strategy at fighting Amazon unless the absention went hand-in-hand with a mass, organized boycott and workers’ strike. If Recenter Press were to receive a grant or something (which unfortunately, grants can also compromise the political independence of a journal depending on the source of the grant, though not always), or if there were more of a reliable income, funding source, or frankly if I had more time to devote to the press, I would try to find another printing source that was more aligned with my values.
As you indicate above, much literary publishing (leftist or not) tends to be a “labor of love,” often relying heavily on volunteer labor and operating at a loss (or barely breaking even). Do you think this is simply an unavoidable reality of the market for literature, poetry especially? Or do you see other models or possibilities out there?
I do think the heavy reliance on volunteer labor is a present challenge and reality for most small publishers though I don’t necessarily think it’s an unavoidable one in the long-term. Under capitalism, I think crowdfunding for literary publications presents a wonderful opportunity for authors and publishers to receive more funding and possibly a livable wage, though I don’t think relying on crowdfunding or mutual aid is a sustainable source of funding in what would be a part of my long-term vision for a society, as relying on funding from the bottom-up from people who are already at a low-to-moderate income is limited. I really relate to the meme that says something like “so much of mutual aid is us venmoing the same $20 back and forth to each other.” Of course this minimizes the extremely dedicated and hard work that it takes to run mutual aid programs, but I do believe that, in order to survive the inevitable crises of capitalism, ultimately we need to go beyond mutual aid and for the working class to take control of the state and the means of production. I think that in the struggle for socialism and in the development of the socialist society I’d want to be a part of, eventually there will be much more state funding for the arts and for literature, which would allow publishers and authors to receive a livable wage for their labor. There would also be less pro-capitalist ideological gatekeeping from mainstream publishers, because in a socialist society, major publishers would inherently have a pro-people and anti-capitalist ethos. I think this is realistic, achievable, and possible in our lifetime.
One thing we’re interested in is how leftist literary publishing intersects with non-literary political activity (e.g. labor unions, mutual aid, anti-racist and anti-fascist action, anti-carceral work, Land Back, etc). Have you seen such intersections around Recenter? And more broadly, what do you think the role of literary writing should be relative to such organizing and activity? Does it have one?
Yes! I think political organizing is of primary importance, and publishing (and creative work in general) follows politics. Literary work should be informed by our political activity, and art and literature should exist in relationship with the reality and history of the working class and our struggles and not in isolation from it. I do think art has inherent value on its own, and that there is value to personal expression that isn’t so explicitly or obviously political, but the ideology behind our work should always be informed by our political process and what we learn in the movement.
We are also interested in the (largely counterproductive) role the academy and major literary institutions play in leftist publishing efforts. Can you talk a bit about where you and Recenter stand relative to things like MFA programs, literary foundations, AWP, CLMP, SPD, etc.? And how do you view the influence and role of these entities more broadly in the literary world?
Recenter Press exists relatively independent from the academic world and various literary institutions, and I prefer for there to be a degree of separation between these institutions and both Recenter Press and my personal work. While I will publish authors that may hold MFAs or move through the academic literary world more prominently, Recenter Press is fairly removed from that more prestigious (and thus more funded) publishing scene. By and large I think academia and major literary institutions in the U.S. are pretty wedded to the political ideologies and financial backing of U.S. imperialism, so I think the more we can exist outside of these institutions the better, though I understand why emerging authors would rely on these institutions in order to make a living while being aware of the contradictions that these institutions hold.
Lastly, what are your hopes for both your publication and for leftist literature more broadly? And what are your fears?
For some of the financial reasons I mentioned in the earlier questions, I honestly plan to take a step back from publishing for a while and to focus instead on political organizing, distributing the work of the authors I’ve already published through Recenter Press, and to prioritize my personal creative work. As far as my hopes for leftist literature, I hope that it becomes less marginalized and more popular, which I do think is happening as anti-capitalist politics is becoming more and more mainstream, and as poetry distribution is becoming more accessible through social media. I also hope that authors and publishers start getting the pay we deserve for the enormous amount of labor we endlessly pour into all of our projects! Something I want to be cautious of would be leftist publications becoming too “niche”, insular, or removed from the on-the-ground working class struggles or the reality of the masses, so I hope that a political praxis continues to come first for all of us.