One of the country’s premier independent presses devoted to LGBT poetry is operated from the living room of a modest yellow house in Little Rock’s Stifft Station. This is where Bryan Borland, the founder and publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press, lives with his husband, Seth Pennington, and their three cats. Borland, who started the press in 2010 to publish his own work, now finds himself overseeing an award-winning enterprise that includes three literary journals and an impressive catalog of books by writers who have gone on to publish in outlets like the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. Pennington, who was away at his day job when I stopped by the house on a recent Thursday afternoon, is Sibling Rivalry’s co-publisher and is also the art director responsible for the press’ distinctive covers. “He used to be an intern,” Borland laughed, as he showed me to the cluttered bookshelf in the corner that constitutes their life’s work. “But then I fired him and married him.”
It’s been an important year for the small company, which, in addition to breaking even financially for the first time in its five years of existence, also relocated to Little Rock from its previous home base in the nearby small town of Alexander (“right next to the Bass Pro Shop,” Borland said). There was also their recent presentation at the Library of Congress, which as of this summer keeps copies of the press’ entire oeuvre in its Rare Book and Special Collections room. That was big, too. “I almost didn’t open the email,” Borland said, shivering at the thought. “It looked like spam.”
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The press’ most important achievement, however, is that it continues to exist at all, despite the significant economic, cultural and even logical obstacles to its business model. “I’m a bad businessman,” Borland shrugged. “Imagine what I could do with a real budget and a staff.”
Borland started the press to solve a simple problem: He had a book and no place to publish it. A Monticello native, Borland had worked for law firms in his hometown and Little Rock since graduating from Hendrix College in 2001. Though he enjoyed his job, he had been writing poetry seriously since he was 13 — the year his older brother, Glenn, died, an event that he now sees as artistically formative. He became a regular at local poetry readings, like the Arkansas Literary Festival’s annual Pub Or Perish (he considers its host, Times associate editor David Koon, an important early mentor), and had begun corresponding with an editor named John Stahle, who ran the New York-based LGBT literary journal Ganymede. Stahle published some of Borland’s earliest writings in the journal, alongside work by better-known writers like David Sedaris and Edmund White, and it was Stahle who convinced Borland that, while “self-publishing came with a stigma,” it also offered a valuable form of freedom. Borland agreed, and so the publishing imprint was born. He named it Sibling Rivalry as a tribute to his brother — “sort of to compete with his ghost,” Borland told me.
From the very beginning, the project was marked by tragedy. Ten days after Borland borrowed a small sum of money from his father to help finance the first book, his father died in a car accident. After the book was published, Borland went to New York to speak at a book fair and tried getting in touch with Stahle, who had stopped returning his calls. He soon learned that Stahle, too, had died, suffering a sudden heart attack alone in his apartment. Never accepted by his family because of his sexuality, Stahle’s belongings were left out on the street, abandoned.
As a memorial to Stahle, Borland collected the proofs from Ganymede’s never-published final issue and released it as a one-off tribute book called “Ganymede Unfinished.” The powerful response to its publication, as well as what Borland saw as the cultural void created by the original journal’s loss, led to the founding of Assaracus, which would become Sibling Rivalry’s flagship journal. “In Greek mythology, Ganymede was the cup-bearer for Zeus,” Borland explained, “and Assaracus was the brother he left behind.” He was also inspired by the 1970s queer poetry zine Mouth of the Dragon, which published work by Frank O’Hara and Dennis Cooper. The community appealed to him — the way it suggested a vivid, cohesive subculture — as did the zine’s subversive sense of humor. When Borland passed me a copy of Assaracus, he held his hand over all but the first three letters of the name and admitted he’d changed the pronunciation to put the emphasis on the first syllable. “I just thought it was funny,” he said.
Over the years, Borland has been proud to watch Sibling Rivalry authors go on to publish with bigger presses and higher-circulation magazines. Like Ocean Vuong, who won a Pushcart Prize and had a poem published in the New Yorker in May. Or Saeed Jones, who is now the literary editor of Buzzfeed and was a finalist for a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award. Or Bushra Rehman, a Pakistani-American writer who recently published an essay in the New York Times Magazine and is under contract with a mainstream press. “I will give our authors everything I’ve got, but our resources are limited,” Borland said. “I don’t feel abandoned when they move on. That’s graduation — I feel proud.”
Of course, there are also writers who opt not to graduate. The poet Michael Klein, for instance, turned down offers from bigger presses to release his new book, “When I Was a Twin,” with Sibling Rivalry. (The cover features a blurb from “The Hours” author Michael Cunningham calling Klein “a living treasure.”) Borland’s goal, he said, is to publish vibrant new voices, but also voices that wouldn’t be accepted elsewhere. “If you are considered a gatekeeper or have the potential to share a stage with others,” he said, “you have a responsibility to make sure they don’t all look like you or sound like you or share your story.” Assaracus originally limited its submissions to LGBT-identified writers, and the book press has usually operated similarly, but these are not ironclad constraints, and it isn’t something Borland and Pennington police. “If somebody thinks they belong or that their work belongs,” Borland said, “that’s good enough for us.”
Over the years, Sibling Rivalry has been featured 15 times on the American Library Association’s LGBT recommended reading list, and has won Lambda Literary Awards for both Gay Poetry and Lesbian Poetry. The acclaim was topped this summer by the Library of Congress’ invitation, which Borland called “humbling and surreal and insane.” He was delighted when a Christian news outlet, CNS News, covered his presentation in D.C. as some sort of scandal, evidence that the government was explicitly endorsing what they deemed “literature focused on the homosexual lifestyle.”
As to why they’re still based in Little Rock when a place like Brooklyn would seem to offer a more accepting creative community and commercial advantages, Borland said that he sees their Southern, red-state isolation as an important part of their identity. They have a role to play in Arkansas. “When you have young people here who have never seen anyone out, you can see the recognition on their faces,” he said. “It’s a big deal. If I can do something to balance out all the people in this state who call us monsters, that’s worth staying.”
In this sense, his ideal reader is his younger self, the closeted teenager in Monticello who used to steal gay authors’ works from the library because he was too embarrassed to be seen checking them out. “I don’t endorse theft as a concept, but I endorse doing whatever you can to get the knowledge you need for survival,” he said. “Honestly, I want our books to be the ones people steal.”