When it comes to being queer in the state of Arkansas, choices about career paths can tend to take on an unpleasantly binary nature — as in, love it or leave it. And Seth Pennington, author of “Tertulia” and editor in chief of Sibling Rivalry Press, is staying put. The Little Rock-based publishing house he and his husband, Bryan Borland, run has been a bastion for queer literature since its founding in 2010. Now, Sibling Rivalry and Queer Arts Arkansas have been given a grant that invests in bringing more LGBTQ artists to Arkansas for readings, panels and workshops. We talked with Pennington about that grant, and about Sibling Rivalry’s new collection of poetry, “Stonewall 50,” to be celebrated with a launch party at Crush Wine Bar, 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5.
Named after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 — and nodding to the half-century that’s passed since then — “Stonewall 50” is “a book of our lives,” Pennington said, “full of loving each other and losing loved ones, so many to AIDS; coming of age in the grit of the South, where still some of us are disowned or leave our families to make what family means for us.” Our conversation with Pennington follows.
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So, you’ve received a partnership grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that was administered by the Arkansas Arts Council and awarded jointly to Sibling Rivalry Press and to Queer Arts Arkansas, and that will allow you to bring more queer poets and artists to Arkansas for panels and workshops and the like. What are the parameters of the grant, and what do you hope to do with it that you couldn’t do otherwise?
The parameters are simple: a matching grant with the purpose of investing in Arkansas’s literary community by bringing LGBTQ talent to the stage as performers and teachers. We want to reinvent Arkansas as a destination for touring writers, those recognized nationally and especially those in the underground — this is where we excel and is our purpose as publishers: We are curators of what would otherwise be looked over due to marginalization and market trends. Partnering with Queer Arts Arkansas makes this possible in a way that is sustainable by bringing together our skills as publishers and event and tastemakers.
“Stonewall 50” is an anthology of works by “21 poets connected by Arkansas writing about queer life after the Stonewall Riots.” Is there any work in the collection that you feel expresses a particular sense of place? Like, a piece that you can’t imagine being born of any terrain other than The Natural State’s?
Kyle Therral Wilson wrote this great piece, “The Queens of Hendrix College, Conway, AR, 1994,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. It’s really clever and gossipy (and recalls the work of Joe Brainard and Frank O’Hara in this) but it is also a punch in the gut about what it took, what it still takes to be visibly queer in Arkansas. There’s a reason for queens being notorious for having a hard-edged personality.
You’ll celebrate the release of the collection with a reading at Crush Wine Bar, Saturday, Oct. 5, at 5 p.m., with free admission and an open mic. You’re editor in chief of a publishing house surrounded by queer literary talent, and I imagine it would be quite easy for you to have filled the program with speakers you chose beforehand. Why was it important to you, for this event, to open the floor to anyone who wants to participate?
When I was in college, I was planning to leave Arkansas for good after graduation. Work in publishing in Arkansas, especially in poetry and prose, is slim. But I happened upon a reading from a book called “Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion & Spirituality” that Sibling Rivalry Press’ founder, Bryan Borland, was giving. It was my first exposure to what my life could be as a writer, as a publisher, as a gay man, and the first time I met the man who would become my husband. That visibility meant everything to me because, before, it felt impossible when I thought my options were to leave or stay closeted. That impossible feeling is still tangible to too many. We regularly give talks and it’s all too often someone comes up to us and in a hushed voice says that because of where they come from, they’ve never seen a gay couple in real life before, that they are living with the biggest secret, that they are so scared of what will happen if their momma finds out, or the kids at school, or if they’ll still have a job.
That’s why it’s so important to open the floor to everyone, to make a space for queer art — everyone has a story but not everyone will share it if they are not seen first. If we nurture this community we have, if we can be brave in that way, what I hope most: more queer people will stay.
If Sibling Rivalry Press had one of those little sales algorithm prompts at the bottom of the website — the ones that are like, “If you like this book, you might also like this book” — what books would it recommend if I put “Stonewall 50” in my cart?
We’ve been recognized nationally through awards and the Library of Congress for the work we do from Arkansas. We decided to start a whole series to focus explicitly on Arkansas writers called the Arkansas Queer Poet Series. Randi Romo’s “Othered” was the first in the series, which was selected by the American Library Association as a top-five book in poetry/fiction for 2018 and a top-10 book of 2018 overall in its annual Over the Rainbow list of Recommended LGBTQ Reading. The second in the series was “Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney,” an accomplished writer on the cusp of what surely would have been greatness — he was twice a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, a finalist for the National Poetry Series and a 1992 fellow at Yaddo — if not for his AIDS diagnosis, which led him to take his own life.
A final suggestion: “The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South,” edited by Douglas Ray. This anthology features poetry and prose that sings of and explores the queer experience of the American South. Contributors include Dorothy Allison, author of “Bastard Out of Carolina”; Richard Blanco, the fifth [presidential] inaugural U.S. poet; American Book Award winner and National Book Award nominee Jericho Brown; Kevin Sessums, author of “Mississippi Sissy”; and the author of “Sordid Lives,” Del Shores. The same principle applies to this work as it does to the concept of the reading: the names you know are paired with those you don’t know … yet.