Red Hen Press, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit indie publisher designed to reflect the diversity of its hometown, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Red Hen has expanded to publish hundreds of books by authors from around the world, but that original inclusive mission is still a pillar of the press.
“I was very interested in having the literature that we were putting out at Red Hen mirror the demographics of Los Angeles,” said Red Hen Press cofounder Kate Gale, recalling the press’s 1994 inception. “When you go to the L.A. Philharmonic, you’re not looking at the demographics of Los Angeles. But when you go to a Dodgers game, you’ll see almost all the demographics of Los Angeles. So in the beginning, I very much wanted it to look like the city that we were in.”
Red Hen’s focus on diversity means the press’s structure is continually changing. “Our general list does include a lot of queer people, as well as a lot of Latinx poets and African diaspora and African-American poets and authors,” said Red Hen deputy director Tobi Harper. “Whenever we find that there isn’t quite enough of any kind of author in our general list, we start looking for more authors like that, or we start looking for a new imprint.”
Harper edits Quill, a Red Hen imprint that publishes a prose work by one queer author once per year and hosts a $1,000 writing prize to support these writers. Over the years, Red Hen has added a number of other imprints to focus on underrepresented communities. Editor Eloise Klein Healy founded Red Hen’s Arktoi Books imprint in 2006, publishing literary fiction and poetry by lesbian writers. The University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies partnered with Red Hen to create the Letras Latinas imprint for Latinx poets. The imprint awards the $1,000 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize every other year and publishes a book by the winner.
“Without a publisher like Red Hen, poetry would languish,” said Erica Jong, one of a number of well-known authors—such as Chris Abani, Brian Doyle, and Percival Everett—who are published by Red Hen. “They publish books based on their quality rather than their financial potential,” she added. “You get to know the editors and marketing managers by name and your participation is valued.” (Red Hen published Jong’s book of poetry, The World Began with Yes, in April.)
For the past 16 years, Red Hen has carried its indie spirit into local schools, nurturing the next generation of literary talent in Los Angeles. The press launched its Writing in the Schools (WITS) program in 2003, connecting Red Hen authors to students in local grade schools, middle schools, and high schools. Since its beginning, the program has shared free creative writing workshops and literary anthologies with more than 4,000 low-income students in Los Angeles schools. Each year, around 250 students join these classroom workshops led by Red Hen authors. The students discuss a poem or short story in each class before writing their own work.
“No matter where you’re from or what your background is, we can find a poetic form from a community of people who look like you,” said Douglas Manuel, a Red Hen poet and WITS instructor, who calls this spirit of literary inclusivity “canon reformation.” “We are letting in so many new and different voices and approaches,” he added. “In my class, we’re writing Arabic Ghazals, Afghani Landays, and Japanese Zuihitsus.”
The workshop climaxes when students get a bound anthology from Red Hen that collects their writing—a life-changing experience for many of them. According to a survey of students who participated in the workshops in the 2017–2018 school year, 95% left with an interest in writing poetry. “I think I’ll write poems when I’m having a bad day,” said one 10th-grade participant.
Red Hen gives students a free book for the class—one of two textbooks that the press developed specifically for WITS workshops: How to Free a Naked Man from a Rock (a literary anthology for high school students) and Did Pirates Rip Her Arms Off? (a literary anthology for younger readers). Deputy director Harper stressed that anthologies are another way Red Hen fulfills its inclusive mission, adding that the press has tapped poet Kazim Ali to edit an anthology of Muslim American voices for 2020.
“We do our best at all times to always be thinking about diversity—diversity not just of background or race but a diversity of story, of queerness, of bodies, and of personal life histories,” Harper said.
“For so long, we let the same types of people talk and the same types of people dictate the aesthetic decisions that we make,” Manuel said, describing the positive impact that Red Hen has had by publishing voices from diverse communities. “Things are definitely changing and getting better, but we’ve still got so much work to do.”