In early April of 2022, in the second month of the Russian invasion of and war on Ukraine, Phoebe Bosché, Editor of Seattle-based Raven Chronicles Press, invited me to interview Christine Lysnewycz Holbert, Founding Editor and Publisher of Lost Horse Press, as part of her Raven Chronicles’ “Raven Talks / qaẃqs” podcast. As a poet who has been published by Lost Horse since 2006, I’ve had the privilege of becoming not only one of Christine’s close poet associates but also seeing Lost Horse evolve as a press in recent years. In June, Christine learned that she had won the 2023 Lord Nose Award, conferred by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), an honor that celebrates a lifetime of work in independent literary publishing. In this conversation, Christine talks about the origins of Lost Horse Press, her own background as the child of Ukrainian refugees from World War II, and the genesis of the Lost Horse Ukrainian Contemporary Poetry Series.
The following conversation was adapted from the original podcast recording that took place on April 5, 2022.
Carolyne Wright: Tell us about Lost Horse Press: How and why you founded it—what led to this vision for an independent, non-profit press focusing on poetry?
Christine Lysnewycz Holbert: Why did I end up focusing on poetry, the least-selling, least-read literary genre? (She laughs.) Anyone in their right mind wouldn’t publish poetry, but someone in her right mind also wanted to work on what she loves, and when I was a child, poetry was all around me, it was what I heard at home.
As is common with Ukrainians, my parents memorized many of the classics of Ukrainian poetry, including those by Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Lesya Ukrainka: all poets born in the 19th century and— except for Shevchenko—active into the early 20th century. Early in my childhood my mother and father instilled a deep love of poetry in me. Up until the day she died, my mother could recite from memory long passages from the poems of Taras Shevchenko’s KOBZAR, his most famous work.
But up until my mid-40s, I still hadn’t found my calling—I had moved to the Pacific Northwest with my husband and raised my family here; once the kids were grown, I had the opportunity to finish my college degree at Eastern Washington University. One day, walking through the English Department, I came upon a note requesting interns for EWU Press, so I became an intern, and I fell in love with making books. I had found my calling! I graduated with an MA in Publishing, but I didn’t want to move away from the Northwest to one of the centers of publishing power and connections (New York or Los Angeles, principally), so I decided to found the press. At that time, in the late 1990s, there were few literary presses in the area, so I felt that this would not only make me happy, but could be a real contribution to the literary community in the Inland Northwest. When I started out, I wanted to publish all genres, but quickly realized that I couldn’t effectively market all genres if I intended to keep the press on a human scale, small enough for me to manage well!
CW: How has your own history intertwined with the vision of Lost Horse Press?
CLH: My parents were born in Ukraine, and as young adults, both were displaced by Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holodomor, the famine created by Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians. My parents met as forced laborers in Germany, and, after World War II ended, they had the option to go back to Ukraine, but my mother was convinced that Stalin would eliminate Ukrainians who had had contact with the West (even as prisoners of Hitler’s regime!). She was right. After World War II, my parents stayed in Germany for a few years, because my father, who spoke thirteen languages, was hired to translate for the U.S. army. After that, they chose to come to the U.S., and that’s how I happened to be born in New York City, in the lower East Village. That neighborhood was a Ukrainian enclave at that time, so my parents didn’t have to learn English because everything they needed as Ukrainians was available there. When we moved to Upstate New York, around the time I was old enough to start school, the only language I knew was Ukrainian, the language I spoke with my parents; but my kindergarten teacher would drive me home, on the way speaking to me in English, then I would teach English to my parents. So, considering my background, I think it was only a matter of time before Lost Horse Press would start publishing translations of Ukrainian poets. Since 2017, we have released 15 titles in dual-language format.
CW: I have to say that I always loved hearing you speak Ukrainian with Baba, your mother, on your cell phone during our AMTRAK trips to and from a few different AWP conferences in Chicago and Minneapolis / St. Paul. She would call you, or you would call her, and it was clear to me that you were perfectly bilingual, fluent in Ukrainian!
CLH: Yes, and that is unusual, because many Ukrainian refugees were so traumatized by their horrific experiences under Hitler and Stalin, and during the war, that after they arrived in the U.S. they wanted to throw off all of that—the bad memories as well as the culture, the language—and some children of Ukrainian refugees never heard their native language because their parents would never speak it. But my parents always said, “This is our language, our culture—be proud of it.”
CW: How do poets find Lost Horse Press? Or how does Lost Horse find the poets that it publishes?
CLH: At first I thought finding poets would be daunting, but since there are more poets than poetry presses, I haven’t had trouble finding good work to publish. In the beginning, poets would visit our table at the Bookfair at AWP and other conferences, and sometimes poets would just hand me a copy of their manuscript. The problem has been to decide which work to publish.
There is a lot of excellent work, much of it by little-known poets. But, we have a limited budget and limited energy, so we have to focus and manage what we do. As with all other publishers, I had to create a vision for where I wanted the press to go aesthetically. I am not strict about the flavor or subject matter or style of the poetry published by the Press, but I am adamant that the work be the most excellent writing. That’s been the underlying rule of the press: publish only work that truly deserves to be published, work that doesn’t need further tinkering or improvement, that takes the idea of the individual and creates a universal statement that all readers can identify with, poems that will withstand time and scrutiny.
CW: Besides publishing individual collections of work by American poets, and a few New & Selected volumes, Lost Horse Press has an annual publishing competition, the Idaho Prize for Poetry; and a number of series—the New Poets Series, the Native American Poets series, and the Human Rights Series of anthologies focusing on issues of urgent social concern. Tell us how such series came about—how they were established and how have they been received?
CLH: The New Poets Series was actually the idea of poet Marvin Bell, a friend of Lost Horse from its early days. As Marvin wrote at the time, “The increased promotion in recent years of American poetry owes much to a dumbing-down of the art and the proliferation of novelty acts. Yet the country is chock-full of little-published poets of higher seriousness. This three-in-one series is intended to sample a range of poets who have yet to publish a book. The usual biographical notes will be replaced by brief personal statements. Its covers will not carry promotional blurbs. I believe that, in the matter of poetry, two heads are half as good as one.”
(Christine and Carolyne both laugh.)
CLH: You can just hear Marvin speaking these words! He wrote that “the poems in these short books will be selected and arranged by their authors with minimal editorial interference. I hope that these samplings, presented with as few trappings as possible, will reaffirm for readers the nature of the poetry in poetry. Serious poetry is not written to satisfy literary opinion.” As Marvin said, “Poetry, like philosophy, is a survival skill.”
CW: Marvin passed away, alas, in 2020; and the New Poets Series was a testament to his support for Lost Horse and for emerging poets. By the way, his Jewish ancestors had immigrated to America from Ukraine, so that is another connection with Lost Horse. Christine, could you tell us a little more about the other opportunities that Lost Horse Press provides for poets?
CLH: Lost Horse Press gives other opportunities to established and emerging poets as well, including winners of The Idaho Prize for Poetry—our annual competition offering $1,000 plus publication for a book-length poetry manuscript. The competition, established in 2004, receives 500 to 600 manuscripts every year.
A signal achievement of the Press, and an expression of its commitment to social change, is the Lost Horse Press Human Rights Series—anthologies proposed, created and curated by editors associated with the Press, and focusing on urgent humanitarian issues of our era. So far, the volumes published have featured poetry that responds to the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the unfair treatment of women in the workplace, and global human rights violations. One lively anthology in the series, Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse (2017), edited by Grace Bauer and Julie Kane, was a rousing favorite and bestseller at readings during the regime of #45.
You can learn more about these series and the wonderful books published under them on our website.
CW: Turning now to Lost Horse’s most recent, and most urgent, publishing project, it is a terrible truth that the devastating war started by Putin has helped to generate interest in Ukrainian poetry. Poetry by Ukrainians in response to the war has been published or is forthcoming in the most recent endeavor of Lost Horse Press, the Ukrainian Contemporary Poetry Series. Tell us about this series: what inspired you to begin publishing Ukrainian poets in translation, in dual-language volumes? What was the reception for books in this series in the first few years of its existence?
CLH: Over the years,I noticed that no presses were publishing work from Ukraine, other than Harvard’s Slavic Press. But in 2017, once Lost Horse Press was well established, I wanted to do something to recognize and celebrate my Ukrainian heritage and ancestors, although I had no idea how to connect with Ukrainian poets and their translators. Polish-American poet Piotr Florczyk and poet Stan Rubin introduced me, via Facebook, to Grace Mahoney, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic & Ukrainian Studies at the University of Michigan, but living in Kyiv and doing research on a Fulbright Fellowship, meeting poets at readings, and becoming familiar with contemporary Ukrainian literature. Soon after that, Grace and I spoke on the telephone about the manuscript she was translating by Iryna Starovoyt, and I felt such a positive, strong connection with her in that long conversation that I asked her if she wanted to start a Ukrainian translation series. She said OK, and the rest of the details we worked out as we made the individual books in the Series. Grace had some strong—and good—ideas about the Series that I liked as well, such as being careful to select as many woman poets for the Series as men, and publishing contemporary poetry rather than older work. I still marvel at how well we get along and how similar are our aesthetics.
As of 2017, not many Ukrainian poets had been translated into English, so we were fortunate to be one of the first U.S. presses to publish the foremost poets of Ukraine. We would succeed: Grace had the connections in Ukraine, and I had thirty years of experience in publishing. Grace serves as Senior Series Editor, while I design and typeset the books. The series features dual-language editions of poetry from Ukraine’s most significant poets operating in the contemporary context.
At first, as with most poetry, the books sold modestly, mainly to libraries and Slavic Language programs, as well as to readers with particular interest in or connection to Ukraine. Typically, Ukrainian has not been a language you hear much about, so the books represented a niche market, and it was a wonderful labor of love to publish the early titles.
But, these books have been winning awards and receiving critical acclaim from the beginning, as they showcase the diversity of poets who write from a range of geographies, poetic perspectives, and literary movements. Of critical importance is the fact that many of the poems featured in this series meditate on the significance of Ukraine’s independence and the role of the poet in literary and political culture in times of war. So far, we have published thirteen books in bilingual editions in the series, which have received acclaim and a number of awards, including the Griffin Prize for Poetry, the Derek Walcott Award, and the PEN America Prize for Poetry.
CW: As the whole world knows, in February of 2022, Russia’s Vladimir Putin ordered a military invasion of Ukraine—the homeland of your parents and still the homeland of many of your relatives. Since this full-scale invasion, there has been a surge of interest in the literature—fiction, theatrical works, and especially poetry—of Ukraine. How has this sudden increase of interest in Ukrainian poetry and poets affected you and Lost Horse Press? When was the moment that you knew that the Press was being propelled into new territory, a new degree of prominence?
CLH: The panicked call came from our distributor (at that time the University of Washington Press) in the first days of the war—she asked how many copies of titles did I have? She said they needed thousands of copies right away! Our usual print run is in the low hundreds, and most poetry books in US sell only a few hundred copies; but this demand for thousands of copies was out of scale. We were even contacted by one of the producers of the Grammy Awards, who flew poet Lyuba Yakimchuk from Kyiv to Las Vegas to read at the Grammys from her Lost Horse Press title, Apricots of Donbas. It was a brilliant moment—Lyuba read right after President Zelenskyy’s virtual appearance, while John Legend played the piano softly to accompany her. Lyuba is so poised and beautiful, she wore a long blue gown, and she read beautifully and made quite an impression.
CW: Yes, not only is Lyuba one of Ukraine’s most powerful and compelling younger poets, but she was striking, gorgeous, in that fitted cocktail dress—under the blue lights of the darkened stage, and one flood light on her as she read her poem. Quite dramatic!
CLH: And a few days later, she would be back in Ukraine with her husband, both of them in uniform, defending their country! But her book is powerful. The producer for the Grammys who worked with her cried as she talked to him, and John Legend put the video of their performance on YouTube. You can check it out on Lost Horse’s newly redesigned website. Lyuba’s book, Apricots of Donbas, is about the loss caused by war. Her village, close to the border with Russia, is full of apricot orchards, but these trees stop right at the border; there are none on the Russian side.
But never had there been such intense interest in Lost Horse Press books until the war in Ukraine broke out. Of course, the war really started eight years prior, in 2014, when Russia intruded into Ukraine’s eastern regions and stole Crimea, but people weren’t yet interested in Ukrainian literature until Putin’s full-scale war started. Now we can’t keep books in stock, our printer here in Spokane can’t print them fast enough! I can hardly keep up with the orders, the requests for review copies, and the interest in interviews with the authors, translators, and even myself! In twenty-five years of publishing, nobody had asked for review copies. Now reviews are appearing in the Washington Post, LitHub, LA Review of Books, and many other places. This interest has moved the press onto a whole new level, but none of us can forget that the cause for this has been the hell of Putin’s war, the suffering of the Ukrainian people, and really, the danger to Europe and the whole world.
CW: What is next for Lost Horse Press? How do you envision that the Press will evolve in the future?
CLH: I was born to make books. This calling came to me late, and I feel I’m at the peak of my career now. I turned 70 last year, and I’m looking to be a bit less involved with the press as I enter my eighth decade. I’ve discussed this with the two younger people I work with, poet Jackson Holbert (no relation) and Ukrainian Series Editor, Grace Mahoney. I have hope that one or both of them will carry on the vision of the press. At this point, Lost Horse publishes four to six books a season, including the winner of the Idaho Prize for Poetry, some of which have been first books for their authors. I feel good that new poets have gotten a step up by winning the poetry book competition. I’m not ready to retire yet, but I’m looking in that direction and trying to get things lined up so that Lost Horse Press will continue its work well into the future, led by a younger group of poets and lovers of literature.
CW: Finally, and apropos of younger poets and lovers of literature, what would you say to anyone thinking of starting a small press? What practical advice or words of wisdom might you have?
CLH: If a person is contemplating starting a small independent press, my advice would be to connect with a partner or two, and then learn how to do the work of a press by yourselves. Do not think you can succeed if you farm out all the work, like design, typesetting, marketing, and bookkeeping. If your start-up press has to hire book designers, typesetters, and advertising experts, you will never make it past the release of the first book. It is too expensive to hire professionals to design and typeset and market small press literary books which sell a limited number of copies, so the more you can do in-house, the more likely the press will grow financially and succeed to publish more titles. Also, be sure that the design and production of the books is as good as—or preferably better than—books coming out of the commercial NYC presses. Otherwise you won’t be able to compete, your books won’t be taken seriously by reviewers, booksellers, or contests. With over a million books released every year, a small independent press must be competitive, have great design and precise editing, and have someone on board who will shout loudly about the books. In addition, you need to select poets who not only write exceptionally well, but who also will help to promote their books. Without this crucial essential, the books will flounder. This is especially true for poetry books in the U.S., where there are fewer lovers of poetry than other places.
CW: Thanks so much, Christine! May Lost Horse Press continue to flourish!
CLH: Thank you!
Christine Lysnewycz Holbert, Founding Director and Publisher of Lost Horse Press and a founder of Spokane’s Get Lit! Literary Arts Festival, earned an MA in Publishing from Eastern Washington University. In 1998, she established Lost Horse Press, a nonprofit, independent press that publishes collections of poems. She founded the Idaho Prize for Poetry; organizes writing workshops and readings; and established the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, presented in dual-language format. With the assistance of a few interns and one dedicated volunteer, Christine continues to produce some of the most aesthetically innovative and beautifully designed books emerging from the independent publishing community.