Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton is the first African-American Poet Laureate of Houston. The internationally-recognized performance poet’s debut poetry collection, Newsworthy, celebrates its official release this Saturday with a book launch event at the University of Houston-Downtown. Mouton’s new work, in part, reflects on a post-Harvey Houston. She’s worked to promote literacy and the arts in under-served area populations by way of creating open mikes and slams and collaborating with organizations like Houston Public Library, the Houston Rockets and Houston Ballet. In short, her life’s work and those she intends to influence by it are quintessentially Houston.
In the past, such an artist might not have had a local publisher with similar sensibilities to share those objectives. Mouton’s book was published by Bloomsday Literary. The upstart, independent press was founded in 2015 and Newsworthy is its second title. According to its founder Kate Martin Williams, and the firm’s chief creative officer Phuc Luu, Mouton’s book is exactly the type of work the press was built to publish. Bloomsday’s model is to seek and work with underrepresented voices the big New York publishing houses sometimes overlook.
“In terms of geography, we are so spread out and even though we just exceeded New York as the most diverse city in the nation we’re also, at the same time, so segregated because of how Houston is broken up,” Luu explained. “We have the Fifth Ward and the Third Ward, we have southwest Houston and then we have the Fort Bend area out there which we include in Houston; but, these are separate and segregated components that mirror the literary scene, also.
“I was talking with (fiction professor) Daniel Peña over at UH about how when he talks to Latinx authors and tries to invite them to other events in broader literature, they do feel a distance between their writing world as Latinx authors and another literary world,” Luu continued. “It’s the same with the slam poetry world, so there are these different writing segments all around you that again mimic Houston. It takes a lot to try to make those connections between the African-American community and the Latinx community and the Asian community. That’s what makes Houston unique, that makes the work harder. If we’re able to traverse the boundaries and borders and find ourselves inside those boundaries, I think the reward is making that connection.”
Martin Williams said Bloomsday began as a writing services company doing ghostwriting, editing and the like. She and Bloomsday co-owner Jessica Cole are writers who met in grad school at University of Tennessee and turned a love and passion for writing into a career. When they considered publishing, they decided to focus on literary rather than genre fiction, with an eye trained towards poetry, memoirs and narrative fiction and non-fiction. Martin Williams said no matter the genre or the diverse backgrounds of Bloomsday’s writers, they share a common bond with its staff.
“Because we’re new we didn’t have tons of experience but what we did know is what it feels like to be a writer and have someone look at your work,” she said. “I think we come to the table with that perspective, that it really is about the relationship. If you trust the person that you’re working with to put work out that reflects you accurately, I think you’re going to have a better piece of art at the end. And if you don’t have that then it’s going to be an uphill battle for everybody involved.”
“We can’t offer giant contract deals, you know? Six figures or whatever. And we can’t offer fancy offices but I just go back to we are what we are offering: our relationship,” Luu added. “I think that’s an important thing that I don’t think we should disregard. A lot of authors do find we’re offering some kind of community. We’re offering a connection and ways to be creative other than that signing bonus.”
So far, the blueprint is working well, Martin Williams reports. Last year, the press published its debut release, D.F. Brown’s Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag. Author John Balaban was one of many who praised the work, which centers on the Vietnam War, calling it “one of the flat-out, best books to come out of that war.” Dr. Robin Davidson, former Houston Poet Laureate, calls Mouton’s Newsworthy “brilliant and deeply moving,...a testament of Mouton’s wit and her commitment to defying what’s been hidden.” Martin Williams said Bloomsday has been honored to build relationships with these writers.
“We may have entered into it a little naively, but I think it’s really served us well that those are the eyes we come to the manuscript with,” Martin Williams noted. “If we were writing this what kind of relationship would we want to have with the editor? So far, it’s gone pretty well and we’ve created lasting friendships out of these things. I think that’s what a smaller press – or our small press – can do.”
Some of those friendships were formed by F***ing Shakespeare, the writing podcast Bloomsday started in 2017, which can be heard on an array of podcast platforms.
“We started the podcast as a natural progression from writing services because we had begun to build a community with writers and booksellers and other people involved in the literary world,” Martin Williams explained. “I don’t even know that we knew that was what was going to happen. I think I said to Phuc one day, ‘Hey, what if we do a podcast?” and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’ and that’s kinda how Phuc does stuff.
“We sort of stumbled our way through the first couple of shows and figured out hey, we really have something here,” she continued. “And actually, that’s how we found our first author, D.F. Brown. He’s a friend of Phuc’s, but that’s how we approached publishing his work, was through the podcast. Then it just blew up into this thing that really served to connect us to people we didn’t know were out there.”
She added, “it’s really an extension of what the Bloomsday brand is, what Bloomsday Literary does. Like we said before, bringing booksellers, writers, professors of literature onto the podcast. I think it’s a way for them all to feel connected to the Houston community, as well.”
Houston, she said, has some built-in advantages for fledgling book publishers.
“UH’s program is second in the nation for creative writing and if you look at some of the other cities that are known for their publishing – New York, Minneapolis and now San Francisco and L.A. – those cities are supporting a lot of independent publishers and doing fantastic work. There’s no reason why Houston can’t be doing the same thing. And not just Bloomsday Literary. There’s room for a lot more if you look at what’s happening in these other cities,” she said.
“I would love to be one of many. I think that’s what a city this size calls for,” she said. “We have a really vibrant arts community. I just think there’s lots of room for people like us to do this kind of thing. I think there are a lot of people out there doing cool work and we want to help get that work out into the world.”
Houston also has some key elements in place, like the UH creative writing program, Inprint and Writefest. More important, it has creatives who are tenacious enough to put the city on the publishing map.
“I think that one of the things Houston does well is we’re pretty scrappy. I think it’s the kind of town that if you find what you want to do you’ve got to go do it. If we’re not in a position where we’re challenging ourselves to do that kind of thing then it won’t happen,” Martin Williams said.
Bloomsday plans to do its part. This year, it’s working on an anthology. It’s considering a young adult novel that “that skews towards the literary that I feel really matches our brand,” Martin Williams said. It will continue to promote writers with its podcast and stoke the interest of readers, who do still exist, they noted. They kid about mailing Bloomsday books out for loan in “little red envelopes” or positioning “red vending machines next to Kroger,” to bring literature to the interested, a la Netflix and Redbox.
“That’s the second level,” of Bloomsday’s Publishing blueprint, Luu joked.
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Sure, it’s far-fetched, but Martin Williams said that sort of innovative thinking is what Bloomsday and other small presses can offer.
“I think we get to be a little bit more nimble and take probably bigger risks,” she reasoned. “I assume that’s the same for independent music labels. If this is the stuff that’s really driving us, it’s really intriguing to us, evocative to us, we know that it’s gonna be evocative to other people, the people that we run with who enjoy quality work and enjoy something maybe they’ve never seen before.
“That’s what turns me on and keeps me coming in and doing this work,” she continued. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to read the popular fiction. I want to read the kind of stuff that turns me on and that’s the kind of stuff we’re going to work with.”
The book launch of Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton’s Newsworthy is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20. at the University of Houston-Downtown, 1 Main in UH-D’s Wilhelmina Cullen Robertson Auditorium.