Inside the Small Presses Driving Austin’s Literary Scene

Behind the books with Red Light Lit, Awst Press, and Host Publications

Loria Mendoza of Red Light Lit (Photo by John Anderson)

The Beats settled in the Bay, not the Hill Country.

Loria Mendoza saw this history in action when she moved back home to Austin from San Francisco and set up a local chapter of Red Light Lit, the small press and performance series her friend Jennifer Lewis launched in 2013. Poetry readings are a “longstanding literary tradition” on the West Coast, but the event curator received a pretty tepid response in the 512.

“Poetry should be for everybody, but I felt like it was just poets that were coming in,” Mendoza recalls of their first local gatherings. “I started incorporating burlesque dancers into the Austin performances because I kind of felt like I had to trick people into coming to poetry readings.”

The burlesque doesn’t land too far into left field. Red Light Lit specifically publishes stories about love, relationships, sex, and gender, primarily from women and femme writers. Incorporating live music, visual art, and other creative mediums, Mendoza brings the sensuality of the press’ publications to its live series. They tapped performance artist Greer Sikes to host a “pleasure church,” an evening of body worship involving a lot of hugging and chocolates and strawberries. A different exhibit called “Art of Pleasure” invited ethical porn company afterglow to table alongside displays of vulvas and penises.

Granted, erotic poetry isn’t for everyone. But Mendoza isn’t the only Austin writer who’s encountered local indifference to literature.

“I’m very aware of all of the talent and all of the hustle and the ambition and the energy and all of these different organizations in town having this drive and this desire to put forth literature as an art,” says Annar Veröld, managing editor and arts director at Host Publications. But “in Austin, we don’t treat literature like we do music and the art scene.”

Our fair city is the only major Texas town lacking a poet laureate program. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and McAllen officially appoint a writer to compose poems for special events and occasions in exchange for a stipend, as does the state and federal government.

Austin does have the Nexus Grant program, which awards local artists, arts organizations, and arts businesses with $5,000 to help fund administrative costs, equipment and space rentals, and marketing for projects. Mendoza, along with collaborators Ari Newman and Alemania Michel of Revolutionístas and Ana Arellano of Night Owl Therapy*, received the grant to put on February’s “Art of Pleasure,” which combined poetry, prose, music, visual art, and burlesque. In contrast, this year’s Austin Live Music Fund will award independent musicians and promoters grants of $15,000 and $30,000, and live music venues $30,000 and $60,000.

“We’re just sitting around waiting on $5,000 here, $5,000 there,” Mendoza says. “People in this city have money. Why aren’t they funneling it into the arts?”

Even within the literary scene, there’s a disconnect. Each of the publishers I speak to have been in Austin for at least a decade, and when I tell them I’m writing a story about local small presses, none of them really have any idea about who else I might be talking to.

“There are reading series or open mic nights that people tell me about, and I’m like, 'I have never heard of that.’ Why is that?” Mendoza asks. “Maybe it’s because we don’t really have a singular hub. We don’t have a huge conference here that is locally run that attracts all types of readers.”

Call it writer solidarity. For the duration of this article, The Austin Chronicle is that literary conference. Despite financial struggles and missed connections, Austin does have multiple small presses. And no, they’re not all about sex.

“People Are Feeling Their Oats Onstage”

Even Red Light Lit isn’t all about sex. I attended an open mic in April expecting, as Björk put it, some big-time sensuality, but the event proved much more wholesome. To celebrate the third anniversary of the press’ Austin chapter, Mendoza invited writers to speak on the patio at Revival Coffee. The East Seventh shop boasted an all-pink interior and served drinks with custom heart-shaped splash sticks, which felt fitting.

Before opening up the proverbial stage (or spot in the gravel) to brave poetry novices, Red Light Lit hosted Isra Cheema, an alum of Texas State University’s Master of Fine Arts program, and Hollie Hardy, another Bay Area transplant who issues her second full-length poetry collection, Lions Like Us, via the press next month. For Hardy, working with independent presses has allowed her the creative freedom over her releases that bigger publishers withhold. She designed the layout for Lions Like Us, and her boyfriend made its cover artwork.

“With a higher-up publisher, a lot of times [you] don’t get to choose the cover at all,” she says.

Moving to Austin presented a similar culture shock for the writer, who also edits, teaches private poetry workshops, and hosts her own virtual open mic, Saturday Night Special. “The Bay Area, I believe, is the best place in the country to be a poet,” Hardy says. Arriving in Texas, “I was really surprised by the dearth of opportunities.”

Part of that scarcity relates to venues willing to host poetry readings. According to Hardy, “You call and call, and there’s, I guess, so much music and so much programming that, as a poet trying to schedule a reading at places, it’s hard to even hear back from venues.”

For a while, Mendoza had solved that problem thanks to a harmonious relationship with Native Hostel, the East Fourth event space that closed last year. Since then, Red Light Lit events have jumped around, and not every venue has befit the readings’ personal subject matter. Tamale House East hosted one event, which was beautiful, she recalls, if not a little awkward.

“Next door they have that motorcycle club, and there were people just revving up their engines in the middle of the soft-spoken poets onstage reading about their first time,” Mendoza laughs.

Other readings have gone worse. “I’ve been to a couple of Red Light Lit open mics where some dudes who couldn’t get into Kill Tony, or whatever that Joe Rogan thing is, come over last minute and start talking about some misogynistic shit. And I literally just have to be like, 'Okay, that’s great, wrap it up,’” they say.

Nowadays, before every open mic, Mendoza makes the deal clear: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia. Free expression is the press’ main priority. “I just want to make sure people feel safe in that space and that everyone knows they have a space where they can show up and they can be in their body and it’s safe,” she says. “That they can be sensual and it’s safe. That they can be queer and it’s safe. And they can just exist onstage without having to deal with all these fucking gross white tech bros.”

“Literature That Otherwise Would Not Ever Be Found”

The Host Publications of today is not the Host Publications of yore. Joe W. Bratcher founded the press to publish works in translation in 1988, and opened beloved university-area bookstore Malvern Books in 2013. By that point, Host was on hiatus; Bratcher paused publishing in 2010 to move back to Austin after a decades-long stint in New York City.

That changed once he hired Veröld to work at Malvern. Then an entertainment writer who began dabbling in poetry via Austin Community College, Veröld cites the bookstore as her introduction to the world of lesser-known literature.

(l-r) Annar Veröld and Claire Bowman of Host Publications (Photo by John Anderson)

“Malvern really was the only place I’d ever seen a collection of poetry like that, where there was international poetry through the decades as well as young, hot, real people,” she says. “I loved poetry and fell even deeper in love with it once I realized that it’s alive and well and you just have to dig for it.”

Bratcher allowed Veröld to host I Scream Social, a monthly reading series for women and nonbinary writers, at Malvern. Inspired by the program’s participating writers, Bratcher decided to resume publishing and shift Host’s repertoire from works in translation to compositions written by marginalized voices. The change sounds jarring until Veröld offers a through line: Both mission statements involve “sharing literature that otherwise would not ever be found.”

With UT-Austin Michener Center alum Claire Bowman on board as senior editor, Host officially relaunched in 2018 by publishing Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, a collection of short stories by longtime Malvern employee Fernando Flores (who now works for Alienated Majesty Books, which took over the West 29th Street space in 2023). The press launched the Host Publications Chapbook Prize the following year, which awards women and nonbinary writers with $1,000 in addition to publication, national distribution, promotion, and 25 copies of their chapbook.

“There was an endless amount of amazing talent that couldn’t really break through quite yet,” Veröld says of I Scream Social, which makes its own long-awaited return this July. “And maybe they just needed a chapbook ... just something for other people to hold. I think it all started there.” Since then, the press’ book roster has coincided with the prize, selected each spring and fall.

Bratcher passed away from complications with COVID-19 in 2022. Later this year, Veröld and Bowman will honor him with the Joe W. Bratcher Prize for Poetry, which involves the publishing of a full-length collection. They selected Texan poet mónica teresa ortiz – who received the first Chapbook Prize in 2019 – as the award’s inaugural recipient.

“We just clicked right away,” ortiz says of their relationship with the editors. “[Claire is] a voracious reader, not just of poetry, but of so many other things .... So you’re not just getting someone who can copy edit, but you’re getting someone who really wants to understand what the poem is doing and why it’s doing it, and is always looking for a way to make the poem better.”

Veröld and Bowman admit they’ve got an intense editing process. Bowman likens her feedback sessions to therapy. “We’re always gonna be talking about your childhood; we’re gonna be talking about your mom, your mother wound; we’re gonna talk about where you came from and who you are at your deepest level,” she says. Veröld utilizes mood boards and a lot of close readings to design her book covers.

Their motivation is simple: “I want to create something that someone can look at for the rest of their lives,” Veröld says.

Bowman adds, “We know our power is limited. But we also know that even just something as simple as a chapbook can literally change someone’s life.”

“Taking People’s Voices and Helping”

Unlike her contemporaries, Wendy Walker, who founded Awst Press in 2014, doesn’t come from a writing background. She’s worked as a facility supervisor at the Dell Pediatric Research Institute at UT-Austin for more than a decade, but after enrolling in a writing class to make friends, she and a group of classmates launched a literary journal.

The Austin Review fizzled out after a few years, but in the process, Walker learned that her favorite aspect of publishing was interacting with authors. She decided she’d rather publish books, where she could forge longer, more substantial relationships with writers.

Wendy Walker of Awst Press (Photo by John Anderson)

“With the literary journals, it feels kind of like these one-night stands,” Walker says. “You have this brief, fun thing with them, and then you move on. But with books, it’s a long-term thing.”

Awst Press launched in earnest by publishing a series of chapbooks. The booklets didn’t match the term’s historical definition – they featured all kinds of writing, not just poetry – but at around 30 pages each, they did match their length. For the literature outsider, content was more important than semantics.

Awst’s website offers a one-line description of its publishing roster: “Impressive work from diverse voices.” Asked about her mission statement in conversation, Walker is equally succinct. “I just liked the idea of taking people’s voices and helping,” she says. “Maybe [publish] people who wouldn’t normally get published.”

Doubting her “street cred” as a publisher, Walker kicked off the chapbook series by enlisting a crew of curators more in tune with underground writers. For guidance, she declared that in each group of four authors, no more than two could be the same race, gender, age, or other demographic. The series helped the press establish a base of writers they would continue to work with on bigger projects, including an online essay series.

From the jump, Walker knew she wanted to publish projects with serious subject matter. “I didn’t want to just have fun or lighthearted fiction books,” she says. “I wanted to really get into some heavier topics.” In novels, essay series, and poetry collections, Awst books traverse such issues as childhood sexual abuse (David Olimpio’s This Is Not a Confession), American identity (Donald Quist’s Harbors), and queer history (Edward M. Cohen’s Before Stonewall).

“You Just Really Have to Love It”

They wouldn’t call them passion projects, but these small presses hardly pay these publishers’ bills. Outside of Red Light Lit, Mendoza organizes events with the South Austin Art Project, works in social media, and manages the conceptual street artist TVheadATX. In the past, they’ve worked a slew of service jobs – driving for Lyft, renting a room in their house, walking dogs, cleaning houses, bartending, waitressing, and even writing erotic poetry on Patreon – to make ends meet.

The curator has never been paid to throw a Red Light Lit event. She organizes readings on a donations-only basis and says only sometimes is she able to pay writers for participating. “Sometimes I’ll get to pay the performers like 80 bucks each or something, and that feels really good, to give a poet money for what they do,” they say. “And other nights, it’s like, 'Do I put the $2 split into the poets’ hands at the end of the night? Or do I use this to buy drinks so we can get people to come to the next one?’”

So we’re back to the central conflict affecting multiformat artist Mendoza’s psyche: literature’s place on the creative hierarchy. “At the very back end of [the arts scene], I feel like there’s the poetry scene and the literary scene,” she says. “Everyone wants to go to an art gallery with free booze. Everyone wants to go to a free concert or the local breweries [when they’re] handing out free beers or there’s free swag or Yerba Mate is throwing out cans.”

Mendoza continues, “But then you go to a poetry event, and it’s like, we’re literally taking what we can get. We’re at the back of the bar where people are still talking, getting rowdy and drunk, not paying any attention to it. We’re in coffee shops in the middle of the week, in the middle of rush hour when nobody can get there. And nobody’s paying us to be there.”

Following Bratcher’s death, finances became a sudden and urgent issue for Veröld and Bowman, who each count Host Publications as their sole job. The founder self-funded the press with his own personal wealth and did not leave a plan for its future in his will, the editors say.

“We’ve been very much in limbo since that time,” Bowman says. “We’re still in limbo.”

Since 2022, Bratcher’s family has provided a “runway” for the editors to continue operating Host, but they’ll be on their own at the end of this year. With plans to turn the press into a nonprofit, Veröld and Bowman had just wrapped a grant writing class at ACC when we met in late April.

“The dream of working in publishing never really involved the idea that we would be looking at spreadsheets and budgets, but it also didn’t include having something that feels like it has our soul deeply entwined with it,” Veröld says.

For Awst Press and Host Publications, the everyday stresses of running a small press were compounded by the sudden closure of Small Press Distribution in March. Since launching in 1969, the Berkeley-based company has over the decades become one of the biggest distributors for independent book publishers, raking in almost 400 clients and holding around 300,000 books. Its closure blindsided clients, and Executive Director Kent Watson’s email to partners – citing “years of declining sales and the loss of institutional support from almost every foundation that annually supported SPD,” according to The Washington Post – felt like a death knell for the future of small presses.

In the leadup to the closure, the company shipped its inventory from California to warehouses owned by Ingram Content Group in Tennessee and Publishers Storage and Shipping in Michigan, which have since required presses to pay to have their books shipped back to them. Fortunately, because Awst and Host sell books directly through their websites in addition to using the distribution company, both presses had inventory in their possessions at the time of the shutdown and didn’t have to pause operations completely. Still, “as far as getting paid what we were owed [from sales], and what other presses were owed, I don’t know that that’s going to happen without a significant amount of litigation,” Bowman says.

Walker seems more zen about the situation, even if she does have to drive for Lyft, on top of working at UT, in order to fund the press. “I think I just feel resilient,” she says. Even if she has to change financial strategies (she has also considered the nonprofit route), the publisher says, “No matter what, I want the press to continue on. Because I don’t want these authors’ work to go away. It’s like, what was the point of their voices being put out there? I want it to keep going. It wasn’t a trivial thing for me to start it.”

Mendoza powers through with a similar mentality. “You really just have to fucking love poetry,” she says. “Or whatever you’re writing – short stories, novels. You just really have to love it so much.”

As she shares her coping strategy, she begins to psychoanalyze herself. “Is it love addiction? Am I in a codependent relationship with poetry and art? Am I putting it on a pedestal and just letting it get in the way of me having a million dollars if I was doing something else?”

To answer their own question: “I wouldn’t say no, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I’m gonna be in a toxic relationship, why not have it be with art? At least this way, people can read about my experience, and it feels validated.”

“I feel like storytelling is all we have.”

Art by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

*Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include Ana Arellano of Night Owl Therapy as an organizer of the "Art of Pleasure" exhibit.

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Red Light Lit, Loria Mendoza, Host Publications, Annar Veröld, Claire Bowman, poetry, Wendy Walker, Awst Press

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