Amber McCrary is a Diné poet, zinester, feminist, artist, and the founder of Abalone Mountain Press, which publishes work for Native people, by Native people. McCrary’s chapbook, Electric Deserts!, was released by Tolsun Books in 2020. Her poetry, interviews, and artwork have appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, Room Magazine, Poets & Writers, Turning Points Magazine, POETRY magazine, Navajo Times, and elsewhere. Originally from Shonto, Arizona, McCrary is Red House born for Mexican people. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University, and her Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Mills College. Santa Fe Literary Review editors and interns were honored to interview McCrary on September 7, 2022, via Zoom.

Santa Fe Literary Review: To begin, we’d love to hear a bit about what you’ve been working on recently, and where your interests lie. What projects loom for you—and for Abalone Mountain Press? What are you passionate about now, and what are you drawn to in terms of poetry, publishing, and (or!) creative ventures at large?

Amber McCrary: Right now, projects I’m working on are getting Boderra Joe’s book out; it should be coming hopefully today or tomorrow. Very excited about that! Boderra’s book is amazing! I’ll be coming out with a chapbook next year with Rachel Johnson, a disabled Diné poet. Rachel has a chapbook that we’re going to be releasing; it’s mainly about the body, and what it means to be disabled as a Diné woman. It’s good! [Laughs.] And then, I’m also going to be finishing up a project I did with In-Na-Po, Indigenous Nations Poets. I was a fellow this April in Washington, D.C., so my part with In-Na-Po was to work on putting together a zine entitled The Future Lives in Our Bodies: Indigeneity and Disability Justice. For that project, it was a few poets that submitted, and basically we made an anthology of Indigeneity and disability justice, and we will be printing about 260 copies of that zine, and will also have it at The design and cover were put together by Johnnie Jae, also a disabled Native artist who runs a podcast called A Tribe Called Geek. The way she designs the zine is so beautiful; I can’t wait to share it. I want to try and get another chapbook out next year, and then we’re also still working on an anthology called The Languages of Our Love, a love and sex anthology by Indigenous writers. Originally, the release date was scheduled for November, but we may push it back to February—in time for Valentine’s Day!

SFLR: Talk to us about what it means to be an artist. What did being an artist mean to you when you began your literary career—and how do you think that definition has evolved over time and with experience?

AM: That’s a good question. Sometimes I don’t really know what it means to be an artist! The only thing I can really think of when I think of being an artist is being a , someone trying to find meaning and truth in what they’re being. For me, I am more of an interdisciplinary artist, so I like to write, I like to do collage, I like to make zines, I like to make books. Bookmaking is another form of art that I like to do. I’m not saying I’m necessarily good at all those, but those are things I really love and gravitate towards. Mainly through poetry, I find the ability to seek truth or tell my truth as a poet or writer. Growing up, I didn’t think my voice was anything special, or that my experiences were special. I think that had a lot to do with courage and self-esteem. As I’ve gotten older, I’m realizing I do have a voice, and through my voice, I can seek truth and write about my experience of the Native person.

My chapbook, Electric Deserts, came out right in the middle of COVID, so I didn’t get a chance to tour it or promote it. I just thought it was something that came out and that’s that. But the more readings I’m starting to do again, the more I realize, I didn’t read or promote this chapbook much, and I’m enjoying it, I’m enjoying the book now. I used to think, oh, the chapbook’s there, and maybe I’ll just read more of my new stuff, and I didn’t think I’d read from it much—but reading from it is nice. It was released by a press called Tolsun Books, originally based in Tolleson, Arizona, but now located up in Flagstaff. Dave [David Pischke, Tolsun Books publisher and editor] is my mentor; he helped me in starting this press, and gave me a checklist, a document suggesting what I need to do where starting my own press is concerned; he’s been really great through this whole process.

SFLR: As a publisher, Abalone creates books for Native people, by Native people. Your press, according to its mission statement, supports Native artistry in all forms. In addition to books, Abalone publishes media in a range of formats, from original prints to coloring books to zines—in addition to traditional books. You’ve released an Abalone Mountain Press podcast, too. What compels you to publish in such a range of mediums—and how does your multi- genre approach to publishing empower those who choose Abalone as the “home” for their work?

AM: A lot of it comes from my background doing zines. Coming from the zine community, I think I’ve become more accustomed to radical publishing and creating zines or creating prints. A lot of people make prints in the zine community. I was introduced to Pachanga Press, right next to my office, and they do a lot of risograph printing, which is done on a Japanese printer. Everything that comes out of that printer is made from Japanese soy ink. I have been learning the process of riso printing, and it’s amazing, and I fell in love with that. Of course, because there are so many bright colors you can use with riso prints, and I love anything bright—any colors that are super bright. We started collaborating on an initiative where any books that people preorder come with a free riso print. That’s where I got into riso, and then I see how Denise [Dominguez] from Pachanga Press, who is also in the zine community, makes zines through their printer, and it’s really cool.

When I went to Mills College and got my M.F.A. there, I harnessed their book arts program. It’s a good thing I took book arts classes during my last semester, because otherwise, I would have probably switched my focus to book arts altogether. I really fell in love with my book art class. We did make zines, and I was already accustomed to that, but we also made prints off letterhead, like the traditional printer. Learning different ways of making books was the most exciting thing for me. I feel like I want to try to highlight that more when I have more of a budget, more resources. Celebrating the art of bookmaking is another passion of mine. I’m still a beginner at that process and am still wanting to learn more about it. Instead of coming out with traditional books, which we could do too, the Abalone Mountain Press journey ended up gravitating towards all kinds of art, not just books.

SFLR: We’d love to hear about the process of conceptualizing Abalone Mountain Press as a project—and what motivated and inspired you to bring it to fruition. Please tell us, too, about your cheerleaders—those who saw potential in the idea of Abalone Mountain Press, and then helped you bring it to life.

AM: The press first started, the idea of it, came about during the first or second year I did Emerging Diné Writers’ Institute through Navajo Technical University with Manny Loley. I taught some classes including the poetry course the second year. I just realized that so many of the poets and writers in those summer programs were just so talented, and I didn’t want them to just say to themselves, “I took the summer course, and that’s it.” I thought to myself that I would love for them to continue writing, or encourage them to continue writing, and that’s kind of where I realized I wanted to open a press. I saw there were so many talented writers out there that either weren’t being encouraged to continue writing, or didn’t think they could ever see themselves published. That was something that was really important to me, because I understand firsthand how hard it can be to not get published, or not recognized, or overlooked, or feeling like you have to write a different way in order to get published. By seeing what they were writing, I realize that wasn’t actually true, because what they were writing was groundbreaking, amazing, and inspirational—and they were telling their truth. That’s where the idea started.

I started talking to people about how I was thinking of doing it. Most specifically, I remember texting David [Pischke] and saying, “You have a small press. Do you think this is something I could do?” He said, “Absolutely. You have the network that you need, and you know the writers you want to work with.” He was one of the biggest cheerleaders, and that really helped me to say to myself, “Okay, I can actually do this.” Because he actually had a press already. I would have been fine if he had been truthful and said, “No, I don’t think so,” and I would have just said, “Okay,” because I respect his opinion. I had other great cheerleaders, like Manny [Loley]. My partner is not an artist or a writer, but he’s just like, “Okay!” He’s not the type to be like, “Yeah! Do it!” And that’s what I like; we keep our personal lives a bit more separate. Ultimately, David and Manny were my biggest cheerleaders.

SFLR: So many artists, especially those newer to the craft, wonder about the value of the M.F.A. degree—the Master’s in Fine Arts. Tell us about your experience earning the degree— and about making use of it as you move farther from your graduation date.

AM: I feel like I got really lucky with my M.F.A. My cohort—we were pretty close. I am so happy I went to Mills for my M.F.A.; it was basically like being at a residency for two years. I lived in graduate housing, and I got to go and walk down to campus and just write for two years with all these wonderful professors. I had so many great professors that did teach me about BIPOC poets I never heard of. One professor in particular introduced me to concrete poetry and environmental poetry, and at first I was very stubborn, convinced that I didn’t understand it. But the more he introduced me to a lot of these types of poetry, the more I really loved it and gravitated towards it.

In terms of my cohort, about ninety percent were BIPOC, and about eighty percent were queer, so I really love that I got to see this BIPOC/queer community, and all these writers coming together. A lot of the poets and writers in my cohort weren’t just writers; they also did other things. One roommate did rapping and hip hop on the side, and she made her own music. Another was really into book art as well. A lot of them were very interdisciplinary, and I related to that a lot, too. It’s so cheesy to say, but it was a magical time, working with all these other writers coming from all these other backgrounds, and everyone was very supportive of each other’s writing. I don’t have the same experience as they did, but I still loved what they were writing in workshop, and whatever books we were reading. I loved my M.F.A. program.

My program, Mills, is located in Oakland, California. Mills is also an all-women’s college, so there was nothing but women, trans, and queer people. I didn’t want to be around a bunch of guys mansplaining that I don’t know poetry. I didn’t have a poetry background or even an English background, but it was good.

Since graduating, I have used my M.F.A. a lot. I have looked up to how a lot of the professors worked with students and with the students in their class. I looked up to one of the professors, Stephanie Young, and how they conducted poetry workshops, and the style was so unique. I love how she gave every student the attention they deserved for their poem. She was so great with workshop, and I try to be the same way. I have also had professors that were not the greatest at workshop, so I got to see both, and I knew I wanted to be more like Stephanie. I had another professor, Truong Tran, who just came out with a book called Book of the Other (Kaya Press), which is winning some awards right now. He is amazing, always supporting his students, and has a great relationship with all of them, guiding them towards how they really want to craft their poetry. Even if they aren’t a student anymore, he is always willing to help them out or talk with them. He is an awesome person. I look up to him when it comes to how to be a professor.

SFLR: What, in your mind, makes independent presses like yours so valuable? What do Abalone Mountain Press, and other indie publishers, offer their authors and readers that large corporate presses cannot?

AM: I know that with small presses, it’s a lot easier when it comes to communication between the editor and the writer. Most times, it can be a lot more intimate. I think this is a harder question for me to answer, because I’m barely in my second year, still seeing the trial and error that takes place within my press compared to a larger one. But I know it’s a lot more community-oriented when it comes to small presses. For me, it’s more community-grounded because the people that I work with, I use as much as possible and collaborate, for example, with Pachanga Press, or Palabras Bookstore, which is right next door to the Abalone Mountain Press office. We all try to help each other, leaning on each other’s areas of expertise. I love that we can always do readings together, or have collaborative events at conferences like AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs).

We get along really well in terms of our mission and who we serve, which is frequently the BIPOC community. That’s who we want to work with, and that is kind of always our mission. In terms of making the books or anything we publish accessible, that’s another thing that is really important for us. It’s kind of hard right now because of the economy, but we always try to make whatever we can accessible. If someone from the community sees an issue, or if they’re interested in collaborating, we want to listen, and we want to see if they are interested in ever working with us. Wasted Ink Zine Distro is also in our space. They mainly sell zines, and they also run the PHX Zine Fest. I met Charissa [Lucille], Wasted Ink founder, back in the day, and we know each other pretty well; Charissa is very similar to me in terms of wanting to work with the community, but also be involved in radical publishing.

In the end, I can take more risks as a small press. There’s more freedom to do what I want to do, compared to, for example, the context of a non-profit, where I would have to go through board members to approve my project or my idea. That was something I thought about before creating Abalone Mountain Press; it would be nice to be a non-profit and I would have lots of funding, but I wouldn’t have that freedom. That’s the biggest thing for me, as an artist, is that freedom.