by Susan Visakowitz
For Sara Lefsyk, co-founder of Ethel, a bi-annual, limited-edition, handmade zine of writing and art and a micro-press specializing in handmade and hand-bound chapbooks and mini-books, the most important thing about the work she does is “being able to include as many people as possible.”
Ethel was founded in large part to create a space where a “very wide range of writing and art” could find an outlet into the world. In a recent phone interview with Boog City, Lefsyk emphasized a dedication at Ethel to “publish everyone,” noting that she doesn’t have a particular aesthetic she adheres to when making her selections of artists and writers to feature. “I accept a large amount of what’s sent to me,” she remarked, noting that she aims for a “broad sampling” of styles and approaches.Ethel’s Sara Lefsyk.
It seems to go hand-in-hand with her own personal taste, which ranges from Lorca to James Baldwin to “edgy” Scandinavian works translated and published by a fellow small press she adores, Action Books.
“I’m always looking for something new to feel inspired by,” says Lefsyk. “I’m always looking for work that feels different, like nothing I’ve seen or heard before.”
That desire for something that “feels different” is another raison d’etre for Ethel, which Lefsyk co-founded with friend and fellow writer Joanna Penn Cooper.
They met while in an M.F.A. program at New England College, where Sara had been collecting the work of writerly friends, “sewing it together into really small handmade books and just giving it to them.” Joanna loved what Sara was doing and suggested the two of them found a small press.
“I liked the idea,” said Lefsyk. “There are so many small presses, but I don’t see a ton of people doing everything handmade.” And so Ethel had its calling, focusing on beautifully constructed, hand-sewn chapbooks that are as lovely to look at as to hold.
The work that goes into every individual item Ethel release is reflected in the small edition numbers. Chapbooks tend to be limited to 50 copies, and the zine gets 175 in each of its two yearly runs.
But for Lefsyk, that still means a very busy schedule, as Ethel typically releases three chapbooks every two months. When I asked about whether this was a difficult pace to keep up, she opened up about her very real need to stay occupied. “I need something to keep me busy because I struggle with depression,” said Lefsyk. “Since I was young I’ve always needed something to work on, to keep my hands and mind busy.”
And this, too, points to another reason Lefsyk gets so much satisfaction from the community-building aspects of Ethel. “I try to be pretty active on social media sharing new work, and I’d like to have more readings where the general public is invited to attend,” she said. “Because I try to picture Ethel as a little community; I think it helps for people to feel connected.”
As for what’s happening lately at Ethel, Lefsyk reports: “The Grave Itself by Douglas Piccinnini was just released. Next up is Toungeless Secrets by Taofeek Ayeyemi. We also just published a chap by Joanna called Wild Apples: A Flash Memoir Collection with Writing Prompts.” There are also books on the horizon by Daniel Lassell, Sarah Mohammed, Issam Zineh, Elisabeth Robinson, Julian Mithra, and Venus Davis, among others. And Ethel 9 will be an issue dedicated solely to womxn and non-binary folx.
Lefsyk notes that, while Ethel is open to everyone, it is important for her to give space to the voices of women and the BIPOC and LGBTQA+ communities. “I wanted to make a place for typically marginalized groups to tell new kinds of stories,” she said.
Lefsyk had her first full-length, We Are Hopelessly Small and Modern Birds, published by Black Lawrence Press in 2019, and I get the sense that both she and Ethel at large will be keeping busy well into the future. A note on Ethel’s website today declares: “Ethel is currently closed to chapbook and mini-book submissions until early May 2021 while she catches up on the submissions she already has. Thanks for your understanding.”
SARA LEFSYK is a writer and co-founder of independent zine and small press Ethel (www.ethelzine.com). Her first full length, We Are Hopelessly Small and Modern Birds, was published by Black Lawrence Press. She has two previous chapbooks, the christ hairnet fish library (Dancing Girl Press) and A Small Man Looked At Me (Little Red Leaves Press). Her work has appeared in such places as Anthem Journal, Bateau, Dear Sir, The Greensboro Review, The New Orleans Review, Phoebe, and Poetrycrush, among others.
SUSAN VISAKOWITZ is a poet and painter who loves to tell the stories of fellow creative types. She got her start reporting on music for various small blogs and eventually publications like Billboard magazine. Currently she is focused on a new series of art projects under the name Exiting In. Instagram: @exiting_in