Interview: Goat Star Books

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Part passion project, part retirement plan, we catch up with Rafael Peñas Cruz, the creator of Goat Star Books, an independent publishing house that specialises in translated poetry. 

How did Goat Star Books start?

The origin of the project is a poetry festival that was to take place in Mallorca, known as a hotspot for all sorts of creative people from the UK in the 50s and 60s. An English friend of mine who grew up there asked me for advice on how to revive this spirit on the island. She sent me the project and I pointed out that only expats were involved, telling her about my Mallorcan friends in Palma who were upset about Catalan disappearing as a language there. There are two communities there that are not really joining and my advice to her was that the festival should include both: poets from the island whose work could be translated into English, and English poetry translated into Catalan and Spanish. I got involved in this project, finding poets and translators on the island. Unfortunately, the festival did not take place because of the pandemic but by then I had translated a few poems from Catalan into English by this very good poet and scientist from Mallorca. Imbued by the spirit of do-it-yourself inspired by the alternative scenes I grew up with in the 80s, I decided to launch my own poetry publishing house to publish them.

Walk us through a day in your life as an independent publisher. What does your routine look like?

There is both a routine and a non-routine. I publish one or two books a year and to do so I divide my year into two halves; during the first six months I translate the poems, I do the research, and I write the prologue in which I explain why I think people should read this particular poet. During the second half we focus on the promotion. It is quite chaotic—once you are in promoting mode you are going from place to place and networking, which is an important way of telling people that these poets exist, that they are good, and that they have something to say. So, half the year is creative, the other half, promoting with the help of my business partner. It’s a lifestyle. It’s very busy, and time consuming, but also pleasurable.

What does the translation process look like?

There are two elements: firstly, there is the research into the poetry and what tradition it inserts itself into. But I think the most important work in translating, in my case at least, is that I have studied English Literature in Barcelona and then Spanish Literature in London, and I have read a lot of poetry in many languages. This makes the actual mechanics of translating from one language to another come very naturally to me, and if there is an obstacle, I find ways around it with my knowledge of the languages and how poems work.

What does independent publishing mean to you and why is it important?

Indie publishing has a very important role to play in making poets public, as poetry is a very small world. Not a lot of people feel like they can understand poetry; there is a fear installed in us at school, like poetry is something sacred and different from life and it is not. Bringing the voice of poets to people is a very important job. Major publishers play it very safe, and I understand why they don’t take risks with new poets like I do. Indie publishing is an ecology and a niche, and we bring new voices that the major publishers can’t. Goat Star Books can focus on creating bridges between cultures without being tied to financial decisions made by higher ups.

Tell us a bit about your current project, Crimson Pashmina by Danial Andrew Danish

Crimson Pashmina, translated from Punjabi into English and Spanish, is a poetry book about the regime in Pakistan. Censorship is present in Pakistan at the moment—if you publish something that the government censors don’t like you could even go to prison. But poetry often goes under the radar; not many people read it as its language is oblique sometimes. Danial’s poem ‘The Masterpiece’, for example, an eleventh century dialogue between a Shah and his miniaturist painter, is highly critical of the condition of women, but as he places it in a mythical time, the poem can be published. That is how he navigates around censorship and the risk posed by criticising women’s rights in Pakistan. These poems and issues are relevant not only to Pakistan but to everyone. The idea of weaving and intertwining a shawl, a pashmina, is a metaphor for community through all the poems and how we are all joined together. Society is a pashmina we all weave together.

How do you go about choosing the titles you publish?

I don’t choose the poems, the poems choose me. A social media presence has really helped me link with readers and poets. Crimson Pashmina would not have found me if it hadn’t been for a social network presence. The same goes for Popping Corn. I met Manolo Marcos playing saxophone by the river in Cordoba and struck up a conversation. He explained that he was a poet and he sent me a PDF of his poems. It seemed perfect for Goat Star Books, going back to this idea of bridges—I met him playing saxophone on a bridge—and I decided to translate his poems into English.

Are there any future projects on the horizon?

For my immediate projects, I am presenting Crimson Pashmina on 3 June at The Poetry Café, Covent Garden and on 17 June at the Queens Head Piccadilly, one of the last independent pubs in Soho. We are also presenting the Rainham Poetry Festival in Kent, which we have programmed this year with Carol Ann Duffy. Aside from that, I am fully booked until 2026! Bill Lewis is a poet from the Medway Poets I am translating into Spanish and that will be out early in the new year. After that, I am translating the work of a woman poet from Granada into English. I really want to do shows with both poets together to speak of their different approaches to poetry.

As you can see, I have great ambitions for the future. The good thing about being a publisher is that you put all your books in the copyright libraries and so the project can live into the future. I find it really beautiful, this idea of talking to the present but also to future generations.

The transcript for this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

Words by Sofia Cristobal Holman-Smith

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