Steve Semken: Writing and Working Interview

Check out this interview with Ice Cube Press publisher Steve Semken:

and/or read below.

Steven Semken is the founder of Ice Cube Press. He is also the author of Pick-Up Stick City, Kansas Book Award-winner The Great Blues, The Tin Prayer, Moving with the Elements, River Tips and Tree Trunks, and Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron. He will be appearing at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in June, the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts in September, and the Iowa City Book Festival this fall. Visit

Steven Semken! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do some of everything—from fee to free. Although, in my mind, all my writings, from tweets and ad copy, to books and even my notes when doing public speaking, are done with the goal of hoping to increase my audience and therefore earn my keep. I don’t expect riches, but believe authors should expect a lifestyle equal to that of the middle class, which gets harder and harder all the time. I am not ashamed to earn money through writing. Words and creativity are the skills and products I have to offer.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood? 

Over the last 20-plus years I’ve figured out how to transition from having day jobs in addition to doing work in the publishing/writing industry to just working full-time in that industry. I feel it’s important to tell people about this slow transition — not to show off, but to prove that all the people telling you the arts & writing can’t become “real” jobs are wrong.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

Kind of a tricky question: When you work full-time, you thirst for writing time. When you work part-time, you think you’ll suddenly have time to write, but it still seems lacking. The one time I was a writer-in-residence I found it remarkably productive. The hardest thing, no matter the situation, is finding a way to fully immerse in the writing. This is what I miss the most. Now that I work with all parts of writing — editing, design, acquisition, sales, marketing, etc —I am saturated in writing as never before; however, never have I been asked more if I find time to write myself. It’s slow going. But I find helping writers succeed more rewarding than I thought it would be.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

There are a variety of triggers: do the words match the subject, is the pacing just right, do the sounds of the words go together the way I like. I think most writers would tell you they are never as sure as they’d like to be. At one moment you feel done, but pause anywhere and revision kicks in. As a publisher, I’m surprised when someone feels as if four revisions is some monumental task they’ve accomplished. My normal response to this is basically, “sounds like you’ve at least started.” There’s a reason not everyone writes a book — it’s incredibly hard to even write poorly.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

I would have a hard time telling you I ever finish anything completely. I sometimes think this is why it feels everything I write is only a variation of what I’ve written already. When I do stop (for publication) it’s because I’ve changed the same thing back and forth several times. In fact given enough time I’d probably even revise this answer on into infinity.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you? 

Certainly I’ve made the choice to become a writer, but some other force seemed at work making sure I made this choice (a.k.a. calling). Despite being in low-level reading groups; even though I was sent out of the room to be tutored in vowels and sentence structure as a grade-school child; told writing was not a “real” job over and over and over … writing and I made a pact at some point, in spite of the odds. To somehow create writing that is then purchased and read by others seems a perplexing, at times impossible, yet remarkably worthy goal to try and achieve.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan. His use of form and subject matter was so interesting and unique he really encouraged me. He provided proof that the ideas and thoughts I had regarding writing, which teachers told me weren’t “correct,” were actually worth exploring.