Nomadic Press is gone, but the relationships it fostered live on

The Oakland-based nonprofit Nomadic Press shut down on Wednesday after publishing well over 100 books and hosting hundreds of events and gatherings over the span of 12 years. While the loss of book-related businesses and organizations has been common since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Bay Area residents had been feeling Nomadic’s looming and now-real absence in a particularly strong manner. Those closely involved saw it as more than just a prolific publisher and credit the project with fostering relationships that have nourished them as artists and people.

In a recent interview with The Oaklandside, Nomadic’s founder JK Fowler described these relationships as “a felt sense of community and connection, larger than ourselves and the sense of the individual.” Writer James Cagney described Nomadic as an “incredibly nurturing and loving circle.” Associate Editor Michaela Mullin described it as a “family.”

If Nomadic is a family, it’s a massive one. Fowler estimates that over a thousand people contributed to the nonprofit over the years, either through having their work published in Nomadic’s books or anthologies, performing at its events, or collaborating on projects like its Sausal Creek park cleanups. While the nonprofit largely focused on poetry and poets, it published visual artists along with fiction, non-fiction, and children’s book writers. During many Nomadic events, musicians would play as well.

Kevin Lo performing in the Nomadic Press Fruitvale Salon. Credit: Courtesy of Nomadic Press

The Nomadic family is also diverse. The press’s mission statement highlighted a desire to build “space where difference is celebrated, not only tolerated” and an “inclusive environment, particularly for those persons who have been excluded from the arts.” In the end, the press successfully sought out and supported a great variety of creators who might have otherwise found it more difficult to share their work widely.

A vast majority of the writers Nomadic published are people of color, and in 2020, the nonprofit began donating one dollar from each of its book sales to a Black Writers Fund for its Black authors, in addition to royalties those authors were already receiving. Nomadic also published anthologies of works by Muslim, Black, and queer youth, along with books by late-career writers in their 50s, 60s, and older. Spanning generations, the press put out both 2020 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate Greer Nakadegawa-Lee’s first book, A Heart Full of Hallways, and two books by the city’s current and first adult poet laureate, Ayodele Nzinga

Nakadegawa-Lee wasn’t the only person to have their first book published by Nomadic; the press regularly published first-time authors. Mullin looks back on the decision to do so with pride. “We always took a chance if we felt that the writing deserved an audience,” she said. The boldness pleased writers like poet Yume Kim.

“Nomadic Press gave me a chance and thus provided a home for my first book,” Kim told The Oaklandside. “It meant a lot and I am still so grateful.”

“Everyone has a story to tell, and if someone is not published that doesn’t mean their voice doesn’t exist.”

J.K. Fowler

The deep relationships between Nomadic Press creators didn’t come about just by throwing them together. The nonprofit hosted events that encouraged artists to be vulnerable with each other, such as their “Get Lit” readings. Artists who took part in Get Lit, which occurred about 90 times, could only present work that had never been shared before and were asked to stay for the entire event to support their fellow artists. Through the nonprofit, writers also arranged gatherings specifically for marginalized groups, like Josiah Luis Alderete’s Latinx reading and open-mic series, and Celeste Chan’s queer trans writing group.

Nomadic created space for these events and groups, in part, to showcase more writers who might not have been published.

“I do think everyone has a story to tell, and if someone is not published that doesn’t mean their voice doesn’t exist,” said Fowler. “We tried to offer these platforms for voices to be heard by more people. Some of them manifested into physical objects as books, and that’s cool, but that was never really the point.”

Cagney, who regularly attended Nomadic events, has been going to various other open mics and literary performances regularly since the ‘90s. He felt Nomadic events were different.

“The events were far more community-based than almost any other open mic that I remember,” said Cagney. “They maintained a heart and togetherness that they established with the writers and artists they worked with. It wasn’t about one individual.”

Nomadic also helped foster relationships through its editing process. Every year beginning in 2015, the press would publish 10 chapbooks—small books typically containing poems or short fiction—that were edited collaboratively. Writers whose manuscripts were accepted for publication would select an author they wanted to work with who already had at least one book published by Nomadic, and that author would help them edit their chapbook. The nonprofit helped make this work possible by paying the writers-turned-editors for their time.

Writer James Cagney said the community at Nomadic Press was “an incredibly nurturing and loving circle.” Credit: Rohan DaCosta (IG: playdatephoto)

Cagney, who had two books published by Nomadic, had never edited a book until the press gave him the opportunity to edit four chapbooks. He found a lot of value in the practice.

“Having a conversation with another artist about what it is they’re doing and helping them become clearer in their own voice, instead of trying to make them like me,” said Cagney. “That was a really awesome thing to learn.” 

While a variety of Nomadic authors helped edit each other’s chapbooks, the press’s associate editor, Mullin, edited over 30 of the full-length books. Before becoming an editor she’d been a writer for other publishers and can remember digitally responding to edits of her work without having a deep personal relationship with her editors. She described her and Nomadic’s method of editing as much more collaborative and conversational.

“I would sit with people for hours at a time, over the course of months at times, going through the entire manuscript together,” she said.

Mullins appreciated the slow in-depth process. With the poetry books she edited, she always had the poets read their poems out loud to her, a practice she enjoyed.

“I got to make suggestions and make critical constructive criticisms but I also got my own poetry readings,” she said. “It was fun to listen.”

Nomadic has been deeply centered in the Bay Area for about the last 10 years. In addition to regularly hosting events here, the vast majority of its published writers live here, and much of the work is about the area. Parts of Rohan DaCosta’s book of poetry and photography, The Edge of Fruitvale, deal directly with that neighborhood, while parts of Nzinga’s book, Sorrowland Oracle, deal with West Oakland. The recently released anthology Painting the Streets: Oakland Uprising in the Time of Rebellion documents visual art, essays, and poetry about this city during the George Floyd uprisings.

The roots of Nomadic Press, however, lie elsewhere. Fowler founded it in Brooklyn in 2011 with a group of about five other people he knew from The New School, while “searching for found family.” They put out a journal of nonfiction writing on the topic of movement, followed by several smaller publications released seasonally, called “stolons,” featuring visual art and writing on a theme. The group also hosted experimental events, like a reading where an acupuncturist applied needles to audience members’ ears as they listened to poems.

Around this time, Fowler also connected with Mullin while they were studying in Switzerland. Mullin lived in Iowa at the time and still does. She did the editing for Nomadic Press over Skype and Zoom. But the press has mostly operated in Oakland since Fowler drove across the country to live here in 2013. 

Nomadic operated for years on a shoestring budget

Tongo Eisen-Martin performs a reading during a Get Lit event at Ale Industries in Fruitvale. Credit: Courtesy of Nomadic Press

While deeply connected to this area and its culture, the press’s existence in Oakland specifically, and the U.S. more broadly, might have contributed to its closure. At the federal and local level, arts funding is scarce.

In 2022, the National Endowment of the Arts, which allocates federal grants, received a budget of $180 million, or .003% of the total federal budget. By comparison, Canada, with less than 12% of the U.S. population, spent almost twice as much on the arts last year. Mexico has been spending much more, allocating over $690 million to the arts in 2021. 

Locally, Oakland allocated $5.1 million of its last two-year budget, or a little over $2.5 million per year, to support the arts through its Cultural Affairs Commission, which gives grants to local artists and organizations. That’s about .13% of the city’s total $3.85 billion budget. San Francisco has a population about twice as large as Oakland’s, but spends more than six times what Oakland does, giving over $16 million per year to the arts.

In an interview with The Oaklandside, Cultural Affairs Manager Roberto Bedoya expressed disappointment that the current economic reality means the commission has to deny grants to many deserving artists and organizations.

“The reality is Oakland is not a rich city like San Francisco,” he said. “This is not France or Canada or even England where government support of the arts is substantial. The market has a lot of power here. That’s the American condition. I wish it were different.”

With many mouths to feed but scarce public funds, arts organizations like Nomadic often need to rely on their own sales and/or private grants and donations to sustain themselves, often on scant budgets. According to the IRS, the press never brought in more than $50,000 per year in gross receipts prior to 2020. For years, Nomadic was able to operate on a shoestring budget in part due to members like Fowler and Mullins working separate full-time jobs. According to Fowler, that was exhausting.

“By the end of 2019, I was burnt out and could see no way forward energetically and economically,” he said. “I was tired all the time.”

In 2020 though, the press received grants amounting to tens of thousands of dollars due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Fowler kept a full-time job elsewhere, Nomadic switched to online events, which required much less work for him. For a little while, it seemed the press was operating in a much more sustainable manner. 

“Nomadic might have ended earlier if COVID hadn’t happened,” said Fowler.

But around the end of 2021, COVID-relief funding for the arts dropped off, even as the pandemic, which is currently surging locally, continued. Nomadic’s book sales also dropped as inflation grew, with paper costs increasing due to a global shortage. On Jan. 30, Nomadic Press announced its planned closure on Instagram, citing “a big drop in sales” beginning in late 2021 and the unexpected loss of funding “that was going to help sustain us through these first few months of the year.”

Nomadic Press founder J.K. Fowler poses for a photo near Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif., February 23rd, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

In interviews with The Oaklandside, Fowler expressed frustration with the prevailing cultural attitudes and economic structure that contributed to Nomadic having to shut down.

“If you’re going to say you support the arts and culture, I think it’s important to do an authenticity check and support it in a dollar sense,” said Fowler. “The city’s allocation for arts funding is abysmal.” 

Nomadic writers like Cagney agree.

“It stuns me that so many people with money and material things to share do not really care that much about the actual local artists,” said Cagney. “It’s what cities are willing to cut first.”

In a recent survey conducted by the city to measure residents’ budget priorities, nearly half of Oaklanders polled said they would accept reduced spending on grants for arts organizations and artists in order to balance the city’s budget. By comparison, 22% said that reducing funding for police patrols and property crime investigations was acceptable, while 17% said they would accept reducing services for unhoused people. 

Fowler said he also wishes private funders would make grants easier to access. The process of filling out all of the necessary forms can be difficult and time-consuming, he said, and overall could be “a little more kind.”

Nomadic will live on in other ways

Even as Nomadic shuts down as a nonprofit, its deep archive of published works remains. Over 100 Nomadic books will still be available through its distributor, Small Press Distribution, until the end of the year. Beyond that, many of its books will continue to be available either at Oakland Public Libraries or through the link+ system, which allows patrons to order books from other public libraries throughout California and Nevada. 

The press is also in talks with other publishers to reprint some Nomadic books. With such a large archive, it’s unlikely one press will pick up every book, but Fowler said he and others at Nomadic have been in serious talks with about five publishers who, in total, are considering reprinting about 15 of the press’s books. One of Cagney’s books, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness, which was just listed as an LA Times Book Prize finalist, will continue to be published through North Atlantic Books and Penguin. 

Fowler is moving on to a new project called Bundo Cafebrería, a cafe, bookstore, pizzeria, and community center that he recently opened with Alejandro Jimenez in downtown Xalapa, Mexico. He hopes to take much of what he’s learned from Nomadic there.

Those involved with Nomadic say the relationships they forged will continue. 

“Nomadic is us, it fostered relationships beyond the stage and the page,” said Fowler. “None of that goes away just because this particular container for it is. The work was here before we were Nomadic, when we were Nomadic, and it will be here when we’re gone.”

“There has been a lot of talk about how this family can stay together,” said Mullin, who recently made it out to Oakland for a goodbye gathering. “I know it will.”

Journalist and poet writing about homelessness, housing, and activism in Oakland and the East Bay.