Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Amphora Interview (2007)

Parts of this interview were published in Amphora (no.146, June 2007) entitled Vocational Soul Searching

Q: Your development as a writer coincided with learning some of the book arts - letterpress and binding. What was the connection?

A: As a writer you realize that the words, the way they look on the page, the space that surrounds, all plays a role in how that work is interpreted. Poetry, in particular, cannot be disassociated from its visual context. Listening to someone read a poem is completely different than reading its form on the page. Some lines are longer, extending past typical margins, or extremely short, perhaps only a word. They could be indented at the beginning or enjambed or dropped down at the end. Poets break their lines to create pauses, emphasis, or a distinct visual pattern on the page. The text of a novel flows from page to page without visual distinction until the end of a chapter. Not so with poetry. Poets are very aware of spatial connections on the page. I have always been drawn to poets like Blake who blur boundaries, meld images with letterforms, disrupting easy distinctions. He was someone who did everything himself—the writing, plate-making, printing. I don’t think many people realize how many stages a manuscript goes through once it has been accepted. It really explodes the notion of authorial intent. So many people have a hand in the process that there is something appealing in the idea of a poet/ artist, someone like Blake, who follows through on their own instincts and innovation without interference. Of course, I am no Blake, but one day I’d like to design and produce my own chapbook rather than handing my poems over to someone else.

Q: Why were you interested in learning about the production of books?

A: The production of books does not happen in isolation—there are many cultural, historical, and technological forces at work. I find it fascinating how different printing technologies have affected the production and distribution of texts. Moveable type not only made work available to more people, it also created a stable text. For the first time, a text could be duplicated without the mistakes of a scribe. The internet, once again, is revolutionizing how we read. The linear top to bottom text is being replaced with hyperlinks that create a jumping text that once again is unstable. No two reading experiences are the same. Binding also greatly affects how we read. Most books are left bound codices, but there are so many other options. Books bound at the top so the pages flip up, a segmented book with many binding points, or one that has no binding at all. Binding affects how we turn pages, and how we experience the text. With creative bookbinding, reading becomes more performative and individualized. As a writer, the ways in which design affects interpretation and technologies affect not only distribution but the reading process itself, is of great importance.

Q: How are most PP books printed - all letterpress, combination of offset and letterpress, etc?

A: I have my trade books printed on a commercial offset. My limited edition books are done in combination with letterpress. Currently I have only done letterpress covers, although I would like to start doing letterpress broadsides. The more I get into it, the more I love doing it.

Q: Why letterpress? Why, in addition to PP's trade titles, books printed and made by hand?

A: Letterpress has a beauty about it—the way the paper glistens under the light and the way the slight indentation feels under my hand. I love blind stamping for this reason. There is a simplicity about it. Objects made by hand, whether a table, stained glass window or book, are one-of-a-kind and there is great care taken in the production of them. That means something in this commercial age. And doing everything myself gives me the most creative freedom as a designer. I have the flexibility to explore my wildest ideas, like designing the spine of a book to hold a syringe, as in Marty Gervais’ chapbook Taking My Blood.

Q: The reason d'etre on your home page suggests that for your publishing program, financial viability of a given text (will it sell enough copies?) are eclipsed by your judgment of whether the text should be published - whether it is important, regardless of whether enough readers can be found to make it pay for itself. You wouldn't be the first publisher to take this stance, but you must also therefore subsidize the publishing with other endeavors that do (more than) pay for themselves. What are these?

A: As a publisher of contemporary Canadian poetry, I had to come to terms with the fact that my press would never be a commercial success. So I asked myself, would I be willing to sell cookbooks and self-help manuals so that I could be a financially successful publisher or would I rather publish books that I find meaningful and be willing to subsidize by other means. I chose the later. I began selling design and letterpress services a couple of years ago. The problem is that I get so busy with my publishing that I turn down well-paying jobs because I haven’t the time to do them.

Q: Who do you see as your clients for these services?

A: So far the people who have contacted me for letterpress services are those interested in buying custom invitations. As for design, I have had people contact me who are self-publishing and don’t know how to do the typesetting for a commercial printer. My hope is that other literary presses will ask me to design their books.

Q: How do you respond to people who believe that, if a book cannot be made to (at least) pay for itself, it shouldn't be published?

A: I guess that goes back to the question of what kind of publisher you want to be. It is a personal choice, and of course money is always a factor in what kind of risk people are willing to take. Certainly, many great books did not have a readership until many years after they were originally published. No one knows for sure what books will become required reading in the future, and value in literature has never been determined by publishing success. Putting high ideals aside, publishers have to seriously think about what their goals are before they accept that first manuscript. As a publisher, I go with what I believe in. Early in my publishing career I was very naive and lost a lot of money, and then made the mistake of publishing a book I thought was good enough, but not great, because it would sell well. After, I became so disillusioned that I took some time off to rethink my whole publishing program. I felt like I had lost my focus, that I wasn’t having any fun, and I certainly didn’t want money to be the determining factor in selecting a title. What came out of that vocational soul-searching were my limited editions. I thought why would I want to continue publishing 400 copies of relatively ordinary looking books when I only sell half the print run. I rather print 100 copies and spend more on making beautiful, high quality books that I love, and I know others will appreciate, potentially making less, but valuing the process and the outcome more.

Q: You are working in two parallel publishing veins, trade and limited editions. And while they have many superficial similarities, there are fundamental differences, from modes of production to the kind of person who buys them. Do you find one more interesting, or rewarding than the other?

A: The trade books are the books that are produced with a more general, wider audience, although for poetry the audience is always somewhat limited. I find these books easier and quicker to produce. The limited editions are time intensive, but the rewards are also greater. I am more emotionally invested in the limited editions because they are so hands-on, and I am involved in the process from start to finish. For each book there is a creative vision. I then work with the materials, manipulating and tweaking the vision as I go along.

Q: Can you discuss this in relation to a specific project?

A: With Paper Lanterns, I knew I wanted the chapbook to be travel-inspired, like a personal journal that someone brings along on a trip, but also be reflective of traditional Asian bookbinding. I played with the construction of the cover for quite some time before deciding on one that would wrap around the foredge like an envelope and then secure in the center. The spine edge would be left exposed so that I could stab bind single pages into a text block. The covers are attached with a decorative tortoise shell binding. The top cover has a letterpress title in vertical orientation that resembles the look of a Japanese title bar. When the cover is opened, I added a liner to make it look like the inside of an envelope. The first page is a “postcard”. When I first saw the photograph used on the front of this postcard, I knew it was the perfect image because of the vertical sign behind the woman. All I had to do was remove the sign’s original text and then add my own to mimic the vertical text found on the letterpress cover. What most people probably cannot tell is that the new text on the sign is actually the title of the book in Chinese. This project was definitely a labour of love. There was a lot of time spent on the details—editing and ordering the poems, picking papers that reflected the Asian theme, twisting paper into string for the inner binding, creating cancelled stamps in Photoshop with Japanese stamps I bought off EBay. There were also many gluing dilemmas with the design of the cover and the use of different paper weights, and numerous mixing experiments involved in getting a crisp letterpress impression with metallic ink on textured paper. Being involved to this extent was at times frustrating, but it was also rewarding. There is a sense of accomplishment that one can only get by being involved in the production process.

Q: In the limited editions (e.g. Paper Lanterns), is the internal text offset or digital?

A: The text was done on my Mac with Quark Xpress and then printed on a laser, the postcards were all done on my Mac but I had then commercially printed on an offset.

Q: Who are your exemplars/favorite contemporary publishers of limited editions? What do you collect? Where do you go to see the work of others publishing contemporary poetry in limited editions?

A: I really like Greenboathouse and JackPine. I have work from those two presses, as well as from MotherTongue and Frog Hollow. I primarily buy limited editions on-line. There are small-press fairs, where you sometimes find gems. It is nice to actually look at the books before purchasing, but I've not yet been disappointed with an on-line purchase. I also collect 19th poetry books. I bought a few through used bookstores, but primarily off EBay or from ABE.

Q: How are you distributing/selling PP books? Is it different for the trade books & limited editions? Do these books go to two different types of readers/collectors?

A: I recently joined a distribution service and they will be handling all my trade sales. It was getting to be too much for me, with all the phone calls and shipping to individual stores. It is hard enough to balance all that life requires without having to spend time on tedious things—I was getting increasingly cranky. I am hopeful that this arrangement will work out, and am curious to see if increased sales will compensate for the revenue lost through fees, percentages and additional charges paid to the distributor. As for the limited editions, I do most of my sales through my web site to individual collectors and to book buyers for libraries. A smaller percentage is sold to bookstores where the author is doing a reading. These are not the type of books that I would want shelved and then returned if unsold as with trade books, because they would likely get damaged. Besides, people who go into Chapters are not looking to buy a $65 poetry book. They want something cheap and easily consumed and discarded. It is not surprising that poetry in general doesn’t sell well at large chains. Independent bookstores sell more poetry. The web has been great. Word of mouth between collectors goes a long way, but I know that I have made some sales because people were simply searching on-line for something different.

Q: There's a long tradition of poets becoming interested in printing, sometimes as a means to get their own work published, but less often than people probably think. Why is that? Is it because poems are shorter than prose, and so less daunting to undertake? And why has there been this long-held bias against self-published work, when (for example) in the music world we celebrate people who record and release their own songs?

A: I can’t say that I have ever heard that recording artists avoid this stigma, so I can’t comment on that. As for poets, I know that writers like Margaret Atwood first published their own poetry in a chapbook. I think that slim book sells for over $1000 now. It is unfortunate that people assume if you can’t get someone else to publish your work, then it mustn’t be any good. It will be interesting to see if the advent of print-on-demand services will create a resurgence in people publishing their own work. There is certainly a history there, even for novelists. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway, all self-published. I think, though, that since poetry books tend to be fewer pages than novels, it is more economical for a poet to self-publish. I also think that poets, for the reasons I gave earlier, concerning the link been words, interpretation and spatial cues, are more interested in the design and presentation of their work. I suppose experimental writers of any genre would be more likely to go the self-publishing route because of the freedom it affords them.

Q: Given PP's stated goal of publishing "to give voice to the marginalized, to build and support new literary communities," especially for poetry, do you find the limited edition a more effective method of connecting texts and audiences?

A: In general, the people who buy and collect limited editions do so for different reasons than people who buy trade books. For some collectors, content is less of an issue, so I’d have to answer no to that question. The quoted statement applies to my goal as a small press publisher of poetry. Larger publishing houses tend not to publish poetry, unless by a highly recognized and award-winning poet, because not enough copies can be sold to make it worth their time and resources. They simply can’t make money. This is where small presses, I believe, have their unique power and important social function. They are the risk-takers—the ones who publish unknown, marginal or experimental poets and create audiences for them. If it were not for small presses, then these books might never be published. Some, perhaps, should have stayed unpublished, but others will have a great impact on many people.

Q: How do you recognize such text/poems/poetry that fulfills this role? This may come down to simple (& impossible to explain) publisher's instinct, but thought I'd ask.

A: I make decisions relatively quickly, based on if I find the work intriguing. If, after a few pages, I am not intrigued enough to want to read more than it goes in the reject pile. Most end up there. For the few that make it further along, I can’t explain exactly how I decide. Ultimately, I go with what I like.

Q: What are some of your upcoming projects?

A: In 2007, I am publishing two poetry trade books and two limited-edition chapbooks. The limited editions are Valerie Stetson’s The House Poems and Christian Bök’s Triptych. I am very excited about Triptych, which is one poem in three parts. It will have a stained glass overlay, and be built into a hinged wooden frame that folds up and stores in a sleeve. I haven’t quite figured out some of the technical details, but that is part of the challenge and the fun.