Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why are Small Presses Necessary?

A topic of continual debate, this selection has been taken from Kaleidoscope: An International Journal of Poetry Volume 3.2 (2002).

Keep Your Hands in the Car at all Times: Why are Small Presses Necessary? By Geoff Hancock

Because change brings criticism, small presses are often attacked as being a junk filled fool's paradise, for elitism, for low literary standards, for ego-mania. Yet small presses are the genius behind North American creative writing.

Historian George Grant, taking a conservative approach, argued that Canada leapt too quickly and blindly, from the l9th century past to the modern era. We missed a stage, Grant argues, between classic printing, mimeo, and high-tech. Pessimistically, Grant suggests we separated ourselves from our original nature, and from our God, and still sense the loss. Canadians poets, dramatists, and novelists instinctively return to origins in their creative works.

But as society changes, so do the discourses. Cultural critics Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Arthur Kroker suggested as a national community Canada is a product of technology. The theories of McLuhan and his followers, Canada's principal contribution to North American thought, consists of a highly original and eloquent discourse on technology. Marshall McLuhan, with his Catholic sense of community, hoped media communication would bring us together as a human race in a global village. Kroker argues Canada is an in-between nation, between Europe and America.

The small presses, strength in their numbers, did not exploit our imagination or creativity. They participated in it. Small presses speak to the future of Canadian literature. To be published in Canada by a small press is to contribute to the existence of our culture.

When you touch a press, you touch a person. In this sense, the work of our innovative poetries is fundamentally one of social work. Not surprisingly, most Canadian authors have had a long association with the small presses and little magazines. The traditional theory explains small presses were merely the starting point of their careers. For some this is true, but those presses also allowed freedom of expression that a more commercial editor or cautious sales representative might have restricted.

Against the backdrop of Canadian small press publishing through the l970s and 80s, we get the American cultural imperialist monster. Celeste West, writing The Passionate Perils of Publishing, and speaking on behalf of American small presses, notes as early as the seventies that the eight largest American publishing houses — Random, Knopf, Ballantine, Modern Library, Vintage, Pantheon, Singer, and Beginner Books — were all publishing imprints owned by RCA, a six billion dollar a year conglomerate.

According to the Association of American Publishers, in the l970s, 3.3% of over 10,000 book publishers in the USA (including the small press publishers), controlled over 70 % of the country's' volume. By the l980s, other conglomerates, such as Xerox ITT, and Gulf & Western, controlled almost all the books produced in the United States. Thirty years later, the situation worsened. By 2000, Random, Knopf, Doubleday, and McClelland & Stewart were owned by Bertelsmann, one of the world's largest German companies. The publishing arm represents about four percent of their holdings.

Canadians have every reason to fear for their culture in the face of such publishing strength. But monolithic large publishing houses are outdated concepts. Based as they are on hierarchy and authority, the big publishing house is no longer adequate for the range and unpredictability of human experience.

The small presses had an alternative. They decided to "roll their own" in small runs. The staple of the independent literary press is the single-author poetry collection. Using cheaper reproduction methods, and learning for themselves the complex stages of production, design, warehousing, promotion, distribution, and lobbying, the small presses of Canada contributed their own version of alternative publishing to the long small press tradition of revolution and renaissance.

More than that, the small presses of Canada are part of a radical political movement. Power politics expressed in that ideological confrontation between Canadian nationalism, provincial regionalism, and American and British imperialism. A time of affluence, the existence of Romantic models and the American crisis of Vietnam, civil rights, the assassinations of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and new philosophical ideas related to bohemianism, contributed to the seedbed of the small presses.

Geoff Hancock edited Canadian Fiction Magazine and published a variety of innovative fiction anthologies with Canadian small presses including Magic Realism; Illusion: fables, fantasies, and metafictions; Shoes and Shit: stories for pedestrians; and Singularities: new directions in fiction and physics.

The entire article can be read in Kaleidoscope: An International Journal of Poetry Volume 3.2 (2002). Please go to to order.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Cool Typographic Covers

Penguin Great Ideas Series has some great covers. I love these.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Interview: Publishing in Windsor

Parts of this interview were published in Windsor Business Magazine (2005)

Q: Tell me about Literary Arts Windsor.

A: The literary and arts community in Windsor and the surrounding area is one that is growing. Literary Arts Windsor is a relatively new non-profit group founded by myself, Dan, Lenore and a few other local booksellers, in an attempt to establish a network for local writers and an educational outreach program for the community. Response to our organization has been positive, and our membership is growing. The main focus of the group has been the Windsor book festival, but we also have a chapbook competition and a reading series.

Q: What are your organization’s ties to the Windsor community?

A: All of the local publishers have been linked with the University of Windsor at one point — Lenore taught there, Marty still does, and Dan, Laurie and myself have all gone to school there — but we also have ties with other aspects of Windsor life. Both Dan and I have fathers who worked in Chrysler, and we both worked there as students. I am incredibly grateful to have gone to school and received two degrees while working at a student job that paid so well. Because of this opportunity, I came out of school with no debt and a trip to Europe.

Q: How did you get into publishing? What was your first project?

A: Kaleidoscope, for me, was a type of apprenticeship. I started the journal so that I could connect with other authors and publishers, and so that I could learn the trade. I think people who go into publishing are naive people, loving literature but not knowing the work involved. I knew about poetry, that was not the problem. What I did not know was marketing, promotion, distribution, how to typeset, use design software, create a web site, network with other professionals. This has all been a learning curve. I am getting better at all of the above. Kaleidoscope was an experiment. It was never meant to be anything long-term. Now I am doing what I find most rewarding — single author collections.

Q: How much does it cost to publish a book? What is the break down?

A: The cost of a book depends on many things: the print run, number of pages, quality of paper, colour or black and white, cover and binding. Additional costs incur if you have to pay someone to do the layout and design. After I finished university and decided this is what I wanted to do, I took a course in design to keep my costs down.

Q: Why did you go into publishing? Why poetry? What motivates you?

A: It is very hard to explain to someone why I publish poetry books. Most people do not understand why I have continued for over five years at a business that consistently loses money. And when someone from a business magazine asks me to break down the figures, I am hesitant to go into much detail. I don’t think like that, and in this business you can’t. Publishing poetry will never be profitable. At best, publishers will make a marginal bit of money. But literature cannot be about the bottom line, and publishing should not be run by the same principles as other businesses. Even the largest of publishing houses receive grant money to publish poetry. Poetry will always have a small and devoted few, but the few that do buy will never make any publisher rich.

When people do things for little or no money, it is a calling. That is how I look at publishing. I do it because I see literature as valuable, because I see publishing as meaningful work. I am hopeful enough to believe that what I do matters, and that in a small way I help continue the dialogue between authors and readers. The work is not glamorous, typesetting and copyediting can be tedious, and there is nothing fun about sending an author a rejection letter, but when I see a project come to fruition I feel incredibly proud. To be involved in the production of a book, whether as a writer, editor, or publisher, brings an amazing sense of satisfaction.

People who love books get this. They get the drive, the passion, the frustration. They understand why a person would dig deep in their own pockets to support a project they believe in, why when the book festival in the second year lost money, the board members opened their own cheque books. It is because all of us have been affected by literature. It has moved us, opened us, inspired us, connected us. You ask me what I get out of publishing — the answer is involvement. Through publishing, I have met other writers, made lasting friendships, and contributed in my own small way to the continuation of an art that I love. What could be more rewarding?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Great Book Covers

Some of my favorite 2005 book covers.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Playful Poems about Life After Death

These poems are about the life and death of Elizabeth Siddal, the wife of Pre-Raphealite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Since the majority of the collection is rather dark, I decided to write some playful poems about her after-life — perhaps there are some interesting people or deities she may have met.

Earlier versions of some of these poems were published in The Windsor Review Volume 38.2 (2005). The lines breaks had to be changed for posting.

Elizabeth Siddal and Marilyn Monroe in Conversation

They sit and chat, stirring cream into coffee,
like long-time friends swapping recipes
over the kitchen table.

Since their deaths, they have spent
barely a minute apart. They each compliment
the other on their legendary beauty.
Lizzie, as Marilyn calls her, loves
to use an iron to curl Marilyn’s hair.
Wishes such things were invented
in her day. And Marilyn likes to show
Lizzie the proper way to apply mascara.

They giggle like schoolgirls
into the wee hours of the night.
Is that really you? Marilyn asks, pointing
at a reproduction of a Rossetti painting.
It doesn’t even look like you,
both bursting into a fit of laughter,
rolling about the bed in pajamas and fuzzy slippers.

What about this, Lizzie teases,
holding up a Marilyn doll.
I can’t imagine your hips being so small.

But their time together is not always frivolous.
They organize study groups
and book clubs, complete with egg salad
sandwiches and flavoured tea.

They relate to Hardy’s tragic
heroines, bite their lips when reading McCullers.
Tennessee Williams always sparks a debate
over the worst kind of lover.
But Goethe is their favorite.
The death scene of young Werther
always turns on the water-works,
each offering the other a tissue.

They share their stories of unhappy marriages,
lost children and drug addictions.
Lizzie preferred laudanum, Marilyn diazepam.
Revealing the details of their young deaths,
they promise each other never to tell
a soul their sworn secrets.

Make it official by cutting a small wound
into the tips of their forefingers,
gently touch hands together,
rub blood into blood.

Elizabeth and Dorothy in Mrs. Beeton’s Cooking Class

In today’s class, Mrs. Beeton, looking stiff
and Victorian in her high ruffled collar,
stirs her b├ęchamel sauce.

Dorothy wets her upper lip, dips a finger
into the simmering pot. Thinks of her life with William.
The pot roast she made on Sundays, seasoned
with fresh thyme and rosemary she picked
from the tiny garden behind the house.
While she pushed away from the table,
he asked for more.

She gathered metaphors, spun stories
of gypsies and beggars,
scanned the rolling hills and fields of daffodils.
She harvested images, fed him words served
along side tea and warm buttered toast.

In class Mrs. Beeton demonstrates to Elizabeth
how to peel an artichoke. Blanched and tender
to the touch, she slowly pulls the petals down
and away from the velvety center.

Elizabeth forces in her thumb, smiles sheepishly
at her clumsy hands. Mrs. Beeton laughs.
Her corset drawn tight, the pressure of expanding ribs
pushing back. She is no longer the woman she once was.
She appears matronly, layers of rigid crinoline
under a full skirt, yet things have changed.
She now talks of jouissance, of pleasure yielding
from the soft center of a truffle,
scooped with a persistent tongue.

She says: no longer do we lie on our backs,
close our eyes and think of England. Now we have choice.

Plums baked in sugar until bubbling, tart strawberries
dipped in thick chocolate. Savour the pleasure
of our creations. Taste warmed honey
slipped between parted lips.

Domestic Goddesses in the Kitchen

Elizabeth and Persephone are in the kitchen
looking over fall harvest recipes.
Persephone leans over the sink, sucks the seeds
from a pomegranate, feels them burst
between her teeth.

A muse is distant, a silent moon
lending guidance to wayward ships.
Luminous in the dark, watching all, yet never
demanding attention.

At least, that is what some men say,
not knowing, or because of knowing,
that a muse is a woman in slippers and housecoat,
who serves tea and scones in the morning.

His art inspired as much from the rounded
softness of breasts and hips, as from the woman
who sets aside her journal or paints
to stir the broth bubbling in its pot.

No longer wanting to be mythical, Elizabeth cuts apples
into quarters, sprinkles them with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Throws away the seeds. After all, an apple
is sometimes just an apple.

Elizabeth Paints a Second Self-Portrait

In heaven, paint is free.
God encourages everyone to take art class.
Creative expression not to be underestimated
in its ability to heal old wounds.
He has used this therapy himself,
to manage the anger he felt for what
he believed to be betrayal.

No longer on the path of destruction
—flooding lands, setting fire to cities,
the usual antics of a wrathful god—
he now teaches art.
Soothes the spirit with yellow ochre and burnt umber.
Like children, they paint with the palms of their hands,
smearing the palest of blue
into the whitest paper. This is the sky.

Elizabeth does not participate.
She has other things to work on.
She looks to the clouds, imagines the sun, paints
her face for the second time. There is no hint

of darkness, no deep shading to the side of her nose.
This time, she paints herself smiling.
Although no one will ever see it,
she believes in second chances.