A CONVERSATION WITH YesYes Books
(ABOVE: Nate Slawson’s brand new PANIC ATTACK, USA, available now from YesYes.)
At iO we especially love new presses which consistently release aesthetically incredible books. YesYes Books is one publisher whose interest in the quality of art extends not just to the words on the page, the visual of the cover, or the presentation of their website, but even to the way the press understands the relationship between press and artist.
At YesYes, one finds work from both well-known and up-and-coming poetic voices—Franz Wright, Emily Pettit, Nate Slawson, just to name a few—combined with the work of colorful and evocative artists. To add to the mix, the press runs a series called Vinyl Poetry with individual poems from artists coupled with a special section devoted purely to grocery lists.
In a recent interview, the staff of YesYes shared with us some of their thoughts about the interconnection of mediums, tree houses, and where poetry is headed.
I’d like to start off by discussing one of the most prominent features of YesYes Books: the way the press incorporates such a range of mediums. How are you trying to keep art a prominent feature of poetry and vice-versa?
Rob MacDonald, Director of Educational Outreach, Co-Editor of the Frequency Series: We’ve brought in some of our favorite artists for cover art, which on its own is nothing new, but if you look at our website, you’ll see that there’s a page devoted to artists and authors, side by side. That simple layout decision is a reflection of how much we value the artist’s role and how serious we are about connecting different creative media. We’re excited to work with established poets and artists, but we’re equally committed to showcasing up-and-coming talent. We’re also working on bringing musicians into the mix–our Frequencies series will give online subscribers a weekly sampling of poems along with MP3s from great new bands. The more we can connect all of these worlds to one another, the better. It’s also worth pointing out that delivering our content via a range of different media (print, online, iPad, Kindle, etc.) presents us with some interesting creative opportunities while allowing us to reach a broad audience.
KMA Sullivan, Publisher at YesYes Books and Editor of Vinyl Poetry: Poetry, Visual Art, Music feel the same to me. They enter us through our eyes, ears, heart, gut. Not the brain so much. There is an immediacy of connection in all three of these art forms. There is also a universality of connection, I believe. In that the audience for music and art and poetry is everyone. These mediums can only serve to strengthen and deepen their connection to what is inside us.
Talk to me about Vinyl Poetry. Where did this idea come from? How has it evolved as a project for the press?
KMA: In some respects YesYes Books evolved out of Vinyl Poetry. I co-founded Vinyl with Gregory Sherl in 2010. We wanted to create a journal filled with the poetry that we both love to read, poetry from writers whose work intoxicated us. And so we pursued brilliance like Nate Slawson, Matt Hart, Kristy Bowen, Andrea Cohen, Adrian Matejka, etc. The journal is going strong, particularly under the leadership of Phillip B. Williams who came on as Poetry Editor in the third issue. We now have over 6000 distinct readers across 78 countries after just four issues and couldn’t be happier about that. Our primary goal is always always to push forward writing we love to as many readers as possible. In that light, I decided to start a press last November. Shortly after that occurred I folded Vinyl under YesYes Books so I could have a prayer of keeping track of everything that was going on. So far so good.
What is the most crucial thing you’re looking and listening for when you consider work for publication?
Justin Boening, Acquisitions Editor: This is a tricky question to ask. I mean, if editors were listening or looking for something in particular, something that they could name, they’d never accept anything new, different, or subversive, and what should art be if not subversive. But maybe that happens. Maybe a good editor makes rules for herself about how a good poem should function. Maybe that’s all I can reasonably expect of myself, but I hope to uphold a more permissive standard. I once studied with a poet who championed this absurdly prescriptive method for writing poems. After giving a ten-minute self-introduction, which included a list of reasons why his “pedigree” (yes, he used the word pedigree) uniquely qualified him to “edify” us, he jumped into a two hour PowerPoint presentation on how one should write a successful poem. He included diagrams. He used bullets and numbers. The folks in the room just looked at each other in disbelief. A couple people even walked out. But he finished the class by saying “in the end, I don’t care what you do, just amaze me,” and that about sums it up for me. When I encounter a poem or a book that really knocks my socks off, it invariably changes my understanding of how a poem works, of how it comes to mean, of how it enacts change. That’s what I’m looking for. It has to amaze me.
Considering the sample material and the books themselves, many of the poems have an immediate intimacy. A reader might go so far as to call many of the selections love poems. Is authorial intimacy something that attracts you as readers?
KMA: I think the answer to that last question is yes. I am interested in poetry in which everything is at stake for the writer. That does not mean the work needs to be confessional per se. As additional projects are released such as The Frequency Series and Poetry Shots, readers will see a broad range of styles and content in play. Justin coming on as Acquisitions Editor will also lead to an expansion of the kind of manuscripts YesYes will put out. But Phillip B. William, the Poetry Editor of Vinyl, and I are identical in the work we search for and accept for Vinyl. We want poetry that knocks us over, that catches us by surprise, that electrifies. So perhaps, as you say, much of what we publish is about love. Love in all it’s permutations: desire, grief, longing, sex, self-annihilation, commitment, joy… I’m okay with that.
Give me the “Behind the Music” on how YesYes works. How does the process of making a book happen? What sort of stories can you share about your work as a staff?
If you could change one thing about the world of poetry what would it be?
Nick Sturm, Associate Editor and Co-Editor of Poetry Shots: Changing a thing suggests that maybe it is broken or has a problem, and I’m not sure about that, but this is what I would do: we would all live in the forest in an elaborate city of interconnected tree houses. The internet would be when we laid in the grass together, so that we weren’t always so far away from each other in the touchable world. Poetics would be a big silly animal built out of bravery and enchiladas, and the funny thing about poetics would be that it was always making mistakes. Different journals and presses would be founded on these mistakes, therefore affirming such mistakes, which is good. The main thing is that there would be a lot more exclamation points!
KMA: I’d like to see more poets believe that their poetry matters. That writing poetry is important. That pushing poetry out to as many readers as possible is necessary. That the world is filled with people who need to hear and read and feel what they are writing. I believe there has been a loss of confidence in the relevance of poetry, even by many poets themselves. Out of this has sprung some elitist notions of what is and isn’t good poetry and who is and isn’t the proper audience for poetry. My suggestion: let’s all lay down in the grass with Nick Sturm and share our words and the words of others with as many people as possible.
To speculate wildly a bit, give me a brief description of the poetry landscape in ten years. Where does YesYes fit in that landscape?
Thomas Patrick Levy, Web and Tech Editor: Poetry must enter into the mainstream of the world. If we continue to allow our work to only be accessed by other members of the somewhat closed community, poetry will continue to remain a small, unprofitable market. It’s not about the money. But if you can’t make any money on it we’ll never find a way into the rest of the world. There are arguments, but who cares. My opinion is that the poetry being composed by writers like Gregory Sherl and Nate Slawson belongs in the hands of everyone. These poems belong in high schools. These poets are rock stars without the promotional staff to disperse their art to the world. The public needs to be made aware of the immediacy and relevance of what’s being written today and it is our job to make ourselves known.
In ten years I hope that when high schools read American Poetry they spend time reading work by these poets. Our initiatives at YesYes are working towards this goal. Our projects include a mixed media approach — art, words, music — in order to appeal to demographics that would perhaps never encounter one medium or another. And we’re using every piece of technology we can get our hands on in order to spread ourselves out around the world. In ten years we will still publish physical books but we will also be ten years more technologically advanced. Who knows what that means. Today we’re working with eReaders–Android Tablets, the iPad, Kindle Fire–to bring poetry, art, and music to a new audience. Over the next few months we will be unveiling several projects which utilize some of these technologies in a way that the world has yet to see. We will keep up with these technologies as they develop and grow.
[You can check out some of the incredible work coming out of YesYes Books by going to www.yesyesbooks.com]