A conversation with Joe Hall, Nick Demske, Kristina Marie Darling, Christopher DeWeese, & Feng Sun Chen

Joe Hall’s poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Lo-Ball, HTMLGiant and elsewhere. Black Ocean Press published his first book, Pigafetta Is My Wife, in 2010. His second book, written with Chad Hardy, is The Container Store Vols I & II (SpringGun 2012).

Nick Demske lives in Racine, Wisconsin and works at the Racine Public Library. His self-titled manuscript was selected by Joyelle McSweeney for the 2010 Fence Modern Poets Series Award and was published by Fence Books. Recently, Nick ruptured his ear drum in a kayaking accident. When he woke up for the next few days following the accident, there were little drops of blood on his pillow, like constellations of what goes unheard. That’s deep.

Kristina Marie Darling is the author of several books of poetry, which include The Moon & Other Inventions: Poems After Joseph Cornell (BlazeVOX Books, forthcoming in 2012) and Palimpsest (Patasola Press, forthcoming in 2012). Her awards include a Yaddo residency and an artist grant from the Kittredge Fund. She is currently working toward a Ph.D. in Poetics at S.U.N.Y.-Buffalo.

Feng Sun Chen is the author of Butcher’s Tree and chapbooks Blud, Ugly Fish, Arcane Carnal Knowledge, and Paul Thek. She is a graduate assistant and MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.

Christopher DeWeese is the author of The Black Forest, published this year by Octopus Books. He lives in Western Massachusetts.

[Typically, we devote some space each issue to an interview with a press or journal who is reimagining the usual model of publication, but this month I thought it’d be worthwhile to take a new tack.

Among poets, there are a wide variety of opinions about the legitimacy and prestige of books or chapbooks from independent presses—presses which aren’t run by large publishing houses or universities. To get some thoughts based on author experience, I interviewed poets with books from Black Ocean, Octopus, Gold Wake, Ravenna, BlazeVOX, SpringGun, Fence, and others. In the interview, these five authors talk about independent press aesthetics and the shifting audience for contemporary poetry. -Kyle McCord, Editor ]

In the last fifteen years, the internet has changed the way books can be distributed and marketed. Social networking and sites like SPD have given small, independent presses a chance to move toward a level of parity with university or big publishing houses in a way that wasn’t imaginable years earlier. Do you think this development is moving the culture of publishing toward a greater level of egalitarianism? Do you feel prestige is still an issue with selecting a small press over a university press or publishing house?

Kristina Marie Darling: That’s a great question, Kyle. I think that the publishing landscape has shifted a lot in the past few years. Before, there was definitely a clear hierarchy, with large publishing houses at the top of the list, then university presses, then independent publishers, and self-publishing as a last resort. It seems like the resources that you mentioned–SPD, as well as social networking websites—have completely destroyed what had once been a fairly rigid hierarchy. I’ve seen hundreds of books by quality independent publishers achieve success–in terms of both readership and cultural legitimacy—that books by university presses have failed to attain. I was thrilled to see Molly Gaudry’s Lit Pub titles profiled on the Ploughshares website. And I’ve reviewed books from Flim Forum, Zone 3 Press, Action Books, and other independent publishers for prestigious journals like Pleiades and New Letters, passing over less interesting-looking work from Houghton Mifflin and Mariner. And when thinking of the prestige value of certain types of presses, it seems like the attention given to books from quality independent publishers has created a huge grey area that didn’t used to exist at all.

Joe Hall: I would agree that in many ways the field has been leveled in that distribution and advertising capacity have increased while costs have gone down due to the internet so that small presses are reaching more and more people. They’ve also made the market bigger and more dynamic, opening the door for there to simply be more successful small presses. Which is tremendous. I think good books are getting the audiences they deserve. And this is making some of the more successful “small” presses independent presses that are selling in the thousands while South Dakota State Tech Press pumps out 400 copies of Pin Oaks and Bramble Pie or whatever.

Prestige is an issue only if you’re looking for a poetry teaching job. While fellow poets may respect the hell out a number of small presses, people on hiring committees aren’t going to recognize most of them. Will this change? Is there something to say about Amazon in all this?

Feng Sun Chen: I agree that it definitely depends on whether you want to be a professor. Personally, I am very inspired by independent publishing. I think that the most interesting and exciting stuff is happening in places that fewer people know about, but since more and more younger poets are being hired for teaching positions at universities, the landscape is going to change in a big way as older, less independent press friendly profs retire. I am not sure about the topography (in terms of egalitarianism) in publishing, but my annoying answer is probably… kind of, not really. There will always be a diverse audience for every kind of press/poet, but money stuff is always biased by money’s nature, and very unpredictable and prestige is always related to money stuff. Amazon might just eat everything. As for the absorption of experimental poets by accredited institutions, it’s nice, but I don’t know what it means except that capital does not discriminate with its diet, or anything at all, really.

Christopher DeWeese: I think the impact of social media on the actual fact of people deciding to buy the books themselves is somewhat overstated. I am still much, much more likely to buy a book because I hear its author read from it or because I’m at a bookstore or a friend’s house and get a chance to read through it a bit than after the 10th time an author or press has posted a link to it on FB. Social media offers each of us our own fame machine: it is easy to confuse feedbacked echoes for larger reverberations.

Nick Demske: Because I love form and because a lot of people are chiming into this conversation, I will limit myself to 4 sentences each in answering these questions, which I expect will make the answers sound weird, plainspoken, incomplete and maybe haikuish. I will also include a bodily function or secretion in each one of the answers. I am not sure why I will do the second part.

I have never thought that small, independent presses have any kind of parity with huge corporate publishing houses. But then again, I am a fool who drinks sunshine from the morning sky. I see no equity in the landscape of various publishing cultures. And prestige is but a butterfly on the eyelashes of a turd.

Do you think there’s an aesthetic being cultivated by small or independent presses that doesn’t find a home elsewhere? If so, what’s the common feature you hear among some of those voices? How does your work interact with the aesthetic or tradition cultivated by the independent press community?

CD: I think there are way too many small presses to make a blanket statement about small press aesthetics. However, I do appreciate how many small presses are able to define their own aesthetics perhaps more overtly or specifically than larger houses. Part of this probably has to do number of titles published per year: many small presses publish between 2-6 new titles per year, few enough to allow most readers an awareness of what they are doing aesthetically. Most larger houses are dealing with more books, and I think are trying to find a specific audience for each one. I don’t know of anyone who buys every new poetry book from Penguin, for example, but I do know people who collect everything Wave or Ugly Duckling puts out. And I think it is wonderful that many small presses offer subscription packages!

KMD: I don’t think that there’s one specific quality that independent presses gravitate toward, but I do think that they’re more willing to take risks than traditional publishers. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre writing. Texts that aren’t easily classifiable as “poetry” or “fiction,” for example, are almost never published by university presses, but often find a good home with publishers like Tarpaulin Sky, Patasola Press, and BlazeVOX [books]. In many ways, independent presses have made it possible to question genre boundaries, as well as the purpose of literary genres and their underlying gender politics.

With my own writing, I’m very interested in interrogating notions of genre. I feel as though this idea of “literary genres” often used to exclude writers from the establishment. This is especially true for writers who seek an alternative to a predominantly male tradition, and attempt to explore new modes of writing and thinking. My own poetry enacts these skepticisms of genre categories, particularly the hard and fast that exists line between “scholarship” and “autobiography.” With that said, I’m constantly impressed by the fact that small presses have cultivated a community that is as deeply invested in these questions about genre as I am.

JH: If I were to put forward a positive version of the small/indy press aesthetic I’m sure it would shortchange someone somewhere so maybe it is only possible to define it as not what the typical University or FSG title is. That is, I think these presses are trying to explore areas of poetry beyond the tidy lyric-narrative poem where you glean a sentence length truth from a real world experience of contemporary reality in unadorned terms. They want to reject the normative reality that structure of thinking asserts. They want to find new ways of making sense, to look at the world through a fractured eye, or a transhuman eye, or a transexual eye, or an eye with a ten other eyes, or the fingers of your eyes, or the entirely irreal. They want to question what experience is, what can be known, and how we know. They are excessive or entirely not enough. They operate the principle that the truths a white dude can tell about farting around the suburbs delivering verdicts on things have been exhausted and there’s a whole lot of stuff we need to figure out and soon.

My work interacts with this tradition by coming from a deeply unsettled place, one of uncertainty that I can only bring to rest through contradiction. I don’t understand anything and that is upsetting to me and great sometimes. I am doing a lot of research right now that involves incest within utopian communities (to create a master race!) and headhunting, and knowing that my publisher is deeply interested in cannibalism makes me feel like I’m not digging my own grave.

ND: I don’t believe aesthetics funnel through one publishing culture or another, at least not exclusively. I believe that WW Norton and Company published Rebecca Wolff’s last two poetry books, and Rebecca Wolff founded the small, avant press label, Fence. I too believe, however, that despite being a massive American publishing house, Norton still is technically independent. We are all water from different rivers, and the Great Creator is whizzing on the continental divide.

FSC: Maybe aesthetics is cultivating the presses and it’s a feedback loop. Cultivating implies domestication, and I think that because our life is supersaturated by interconnected media, these cultivated experimental/homeless aesthetics are developed very quickly and also “domesticated” very quickly. But bigger populations means greater chances of mutation, and I think that’s great, because there is always something new transforming as more and more writers are taken up by the growing number of indie presses. A common voice? Probably a great hunger to be surprised and hurt by words and the world, to touch someone on the squiggly roach inside, to feel, to struggle against.

When you think about your book, who do you envision reading it? Who would you love to see reading it? Who would you be nervous to have read it?

ND: Readers of my book: lots of people who went to college, mostly white. Who I would love to see reading it: the people I actually know, love, am friends with, interact regularly with. Who I would be nervous to have read it: anyone who gets obsessed with and kills and barfs on every author of every book they’ve ever read. Bonus sentence: the stars simmer softly in the kettle of night.

JH: When I wrote my first book, Pigafetta Is My Wife, I thought about my partner Cheryl reading it. I try to write to people who I know. Past this person, I don’t get my hopes up, and this leaves me perpetually stunned, amazed, and gratified when I meet anyone else who has read the book.

If some stranger doesn’t like it, that’s fine. I probably wouldn’t be into what they do. I’m not worried about the poet dream demographic–the lady on the bus. She’s probably got other stuff to worry about. Even when I was working industrial jobs or getting hammered with Eduardo and Hanoke after a shift selling Christmas trees, I didn’t think Boy, if they would only just read my poems, then we would be brothers.

FSC: My book with Black Ocean is probably read by people I know, which means educated people who like poems. But I hope that lonely, young women read it.

KMD: Since most of my work is informed by narrative theory, I imagine that my books are read by academic types – philosophy students, poets with bad haircuts, and bearded guys in coffee shops. With that said, I would love to see some super-smart person (like Joshua Clover, Gayatri Spivak, or Thalia Field) deconstructing my poetry. I don’t know if I’d be nervous to have someone read my poems unless they were brutally honest, had a blog, or were a brutally honest blogger. Sometimes I just can’t handle the truth.

CD: I think the audience for The Black Forest is either people who have been to a forest before, or people contemplating a visit to one in the future.

For someone whose first book is set to be released by an independent press, what recommendations would you offer about how to market a book? What are some creative ways you or your press have thought up to get the word out about your book being released?

JH: Use your book to sell your book. Do as many readings as you can and treat every reading like it is your last because you never know who is in the audience of three. And when you read concentrate on just reading the fuck out of your poems because you spent a lot of time on those and not the banter you wrote in pencil in the margins on the bus. They’re good poems, right? You mean them, right? It costs a lot to go around doing readings but you have friends in a lot of cities and they have couches and will buy you breakfast.

I’ve never bought a book on account of a trailer, stunt, facebook post, or even a print review. I rely on my friends and readings. This is a hard line, but you’re not selling snake oil and then blowing town. Give people what they know they’re getting, and if they like it they will be the best advocates for your book.

KMD: Start early and be aggressive. This is especially true when it comes to getting your book reviewed. The moment you have galleys, send them out to reviewers who are willing to look at an electronic copy of your book. And don’t send review copies out blindly, since you’ll run out of review copies very quickly. Simply query the review outlet and see if they’re interested in your book. If you don’t hear back, chances are that’s not a good place to send your book. Once you’ve sent your book out for review, keep track of where you’ve sent it. Follow up with review outlets and make sure your book made it into the hands of a reviewer. I can’t tell you how many times my book has been misplaced in a journal office, and a quick email saved the day.

CD: Read all of the interviews with poets about their first books on Kate Greenstreet’s webpage.

ND: Be careful with the idea of marketing a book. Does the mighty Lake Michigan market its gophers? No, it has no gopher spit. For it has no gopher spit to market.

In ten years, what do you think the landscape of poetry will look like? How do you think the balance between electronic and physical books will have shifted? Do you think the audience for poetry will have changed, and if so, how?

FSC: In ten years, books will have to be coated in a special lipid to make them resistant to floods! I don’t know, I think that books have already changed so much that we don’t really know what a book is. I can still hold a codex thing in my hand, but I consume literature and things that feel like books in other ways. The audience for poetry will definitely be bigger though, especially since creative writing programs are growing. That’s my bet.

ND: The landscape of poetry in ten years will be a vast jungle desert canyon mountain valley ocean. I.E.- “There will be more e-books”. The audience for poetry will have changed. Everyone, I suspect, will be ten years older, and all of us will be oozing earwax from our feet, unfortunately.

KMD: I definitely agree that there were be more electronic publication, and this will really democratize who gets published. But I think that print publications will continue to serve, and perhaps even more so, as a mark of legitimacy for a writer. With that said, I wonder if the audience for print publications will become increasingly academic, especially as the world of electronic publishing becomes more and more daunting.

CD: In ten years there will probably finally be a way of making poetry ebooks that don’t totally mess up the formatting. Books will cost 20 dollars, even if they are paperbacks, so we should probably buy a lot of books now while they are cheap.

JH: The audience will be bigger, more diverse. MFA programs manufacture readers but also digital technology and patterns of consumption favor the short form. In the hunger for texture, books will become more bookish, the perfect bound glossy cover will make less and less sense and carrying around an electronic book will be tantamount to wearing an “Zog’s Sex-Wax” t-shirt. You’re either behind the times or hopelessly ironic. This is just talking about books and not journals. Of course, there won’t be an America then. Just a lot of noise.

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