Friday, March 05, 2010

above/ground press: state of the union,

With the beginnings of another publishing season, and a slate of forthcoming above/ground press chapbooks by Ken Norris (Maine), Helen Hajnoczky (Calgary), Aaron Tucker (Toronto), Natalie Zina Walschots (Toronto), Cameron Anstee (Ottawa), Marcus McCann (Ottawa/Toronto) and myself, the question presents itself: what has the press been up to, exactly, over the near-seventeen years and over five hundred items? Where, exactly, is all of this heading? And being a chapbook press, how do the books even get seen, get noticed?

It’s something I’ve been asked with far more frequency lately, predominantly from those who have only seen a publication or two, out of context, and not as part of any larger arc of the press. So here, then, a state of the union. Since above/ground press started, officially, back in August 1993 (not counting a couple of other publications going back to the December before), an important element has been in trying to produce those essential first or otherwise early works by emerging writers, originally starting with those in my immediate vicinity. To help them find their voice, their ground. To help them build confidence. I’ve heard say that bpNichol was a great editor during his tenure at Coach House Press in part through his seeing beyond that particular author’s work, and into what they could potentially do next, freeing the author to further.

Over the years, above/ground press has been fortunate enough to produce early works by Jon Paul Fiorentino, Marcus McCann, Robin Hannah, Anne Stone, Gil McElroy, Natalee Caple, Sandra Ridley, Jay MillAr, Stephen Cain, Amanda Earl, Jay MillAr, Pearl Pirie, Marita Dachsel, Rob Manery, Stan Rogal, derek beaulieu, Karen Massey, Clare Latremouille, Andy Weaver, natalie stephens, K.I. Press, Max Middle, Stephen Cain and Roland Prevost, with an eye on what might come next, hoping to help ease their way into continued development. In 1996, for example, I produced a first solo publication by then-unknown (but slowly publishing her way through journals across Canada) Burnaby poet Stephanie Bolster, who had just moved east for the sake of a new partner, the franco-ontarien playwright Patrick Leroux (a year behind me in high school, we co-edited the second year of our high school writing ‘zine). Frustratingly, there was still a box of fifty copies or more ignored until she won the Governor General’s Award for her first trade collection two years later (and then they sold quickly, and immediately).

Not exclusively a press dedicated to emerging writers, these small collections were published alongside other works by already-established poets, such as Gary Barwin, Susan Musgrave, maria erskine, Maggie Helwig, Daniel f. Bradley, Phil Hall, bpNichol, Stephen Brockwell, Michael Holmes, Gerry Gilbert, George Bowering, Nelson Ball, Monty Reid and jwcurry. During the same period as the Stephanie Bolster chapbook, I was also producing limited-edition runs of new writing for the sake of authors featured at the TREE Reading Series, a semi-monthly I co-ran in Ottawa from June, 1994 to January, 1999; authors published through this included Toronto writer David W. McFadden, Judith Fitzgerald, Montreal poet and editor Sharon H. Nelson and Ottawa poets michael dennis and Dennis Tourbin. When above/ground press published John Newlove’s THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems in 1999, launched at that year’s edition of the ottawa international writers festival, it was his first publication of new work in thirteen years, since his The Night the Dog Smiled (1986). Through jwcurry, I was able to produce the first “clean copy” of the late bpNichol’s KON 66 & 67 (for jiri valoch in 2002, originally self-produced as “GRONK number 1: series 2.” This was one of but three bpNichol publications I’ve been able to produce over the years, whether through curry’s direct help, or through Carl Peters and/or Ellie Nichol. Obviously, there are a number of writers I’d like to be able to produce works by, whether first or further; the list is considerable. But this has never been a press I wanted reduced to a series of individual titles.

Early on, it was Gary Geddes who suggested annual subscriptions, something he said kept the first few years of his Quadrant Editions (what later became Cormorant Books) alive, and something I quickly offered as well. Now, averaging eighty annual above/ground press subscribers, ten to fifteen more “exchange” subscribers (trading with other chapbook publishers such as derek beaulieu’s No Press), other handouts/exchanges, review copies (despite the lack of chapbook reviews, and reviews overall) and book fair sales in Ottawa and Toronto, an initial run of some three hundred copies (with seventy-five copies off the top to the author as payment) tends to move rather quickly. As Nichol himself called it, “gift economy.” Where do they all go?

Any part of publishing involves risk, and working to develop a writer is certainly a risky venture, even for those of us working with little more than computer and photocopier access and reputation alone. I won’t tell you the number of authors who have seemed to disappear, or simply faded away, not long after I’ve produced something, but its certainly far more the exception than the rule. Part of the role of publishing, at least what I’ve worked at, has been in being able to provide a step for those willing and wanting to take advantage of it. A community is made, recognized and encouraged in part through these small publications, and there so many conversations happening that are worth being part of, even if in no other way than through fly-on-the-wall, disseminator. How can one engage but through participation?

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