Saturday, June 05, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Antonio D'Alfonso on Guernica Editions

1 – When did Guernica Editions first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
Guernica started years ago, in 1973, but did not crystallize itself till 1977. I self- published a first collection in 1973, and then published in 1979 our first two official Guernica titles. Guernica is 33 years old. I passed Guernica on to Michael Mirolla and Connie Mcparland in 2010. It would be improper from me to speak of the new Guernica, so I will speak only of the Guernica I am responsible for, though I remain a poetry and translation editor with Guernica.
What I believed in in 1973 only confirmed itself later on. Perhaps the perspective was flawed in the first place, we can only see through the eyes we are born with, nevertheless I had a vision and that vision became reality. 
Publishing was, is and remains the work of rich patrons. Without one’s personal wealth, there can be no serious publishing. Many have been the presses and magazines I have encountered in my career, and if they passed away it is because the owners were not wealthy or there vision was flawed in the first place. I was not wealthy, but the vision was right. 
I tried to sustain the work via grants, but grants are never an assured source of income. One can’t stay in business if the source of steady income is not assured. Sales are never enough. Grants help but the industry is made up of many evil and selfish people who do not see art in the same way. I had to quarrel with many people who tried to destroy Guernica and its authors in every way possible.
If I made it up to 2010 it is because I invested close to 400,000$ of personal money in literature. I am not exaggerating, I am paying this debt on the 25 June 2010 to the bank. No, this is not money the new owners paid me for Guernica. What they are paying me is helping me keep my head out of the rapids in which I would have drowned if I had not sold Guernica. My position remains firm. Publishing is for the rich. A recent award for poetry with all that money for a simgle person proves it.
We cannot change the way the ruling class thinks of the arts. The only thing I can hope for is that all of the 500 books we published will make it through another decade and not vanishing in oblivion.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I wanted to contribute to social and cultural change. I am born in Montreal, but I am of Italian extraction. That means, in other terms, that I had to decide very quickly, probably before the age of six, if I was going to become an English Canadian or a French Quebecois. I was a stubborn child, and so I chose to become neither. I wanted to participate in the creation of the Italian North American person. All of this might have been highly unconscious as a child, but it was there, in me, at home, among my handful of friends. I was the Italian kid in the block. It was much later, when I met other kids of Italian origin, that something moved up in my own consciousness and in the collective awareness. Publishing was very much tinged with this sense of otherness. I am glad to say that I contributed much in what today people call multiculturalism. I prefer the term pluriculturalism which I have dealt extensively with in my essays, novels, poetry, films.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
The role of any publishing press is the creation of a cultural centre. I do not know what small publishing means. For printers, authors, banks, the dollar is the dollar. There is no such thing has a small dollar or a large dollar. It is a dollar. So I refuse the epithet of small press. It is degrading, derogatory, basically a lie. Another form of racism and cultural intolerance.

There is no such thing as the A league or B league in culture. Every citizen is a full citizen, and every citizen participates in the creation of culture of his or her country. To speak of small press inevitably entails class distinctions. What sort of person can distinguish between a self-published poetry that alters the century and the poetry book published by a “large press” (sic) that will be completely forgotten five years after its publication?

A book published by any publishers has one and only one market. No matter who produces the book, he or she must and will gradually help the book make its way into the hands of its reader. Because the “large presses” of this continent know this simple fact that there is no book fair open to the public in North America. They fear competiton. Why would they share the same room with a “small press” that did not dish out 750,000$ advance?

It is interesting, no, that the English-speaking public is refused the possibility of seeing in one hall, even for an entrance fee, what is available, as books, in this continent, on a yearly basis. All book shows are trade shows, closed off to the public. Where else can the book reader every gain access to what is being done in terms of books if not in a Salon du livre?

The mentality that labels some presses small is responsible for the absence of an English-language book fair. We don’t want socialism in art, now do we? We must keep the market value of art up there. Away from the dirty hands of the illiterate.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
A press faciliates the publishing of new voices. What use is a press that publishes the same authors that another press publishes? Does this mean that the second press does not have ideas of its own? Yes, this is precisely what it means. The job of a press is difficult, because it gambles on literary choices. When one invests thousands and thousands of dollars in one new author, it is because the publisher believes in this author. The most difficult aspect of this business is in keeping that author with your press. Beware of leech-presses without authors of their own who stand there with a lot of money to tangle in front of the eyes of the innocent and the naive.

The role of any press is straight forward: the creation of a fragment of the culture of one’s ethnic community. This phrases obviously sounds anarchistic, but if I had written it is the “creation of a fragment of the culture of our country” I would not have encompassed the aspects of this country, which is more than just English-speaking or French-speaking.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
There is only one way to get a book out there: it is by word of mouth. All of the rest is angel-dust. No matter how much money a publisher invests in promotion it does nothing serious to the life of the book. Promotion creates stars, and culture is not about stars. It included in part stars but culture is also about success and failure. Culture is about the addition of what cannot be added to one’s normal equation. Openness to otherness means also this: to be able to alter one’s perception of the cultural equation.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Every book I have published, that is paid for, was totally reorganized. It is only much later, in the twenty-fifth year that I opened up to the work of guest editors, whose job was to edit the book of any one author.

The work of a publisher: to publish the edited work of an author. There is no such thing as a perfect manuscript. I don’t recall any single title whose original title, say, was respected. Words, verses, titles, art cover, the concept of the book is raw material for the final product.

A book at Guernica has always been the work of group activity.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
Our books get distributed worldwide via personal and professional organizations. Distributors, salesreps, word of mouth, conferences, readings, meetings, bars, bedrooms. Books are made to be offered to people who want books. You can’t sale a racist book to an African American. You can’t sell a book promoting the denial of the Holocaust to a person who is Jewish. You can’t sale a book on multiculturalism to a nationalist. You can’t sale a book on communism to a rabid capitalist.
Print runs have varied, depending on the book and the laws that govern that institutions that give out grants. In other words, a print run is never the sole act of the publisher’s decision. A print run is highly political.

Yes, we have reprinted most of the books we have published. That is, when I was able to do so financially speaking. Which is another question altogether. What books get reprinted? And what are the policies for reprinting books in this country? Publishing is the creation of a cultural centre, and reprinting books is very much part of publishing. One could say, reprinting books might be, perhaps, more important that simply publishing books. Keeping certain books alive has been a very important aspect of my job. As well as translation, which is another form of reprinting books.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
I have always worked with about 13 people at a time, for any one book. Publishing a book is always the work of a collective. A book is like film, music, painting, sculpture, achitecture, photography. Nothing in art is the work of a single person. The entire idea of authorhood is very much an uncertain concept. When one thinks of, say, Leonardo, we immediately get confused. Who did what in his paintings? The same is true of poetry or a novel or a collection of essay. Books are the work of dozens of people, if not hundreds.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
If I had not been a publisher I would never gone beyond my first poetry book. There is no place in culture for vanity or navel-gazing. The job of any single writer is to find his or her position in his community. If your job is to be the town’s fool, so be it. Every single person has something special to contribute to the community he or she belongs to. I learnt this by being a publisher.
10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
Gary Geddes probably had another reason for not publishing himself. Of course, a press must publish its contributors. It is sheer madness to think otherwise. We are part of the centre. Why should we exclude its members from gaining access to what they themselves have developed? Again, those who are against such a practice only the prove that leech-presses that have no idea of why they are doing.

11– How do you see Guernica Editions evolving?
The greatest joy of a parent is to let go of his or her child. The first major change at Guernica was my stepping down from being its owner. It is time Guernica walk on its own. She is old enough, wouldn’t you agree? I am the happiest person on earth for being able to see the press moving along with other people. Connie Mcparland and Michael Mirolla will do what they want to do. I am there to contribute with my experience. As a guide, I offer advice. But I will not stop them from doing what they wish to do. Eventually Guernica will have children of its own. Hopefully I was a good parent.

12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
I am very honored to have been involved in a radical way in the fight against cultural denegration. Guernica enabled many to see that there is life outside of assimilation and cultural effacement. What book I thought was forgotten is now being studied in China or Estonia or India or Brazil. I believe in every one book I published. I am only saddened by the selfishness of certain authors, a most unfortunate aspect of the industry. To have helped and not to be thanked for the possibility given, sad.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Britian of the 1920s. France of the 1930s. Quebec of the 1950s. Italy of the 1960s.
Pocket size books. I hate hard covers and large format books. I travel a lot and want books that fit in my pocket. All the major books that have changed my life were pocket size books.

14– How does Guernica Editions work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Guernica Editions in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
“Engage with” translates in French as engagement. Political commitment.
I have worked with many English-Canadian presses in thirty-three years.
I have produced many co-editions with foreign presses.
I have encouraged many translations for Guernica and other presses.
Without such dialogue there is only monologue and culture is about dialogue.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
As a publisher I encourage readings and launches. As a writer I try to give a conference a month worldwide. As a poet I try to give a reading a month. As a translator I try to translate something every day.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Without the internet I would be nowhere.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
I sollicite manuscripts. Submissions, very rarely. Usually future authors we want to publish make their ways to our doors or we to theirs. As it should be. I am not much for blind-dates.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Every title I publish is special to me so I refuse to mention any single new title. It would hurt the others. Which parent would single out one child over the others? One is fine about music, a second about politics, a third about same-sex love.

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