Monday, July 26, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Brian Clements on Firewheel Editions/sentence magazine

Firewheel Editions publishes books and chapbooks of poetry, prose poetry, cross-genre writing, and other hard-to-classify projects. Firewheel also publishes Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics, which is devoted to the prose poem and to the gray areas around the prose poem, especially in work that exists on the boundary between prose poem and free verse on one hand and the prose poem and the essay on the other. In early 2011, Firewheel will launch Kugelmass, a journal of literary humor.

Brian Clements edits Firewheel Editions and Firewheel's flagship publication Sentence. His most recent books are An Introduction to the Prose Poem (anthology from Firewheel), And How to End It (prose poems from Quale Press), and Disappointed Psalms (poems from Meritage Press). He coordinates the MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.

1 - When did Firewheel Editions and sentence magazine 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?
Firewheel first started in the mid-late 90's in Dallas. My friend Joe Ahearn and I had gotten the idea into our heads that an anthology of Texas writing would sell well in Texas, so we published the first Best Texas Writing under Joe's imprint, Rancho Loco Press. We turned out to be wrong, of course; apparently people in Texas love all things Texan except Texan writing. Joe threw in the towel after the first volume; I wanted to give it another shot, so I set up Firewheel Editions (which was named after the section of Garland, TX, where I lived at the time) to publish a second volume of Best Unwanted Texas Writing, and I expanded the scope a bit to also publish chapbooks. I did a great little collection by Kristin Ryling of her wonderously strange poems on loose leaf pages wrapped in rice paper. I still have a number of copies of that signed and numbered production. I loved publishing Kristin's work, which has some points of contact with some of my own work, though they may not be immediately apparent; I caught the bug then for publishing work that for one reason or another--style, typography, scope, content, whatever--is difficult to place for publication or that in some way pushes normal expectations of a book.
Sentence started a few years later to fill the void left by the closure of Peter Johnson's The Prose Poem: an International Journal. Peter was very kind to serve as a Contributing Editor and to lend me a lot of advice and contacts which made the launch of Sentence go more smoothly and successfully than I could have hoped it would.

The goals of Firewheel have remained pretty consistent. I still am interested in publishing authors and texts who have a hard time finding publication elsewhere, for whatever reason. I would like to be able to do a lot more books than I currently have time to do, and
Kugelmass will take up a lot of attention in the coming year.

What have I learned? I have learned that the time and effort that you put into training interns is greater than the value of having interns on staff. I need to find some folks who are interested in the mission of Firewheel and
Sentence and who are interested in volunteering their time.

2 - What first brought you to publishing?
An aversion to publishing. The whole generally accepted notion of what publishing is, what it means, what it does, is for the most part totally out of line with the actual function of most of the publishing that goes on in poetry. In the US, at least, poetry publishing is not about reaching large audiences or becoming a part of the general culture--that happens sometimes, but rarely, and hardly anyone ever goes into poetry publishing for that reason and succeeds. The publication of poetry is an exercise in recording a number of small conversations that are going on simultaneously. Most poets are aware of the conversation they want to be in on, and have inserted themselves into poetry communities where they are able to engage in that conversation with other folks they know are interested in that conversation. Publishers do what they do not in order to make money, but as a way of participating in the conversation, just like the poets (indeed, the publishers tend to be poets). This is why all of the "What's Wrong with Poetry" critics are entirely off base from the beginning when they argue that poets only write for other poets. They have this assumption that the real poetry market is a commercial market that includes Garrison Keillor and is attached in a direct line to Robert Frost--their proof is that the public doesn't read poetry, as though sales and popularity were the measure of an entire genre. That market is just the shadow of some imagined Golden Age created by the New Critics and handed down to school children for almost a century via the vehicle of high school (and college) English teachers. In reality, poetry isn't a commercial market, it's just a conversation that we're having with ourselves and with our culture, with our language. We don't publish to reach the public; we publish to reach those who are genuinely interested in the conversation.

3- What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
See #2.
4- What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
The highlighting of prose poetry, mostly. I think with our books and chapbooks we probably hit a “crossover” market that not many people are doing. There are journals and presses out there that claim to sit on the fence between the mainstream (whatever that may be) and outside the mainstream, but I’m not sure they actually do that. They actually end up publishing work from outside the mainstream that is able to work well by using a mix of traditional and experimental techniques. Firewheel also, I think, does a good job of matching book content to book form—but I think there are a lot of small presses out there doing good work in that area.
5 - What do you see as the most effective way to get new publications out into the world?
If by the “most effective” you mean the most efficient, then it would probably to be by distributing .pdf files readable on computers and handhelds for free. Firewheel is about to move into doing e-books, but they wont’ be free.
6- How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I only propose edits when I think a piece is 95% there in terms of readiness for publication and only needs a little touching up. Otherwise, I will have a frank discussion with the poet on what I think needs to be done only if it’s something I think will be right for us in the end and only if the poet expresses interest in having that discussion. I think that’s probably the way most small press/journal editors approach it.

7 - How do your books get distributed, and the journal? What are your usual print runs?
We’re going into POD now, so won’t have traditional print runs. We distribute online through our own website, via Small Press Distribution, via EBSCO, and via Amazon.

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 been the lone editor of Sentence for the first 8 issues, but I’m about to turn the editing of the journal over to Brian Johnson. Ellen McGrath Smith has been a great addition to the Sentence staff as Reviews Editor for the last couple of issues. David Holub will be editing Kugelmass, and I will be focusing more on Firewheel’s book publishing. So, since the Texas anthologies that Joe and I edited, I’ve never really been in a situation where I’ve had to share editorial duties with anyone, and that’s probably for the best. I think multiple editor situations usually end up in a selection for the middle that can rip the power out of a publication’s editorial vision.

9 - How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
It probably has helped me to become less concerned with publication, which can only be a good thing for the writing. I realize, in a way that I wouldn’t have before I started Sentence, that the conversation is what’s most important, and there are many, many voices and audiences available for conversation.

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 Books' 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?
I made it a policy never to publish my own poems in Sentence because I did not want anyone to see the journal as a vehicle for me to promote myself. I did write reviews for the journal early in its development, which I see as a significant difference from publishing one’s own poems. I would not publish a book of my own poems with Firewheel, but I did publish an anthology that I edited,An Introduction to the Prose Poem, which, again, I see as a significant distinction from publishing one’s own poems. The anthology is designed as a textbook, and I think it’s a significant contribution to the field, so I see it as a kind of service publication. I like the idea of the cooperative press, where the editors publish their own work but also publish the work of others outside the cooperative.

11 - How do you see the press evolving? How do you see the journal evolving? Do you see them as separate?
The future of Sentence is directly connected to the future of Firewheel, and I hope Sentence continues to thrive well into the distant future. It certainly will change, perhaps in subtle ways, under Brian Johnson’s editorship. We will continue to offer the Sentence Book Award. My goal right now is to help launch Kugelmass and to develop Firewheel’s list of poetry titles, including moving into e-books.
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 don’t really have many frustrations regarding the press, other than the fact that I haven’t been able to release as many books as I had hoped by this point and that I haven’t been able to devote any time at all, really, to soliciting grants, which certainly would have helped with producing more books. I’m proud that we were able to publish a few truly excellent titles—especially Denise Duhamel’s Mille et un sentiments, the anthology, and Catherine Sasanov’s Had Slaves. I’m proud that Sentence has had many poems anthologized in Best American Poetry and Best New Poets. I’m extremely proud of the quality of work that Sentence has maintained, the quality of the special feature sections in Sentence, and the fact that the journal has come to be recognized as a significant contribution to the study of prose poetry.
13 - Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Really liked the look and feel of Jubilat, so we modeled our look on it partially. Peter Johnson’s The Prose Poem: an International Journal, of course, was Sentence’s immediate precursor, and Sentence would not exist if it weren’t for that journal’s existence (and demise).
14 - How do the press and journal work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see your publications in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
If by “immediate” you mean “local”, then hardly at all. We live in a part of Connecticut where most literary attention is directed toward New York and no local literary community to speak of has risen. The university (Western Connecticut) is greatly supportive of the journal and press, though. Most of Sentence’s connections have been internationally widespread, and I think that’s appropriate. The international representation in the pages of the journal certainly has been big part of Sentence’s success. When we first started, there was probably more interest in the prose poem abroad than in the US. That may not be the case now. I think Sentence is in dialogue with Quarter After Eight, Double Room, Quick Fiction, most directly, because of their scopes.

15 - Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
We have done from time to time. They aren’t great sales generators, but they’re important in terms of spreading word of mouth about the journal. We’ve been particularly successful with that sort of event at a couple of conferences—AWP, ALTA. We’ve done release events in London, San Franciscio, New York, that have been worth the effort, but I don’t see them as essential to the well-being of the journal.
16 - How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
Firewheel’s website ( has been a great part of our ability to succeed financially (read as: “remain afloat”), and we’ve been extremely lucky to have the help of two webmasters, first Michael Puttonen and now Tom Nackid, who’ve done great work for free or almost free. Our direct sales through the web site have saved us tons of money in commissions to re-sellers. So, all you readers out there, remember—you do a publisher a great favour when you order from them directly!

17 - Do you take submissions? If so, what aren't you looking for?
Of course we do. For Sentence, we’re not looking for verse, free verse, or stories. Only prose poems and essays related to prose poetry. For Kugelmass, we’re only looking for stories and essays—damned funny ones. Firewheel is currently reading manuscripts only for the Firewheel Chapbook Award and the Sentence Book Award, but will open up at a later date for general submissions.

18 - Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they're special.
Had Slaves, by Catherine Sasanov. A book of tightly composed poems based on the poet’s research into her ancestors’ slaveholding. Addresses this complex subject in a way no book ever has, both factually based and personally revealing.

The Important Thing Is… Card Game, by Marjorie Tesser. It’s a game! It’s a book! It’s both! As Bob Holman says, it’s “a riot, a concept, a poem you can play and play with. Beginning from comments solicited at a Suggestion Box at the Bowery Poetry Club, using those metapoems to conceive both the book-as-card-game motif (roll over, Surrealism!) and the fill-in-the-blanks of the cards themselves, [Tesser] slowly builds a breathing inner life through the cards' seemingly implacable random chance operations. How she does this is how a poem works: machinations of language funneling to sorrow and joy, thrills, offhanded and wacky happiness.

An Introduction to the Prose Poem, edited by Brian Clements and Jamey Dunham: Provides a broad view of the development of the prose poem and offers beginning writers a variety of strategies that have been commonly used in the composition of prose poems. The selections is broadly international and ranges from some of the most traditional (lyrical) prose poems to the experimental.

1 comment:

djelloul marbrook said...

Good questions, good answers. I've been arguing the case at readings and in my web log—I'm a retired newspaper editor—that poetry is the real news in our culture. It is in fact our frontier, and what passes for news is often distraction. We posit the wrong heroes in our society. Our real heroes often sleep in cardboard boxes or confront their end in nursing homes—or write and publish poetry. So, good for you, Mr. McLennan, and good for Firewheel.
—Djelloul Marbrook\