Monday, April 04, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Eric Elshtain on Beard of Bees

Beard of Bees is an independent, free press in Chicago, Illinois.

Beard of Bees is committed to publishing quality chapbooks by liberated poets from Anywhere. We do not discriminate against non-human or post-human artists.

Our latest human-authored chapbook is Certain Zones by Cheyenne Nimes. Our most recent human/machine collaboration is a light heart, its black thoughts by Gnoetry and Eric Scovel. Chapbooks are published using Adobe's PDF format. You probably already have software to view PDF files: if not, you can get what you need for free.

Since the alleged ownership of language and thought is a revolting legal fiction, all Beard of Bees publications are freely downloadable and freely redistributable. If you like something you find here, share it with a friend. If you find something that you hate, savor the moment of destruction as you delete the file. Or share it with an enemy.

1 – When did Beard of Bees Press 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?
Beard of Bees Press “began” in 2001 as a place to publish the results of experiments with the computer-generating software called Gnoetry, a project on which my friend and co-conspirator Jon Trowbridge and I had collaborated.  I was also the poetry editor of the Chicago Review at the time and decided to invite poets I knew through that journal to submit chapbooks to the fledgling press.  Our original goal was to use the site to showcase our computer-generated poetry; then it became a place where I could invite poets I liked to send work, given that I had up to that point never seen an on-line chapbook press, or a press that emphasized, upfront, the idea of free distribution of nice-looking “books” of poetry.  (We do have a publisher—but he is the man behind the curtain.  I am solely responsible for what gets published on the site).  The goals shifted immediately once we started to get unsolicited manuscripts—I realized that I needed a narrower mental charter in order to sift through the submissions, and that charter has narrowed even more over time, in part due to the large number of submissions we began to receive, in part due to my own aesthetic shifts. 

At first, I worked fairly hard to keep Beard of Bees from having a recognizable “house style.”  I found that it was far easier to be aesthetically catholic at a journal such as Chicago Review, where there are several people making decisions, than when you are the sole arbiter of what gets published.  Like it or not, no matter how wide a lens you think you are looking through, your own myopia is on display in one form or another.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I guess that I have been involved with publishing since grade school when my friends and I started what would have been called a “zine” years later.  A place for us to share our terrible Mad Magazine rip-offs…  My high school had a literary magazine, college, grad-schools.  I think that in my mind being a poet meant being involved in publishing somehow. I don’t know where this idea came from, or if it is even a good idea.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
On the high horse, I might say small publishing should act to free poetry from a marketplace that has been subsumed by a Hollywood star-model and feel free to exist with small coteries of poets; that is, work locally without worrying about what anybody else is doing.  Other than that, just to tell people:  “Hey!  Look at us!  We’re not so special!  You can do this too!  You don’t like what we do?  Start your own press!  It’s easy!”
4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Publishing poetries utilizing computational poetics; otherwise, we just like to publish good poetry, like any other press.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?

For us:  the Internet.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
“Editor” has become, it seems to me, by and large just a reader with and aesthetic idea and a few privileges.  She can choose what to print and what not to print—said and done.  That is a market-place tedium at work.  From my work as poetry editor at the Chicago Review and through conversations with the excellent poet and friend Matthias Regan I realized that an editor should be more active in the creation of the poetry he or she publishes.  Matthias showed me, for example, Harriet Monroe’s edits of poems by Eliot, Williams, Stevens.  Whole stanzas slashed through, words changed.

I bring those lessons to bear on my work as editor for Beard of Bees.  Many of the chapbooks we have published have gone through several back-and-forth exchanges between the poet and myself, agreeing and disagreeing on changes.  I have worked on chapbooks with poets and the chapbooks have not ended up being published.  Not because the author didn’t “accept” the changes, but because the end result still wasn’t satisfactory—more often than not, it is the poet him- or herself that makes that decision.

I do this not because I want a Beard of Bees stamp to be in every chapbook—but because I have found that most poets work in some form of isolation and truly, truly appreciate the work of having someone take their poetry seriously enough to say “I don’t think this is working” and suggest edits. 

When I pass on something, I almost always send the poet an explanation as to how I came to that decision.  I am always amazed at the number of grateful emails received from those poets whose work has not been published (along with the occasional email of another ilk entirely, as you might imagine).  Often, poets will revise the chapbook and send it back.  A few times, that new version made it on to the site.

My role?  Hopefully, to provide poets with a keen eye and practiced ear and to provide poets with an opportunity to see and hear their own work anew.  I don’t publish what I “like”; there is a difference between having an aesthetic principle and using mere preference as a criterion.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We post the chapbooks and send out notices through a Beard of Bees group, and the British and Buffalo poetics lists.  That is about it. Conservatively, more than ten thousand chapbooks have been distributed through Beard of Bees.  That is a huge number for poetry chapbook publication.  We do have huge advantage we have over print publications:  everything is free.

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?
Jon Trowbridge, the publisher, makes all the pdf’s and maintains the site.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I worry less about being published and I edit my own work a hell of a lot more than I used to.

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?
When we first started, I decided “what the hell” and posted a couple of my own chapbooks, thinking that if the point of publishing one’s poetry is to have it read, posting it on-line was the most efficient way to reach a large number of readers.  I keep those early books on the site, but I would not publish myself now—for me, for this site as it exists now, it would feel a little tacky.  I am not sure why I feel that way; if editors want to publish themselves—sure, why not.  It is nice to have control over what press you are associated with, and control over cover image and layout. 

11 – How do you see Beard of Bees Press evolving?
We went from a kind of vanity thing/publishing wing for our experiments with computer generated poetry to a “Hell, let’s publish people we like” thing, to an “Oh, shit, people are actually paying attention” thing.  From there, I really began to narrow my editorial focus, and I guess it is still narrowing.

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?
We have a devoted following in Tallinn, Estonia—that is pretty awesome.  My biggest frustration is the near non-existence of reviews of on-line chapbooks.  Or maybe just Beard of Bees chapbooks…
13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I cannot point to any one influence or model.  If anything, we tried to bridge a gap between 19th century chapter books and on-line publishing, mostly through some very modest ideas about design and formatting.

14 – How does Beard of Bees Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Beard of Bees Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
This kind of question always makes me hang my head.  We have links to other poetry-minded sites, but we do little else.  We’re a couple-of-guys-in-a-basement-doing-their-thing sort of press.  I don’t consider the sort of engagement alluded to in the question unimportant; we just do not actively engage.  I have been to a few events that highlight Chicago poetry and publishing and I do leave those events with a sense of emptiness:  they seem to be opportunities for people to self-congratulate and little else.  Or else I am just no good at those events and am missing something. 

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?

We will occasionally participate in local poetry events, usually by publishing a few physical editions of some of our favorite chapbooks.

16 – How do you utilize the Internet, if at all, to further your goals?
We publish on-line, of course; however, we have never advertised (except for some guerilla sticker campaigns around Chicago very early on).  We just exist and leave it at that.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
We accept submissions year round.  We tend to shy away from those poetries that are heavily invested in the first-person singular and any form of self-involved philosophizing.  We have an eye for machine-assisted poetry, procedural verse, poetry composed via constraints and Oulipian techniques, and also for poetry written politically, but not political poetry per se.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
The poets will speak from themselves:

from Game, Global, Green, Grown, Guys by David Berridge
(Beard of Bees number 73, published September 2010)
Exactly. Ideas of work change and there is no standard
solution. The space must be able to change as different
collaborations arise. Originally YOU-substitution.

Make a shell. A skeleton, within which everything can
shift, move, change. In which there are no floors, no
rooms that aren’t responsive to that moments needs.

But what skeleton? This is why it seems YOU-important to
have some functional and visionary images - like
stacking, like pig city - at the heart of YOU-practice.
from Earth Day Suite by Joseph Harrington
(Beard of Bees number 74, published December 2010): 
“watching the inbred animals
run against each other,
the girl would rather be cutting
her arms at home

while watching the earth’s curve,
as though life were down there

rice rat, spiny pocket mouse,
burrowing newt, white-lipped
toad, a race   things   dream of”
from Certain Zones by Cheyenne Nimes
(Beard of Bees number 75, published March 2011)
Meriting Attention by Astronomers
(Yellow Zone) 3
“A close encounter, meriting attention by astronomers. Current calculations give a 1% or greater chance of collision capable of localized destruction. Most likely, new telescopic observations will lead to re-assignment to Level 0. Attention by public and by public officials is merited if the encounter is less than a decade away.”

Something like a stiff wind passed through the numbers of low probability. Flare of sun color, the weak glint of the tail. “We’ll keep an eye on it.” Doll clutched in one hand, she can feel it falling. A series of relations, a straggle of thunder sounding long after you thought it was gone. Particles in the ionosphere light up. Before hardening into fixed meaning. A single point on the sky. Looking for a way into this dimension. No bright rock had been there before. Was it real? He walked outside. It was.

Grandma's Spectacles
These are Grandma's spectacles,
This is Grandma's hat.
This is the way she folds her hands,
And lays them in her lap.
12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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