Tuesday, April 19, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Karen Randall on Propolis Press

Propolis Press was established by Karen Randall in 2001 for the purpose of printing fine letterpress artists books with poetry by innovative, contemporary authors. The philosophy of Propolis Press is that there should be no one-size-fits-all approach to poetic texts. Each text has its own unique dna that should guide the morphogenesis of the book.

Least Weasel Editorial Statement

My poetic interests range from procedural / chance operations to text-sound-texts; from the typographically playful à la Armand Schwerner's tablets to the philosophically playful à la Rosmarie Waldrop; poetry infused with the physicality of earth pigment frescos (ochre, sienna, umber, chromium green oxide) to poetry of geologic upheaval or slow sedimentation; from jazz improvisations to the lewd & lascivious (especially if the sensuous and vulgar involves a good deal of ‘word’ sauce). In short, I am generally open to the possibilities and permutations (combinatorics and quetzalcoatl cohosh excesses). Poetry is a language game which I invite you to play!

1 – When did Propolis 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?

I launched Propolis Press in September 2001. My original purpose was to celebrate the stuff I love (that is contemporary experimental poetry – mostly by women). This meant hand-setting the poetry & printing it letterpress on high quality paper. I also felt my role as a publisher was that of an interpreter / translator – i.e. that part of my work was to design the book in a manner that amplified the central concept of the text. I always like to refer to artist’s books as Gesamtkunstwerke a word that is often used to describe opera. [Gesamtkunstwerk is a German word meaning ‘a total art work’ or a ‘comprehensive art work’ – with regard to opera it refers to the combination of music, theater, costume, etc.] I would love to continue doing high-end elaborate, ‘operatic’ books, but the market for fine press books of experimental poetry isn’t what we would all wish it to be. Thus, I’ve shifted towards doing chapbooks. The upside is that I can work with more poets now and make their work available to a much large audience.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
Love, passion. Insanity. ;) I think I was always destined to be a publisher & book artist.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Promoting what we love is our primary responsibility. I really believe there is no point in putting this degree of energy into something that I don’t love. I’ve had collectors of artist’s books/ patrons try to pressure me into printing some crap by their protégés. I often think of the process of making artists books as similar to being a stay-at-home mom with a small infant. The motivation for taking on some of the tedious repetition involved – I love printing, but have a hard time not feeling bored by sewing – has to be love and a sense of purpose. Also, I think a publisher must be willing to take risks.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
With regard to my artist’s books –I am one of a very few fine press printers printing experimental poetry by contemporary women. Most fine presses tend to be rather conservative about what they print. Even if they do print something “experimental” – it tends to be texts by men who have been dead 50 years.

With regard to the chapbook series, the primary difference is the letterpress covers. There are many other small presses producing chapbooks of experimental poetry – not so many incorporating letterpress. I use a higher quality paper for both the covers & the text pages & the chaps will be hand-sewn.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
standing on a street corner & passing them out to random strangers. that is probably the best way to distribute – though not necessarily likely to garner an audience. ;)

I guess I’d say that my ‘marketing’ strategy is to have an aesthetically appealing ‘product’ with texts that I feel passionately about; networking with people who have similar tastes in poetry; doing book fairs, etc.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I do not believe in editing my poets’ work – I take it as they give it to me. I think editing other people’s poetry is a bit bogus – too workshop-y for me. My role as a publisher is not to “educate” the poets I work with, but to educate (inform) a wider public about the existence of great poetry they might have otherwise missed.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
The artist books I’ve printed in rather small editions: 11, 17, 20. The chapbooks runs will be 250. I’m still learning about marketing. I have several libraries that collect my work. I go to small press fairs. I’m setting up readings/ launches for the chapbooks. I know some bookstores that sell chaps. i.e. the usual methods.

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?
Not really. I do have a board of directors that I ask for advice when I need it.

9 – How has beng an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I don’t seem to write as much. My energy has been more directed into producing the books.

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?
My first book, Infants of the Sun, was my own text as was The Book of Milk– but I think it is somehow different producing an artist’s book with one’s own text. In those cases my primary role was that of an artist – in the case of the chapbooks I see myself primarily as a publisher and have no interest in printing a chapbook of my own work. No point in arguing for or against – it is just my personal preference.

11 – How do you see Propolis Press evolving?
like a double helix. spiraling upward.

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?
One of the things that thrills me most about being a publisher – is when someone who has never read, say Rosmarie Waldrop, encounters her work at a book fair or a library.

Biggest frustration – having the economy tank. Second biggest frustration – having to wait on someone else (a typecaster, bookbinder, papercutter) to do their thing so that I can do mine.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Rosmarie & Keith Waldrop’s Burning Deck. Steve Clay’s Granary.

14 – How does Propolis Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Propolis Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Some other presses that I consider related are Belladonna*, Chax Press, Burning Deck, O books, Portable Press, Cuneiform Press, Tender Buttons, Sun and Moon, the online journals: EOAGH, TextSounds, Jacket, etc…. We have similar/ overlapping interests /poets. Obviously I cannot print everything nor can they – I see it as a collective effort to promote the edgy & intellectual poetry of our time. I try to attend as many readings as I can when I am in NY – and am rather excited about the new poetry book store Flying Object in Hadley, MA that is hosting a series of interesting readings. There are also conversations taking place in academic settings – that I am not/ propolis press is not immediately involved in – though I do occasionally eavesdrop. I rather like beings slightly peripheral – to academics & to New York – it affords me & propolis a certain amount of freedom.

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I am planning to have launches for the Least Weasel chapbook series – I consider readings to be vital. Very much like having an art opening – it is important to celebrate the birth of a new work & share it with others.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
I have websites for both Propolis Press and Least Weasel as well as facebook pages for both. They are always works in progress and are far more ephemeral than a broadside or a chapbook. I work on them when I have the time.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
I do take submissions for Least Weasel. I am not looking for anything mainstream or sentimental/ confessional – that is I am not looking for anything that makes me want to retch or yawn. I am also not interested in working with prima donnas – I believe in reciprocity /community, if you want me to be interested in you, you should be interested in my work (the press and the other poets I work with). [I also suggest reading my editorial statement – if you aren’t familiar with the poets I mention, perhaps read them and then get back to me in a decade or whenever you’ve fully integrated this material into your subconscious.]

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
All my publications are ‘special.’ (voice over “isn’t that special?”)
I am perhaps most passionate / partial to these three publications:

The New York School by Christina Strong.
The Oldest Garden in the World by Elizabeth Willis.
Within the Probabilities of Spelling with texts by Rosmarie Waldrop.

I heard CS read the New York School at one of the Segue readings (Bowery Poetry Club in New York). I think Tim Peterson was the series curator then. On hearing it, I KNEW that I needed to publish it. So wonderfully wicked & delightful. It is the only book that I’ve done with just a single poem. I hand set each line using various sizes and weights of univers type and designed and printed each page on the fly. It was a tremendous amount of fun.

Elizabeth Willis’ The Oldest Garden in the World is the first book I printed with four-color images (which were created as digital collages). Figuring out the process of printing four color from polymer was an enormous challenge. It seems appropriate given that EW’s work often integrates materials from the history of art and science that the book should incorporate an artistic/ technical challenge.

For Within the Probabilities of Spelling, I excerpted 81 fragments from RW’s oeuvre, created an abstract alphabet of shapes, each representing a different consonant, and used these shapes to ‘spell’ a word on the given page. The idea was to, in oulipian fashion, generate a unique sequence of images for each page. The background patterns of the shapes were extruded from the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s essay on probability. The format of the book echoes that of a Tibetan philosophical text. Furthermore, each text fragment is preceded by a § (section sign) and a number as is the tradition in western philosophical texts (& here I am thinking of the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein which RW often plays with and with Novalis’ encyclopedia project which is based around interlinked fragments).

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