Friday, July 22, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Brian Teare on Albion Books

A former National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, Brian Teare is the recipient of poetry fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the American Antiquarian Society. He is the author of three full-length books—The Room Where I Was Born, Sight Map, and the Lambda-award winning Pleasure—as well as the chapbooks Pilgrim, Transcendental Grammar Crown and . An Assistant Professor at Temple University, he lives in Philadelphia, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.

1 – When did Albion Books 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?

A: Albion Books kind of meandered into existence in 2008. Since 2004 I had been teaching at the New College of California; its financial and administrative infrastructure began to collapse in 2007, and I quit in January of 2008 because the College hadn’t paid its faculty since early October. During this financial and professional disaster, I’d begun adjuncting at several other schools in the Bay Area, and once I quit NC I had a little extra time on my hands. My partner suggested I learn to do something new that I’d always wanted to do: bookbinding and letterpress printing. That winter and spring I took a lot of classes in both binding and printing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, and I began to volunteer at the Center as a binder and printer’s devil; by midsummer I felt ready to try my hand at hand setting and printing a broadside and putting together a chapbook with letterpressed covers. At that time, I didn’t have a lot of goals as a publisher, nor did I even think of myself as publisher; I was simply seeing if I had the skills to put together a small edition on my own.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

A: That first chapbook was a gift for a friend, the poet Jane Mead. I wanted to thank her for her friendship and support of my work—and also to celebrate the publication of her third book, The Usable Field. That first chapbook was the pedagogical product not only of many classes at the Center for the Book, but also of several years of apprenticeship as a member of an editorial and publishing collective called Woodland Editions. Spearheaded by Jaime Robles, the collective put out anywhere from two to four chapbooks for the three or so years I was a member; each chapbook was made in an edition of one hundred, and we did any labeling and all of the collating, folding and sewing by hand. From Jaime I learned the kind of planning involved in making an edition and also the rudiments of desktop publishing; she taught me how to use Quark and also gave me a lot of digital typefaces. From our sessions making books as a collective, I learned how much labor even a small edition takes, but I also learned how to prepare and organize the necessary materials and put together an assembly line of sorts, to make a lot of books in a short period of time. In essence it was years of collective effort, pedagogy and the gift economy of literary community that brought me to publishing, but it was the desire to keep that economy circulating that made me a publisher. In the summer of 2008, Albion Books was born: I published Where in the Story the Horse Mazy Dies in an edition of 30 or so, each chapbook accompanied by a handset, letterpressed broadside.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

A: There are so many kinds of small press publishing! But if I may speak broadly, it seems to me that each community is a microclimate to which its small presses adapt their particular goals and functions. Within a given literary ecosystem, small presses typically act as interstices: they not only fill in the cultural and aesthetic gaps left between larger publishers and university publications with which MFA students are affiliated, they also serve as the connective material between them, articulating the shape of street-level and post-, ante- and anti-MFA literary landscape. Small press publishing is kind of like the grasses and weeds that keep a hill’s surface from eroding—not only because their roots serve as the structure that holds a broader community together and keeps it from being centralized around one or two larger systems, but also because small press publishing is so often overlooked and under-supported. Everyone mourns a tree cut down, but in our literary imaginations, small press publishers—like weeds and grasses—seem to be expendable, less valuable. This is perhaps our greatest weakness, but I’d argue it’s also our greatest opportunity for strength. Given the impact and dependence the publishing industry has on the environment and given also the depth and persistence of the economic downturn, I think it’s important for a press to be able to flourish in conditions of scarcity, to demand as little capital and support from the earth as possible. And though I understand the very important work that tree-like institutions can do in a literary landscape, my idea of publishing embraces more the qualities of weeds and grasses: flexible, adaptable, minimal, ephemeral, as easily uprooted as rooted.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?

A: I don’t know if I’m doing anything that no one else is doing, though I hope a fairly holistic picture of the press will emerge over the next several questions, and readers can judge for themselves. I’ll begin by just describing my manufacture and editing. Manufacture: I combine handset letterpress covers with digitally set interiors; I hand-collate, fold, cut and sew all the books. No new type is cast; no polymer plates are used; the C&P press is run by treadle. Whenever possible, I keep the design collaborative, and work with the author’s ideas and desires in mind, but I also let them know from the outset what my parameters are: at least 60% of the paper for each edition is salvaged and upcycled from offcuts produced by other presses or printers; the edition is generally designed around the available paper, and its colors and textures also largely governed by chance. One further constraint: I don’t allow myself to spend more than $100.00 total on the materials for any edition, which generally includes cover and text stocks, end-sheets, and thread. Editing: Most of what I’ve published I first heard aloud at the author’s reading; a handful of the chapbooks have been commissioned or solicited because I specifically wanted to celebrate and support the work of that author. I’ve published a broad variety of lyric postmodernisms—particularly ecopoetics and experimental varieties of spiritual and queer poetries—as well as lyric essays and statements of poetics. I’ve published more women than men, and as many queer writers as straight.

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

A: This is an interesting question to me: what does “effective” mean? It’s a word that shifts meaning greatly from press to press because the goals of each press are so different. One of the aims of Albion Books is to stimulate the gift economy in the poetry community; one of its other aims is to design and make the most beautiful and interesting books possible given the ecological and economic constraints; another is to publish exciting and challenging work. Which is to say my idea of “effective” wouldn’t work for a press interested in making money and publishing a larger list, and vice versa. If I price books fairly low—$15—and make them as interesting to look at as to read, then I hope that will be enough to get them out into the world. The fact that I aim to barter or give away at least 40% of each print run does mean that the books make it out into the community. Without much effort, an edition sells out within a year; with effort, it will sell more quickly than that. Though initially I wanted distribution to run wholly through the “natural” channels of word of mouth and friendship networks, I’ve made certain concessions to the digital world: from time to time, I’ll send out email announcements, and I made a website last fall. And though I have seen more sales to strangers and institutions like libraries through the website, these methods haven’t changed the distribution patterns too much.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

A: I prefer a lighter touch, but that’s largely about expedience: I do everything myself, so to edit a manuscript demands more time and adds another task to the typesetting, proofing, finding materials, setting type, cutting paper, printing, etc., that I’m already doing. I also like the basic friendliness of accepting work without critical intervention. That said, certain authors have asked for editorial input, and other authors have turned in manuscripts that needed some reshaping. In each case, the dynamic has been different, but overall I’ve enjoyed the level of mutual respect and conversation, and I think the work has emerged from editing with the integrity of the author’s vision intact. To be honest, though, I prefer the kind of relationship where I enjoy and admire the work and make a book that holds it to advantage.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

A: Out of each edition—which currently is one hundred to one hundred and twenty—the author receives twenty copies. The author can choose how the chapbooks and broadsides enter the world: as gifts, as barters, as sales. I generally give away or barter another thirty or so copies. Another dozen enter libraries and collections. The rest enter the marketplace through subscriptions, sales at readings, or internet orders. Because I spend comparatively little money on making the books and renting press time, it takes very few sales to actually recoup costs, and any surplus goes right back into producing the next few 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?

A: Right now, I’m the sole editor and maker of the books and broadsides. And while I do miss a lot about the energy and camaraderie that resulted from the collective effort of making books and editorial decisions as a group, I don’t miss messy group dynamics, trying to schedule collective meetings, and botched email communication. Benefits: publishing becomes a series of one-on-one relationships with the authors; the logistics of scheduling and production are far less complicated; there’s a lot of improvisation involved in designing and printing the books, and I don’t have to stick to one plan. Drawbacks: there’s no possible delegation of tasks; I always wish I could do more than I’m capable doing; there is always something else to do. As I type out the drawbacks, I realize that, except for task delegation, these are largely the problems of any kind of publishing: it’s a fire that will always consume whatever you put in it.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

A: I don’t know if publishing itself has changed the way I think about my own writing, but learning to typeset in lead has given me more permission to conceive of the page as a plastic space, to read the poem both as language and as a piece of visual art or design. The weight of the job stick and the pace of setting type for broadsides have lead me to understand just how organic the metaphors of “Projective Verse” are, how privileged the writer’s body is in Olson’s prosody—what about the typesetter’s body? And though I’ve always felt a deep kinship with his ideas about the phenomenological and proprioceptive qualities of writing poetry, being both a poet and a typesetter makes me think about the poem in both realms: as metal type (as materials), and as breath (as music). Which I guess is to say that my relationship to language has changed, hybridized, to extend propioception into the page not purely as breath/prosody but also as design, a vision that activates the reader.

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?

A: I’m not terribly interested in publishing my own writing, but I don’t judge others for doing so. The best thing about publishing your own work is that you have no one else to blame concerning error! Early on I made an ephemeral chapbook/broadside edition of my own work—on the occasion of a reading—and I learned a great deal from the mistakes I made, especially because I wouldn’t have allowed an edition of someone else’s work the same number of design/production miscalculations. And though I was trained by old-school binders and printers and thus am fairly finical and self-critical, I like that the constraints of money and time actually impinge on my ability to be a total perfectionist. That said, I have abandoned an edition entirely and started over, but it’s very rare that I have the time or resources to do so. Generally I work with chance and let error lead me to adapt the design, or serve as inspiration for revision. The kind of publishing and bookmaking I do is a practice in accepting and treasuring a certain level of error as an inevitable by-product of handcrafting.

11 – How do you see Albion Books evolving?

A: I have a new job, so I’m in the process of moving from San Francisco to Philadelphia. The move and the new job themselves will lead to change. Also: I don’t own a C&P, and so will have to find a new print shop to work with. If I wish anything for the Albion Books, it’s that this move will bring a bit more stability and the ability for me to make a deliberate plan about how the press will move forward. Part of my philosophy has been to remain reactive and adaptable, rather than aggressive and inflexible, and I won’t be giving that up; however, I would like to plan on making six books per year and to get them done. That kind of plan might also entail being less dependent on chance for what I publish, and seeking out or commissioning texts more often, which would also enable the press to cultivate more relationships with Canadian writers and also with more writers of color. Those are my goals for the next publishing year, which begins with Dawn Lundy Martin’s fabulous chapbook Candy.

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?

A: It’s safe to say that Albion Books has been both a learning experience and a training ground, and if I’m not totally happy with many of my earliest efforts, I’m unequivocal about the books I’ve made in the past year or so. I’m also amazed to think that, at this point, I’ve made well over seven hundred books by hand. Many of the broadsides and print ephemera have been lovely to look at, and I’ve also designed some limited edition hardcover books that I like. So I suppose I’m proud of having eventually created a certain kind of design sense for the chapbooks: an emphasis on color and on binding, on elements of surprise and elegance—despite and because of the constraints. If they’ve seen the books, I’m not sure folks have overlooked anything—but because of the limited edition sizes, the books have a built-in limitation in terms of audience. That’s both what keeps me sane and able to run the press. My biggest frustration has all along been the constraints I’ve been given and chosen to work within: so little time and so little money.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

A: Given my apprenticeship with Woodland Editions, it was inevitable that I take some basic operational and procedural cues from the workings of the press. But in terms of design and editing, I have two contemporary inspirations that couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, I’ve long admired the Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark’s Moschatel, which engages in a kind of low-impact gift economy self-publishing. Perhaps what I love most about the project—aside from Clark’s writing, and Laurie Clark’s drawings—is how the chapbooks and cards are so small and inconspicuous, and yet if you read the work, they open up conceptually into an engagement with the world, language always present as language and yet also always giving way to phenomena. Given that their bindings are largely minimal—a pamphlet stitch or a simple folded structure—their design carries a certain ethos that rhymes with the content of the work. On the other hand, I love Michael Cross’ Atticus/Finch publications, which are certainly more sumptuous in design and also, from a production perspective, more labor-intensive. Given the work he favors as an editor—highly structured and rigorous—this makes sense. I love that the work he publishes is demanding in a certain way of its readers, and that he responds to those demands as a printer and binder, too, creating designs whose structure is a kind of “gloss” or “reading of” the work inside. Somehow I’d like to combine these two modes of working with editing and bookmaking—which are in many ways inherently contradictory—and it’d be flattering if someone thought that I already had. But there other presses—both current and historical—who serve as beacons: Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba, Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society, C. D. Wright’s Lost Roads, the folks at Coracle, and Dale Going’s Em Press.

14 – How does Albion Books work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Albion Books in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?

A: Albion Books always publishes writers from the San Francisco Bay Area, but it very deliberately attempts to draw Bay Area poetics into conversation with elsewhere. The Bay Area tends to reify its poetry scene and its historical mythos, so it seems to me important to counter that through dialogue with the poetics of other cities and regions outside of New York. Inter-generational conversation that isn’t just hero worship is also an incredibly important and under-discussed aspect of literary community, so I try to draw at least one established writer into a mix of younger writers. 2009-2010 saw chaps by Stacy Szymaszek (NY), Peter O’Leary (IL), Laura Walker (CA), Jane Miller (AZ), and Nathanäel (IL), and 2010-2011 saw chaps by Jonathan Skinner (ME), Lisa Fishman (WI), George Albon (CA) and C. D. Wright (RI). I find the range of both seasons interesting and textured—each of the chapbooks is a completely different reading experience, a fact that I like and admire when I encounter it in other lists.

I imagine the poetics of Albion Books is probably in conversation with that of the small presses whose work I like to read: Brenda Iijima’s portable press, E. Tracy Grinnell’s Litmus, Erin Morrill and Andrew Kenower’s Trafficker, Rachel Levitsky’s Belladonna, Julie Carr’s and Tim Robert’s Counterpath, Sandra and Ben Doller’s 1913, Sun Yung Shin’s and Rachel Moritz’s winteRed, Jay MillAr’s Book Thug, Anna Moschovakis’ and Matvei Yankelvich’s Ugly Duckling Presse, Devin Johnston’s and Michael O’Leary’s Flood Editions, Kazim Ali’s and Stephen Motika’s Nightboat, Renee Gladman’s Leon Works, Teresa Carmody’s and Vanessa Place’s Les Figues, Rusty Morrison’s and Ken Keegan’s Omnidawn, and Elizabeth Robinson’s and Colleen Lookingbill’s Etherdome. But probably that’s just the beginning of a very long list that doesn’t even include journals. To participate in the conversation instigated by reading is, however, one reason for publishing the work.

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

A: Woodland Editions occasionally held press readings, but I haven’t yet found a way to coordinate one for Albion Books. This is likely because the authors I publish are spread all over the country, I have had no money, and also I would have to be able to make a hell of a lot of books all at once, something I haven’t always had the resources for. The interesting thing is that I don’t actually need to do readings like these to sell out an edition. However, I know how effective readings are for solidifying community ties, so I hope to do them in the future, when I’m settled in Philadelphia.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

A: At first I was Luddite on this point, but I got flexible. For over a year I’ve had a website for the press, and for a couple of years I’ve used email announcements to spread word about publication dates and subscription rates. Both of these methods have worked well to speed up the rate at which the editions go out of print. The one thing I would like to do that I haven’t yet been able to: keep the texts of the chapbooks alive by archiving them on the website, the way that Ugly Duckling Presse does.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

A: I haven’t needed to take submissions, but I wouldn’t say that I don’t take them—at least one of the chapbooks has come through an author just giving me a manuscript. Given how few books I do, the press easily fills up without an open call.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.

A: Jonathan Skinner, Warblers (2010): I heard Jonathan read from this series of poems at Green Arcade in San Francisco, and I immediately loved them. They’re constraint-based poems, but their constraints are drawn not from Oulipo-like games, but rather from species-specific qualities of warblers: habitat, migration patterns, song, etc. We’re very used to the idea that art imitates life, but I like the intelligent humor and humility of Jonathan’s particular brand of literality, which everywhere show up in the poems as homophonic transcriptions of birdsong—I asked Jonathan to include the constraints as an endnote to the chapbook, and he agreed. This has been an unusual chapbook because a lot of readers have taken the time to let me know how much they enjoyed it as text and as object, which is particularly gratifying because this was the book whose first design completely fell apart. Once I regrouped, the second design turned into a lot of fun because I took my cues from Jonathan’s poems—I based the colors and cover design on the colors and habits of the prothonotary warbler.

C. D. Wright, Jean Valentine, Abridged: “writing a word/changing it” (2011): C. D. read this talk about Jean Valentine’s work in Denver a few years ago. First of all: it was quite moving to hear such a deeply loving tribute from one woman writer to another. Second: C. D.’s read of Jean’s poems is deeply perceptive. Because both writers have been so important to me, I immediately wanted to publish the talk as a chapbook, and to make a broadside of one of Jean’s poems to go with it—it took a few years for this to come about. I enjoyed the design of this book, too: I took C. D.’s description of Jean’s visual palette—“Valentine’s palette is mostly gray. Next is blue (borage, cobalt, silk, robe, egg-blue). Then white. Some inherent greens. But she draws most often from the gray scale.”—and used that as the basis for seeking out paper and choosing the color of the inks. Because each element of the book is a different color—the covers are cobalt, the endpapers a kind of borage, and the text is gray—I was worried until the very end it wouldn’t cohere. But in the end, the inks and binding thread tied it together.

George Albon, Ryman Room (2011): George is one of San Francisco’s best-kept poetry secrets. His prolific body of work is consistently intelligent, prosodically rigorous and deeply rooted in the best qualities of Bay Area poetry: restless, inventive, political, and committed both to beauty (eros) and to skeptical inquiry (logos). The manuscript came to me directly from George, who’d been watching as the press developed, and it also came with some pretty concrete ideas about how the book would look: white, blind-stamped, square. Of course I loved the manuscript, a series of prose poems alternating with lyrics printed in grayscale—in part a meditation on the phenomenology of abstraction, in part a journey around the “room” created by Ryman’s paintings. But I also liked the challenge of making a book that in some ways George had already envisioned—one very much in keeping with Ryman’s own aesthetics. White books can be really terrifying to make because of the likelihood of staining them, but I ended up finding a really durable and fairly matte white cover stock, which quelled a lot of anxiety about their durability both in my hands and in the hands of others.

No comments: