Saturday, July 11, 2015

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Kent MacCarter on Cordite Books

Kent MacCarter (Managing Editor, Site Design, Short Reviews Editor) is a writer and editor in Castlemaine, with his wife and son. He holds a BA in Accounting from the University of Montana, a BA in Finance from the University of Montana, and an MA in English with focus on Creative Writing from University of Melbourne. His publishing career began at University of Chicago Press in 2000, and since he has work with educational publishers Cengage Learning and Curriculum Press in Australia. He’s the author of three poetry collections – In the Hungry Middle of Here (Transit Lounge, 2009), Ribosome Spreadsheet (Picaro Press, 2011) and Sputnik’s Cousin (Transit Lounge, 2014). He is also editor of Joyful Strains: Making Australia Home (Affirm Press, 2013), a non-fiction collection of diasporic memoir. He is an active member in Melbourne PEN, and was executive treasurer on the board for Small Press Network from 2009-2013. In 2012 he received a Fulbright Travel Award to attend writing festivals and lecture at Indonesian universities.

1 – When did Cordite 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?
Cordite Books began quite recently, November 2014 to be exact. But Cordite Press Inc., the non-profit that publishes Cordite Poetry Review, was founded in 1997 by Australian poets Peter Minter and Adrian Wiggins. The first five issues of Cordite Poetry Review were newsprint broadsheets, then it went online-only just a few months after Jacket began. Interestingly, it was these two poetry publications that pioneered the space for Australian literature (of any kind) online, before many other publications that have come and gone, and even before a number of Australian newspapers, too.

Alan Loney’s new collection, Crankhandle, is what pushed me over the edge to do print books. I’d been hounding Loney to run some of his work for years – online – and he’d steadfastly refused, finding the treatment and ultimate display of his poetry online in Jacket (years earlier) so poor and traumatising for him that he vowed never to do it again. And he hasn’t, and still won’t. Loney chiefly does short-run art books with various small presses around the world, which most readers cannot afford. Beautiful things. I’m not sure how he came to be in Australia initially, but he’s been here and, sadly, largely ignored for at least a decade, and has forsaken, or been forsaken by, his native New Zealand (for rumour and conjecture that I’m not going to wade into). Anyhow, your English-language poetry collection is incomplete without Crankhandle, no matter where you are on Earth. Which gets me back to when Cordite Books started; pretty much as soon as I had my e-hands on the manuscript he emailed me. I had to do it in an accessible way, and online wasn’t an option. Ross Gibson, John Hawke and Natalie Harkin followed. I spent way more than I could have on cover design and high-quality paper stock – Zoë Sadokierski’s series design is absolutely worth it – yet this expense was offset by printing four books at once. It’s worth it to make non-POD books with paper that won’t fox by your next birthday. And I am unbelievably fortunate to start with these four authors.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
My publishing career began, such as it’s been, wending its circuitous way around the constraints of geography I have foisted upon it, at University of Chicago Press. I certainly wasn’t working on their storied poetry list at the time, however. There, it was my duty to cajole university libraries around the world to renew subscriptions to Critical Inquiry, as well as a litany of other journals. One of those journals had a circulation under 40. Really, some were easier to shill than others. I started in January 2000: the world had remained after Y2K, replete with hibachi and bottled-water caches, and jobs still required extant warm bodies to perform them. Journals were just moving online, then, and most of the fusty editors were terrified of this migration. I spent fours years there.

It soon dawned on me how foolish it’d be to not ‘take advantage’ of the spoils on offer at UC. No matter how hoity-toity that university’s policy was to not offer degrees in creative arts, and it was, asphyxiatingly so, it did stock some excellent minds to lurk its waters: Robert van Hallberg, Mark Strand, etc. Initially, I was too naive to be intimidated by them, which I quickly grew out of! I was enormously lucky to be accepted into one of Thom Gunn’s last ever poetry workshops. And so began the tide of language to return fire, carve a niche and then completely usurp the financial accounting and commerce degrees I got from University of Montana in 1996.
But what first brought me to publishing? I was living in a baby blue Ford Tempo, jobless and listless, when an enterprising old friend of mine from Grade 1 (true!) managed to finagle me into a junior role at the Press. I needed a job. And a room with heat.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
My goals as a publisher of poetry and publisher of critical poetry book reviews, and now books, are still being honed, but you can glean from these links an insight into my editorial mandate.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I could say that we’re interested in putting out exquisite-looking objects written by poets heretofore ignored or from those who’ve gone silent for years or new voices worth a read. And that’s all true. But many presses do that. The admittedly rather bonkers publishing model of Cordite Poetry Review – relying on a new guest editor every four months to deliver the backbone of our raison d’être (!!) – means that while what and who we publish is amazingly diverse, there are many cases where a poem is published that I wouldn’t have selected. Too, this means a lot of excellent work is not taken for publication. And that’s okay. It’s what we’re known for now, although the old guard seems totally incapable of understanding why we do that. So doing books is, quite selfishly, a way for me to get work I feel especially important out into the world. Expect to see books from Amanda Stewart, Berni M Janssen, Claire Nashar and Tony Birch in the near-ish future.

We’re also big on the transmedia overlap of comics and poetry, which we’ve championed for a while. There are some active pockets of this in the States, but we’ve been right there as well, though in Australia, so few people have actually noticed. Our special issue ‘PUMPKIN’ was great fun to produce, and the first of its kind anywhere. A pity the print publisher that wanted to do an expanded version lost the plot. Maybe we’ll do it one day. But we do have some Mandy Ord–Anna Krien and Bruce Mutard–Amanda Johnson collaborations in the works.

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

Chapbooks? Well, if you can manage it, print off 100 copies and give them away to anybody who wants one. But that’s easier waxed-lyrical than done. Since I am fortunate enough to have/am saddled with a pragmatic day job that has nothing whatsoever to do with poetry or my writing but does earn me a middle-class wage, I have been fortunate enough to do just as I’ve espoused. I gave a rudimentary guest lecture on O’Hara at Hasanuddin University in Indonesia – given I neither speak Bahasa Indonesia nor am an O’Hara scholar – and the best part was being able to dole out 50 copies of my Ribosome Spreadsheet to all the eager students who voluntarily showed up. That’s worth gobs more than, say, the ten bucks (or less) I might’ve made in trying to sell them. Most knew of O’Hara because of Mad Men.

But what about thicker, slightly ‘chappier’ books, such as the four I have just published? I have deliberately kept them trim, but long enough to be considered full-length collections in the eyes of peers and funding bodies. Somebody else can do the mighty tomes, not us. I talked to a few book distributors in Australia about carrying them. But, frankly, I already have the most captive market there’s going to be for a poetry book to make a sale within Australia, and a goodly ways outside our border, too. Some small Australian presses like Hunter Publishers and Sleepers Publishing have both the quality books and the connections to piggyback their smaller lists onto the chuckwagon of larger publishers’ distribution deal with Macmillan or Penguin. I would do that if I was given the opportunity but, again, I’m not sure Cordite Books needs to do that. Obviously, the print runs are minuscule compared to novels and non-fiction. And the books are not POD; they’ve been done in limited print runs.

For Cordite Books, the most effective way to get exposure for a book is to offer it up as an option for contributor payment. So, we have. Unfortunately, we’re still only able to pay Australian citizens or permanent residents, but we’ve tenaciously made sure we’ve been able to do that for a dozen years now. (We’re otherwise completely independent with no university lifeline or philanthropy. Yet.) But the majority of writers we publish are eligible for payment, so they can chose: full payment in cash for a poem, a combo of cash and books or just books. Up to them. No pressure. Free postage within Australia. This is brand-new for us, and while I am not naive enough to think that most contributors will opt for this, some definitely have. The point is, this model places the books front and centre to the most receptive audience possible, between four and six times a year. Constantly. No distribution company will ever be able to deliver that. And as a distribution channel it costs us nothing … save the 18 years of journal issue publishing we’ve already done. Of course, Cordite Books also has an online shop.

A journal’s circulation, be it in print or online, is calculated by a significant input of codswallop and fuzzy math. But funding bodies such as those partners Cordite Press Inc. (the parent non-profit company) has worked so hard to cultivate do like to see some numbers, and I can’t blame them. So, in their metrics, Cordite Poetry Review has a circulation of about 250,000 per year. More specifically, that number represents unique IP accesses per year. The location of our readers is: 56 per cent from Australia, 15 per cent from the USA, 5 per cent from the UK, 4 per cent from the Philippines, 3 per cent from Canada, 2 per cent each from India and New Zealand, and 1 per cent each from Germany, South Korea, Ireland, Indonesia, France and Singapore. Seventy-seven nations had 50 or more unique sessions per year that do not trip the bounce rate. It’s highly imperfect measuring, but it’s an indication of readership and subsequent exposure for the books.

So, I am comfortable that we’ll be able to get the books out to whoever may want them. I’m still pursuing getting tangible copies into the States, Canada and the UK, though. Any tips or nepotistic overtures in so doing are welcome. Also, I can highly recommend this article, ‘On Novelists and Poets,’ by Ivor Indyk, director of Giramondo Press in Sydney, which delves into the unique economy of poetry publishing worldwide.

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

Much more often than not, pretty light on from me regarding poems. Depends on the guest editor, though, for specific issues. At times we do take a poem on the condition of an edit or two, but that’s not too common. I was more involved with edits of the first four books, but even then, not deeply. Having typeset all the books myself, I can say that far more time went into getting the poems to look right and balance on the spreads. Natalie Harkin’s book took weeks to get right in that regard, and when you’re shoehorning a text done originally in Word into an InDesign space nowhere near the dimensions, well, that’s quite challenging. So form and appearance editing is as, or more, important to me. Mind you, I have been awfully choosy in going with the manuscripts I have, and that will remain. Frankly, Australian poetics is so fecund right now with exciting new writers (and, very much so, a number of poets always overlooked and still writing) that you can see it practically seep honey and blood all over the zeitgeist of our national letters (not to be confused with the narrower-defined bounty deemed ‘commercially viable’ and of the ilk of ‘what people want’). I can afford to be enormously choosy right now, so the deep-slicing edits aren’t needed. The basics, of course, are all part of the deal/fun.

As for reviews, essays, interviews and all the rest, the edits can be as deep as they need to be without an outright rejection of the work. Were we to have more resources, I’d be stricter still. 

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

I think I’ve covered this one already. Print runs are small. It’s poetry: worth doing, and can be done without losing money. But we’re not doing these books with a commercial imperative.

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?

We have an excellent Feature Reviews Editor in Bonny Cassidy, Scholarly Editor in Matthew Hall, Site Producer and Digital Editor in Benjamin Laird, Audio Producer in Ella O’Keefe and copy editors in Zenobia Frost and Penelope Goodes. Superlative minds, all. But, in terms of production, I am everything from ‘janitor’ to Managing Editor to CEO to grant writer to coder to bookkeeper to you name it. Most people assume we have a street address and an office with some staff and some computers and, you know, operate like an ‘actual’ not-for-profit small business. We need to. We are that. There is absolutely enough to do. We’re working on rectifying that. Before the print runs of our first four books in 2015, the only permanent asset that Cordite Press Inc. had owned since 1997 was the spring-loaded address stamper that inks our PO box address on mailers we use to send out review copies and, now, sold books. The rest? It’s ephemeral, loaned or donated.

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

We get between 5000–6000 poems submitted to us per year. We do about 50 reviews annually. And, everything else. Reading and assessing other writers’ work is an extremely effective way to discover problems in your own. I spot trends, and am afforded the at times perilous spot on the tip of the diving board where I can compare that which is really happening for me at a given time to what other writers are producing. More often than not, though, who cares? This far in to writing poetry, I’ve stopped trying to sculpt my own work to fit what I think others might like.

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?

For me, just about never. In my time as Managing Editor, I’ve had one poem taken by a guest editor, Duncan Hose, who indeed read it blind and selected it as per. I tossed a poem into the UMAMI-themed submissions recently, and Luke Davies selected it anonymously. That’ll make two poems in five years. Plenty. We’ve run some poems from editors on the masthead, and I have made it perfectly clear that’s fine by me. But we won’t be publishing my next book nor any of the masthead’s next books either. Cordite Poetry Review has a long history, though, and there are clearly points earlier in the aughts where some generous takes occurred. I have no tirade against doing so; it’s just not for me.

11– How do you see Cordite Books evolving?

We’re in, or, more apt, hoping to be in soon, a major transition for Cordite Press Inc. (Books and the journal). Having an actual, paid part-time staff member, some self-generated income and some long-term funding would see Cordite become a permanent fixture in Australia literature (though recent government funding shenanigans will likely derail this, more on this further on). True, we’ve managed to stick around for 19 years now, but in every MacGyver way possible. I’m not sure that’s tenable for much longer. We’ve been giving away the journal for free nearly the whole time. And I aim to keep it that way. As we all know from anywhere on Earth, arts funding is a cutthroat racket. So staying alive is the first order; evolving would be excellent. In nematode stage at the moment – get back to me when we’re a bivalve of some sort.

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?

As a print book publisher, we’re just starting out. It took five months from the germination of the idea of printing books to having four of them available, and I am proud of that. Typesetting in InDesign is a perpendicular experience to tagging poems with HTML. Each has its nuances and constraints, but all up, it’s easier to do in print. It’s been fun. I’m not sure we’ve been around long enough to be noticed much at all, let alone overlooked! Yet.

As for greatest frustration(s)?

The macro answer is: being fettered to the vagaries and political kniving that directly affect our funding. For our first 18 years of publishing, we had only one source of funding: the Australia Council for the Arts, a benevolent but not problem-free organisation that distributes public monies to the arts. The current bonkers right-wing government here has recently halved the Council’s budget, diverting that huge chunk of cash into an unnecessary new parallel government centre of arts ‘excellence’ so that it can further support the already well-funded machinery behind Australian opera, symphony and theatre, politicos’ chums and/or perceived pillars of said ‘excellence’. It’s a massive boondoggle that rorts public arts funding in just about every way. Since my time at Cordite Press Inc., I’ve diversified our funding. Now, we’re selling books.

The micro answer is: writers using the false constraints of Microsoft Word to arbitrarily centre whole poems (just because they can do it in three keystrokes) or using its tab function to create indents. Word’s tabs are untranslatable in HTML. If you submit poems to an online journal, please consider using hard spaces for floating lines.

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

Book-wise, I’ve always been a fan of Shearsman in Bristol, its books and journal combo, and the nature of what it publishes. Too, Salmon Poetry in County Clare; Graywolf Press in Minneapolis; Les Figues in Los Angeles; Titus Books in Auckland; BookThug in Toronto; Rabbit Poetry in Melbourne and Vagabond Press in Tokyo, run by Australian poet Michael Brennan. All going concerns that have managed to find a way to keep on. Call me a bourgeois twit, but I applaud when university presses still bother with poetry. In Australia, that’s UQP and UWAP. Truth is, I am making this caper up as I stumble along. Pass the refried beans, please.

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

There is a near-fetishisation (by funding bodies, writers’ festivals, etc) of the ‘new’ and ‘emerging’ and ‘young’; all appellations which deserve a gearing for coverage and attention (though it’s rather lopsided towards those bents at the moment). Cordite has some books coming up by poets that are thus: Autumn Royal, Claire Nashar, Siobhan Hodge. But we’re also interested in publishing new collections by writers who’ve been at it for a long time and toil in ‘woefully under-read’ eddies for years: Javant Biarujia, Berni M Janssen, Amanda Stewart.

The past decade has seen a significant changing of the guard in who holds the keys to Australia’s literary journals, which is an excellent development. Yes, the small scrum of editors that I am a part of are still ‘gatekeepers’ (as soon as you put out even the most DIY of zines, you assume a role of gatekeeper), and you have pockets of writers who will bellyache about that to their last breath, but at least some of those people are now women, openly gay or lesbian with a positive agenda to match, non-Anglo and many now under 50 years of age. Of course, the Internet has helped that significantly: foem:e, Tincture Journal, Verita La, Mascara Literary Review, Peril Magazine, Plumwood Mountain are all worth reading.

There is an upcoming double issue we’re doing with Melbourne’s The Lifted Brow, and, as mentioned, we recently did something similar with Arc Poetry Magazine in Ottawa. We did a fully bilingual issue (English and Bahasa Indonesia) with the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta and a similar bilingual project in English and Korean with the Sidney Myer Asialink Foundation, again here in Melbourne. We’ve got a bilingual Australian poetry sample in the works with Lichtungen in Graz, and are just about to launch a major bi-national issue with a heavy focus on New Zealand poetry and its literary goings-on. I think the e-chapbook on contemporary Scottish poetry we did with Robyn Marsack of the Scottish Poetry Library was great.

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

We don’t. It’s all I can do to organise a launch for the first four books (all in one go) in Melbourne and another in Sydney. I just don’t have the headspace or resources to be an event maven, too, on top of everything else required. But I am a big fan of readings and events; Toby Fitch’s Avant Gaga in Sydney, Bonny Cassidy’s Sporting Poets in Melbourne and Ken Bolton’s Lee Marvin Series in Adelaide are all terrific. The Queensland Poetry Festival in Brisbane is also an engaging annual affair, and it has cultivated a distinct Canadian connection. Shane Rhodes and I did a major double issue exchange between our nations last year.

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

I do believe we’ve mastered this one back to front and sideways. There are some excellent online poetry publications out there, and I’d wager we’re at times equalled but never bested for the presentation of poems online. That said, our current idiosyncratic site architecture is beyond tired, and we have a new site design in the works. But I am referring to the treatment of poems here, and I need to say that it’s critical for us to make reading poetry online an enjoyable experience … but not one to usurp the pleasure of an artefact in print. We spend a mammoth amount of time reproducing poems online, matching how their authors have submitted them. Rarely will it be 100 per cent, due in large part to fonts and, again, the maddening reliance poets have on the tab function in Word. But we get awfully, awfully close. We also allow contributors to log in to our site and proof their own work before it’s published. On a few desperate occasions, and always on account of late work, we’ve used snapshots of complex poetic forms. I think five times or fewer. Ever. This is code. As is this. I am quite adept at marking up poems in HTML now, but Benjamin Laird, Cordite’s Site Producer, is a grand master whose name ought only be whispered.

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

For the journal? Yes. Nearly always there’s a themed or unthemed window of submissions open. For books, no. Not at this time.

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

We'’ve only done four so far. I’m fond of them all. Regarding Canadian readers specifically, if you’re interested in Indigenous/First Nation, postcolonial works, then Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words is going to singe your retinas. It’s the kind of book PEN would champion were Natalie and I not residents of Australia, but were subjects in a few regimes around the world … and I dare say we’d be vanishing from the supermarket in a few weeks from now were this published within such a political fug. It’s all Harkin, though, and an honour to publish. We won’t be doing any books about kookaburras and jolly swagmen.

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