Tuesday, September 20, 2016

12 or 20 (small press) questions with D.S. Stymeist on Textualis Press

Textualis Press, established in September 2014, publishes limited-edition, hand-bound poetry books on high-quality paper.

D.S. Stymeist’s poems have appeared in numerous magazines, including The Antigonish Review, Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, Steel Chisel, Ottawater, and The Fiddlehead. His work was featured as the Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s Poem of the Month (February 2015) and was short-listed for Vallum’s 2015 poetry prize. He teaches poetics, Renaissance drama, and aboriginal literature at Carleton University. He grew up as a resident of O-Pipon-Na-Piwin Cree Nation, is the editor and founder of the micro-press, Textualis, and is the current vice-president of VERSe Ottawa. His collection, The Bone Weir, is forthcoming with Frontenac House.

1 – When did Textualis 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?
Textualis Press started in late 2014, and its goals haven’t changed much. Give it time. On a practical level, I’ve learnt how to solicit, edit, manufacture, and distribute small books. I’ve certainly learnt that a hell of a lot of labour goes into making small books. While perhaps not strictly educational, I’ve also met and gotten to know many local writers, artists, and readers through this process; running a small press has certainly helped me become a fuller member of the Ottawa arts scene.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I saw that a number of other small book publishers in my adopted community of Ottawa (above/ground, Apt. 9) were producing chapbooks featuring the work of local writers and deriving a lot of pleasure in the process.  I wanted to escape the stultifying atmosphere of academia, serve my local community, bring new work to readers, and learn the craft of making small books. Setting up a small press seemed like the best way to accomplish all of this.

The craft aspect of small book publishing especially appealed to me. As a critic and writer, I spend far too much time in my own head, which at times can be a very inhospitable place. Book manufacture requires a special kind of manual labour, it requires focus, precision of physical movement. Through the repetitive gestures involved in the scoring of cover stock, the folding of paper, and the stitching together of chapbooks with awl, needle, and waxed cord, one enters a more meditative state. The conscious mind stops “thinking” as it becomes too involved with coordinating movement. In a way, the small book maker becomes a small machine—this is a peculiarly comforting thing to me. (I was born in Detroit, the birthplace of assembly line manufacture, so perhaps mindless industry is in my blood.)

I also became acutely aware that there were many fine poets in Ottawa who had very little publishing exposure at the small press level. I felt that if I could help to publicize and share their work, I should. Beyond providing immediate local exposure, these kind of small press books can be valuable stepping stones to larger projects and potentially enable access to trade presses and wider readership. In other words, they can help empower emerging artists.

That being said, the mandate of Textualis is not solely to foreground the work of emerging artists, but also to provide a venue for more established artists to participate in publishing in a craft form, or to publish at a local level in order to further their ties to the community.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing? 
Small publishing has some natural advantages in comparison to “big” publishing. For one thing, I can use expensive paper materials and labour-intensive techniques that no commercial press could justify in the production of a commercial product. I’m not profit driven, so I don’t have to worry too much about readership and market forces—I can simply publish writing that I enjoy, that I find value in. I can only hope that others will enjoy it too.

My responsibilities as a publisher, and I think this is true for trade publishing as well as small publishing, are to provide an accurate, well-designed, attractive material vehicle for the poet’s verse.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I’m not sure that any press can offer unique content or form, but I think that the experimental and avant-garde poetry communities in Ottawa are already fairly well-served. My press titles offer striking subject material thoughtfully wedded to form. The poems should be readable, apprehendable, emotive, stylistically adept, and arresting. Perhaps the press attempts to operate as a rear-guard to the avant-garde.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
Readings, press fairs, social media, word of mouth, and recruiting poets who can champion their work.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
As an academic who has marked thousands of undergraduate essays, I’ve had to learn to step back from an overly directive approach and become more of a mid-wife, assisting the writer where there might be need. Editing, I think, at its best is a dialogic process, where there is give and take on both sides.

7 – What are your usual print runs?
A typical print run is 60-80 copies. Depends on how long my particular stock of specialty paper holds out.

8 – 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?
I’ve never imagined that Textualis would be a vehicle for my own writing. I don’t trust myself with my own work—I need the restraining, correcting, second-sight influence that a publishing house with professional editors provides. However, self-publishing can allow emerging and/or radical authors to have something to distribute to potential readers; this can be invaluable, for if you wait for trade presses to recognize the brilliance of your manuscript in their slush piles, you could wait a very long time indeed.

9 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What is your biggest frustration?
I’m very proud, amazed really, with each of the little books I’ve put together. My biggest frustration is that I often have to import paper from the States, as the range of quality papers available in Canada is severely limited. Another huge frustration is finding machines that will run the cover stocks that I use without spitting them out, shredding them, our chewing them up in some inaccessible part of the printer. Oh yeah, and the price of ink cartridges—a corporate scam if I ever saw one.

10 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
I like the whole punk DIY ethic. One of the first times I really encountered it was in San Francisco in the 80’s, where Aaron Cometbus was selling a series of little zines of his memoirs about his travels, living on the streets, and the whole bay area punk scene. The guy was a fabulous writer, and he was writing about stuff no mainstream press would touch at the time. He didn’t have access to commercial publishing, so he did it himself.

The other end of the spectrum, I do a fair bit of critical work on crime pamphlets published in Renaissance England. Predating the periodical press, these little books reported on the spectacular crimes of their day and often featured lurid woodcuts to accompany the reportage. Designed to be cheap, easily digestible, and somewhat tawdry, they were nonetheless real works of craft and artistry. The kinds of paper I use and the stitching that I do with my own press is not so far off from that which publishers from the very earliest days of print would use.

11 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals? 
At some point in the future, I will develop an online presence for the press. Have to find the time. [ed. note: he finally found the time]

12 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
At the moment, I’m not taking unsolicited submissions. The books take a considerable time to produce, and with the responsibilities of taking care of my daughter, teaching, and organizing VerseFest, I find that I can only realistically produce 2-3 titles in a calendar year.

13 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Vivian Vavassis’ chapbook, XII does a superb job in forging coherences between short lyrical poems to construct a compelling narrative of desire, loss, and the human need to recognize and be recognized by another. She effectively weaves motifs, like the honeycomb, through an elliptical series of poems—departing from an image only to have it reappear in an altered guise.

Vivian’s imagery is particularly fresh and evocative, “Loving you, I became a long-limbed trapeze artist.”

There is much in Sneha Madhavan-Reese’s Variations in Gravity that captivates: the precision of her intellect, the range of her subject material, the care with which she uses language, but perhaps above all else, her compassion, something we’d all like to see more of in the world. I have a particular fondness for the variety of her object-poems; in “Dinoflagellates,” she describes these minute beings, on which so much life depends, with linguistic flair:

            Whirling whips, these
            single-cell drifters
            flail their flagella
            and spin in the tide.

I’ve been a long-time admirer of Stephen Brockwell’s playful and politically pungent verse, and I think that “Where Did You See It Last” contains some of his best work. In “Marathon Water Station, 24 Mile Waypoint,” his alexandrines take longer and longer to say as the people in the race get slower and slower—this is simply a tour-de-force performance by a poet at the height of their powers. The articulation of his observations can simply knock a reader off their perch: “Old scotch strider, knobbed knees buckle under his kilt…”

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