Sebastian Frye is the founder and artistic director of Swimmers Group. He began the project as an extension of his artistic practice which included drawing, writing, and sculpture. Swimmers Group has grown to encompass a collaborative space that is larger than any individual practice. Many talented people have helped shape Swimmers Group into the small press it is today.
1 – When did Swimmers Group 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 had the idea to start a publishing house because it fused all my artistic ambitions into one profession. A publisher to me was someone who bottled our collective creativity. The name ‘Swimmers Group’ came spontaneously in 2014. The power of the creative process and being a good collaborator guide me. This goal hasn’t changed, but how I approach it has.
2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I am always re-learning what publishing means, but what appealed to me was to support artistic integrity. When I attended NSCAD University, group critiques were new to me, but I was drawn to them because they ignited dialogue. What I liked about other artists work impressed itself upon me more than my own projects. After trying my hand at being an artist, I decided it wasn’t for me and that my skills lay more in identifying what was so interesting (to me) about other artworks, poems, or stories and landed upon publishing as a way to encourage this.
3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
To pick what you like and reproduce it. To replicate the feeling you get when you look at, read, or listen to something. The work of the publisher is to provide a substrate for our individual and collective lives. Some documents are historical, and some are trivial, the details of which don’t matter as much as the intention of the eyes selecting it. You can’t publish everything, so it helps to have other opinions around to draw from. Above all, the responsibility of the publisher is to the maker of the work published. Part of publishing is friendship.
4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
While it’s not exactly new. What we are doing is exploring how pictures and words interact with a sensitivity to the object or vessel the work needs. We are finding ways to cross-fertilize disciplines and bring together the creative variety in our community. The titles we have produced so far are eclectic and far-reaching, and we want to continue to expand what constitutes a good book. What we discovered, only very recently, was that the opportunity to produce books suggested a way to blend genres, disciplines, and creators. For every poetry book, there should be a visual element, and for every visual book, a poetic one. This emphasis is important for many other publishers, but for us it is a matter of necessity. Disseminating information is one thing, but creating a reading experience opens another dimension. Digital modes exist to read anything, but analog vessels are rarer, so we just want to make the best of the opportunity we are given.
5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new titles out into the world?
Nothing is better than simply handing a book to someone with a personal recommendation. That is what our publishing project is built on. Fairs, festivals, and launches allow us to stand before our audience directly and talk to them. This is not only exciting — to connect with others over the work of our authors and artists — but also the most fruitful commercially. Alongside these 1-on-1 methods, we also have a webstore and some small distributors that we work with.
We are constantly seeking to improve and establish the depth and breadth of our distribution network, in-fact, it is one of the most important aspects of any publishing venture. Once the channels are established and the work created the route the books take through tributaries, being shared across geographies, is the ultimate reward for our hard work.
6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I am probably a more lenient editor than I should be. I keep returning to a quote I read about Kurt Schwitters. To very poorly paraphrase: he was having coffee, or tea — I imagine — with someone, perhaps another artist, and he took the drawing or somesuch that was being worked on and ripped a piece and placed it differently to the horror of his compatriot. When asked, “What have you done?”, Schwitters said “I don’t know, but whatever it is, I have done it, and it cannot be undone!” I like to think of all creativity in these terms and accept and embrace the work of the artist. My intention is to clarify and solidify the work through discussion with the author or artist. I do have opinions and ideas about what I think a work should be, but I would like to think I can recognize when I’m stepping on someone’s toes, and when I’m lifting them up.
7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
Our books are printed in runs of 100 - 300. There are three branches of our book distribution: local, wholesale, and online. The best of all is local, where we host events or attend book fairs. It is not only personally rewarding, but to be able to connect author to audience is invaluable. As for wholesalers, we are fortunate to work with AB.C, Spit & a Half, and Domino Books at the moment. Finally, the online store is still the best place to receive all our titles, but it is in need of some cosmetic and functional improvements. We are always exploring how to strengthen our current routes, but also explore alternatives and experiment with limited pressings and special events.
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?
More recently I have acquired the aide of two very important people: Jonathan Pappo and Oliver Cusimano. These two are basically taking the lead on the publishing and I am focusing on art direction and print production. I am not only comfortable with this switch, I am excited at the potential it opens up for deep collaborations between us, and I am sure they will have a different set of tools that will carve new creative space.
9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I have learned to be easier on myself and allow myself to try things I would have been too self-critical of in the past. I’m not sure if this is a result of editing/publishing other’s work, or just realizing I can’t change who I am fundamentally, but I have felt more carefree and accepting of writing how I please. A lot of people who know of Swimmers Group might not even know I write, or draw, or make art, so it’s not as though this work is being received, but self-confidence is something I have always struggled with and so knowing that at least my tastes have resonance has re-assured me I am making some good decisions.
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?
Interesting question and one I have thought about occasionally but never rested on any opinion. Sometimes when I see it, it barely registers, as when New Directions publishes James Laughlin’s poems. Other times it’s distasteful, as when a publishing house seems to exist for the sole purpose of staking out territory for the publisher and their friends/colleagues. Really though, I don’t care much.
11 – How do you see Swimmers Group evolving?
Swimmers Group was conceived as a way to crystallize creative movements within artistic and literary communities. The emphasis on the ‘Group’ aspect has been lacking up until now. The inclusion of Oliver and Jonathan on the publishing side hints at a new horizon for what a publishing house can be. At the heart of the project is an aspect of experimentalism and this extends into the administration. One possibility for the future is rotating the publishers/designers and maybe even enlisting artists/writers with little-to-no publishing experience to helm the project for a year. In this way we keep the idea open and permeable. I think the conventional model for publishing is to be good at one thing, and I understand why that is, and in some ways I strive for that, but the age we live in now is so flexible; we can be more subtle than that.
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?
The project I am most proud of — perhaps because I not only led the concept, but also designed and printed it as well — is a 26-zine collection called CG(eye). The acronym, if you want to call it that, is another open idea. Lately I’ve been calling it “Communication Games One”, but when I conceived it I intended it to showcase ‘good graphics’ (a distinction I prized when I played computer games as a kid) and so referred to it as “Canadian Graphics International”, in the same vein as the Situationist International — a kind of loose knit camaraderie among artists looking to up-end convention. The name is a variable. The overall idea was to create a reading experience that could be constantly reconfigured, but still maintain coherence as a book.
I started by jotting down names of artists I wanted to work with. The list comprised of a mostly female cast, so I decided to follow that lead and the final project consists of 26 contemporary female artists that at one point or another had some contact with Toronto. This was the loose thread running through them geographically, but artistically they were all solving visual problems in ways that resonated and echoed each other. I think this is what, if I have any talents, I am able to perceive: some interpretative link between visual systems.
The project is overlooked, and largely unknown, because it was early in my publishing career and I hadn’t yet nailed down marketing and promotion. The audience for the book is out there, it’s just a matter of the right people eventually finding the project. It’s a slow burn.
13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Although I basically inherited a family business, my publishing focus is different. My parent’s company, RPF & Co. — which still exists — is an academic and scholarly press. I want to be an experimental press, like Something Else Press or smaller publishers within my community like Colour Code and Perish Publishing. I think I gravitate towards vision and texture and so what inspired me is what felt or looked right. Stuff like the cover designs of New Directions Paperbacks or the size and shape of Cape Editions, or even the durability of sewn-bound Meridian books — these planted the seeds of what I wanted my books to be. Essentially I think of myself as an artist making books and I approach the publishing in that way as well. I’m not a a born entrepreneur, that is a set of skills I am still learning and acquiring. I like other artists who work within books, and can relate to their struggles, drives, and ambitions.
14– How does Swimmers Group work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Swimmers Group in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
Even though I’ve been at this now for three years, I haven’t established the thoroughfares for dialog with my contemporaries in a way that has bridged our respective projects. There are many journals, blogs, publishers, and persons that I admire and am striving to connect with, but I still feel a little isolated. I’ve kept my head down and been focused on the details of book-making and only recently have tilted my focus to the horizon and am looking at ways to communicate across the many platforms open to me.
15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I have started more regularly to host readings and launches and it is incredible the kind of attendance and attention people bring to these events. At first Brad Casey co-ordinated launches for each issue of the 4 Poets magazine, of which he is the editor. At these events he was able to translate the excitement of musical performances into poetry — by bringing these two forms together. These events were exceedingly well attended, beyond my expectations, and opened my eyes to the potential and importance of launches and readings. Another event that reinforced my belief in gatherings around publications was a small intimate evening hosted in my apartment for DIS_appointment — an anthology edited by Oliver and Jonathan. The crowd was the writers. Each contributor would stand up in their spot and read, then they’d sit down and the next one would start, across the room, or right beside you. The polarities of these two events drove home that there is a great deal of nuance and experimentation available in hosting poetry and publication events. Even such things as screenings — of which I just hosted one at my studio with a discussion afterwards — is an avenue that I am excited to explore in the future.
16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
The internet is not as vital as I would have imagined — but perhaps I have just not tapped into its fullest potential yet. I have an online store and a website, and I promote and disseminate new publications using Instagram as well. These forums are instantaneous and ubiquitous. They can be very powerful. One way in which I am interested in using them, but have yet to implement, is creating a website where one can actually construct custom publications for print from an array of materials which Swimmers Group publishes and produces. For example, CG(eye) is a perfect source for this. Users could drag and drop portions of the book together, send it as an order, and we could assemble it together in our studio as a stand-alone product. Traversing the territory of unique publications via user interaction is a real possibility that I am looking forward to.
17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Early on I worked with those who expressed interest in my project and whom I had intelligent and interesting conversations with. I didn’t exactly ask them to submit work, but when it came up that a publication could be assembled or was lying in wait, it just happened. Now I’m a bit more systematic, and with the help of Oliver & Jonathan, the process is more about discussion and programming as oppose to chance encounters. I’m not sure what it is exactly that I’m looking for. It changes. It’s about personality and conviction. I want to publish something that feels vital. Maybe it’s just for the moment, maybe it’s timeless. Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.
18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
I just recently completed work on a photo/painting book with Alex Bierk which was a year or so in the making. If there is any evidence that the iPhone can be a poetic photographic device, his work is it. I am a huge believer in the quotidian; in observing our vagarious universe through familiar places and things. Alex has a way of capturing the stillness and strangeness of life through his paintings and photographs of the rural/urban dichotomy that is Peterborough. Derek McCormack also chimed in with an essay in the book which uncovers the sinister elements latent in it.
The next one is a unusual collaboration with Sarah Sands Phillips. I met Sarah years ago and we discussed potentially working together. She gave me a mountain of scraps and some poems printed on newsprint with a busted typewriter. The scraps may yet turn into something, but the poems on newsprint immediately called to us and we answered. It took a while to listen to exactly what form these works wanted to take, but in the end we tried our best to reproduce them as closely as possible in a limited edition of 25 packages of loose sheets. The poems are about the tactile and limited nature of the materials and we want to convey this. In a way it is a simple set of poems, but it is also an art multiple that was actually quite complicated and difficult to reprint. We are very proud of the outcome and its verisimilitude.
The final selection of work that I have created recently is Spell by David Peter Clark. David is a unique poet that travels along the lineage of W. B. Yeats. With a perplexing command of language and ideas, his work is big and demanding. He is not an easy writer, but I have found myself absorbing and understanding his influence more and more over time. I have even started writing in some similar ways — ways in which I was at first repelled by. His book Spell is a dense and complicated wandering through philosophy, language, and life with overtones of the occult and supernatural. Still at the beginning of his career as a writer, I think it will take time for his audience and appreciation to grow, but I am confidant that those who step into his world will be undeniably drawn to it and changed because of it.
12 or 20 (small press) questions;