Tuesday, March 30, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Jenna Butler on Rubicon Press

Rubicon Press publishes extraordinary poetry from Canada and around the world. A small chapbook press founded in Norwich, England, Rubicon is now based out of Edmonton, Alberta. To date, the press has published over twenty-five collections of poetry from writers around the globe.

Jenna Butler is a poet, editor, and educator. She is the author of three short collections, plus a recently-released full collection from NeWest Press, Aphelion. She lives in Edmonton, where she teaches at MacEwan University and is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.

1 – When did Rubicon 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?

Rubicon started up in the spring of 2005 over in England. I created the press with Yvonne Blomer to publish a small anthology by the students on the MA in Poetry at the University of East Anglia, as there was no real venue available for the poets to present their work at the university. Our goals have since shifted/expanded to include publishing poetry chapbooks from writers around the world. (Our home has shifted, too; from the UK back home to Canada.)

We’ve learned that it takes a great deal of time to keep a small press going and that funding is pretty much non-existent, but that it is important to keep small venues for poetry, like Rubicon, going to provide platforms for writers at all stages in their careers.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

A love of chapbooks’ sense of intimacy and a desire to work one-on-one with poets to create collections in which they would have a hand in the design/layout.

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

At a time when funding for trade publishers continues to be cut and large publishing houses have to scale back, small publishing really needs to stay strong and keep venues open for both new and established writers to get their work out. Small-scale publishing is less dependent on outside funding; I won’t pretend it’s not difficult, but we can keep chugging when things get scanty. We need to keep putting in the time to get these little books and broadsheets out.

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

We’re one of the few chapbook presses (perhaps the only one?) whose mandate is to publish and promote extraordinary poetry from around the world. It’s a big, big goal—it’s much easier to market poets who are known within one’s own country. But there is some really great work out there and if we can help to connect poets from one country to the next, even in our small way, then it’s worth it.

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

These days, of course, digital media offers so many great opportunities for getting work out and available online. We do promote online, but we also encourage our authors to set up readings and launches in their home countries; to bring their books to the audiences who know and support them. Our writers come from all walks of life with varying access to technology, so we can’t take for granted the notion that they will all be blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, etc. about their new work. And there’s still something very compelling about attending a simple launch held by a poet whose work one admires.

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

It really depends on the collection. Ultimately, I look at it as a partnership deal. I’m working with a poet to best showcase his or her writing. I usually have a number of suggestions, comments, and queries, and I find that I can generally come to a positive consensus with the writers I work with. I’m not trying to change their work; my job is to tweak it where needed to tighten it up and make it as strong as possible on the page. Chapbooks can be a tough medium that way. There’s no room in thirty or fewer pages to hide weak poems.

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

Because we’re an international press, we distribute through absolutely any means possible. We have local bookstores in Edmonton and Victoria who kindly stock our chapbooks. We also attend book fairs whenever possible. We have an online store at our website, and we also distribute through the post and in person. Finally, we really encourage our authors to find connections of their own (local bookstores, etc. who will support them and bring in their books). We’ve even had Rubicon collections go to a book fair in Shanghai; pretty neat!

Our usual print runs are 200 copies. Yes, we do second printings (and more, when required). We have had some chapbooks sell in excess of 600 copies, which is pretty darn amazing for any poetry collection, let alone a little chapbook! It’s thrilling to tell an author that his or her chapbook has gone into its fourth printing.

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?

There are two of us involved in the chapbooks. Yvonne does some of the editing while balancing a busy writing life of her own and a wonderful young son. I do a large part of the editing and the communication with authors, the design, and the production. I work with a local printer who professionally prints the books after I’ve completed the designs in concert with their authors.

It’s neat to be able to work with another editor and bounce ideas off each other; it’s also great to be able to get a second opinion about manuscripts. The one particular challenge Yvonne and I face (aside from time...there’s never enough time!) is distance. She is in Victoria and I am in Edmonton. It makes sending proofs back and forth very time-consuming.

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

I think a great deal more about the cohesion of my work; how the poems work in series or as a complete manuscript. I find that I am more likely now to work on sets than just random poems. I’m always looking for that fit.

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?

I think there are compelling arguments on both sides. I know of a number of poet-editors who have put out collections with the presses they work for, often because they believe their work to be a good fit for the press, and they engage with another editor in the creation of their collections to gain the benefit of an impartial eye.

We’ve decided not to publish our own collections through Rubicon; we designed the press to publish other writers’ work and that’s what we’re comfortable producing. You’ll find a handful of our poems in only one Rubicon collection: our first, the anthology In the Laughter of Stones, printed in England in 2005. Even that was only at the insistence of our colleagues at the university, for whom we were editing the collection. Since that time, we’ve happily abstained and sought other venues outside Rubicon for our own work.

11 – How do you see the press evolving?

We’re moving a bit more in the direction of imported paper and eclectic design, although we still do some laser images on covers at the request of some of the poets we work with. Basically, we continue to expand our design and presentation as we come across a more and more diverse range of poets.

We do not, however, plan to expand into trade publishing; we get that question a lot and we’re quite clear about it. Chapbooks are where we’re at and what we love to work with.

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?

Personally, I’m thrilled to have been part of the publication of over twenty five collections of great poetry from around the world! That never ceases to amaze me. I’m proud that we’re able to run a little press that can stand on its own whether it receives outside funding or not.

It’s always a challenge to continue to promote and publish chapbooks by poets outside of Canada; it takes a great deal more work to get those collections out there and make people aware of them. Sometimes the poets are new writers, and this compounds the difficulty of promotion. Yes, it can be frustrating (chapbooks are such a niche market as it is), but it never ceases to be worth it.

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

I really loved the chapbooks put out by Greenboathouse back in the early 2000s and I continue to admire their work a great deal. (I don’t think Rubicon will be going the letterpress route, though.)

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

We’ve taken part in readings, book fairs, and have spoken at schools and post-secondary institutions in both our home cities. When we publish a local author, whether in Victoria or Edmonton, we make sure to hold a launch to celebrate that writer’s accomplishment. For instance, Yvonne just hosted Wendy Donawa in Victoria for the launch of her new chapbook this winter. I spent a wonderful Sunday afternoon with Edmonton poet Wendy McGrath just this past weekend, sitting at a book-signing table at a gardening fair for the release of her new chapbook, preserving.

I’ve spent some time dialoguing with poet and publisher Trisia Eddy about her press, red nettle. Last year, she and I were both invited by poet Marita Dachsel to speak about small press publishing to a Faculty of Extension group from the University of Alberta. It was really reaffirming to talk about the similarities we share as small press publishers (lack of funding, fitting publishing in around our jobs, families, and lives, etc.) and the differences between our two presses.

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

I’d say we hold occasional launches and readings, as many of the poets we publish live outside of Canada. But we do encourage those outside the country to hold launches in their hometowns; we advertise these launches on our site and otherwise use what connections we have to promote the events and the writers. And we hold launches/readings for local writers as often as possible.

We see public readings as a very important part of chapbook publishing. Small collections are so often tied to community, and it is wonderfully reaffirming for writers to get together with friends, family, and peers to celebrate their publications.

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

We have a website and online store, a Facebook page, and we are constantly on e-mail to stay in contact with, and to promote, our authors.

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

We do take submissions (although right now, we only have two spaces left in our 2010/2011 lineup). We are a chapbook publisher, so don’t send us your life’s work in 400 pages. 30 pages is our limit, and the collection must work together cohesively. Please, no singsong rhyming verse.

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

Interior Views, by Danielle Schaub (Haifa, Israel): Danielle’s first collection of poetry is paired with her evocative black and white photography. The images appear in negative exposure, so the textures are quite exquisite. This is the first collection of poetry and photography that Rubicon has issued.

Road Apples, by Glen Sorestad (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan): Glen’s dryly humorous travelogue takes the reader on a roadtrip through the States, delving into the history and stories of the people and places he and his wife encounter along the way. The poems work remarkably well in chapbook form, creating an engaging narrative roadmap.

preserving, by Wendy McGrath (Edmonton, Alberta): Wendy incorporates snippets of a 1950s-era brochure on canning and preserving into a long poem about of three generations of prairie women. It’s a beautiful play on the many meanings of “preserving” and the stories, secrets, and history kept within families. The design of the book itself incorporates a package of heirloom tomato seeds (a variety perfect for home canning).

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