Saturday, May 22, 2010

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Christophe Casamassima on Furniture Press

1 – When did Furniture 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?

Furniture Press began publishing chapbooks, pamphlets and poetry-related ephemera in 2003 with the pressing of the first issue of Ambit: Journal of Poetry & Poetics, which included work by mostly friends.

My initial goals were developed out of a distaste for what some might call a lack of plurality in the business and teaching of poetry. It was a grand illusion, of course, for me, that poetry could only be taught (and understood, whatever that means!) by professionals and scholars who read and studied the major poets and the canon. Then I met Kevin Varrone and Pattie McCarthy. They introduced me (in word and in life) to poets like Cole Swensen, Clark Coolidge, Heather Ramsdell, Gregg Biglieri, Barbara Cole, Aaron Keily, Rod Smith, and Mark Wallace. The illusion disappeared. I understood that poetry was manifold, manifest, plural, eternally evolving—not on the page, where the canon is conceived, but in the dialogues between poets and their audience, between people and their lot, power structures and privileges. Of course, it also had to do with my love of language games and irony, but that is a personal aesthetic. In truth, it was the similarities of my and others’ aesthetics and practices that enticed me to begin publishing: as a dialogue between what can be said, how it is said, and how it can be disseminated to the world. I wanted to introduce the world, those like me who understood nothing of the plurality of the practice, that poetry was possibility.

Learning—not to sound trite, but learning is a continuum of praxis and terror: we try, we fail, we adapt, we fail with flair. That is poetry. I have learned to read (into) poetry as the ecstatic peace that language exhibits because it knows (it does, and that is the irony, the punch line) that it is never going to be successful in communicating an absolute. It entices us with the possibility, but then pulls away as we get closer.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

I hope I spelled that out above. Sheer anxiety. The endless expressivity of failure and its derivatives. 1+1=3.

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

There are two responsibilities that the small press adheres to: the distribution and promotion of works from a marginalized community of poets and writers, and the dissolution of the privileges of trite, academic, status quo works of art that define great literature by standards of commodity and profit. This is another reason why I started Furniture Press. I was (still am) interested in publishing great works of unknown art that have gone by the wayside of big publishers, that will never stand the chance of reaching the canon because it cannot turn a profit, a profit for someone who does not practice the art him/herself. We don’t necessarily “sell” books and make a profit. Instead, we publish books in small runs, and distribute them, trade them, give them away. Money comes in, yes, but only enough to sustain our operation. Small press is about zeroing out by zeroing in.

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

In current years our sensibilities have shifted in the direction of intertextuality and appropriation. Granted, poetry is first and foremost an intertext, that which is informed by more than just language and human expression. It takes into account its surroundings, be it culture, politics, art, biology, etc. But appropriation: I don’t see many publishers who have invested so much time into releasing works of art that are a result of other texts, that work through other texts, whose object relies on the existence of other texts. In some cases I translate this as a critique: since there is no much information out there already, why bother creating more? Why not use what there is (plunder, appropriate, borrow, steal, etc.) and compose with the fragments? See? I say compose rather than write. Collage? Granted, these new works of art ARE more information. But it is this tuning that redeems not only the possibility of poetry, but its sustainability. I believe this is eco-poetics: not about a physical environment, but its dissolution and reintegration, a s text and nothing more.

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

The most effective way, and I can’t stress this enough, is by treating the object like a gift, to be given away without exchange, without the hope of ever generating revenue beyond what is necessary for its dissemination. Once it becomes a commodity, the object is made secondary to its output, and it is no longer poetry.

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 an avid collaborator. When a writer sends me work, I choose the writer as a co-editor. I do not like to impose a vision upon a work of art. This could only mean one thing: the press defines the image of the book, its content, its author, so that the logo becomes obese, possessive, enduring, and the work of art becomes branded. On the contrary: the individual works of art define a press, so that the image of the press is a reflection of the works of art that make up the press, a collage, so to speak, which constantly adds new pieces to its ever-evolving canvas. The writer has just as much say in the final object as an editor.

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

For pamphlets and chapbooks, 50 to 100 copies. For full-length collections, between 100 and 200 copies. This is more about sustainability than turning a profit. Small runs guarantee that we know exactly who our books are going to. Yes, this sounds at first like an exclusionary tactic—that the press decides who can and can’t own our books. No. Our small runs go straight into the hands of the people with which we have fostered relationships, who care in the work enough to engage both the writers and the editors. We hate that so many readers create a distance between themselves, a press and their writers. If we are to achieve plurality, if we are to sustain a perpetual dialogue, if we are to foster engagement with the possibility of nurturing future poets…

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?

The press dissolved for a few years, between 2005 and 2009. It consisted of myself, as editor and bookmaker, and an art director, who handled all facets of the visual aspects of a book. But in the past two years I have been collaborating with a friend, Douglas Mowbray, who edits and publishes twentythreebooks. He is not an editor, so to speak, more like a professional collaborator, on events, strategic planning, distribution, promotion, building a library of independent books, etc. I have recently been blessed with the artistic merits of Jodi Hoover, a printmaker and designer, who will, starting with Jennifer Hill’s “Fragmentirety,” take on all the responsibilities of book design. It’s true that I like working alone. It prevents too much confusion in the production process. But I don’t treat it like a business, where a hierarchy exists. I trust the aesthetics and expertise of all those who are, or ever were involved with the press, because this too means that the press is a representation, not only of its writers, but its collaborators.

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

It hasn’t. The opposite is true, though. It is my writing that influences my editorial decisions. When I write, I think in terms of the larger project: the book. When I choose works for Furniture Press, I ask myself, “Is this project a series of disparate poems? Or is this a unifying gesture? How prevalent is the slow easing out of thinking in this work?” I like to evidence thinking through a problem. These are the works that fascinate me. This is how I write and publish.

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 did this in the beginning, publish my own work under Furniture Press. It was natural: my aesthetics and publishing principles were in sync. But now I create chapbooks and pamphlets without any connection to a press. Instead, I make each one an art object: I use random cuts of unused paper, cardstock, inks, etc. and build a house around a text that somehow embodied the purpose and ideas in the text. I also see this as practice in book-making. Instead of experimenting with styles, fonts, binding techniques, I practice with my own texts. The result is both a self-published object and a model/blueprint for some future project.

11 – How do you see the press evolving?

We have recently introduced full-length texts to our catalogue, published as trade paperback books. I decided to forego the idea that smaller is purer. It’s great to work with a small constituency of writers and readers, but we also owe it to our writers by promoting and distributing their work to a wider, more geographically diverse audience. At first we published books, art objects, in which we dressed a text in a unique costume that suited its aesthetics and poetics. But in order to live up to the efforts to make works part of the plurality, it is also necessary to represent and promote our writers as extensively as possible.

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?

One accomplishment I can completely say I am proud of… bringing together people who, in other circumstances, would never have met, would never had collaborated outside of the press, would never have developed relationships as an extension of the press’ objectives. In other words, living the goals and objectives we set up in 2003. The biggest frustration, I think, is the lack of time and energy some of us have succumbed to because we cannot make this our full-time project. Distribution, of course, is difficult because we cannot travel and promote the books in person. But this is also a blessing, when the time creeps in and books are made and projects are finalized, events have been planned, relationships forged…

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

I did not have models to copy or steal ideas from. The best help I ever received was from David Kirchenbaum, who taught me about the tools of handmade books: the saddle stapler, the bone folder, the paper cutter. Everything I did in the beginning was by pure intuition and imagination.

14 – How does Furniture 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?

In all honesty, I have somewhat distanced myself from succumbing to the pressures of locality. I am totally invested in publishing and promoting works that transcend space, locale, environment. My aesthetics regard one center: the total and complete manufacture of works that develop from close readings and relationships with text. Our immediate literary community: I think this is an odd circumstance for us. It is anyone, any text, that is made available to us, from which we may begin seeking new texts, new dialogues. I assume you’re reading into the paradox here: how does one foster human relationships or community when the community is secondary to the work of art? That’s just it. Community is not locale; it is common investment, interest. This transcends human relationships by making human relationships not based in mutual aid, but mutual critique. When our fight is common, when our cause is common, our goals are common. Communit, then, is extra-human, a work of the mind, an extension of the human, the text.

I struggle with the distinctions of art and life, that both are one and the same, because we’re missing a very important aspect of this dichotomy: the spirit. Not religion, so to speak, but the individual him or herself. Most times I feel like the community subsumes or absorbs the individual and the individual must conform to the standards of a particular community. To stress once again our objective: the show the spirit of a collective known as Furniture Press by stressing the parts and not the whole.

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

Important is not the right word. Crucial. Essential. This is where dialogue begins. This is the human face of art making. This proves that publisher, writer and audience are not disparate entities but a network, an infrastructure of life and art and spirit. Take one away, and it is no longer a functioning organism. That’s the word: organism. I dreamed recently of an organ that was also an organism. It is itself because it is everything else.

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

The internet plays a positive role because it is faster than print media. I use the internet to search for new journals, new writers, events, ideas, by slowly filtering the overload from the unique. But it is also more confusing and convoluted. This is why I try not to rely too heavily on promoting our catalogue using the internet. I’d rather seek an audience at readings, events, conferences. One must play the internet by knowing what one seeks.

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

I don’t know what I’m looking for until I see it. If I held fast to an exclusive editorial stance or aesthetic, I would publish the same texts over and over again. I like to be surprised. I think all editors want to be surprised. This is a secret all writers should know when shopping for a press: surprise your editor.

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

Our first full-length title, Emily Carr’s Directions for Flying, won the 2009 Furniture Press Poetry Prize. This title is special, obviously, because it is our first full-length collection and our first paperback collection. Most importantly, though, it is this title that won my heart when working through the prize submissions. It works more wholly and deeply, and across a wider span of writers and texts than anything I have seen previously come my way. IT is both expansive and detailed, and the narrative is clear, cohesive and engaging. This is the work I aspire for. This is the work that defines our poetics.

Our second “new” book is Chris McCreary’s Undone: A Fakebook. Emily openly appropriates texts, strategies and stances, but Chris’ work infiltrates and critiques (as well as appropriates) popular culture and mannerisms. One is a result of the perils of domesticity; the other, the over-domestication of culture. I published Chris’ work in the second volume of Ambit: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, and was impressed with his knowledge of music and literature, but more enthralled with the unique way his poems became lyrics to the music that gets stuck in our heads when we don’t want it. He plays upon this, finding crevices of kitsch to elaborate on the futility of branding. His is a music of the misheard, the second-take, that makes us aware that even the obvious, the granted, holds mysteries.

In the future, we’ll be publishing M. Magnus’ Heraclitean Pride, out third full-length book. M and I share a fascination with classical texts. But where I merely bring to life the gestures of ancient rhetorics and styles with playful language, M adjusts our ears and our sensibilities to the tune of centuries past by blurring the lines between critique, philosophy, theatre, music and investigation. His book is a re-tuning of Heraclitus’ fragments for modern ears, tracking back to make us understand the work as inevitable and perpetual flux. Ultimately, modern and classical ears are one and the same, except that modern ears do not have the “attention span” or the patience for slow observation. In the end, his work has no end, like Finnegan’s Wake. It brings us into the middle, because it is middle, it is all genres and histories and legends carried by the winds.

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