Tuesday, October 04, 2011

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Spencer Gordon on Ferno House

Ferno House is a collective of designers, artists, and writers committed to designing and producing the most beautiful chapbooks, anthologies, and broadsides possible. As electronic mediums and digital designs contribute to the abolition of the book as physical, lasting artifact, Ferno House works in an entirely different direction, assembling its publications with a keen attention to craft and tactile beauty. Ferno House’s commitment to process and in-house production ensures that every book is an irreplaceable work of art. Books are designed by award-winning graphic designer Arnaud Brassard using in-house tools and materials. Illustrations are provided by visual artist Patrick Larkin. Editing and promotional materials are supplied by writers Spencer Gordon and Mat Laporte.

Spencer Gordon is a writer and editor. He is the author of Lonely Planet and Other Stories (Coach House Books, forthcoming). He co-edits the online literary journal The Puritan (www.puritan-magazine.com) and the micro-press Ferno House (www.fernohouse.com). He blogs at http://dangerousliterature.blogspot.com and teaches writing at Humber College.

1 – When did Ferno House 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?

Ferno House began slowly, in trickles and teases. Mat Laporte is rumoured to have lived in a flat in Edmonton that was known as Ferno House: a kind of collective of artists from various disciplines living under the same roof. In 2008, I remember chatting up my roommate Arnaud Brassard, an incredibly gifted designer, about printing some of my stories in short-run editions. At the time, I was enrolled in the University of Toronto's MA in English/Creative Writing, which meant I was surrounded by a very close-knit workshop of six other writers (plus our mentors). I suggested to them that we compile samples of our work and release a chapbook (inspired, as I was, with recent collaborative projects with you—I'm thinking of Departures (above/ground 2008)—and what Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash were doing with The Emergency Response Unit, among other things). Arnaud agreed to help our class design and bind this baby. We soon realized that if we wanted to keep making books, we should probably establish some sort of organizational name. That first chapbook we did was For Crying Out Loud, and the "name" became Ferno House, as Mat Laporte was moving to Toronto and was going to join us in our endeavors. The rest is nightmare.

Goals have of course shifted, as I'll explain below. We learned very quickly that making and selling books is crazy difficult. Sometimes it feels like trying to sell knitted i-phones.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

My first forays into publishing were with The Puritan (www.puritan-magazine.com), which I began with Tyler Willis in the crisp fall of 2006 in Ottawa, Ontario. Our first issue came out in the winter of 2007. It was a ratty-looking colouring-book-esque lit mag that we still joke ourselves about. We released seven issues in total, and then went belly-up from debt. New life was breathed into the mag in fall 2009 when we made the leap from print to the web. It's going strong to this day with the support of grants and tons of submissions and a great staff of readers, and I'm proud of what we've accomplished since that crazy fall.

As a developing writer living in Ottawa, I inevitably fell in with some small press types (the chapbook folks, the reading series hosts, the poets and fiction-writers), which broadened my understanding of small-scale publishing and how this literary game fits together.

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

Small publishing should be beautiful! It should aspire to match whatever a big press can do with production values and go beyond the standards of the form. It should (ideally) explore other sorts of printing options that are just too demanding or expensive to do en masse.

But more importantly, perhaps, is the literary responsibility of small publishers. Why go to the established names for work that can always find a home with another press, be it ECW, Anvil, Insomniac, or whatever? We've published a few "known quantities" in our anthologies, but the great majority of work we've released has been by relatively unknown authors, or authors still polishing their craft. As Stuart Ross wrote, many authors today skip the "sacred" chapbook stage of their careers. This notion wormed its way into my brain and lodged itself there maliciously. It is sacred. It's good to release work on a smaller scale when you're still honing your voice. As others have pointed out, chapbooks (and small publishers) are great for single or smaller groupings of work(s) that don't naturally lend themselves to a full-length collection. Finally, it allows you to do stuff that's suicidal from a monetary/advertising aspect. What the hell is Dinosaur Porn, anyways, if not a grand experiment, a game, and a challenge?

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

Our goal is ambitious. We want to make the best damn chapbooks in the country. We want people to associate Ferno House with excellence, and to recognize micro-presses as doing something culturally and aesthetically vital. We've made missteps and blunders, but we're getting better, and this fall's line-up of chapbooks is gonna look so seductive that divorce rates are sure to skyrocket after the launch. Yes. You're gonna leave your spouse for one of these bastards. And you're gonna cradle it in your filthy bed of cheatin' and lies and feel good.

So: to make the best possible home for a small collection of writing, assembled with immense patience and care. To elevate the standard staple-stitched construction paper insanity that one typically associates with the micro and the marginal. To insist that each book is a work of art. And to foster a sense of community and support, even when “community” seems increasingly difficult to define.

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

We're still working on that! For now, all we can say is promote like what you do matters, like what you do will please or baffle or otherwise make an impact. Seek out craft and zine fairs and sign up. Sell online (do all that PayPal nonsense—our Etsy account is always ready to make a deal; this is a business, after all, even if we're just trying to break even, and it can't continue on good will alone). In any case, treat chapbooks like they're cooler and more exciting than Random House's next bestseller, and be open to courting different communities when the literary one gets indifferent or bored.

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

I prefer to dig deep, get messy, shove stuff around and operate on punctuation. So does Mat Laporte, judging by his edits. Why edit a piece if your suggestions are only going to be cosmetic? There's a fine line between asserting your will/peddling your own biases and an author's distinct vision, and the editor's job is to negotiate it carefully, enthusiastically, and patiently.

Everything we do comes from a place of respect. We wouldn't want to publish something if we didn't love it. Edits are ultimately up to the authors; we're still working out the bugs.

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

Distributed? Our feet. And Canada Post for mail orders. We used to stock select bookstores, but we've since decided to go a different route. Past books have been in the 120 to 200 copy range. First edition fall chapbooks are in tiny print runs of 60 copies each. If we sell out, and there's a large demand, we'll make more. Don't overextend, don't break the bank, and don't amass heavy inventory. Keep it light, and keep moving. Like a shark.

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?

Each of our books has gone through a different editorial process. Andrew Faulkner and Leigh Nash (of The Emergency Response Unit) and I edited Dinosaur Porn, our joint-press reptile project. I lightly edited For Crying Out Loud and For Crying Out Loud II, and worked with Mat Laporte on his own chapbook, Demons. Mat and I also tag-teamed David Brock's Black Metal Melody and Liz Howard's Skullambient. Mat has been the first and best editor of my own work, Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast!

With editing and production combined, we've got four main players in the Ferno House stable: Mat, Pat, Arnaud, and me. Arnaud Brassard, as I've mentioned, is the brains behind the design and production aspects of Ferno House. We've been steadily amassing a stock of equipment for Ferno House (like a perfect-binder, a screen printer, etc.) so that all the books can (hopefully) be made entirely in-house. Arnaud is a one-man design and printing monster. The literary community is lucky to have him involved in printing their works, for he's coming from a very different background, bringing an entirely different set of talents and observations to the game.

My answer to your question about editing is probably quite typical of most writers/editors. I find working with other editorial perspectives refreshing and surprising and rewarding; the conversations that develop around the micro and macro can be extremely illuminating. It's excellent to have your work read by a sensitive and careful editor and to pay back his or her hard work down the road. So the benefits are obvious. Drawbacks can develop around ideas of ownership and vision; when a writer is being obstinate or when an editor is not getting a project and wants to inflict his or her biases on a different tradition or set of rules (or a tradition or rule-system misunderstood). Editors make mistakes just as much as blundering scribblers. It takes an excellent working relationship to acknowledge error, to argue constructively, and to be able to defend strikes and additions without endangering a friendship and professional relationship. Blah blah blah.

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

As the previous answer outlined, I'm keenly aware of the compromises and sacrifices that go on between publisher, editor, and writer. You can't think of what some generic editor might say about your own work; you have to just riff, follow your instincts, while keeping in mind the reactions of a few golden ears. I am open and amenable to editing in general (workshopping with various groups—including at universities—has prepared me to take criticism and to receive the blow of disapproval).

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?

Well sir, I of course have reservations. Many people assume that self-publishing abandons the notion of peer review; that it is too self-serving to merit respect; that it clouds notions of quality. While all these complaints may be legitimate, I'll try to briefly justify publishing my own work. Firstly, Ferno House is funded by the four of us; there are no granting agencies or investors to appease. What I do with my own money is my business. Secondly, I wanted my chapbook to look like a Ferno House chapbook and no other. I didn't even consider sending it somewhere else. Thirdly, Mat Laporte and Arnaud Brassard wanted to release a chapbook of my poetry; I didn't force this on anyone, and Mat edited it over the course of a few weeks. Last year Mat released his own chapbook with Ferno House, and it was both successful and fun. Fourthly, it's a god-damned chapbook, twenty-eight pages in length, in a first-edition print run of 60 copies, made by my friends and me. This isn't the Giller Prize judging committee, and this isn't even a small press. Finally, I've published and paid and put over dozens and dozens of writers over a few short years. So here is some poetry. Enjoy it.

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

I've looked to many little presses as early models for Ferno House. I'll name a few. Matthew Firth's Black Bile Press. The work Amanda and Charles Earl do with Bywords and AngelHouse. Your work with above/ground. BC's Lipstick Press. Mark McCawley's Greensleeve Editions. Stu Ross' Proper Tales Press. The amazing range of work released by Jay MillAr and the Book Thugs. My peers—Cameron Anstee's Apt. 9 Press (one of the best in the country) and The Emergency Response Unit. Jim Johnstone's Cactus Press. jwcurry. I know Mat's deeply inspired by Ted Berrigan's enormous energies. We're in awe of a number of American micro-presses such as Ugly Duckling, mud luscious, and so forth. The list goes on and on ...

12– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Very important. We do hold occasional readings and launches. Our fall launch is scheduled for Thursday, October 6, starting at 8 pm at The Supermarket, 268 Augusta Ave., Toronto, ON. Please come.

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

Getting the word out via social networking. Selling books online to people who can't physically come and buy 'em. One day we'll have a site that more adequately matches our aesthetic.

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

At this time, we're not taking submissions. We're too little to receive them. We want to find something we like and chase after it. This may change as we grow or evolve, but for now it's gotta be solicited work.

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

Skullambient is by Liz Howard. Aside from being a poet herself, she's a very active member of the Toronto lit community, organizing the Avant-Garden reading series and taking part in the Influency Salon. Her work was brought to my attention by Mat Laporte, who's a huge supporter. Skullambient is informed by an infusion of biology and physics (being a researcher obviously helps her with the subject matter). It's gutsy and hyper-attentive to the slippery instability of language. Skullambient is angry and sad and kind of insane, a place where English and French, the North and the Laboratory, the masculine and the feminine collide. It's full of violent ruptures of sense and tense, meaning and obscurity. And it makes beautiful, lonely music.

Black Metal Melody is by David Brock, who's just won the 2011 Herman Voaden Playwrighting  Competition. Dave's more known for his librettos and plays than his poetry, which is kind of a shame, because he's a wicked poet. As the title suggests, his book is all about everyone's favourite musical genre, black metal (among other sub-categories). It's a work of linked poems, a narrative of one hyper-sensitive teenaged boy's near-simultaneous discovery of metal and first love. The poems are obviously informed by a real passion for the awesomeness and absurdities of the genre, and Brock's exploration of those awkward, fumbling years of revelation and raw heartache make it both hilarious and oddly touching. It's sure to please. And it's blacker than all hell.

My book, Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! Is the best poetry chapbook of all time. Period.

12 or 20 (small press) questions:

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