Saturday, June 15, 2013

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Guy Bennett on Mindmade Books

Founded in 1997, Mindmade Books (formerly Seeing Eye Books) is a small press publishing chapbooks of modern and contemporary poetry. Among the more than sixty titles that have appeared to date are works by internationally renowned poets, several “first collections,” and occasional reprints of little-known or long-out-of-print texts.

While there is no single editorial vision, many Mindmade Books have explored the virtuality of the short lyric; the asemantic sign as a medium for poetry; and/or self-reflexivity, seriality, and constraint as compositional strategies. They have also tended to reflect an interest in coherent, chapbook-length works as opposed to groups of otherwise unrelated poems.

Brief bio:

Guy Bennett is the author of several collections of poetry, various works of non-poetry, and numerous translations. Recent publications include Self-Evident Poems and a translation of Mohammed Dib’s Tlemcen or Places of Writing. His writing has been featured in magazines and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad, and presented in poetry and arts festivals internationally. Publisher of Mindmade Books and co-editor of Seismicity Editions, he lives in Los Angeles and teaches at Otis College of Art and Design.


1 – When did Mindmade Books 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?

Mindmade Books started in 1997 under the name Seeing Eye Books, which I had to change in 2008 when The Seeing Eye, Inc. – the folks that train dogs for the blind – threatened to sue me if I continued to publish under that imprint. I bring out four titles a year and am at this writing preparing my 66th chapbook (Guy Pettit’s My Life’s Work).

My original goals were pretty straightforward: promote writers whose work I found interesting and, if possible, bring it to the attention of readers who might not otherwise be aware of it. Ideally this would be a mix of well-known, lesser-known, and for all intents and purposes unknown poets, include at least one translation a year, and regularly feature L.A.-based writers. Those goals haven’t changed much since I started out.

As for what I’ve learned in the process – I honestly don’t know. Maybe the fact that I’m still doing it shows that I haven’t learned a thing…

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

Chance, and a translation I’d done of an early “freeword” poem (“Dune”) by Marinetti, which I proposed to Douglas Messerli of Sun & Moon Press when we met at a conference on Italian Futurism at UCLA in 1993. He wound up offering me work designing and typesetting his books, which I did for eight or nine years; later he also published my first collection of poetry and several of my translations. During that time I worked for a number of other small literary presses and magazines (Agincourt Press, Aufgabe, Green Integer, Littoral Books, Marsilio Editions, O Books, Potes & Poets Press, Rhizome, and a few others), mostly designing and typesetting their publications, but also occasionally doing editorial work and translations. I have been working in small press publishing in one capacity or another ever since.

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

The very same I would ascribe to publishing endeavors of any size. As for its role: bring out works you find compelling by writers you would like to promote and that you sense people would/should like to read/know. As for responsibilities: try to do so ethically and in a timely fashion, respecting the work, author, and reader (and probably in that order).

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

I’m not sure it is doing anything that no one else is, aside from publishing the particular works I do, the chapbooks having the particular look and feel they do, etc., but these things are no less true of any other press.

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

I don’t know what the most effective way would be; if I did I’d be doing it. What I do do with Mindmade Books is send out publication announcements via email, one at the beginning of each year indicating forthcoming authors/titles, and one as each new title is published. These messages go out to between 500–600 people, some of whom share them on list serves and blogs. There is also a website ( containing this information and which also includes a descriptive catalog of all Mindmade titles, reviews of selected works, information on ordering, etc., and that’s it. I’m not on Facebook, I don’t tweet or social mediate in any way. I’d like to believe (and do secretly hope) that readers interested in the writers and/or types of work I’m publishing will find their way to me.

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

I tend to request texts from writers and translators whose work I know and admire, or which I have stumbled across and am curious about. Without exception have published whatever they’ve sent me. On occasion I have made editorial suggestions ranging from corrections and alternate renderings in the case of translations, to minor grammatical tinkering in the case of original English-language texts. I have also occasionally suggested that a line or passage or poem or two be dropped. In all cases I consider these mere suggestions and have always deferred to the author/translator. I suppose that would make me more of a “light touch” editor, as you put it.

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

Mindmade Books are distributed uniquely by me. (Well, nearly uniquely: Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop has titles up through 2011 and sells them at the Brooklyn Flea, from what I understand, and I have seen a few for sale via…) Early on I had discussed with Small Press Distribution the possibility of their distributing my chapbooks, which they were kind enough to consider doing, but it wouldn’t have been cost effective for me so I’ve gone it alone.

My print runs are generally double the number of subscribers I have at the moment in question (and by “subscribers” I mean folks who purchase the year’s run of four chapbooks in advance), with additional copies being produced as ordered. Printing the chapbooks “on demand” has saved me money and space, since I wasn’t having to pay to produce and store runs of chapbooks that might not sell, and that has helped make the project sustainable.

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?

For better or worse, Mindmade Books is a one-man operation: I request the work, do any necessary editing, layout the pages and covers, print, trim, and fold them, assemble the chapbooks, address and stuff the envelopes, then carry the lot off to the post office. I’ve been able to maintain a rhythm of 4 chapbooks per year for the past 17 years while working full-time, having a family, and pursuing my own writing, translating, and other activities, so obviously it works for me.

I have worked and am currently working in other publishing projects involving co-editors and production assistants. I enjoy working in that way as well, it’s just an entirely different thing. With Mindmade Books, I’m in charge of all aspects of every step of the selection, editorial, and production processes, which take place on my schedule in my rhythm. As soon as you’ve got an editorial or production team, you’re adding that many other schedules and rhythms to the mix, and as we’re talking about small press publishing here, and thus everyone most likely has another “day job,” as it were, it can be challenging, not to mention time consuming, to coordinate tasks with everyone’s respective schedules and the time they can devote to the process, and see to it that things get done properly and in a timely fashion, that they don’t fall though the cracks, etc.

So I suppose that the benefit of working alone is that you get to do it all yourself and avoid the complications that arise when working in a team, and the drawback is that you have to do it all yourself and get none of the benefits that come with working in a team.

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

I think it has made me more humble about it, and (I’d like to believe) a bit more discriminating.

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 don’t have a strong feeling about it one way or the other. Over the years I’ve been involved with projects that as a matter of principle did not publish their editors’ work (Paul Vangelisti’s New Review of Literature, for example), and with others whose contributors were the de facto editors (namely Lowghost, a monthly, work-in-progress journal, also edited by Paul, and which knew two separate, year-long runs). Of the 60+ Mindmade Books published thus far, only one is a work of my own poetry, though I have published several of my own translations.

I suppose it’s worth recalling that Blake, Whitman, Lorca, and undoubtedly many other “greats” published their own work, as did many not-so-greats. Whoever brings it out, in the end it floats or sinks on its own merits or lack thereof, so the issue is perhaps not quite as important as it may seem.

11 – How do you see Mindmade Books evolving?

Very little, in fact, and maybe I should be concerned or embarrassed about that. The basic vision I outlined above has remained the same, as have the method of production, the format, papers I use, the approach to layout and design…even the price of the chapbooks hasn’t changed since I started the press in ’97. At this point I don’t see any reason to do anything any differently.

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?

1) Having had the good fortune to publish the writers and texts I have; sustaining the press as long as I have; publishing every work I ever committed to; bringing every title out on schedule.

2) That they exist; how wonderful they are.

3) I don’t know that I really have any frustrations, strictly speaking. That said, I am surprised that more of them have not been reviewed.

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

The immediate model was a chapbook collection Douglas Messerli was publishing in the early ‘90s: “20 pages,” it was called. As the name implied, the works were twenty pages long. I can recall titles by Aaron Shurin, Ray DiPalma, Charles Bernstein, and Adriano Spatola. I remember thinking, “I’d like to do something like that,” when I first saw them. Douglas was having these printed off-set, and thus they cost quite a bit to produce – more than $1,000 for a few hundred copies. When I learned the cost I thought I could never afford to do it. Later I realized that, since some Sun & Moon Press titles were actually being printed from my laser-printed pages and the quality was fine, I could forego the idea of off-set printing and produce the chapbooks myself using my laser printer, and that’s what I’ve done. I knew that I would probably never get distribution and so decided to sell the chapbooks myself in yearly series by subscription, which I still do to this day (though I now also sell current titles – and of course all previously published titles – individually).

I also remember being impressed with Lyn Hejinian’s Tuumba Books. She printed them letterpress on relatively thick paper, something I knew I was not going to be able to do, but I did like their format and their clear layout and typesetting. I had been in touch with Lyn before starting the press, and she was kind enough to send me a selection of Tuumba chapbooks to look at and learn from. In fact the first title I published was a work of hers: one part of her Books from a Border Comedy, which she was then working on.

Finally, I’m attracted to printed ephemera of all types, particularly brochures and other book-like forms and have undoubtedly been inspired by the inherent smallness and unpretentiousness of such things. I have saved a number of booklets over the years and occasionally look them over. I dream of using them as models for future publications.

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

I don’t really seek to engage the literary community in any way other than by publishing these chapbooks. I realize that that may sound sacrilegious in this age of hypernetworking, but that’s how it is. Nor do I feel that I am dialoging with other presses or journals (though I may well be, unconsciously and unintentionally, perhaps it’s unavoidable). What I am working to do is create the possibility of a dialog, broadly understood, or at the very least an encounter between a reader and a writer, via these publications. Honestly, and perhaps to my discredit, I don’t hope for much beyond that.

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

Though I enjoy readings – both giving and attending them – I do not organize Mindmade Book launches or public readings because I simply couldn’t afford to regularly bring writers to Los Angeles or travel to wherever they might be in order to publicly present their work and/or promote the press. To this day there has never been a Mindmade Book event (at least, none that I’m aware of).

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

See question 5 above.

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

Officially, I don’t take submissions. Being the one-man operation I described, I feared I might not have the time to give them the attention they deserved. Unofficially, I have accepted a submission or two following an unsolicited query, but have declined a great many more.

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

Peter Schmidt, The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts
Schmidt was an artist who long fascinated me, especially his water colors, which often depict plain views of mundane things. I first encountered his work on the back cover of Brian Eno’s Before and After Science LP, and later learned that he had also designed the sleeves of Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy) and Eno and Fripp’s Evening Star. More importantly perhaps, he and Eno collaborated on the Oblique Strategies, which have subsequently become quite well-known. Well, the precursor to the “Strategies” was Schmidt’s The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts, a mixed-media work whose heart is a series of aphoristic statements most of which comment on the thinking that precedes the creative process. This chapbook contains those aphorisms, which collectively constitute a kind of ante-ars poetica.

Terry Dernbach, Filmic Scenes
Terry is an old friend – we played together in a couple of bands in the 1980s and ’90s – who always impressed me with his imagination and creativity. Over the years we worked together he was active in music, painting, photography, and writing. He was also interested in film, and in the mid-80s showed me some “ideas for films” – brief, enigmatic texts that he was writing at the time. In the mid-90s sent me a typescript of some 17 of these pieces, collectively titled “Filmic Scenes,” which I fell in love with. I read and reread often over the intervening years, and last year I asked him if I could publish them – I don’t know why I waited that long to do so! Describing Filmic Scenes, I wrote that they “suggest films that might have been made by Max Jacob or Taruho Inagaki, had either of them worked in this medium.” And they do!

Giovanna Sandri, Hourglass: The Rhythm of Traces
Well, to be honest this is not a recent title (it came out in 1998), but I hope you’ll forgive me for highlighting it all the same. Sandri is a poet whose work truly deserves to be better known than it is. She began as a visual poet – her first book, Capitolo zero [“Chapter Zero”] from 1969, contains not a single verbal text – but over time created a personal, hybrid poetic language that fuses the verbal and visual. The poems that make up Hourglass exemplify her mature style: minimal verse texts paired with equally minimal abstract graphic compositions derived from basic written forms and suggestive of some unknown writing system. Writing is in fact the subject matter – whether implicit or explicit – of her work, and not writing as activity, but as trace: the material graphic sign representing language and thought. Though we never met, I was fortunate enough to correspond with Sandri in the years preceding her death, and to discuss with her the translation of this work, whose Italian original won the Lorenzo Montano prize in 1992. Later this year Seismicity Editions will publish an edition of her selected poems.

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