Friday, May 29, 2015

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Jasper Bernes, Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr on Commune Editions

On the press, from

Commune Editions began with Bay Area friendships formed in struggle: the occupations in resistance to UC tuition hikes in 2009-11; the anti-police uprisings after the shooting of Oscar Grant that continued with the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner; and the local version of Occupy, referred to by some as the Oakland Commune. In these moments, the people committed to poetry and the people committed to militant political antagonism came to be more and more entangled, turned out to be the same people. This felt transformative to us, strange and beautiful. A provisionally new strain of poetry has begun to emerge from this entanglement with communist and anarchist organizing, theorizing, and struggle.

This work inspires us. Because there was no existing venue attuned to these changes, we decided to start one. We committed first our own work to this project, and brought our experience with other presses. We hope to publish poetry for reading and writing explicitly against the given world, always aware that it begins inside that world—and to put this work in dialogue with poetries from other countries and from other historical moments, times and places where the politicization of poetry and the participation of poets in uprisings large and small was and remains a convention.

We are curious about, but not overconfident regarding, the capacities of art. Poems are no replacement for concrete forms of political action. But poetry can be a companion to these activities, as the “Riot Dog” of Athens was a companion in streets. A dog, too, might start barking when the cops are about to kick down your door. Perhaps that’s it, for now, what we’re doing, what is to be done, with poetry. Some barking. Some letting you know that the cops are at the door. They’ve been there for a while.

We have plans to publish two or three books a year for as long as these specific orientations seem magnetic. We have our list for 2015-2016 and are not presently reading manuscripts. But we will be. Check back here for details.

Commune Editions is published in partnership with AK Press and distributed in the US and Canada by Consortium.

1 – When did Commune Editions 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?
Commune Editions began as a press in 2013. It was Joshua’s idea, originally, and he approached me and Juliana about it. But in many ways the project began much earlier, with the politicization of the Bay Area poetry scene over the last five years or so, beginning with the antipolice and student movements of 2009 and 2010, and continuing with Occupy in 2011. Commune Editions is, in some sense, a formalization or recognition of a process that is much larger than us, and which involves the integration of somes Bay Area poets and their projects into a much larger political milieu with other urgencies and animating concerns.

Our goals remain fairly consistent, even if we’ve come to understand that realizing them is more difficult than we first presumed. We want to act as an outlet for poetry that is uncompromising in its opposition to capitalism and the state, patriarchy and racism, and to do so in a way that creates connections between poets and political radicals. We’ve learned, I suppose, that this makes a number of poets very uncomfortable. No matter how many times we explicitly state that we’re uninterested in telling poets what to do or how to write, nor possessed of any strong convictions that what we’re doing is of crucial importance for the struggles to which we’re committed, we seem to be responsible for all manner of guilty or resentful poet-feelings. We’re not sure why that is, but perhaps this is a role someone has to play.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
I had always assumed that it was dauntingly complex. But I came to know some people involved with subpress, and that made it seem more plausible. About that time I had gotten a job with a regular salary, and a friend (Michael Scharf) asked me if I wanted to start a press (this would be In Girum). He seemed relatively lacking in trepidation, which I admired. And so, armed with the desire to be (or at least appear) as dauntless as the subpress folks and Mike, and armed with a few extra dollars from my job, I entered the fray. I was fortunate that just around this time I went to a reading, I forget, someone famous, and the opening reader really knocked me out; that was Jasper, who at that point I didn’t really know. But his manuscript, Starsdown, would be the first In Girum publication.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
 “Small” publishing is just the way that literature other than the realist novel circulates. Its role is to distribute the literatures that do not have a lot of national or international reach but that a certain smallish group of people want to read. Responsibilities, I’m not sure about. But it does a fairly decent job of publishing a lot of books. The harder part is just finding them or knowing about them.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Well, I don’t know that we’re unique. I’m sure there are other presses that define themselves in a similar way. I suppose that the way we’re beginning the press, publishing our own books first and defining our vision for the press in that way, with our three books, is a bit different. We’re being honest, in that regard, about the kind of work we want to see, and our commitment to a certain poetry that’s rooted in our experiences, convictions, and friendships. We don’t claim to be committed to a pseudo-objective notion of “the best,” and there are many books we consider quite good which would nonetheless not be right for Commune Editions.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?
I’m not sure I understand this question. Mailing? I don’t think we have any particularly innovative ideas for publicity; we’re a mix of social media mentions and conventional circulating of review copies. I think the question of whether there is some untapped audience that might pick up the books — this seems to me to verge on the metaphysical. Mostly poetry books seem to overflow the banks and move into new meadows because they orbit around a social matter with particular charisma in that moment. I think the most effective way for us to get books out into the world is to continue our engagement with the world that interests us, with readers who do not necessarily identify as poets but who are interested in, and engaged with, the political antagonisms that write us.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
Light touch. Although if asked, some of us will give insane large feedback. But I also see that more as “discussion” and comes out of “admiration.” But I can’t imagine accepting a book and then being like you have to cut this or that.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We are an imprint of AK Press, an anarchist publisher which has distribution through Consortium. We are printing our books in runs of 1,000 or 2,000 this year. We also produce chapbooks in very small batches through a local printing collective, Loose Dogs, and distribute these for free.

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 three of us edit as a team, though each book project has a de facto lead editor who takes a book through the production process. We also have a design editor Tim who is awesome, and another friend who helps with the website. It’s hard to find the balance between wanting to share work, people’s shifting schedules, the efficiencies of having someone in charge. Often the work falls to whoever has least to do that week, in a sort of hydraulic model, which means that the press has the function of making sure that we are all busy all the time, that no one ever has a down week. This can be a bit maddening, to be honest, but it’s what needs to happen. It’s really worth underscoring how much friends help us in small but repeated and generous ways: letting us use a print shop for proofs, helping us cut and bind galleys (and teaching us how to do these things!), just, you know, folding chapbooks. Thanks to Chloe and Ian and Tim and Bruce and Jenn and lots of other people.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
Of course. I have had entirely new thoughts enter my brain because editing is about reading people’s work. 

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 see any reason for us to be anxious about publishing our own work. There isn’t that much difference between what we’re doing and what we might do otherwise: publish our books with the presses that our friends run. The poetry community we operate is largely based on direct, personal relationships, for better or worse. If you define the self a bit more broadly, everyone is always already self-publishing, and if the work is good it will get read.

11– How do you see Commune Editions evolving?
If all goes well it will evolve until it is no longer a poetry press but an actual commune. That may sound flippant, so perhaps there is another way to put it. The press arose from a concrete situation, wherein the particular contours of a shifting social antagonism — for which the Oakland Commune was briefly a living emblem — led the poetic and communist/anarchist communities of the Bay Area, already overlapping, to become entangled. The press is an expression of that entanglement and that antagonism, and will evolve alongside it. We’re one of the many things that you can do from within such a situation. We hope this will happen on expanded grounds, and happen in relation to similar entanglements and antagonisms in other places.

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?
How to make cheap galleys is my biggest frustration. Along with how to use Mailchimp.

13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Oh, I don’t know. Of course it is easy to name the small presses that have been inseparable from own developments as people. We mentioned subpress. I have a special place in my heart for Edge, and Black and Red, and North Point, and Broadside, and AK Press. One of the things that communists and anarchists in the US have had in common with poets is that they are mostly going to be proceeding within the assumptions of collective, local publishing. It’s like, who weren’t our models?

14– How does Commune Editions work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Commune Editions in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
This is probably already answered in #11. We’re resistant to the idea of a literary community as some autonomous thing; one’s first relationship is always to a lived situation rather than to other literary circles. Many many many of the people we love sometimes make poems or other kinds of writing, but that doesn’t mean they and we are poets any more than the fact that we often wash dishes makes us dishwashers. All of that said, we feel pretty attached to a lot of presses, either because we see them trying to attune themselves to the same situations that we ourselves struggle to grasp, or because they do things that are beyond us. We are especially grateful for presses that do work in translation; we have done some of that, with more coming, but we’re limited in what we know and what we can do — thus very grateful for that work happening.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Readings are one of the ways that literature circulates. I’d go for important.

16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?
We have a website and we sell books there. We use facebook and twitter, and we try to release digital versions of everything we publish. The internet is an interesting topic, but I’m not sure our internet use is all that interesting. It’s largely a mode of distribution for us.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Not currently. We probably will at some point. We are looking for the end of the world as we know it, and aren’t looking for improvements.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
We’d like to answer that question next year! Our first three are by us; we’ve probably talked about them enough, and there are blurbs here:

Next year we are publishing Cheena Marie Lo, David Lau, and Ida Borjel (in translation). We’ll have a lot to say about them when the time comes.

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