Sunday, October 22, 2017

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Angelo Colavita on Empty Set Press

Empty Set Press publishes chapbooks of conceptual and experimental poetry by writers who challenge the functions of language, form, and imagery, producing work that is innovative, new, and exciting. Based in Philadelphia, ESP strives toward a synthesis of local authors, visual artists, print shops, and venues within the city’s thriving literary landscape to broaden the horizons of the greater artistic community as well as the community at large.

Founding Editor of Empty Set Press, ANGELO COLAVITA lives and writes in Philadelphia, where he hosts Oxford Coma, a nihilist poetry reading series and serves as Poetry Editor for Limited Editions Quarterly Journal. His work has appeared in Apiary Magazine, The Philadelphia Citizen, Mad House, Rolling Thunder Quarterly, Be About It Zine, Outcast Poetry Journal and elsewhere online and in print. His first chapbook, HEROINes, was published in March 2017.

1 – When did Empty Set 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?
I started Empty Set Press back in March. I was basically just following suggestions. After an extended absence from the poetry community, I started bouncing around, doing readings again. A few people asked where they could find more of my work. I’ve had a few pieces published in magazines here and there and online, but several people told me I should have a chapbook out. I was reluctant to self-publish, and to be honest, I was ready to move on from the stuff I was writing during the years I was MIA. But I figured, I might as well. It was sort of a ruse. I came up with the name and a logo and slapped it on the back of a collection that would become Empty Set’s first release: HEROINes. Pretty slick. In an effort to legitimize the whole thing, I filed for an LLC with student loan money and set up a website. I turned to Chris McCreary, who’d been running Ixnay Press in Philly for some advice on how to make my next move. He suggested I publish someone else as soon as I made my money back with the sales from HEROINes. So that’s what I did. The first person I thought to solicit was Maryan Captan. We were friends in the poetry scene for a while at this point and connected greatly on a creative level, so it made perfect sense. I’m really proud of Copy/Body. It’s a lovely and unnerving chapbook.

So what started as a means of getting something out that I could potentially peddle at readings turned into something I could use to publish poets I loved that were kind of on the outer ring of the inner circle, so to speak. And there was room for it in the Philly scene, so why not? The chapbook is a vital part of publishing history, especially among poets. I go for work that is weird, dynamic, written by poets that aren’t going to shy from toying with form and language and a bleak aesthetic. One thing I’ve learned that I’d never considered is how helping someone bring their concept to life, give it flesh, would give me another creative outlet beside the writing itself, and still within the realm of poetry.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?
As I mentioned before, what first brought me to publishing was the publication of HEROINes. But what’s keeping me going is so much greater than myself. I enjoy editing and layout, designing covers, booking readings… It’s more of a lifestyle, in my opinion. Every aspect of my day-to-day life revolves around writing, be it my own or my friends’ or anyone else’s.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?
Small publishers have this advantage of working intimately with their authors. Seeing their authors’ ideas through is what a small press is not only capable of, but also, responsible for. When I read something I love, or hear someone read that totally blows me away, I feel it’s my job to take that writing and put it in print in a way that highlights its personality with respect to the author’s voice. The aesthetic of the book is terribly important to me. It has to look and feel like the poetry sounds. The art on the cover has to speak on the words on the page. The fonts have to be cold if the writing is cold, delicate if the writing is delicate. The empty spaces are as much a part of the book as the poetry is, and should be treated as such, so the margins and linespacing need to reflect that. Then there is the promotion and everything at that end: launch parties, readings, etc. I try not to just book readings or events on my own as Empty Set, but also support local monthly reading series in the area as well.
This is what I commit to when I publish a book. It’s a matter of fully integrating the poetry and the poet with artists and venues and a readership. I’m a midwife, so to speak.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I love experimental poetry. Stuff I have to read several times over. Stuff I want to read several times over. I love collections that move from one poem to the next, that share some kind of symbiotic relationship. I like to be challenged. If there is one thing that will separate Empty Set Press from anyone else, is that you can count on being challenged intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically… It takes more than wearing your heart on your sleeve to write solid poetry. Use the form. Abuse the form. Get uncomfortable. Otherwise, why do it at all?

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
Right now, I’m just selling books through the website ( and at poetry readings. It’s not uncommon for me to carry chapbooks around with me in a backpack either. It’s keeping the press afloat for the time being, though, with everything in store for the press within the next few months, I’m going to have to make bigger moves. I’ll probably be setting something up with SPD (Small Press Distribution) for the next release, Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL by Chris McCreary & Mark Lamoureux (due out sometime this fall). This thing is gaining momentum faster than I ever expected it would and it’s already time to expand a bit. SPD can reach a wider audience than I can on my own. I want to avoid the whole Amazon thing. I feel that’s unnecessary. I’ll avoid chain stores and corporate bullshit at all costs. They’re unnecessary. This is a time when artists can have complete control over their output, marketing, and distribution, so there’s no need to rely on anyone else outside of our own communities. If I’m going to publish local, emerging writers, I’m going to use a local printer to print the damn things and in the near future, I’ll go through an independent distributor to get them out to people. But that’s in the near future. Right now I’m doing well on my own, with the support of the Philly arts and poetry community, and elsewhere through Empty Set’s website.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I suppose that all depends on the content itself. I’ll read a manuscript many, many times over before I make any edits. This is after I have some kind of sit-down with the author. So far, the authors I’m publishing have been poets I’m quite familiar with already, so I have a fairly good understanding of their voice. But I also keep in mind the intent of their concept and the feel of each individual poem as much as I do the book as a whole. That said, I’ll run through once for punctuation and spelling issues, once for linespacing/layout purposes, try a few different fonts or font sizes, page breaks, stuff like that, cut what poems work with overall mood of the book, sequencing. By the time I send the file off to the printer, I’ll have gone over it about twenty times or so. That’s not an exaggeration. With Copy/Body, the biggest issue was really sequencing and uniformity when it came down to things like capitalization or caesurae. I’m now working on Cynthia Jones’ new chapbook, The World Sucks, But Some Things Don’t, and that’s a bit more involved. She’s a strong performance poet, so I’ve had to come up with more dynamic ways of presenting her work on the page that represent her delivery on stage. She handed me a pretty hefty manuscript and all of the poems fit nicely together, but I’ll have to push my own sentimentality aside in order to cut it down to a chapbook-length collection. With Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL, Chris and Mark put together a pretty solid manuscript. There wasn’t much for me to do aside from sequencing the poems and making their punctuation styles uniform -- for instance, Chris will use two spaces after a period, while Mark will use one. I can pretty much tell you which of the two make what kinds of typos. Mark whips out Middle English or some arcane 17th Century French words that traditionally will have four different spellings amid modern references to Star Wars or Dungeons & Dragons, so I’ve had to shoot him text messages while working on that manuscript to see what he prefers. And that’s one of the things I love most about that book.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
For the past two chaps, we’ve done a run of 125 each, for the first editions. For the Maris run, it’ll probably be more like 200, since there are two authors who live in two different states and therefore have twice as many readers. I use Fireball Printing, a local Philly print shop, to handle all the printing and assembly. They’ve done such amazing work and are so accommodating. They really go above and beyond and print a high-quality chapbook.

As far as distribution goes, anyone can order through Empty Set’s website, If any bulk or international orders come in, I ask that you shoot us an email, rather than the online shop. We ship through the US Post Office, so shipping charges on those kinds of orders vary. Makes the paperwork easier on both ends. One thing we’ll be doing starting with the Maris book is using SPD, which will make shipping internationally way more convenient and affordable.

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?
Up to this point, I’ve been the only one editing and handling layout. The experience has been great, but as we get busier, I imagine I’ll be turning to other to help out with that. It’s been pretty easy keeping true to the author's’ voice and vision with a single editor. However, it’s definitely time consuming along with all of the other things I’ve got going on, communitywise. After Dictionnaire Infernal and The World Sucks…, I’m moving on to three more manuscripts from Patrick Blagrave, Phil Mittereder, and a book of short stories by Christine Jones. There is no shortage of poets and editors in Philadelphia, that’s for certain.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I’ve definitely been experimenting a lot with form lately. I’m interested in how the line interacts with the page -- how the page forces the line, how they transition from one to the next. Lately, I’ve been drawn to very minimalist poetry, with more blank white space than poem. So that is a recent development. On the other hand, I’m knee-deep in writing a series of Hexagram poems, which happen to be dense blocks of text between thick margins. One of the greatest pleasures in writing, for me, is experiencing the mode and form dictate the language of a piece of literature and how that manifests into the physical object of a book.

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?
HEROINes was published under Empty Set Press, but that was more or less just to get it off the ground. I may or may not do that again. With future manuscripts, I’ll shop those around. If I had my way, writers would all run presses and publish each other. Of course, it all depends on the manuscript, really. I’d probably consider it on a project-to-project basis. One can say there is a certain degree of vanity and narcissism in publishing your own work, but then again the same can be said to expect someone else to publish you; there is a sense of validation that comes along with it. I think a bit of narcissism is necessary in the business of any art, and if an artist can have complete creative control over their work, then by all means they should take it. But when it comes to community, which is vital to a life of poetry, I’d rather let someone else publish my work, if only to participate in broadening the foundation. More people benefit from that sort of relationship. So, to answer your question… I don’t know. It’s probably irrelevant. That question itself isn’t irrelevant; it should be asked and definitely explored. But any answer to it is probably irrelevant.

11– How do you see Empty Set Press evolving?
Experimental poetry isn’t a style of writing. That’s a common misconception. It just means you are trying something new, seeing if it works and what you can do with it. There are writers of all styles who like to explore new ideas, so I’d like to work with writers from a variety of other scenes who are doing this sort of thing. I want to publish your harebrained hullabaloo. I want the results of your scientific research. Eventually, I’d like to publish some kind of anthology. Maybe move on to perfect-bound full-lengths. And touring. Touring is definitely in the cards for Empty Set. We’re only a few months old now, so it’s hard to say for certain, but I’d like to load up who I can into a van and take ESP on the road. There is also a plan in the works for a brick-and-mortar venue: kind of a flophouse where poets and artists can create, hang out and crash, which would double as a performance space.

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?

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

Chris from Ixnay Press and Shanna Compton from Bloof Books were instrumental in helping ESP become a reality. I was really into early Soft Skull releases. I grew up reading New Directions paperbacks. I love what Dalkey Archive has been doing. Green Integer, too, and their formatting is ideal.

14– How does Empty Set Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Empty Set Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
I book readings pretty often, and I try to attend as many other readings as possible. I mean, I love going to poetry readings, but it’s also a matter of being present and active in the community, talking to people, etc. Apiary Magazine is a Philadelphia institution. They’ve been very supportive of Empty Set Press from day one. In fact, the first short story I’ve ever had published was in Apiary back in 2009, and we’ve had a close relationship ever since. Mad House Magazine is another great publication. My buddy Phil Mittereder runs Mad House and we have similar creative philosophies regarding writing. He’s in the process now of putting together a new manuscript which will be published by Empty Set soon. It’s vital for a small press to have a good relationship with other presses, magazines, reading series… Especially in poetry. The tighter the community, the stronger everyone’s output is, on the whole.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I’ll book readings pretty often, whether they’re strictly Empty Set Press, or not. There are also a million great monthly reading series in the area, so we try to jump on their bills, too. As far as launches go... Yes, every chapbook release gets a launch party. I’m trying to tailor the party to suit the book itself. For the Dictionnaire Infernal launch, we’re having it at The Strange & Unusual, a local oddities parlor, and the band God Root is going to play an acoustic set. There will also be several other poets reading and a few other surprises in store at that launch, which I won’t get into here. It is shrouded in mystery for the time being.

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

Like most businesses, we do almost everything through the internet. Communication, promotion, marketing, everything. It’s 2017 -- the internet is as real as the air we breathe. I’m pretty sure Empty Set would not be as far along as it is now without the internet. At least not as fast.

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

Right now, I have several titles lined up waiting for editing and layout. So we’re not accepting any unsolicited manuscripts. At some point we’ll open up for submissions, though. I’m not interested in publishing any of the New Confessional stuff (it’s fine for what it’s worth, but there are plenty of presses that will publish that), I’m not interested in memoirs or your diary. I will never publish anything that might be described as Bukowski-esque. No bar-brawl war stories, misogyny, or other American vitriol. Absolutely no hate literature whatsoever. And no kitschy humor (you can submit that stuff to McSweeney’s, I’m sure they’ll give it a go).

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
Maryan Captan’s Copy/Body was our second release, but I see it as our first. Maryan is like my sister, and her poetry never fails to terrify me in the most tender way possible. We worked really hard on this book together and I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out. It’s actually two collections in one that meet in the center of the book; one side is Copy, and the other is Body. They have their own individual identities, but they share a certain dialogue with each other that is certainly magical. In October, the pre-orders for Maris McLamoureary’s DICTIONNAIRE INFERNAL, will be available. I’m really excited for this book to come out. Once a year, Chris McCreary and Mark Lamoureux write a poem together every day for the month of April as “Maris”. This chapbook is a collection of 24 poems, each for a specific demon. I borrowed a few style cues from an old edition of Aleister Crowley’s Book of Wisdom or Folly, as well as other esoteric/occult texts, to design the layout. Tattoo artist Kyle Fitzpatrick designed a sigil for the cover based on pentacles from The Lesser Key of Solomon. The poetry itself is a fantastic barrage of language, every line propelling you forward. After that, I’m releasing Cynthia Jones’ debut collection The World Sucks, But Some Things Don’t. Cynthia is more of a slam poet, so I’m working on getting her poems down on the page in a way that speaks on her performance. The book is essentially about trauma, and it’s various forms, so the pages are all color coded as a sort of trigger warning. Like, if you’d rather not read poems about depression, skip the pink pages; if you want to avoid poems about suicide, skim past the blue pages… Sounds like an intense read, and it is, but the best thing about it is there is this thread of hope that runs throughout the entire manuscript, the rainbow of pages, because that’s really who she is and what she’s about.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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