Wednesday, July 15, 2020

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross on Blank Cheque Press

Blank Cheque Press is a small press based in Vancouver that is dedicated to the publication of art writing in its many forms. This includes but is not limited to plotless fiction, eccentric art criticism, messy philosophical treatises, urgent poetics, esoteric writing by artists, and book projects that otherwise run parallel to artists' practices. All publications are edited, designed, printed and bound by writer Jacquelyn Zong-Li Ross in her 63-square-foot studio in Vancouver's Chinatown neighbourhood, with the help of family and friends.

1 – When did Blank Cheque 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?

Blank Cheque Press began by accident in 2015 following a self-directed residency I undertook with Kay Higgins at Publication Studio Vancouver (PSV). I applied to the BC Arts Council's then-still-brand-new Early Career Development grant on a whim to do something publishing-related at the space, and was fortunate enough to be successful with my application. It was an incredible opportunity. So I quit my part-time artist-run centre job and began writing more seriously that year while working at PSV to produce three issues of a literary journal I created called Young Adult and learn about editing and publishing throughout the process of its production. I hadn't yet conceived of the idea of starting an actual imprint at that pointjust wanted to use this precious new money I'd been given to breathe and subsist and possibly imagine a different kind of creative practice for myself. It wasn't until I moved to Toronto to begin a creative writing degree in the Fall of 2016 that I decided to take the remaining copies of those early books I'd made with me so they could continue to circulate in the community. Blank Cheque Press was invented then as a convenient title to collect the titles under.

Over the years the project has matured but remained largely the same. My goal is still to publish work by people in the community I feel closest to: that is, writers working in conversation with the visual arts.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

An interest in reading, and slowly. A desire to make books that had a relationship to visual art but were still about “reading” (and not just “looking,” as many art books are). An interest in reconciling my lost studio art practice with a new kind of making that I could do in a studio and with my hands. An appreciation for good design and the constraints of a page. The tidiness of stationary.

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

Blank Cheque got its name from a state of broke-ness met with occasional strokes of cash-flow luck that have allowed for it to continue, and as such I feel that I've earned a certain degree of autonomy with this project from so-called "roles and responsibilities"and that I should be free to imagine and continuously reimagine it in any way that I like. For me the role of small publishing is deeply connected to a refusal of late-capitalist economics, so if things like Blank Cheque can exist at all it’s in spite of and in reaction to the commodity market, not because of it, combined with a magic combination of hard work, care, and curiosity that we should all be working to protect and cultivate in our communities if we want to continue to see things in the world that look different from the kinds of things you can find in a mall.

I've always paid for this project out of my own pocket, and sometimes that has meant tears and a maxed-out credit card. Other times I've been the grateful beneficiary of personal scholarships and grants for my own writing practice or academic work that have allowed me to also pay for small spurts of publishing along the way. As of yet, I've still never applied for a grant on behalf of Blank Cheque Press, and though there have been suggestions over the years that I apply for formal publishing grants or otherwise organise to become a non-profit in order to better do so, I ultimately realized that even with the precarity that I face by running it as a glorified-hobby-project-cum-failing-small-business, publishing just wouldn't be fun for me if it meant another administrative thing to manage or attend to. Running it independently allows me to do so on my own terms and on my own schedule, with the opportunity to also quit should I ever want to. As a wise friend once put it, there's value in things remaining small and DIY in approach; in refusing the politics of incessant expansion. Projects should be allowed to fail.

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

Blank Cheque is a home for "expanded art writing." This may seem unbelievably niche to certain readers of this post, but to me and the friends I keep, it in fact feels hilariously mainstream! Blank Cheque to me is just one cohesive manifestation of an enthusiastic critical art writing community in Vancouver and Toronto of people who like books, and like art, and like criticism, and who contribute every day to the sustenance of these things in our community-at-large. These people are my friends and closest allies, and Blank Cheque is a home for them.

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

So bicycle! And in the hands of friends!

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

I envy those with a light touch but fear that I am not one of them. Prior to getting in to this line of work I never had much of a grasp of what it was that editors did, besides the obvious—but absolutely respect them now. Editing is incredibly sensitive intellectual, but also interpersonal, work, and can be incredibly exhausting. While I feel I’ve been predisposed to this line of work, I often dread it. It’s hard for me, as a writer, to step into someone else’s lines, someone else’s brain. It’s best for all involved if the editor and the writer have a good and pre-existing relationship, which, more times than not, is the case with Blank Cheque projects.

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

Because I make all the books myself—printing all the pages on a 52 page-per-minute black-and-white laser printer, and perfect-binding and trimming them all by hand in my studio—I feel exhausted just thinking about it—I tend to keep the runs small, usually around 150 copies, with the option to print a new edition later if demand warrants it.

Then I bike around town and deliver titles to bookstores and artist-run centres, and ship the occasional parcel to Toronto or Winnipeg or Montreal or Paris or Amsterdam.

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?

Blank Cheque is primarily a one-woman operation—though I do often call in the husband, mother, or available friend to help with collating!

Last year I had the privilege of working with artist Helen Reed on an anthology of previously published art fanfiction zines that she had edited and produced but had since gone out of print. Acting as publisher and a kind of secondary editor to this project, I had the opportunity to revisit the various texts that Helen had gathered together all those years ago from contributors who she had personal and sustained relationships with, many of whom I did not know or know well myself, and bring them (back) into being. The benefit of working with guest editors in this way is that they bring a new community of readers and writers into the fold, and engage them in a new way. Helen was the one with the knowledge of and interest in fanfiction, and I was the one who recognized it as an unexplored area of the “expanded art writing” that I was interested in offering a platform to with Blank Cheque. The result was totally different from anything I would have commissioned or edited, and I’m grateful for that difference.

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

I don't think running Blank Cheque Press has changed my own writing much, since I do my best to think of these things as somewhat separate, but I do bring the same DIY ethos to my life and practice, no matter the avenue or medium. I do also have much more respect for editors than I had before—now whenever I have the chance to work with an editor on my own writing, I seize the opportunity! It’s a great privilege to have close readers of one’s work, and knowing the sheer amount of care and deep attention that I try to bring to my own work as an editor, I now have a lot more trust and affection for others who extend the same loving labour to me and my ideas. 

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?

The first chapbook I ever published was my own—Mayonnaise—and I just did it for fun because I wanted to practice my new bookmaking skills while in residence at Publication Studio. Blank Cheque didn't exist at that point: I was just self-publishing because I felt like making something. I think I made a run of 50 at first and gave most of them away for free. So, am I conflicted about publishing my own work? Absolutely not! I'm just doing this stuff for fun. I’m not trying to be business-like or professional.

Drawings on Yellow Paper, a book project that features my writing alongside drawings by the artist Katie Lyle, came about in a similar way. Katie was making these hilarious drawings on yellow paper she had left over at her studio from another project, and I just thought: I would love to write responses to these drawings, and this would make for a great artist book. So I pitched her the idea, and because we're good friends, it ended up being a lot of fun. By the time the book came into being I had a thing I was now calling "Blank Cheque Press," so from that point forward whatever books I made began falling under that umbrella. I've since stopped publishing my own work under Blank Cheque because it’s no longer as much about me as it was in those early days of just playing around, but in the beginning, publishing my own stuff ended up being a productive way to also set the tone for the kinds of books I wanted to put out in the world, both by myself and others.

11– How do you see Blank Cheque Press evolving?

I've always liked the idea of expanding Blank Cheque to explore the "publication" format by way of other formats: audio on vinyl or cassette tapes; artist multiples and other special-edition objects; posters and ephemera. I'm not married to the idea that publishing needs to take the form of a book: what's important to me is good design, and giving form to projects that expand or otherwise deconstruct the definition of "publishing" in its core aspects (what does it mean to produce something that has pages? or is produced serially? or is designed to be "read"? and so on) Given my relationship with the visual arts community, this seems like a natural trajectory. There are lots of local projects I admire that take a similar approach. Eunice Luk's Slow Editions has produced some beautiful "artist books" over the years that sometimes look like blocks of soap. Edna Press based out of London, Ontario has published a deck of artist-designed playing cards. And so on. There are lots of interesting examples of expanded publishing in the world of artist books and anyone interested in this stuff should just spend an afternoon browsing the Art Metropole catalogue.

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?

I'm proud of the number of titles I have managed to put out these past years, considering how little time and attention I can realistically give the project outside of my day job and writing practice. I also think that running such a thing is incredibly annoying at times, and can sometimes feel more like a community service and black hole that I sadistically through money into—times when I feel terrible about having spent my whole freelance writing cheque on paper from Staples when I really would have liked to go on a vacation. If Blank Cheque ever dies, it’ll be not for a lack of interest, but because I want to take more vacations.

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

My initial publishing residency with Publication Studio was of course incredibly influential. I loved the way the PS network democratized the publishing field: the model of posting PDFs on a shared server online so that titles could be produced and distributed as DIY print copies anywhere in the world by other PS outlets; the lo-fi method of printing everything in black-and-white on a used laser printer on the cheapest available paper; of binding books in file folder covers, and stamping the title on the front. Had it not been for the accessibility of this model, I don't think I ever would have gotten into publishing in the first place. It’s important, with books, to begin with the feel of them.

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

I'm continuously surprised by the ways that Blank Cheque has touched and circulated in the world—especially considering I often only make about 100 copies of a title (sometimes I wonder, how did all these people even get their hands on a copy, never mind find it interesting enough to write about or respond to?).  As I already mentioned though, I do think the project captures something of the vast activity that is already occurring in the visual art community in so-called “Canada”—a movement that continues the parallel text tradition in the visual arts, and manifests in recent years as an ever-growing number of poets or fiction writers that are invited into the pages of art criticism magazines—and in this way becomes a useful touchpoint for these readers.

Blank Cheque's audience remains primarily a visual art one, and because of my own more personal interests in creative writing, but also visual art and critical art writing, it becomes a platform for spill over between all of these communities. 

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

I love readings…though I do wonder whether we'll ever have the opportunity to attend another reading again?

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

I sell a tiny number of books online (like, few enough to ship with personalized love notes). Social media is useful too, though really, and like everyone else, I kind of disdain it. Social media has a funny way of amplifying projects so that a book that I only make 100 physical copies of generates a kind of presence online, and I guess this is still a good thing. Do people still read books, or just take photos of them?

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

I don't take submissions, but people are always welcome to pitch me anyways. The thing is, I don't have much money to work with, and what I do have is entirely out of my own pocket, so the few projects that I take on have to be deeply meaningful to me personally to want to shell out for them (I lose money on every project). The projects that I do publish then are often the product of years-long conversations with friends and colleagues, and this slowness and relationship-building are critical to the process; they are what make the whole thing worthwhile. I have a long backlog of projects at the moment that I do hope will eventually materialize, in their own time.

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

Art Criticism & Other Short Stories is an anthology of "visual art fanfiction" zines originally edited and published by artist Helen Reed between 2011 and 2018. The fifteen essays and stories collected in the anthology oscillate between academic writing and diaristic confession, all imagining some kind of new and/or imaginary relationship with (real) artists or artworks.

The Mexican Husband / Un Marido Mexicano is a short, one-act play by artist Fabiola Carranza. An adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's 1937 The Jewish Wife, Carranza's version is a timely reflection on identity, exclusion, and the politics of borders through the eyes of an undocumented husband's last night at home in Los Angeles before running for the Mexican border.

Tacita Dean's Wanderlust, the latest issue in the ongoing Ecstatic Essays pamphlet series, is an essay by Laura Demers on utopian architecture, ruins, and cinematography as they relate to the artist Tacita Dean's research and documentation of the abandoned “Bubble House” on the Cayman Islands.

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