Tuesday, January 19, 2021

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Brian Lewis on Longbarrow Press

Longbarrow Press is a Sheffield-based independent poetry publisher with a reputation for work that explores the intersections of landscape, history and memory. Titles range across various formats, including hardbacks, pamphlets, boxes and CDs. Since the launch of our first publications in 2006, we’ve developed an eclectic programme of events, including poetry walks, exhibitions and collaborations with musicians and filmmakers, alongside a growing online archive of field recordings based on our visits to canals, chapels and sea caves in Yorkshire and beyond. Our parallel journey in print has also unfolded with an emphasis on innovation. An ethos of craft and care informs this preoccupation with ‘the book as object’, and helps to ensure that the format of publication is always a sympathetic response to the poem.

Brian Lewis is the editor and publisher of Longbarrow Press. He is also an essayist, curator, and poet. His publications include East Wind (Gordian Projects, 2016), an account of a walk across the Holderness peninsula, and White Thorns (Gordian Projects, 2017), based on a series of walks through the Isle of Axholme. Red Flags, a lyrical exploration of the north coast of Kent, will be published by Ma Bibliothèque in 2021.  

1 – When did Longbarrow 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?

The press was launched with an event in Sheffield in April 2006, which marked the publication of our first two titles, though we’d been (tentatively, informally) active for a year or two at this point. The fundamental goals – to work collaboratively, to develop and maintain an ethos of craft and care, to make interesting objects in which form and content reflect and support each other – haven’t changed, but the means by which we try to achieve them almost certainly have. I’ve learned more than I could have anticipated, and more than I can recount here; it’s difficult to separate the aesthetic (design / layout) from the technical (printing, proofreading, formatting) from the critical (editorial discussions and decisions). More than anything, I’m mindful of that which I’ve learned from others – the poets and artists with whom I’ve worked over the years – and how their contributions have influenced the direction of the press. I’m still learning.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

It was unintentional, and, at first, incidental. In the early 2000s, I worked as an administrator in the financial services industry, and spent much of my spare time photographing bits of southern England. The office was usually deserted after 5pm, and I started to misuse the equipment, making photocopies of the photographs and copies of the copies. The poet Andrew Hirst (aka photographer Karl Hurst) invited me to collaborative with him on a sequence of poems and images, which took shape over a couple of years. As we didn’t know who to approach, or how we might approach them, we decided to set up a small imprint through which we might publish the work. I had no formal experience of design, printing, editing, or publishing, but I’d resolved to try to do everything myself, so it was a gradual (and intermittently disastrous) process of trial and error. It was problematic, but there was some interest from audiences, and creative momentum, so it made sense to work with other poets on further publications. There was no plan. There is still no plan.

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

For me, the first and most important responsibility is to the poems, and my role, to this end, is to understand the poet’s intentions for the work. Everything else – the editorial discussion, layout, format, jacket design – flows from this understanding. The dialogue between poet and publisher should be as open as possible. I always seek to include and involve the poet at all stages of the process, from the point size of the body text to the colour of the endpapers, and this always makes a difference to the resulting object. If there is a distinction to be made between the modi operandi of small presses and that of larger publishers, perhaps it’s that the former aspire to a more open, collaborative approach.

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

I don’t know. I’m sure we’re not the only press with an ethos of craft, care, and collaboration. Our meticulous (or, in the words of my partner, ‘pathologically neat’) packaging of books for postal deliveries is fairly uncommon, I think. It takes ages, but seems to be appreciated.

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

There’s no single method, as each publication finds a different audience. Email newsletters. The Longbarrow Press website. The growing and varied community of readers and supporters on Twitter. And – pre-pandemic – book fairs and readings.

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

It varies from publication to publication. Again, it’s often a matter of understanding the poet’s intentions for the work, and developing a working relationship that is sympathetic to this. Some collections have been reshaped through intensive dialogue; other publications have been subject to equally intensive dialogue, but have been largely unchanged by the process. I try to be a close, critical reader and proofreader, while keeping interruptions to a minimum.

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

The press has no formal distribution, so most of the sales are via the Longbarrow website (boosted by Twitter, email newsletters, etc), readings and launch events, and book fairs. There are a number of independent bookshops around the UK that carry our titles as well. A print run for a hardback collection is usually 500; a print run for a hand-stitched pamphlet will be somewhere between 100 and 200.

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?

It’s a one-person editorial and production team (i.e. me), but almost all of the Longbarrow jackets and covers since 2014 have benefited from varying degrees of advice and input from my partner, Emma Bolland, whose fine art background has subtly informed the development of our aesthetic. She’s contributed artwork for some of the jackets, and has made invaluable suggestions that have enhanced the designs of other books. The press was co-founded with Andrew Hirst, which made for an interesting editorial partnership in the early years; it worked well when we were in the same room, which wasn’t often (we were living 150 miles apart at that time, with limited email access, which made any collective decision-making rather difficult). Andrew stepped down a few months after the launch – amicably, voluntarily – which left me as the sole editor / publisher. I learned a lot from our discussions; how to work collaboratively, how to leave space for chance and contingency in the creative process, how to listen. And, following his departure, how to work independently, and how to work instinctively.

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

Again, I’ve learned a great deal from the poets I’ve worked with. It’s a rare privilege to be invited to read and comment on sequences and collections in varying stages of development; after a few years of this, I found that I was reading almost everything much more closely, and much more critically. It’s also helped me to understand, and develop, the potential for arranging (or rearranging) work on the page and for performance. The multiple iterations of Matthew Clegg’s Edgelands (2008) were among the earliest outcomes of this methodology; we published a pamphlet edition, comprising 50 poems, which were further subdivided into 10 themed clusters of 5 poems, and a matchbox edition, in which the full cycle of 56 poems was reordered and concertinaed on a single continuous strip. The work was also ‘dispersed’ through single-poem cards and postcards, and continually rearranged by Clegg in readings and performances. The experience (and others like it) undoubtedly informed the development of my own work, including the sequence White Thorns (Gordian Projects, 2017).

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?

Perhaps it helps to look beyond small press (poetry) publishing for some answers to this question. Some of the printed objects that I’ve valued in recent years have been zines and artists’ books which might, according to some criteria, be ‘self-published’ work. J.R. Carpenter, Jean McEwan, Colin Sackett, and many others are utilising different processes and formats to create small editions of their own work (while also working with more established methods and platforms). In other words, I think the question might be less pressing (or relevant) than hitherto. I post essays and other pieces on the Longbarrow Blog (usually with some connection to the output of the press), but I’ve no intention of publishing my own writing through Longbarrow (in print), unless it was part of an anthology of essays, i.e. featuring work by Longbarrow poets. I need a degree of critical distance from my own work to re-envision it for publication, and the creative dialogue that working with another editor/publisher can offer.

11 – How do you see Longbarrow Press evolving?

Title by title. Each new collaborator, and each new project, helps to extend or reframe the scope of what is possible. Whenever a proposal has been put to me as something that would be ‘perfect for Longbarrow’, I’ve almost always declined to pursue it, as the trajectory seems predetermined. It’s necessary to be surprised and challenged and, at times, fearful, otherwise there’s not much point in going on.

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?

There have been many things – publications, events, working relationships – that have rewarded the efforts of the last 15 years, but the connection that the work has made with audiences has been a steady light throughout this period. It means something when people get in touch to say that they’ve enjoyed a book or a performance, and that they appreciate the care with which it’s been delivered. It’s not something that I take for granted. Have aspects of our programme been overlooked? I don’t know. People discover different things at different times. Titles that we published in 2013 are still selling today, and they’re new to the readers who encounter them. My only sources of frustration are my own limitations – technical, temporal, financial, etc – though these are hardly unique. I’m grateful for the constraints that make the work possible.

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

It’s difficult to single out presses, editors, or movements. We started out with a reasonably clear sense of what we wanted to achieve with the first few titles, and briefly imagined that what we were doing, or were trying to do, was sui generis. This naivety and confidence didn’t last long. There didn’t seem to be much small press activity in Sheffield at that time (for a city with two universities), though it’s possible that we were looking in the wrong places. West House Books, run by Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk, were responsible for much of what was happening on the poetry scene, and were running a very interesting events series alongside an active programme of publication. A little later, I became interested in the post-war histories of UK small press publishing: the output of Migrant, Fulcrum, Tarasque, Circle, and others.

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

Twitter has been surprisingly useful for enabling and maintaining a dialogue with literary (and other) communities, which, for me, includes readers, writers, artists, publishers, and anyone with a passing interest. It’s been particularly helpful since the pandemic closed down many of the ‘real-world’ spaces in which these dialogues and encounters might otherwise flourish. There are many active presses who I admire and who, in turn, have been very supportive of us, including Uniformbooks, Corbel Stone Press, Essence Press, And Other Stories, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, and others. Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed, and valued, the book fairs in which Longbarrow Press has taken part, and, in particular, the annual Small Publishers Fair, directed by Helen Mitchell, that takes place in London in November. Helen has worked incredibly hard to develop the infrastructure of community, both online and offline, and it’s the site of many lasting connections between artists and publishers and writers and readers. It’s hard to imagine a world – not just a ‘literary’ world – without these dialogues.

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

A reading or performance should be as thoughtfully crafted and presented as a printed object. We’ve always viewed these events as works in themselves, rather than mere occasions for sales and promotion (though audiences do buy books, without undue pressure). Over the past 15 years, we’ve collaborated with artists and musicians to present new work in galleries and theatres, alongside more ‘conventional’ (but no less creative) spoken word presentations. We’ve also developed a series of poetry walks in and around Sheffield, in which the poets are accompanied by an audience of 20 or so, and the landscape becomes a collaborative partner.

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

We were relative latecomers to the internet. It took me five years (from the launch of the press) to set up the Longbarrow website, but I’m glad that I took my time. It’s a visual and audio archive. It’s an index of poems and publications. It’s a sales portal. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, of course; as I’ve mentioned, social media has been particularly helpful in directing people to the site.

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

We don’t have submission windows, as our output is modest – around 2 or 3 titles each year – and time is short.

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

Correspondences (2019) by Angelina D’Roza is a hand-stitched pamphlet that reflects on ‘aspects of home and distance and displacement’ (in the poet’s words). It’s a subtly and sensitively constructed work; the layering of the themes is understated, incremental, and all the more effective for this. This is a Picture of Wind (2020) is the print iteration of J.R. Carpenter’s digital work of the same name. It lies somewhere between a ‘poetic almanac’ and a ‘private weather diary’, and draws on archive material to make new weather. It was a pleasure to work with J.R. on adapting it to the dimensions of a pocket-sized hardback, and to work with Vahni Capildeo, who contributed a new sequence of poems as a ‘poetic afterword’ to J.R.’s text. Our most recent publication is Wealden, which is both a pamphlet by Nancy Gaffield, and a collaboration with The Drift (musicians Rob Pursey, Amelia Fletcher, and Darren Pilcher), the latter available as a digital download and an audio CD. It’s exciting to work across different formats, and the work (which explores the marshes, shingle, and dense woodlands of southern Kent) seems to have found an audience that is ‘new’ to us.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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