Sunday, February 21, 2021

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Devon Gallant, Luc-Antoine Chiasson and James Dunnigan on Cactus Press

Cactus Press is a Montreal based micro-press specializing in limited edition poetry chapbooks and other print ephemera.

Devon Gallant is the editor-in-chief of Cactus Press and the author of four collections of poetry: The Day After, the flower dress and other lines, His Inner Season, and S(tars) & M(agnets). His work has been previously published in Vallum, Carousel, Graphite Publications, and elsewhere. Along with Luc-Antoine Chiasson, he is the co-host of Accent, a bilingual reading series and open mic in Montreal.

Luc-Antoine Chiasson Né à Caraquet, N.B en 1989, Luc-Antoine Chiasson vit à Montréal depuis 2009. Il partage son temps entre l'écriture et les arts visuels. Son premier recueil, intitulé ‘’Pour commencer : le sang’’ paraît aux Éditions Perce-Neige en 2019.

James Dunnigan is a poet from Montreal, author of two chapbooks, Wine and Fire (Cactus Press, 2020) and The Stained Glass Sequence (Frog Hollow Press, 2019). Since placing second in 2014’s QWF Quebec Writing Competition with the short story “Open Bay”, he has published, or is forthcoming, in such places as Event Magazine, CV2, Maisonneuve, Lantern, Graphite Publications and more. Aut facere scribenda aut scribere legenda since 1994.

When did Cactus 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?

Devon: Cactus Press began in 2006 as a Toronto-based poetry chapbook publisher. However, in 2020 we re-launched with a new mandate focusing on writing from the Montreal literary community. If there’s anything I have learned through the years, it is to be more open minded about what I publish, to make it less about me.

What first brought you to publishing?

Devon: I actually started Cactus Press primarily so that I could publish my own chapbooks. When I was coming up in the Toronto lit scene in the early 2000s, I had a very clear idea of how I wanted my work organized. Which was as a suite of five chapbooks, some of which only containing a handful of poems in them. At that time, in Toronto, even today for that matter, no publisher would have taken on a multi-book project like that. For me, or any writer. So, Cactus Press started out of necessity. But that experience has also informed the way I view my relationship as a publisher. Which is to try and always be open to the needs of the writer.

James: And now we also have our francophone project with Le Cactus Pressé.

Devon: Yeah, we’re in transition. We’re kind of like a caterpillar that’s in…what’s that word?

Luc-Antoine: Looks like a turd. What’s that word, chrysalis? [Laughs] I’ve always had an interest in publishing because, I like books as objects and I think they look cool and I'm interested in the POTENTIAL of a book as an almost spiritual object. I like making things and I like reading so, it’s just normal. The natural progression.

James: So I worked in a fish store for a few years, and one thing about Cactus Press is it’s kind of like going back to work. You get to make cool stuff (books instead of tartare) and then you get to meet a ton of people distributing them, talking about them and so on. It feels like a very artisanal project in that sense and I guess that’s what attracted me to it. Also, it was kind of in my backyard. It was these people I knew who were doing this READING and I just showed up and fast forward a couple months, you’re all working together publishing people you also met there. That’s a pretty rewarding experience.

Luc-Antoine: One of the things that I really enjoy…or that I think I will enjoy, is that writing can get so abstract and so, kind of, ‘in the air’ because it’s just words on the page. Whereas, if you put it together in a book. Into something that you can hold. It just makes it so much more of a concrete thing… Like, I remember roasting coffee and there’s such a great feeling when you finish a day and you can feel it in your hands. What you did that day. And I feel like publishing is closer to that feeling than writing.

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

James: Small publishers have a responsibility to the people that help build them but they don’t—I believe—have responsibilities in the same way that corporate publishers do. We don’t have as much money or power. Different kind of setup altogether.

Luc-Antoine: I feel like responsibilities is a big word. I guess we have somewhat of a responsibility towards ourselves. Being true to ourselves, to what we like and dislike, and we have a responsibility towards the poets that we publish. To make sure that everyone’s happy with what we’re doing and having fun. But, apart from that…

James: That the author’s happy with the finished product. And that everyone around it gets to enjoy it too. It’s about the environment that creates the book and that the book creates, curating the ensemble of chapbooks over the year, the events around them. That’s all under our care.

Luc-Antoine: I don’t know if I would call this a responsibility, but I think publishers—big, and especially small—should take risks. If the person that wrote the book is happy with the finished product and we are, also, the idea that the community should enjoy it, is secondary to me. Does that make any sense? Just to try shit out and be willing to make mistakes?

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

Luc-Antoine: Well, bilingual now, is one thing.

Devon: Yeah, did you want to speak on that a bit? Our new imprint with Le Cactus Pressé.

Luc-Antoine: I don’t know how it’s going to go. I have a lot of high hopes. French publishing in Quebec is a very institutionalized thing. There are these very big publishing houses and even the small ones are kind of big and there aren’t really any small ones that don’t start out with the 12 books you have to start with in order to get funding. There are small ones that used to not be government funded but now they are…I don’t know. I honestly have no idea how it’s going to go. I think it’s going to go well. So far, the reception has been…NONE, precisely. But, then again, it’s COVID. So, you can’t really tell.

Devon: I think, much like our bilingual approach to the Accent Reading Series, this new imprint is kind of indicative of the way all three of us operate in that in-between zone. We often think of the French/English divide as cut and dry. But, there are a lot of people in Montreal whose lived experience is more of a blend between the two.

James: In the way that only people caught in the city-state of Montreal could be. A lot of people end up here and they live with two or three languages in their bodies and some have to deal with two more when they first come here. Ideally what happens out of that is this huge language party. Inevitably that makes good art. And that’s something good going on over here.

Devon: I also think we are kind of unique in Montreal at the moment in that we have a very open door right now for local poets trying to get published. We have a lot of projects planned for 2021 and are taking on even more as the year progresses. We’re really looking to create something very special in the city of Montreal. Something very inclusive.

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

Devon: Print them.

James: Do readings. Hold events.

Devon: Yeah, the problem isn’t really getting them out into the world. It’s easy to get them out in the world.

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

Devon: I prefer a light touch. What I found is that when I got too entrenched in my role as editor, really what I was trying to do was to transform that poet’s writing into my own.

James: If something’s good: don’t fuck with it. If something’s different: fuck with it even less.

Luc-Antoine: If you’re going to fuck with something to the point that you have to change its essence in order for it work, just don’t publish it.

James: Yeah. And usually, before I even think of making any edits, I have a conversation with the author to figure out what their ideas are. You want to take these people as seriously as possible and not second guess them because that just asks people to second guess you.

Devon: You also probably shouldn’t form strong ideas about editing a work until you’ve had the chance to hear the poet read it out loud.

James: Especially, especially.

Luc-Antoine: I totally agree, especially coming from Accent.

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

Devon: We do print runs of 50 copies. In terms of distribution? Well, we’re in the middle of a pandemic so…next question. [Laughs]

James: Well, in normal times we would distribute them at Accent. We only had time to do this with my book in February. [Laughs]

Luc-Antoine: It’s true that the only one that actually got launched at Accent was yours, James. All the other ones were sold in back alleys like it’s Meth.

Devon: You’re right, though. In normal times we would be organizing book launches through Accent. Even before the first show, I knew that I was going to relaunch Cactus Press and be organizing launches through the series. I had that in mind.

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?

James: What makes it easy is that we’re just three kids doing our thing. And that makes it very easy to coordinate whatever project the press is sailing on at the moment. Whatever events we want to organize, things like that. And, the other thing is, I would actually count the authors as editors too because, with the limited format we have (which is quite an elegant one, too), you want the book to kind of look like them. Or, at least, reflect some of their personality in a slight but noticeable way. One or two colours they like. Images they like. Layout. They get some choice within those limits. So, they’re basically making the book with us, inside and out, and yet it’s still a Cactus book.

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

Luc-Antoine: It hasn’t for me.

Devon: From an early age, I was organizing my poems in very specific ways. So, I think I’ve always had that publisher’s mentality.

James: If it’s changed anything for me, it’s was kind of like learning how really good wine grows. There’s a context to it. Instead of just consuming it, you’re seeing it as a whole process.

Luc-Antoine: Actually, now that I think about it, I think I’ll say that it made the process of writing more difficult for me. I think there are writers that just sort of write and write and write and write and then edit and something comes out of it. I have to have a very crystal-clear idea of what the poem’s going to be in my head before I put it down. And after going through the editorial process and being now an editor, I feel like this process of how its going to be on the page before I even start writing is longer now. Because I feel like it HAS to be even more perfect than it was before putting it down on the page. So, for me, it’s made it more difficult to write.

Devon: Be careful, Luc. That’s a serious trap.

Luc-Antoine: I know, I try.

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?

Devon: Well, to date, I have self-published 11 chapbooks and 4 full length collections. So, my stance is pretty clear, I guess. But also, Cactus Press doesn’t receive any government grants to support its operations, so that might change the context of the question, depending on who you ask. To be honest, I’m not really sure where this stigma against self-publishing in the poetry community comes from. If you look at any other artistic field that with a thriving commercial fan base, DIY is where artists are able to breakthrough and make a name for themselves. Whether that’s through the tape cassette culture in rap or filmmakers like Kevin Smith maxing out credit cards in order to self-finance Clerks or whatever. Since poetry doesn’t have that strong consumer base, I think that leaves poets with only prestige as the definable currency to gauge their success. In my case, if I had been waiting for a publisher to pick up these books, I’d still be waiting. As an artist, you either die, or you keep living. Given those two options: I’m going to keep living. I’d encourage any writer reading this to do the same. No matter how your work is published you should know where it stands in terms of quality and be able to stand behind it. At the end of the day, it’s the work that matters, nothing else.

Luc-Antoine: I’ll drink to that.

James: I think its good to not expect people to just give you things. There’s a point to which you kind of owe it to yourself to get it out there, and having other people do it for you involves its own sacrifices.

Devon: Look at ee cummings, who won a Guggenheim and was well regarded amongst his peers. Nobody bought any of his books. So, by the time his fifth one came around, no publisher would touch it and his mom ended up having to fund him the money to publish it. He called it No Thanks and wrote the name of every publisher that rejected it beneath the title.

Luc-Antoine: That’s fucking amazing.

Devon: And that’s ee cummings!

How do you see Cactus Press evolving?

Luc-Antoine: Organically.

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?

James: I have zero frustration about this.

Luc-Antoine: I haven’t had a chance to have a frustration yet.

Devon: No frustrations on my end.

James: We’re too busy to be frustrated.

Devon: Publishing James’ Wine and Fire was a special moment for me, since it was the first book in this nouvelle vague for Cactus Press.

Luc-Antoine: That was a good night, too. We had fun.

James: It was really, really fun and the cool thing is that the party’s not stopped since. Within the last month of 2020, we basically filled our lineup for 2021. That’s pretty wild.

Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

Devon: My publishing model, early on, was mostly myself because I had such a strong-headed, or stubborn-headed I should say, idea of what I wanted to do. But also, in Toronto at that time, during the glory days of the Art Bar reading series under Allan Briesmaster and then later David Clink—back at the original Victory Café on Markham Street—there was this buzz in the air that I will always remember. And part of that buzz was from David Clink and Myna Wallin’s believeyourownpress which was releasing chapbooks at the time. Seeing what believeyourownpress was doing was definitely a lightbulb moment for me. However, even more than that, my mentor, Rudyard Fearon, was a huge inspiration. His debut collection Free Soil, which he self-published under his imprint RWF Publishing, was fundamental in my development as a young writer. Rudy really influenced me not only as a publisher, but also on how to thrive on the fringes of Can-Lit. How to be a literary outlaw.    

Luc-Antoine: I have an answer for this: a mix of Gerald LeBlanc, who was an Acadian poet and publisher that died in 2005, and Ian Mackaye, who was the singer of Minor Threat and Fugazi and started Dischord Records.

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

Luc-Antoine: Accent.

James: Accent.

Devon: Yeah, certainly. The Accent reading series. Once we can start doing live shows again, I think it’ll be pretty clear that Cactus Press is very much interested in cultivating a robust and inclusive literary community in the city of Montreal. In terms of the community at large? I could certainly see Cactus Press expanding into other regions like Ottawa, and I already have strong ties with Toronto. But, really, our main focus right now is on building the literary community within Montreal.

Luc-Antoine: Can we add New Brunswick in this?

Devon: Yes! New Brunswick can be the Robin to our Batman.


Devon: Who are we in dialogue with? Potentially anyone. Anyone that gets it. Anyone that understands just how inclusive we are. When me and Luc started the Accent series in 2019, I extended an olive branch out to every magazine and publisher in Quebec. I had lived in Montreal since 2007 but, essentially, as a hermit. So, no one in the Montreal literary community knew me. When I reached out initially, I think a lot of people were like: “Who is this kid?” But, by the end of 2019 people started to get it. Going into 2021 we had shows lined up with both carte blanche and Graphite Publications before the lock downs came into effect. This concept of collaboration is really a continuation of my days in Toronto when I ran the Diamond Cherry Reading Series with Julie Cameron Gray. In the short time that Diamond Cherry was active, between 2005-2006, we organized events with CBC’s ZED, lichen Magazine, Carousel Magazine, and Jim Johnstone’s Misunderstandings Magazine. Jim actually ended up as co-editor on Cactus Press between 2007-2012. So, I’ve always embraced that spirit of collaboration. Not to conflate the two organizations, but I think it’s safe to say Cactus Press is open to collaboration. I feel like we can all come together and make the literature community in Montreal one big happy family. So, for any literary organization that’s reading this: we want to be your friend, we want to do launches with you, we want to do everything with you. Our dance card is free. We’ll merengue if you’ll merengue.

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

Luc-Antoine: At this point, our answer is pretty obvious.

James: Yeah, Accent. If you don’t have boots on the ground (or faces in the zoomvoid), I don’t believe you have very much going on. It’s not just about having a magazine or having a publishing house. It’s about having a whole environment around it too.

Luc-Antoine: Having a publishing house that doesn’t do readings is like having a record label that doesn’t do shows.

Devon: I would even go beyond that and say that it’s important to incorporate an open mic segment into your events as a publisher, as well. Not only to give emerging writers the chance to make an impression on you but, also, to just recognize that poetry really only thrives when it embraces the community of poets that supports it.

James: Cactus Press is exceptional in that, if you’re in this city and you come to our readings, if you like what we do and chat a little bit with us about what you do, you’ll almost certainly get a nice candid reaction and encouragement. And maybe even a book, who knows.

Luc-Antoine: There’s this school of musicians that say if your song doesn’t sound good on an acoustic guitar around a fire then it’s not a good song; I kind of have that thing about poetry now because of Accent: if you can’t read it on a stage with a bartender going out for a smoke in the middle of your third verse…

Devon: [Laughs]

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

Devon: We have a webpage.

Luc-Antoine: And we have a somewhat active Facebook presence. And by somewhat I mean like: I kinda am and James kinda is.


Devon: I’m like the Wizard of Oz of social media, you don’t want to pull back that curtain. All you’re going to find is a fat old man.

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

Devon: Do we accept submissions? Yes! Please do. If you’re a poet and you live in Quebec, not only do we accept submissions, we are fully expecting you to submit. What aren’t we looking for? Well, we certainly don’t want you to “fit” in. This word has been widely adopted by both journals and publishers and I really don’t get it…because, poetry, for me, is Robert Frost. It’s the road not taken. It’s marching to the beat of your own drum. I really don’t comprehend a publisher that wants me to “fit” in with them. So, I can honestly tell any prospective writer out there: I don’t want you to fit in with us. And I’ll even go a step further and say that it’s not necessary to buy any of our books in order to get published because I already want to publish you. The only reason you should buy one of our books is if you think you’ll actually get some enjoyment from it.

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

Devon: I am always most excited about whatever book I am currently working on. So, at the moment, two titles forthcoming in 2021—Bryan SentesAs on a Holiday and Ilona Martonfi’s Black Rain—are particularly special to me. For one, I designed the covers completely on my own. Which is a fun new skill I have been working on. But also, we seem to have struck upon a kind of unofficial travel theme in our upcoming roster of books and I think when they all start coming out, they’re going to make a nice set.

James: Me, I was really glad to do some editing for Jacky Den Haan’s forthcoming Selected Leavings. Jacky’s cool and we had a great time working on the text, though there wasn’t much to improve, honestly. It is a collection of eminently inventive, open, lyric-sometimes-concrete poetry. It’s quite a refreshing thing to read.

Luc-Antoine: Jacky’s also an extremely talented reader.

James: Yes, am especially excited for the launch for that reason. There are poems in the collection that we haven’t heard spoken yet, and she’s always good. Lots to look forward to, kids.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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