Friday, November 03, 2023

Jim Johnstone, Write Print Fold and Staple: On Poetry and Micropress in Canada


            When considering the impact of micropress it’s important to recognize that small publishers aren’t simply extensions of larger operations. derek beaulieu and Jason Christie touch on the disjunction between small and large publishers in a 2004 issue of Open Letter dedicated to “Canadian Small Presses / Micropress,” positing that:

It is crucial to consider the small press as a non-entity or an amorphous totality because to give it pre-eminence, to define the small press in its entirety, would be to make of it a structure capable of registering with the same presence as ‘Canadian Literature’ in the media and with casual readers. The small press would then be subject to the same ideological baggage of canon formation and capitalist obligation.

At the hear of this argument is thee notion that micropresses have the power to equalize the publishing landscape. But if they’re hard to define, and nearly impossible to trace, then how do they democratize, and who benefits from their presence?
            Part of the answer lies with the authors who close micropresses over the continuum of publishing houses that publish trade books. There’s freedom in printing material without bowing to the pressures of commercial expectation—a commitment to the art of writing itself. Saying this, I’m less interested in those who use micropresses as developmental territories, levelling-up to traditional publishers when they’ve established a presence in the literary community, than those who commit to disseminating their work ephemerally, even after publishing trade books. Authors who traffic in chapbooks and pamphlets are able to distribute material that wouldn’t fit, or is frowned upon at larger presses, highlighted by transgressive, unusual, or unpopular subject matter. In this way, they benefit from the creative potentiality of micropress, which allows for risk and encourages publishing in real-time.

I was very pleased to be introduced to Toronto poet, editor and publisher Jim Johnstone’s latest, the small critical folio Write Print Fold and Staple: On Poetry and Micropress in Canada (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2023). This title is so new that he’s travelling around with copies as part of a tour for his latest poetry title [see my review of such here]. The book exists in three parts: “Write, Print, Fold, and Staple: Four Principles of Micropress,” “Start Small, Stay Small: Khashayar Mohammadi and the Creative Potentiality of Micropress” and “In Praise of the Mayfly: A Survey of Canadian Micropresses.” Johnstone approaches this critical folio as not simply someone interested in the form, but as someone existing deep within the consideration and ecosystem of small and micro press. Johnstone is a writer, editor and publisher, having co-founded Anstruther Press in 2014 with his wife, Erica Smith (a press still very much active), and more recently, editing full-length collections through Palimpsest Press, as well as the occasional anthology. He not only understands the ethos and approach of small and micro press publishing, but is an active participant, having been such for quite some time, and he opens his overview with a description of his own small press beginnings, from working sixteen issues of Misunderstandings Magazine, his time as part of Cactus Press to his eventual co-founding of Anstruther (he also guest-edited an issue of G U E S T [a journal of guest editors], produced through above/ground press not that long back).

            Since these origins, one of Anstruther’s main initiatives has been to form an editorial collective to scout manuscripts from poets across the country. The net cast by having editors in cities like Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal, London, and Vancouver means that we’re able to tap into writing communities outside central Canada, and at the same time extend the press’s visibility to writers looking to publish first chapbooks, both of which are important parts of our mission. Moreover, pairing poets with editors has allowed those involved in the Anstruther bookmaking process to develop experience on either side of the publishing divide.

What is most compelling about this small folio is in just how effectively it works to provide an overview of some of the small and micro-press publishing activity in Canada at this particular moment, providing information on the nature of chapbook publishing, and focusing on a wide range of publishers currently and formerly active in various corners of the country—something that had previously been the purview of journals such as the late, lamented Open Letter: A Canadian Journal of Writing and Theory (1965-2013). Honestly, I can’t even think of a Canadian overview since that particular issue of Open Letter that Johnstone quoted above, the “Canadian Small Presses and Micropresses” issue, guest edited by derek beaulieu & Jason Christie (Twelfth Series, No. 4: Fall 2004). Also, the 1989 issue that holds ten interviews with British Columbia poet/publishers, conducted and edited by Barry McKinnon, is also pretty cool. Curiously, the focus on Toronto-based poet and publisher Khashayar Mohammadi in the second chapter is interesting, offering an example of a writer and translator able to get work out into the world that might have been difficult, if not impossible, without the assistance of small press:

            Mohammadi’s trajectory is an exemplar of the kind of mark an author can make by staying small. Moe’s Skin is an ambitious beginning, consisting of a single long poem with multiple sections. Printed on yellow cardstock, its cover features a Velvet Underground-like banana peeled back to reveal a figure that looks very much like the author. While the book only retailed for $10, it’s thirty-two-pages long, and was hand sewn in an edition of one hundred copies. Contrast this with what came next for Mohammadi—the perfect-bound, Coach House Books-printed Dear Kestrel, published by Knife|Fork|Book in 2019—and you have an illustration of how varied micropress endeavours can be. For my money, Dear Kestrel is the most aesthetically-pleasing object Knife|Fork|Book has published to date, with 80 lb Mohawk Loop Straw cardstock used for the cover, overlaid with tan ink so that the title almost looks like it’s been burned into wood.

The Canadian small and micro presses that Johnstone gathers and discusses as part of his survey, each with an individual write-ups (with full-colour photographs of titles by each), include above/ground press (1993-present), The Alfred Gustav Press (2008-present), Apt. 9 Press (2009-present), Baseline Press (2011-present), Collusion Books (2020-present), Ferno House (2009-2014), Frog Hollow Press (2001-2022), Gap Riot Press (2017-present), Jackpine Press (2002-present), Junction Books (1999-present), Knife|Fork|Book (2017-present), Model Press (2020-present), No Press (2005-present), Rahila’s Ghost Press (2017-2022) and Thee Hellbox Press (1983-85; 2005-18). Obviously works such as these rarely aim to be complete, but I would have been curious to see his take on presses such as Proper Tales Press, AngelHousePress, puddles of sky press, The Blasted Tree or Simulacrum Press, for example [see a further list of active Canadian small and micro presses at the Small Press Interactive Map curated by Kate Siklosi], or even Gaspereau Press itself. Either way, this is one of the most comprehensive critical titles I’ve seen on contemporary chapbook production in some time, and a fantastic introduction to both an opening as well as a deeper understanding of contemporary publishing. As he writes of his own approach to publishing and production, one might even consider this an ethos for all the editor/publishers mentioned, a question posed before citing the four principles of small publishing (ideal units for poetry, value in small, chapbooks are democratic and large presses depend on the small):

Assembling books by hand has stuck with me, and one of the reasons I’ve been able to persist is that Anstruther titles are produced in much the same way as the books I made in elementary school—folded and stapled—only now with the aid of a printer and photocopier. These are the tools of the trade for those interested in micropress at a base level, a place where many poets learn and expand their craft. But who chooses to stay small? And is there value in ephemeral, hand-distributed material in the digital age?


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