The 2011 Chapbook Festival
If you were to envision the chapbook as star system, it might look a little something like this poster I dug out of a box of unwanted books and ephemera. Maybe not, but lets go with this for a second because this image is rad! Identities swirl around an androgynous central figure representing the sun. The sun is a stand-in for YOU. You are a reader of chapbooks! You try to make sense of everything with symbols. Get a haircut. Borrow some dark matter shears.
Ok Ok, the universe of the chapbook is hardly a heliocentric thing. But publishers of chapbooks are part of a larger (still smallish) community of makers interested in reaching out to a variety of specific readerships. Form and method vary greatly among them. What has been consistent is usually a limited page count and print run—anywhere from 1000 to a handful—a localized sphere of distribution, and an emphasis on the aesthetic and personal rather than the commercial value of products.
Last week, the CUNY Graduate Center played host to a number of publishers who gathered for the third annual Chapbook Festival, organized by Ana Bozicevic and Sampson Starkweather. Lily Ladewig was on the scene to talk to press people, check out all the awesome books, and catch some very fine readings. Selected interviews with Pilot Books, H_NGM_N Bks, Rope-A-Dope Press and minutes BOOKS, and an offsite reading recap are below. More chapbook reviews to follow.
[intro by Andrew Gorin]
INTERVIEWS WITH PILOT BOOKS, H_NGM_N BKS, ROPE-A-DOPE PRESS AND MINUTES BOOKS!!!
Press: Pilot Books
Hot Titles: Terrance Hayes, Who Are The Tribes; Jessica Fjeld, The Tide; Karla Kelsey, 3 Movements
TFT: Something that I love about your books is that each has a very different size and shape. How do you decide what each book will look like?
Betsy Wheeler: The design of the book always comes from the poems. When we read a manuscript we try to enter the imagined space in which they were created. Then it’s up to us to create a physical world for the poems to live in.
Meghan Dewar: The books are a physical translation of the poems that the reader can interact with, it can emphasize and explain the work.
BW: Yes, we think that the form our chapbooks take helps to illuminate the manuscript. And sometimes we have an idea for the shape of a book that we want to do, for example an accordion-maze book, and then we get a manuscript and it just fits so perfectly! In that case, the form precedes the content.
TFT: So you’re collaborating with the poets you publish, but you also collaborate with each other when making the books. What’s that process like?
BW: (Laughs.) Lots of arguments and tantrums! And usually we discover that even if we get into a debate ultimately we are both saying the same thing. Meghan sees poems differently because she’s a designer.
MD: And Betsy is a poet so she’s sparked by the poems. She’ll pick up on an abstract idea and we work together to make it literal. As a graphic designer I’ve also worked with bands to create their posters and album covers. In a way it’s a similar idea; I’m trying to visualize a voice for someone else’s work without getting in the way.
BW: Ultimately, when we choose to publish a chapbook, it’s because we get the poems in a different way—they speak to us from a physical space we can visualize. We know that they have a physical form that needs to be expressed. To be an editor like that for someone is an awesome experience. We get to create a physical existence for their words.
TFT: Are there any presses or books here at the fair that you’re particularly excited about?
BW: I have publishing crushes on Ugly Duckling Presse, Double Cross Press, and Factory Hollow Press.
MD: I’m excited to see Greying Ghost Press, Creature Press, and I love what Mary [Walker Graham] does over at Rope-a-Dope. I wish Small Fires Press was here.
Press: H_NGM_N BKS
Publisher: Nate Pritts
Hot Titles: Matt Hart, Wolf Face; Dan Magers, White-Collar Worker: I Am Destiny; Jackie Clark, Red Fortress
TFT: Your chapbooks start out online as “portable document format” (PDF) e-books that anyone can download for free. Why did you decide to go the online route?
Nate Pritts: First off, it seemed like a better way to distribute a writer’s work. There’s a wonderful immediacy to publishing work online. It only takes about one month after I’ve accepted a manuscript to make it available online and I publish about eight chapbooks a year. You don’t have to mail out copies, the poets can send the link out to all of their friends right away, and the designs can run a broader range than I’m able to enact in print. Once they’ve gone online I can then still print them out and create small batches of hardcopies using a low-fi side-stapled method. Another factor is that I don’t have a background in book arts or letterpress. I’m not the kind of person who’s going to obsess over fine papers and different bindings. I’m in no way anti-book arts, I love what everyone here is doing, but personally I’m more excited about getting these books out into the world. Don Delilo asked in a recent PEN interview “Does poetry need paper?” I don’t think so. But it’s nice.
TFT: You publish both full-length books (for example, Matt Hart’s Wolf Face) and chapbooks. When you’re reading manuscripts are you looking for something different in a chapbook than in something full-length?
NP: No, I don’t. We have an open reading period once a year for full-length books and we read chapbook submissions year-round. Many of the chapbooks we’ve published are actually pulled from full-length manuscripts that I’ve received. For example, Steven Karl’s emissions/of and our a new chapbook called Clouds That Mean Something by Linnea Ogden. I loved reading their work and wanted to publish them somehow so we worked together to pull sections of their book to create the chapbooks.
TFT: Are there any presses or books here at the fair that you’re particularly excited about?
NP: Hands down the best book for sale here today is Alex Phillips’ Crash Dome (Factory Hollow Press) but I’ve already read it so won’t be buying it. Also, it’s not a book, but I’m really excited to buy the new issue of The Corduroy Mtn. that Greying Ghost Press has put out. Carl [Annarummo] pays such careful attention to detail, and it’s obvious he cares about the work he’s doing – you can’t help but care too!
Press: Rope-a-Dope Press
Publishers: Robert DaVies and Mary Walker Graham
Hot Titles: Kim Gek Lin Short, Run; Chris Tonelli, For People Who Like Gravity and Other People; Kate Schapira, The Painting
(Interview with Jeremiah Gould, Rope-a-Dope’s man-about town and jack-of-all-trades.)
TFT: How did Rope-a-Dope begin?
Jeremiah Gould: Bob and Mary started working together when they were sharing a live/work studio in the Distillery, an artist’s building in South Boston. Bob’s a painter and Mary’s a poet, and they both had a bit of experience with bookmaking and printing. They got the chance to move a Vandercook letterpress into their studio and decided to it would be a perfect opportunity to start work they they’d been imagining during late night talks about art and poetry. The first Rope-a-Dope project was the creation of The Jungle, a book of broadsides they printed in collaboration with Chris Tonelli, who runs the So and So Reading Series. At first they created three separate broadsides for every reading, featuring a poem by each of the three readers and a different artist every month. As time went on they decided to create triptychs. They’re perforated so you can fold them or even separate them. This second set of broadsides became Split Decision. I worked with Mary on the typesetting and printing; Chris selected all the poets, and Bob directed and assisted the artists each month. Mary sews all the books by hand. By now Rope-a-Dope has worked with about three dozen poets and almost twenty artists, so it’s a very collaborative process.
TFT: How did you get involved?
JG: I had moved to Boston after graduating UNH and worked with Chris Tonelli at a running specialty shop. He had recently received his MFA at Emerson and so we talked poetry. Later, Chris started up So and So. I was really excited about both the readings and Rope-a-Dope, so I asked Chris how I could get involved. He connected me with Mary who, in the spirit of collaboration, taught me how to set type and run the press.
TFT: I think that Rope-a-Dope’s most exciting offerings are the hand-bound collections of your broadsides. How much do they cost and how have they been selling?
JG: The Jungle has sold out at this point. We’re currently selling the collection of triptych broadsides that fold out, Split Decision, for $300. The broadsides are also available individually on our website. Mary mostly sells the books to private collectors and libraries that focus their collections around rare books and art books (The Jungle is currently at the Boston Public Library, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the University at Buffalo’s Poetry Collection). There’s been a lot of interest and I think she may have already found another prospective buyer here at the fair…
Press: minutes BOOKS
Publisher: The Robert Walser Society of Western Massachusetts
Hot New / Forthcoming Titles: Eric Baus, Negative Noon; Jacqueline Waters, The Saw That Talked; Matvei Yankelevich, Bending at the Elbow; Taryn Andrews, Clouds Can Trees
(Interview conducted with the Robert Walser Society’s anonymous spokesperson, the “Sub-Sub-Librarian”)
TFT: Your new release, The Beginning In by Lesley Yalen, is beautiful. What was the process like working with her on the book?
Sub-Sub Librarian: It was easy. I’m very lucky in that all the authors I work with do great work so I can trust them to do whatever they want. They also help with all aspects of putting the books together. Often they help with design and assembly. When we were binding Lesley’s book, she and Emily [Pettit] got together to watch basketball and they sewed every book.
TFT: There was a period when you were printing chapbooks with blank covers. When and why did you start doing this?
SSL: The first book we published, Catfish Po’ Boys by Lewis Freedman, had a printed cover, but we did the title page and colophon by hand. Rachel B. Glaser is an artist, so she drew a different cover on each copy of Heroes Are So Long. Seth Landman’s sister made a whale stamp for the The Wild Hawk, the Sea. Mark Leidner and Heather Christle drew on and/or collaged (technically, grangerized) their covers.
TFT: Tell me about the annual project that you’re working on with Sam Lohmann.
SSL: I’ve never met Sam, and we haven’t corresponded for long, but I feel like we’re old friends. He lives in Portland, where he runs a fantastic poetry journal called Peaches and Bats and, with David Abel, Airfoil chapbooks, and (with Abel and others) the readings series Spare Room. Michael Barron gave me Sam’s chapbook, Onlooking, and I knew instantly that I wanted to publish a book by him. He sent a manuscript called AGAIN which alternates between poems called “Again” and “January”, “February” and so on, 24 poems in all. To receive an installment (issued every other month), anyone can send anything to AGAIN c/o Flying Object, 42 West St., Hadley, MA.
TFT: Bonus question! Today is your birthday. Have you had any cake?
SSL: Chapbook cake.
GOODBYE BLUE MONDAY READING RECAP!!!
There were many great readings in New York last week in conjunction with the Chapbook Festival. This included the PSA Chapbook Fellowship Reading at CUNY, a happy annual tradition during which established poets pass the torch to emerging writers; a reading focused on the topic “What the Chapbook Means to Me” featuring Jen Bervin and Anna Moschovakis at Poet’s House; and a convivial Friday night off-site reading by C.S. Carrier, Brian Foley, Chris Hosea, and Jared White for the Multifarious Array Series at Pete’s Candy Store.
One of the most memorable events took place when the festival was winding down and a group of poets, publishers, and friends were still hanging out and enjoying the particularly warm weather in Bushwick. The staff at Goodbye Blue Monday were serving up brunch and bloody marys. CROWD, Poetry Time at Space Space, The Stain of Poetry, and SUPERMACHINE – four of Brooklyn’s finest reading series – co-hosted a reading that was the culmination of four long days of chapbook celebration. Sampson Starkweather, one of the organizers of the Chapbook Festival, kicked off the reading by thanking everyone for coming out on a beautiful Sunday night, before realizing that it was Saturday afternoon.
Mc Hyland, publisher of Doublecross, was the first to read because she had to catch a plane home to Minneapolis. The centerpiece of her reading was the three-part poem “Ballet Mechanique”, named after the surrealist French film by Fernand Leger. Emulating the dreamy, looping images in the original film, Hyland would return and build on familiar words (houses, bodies, seasons, rain, radio) in ways that both elegantly paused and sped up time. She informed us “the life outside the body is the only life.”
Erin Morill, visiting for the Chapbook Festival from Oakland, CA, read a long poem entitled “Pornologue”. Her delivery was performative, allowing her to mimic her pornographic subject matter with loud sighs and musical crescendos. Morill deftly vacillated between subtly erotic moments (“Gratitude is an action in the candlelight”) and garishly explicit hardcore, interspersing “money shot!” like a splattering of punctuation.
With a soft voice and bright presence, Francesca Chabrier read poems that were both witty and tender. A particular highlight was “The Beautiful Poem”, in which Chabrier takes the listener around the globe, “Beautiful Earth girls are easy. Beautiful Irish girl, you are crunked in a totally green dress… Beautiful Korean girls snapping pictures of the dam.” It felt like a Technicolor tour of Disney’s Epcot Center after overdosing on a love potion.
Anelise Chen brought great energy to the room when reading her poems, many of which focused around first person narratives of physical exertion, for example painful contact sports (“…in high school I played water polo and I sucked”) or near death experiences on a bicycle. Chen’s poems have a wonderful tangential quality; they unspool in fun and surprising ways, made more enjoyable by her rapid reading style.
Instead of standing, Andrew Kenower, another Bay Area poet, chose to sit and hold the microphone, giving off the air of a slightly louche Mr. Rogers. Kenower’s short poems were full of deadpan humor and clever wordplay, yet his speakers are always searching for connection. “I’m having a hard time saying it with flowers” he writes at the beginning of one poem, before later succumbing to the realization that “I’m having a hard time saying it with weather.”
Lisette Elizabeth Simmons read from a series of poems responding to the photographs of Robert Frank, best known for his black and white snapshots of post-war America. As with the best ekphrasis, Simmons’ speaker both inhabits the world of Frank’s art and is also given freedom to step outside the frame to comment from a different perspective. However, while many artists make a note of the date and location of their photographs, Simmons wants to wipe the slate clean by ending one poem “Here I am on Bowery and Bleecker. Does it even matter what year it is?”
Dan Hoy brought sly humor and lanky swagger to the stage. “I just want to lie face down naked on a bear skin rug and have fucked up dreams like a documentary,” he read. Hoy’s poems are these same “fucked up dreams” starring people dressed in tennis whites partying poolside under the white sun, dipping their toes in the water of the inappropriate. We might feel uncomfortable by some of the Hoy’s revelations if it weren’t for his charming presence.
Will Edmiston commanded the audience’s attention with his soft yet focused tenor, which was a perfect accompaniment to his ethereal poems. One title, “Do I Need an Outline?”, was particularly fitting since Edmiston’s poems shift and shimmer and never want to stay put. We are sent to the sea, one moment swimming and the next running down the shoreline, Edmiston’s words falling over the crowd like a sheer curtain that slips from our grasp.
The last reader, Macgregor Card, stepped away from the mic and his voice filled the room without amplification. He informed the audience that he premiered the first draft of his long poem, “Erotic Vector Sedatives”, at Goodbye Blue Monday in November and would be reading the revised version. As with many of Card’s poems, there is a fascination with logic, or a puzzle that must be unpuzzled through urgent mantras. “Erotic Vector Sedatives” is interlaced with sections of a family history that are made more powerful by Card’s shift to a quieter, more personal tone of voice. “I try to be available and young” he insists to end.
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