Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Chapbooks! An Interview with Cameron Anstee, Mat Laporte and Bardia Sinaee (part 2)

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This is the second part in an interview the Cameron Anstee, Mat Laporte and Bardia Sinaee. You can find the first part here.

AF: If I can go back to something Mat said a little earlier about there being a lot more room for more presses and more voices. Chapbooks seem to be at the margins of publishing (am I ripping of a bpNichol quote here?). Just how effective are chapbooks as a way of expanding a literary community’s aesthetic, expanding a field of writing practice, or at nurturing the essential and weird-ass voices that you don’t see otherwise? In the way that MFA students often see their books appear a few years after they graduate, are chapbook presses able to graduate otherwise marginalized voices to full-length collections with larger presses?

ML: Personally, chapbooks give me time and space to figure out what I want to do without there being huge stakes. And yeah, I’m not really responsible to some large machine of cultural production for the poems I write and publish (or maybe I’m kidding myself about this?). As far as the chapbook’s effectiveness as a tool for anything but being a chapbook...we’ve all seen how they’re made...they’re pretty flimsy as tools! I wouldn’t want to have to build a house with one, or fall off a cliff and have to hope my chapbook will save me from a deadly fall. In fact, part of what I love about them is how ineffective they are and thus how much fun I can have in and around them. There are no rules people! I also like to think of them as albums. They can have the concision and excision of your favorite album (unless you are into rock operas, which is cool!). Why do bands get to have a full length album of like 10-12 songs and a full-length poetry book has to be 60+ pages? Some of my favorite albums are punk EPs, where every song is integral. I think a chapbook can have a conciseness a full-length collection might not be able to.

CA: I chafe against this notion that chapbooks (and chapbooks presses) are simply steps en route to a trade collection with a trade house. I think chapbooks are fundamentally different from trade books. The chapbook as a unit of composition, a unit of thought, is separate from the trade book in the 21st century (even if that division is prompted to a degree by bureaucratic and funding concerns). If you look back to the 50s and 60s and even 70s in Canada, the same divisions weren’t there. Some of my favourite “books” of those years would be considered chapbooks today. I’m sure that some people who publish chapbooks think of them as lesser than trade books in some form, but I think that is doing an injustice to a long history of small press publishing in Canada and elsewhere. It gives me great joy when a chapbook I’ve published shows up as part of a larger trade collection, because I’m thrilled for that writer, but I also love that some of the work I publish will only ever exist in that chapbook. Chapbooks and trade collections are clearly complementary, they feed one another, but it isn’t unidirectional, or shouldn’t be. Chapbooks seem to have lower stakes, allowing people to experiment, to try things outside of their comfort zone, to make first steps into the world of small press publishing. But those lower stakes seem to be mostly a product of there being less money involved at all stages. The personal stakes for the writer, that the writing be good, are the same. The publisher similarly wants something they believe in. Sometimes a book doesn’t need to be 48 pages to do what needs done, sometimes 20 pages, or 10 pages, or even just a few pages is right for the work. Where would that stuff go if chapbooks weren’t being made? And how many trade books are published that should have been cut in half and published as a chapbook? I’ve typed “chapbook” so many times it is starting to lose all meaning. The difference between the “larger” small presses and the chapbook presses might sometimes be just a matter of scale, because the end goals are the same really, but there is some magic to a chapbook distinct from the magic of a trade book.

BS: The lower stakes are definitely part of it. That thousands of dollars of Canada Council money and countless hours of printing and publicity aren’t involved means the authors don’t shy away from trying things (constraints, subjects, forms) that might seem silly or “weird.” I like the small poetry books of 50-65 pages that Picador or Guernica often publish, but many other trade publishers are thinking more about quantity than quality. They churn out these whopping 100+ page collections and then promote every poet as “an outstanding voice of this generation.” I feel like trade publishing has lost its vitality when I go to these readings where some poets are putting out their twelfth collections which are about 85% filler.

Recently more and more people have approached me saying something to the effect of “I’ve been writing such and such but I don’t know where to publish it, and you have a press, so...” and often I like to answer with “ I can give you tips on how to publish it yourself!” There’s only so much one micropress can do, but there’s always room for more micropublishing. I think what’s making trade poetry publishers less vital is the mentality that they’re just some depository into which poets unload manuscripts after they reach a certain length--thereby fully disengaging themselves from the materialization/distribution of their own work. Speaking as a poet, I don’t feel “marginalized” at all, but I don’t see myself ever “graduating” to a full length collection with a larger press. There are means of validation other than big books and prizes. More poets should write reviews and essays, and otherwise engage with others’ poetry publicly.

AF: It seems to me that all three of your pay great attention to the design elements of your books. They’re the sort of beautiful objects that you want to tuck under your pillow when you go to bed, and stand in stark contrast to most trade publications. How much of the book-as-object aspect of publishing a chapbook has to do with the fact that, as Cameron said, chapbooks are books in their own right? At the same time, one of the advantages of more rough-hewn chapbooks (I’m thinking e.g. of rob mclennan’s above/ground press titles) is that they’re much more affordable, and thus much easier to get into readers’ hands. I suppose I need a question here, so: what’s the relation for you between visual aesthetics and price/accessibility—and your own labour too, as all that stitching and gluing by hand certainly takes a great deal of time?

CA: Apt. 9 chapbooks are priced at $10 each, which is on the higher end for chapbooks (though there are outfits that do more elaborate productions at higher prices). But, that price drops if you buy more than one—2/$15, 3/$20—so it doesn’t take much to bring the price down considerably. The initial price reflects respect both for the labour that went into producing the writing, and for the labour that went into producing the book object. And really, $10 isn’t much. Most people will spend more than that on beer at a reading. What’s the famous line, spend more on books than you do on beer? I have no problem asking for $10 for this work. The poems would be worth more than that printed and stapled unadorned. Also, no one is getting rich selling $10 chapbooks. I typically hope to break even on the costs of materials after author copies, review copies, trades, freebies...

The Apt. 9 aesthetic is, I hope, clean and careful and in service of the writing first and foremost. Many of my favourite presses, chapbook and otherwise, treat the book object with respect and consideration and I aspire to model Apt. 9 on that attitude. I look back to Contact Press and Weed/Flower Press most often for design cues that are visually interesting but lean towards clean and restrained. I love scrappy looking publications too, but have chosen deliberately to go handmade and limited edition with Apt. 9. The tools are more accessible than ever (I design and print everything in my office at home). What a great time to be making chapbooks!

ML: The price/accessibility thing is something we keep trying to figure out in terms of Ferno House. Arnaud Brassard designs, and sometimes does illustrations, alongside Pat Larkin. Our books often have painstakingly screenprinted covers in multiple colors, original illustrations throughout, foil stamps, etc. so Arnaud, I think fairly, thinks of our chapbooks as art prints as well as books. So far we’ve done a first and second runs of 50 of most of our books, so they’re pretty limited editions. However, I appreciate a more affordable aesthetic, and we’re trying to find a balance.

BS: The best thing about good design is it can be totally free. The computer in the In/Words office at Carleton had the Adobe Creative Suite, and I learned design by playing around on that imitating work I like. There’s pirated and open-source software. There are countless books and internet tutorials on software, typography, elements of visual composition and bookbinding. I made a personal vow not to price any one Odourless Press item above $10. Thanks to highly affordable laser printing, the only thing I spend a lot on is the paper. And even then, if you avoid artsy crafts stores and find the right print/paper shop that buys in bulk, you can still get a good deal. If I were paid minimum wage for the hours I’ve spent designing, cutting and sewing books, I’d be rich. But all that labour is rewarding because I love the poetry.

AF: Got a poem from a recent or forthcoming chapbook you’d care to share?

ML: Here’s a short poem called “After Data.” I wrote it after reading a poem by Joe Ceravolo called “Data,” hence the title. It will be included in a chapbook of my poems called Life Savings that Bardia is putting out with Odourless Press (hee haw!):

After Data

Out of a blue night
is all I ever worried about
in this temple of dust.
Bleak illusory standard model of try.
My life’s redundant hits
in relation to bug money,
in a height restricted economy
or something totally worse than that.
We’re also holding it down.
I’m emotional chaps right now
or I’m biased I need them.
Your eyebrows are
giving me the chads.
I wanna hug them/wear beards together
in the impossible culmination
scare quote non-place
of moving peoples.
Stupid poems exclusively
hardcore like that idea.

CA: This is a poem by Jeff Blackman from his brand new Apt. 9 chapbook, So Long As The People Are People. Jeff is such a great poet, and I wish more people outside of Ottawa knew his work. They will soon, I have no doubt. There is so much variety in this book that it was impossible to pull out a representative poem. So, I’ve gone with the first poem of the book:

Single Player's Revival

some impacts
go unfelt

some impacts
roll off the hip

and refreshingly apologize

just one man
can be the man
who kills the villain

one john doe
or bullet bill
one pinball
the Creator chose

you must press hard
as if the star misses you

YES you

a bliss of gravity
against the centre

BS: Here is a poem from Matthew Walsh’s recent Odourless chapbook, Cloudpeople. The constraint here is to avoid any letters whose parts jut above or below the line (t’s, f’s, d’s, p’s, etc.).

anne, ma azure woman

on veare avenue, anne reams me over,
& an encore sores me ears now. anne
screws raw sense on me, sure. we see
war, anne a macer & me so zen.
a xanax snows on me & anne screams
oceans no man can summon.

so crass, seems anne’s a seer (some séance
weaver) sees one womans numero & swarms
on me—one woman’s numero!

see now, anne’s ma woman. so azure,
anne roams veare avenue & me a maze
cause ma woman sees me as mean as zeus.

a nooner a rum soars me sane
anne’s essence, warm as mauve
owns me. ma senses—neon—race
& sure no xerox can wow me as anne can.

on a roam on our avenue, an un-near anne
masses over me & rum’s so common—sears
me now. ma novena’s no use cause romance’s
noose, sure as an arrow now, see.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Andrew Faulkner

Andrew Faulkner co-curates The Emergency Response Unit, a chapbook press. His first book, Need Machine, was published by Coach House Books in April 2013. He lives in Toronto.

Go to Andrew Faulkner’s Author Page