“An Alternative Literary History”: A Conversation with Kyle Schlesinger
By Paul VangelistiMarch 13, 2022
I read the book intending to write a review, but upon finishing it, I realized that a reader who isn’t familiar with the small-press world, let alone that of fine printing, would be better served by an interview with the man responsible for this remarkable project. Highly regarded as a poet, printer, and proprietor of Cuneiform Press in Austin, as well as director of the University of Houston-Victoria’s graduate publishing program, Schlesinger discusses the 15 years of work it took to bring this study together.
PAUL VANGELISTI: Why would a poet start a press to publish other people’s poetry?
KYLE SCHLESINGER: Insatiable curiosity. Or that’s what a friend told me when I asked if there is a commonality in the experience of falling in love with different people. When you fall in love, you want to learn everything there is to know about that special someone. And that’s pretty much what it’s like to fall in love with poetry: insatiable curiosity.
I started this oral history project about 15 years ago because I wanted to learn as much as possible about poetry, but not just poetry. Reading and writing poems wasn’t enough. I wanted to know where poetry came from, as a material and immaterial thing. Why do people write poems? How do they do it? Where? And why do poems look the way they do? And how do they get from the poet to the reader? Publishing as a natural extension of poetry, writing as a visual art. And what does the convergence of form and content and material have to do with meaning?
Talking to remarkable poets about the art of the letterpress, a traditional printing technology that has changed very little since its inception nearly 500 years ago, was a way to begin, since there isn’t much literature on the material history of poetry. By formalizing my curiosity, I was able to ask some of the greatest publishers alive anything I wanted about their work, and thanks to Ugly Duckling Presse, we now have a book that is an extension of its content, as well as a special edition, which contains 16 pieces of ephemera produced by each contributor to the collection.
The history of every press is unique, but there are some recurring tendencies. Like falling in love. The poets I interviewed for A Poetics of the Press shared their stories about how and why they chose to get into publishing. Most were young and yearning for a community. A common misconception about writers is that they are recluses who toil away at the typewriter all day, and while that may be true for some, “poetry is a team sport,” as Robert Creeley said. Most poets, at one point or another, run a reading series, salon, small press, workshop, etc. that brings people together. Being able to participate and collaborate with other poets is one thing that makes poetry different from other forms of art, and I suppose that’s why we are here, talking today.
Lyn Hejinian, poet and publisher of Tuumba and Atelos, mentioned in her interview that having a press or editing a magazine is a convenient way to introduce oneself to other poets because it gives you a sense of purpose. “Would you like to contribute some poems to our magazine?” The often self-appointed editor has an excuse to get in touch with anyone whose work they find interesting, and over time, the contributors to the magazine form something of a community made up of intersecting concentric circles. Many small presses begin as magazines, and from the magazine, it is easy to see how books come about. Editing, printing, and publishing are a way of learning, a special way of reading that is hands-on, intense, physically and intellectually satisfying.
In your experience, is cost the critical issue in choosing one form of printing over another?
Cost is one of many factors and variables. I am of the opinion that no particular printing technology is inherently superior to any other but rather that selecting the right mode of reproduction for the occasion is critical. It’s as simple as getting dressed. High heels and sneakers are both wonderful, but they serve different purposes, just like letterpress and offset printing. Of course, now that so many publications exist in the virtually free digital realm, deciding if a text even needs to be printed might be the first order of business.
Burning Deck Press, founded by Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop in 1961, has evolved with technology over the years. The couple printed many books on letterpress at their home in Providence, which was fine for short pamphlets of poetry, but over the years they switched to offset printing, which allowed them to publish longer books in greater quantities. Some publishers choose to work exclusively with letterpress, which has its limitations, and its character as well.
For readers who may be unfamiliar with the technology, I should briefly mention that offset printing is the industry standard today. Chances are that most things in your home were printed offset, from your cereal boxes to most of the books in your library (unless you have a collection that predates the 1940s, in which case they were probably printed letterpress). Letterpress is commercially obsolete today but still used for special occasions, like wedding invitations, business cards, and, occasionally, books. But of course, letterpress can be fucked-up and punk, rodeo and handsome, bowtie and green jelly, and all the spaces in between. It isn’t necessarily fancy.
Why are some poet-publishers directly involved in all production aspects of bringing out a book?
That’s a great question. Like any other art, I suppose it is about process. Why do some painters stretch their own canvases? Why do some musicians build their own instruments? One common thread that runs through this collection is that all these publishers are interested in making books they want to read. In that sense, it may be helpful to think of the poet-printer-publisher as an artist rather than a business.
Mary Laird, who ran the Perishable Press Limited with Walter Hamady as well as Quelquefois Press, is absolutely amazing. She can make paper by hand, bind books, write, set type, print, draw, edit, distribute her books, and teach others how to do the same. In this sense, Mary’s practice goes well beyond the conventional role of a publisher, and her books exude that remarkably. It’s almost like living off the grid, a back-to-the-land experience of book making. Steve Clay, of Granary Books, also makes lavish editions, but his approach is profoundly different, and a bit of an anomaly in this volume, because all of the work is outsourced: Clay is a publisher, not a printer. Charles Alexander and Phil Gallo, also interviewed in this book, discuss the printing they have done for Granary, which is then shipped off to a master bookbinder, and so on. While Mary’s approach is entirely hands-on, Clay’s is entirely hands-off (physically), and yet they both make sumptuous handmade editions. The magic of Granary, to my mind, is Clay’s ability to bring the poets and visual artists together with printers and bookbinders to produce exquisite editions.
Does the practice of the poet-printer-publisher influence the kind of poetry published, excluding, perhaps, self-publishing?
Aesthetically? I don’t think so, although as I mentioned earlier, the letterpress does pose some constraints on a book’s dimensions, length, and the number of copies that can be produced. Even a relatively small book requires a magnificent quantity of type, which isn’t cheap or easy to find anymore.
John Ashbery, one of the most noted and influential poets of our time, said that “being a famous poet is like not being famous at all.” A lot of presses cater to poets on the margins, and a lot of poets are on the margins. Probably most. This interests me culturally because writers often get their start with small, independent presses like those in this collection, and of course that’s where all the romance and risk happens. For readers who haven’t had the opportunity to see the books discussed in A Poetics of the Press, I think they’re in for a real treat. It’s an alternative literary history.
Take, for example, Frances Butler and Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press in Berkeley. Once I stumbled on their books, I was hooked immediately and acquired almost every edition they published, reveling in the design as well as the content. One writer Poltroon turned me on to was Lucia Berlin, whose harrowing collection of short stories Safe & Sound they published in the late ’80s. Curiously, Johnston taught the author to set her own stories on the Linotype, the eighth wonder of the world, and they risked burning down the house when a rag got caught in the greasy machine and they had to soak it in kerosene and set it ablaze to free up the gears! But I digress, and only mention this because it is an extraordinary book, and the tale of its construction is equally enthralling.
Anyway, I bought all of Berlin’s books from other small presses and devoured them, and when Black Sparrow was going to pulp the remainder of her books that hadn’t sold, I bought a couple boxes because Berlin was my favorite American short story writer and I wanted to turn all my friends on to her. Several years later, and 11 years after her death, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a selection of her stories with an introduction by Lydia Davis that quickly soared up The New York Times best-seller list. Which is only to say that reading through a small-press catalog can be a spectacular, if unconventional, way of discovering new writers, especially if one digs the taste of the editor.
Once it was primarily collectors who fetishized books. Might it now be the poet-publisher-printer who’s joined in the fun?
There are as many fetishes as there are books! Well, that’s an exaggeration, but books have always been fetishized for different reasons. But to be clear, a fetish is not to be confused with a gimmick. For the last 20 years and more, we’ve observed a renaissance in the art of the book in both the mainstream (which leans toward the gimmick) and progressive worlds of publishing because the digital alternative to the book has become more prevalent (though ebooks and computers have been around a lot longer than most people realize). Books that sell well are often attached to some other media outlet or facet of popular culture, and their design accentuates that conduit.
While small, independent presses have always made books that are transgressive, inquisitive, and experiential by design, corporate publishers are now making a greater effort to do the same, sometimes with fine results, sometimes with clunky coffee-table editions. But my point is now that a mainstream thriller novel can be read digitally, there must be something about the print edition that entices the reader — some shelf candy, a little bling, a signed copy, something to justify the retail price. Printers, poets, and small-press publishers have known this all along, as if integrity and imagination were somehow ingrained in the historical tradition of publishing.
As the demise of the bookstore in the US (it seems unnecessary to add “independent bookstore”) destroyed the “little magazine,” what has been the effect on small presses?
The decline of bookstores and the rise of online literary periodicals have contributed to the demise of little-magazine culture over the last two or three decades. Remember when the little magazines went digital? It was the Wild West. Free from the constraints of the costs incurred by printing and distributing a magazine, some editors indulged in massive journals, and there was a parallel proliferation of blogging, and literary websites such as the Electronic Poetry Center, Eclipse Lit, PennSound, UbuWeb. And of course, the digital humanities were trending in the universities. Print-on-demand technology made it possible for everyone to publish a book. Aesthetically, it was not a good time for poetry, and there was a lot of it. In the ’90s, I received several little magazines a week, and that was a wellspring of culture and connection — a true gift economy — and it meant something when you saw that so-and-so had work published in such-and-such periodicals before their first book came out. I haven’t found that sincerity or rigor in the digital world, but there was something remarkably utopian and exciting happening in that frontier at the outset. The computer has proven to be an abhorrent environment for serious reading, but in my opinion, it is really good for audio, visual, and video poetry.
I’m not sure how the absence of bookstores has impacted sales for small presses overall. Today, if a book is distributed by SPD (Small Press Distribution), it must have a spine, an ISBN number, and a barcode, so many of the books mentioned in A Poetics of the Press wouldn’t qualify. SPD partners with Amazon (a necessary evil), which is terrible for small presses because they take such a significant cut that the publisher is essentially selling the book at a loss in many instances. It is very important to educate readers about the importance of buying directly from the press, independent bookstore, or author, just as a lot of progress has been made in educating people about farmers’ markets and co-ops. A small percentage of people shop that way in America, but the good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of direct sales to keep a press, or a farm, solvent. When the pandemic hit, the publishing industry at large suffered, but I don’t think the small presses were affected in the same way, because whereas the corporations have a market, we have a family — that is, a community of readers that remains pretty loyal. I started Cuneiform Press over 20 years ago, and many of the people who bought books directly from the press then are still buying them today.
In his essay “Unpacking My Library,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin states that “[w]riters are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” What if one exchanged “small-press poet-publishers” for “writers”?
Johanna Drucker, a theorist and artist interviewed in this collection, encourages us to “write the book you want to read,” and the same goes for book design. For the printer-poet, design is an extension of content, and what we have in A Poetics of the Press is a very special lexicon that is a combination of terms associated with poetry, typography, and visual art, not to mention their respective histories. The book is a natural place to study these intersecting worlds.
Thinking of the small-press poet-publishers in this book, most fell in love with particular manuscripts they wanted to see in print and found a way to publish them. It’s not exactly the opposite of what Benjamin is suggesting, but a different perspective. Some presses have a particular agenda, like Ugly Duckling Presse’s Eastern European Poets series or Lost Literature series, which contribute to filling a particular void in contemporary publishing. Some publishers are following in the tradition of William Morris and the private press, which sought to restore integrity to the printed book after industrialization had compromised the artisan, and to that end, we have very well-made, well-designed books that are affordable works of art, as well as museum pieces. Aaron Cohick’s NewLights Press is an excellent example of a publisher producing works at both ends of the spectrum.
At the end of “Unpacking My Library,” Benjamin says of the “real collector” and his books, “Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them.” Would you comment?
What’s your favorite book, Paul? You know what I like most about studying books? Almost everyone has an answer to that question. Books are a universal language, and I don’t necessarily mean what they say, but what they are. Books contain texts, but the artifact itself contains a story. A recipe book from one’s grandparents complete with kitchen stains, a child’s favorite storybook dog-eared and torn, a book of journal entries from a trip that no one else will ever read. It’s the story behind the story, brought to us in the form of a book. A Poetics of the Press gets into the nuts and bolts of bookmaking, but fundamentally it is a book about the relationships between poets, printers, publishers, and artists who came together to build remarkable books, build the world they want to read, one letter at a time.
Paul Vangelisti is an American poet, translator, and editor, and the founding chair of the Graduate Writing program at Otis College of Art and Design.
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