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Indie Publishing: Two Questions and More Answers

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Regarding my previous post on indie publishing, Glen has commented, “In some ways I feel like there’s too much poetry being published right now and not enough filtering, so it’s interesting to hear from people who feel the opposite.” To this, I’ve responded that his question “leads to the question of filtering, the criteria for filtering, and who determines the criteria for filtering.”

That said, thank you to Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney of Action Books, Craig Santos Perez and Jennifer Reimer of Achiote Press, and Susan Schultz of Tinfish Press for answering my questions about indie publishing.

Question: Why did you start your small press/why did you become an independent publisher? What need was not being met by the existing presses?

Answer (Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, Action Books): We started the press because we were interested in and engaged with a certain kind of poetry – gothic, influenced by the historical avant-garde and the paraliterary, visceral, grotesque, maximalist – and very few of those books were being published. We knew a lot of other people were reading and writing in this vein, and some of it was being published in journals, but not in books. To a large extent, we felt this had to do with the normative publishing conventions of US publishing (including small press publishing)–this was writing that was “too much,” “excessive,” “in bad taste” (kitsch)– which to our mind copied over the normative reading conventions of workshops and English classes. In particular, we loved our friend Lara Glenum’s manuscript The Hounds of No, but no press dared to publish it. So we thought we would.

We were also frustrated at the lack of engagement with foreign literature and poetry in translation. At the time I had translated a lot of the work of Swedish poet Aase Berg. She’s a very influential young Swedish poet whose poetry – influenced by Surrealism, grotesque tales, Plath and b-movies – is not only very unique but also intricately translingual; that is to say it was not a poetry that feared getting “lost in translation” but a minor poetry, a poetry that deforms and transforms. But it was hard for me to find publishers for my translation. This struck me as insane – here was a young, happening poet from another country whose writing was different from anything published in the US. One would think US publishers would be rabid to publish it! But I was having a hard time finding a publisher for the book of translations, and looking around, I saw very little translated texts published. So we decided to publish Remainland: Selected Poems of Aase Berg and to make our interest in foreign literature become an important element of our press. We don’t think everyone must publish works in translation – but the fact that almost no small press publishes works in translation should at least cause some pause.

Answer (Craig Santos Perez and Jennifer Reimer, Achiote Press): We started Achiote Press in 2006 because we wanted to contribute to the ongoing dialogue of independent publishing. Our first projects were limited edition hand-made chapbooks and evolved over the years to also include single-author chapbooks, multi-author chap-journals, novel-excerpt chapbooks, chap-anthologies, and perfect bound books. We’ve also teamed up with non-profit organizations, such as Kundiman, to publish fundraising projects.

In terms of aesthetic, genre, and author choices, we aim to highlight the vibrant diversity that exists in the literary community, both in the United States and abroad. We’ve published fiction, poetry, translation, and nonfiction; our writers hail from the Unites States, Central and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific; and their work can be described as avant-garde, post-avant, ethnic-avant, language, narrative, new-narrative, documentary, and testimonial. Our cover designs, curated by our art director Jason Buchholz, vary compellingly issue to issue.

While many publishers work along aesthetic, ethnic, gender, regional, or social boundaries, we felt a need to express the transborder possibilities of a more open and diverse publishing dialogue. If you share our values, please visit us at www.achiotepress.com, subscribe to our mailing list, and support Achiote Press.

Answer (Susan Schultz, Tinfish Press): I founded Tinfish Press in 1995 in an attempt to find, or create, a conversation between experimental writing (written mostly outside of Hawai`i) and the important writing being done in Hawai`i.  My developing sense has been that writers like Lisa Kanae, whose Sista Tongue (2001, 2008) is one of our most important titles, have a lot to say to writers in other places who think about language and power issues, and whose work uses non-standard languages and forms.  We began with a thin journal that was xeroxed and stapled, and moved into chapbooks with the publication of Joe Balaz’s Ola in 1996.  Since then we have published 19 issues of the journal, many chapbooks and a couple fistfuls of perfect bound volumes.  Our designs, mainly by Hawai`i artists,  are strikingly non-standard.  We publish work from the Pacific region, concentrating on issues and materials like language, colonialism, Buddhism and place, and seek to create alliances between writers, make communities as much of difference as of ostensible sameness.  Some of these (at times tense) alliances are seen in the books themselves: Barbara Jane Reyes writes out of Modernist and Filipino traditions; Craig Santos Perez owes a lot to both Charles Olson and to his Chamorro grandmother; the Hawai`i writers of Tinfish 18.5 reach to traditions as various as Hawaiian chant and flarf.   My frustration at the moment comes of the fact that no publisher can demand her customers read the press as well as its authors.  So the conversations we mean to get going are sometimes overlooked when people buy only work by Pacific writers, or Buddhist writers, or Asian American writers or Bay Area writers (for example).  But  the publisher may have died (Roland Barthes style) with her authors.  And so our publications do happily find readers and occasionally one of our authors will ask a surprising question about another of them.  Pam Brown of Australia and Maged Zaher of Egypt and Seattle, both published by Tinfish, collaborated (sight unseen) on a chapbook, farout_library_software.  I would like in future to inspire more such direct links between Tinfish writers.

Comments (5)

  • On October 31, 2009 at 2:10 pm Francisco Aragón wrote:

    So glad to see, in particular, these two indie publishing projects profiled. Of the various small press initiatives I’m come across in the past few years, Achiote and Action are the most interesting, in my view. And they also happen to be run by cool folk, who have inspired me.

    One thing I forgot to mention about Momotombo Press and I feel bad about omitting this is that a few years ago I made the conscious decision (and perhaps not the wisest one from a “distributing” or “commercial” angle) to give exclusive book selling and distribution rights to a small community-based enterprise in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago called TIANGUIS BOOKS. Poet, book seller, and cultural activist Irasema González, has been someone else who has inspired and continues to inspire me. She has a wonderful reading series called PROYECTO LATINA. And she has been a diligent, and faithful book seller and distributor for Momotombo Press. If anyone inquires about our titles, I send them to TIANGUIS: http://www.tianguis.biz/

  • On November 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Thanks for your comment, Francisco, and for the link to Tianguis. Certainly, the indie bookstore is a vital place for the indie publishing industry.

    I actually have a question for Susan/Tinfish: how do we get non-writer populations to subscribe to a press’s offerings? I ask this because my impression is that book buyers generally buy books because of who authored it, or what community identification of the author is.

  • On November 5, 2009 at 2:01 pm Susan M. Schultz wrote:

    Excellent question, BJR. If I could figure out how to sell books to poetry readers, that would be a start! But here’s a thought. Here in Honolulu, Aiko Yamashiro, Ryan Oishi, and Emelihter Kihleng (who is based now in Guam) are putting together a collection of poetry about TheBus in the form of a bus map. They plan to put these “maps” near the route maps on stands around Honolulu. The map will have ads (bus style) running along the top. One of these ads will be our logo and website address. Who knows, something might come of it!

    And there’s also performance. Really crucial to get voices heard. The popularity of slam can teach us something valuable there. But mix the performers up so they aren’t all from the same community (as it’s usually conceived).

    Any thoughts on your end?

  • On November 5, 2009 at 3:08 pm Barbara Jane Reyes wrote:

    Susan, thanks for your responses. We’re (Pam Lu, Craig, and I) talking about you on my blog!

    http://bjanepr.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/poetry-community-questions-all-over-the-map/

    Anyway, one thing we’re talking about is publishers who list their titles (and mission statement) as the end text of their books, and whether that makes the reader think about the publisher’s ongoing work as a curator, and the one title in question as a part of a larger body.

    I do like what you say about mixing up live poetry performances with participants from multiple communities (we try to do this with PAWA to varying degrees of success).

  • On November 6, 2009 at 2:02 pm Susan M. Schultz wrote:

    So many places to comment! I like the idea of listing titles in the backs of books, though I hate the way lists tend to make things static. Presented in alphabetical order, or chronological order, they don’t show the more three-dimensional graphic nature of the conversations being encouraged. So perhaps a diagram of the press’s book list? Something that indicates the fluid nature of the links. Will have to think on this!

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Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, October 31st, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.