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on the small press, its recent past, production, present future, circulation: part one

By Stephanie Young

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A few years ago I read Capital, Volume I with some friends from work. I was the person in this reading group who kept bringing up chapbooks. Someone else kept bringing up higher education. Our jobs. Emotions. Care labor. Midway through we invited a friend to visit in the role of something like guest lecturer, beginning, I think, with relative surplus value. Guest lectureships involved powerpoint and candy. I remember jumping ahead, a session on the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, which took shoes and shoe factories as its central example. Shoes, no surprise, are far superior to higher education, emotions, care labor, or chapbooks, if you are trying to understand something about the relationship between technological innovation and this tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The chapbook is a total mess.

Still I kept bringing them up, until bringing up chapbooks became a kind of pet name for group behavior, the small jokes of small reading groups, my friend’s went like this: “the next chapter gets really good,” or “It’s a page turner.” There is literally a diagram in my notes from this time in which chapbooks form one side of a triangle where the other two are REI and Africa. I’ve got no idea what was going on there, or why I kept bringing them up. What did they seem to be an example of, in what wheel did I imagine the chapbook to be a stick I could poke through the spokes, slowing things up. Perhaps I was asking a question about the production and circulation of artisanal cheese and wood fired bagels in my neighborhood. Perhaps I was knotted up over a claim about gift economies in poetry world. I’m really not sure.

I guess I am always thinking about chapbooks. Possibly they touch every question I have about poetry, the groups of people it’s made by and moves through. They tend to derail whatever book organizational system you subscribe to, get lost or dusty and pile up in stacks. I have so many. I am happiest when they are free or $5, but have gladly paid $13.

At AWP this year I realized halfway through that I seemed to be surviving the experience, and perhaps I could do more, by which I meant: get chapbooks. On the plane home my friend and I pawed through each other’s haul. Her tote bag exceeded mine in this regard. I was immediately struck with envy of the post-halloween candy comparison variety. She’d picked up Paradise was Typeset by Brian Teare and reading this made me wish, again, to learn letterpress. I’m impatient and sometimes clumsy. I love Dusie, I like to staple. I fantasize that classes at San Francisco Center for the Book will be in my future, in some future.

I almost always put chapbooks on the syllabus when I teach workshops. For the second half of class, everyone produces a small edition for everyone else. Drafting, revising, making. This spring I also assigned a series of presentations on contemporary chapbook presses. I guess I have a crush on Jen Hofer’s Tiny Press Practices class. I put the presentations on the syllabus and then pulled them back off, course correcting the tendency to put too many things on there. When I signed on to write at Harriet this month I thought, oh, I’ll give myself that assignment.

Jen’s course description opens with quotes from Jane Sprague’s 2006 forum on small press publishing, which includes many projects that started in the late 90s or early aughts, and I started to think about what’s changed since then and what hasn’t. Which presses are still active, why publishing efforts start up and stop. I thought about the sense of necessity that drives Jane’s introduction and the editorial commitments of many in the forum: We could not find the books that helped us understand our writing. We could not find, in popular culture marketplaces or dimly lit used bookstores, a kind of compass, a kind of something to recognize. Something to recognize and move on from. And so, we would invent.

In Jane’s introduction and much of the writing from that 2006 forum the contours of a very different moment emerge. Some differences are obvious. There were no e-readers or tablets. The big bookstores still dominated. The rise of print on demand. The exponential growth of MFA programs, new graduates seeking publication, but also starting up new presses and reading series. There’s a palplable sense of gatekeeping in 2006, something to push against. A strong critique of the contest. One of Jane’s questions takes on the contest explicitly:

Many independent publishers are committed to an editorial practice that challenges competition and the contest system now common to many university, non- and not-for-profit presses, especially in the United States. In what ways might contest-driven / competition models blunt critical inquiry or limit the possibilities of poetry itself? Communities tend to coalesce for a variety of reasons; how might we describe the communities that editors, publishers, distributors, poets and readers of independent presses are in the process of participating in &/or inventing?

I have any number of unfounded hunches about what’s changed since then. Why there seems to be less critical conversation about the contest. If that’s true. Why the rise of the chapbook contest, or the chapbook as a now necessary step on the path to a first full-length book. If that’s true. In some ways it looks like the devaluation of the MFA as a terminal degree; the more MFAs, the more the dwindling number of tenure-track jobs require a PhD, too. How to establish one’s value, as writer, as publisher, in a saturated field where there are fewer barriers to publication. In other ways that 2006 forum feels absolutely recognizable in the present; small milieus of poet-editors producing books that make a world, or represent it, reproducing communities in text. It’s the central question of Jen’s Tiny Press Practices class: “How can each of us participate in creating the literary world we would like to inhabit?”

I set out with some basic questions, trying to get a sense of the current field. I started with chapbooks. Obviously. Then I thought oh, what about revisiting some presses from the 2006 forum. Then I thought I should ask presses with a specific and even narrow editorial focus. Then I thought I should think about scenes I’m less familiar with. Then I wondered about bookfairs and festivals. The results are idiosyncratic and not at all exhaustive. I learned some things. I’m still thinking.

As ever (or perhaps particular to this moment) there were so many other publishers and editors I could have asked. Many already answer these questions in compelling ways, in “about” pages that call out to the worlds they love, the ones they want to make. I’m thinking of Perfect Lovers, or Redbone Press, or Carville Annex or DoubleCross, which publishes an entire series dedicated precisely to questions of making:

DoubleCross Press’s Poetics of the Handmade series publishes essays by contemporary hand-bookmakers and writers who engage with the handmade book as publishers, promoters, or curators. With an eye to the book’s past, the series seeks to illuminate the forms, connotations, and communities of the handmade book in early 21st century micropress culture.

My process: I sent a list of questions, Jane’s from 2006 and some of my own. I invited participants to answer whatever most interested them.

When did the press/project start?

Why / in response to what?

Who is it for?

What are your editorial commitments?

How has the landscape changed since you started?

Are the reasons you started the project the same reasons it continues?

What are the economics of the project’s production and distribution?

The chapbook has been associated at various moments with shifts in technology but also the distribution of materials that might not otherwise be in circulation, that are for whatever reason undervalued, not “high” art, etc. What is your sense of the chapbook, as a format, right now? How does it function? What role does it play? in literary / poetry culture?

What about the chapbook contest? Or the contest as a format generally? How is the contest operating right now – in your view – in the current field of literary production?

Answers to follow, from Angry Dog Press, Second Story Books, Mess Editions, Propolis/Least Weasel, Kattywompus, Publication Studio, Tyrant, the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, and others.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, April 17th, 2014 by Stephanie Young.