Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Chapbooks! An Interview with Cameron Anstee, Mat Laporte and Bardia Sinaee

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One of the great pleasures of my brief tenure at Open Book is that I’m afforded the opportunity to talk to some brilliant people. I recently interviewed three chapbook publishers about, uh, being chapbook publishers. But if I’m allowed to editorialize on my own posts, their answers are fucking amazing. Here are the folks you’ll be hearing from below:

Cameron Anstee lives and writes in Ottawa ON where he runs Apt. 9 Press and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature at the University of Ottawa (studying bookselling and the small press in Canada post-WWII).

Mat Laporte is the author of the chapbooks Demons and Billboards from Hell. Life Savings is forthcoming from Odourless Press in the fall.

Bardia Sinaee's poetry has appeared in Arc, CV2, PRISM, The Puritan and The Walrus. He started Odourless Press in 2011. He works at the World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto.

But before I get to the interview, a quick public service announcement. The deadline for submitting titles to the bpNichol Chapbook Award is a little over a week away. With so little attention paid to chapbooks in terms of reviews and prizes, the award’s a wonderful celebration of the small press spirit— and it’s recently had some new life breathed into it by Meet the Presses, the collective that now administers the award. I’m impressed with the consistently interesting and attention-worthy titles and presses shortlisted for in recent years (an Apt. 9 book won in 2011, Mat Laporte’s Ferno House had a title shortlisted last year, and journalistic responsibility compels me to admit that The Emergency Response Unit, the chapbook press I co-curate, has had two titles shortlisted in the past five years).

Now let’s get to it!

AF: Thanks for agreeing to the interview. By way of introduction, could you provide a brief history of your press - how and why you started, what type of work you publish, that sort of thing?

ML: Ferno House started in 2009 when Arnaud Brassard and Spencer Gordon teamed up to make the first For Crying Out Loud anthology. I hopped on pretty soon after that. Why we started -- I wonder if this is similar for most micro-presses? -- was to make our own and our friends work available and to make it look good. So far we’ve published a few anthologies of poetry and fiction, and lately we’ve focused on putting out single author poetry chapbooks. In retrospect, the title of Spencer’s 2011 chapbook Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! could be our motto at Ferno House.

CA: Apt. 9 Press launched its first three titles in August 2009. I had been working with a student-run little mag and chapbook press at Carleton University (In/Words) for three years. As my time at Carleton drew to a close, it was time to move on and leave that operation in new hands, but I didn’t feel done with the process. More than ever, in fact, I wanted to spend time making books with my hands. The plan with Apt. 9 was to move out of my immediate (former) student community and draw as many of those writers as possible into new dialogues with writers elsewhere in Ottawa and beyond. I wanted to learn more about writers around me, I wanted to get the work of my close writer friends into new hands, and I wanted to publish as many people I respected as possible. So, I always strive for a balance with each set of books between emerging and established voices. I’ve published first chapbooks and I’ve published chapbooks by people who have been in print since the 1960s. Typically I publish poetry, but there has been some fiction and non-fiction. I’d like to publish more literary history (Ottawa-centric where possible). I don’t know if there is a clear aesthetic unity between the work published. I publish work I admire and respect, and hope that it inspires similar feelings in readers. My general rule, stolen from elsewhere (Stuart Ross I believe), is to try to publish work that I wish I’d written. I’m continually amazed by the people who are willing to publish with my little operation. We have just launched three new chapbooks which bring the total for the press up to twenty-one books, three broadsides, one folio, and a couple little handouts, with a few more items planned before 2013 is out. I’m proud of these numbers, I think they’re hard won (our chapbooks are handmade—tearing paper, threading needles, stitching, etc.).

BS: Odourless Press started in 2011 as a blog where I’d share other people’s poetry. Then it spent some time hosting podcasts of a campus radio show I co-hosted. In fall 2011 I printed three small Word-formatted poetry pamphlets under the Odourless Press banner: one by myself and one each by my poet-friends Jeff Blackman and Ben Ladouceur. The press fizzled out in 2012 while I finished my undergraduate degree, edited/designed my last issue of Carleton’s literary rag, In/Words, and moved back to Toronto. I started making real, legit chapbooks this spring and the response from Toronto and Ottawa has been encouraging. The type of poetry Odourless has published has mostly been non-self-serious. Even when Odourless was a blog, the first poem I put up there was “Dumb Show” by Hugo Williams, which if I remember correctly involves a blindfolded bride jumping out of a window. I think that irreverent tone will open up to include more sincerity with the publication of this fall’s chapbooks.

AF: You’re all under 30, and based on the titles you’ve put out your presses all seem to value publishing younger writers. How has age - yours, the people you publish, and others in the literary community - affected how your press operates? And how much of the micro-press resurgence is being driven by a new (and young) generation of chapbookers?

ML: Eek! I just turned 29 on Monday, so I’m quickly edging out of that category. Oh to be young again! I have no idea, but I wonder if it has something to do with spare time? The older people get, the less spare time they seem to have? This, of course, isn’t true for everyone. I’m speculating here. We (@Ferno House) decided to make chapbooks by writers who don’t have a full-length book out. We don’t have an age prejudice, though our process has thus far been to solicit work from our familiars. I guess that is why we’ve mostly published writing by people in a similar age category to our own? I’ve never really thought about it before (thanks Andrew!). We made that decision to narrow our focus and hopefully put out some work by people you haven’t heard from. I’m happy to hear that there’s a chapbook resurgence. I really feel like the more the merrier. Not everyone will agree with this, but I think there is room for a lot more presses, a lot more poets, and a lot more voices: in Toronto, in Canada, and the in the world-at-large. Have you ever noticed that the same people who say too many people write poetry are also the one’s who say that no one reads poetry anymore? That’s a paradox! When I look at city’s other than our own, where writing and art that I admire is coming from, I’ve noticed that its seems to be coming from cities that seem practically overrun with talent and excitement: the Bay Area in California is one recent example of this. Right now there are so many great poets, poems, books, and uncategorizable events coming out of Oakland and the Bay Area-at-large (check out the recent Bay Area Poetry Summit as just one example), that I am at once envious and inspired. It’s a party up in there and I’d love to see that happen here. I have a theory that great art comes from great communities who support one another.

CA: My early small press experiences were at a student-run mag and we mostly published the students around us. It was a great safe space to develop as writers, to try things, to make mistakes, as the stakes weren’t super high and the mag wasn’t hugely visible outside of our immediate community at the time. With Apt. 9 I wanted to transition out of that and bring along a pile of younger writers with me. There are scores of writers my age (26) around me that I would love to publish exclusively, but I try to resist that urge and deliberately publish them one or two at a time alongside more experienced and established voices. Our three upcoming titles, for example, are from Jeff Blackman (under 30, no trade books), Christine McNair (first trade book published last year) and Stephen Brockwell (four trade books to his name going back to 1988, a fifth on the way). As far as age affecting how the press operates? Sort of as Mat says, this is a good moment personally in terms of time, money, resources and responsibilities to really throw myself into this work. I hope I’ll keep it up for many years, but try to focus on one book at a time right now.

I love seeing all the young chapbook makers out there. Andrew, your and Leigh’s Emergency Response Unit was one that really lit a fire under me a few years ago and consistently offers up something to aspire to. Odourless and Ferno do clearly excellent work that I admire. I love what Michael Casteels is doing with Puddles of Sky in Kingston. The list could go on. That being said, in an Ottawa context, we have lots of great chapbook publishers located on the other side of 30—Amanda Earl’s AngelHouse, Pearl Pirie’s phafours, rob mclennan’s above/ground. I would love to see more under-30 activity in Ottawa though. We don’t have creative writing programs like Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver, but Carleton has recently created a minor within the English program focused on creative writing. I’m excited to see what follows from that. The community is already so strong at Carleton, it can only grow.

Mat is totally right—the more the merrier, and be supportive, that’s all. As a younger writer and publisher, I have felt hugely supported and encouraged by the more established presses and writers in Ottawa and beyond. I hope I’m still doing this in ten and twenty years and can extend the same support and welcome to poets coming along.

BS: Odourless has a weird dynamic since all the poets I’ve published have been relatively young but still considerably older than myself. I’m 22, and most of the people I’ve published or plan to publish are between 26-35. I think 26-35 is a sort of sweet spot for poets where their poetic voice is more pronounced and realized but they still haven’t published a full collection, so as a chapbook publisher I like to mine that area and say “see them here before they take over the world!” Some other factors bringing more youngsters into micropublishing might be the DIY subculture which is a cornerstone of both hipsterism and anti-capitalism. Some the most popular and successful artists of our time, like Louis CK or Radiohead, have embraced modes of distribution akin to self-publishing. The design side is fed in part by the rise of prosumerism in technology and software. And what McLuhan said about modes of communication becoming art forms after their practical use is superseded by new technology--we see that with these young artists/printers learning to repair and use old risographs and letterpresses.

I don’t know if I’m in the same generation as Mat or Cameron. I can tell you I’m young, with dim financial prospects, and the least educated of everyone I know. I don’t want to spend my life as a passive consumer. However low the stakes, micropublishing has been emancipatory in that I took control of some of the means of cultural production. It’s rewarding to associate myself with the production of exciting new poetry and even though I just break even, I still feel less like a deadbeat.

AF: On the topic of community, here is as good of a place as any to note that The Emergency Response Unit (a press I co-curate with Leigh Nash) published a chapbook by Cameron. Ferno House has published a chapbook I wrote. Bardia and Cameron each worked at In/Words at various junctures. Mat, you mentioned largely publishing people you know. To what extent can chapbook publishers really serve as a locus for a literary community, and how much of it is just incestuous bumfuckery? Any sense of what they actually contribute to the literary scene that “larger” small presses - the Coach Houses, Brick Books, et al. - don’t?

ML: People can, will, and do call it “incestuous bumfuckery.” And maybe it is? That actually sounds pretty fun to me! I think a lot of my favorite books would be in that category. Ted Berrigan self-published his book The Sonnets (my favorite book if I was forced to choose) with his own “C” Press. He also made books by his friends Ron Padgett, Joe Ceravolo, Steve Carey, Elio Schneeman, his wife Alice Notley, etc. I don’t think micro-presses or small presses should only make work by their friends and familiars but people making books for and by their friends does make sense to me. Isn’t publishing and writing, in part, a social act? And insofar as they are social acts, I also think that they are political acts. Political in the way that love and solidarity are political (I’m stealing an Alli Warren quote here). I think that’s part of what made/makes the many generations of the fabled “New York school” so wonderful to behold; all the love and support that goes into their works. That’s how I’d like to think of it instead of incestuous bumfuckery, though if that’s how you love, right on.

CA: Yep, the “social act” of writing and publishing and reading will always involve a degree of “incestuous bumfuckery.” I think my bottom line in response to such charges is that there should be some sort of editorial policy to stand between publishing good work by friends and publishing junk by friends, even if it is as informal as something like ‘the work must be good.’ When I publish my close friends, I hope that I respect them enough to not unthinkingly accept whatever they send me. I want to publish good books, my friends want to write good books. It can be that simple. At the same time, what literary community in Canada is immune to such charges? Major prizes find it near-impossible to select Canadian jury members that don’t have ties to the books and writers being considered because it is, finally, a pretty small scene. Community is knowing the people around you and what they’re doing and supporting each other where you can. Can we talk soccer for a second? Xavi, utterly necessary to Barcelona and Spain, says, “Without my teammates my game makes no sense.” Maybe a bit of a stretch to compare the sublime movement of Barcelona to Canadian small press, but really, it’s the movement of everyone on the field collectively, the unselfish runs, the passes that don’t quite connect, but the willingness to run anyway to open up space for someone else...ok, this is getting away from me. Let’s try again: chapbooks (and chapbook presses) make no sense in isolation from others doing similar things both present and past. If Xavi was out there making chapbooks alone in a field, it would make no sense. But Iniesta and Messi are at it too and the whole thing starts to take on a beautiful shape.

And jeez, it’d be weird to only publish people you don’t know...how would you find them?

BS: Mat and Cameron said it best: 1) incestuous bumfuckery is fun! and 2) it’d be weird to only publish people you don’t know. As opposed to trade publishers, who sell books through national and international distributors, micropublishing seems strongly rooted in its immediate surroundings. It’s more about the publishing rituals, because if the only goal was to share work we’d just post PDFs online. But the rituals--the designing, printing and binding, the promotional hype, the act of ushering people into a room with booze in anticipation of a reading--this is how a personal exchange between poet and publisher becomes a public endeavour. The poet through some small ceremony is venerated, going from “writer of poetry” to “author” as you leave the event with their work in your hands.

After the Odourless launch in May, an editor from U of T’s student paper contacted me about getting a tour of the press. I told him that Odourless Press is a pile of stuff taking up half my parents’ dining table, and I never heard back from him. But I think a micropress is a series of participatory processes rather than a person, place or thing. And so how could the people involved not be your friends? I first met eventual Odourless authors through readings and mutual friends, I got to know them better through the process of publishing them, and at the launch their friends and my friends and their other authors’ friends (with a lot of overlap) all saw them read together. The incestuous network expands outward in concentric circles and becomes a fluid community as local writers come and go.

In contrast you’ll go to a small press book launch where the author, whose publisher is based in the other side of Canada, has never met the various people who solicited, edited, designed or promoted their work. This is why I’ve been hesitant to solicit work from talented poets who I’ve never met and who live far away: while I’d like to publish their work, if they can’t take part in the rituals of creation/promotion/distribution, if they can’t meet the chapbook’s producers and readers, they’d just become this disembodied voice that I’m pushing on the local community.

Read the second part of the interview here! Coming up: punk EPs, dollar signs, and some poems you need to read.

1 comment

certainly one participant in this interview would (could/should) have noted the misogynistic tone of "incestous bumfuckery" - is there a less harmful way of saying that a community of people might be blindly inclined to support one another for their own egotistical goals? letting language like that slide might be one (inadvertent) example of such practices.

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