Tiny presses, small publications, hand made books and diy production seem to be an ongoing theme this term. With USC’s shelf life taking place yesterday, and our own CalArts print fair coming up, this seemed like a perfect time to talk about small press projects.
The Tiny Presses: Literary Citizenship class taught by Jen Hofer has been researching various tiny press practices from all over this term. (If you get a chance, take Jen’s class! It’s really wonderful) A few presses have visited the class talking about their various struggles and epiphanies since starting up presses, and a few have corresponded with the class over email. Each student in the class was asked to choose a press, and learn as much as they could as well as curate a few books for the class to read. I chose Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs based out of Brooklyn, NY.
The books are absolutely gorgeous, and all designed by Brenda Iijima, who I was fortunate enough to host an interview with. Her answers are a treat to read, and pertinent to both the writing and design communities. Definitely check out the books, they’re not expensive and presses like PP@YYL are completely financed by our peers in the design/writing worlds.
Brenda, a running discussion in both the Tiny Press class as well as the design community has been the nature of “the book”. What is a book to you and to PP@YYL? This is a difficult question… I guess I am most interested in what the bare minimum pieces required to constitute a “book”?
Here is a rough draft of some notes pertaining to what a book might be in its potentiality. The aspect I’d like to stress most of all is that a book is a social document. A book is the skin and subcutaneous layers of culture in its formation, emergence and cohesion (how ideas link with other ideas). We need these documents as humans, to understand what we are being. How we are being. A book, if we think of it beyond genre is a body, a text, a script, a vision, a motion, a warning (of what it is not), and a guide—please add to this list. As humans we are very very susceptible to ideas. We digest ideas and they become the way we negotiate presence and action. That’s why we have to take our forms so seriously and try and anticipate subtle shifts in how we might be (begin new processes). Every acknowledgement, influence, appropriation, inclusion, etc. forms networks of relation. We are accountable to these flows of energy. We have to be utterly aware of what bodies we are placing in the position of power by these references in our work, in our published material. This then forms a contemporary identification—what it means to be in our present time. We indicate what we think is important, it is inevitable—so all acknowledgements, attributes, quotations etc. have to be very much considered.
A book is therefore what creates the future/or lack thereof if we are simply retracing endlessly problematic ways of being (see racism, sexism, poverty and other social issues that press upon human life). The way we enter into the environment and coexist is represented in how the text finds an ecosystem in a readership. This doesn’t seem like a functioning metaphor but I think it can be. Everything pertains to everything else. We use books to make this clear, to create receptivity, connections. We also talk, discourse, and use other modes of communication, but the book is important because it is a container and stores information and feeling for longer durations. What is really ephemeral is temporarily suspended. A book is like a refrigerator! I could say more—I should. But will abbreviate here for lack of time. Thank you for this feisty question!!!!
The name: is the press portable? What is the lab? Naming a project is one of the richest aspects for me; how did you come up with that name specifically?
When I started the press I wanted its name to represent how transitional, portable and mutable the process of starting out publishing other poets works seemed. That’s to say, I didn’t know how it all would go, what would change, how I would change as a poet, editor and publisher in the process—something I hoped (and still hope) to be very aware of (those changes). It is about making books that obviously are portable—sharing ideas, creativity, the imagination, pressing concerns, etc. It was such a thrilling prospect—to be in touch with other people’s work, work that I respect and admire. That other thinkers would entrust their work with me and I set about making a scintillating, exchangeable vehicle for their work: a book. This was the way to be most in touch with contemporaries—the contemporary. How better to understand the important and vital moods, modes, political valences, feminist expressions, gendered moves, ideation, etc. The “labs” part was a bit of humor. As if there is this vast apparatus in the wings building these books when it is just me working out the details as best as I can in collaboration with the poets I publish. “Lab” also to somehow join scientific concerns with literary concerns. I hoped the name would be playful and energetic, not pretentious. 44 titles later I still get a thrill saying Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs.
When you first began the press (2002? When the first chapbook on the list is dated to?), what did you imagine happening from then until now? What do you imagine the next decade will hold for PP@YYL?
My main aim was to learn about poetry through this intimate and direct means and find out who shared affinities, interesting modes of thinking, what was possible, what was stimulating. To put works into conversation, to put poets in conversation. To get this great work out there. It was learning by doing and doing as teaching as well. I had things to offer as someone who switched over from visual arts to poetry. I hoped to make interesting, compelling books that weren’t too costly or overdone. Simple, charged and real. As time went on I saw this project through a feminist filter—how important it is to make sure women are being published.
Also, all underrepresented voices. I’m very keen on this and make it a demand of my press, a necessity a point of contention (with other presses). I try to reach out to poets I don’t know so I’m not only publishing my friends which can be a form of insularity or even hegemony somehow. This makes me very open to new readings, new works, new expressions. This is still an aim. Culture is constantly shifting under our gaze. I don’t publish work that is alike, necessarily. It is more interesting to see divergences and similarities together, how this works in tandem. Does this make sense?! I’ve been very committed to publishing first time authors and poets who haven’t had much exposure. This is very exciting for me. It gives someone a forum. To open the dialogue socially. Chapbooks are first and foremost social documents that need to be read, discussed, etc. I always wonder if I should publish more perfect-bound full-length collections instead of chapbooks which are much more ephemeral. I love chapbooks because they are really read. One can read a chapbook from cover to cover in about 20 minutes. There is nothing per say intimidating about a chapbook. I think this is its special quality, among other things. Chapbooks are ephemeral ideas that are easy to get out there and pass around. Goals: to be true to all of this that I have just written. To be as generous with the poets I work with—offering full engagement, discussion, networks.
In an interview of yours through brooklynrail.org, you mentioned “I hope that someone who picks up a PPAYYL publication engages with the eyes, the hands, the ears–none of the senses should shut down once reading occurs…”. Coming from a place of meticulous creative methodologies/process, what is the process by which the visual/literary aspects of PP@YYL come together?
We are such sensory beings, humans (human-animals). We shouldn’t foreclose chances to be completely immersed in the tactile qualities of a book. Why should a book be ugly—it shouldn’t, ever. That would be sad and unfortunate. Maybe botched is a better word because these days I’m no sure I can differentiate “ugly”—it is such a loaded critique that I won’t go into here. I’m trying to make a point that when you read you stimulate all the other senses and therefore reengage with the world more fully. Reading awakens the imagination and holding an interesting book provokes alternative responses. Echoing what I said in the above response, books chronicle our contemporary times, what this means. Books that are retroactive or nostalgic don’t particularly interest me. Alive, real and of our time. Social documents that depict the real (which is of course, imaginative).
On a similar note: how does being an artist+writer play into your press? And conversely, does your press practice play back into your personal practice? Does it effect publicity for your work? Does it effect content?
It just means that I bring the knowledge of a visual artist to bear on the production/actualization of the book/making process. Paper, design and image all congeal with the work at hand. I think this does effect/affect public reception of the books and also the content. The content forms a relationship with the look and feel of the book. The public forms a relationship with the look, feel and content of the book. The identity of the book comes together when all of these factors are deeply considered. An interesting looking book begs to be read!
Besides the mention of open-calls for authors, how do you curate the authors you’ve published? Do you choose authors? Do they find you? Do you meet them through the process or do you know them already? Also, have publishing any of these authors led to collaborations/projects between you/them?
All of these things happen. But for the most part I go to readings and contact poets when I’m really compelled by their work. I use an open call less because it ends up meaning I have to plow through a lot of work that isn’t right for the press. Women submit much less then men so this demands active engagements to form relationships, build trust and share work. It is great to work with poets from other regions of the United States and folks I don’t know. I am committed to working with poets who haven’t published much and are just finding their way within networks, etc. Working through the process of creating a chapbook definitely expands the relationship. There’s a lot of discussion as to where the poet finds themselves community-wise, who they are linked up with, affiliations, connections and how they ground their work. The process is also about encouraging readings to take place and getting the work out there (to bookstores, book fairs, in folks’ hands), etc. Direct collaborations not so much but indirectly my authors collaborate with me constantly along community lines.
Does PP@YYL initiate public happenings or hold readings, public events or workshops? How do PP@YYL distribute aside from the website?
Yes! I’ve done a lot of curating of readings. Right now I have a reading series called 443 PAS. I also invite readers who I haven’t published. I’ve given a lot of workshops and think community participation is very important. Word of mouth is another was that the books are disseminated.
In a few separate book descriptions, I noticed a few of the authors were also published/affiliated with Jill Magi’s Sona books; is this a coincidence? How does PP@YYL go about interacting with another press?
I didn’t realize this! Which books? Jill and I are friends and I’ve published Jill’s work so there is some overlap surely. Presses get to know each other over the years and rely on each other (expertise and friendship). PP@YYL is constantly inspired by all the presses around. There is going to be a big chapbook fair at CUNY soon and that’s where I get a lot of new ideas and renewed commitment to this project.
I want to thank Brenda again, she’s been a real treat to correspond with, and I highly recommend the books, if you’re looking to purchase any of the books, check out the website. They’re beautifully written, and beautifully crafted.