Commentaries - September 2011

Russell Chatham (of Clark City Press, Livingston, Montana) in conversation with Noel King

From Jacket #3 (April 1998)

"Spring Morning" by Russell Chatham (1988)

Noel King: What role do you think the small press plays in relation to the overall culture of book publishing?

Russell Chatham: My view of things, and it’s promoted by being physically distant from any publishing centres, derives from the fact that I was discouraged by experiences I had with larger publishers. As time has passed it seems they have taken less and less interest in what you might call serious books, or literary books, and look primarily toward large-profit items. And I suppose you can’t blame them: this is the world they live in and that seems to be what’s happening. That’s a discouraging situation for a lot of writers. When I started Clark City Press, it was always going to be a very small press; we could only think of publishing five to eight books a year. This was a lot for us but not much relative to the possibilities out there. And one of the things that was an eye-opener for me was how many manuscripts came unsolicited to us; hundreds, if not thousands, many of which were eminently publishable. What that showed me was how many serious writers had nowhere to turn, they were scratching at every possible opportunity to get their work published. And then you realise that the larger, traditional publishing houses aren’t picking up on these works. According to the sources I have, those companies no longer even have readers. Twenty years ago a person could say, “send a manuscript in to Doubleday” and somebody would sit down and read it and if it was good, they might even consider publishing it. That doesn’t exist any more. So, particularly for younger people or people just starting out, it’s a very discouraging landscape to view.
      I wanted to avoid that situation. I had a few of my own books I wanted to see in print and I knew I had the capability of designing and manufacturing them properly, doing a first-rate job, bringing out a handsome edition with no typographical errors! That seems so obvious but it’s a lot to ask these days and to me that’s preposterous. A couple of decades ago a typographical error in a book was a tremendous embarrassment and you had to print an addendum to ‘fess up that you’d made a mistake, even one typo in an entire book. And now it’s not unusual to pick up a novel and find numerous errors and no-one seems to care.

What are some of the main things that you think have changed in US book publishing and book culture?

Once you turn the reins of a publishing house over to the book-keeping department rather than the editorial department then the whole focus of the company changes. Publishing has always been a financially complicated and difficult business. However, certainly at the time I was growing up, a publishing house was run by publishers and the accountants worked for the publishers. Now it seems the other way around. I think this is symptomatic of every bit of what could come under the label of ‘culture’ in America, not just the publishing industry. It’s all money-driven.
      The only place in literary culture where the industry isn’t money-driven is with the independent booksellers where, generally speaking, you’ll find the owner is in there because he or she loves books and they’re not making much money. On the other hand the publishers themselves are money-driven, just as the movie-industry is, just as the art industry is, completely. The people who aren’t money-driven are people like me who are off in some backwater like Livingston, Montana!

Speaking of that, you’ve been here about twenty-five years now, having initially come up from the Bay area, San Francisco to visit Tom McGuane?

That was the initial reason for the visit. At that time Tom had had some luck with his first couple of books and he’d always wanted to have a place in Montana and a place in Key West, the Florida Keys, for fishing and hunting reasons as well as living reasons. So I just came up here for a visit, to fish, but I already had a clear sense of what was happening to California and it was very discouraging: a population explosion, it’s slowed now but they’re bursting at the seams. It’s just too crowded, and I knew I needed to be some place where there was space, a less expensive life, that was an issue too. Throughout history, artists and writers have always looked for places that are both beautiful to live in and cheap to live in. And this place qualified.
      That fishing visit was in the fall of 1971 and I found a place to rent but we couldn’t quite make the transition with winter fast approaching and so we waited until spring and came up here in April. In those days, even in my wildest dreams, I never thought this place would be discovered by anyone, and now it’s all anybody can talk about.

Read more of this interview.

John Kinsella

Australian poet John Kinsella. Photo by Andrew De La Rue.

PennSound’s new John Kinsella page features three recordings. One is a reading he gave at Buffalo in September of 1996, introduced by Susan Schultz (5:11): MP3 .

Here are poems Kinsella read:

Warhol at Wheatlands (2:53): MP3
Bluff Knoll Sublimity (2:54): MP3
Aspects of the Pagan (4:43): MP3
Editing (0:51): MP3
Disclaimers (2:19): MP3
Echidna (2:45): MP3
from “Syzygy” (4:57): MP3
Skeleton weed / generative grammar (3:35): MP3

He also took a moment to comment on the tradition of classical poetry in Australia and the slaughter of aboriginal peoples (1:05): MP3. The complete reading (26:19): MP3 is of course available also, but note that  the recording cuts off at 26:19.

Alt-poetry, alt-pedagogy

In June 1999 I and a hundred or so others (teachers, poets, poet-teachers) gathered at Bard College for a conference on the possible connection between experimental poetry and experimental pedagogy, hosted by Joan Retallack among others. There were six or seven of us from the Kelly Writers House at the conference, and on the last morning of the three-day confab (there on the slopes leading down to the eastern side of the Catskills-region Hudson River, it did at times feel like summer camp), we presented about the Writers House itself as an alternative learning community focused on poetics.

Conference done. Then we promised ourselves we’d do some kind of followup in Philadelphia, and indeed did so in early 2001. Joan Retallack came down from Bard, reading some of her own poetry that seemed relevant to the theme (alt-poetry, alt-pedagogy), and then Kerry Sherin, KWH’s director at the time, described a transition to the next and longer part of the program: a discussion, as a follow-up to Bard, about specific pedagogical issues and practices. There were about forty of us in the room there at the Writers House, in addition to about thirty who were tuning in by live webcast. Louis Cabri, for instance, was then in Calgary — and participated by posing some questions.

Not long ago Jenny Lesser converted the old RealVideo-format recordings into audio-only mp3, which of course these days is a much more usable, portable mode.

Here's Kerry Sherin setting up the discussion, by, in part, remembering the Bard conference.
Here's 9 minutes or so on experiential learning.
Here's a discussion of what makes it difficult to teach experimental writing.
And here's a link to the whole 2-hour audio mp3, and, for your video fans and users, still, of the Real player, here's a link to the streaming video.

The end of books in 1992

From Robert Coover’s "The End of Books" (June 21, 1992, NYT):

As Carolyn Guyer and Martha Petry put it in the opening “directions” to their hypertext fiction "Izme Pass," which was published (if "published" is the word) on a disk included in the spring 1991 issue of the magazine Writing on the Edge: “This is a new kind of fiction, and a new kind of reading. The form of the text is rhythmic, looping on itself in patterns and layers that gradually accrete meaning, just as the passage of time and events does in one's lifetime. Trying the textlinks embedded within the work will bring the narrative together in new configurations, fluid constellations formed by the path of your interest. The difference between reading hyperfiction and reading traditional printed fiction may be the difference between sailing the islands and standing on the dock watching the sea. One is not necessarily better than the other.”

Here's the link to Coover’s article.

What's 'heroic' about it anyway?

Wheatley.jpg
University of South Carolina Libraries - Rare Books and Special Collections

I spent an entire day teaching heroic couplets. I taught my tail off in Forms of Poetry, covering heroic couplets from Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) to Thom Gunn (1929–), and followed up in African American Literary Heritage with a session on Phillis Wheatley, the young slave girl who wrote almost exclusively in heroic couplets.

What causes such a form as the heroic couplet to endure? What do “The Author to Her Book” (Bradstreet) and “The J Car” (Gunn) have in common, if anything? As I looked over the range of poems we discussed in class, I concluded that the particular space of the heroic couplet, in which the end-stopped rhymes (AABB, etc.) close off each rhyming pair in the manner of a stanza or little room, lends itself to contemplative thought. Each two-line reflection builds into a larger meditation, for Bradstreet on the status of women poets and for Gunn on the loss of a friend and promising writer to AIDS.

Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book (Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773), became familiar with the form through her study of Alexander Pope, as well as Pope’s translations of Homer. (See: it really does all come back to the epic.) A still controversial, or at least enigmatic literary figure, Wheatley was educated along with the children in the Wheatley household after being purchased by John Wheatley for the purposes of being his wife’s maid. In reading Wheatley, we are confronted with many of the hypocrisies on which this nation was founded: in particular that of those persons who espoused Christianity and freedom while owning slaves.

Studying Wheatley brings together two of my current fascinations: lineages and the endurance of inherited poetic forms. Really, who wouldn’t be fascinated by the possibilities and contradictions inherent in a young slave girl making an epic, heroic form her own? Consider this final couplet from “On Being Brought from Africa to America”: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” The commas in the poem’s penultimate line have always been particularly interesting to me: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain.” This line is a warning to Christians chastising them to remember that God loves all equally, but the comma between “Christians” and “Negros” also enacts a leveling between the white Christians whom the poem addresses and “Negros” by listing them symmetrically. Christians and Negros become equal. The punctuation supports the content.

Despite the difficulties of teaching Wheatley (in this case to a class made up of freshman and college sophomores) and despite some of the imagery in the poem that we might chafe against (she describes Africa as a “pagan land”) I am of the opinion that there is indeed something heroic to be found in close readings of Wheatley. If my students disagree, I am all for analyses that can be backed up by rigorous textual analysis. What I really want them to remember — and poetry teaches us this lesson — is that not understanding something and not liking something are two different things. We all need this lesson in these times.