Lavender Ink interview
Experimental writing in the southlands
If you’re interested in any of Lavender Ink’s work, go to http://lavenderink.org to find out where you can order. Hope you enjoy this interview with founder and publisher Bill Lavender.
a. How did you start the press, and what is your hope for its future?
I started the press in 1995 with the intention of doing handmade chapbooks of the work of some of my many very talented poet friends. My first books were my own Guest Chain (online at http://www.lavenderink.org/guestchain/xp00.htm) and Rogue Embryo by Camille Martin. The first perfect bound book I did was Lower 48 by Joel Dailey.
In about 2005 I was introduced to the world of print-on-demand, and all my books have been perfect bound ever since. My experience in this world was what prompted the University of New Orleans to give me the job of restructuring their university press, which had up until that time been devoted to publishing the stellar literary offerings of their upper administrators. I had learned how to produce books and get them into national distribution with minimal cost, and proceeded to put out about 100 scholarly and literary works in the five years I was at the helm there. In the end, though, those upper administrators I mentioned decided I wasn't paying enough attention to them and gave me the boot. I accepted my dismissal and meekly retired, but not without making a bit of noise about the situation. You can read about that at Publisher's Weekly, among other places. They took most of the titles I had published out of print.
Leaving academia, then, with a lot of bad blood and pent up anger, I decided that I would take what I had learned at UNO and put it into Lavender Ink, where I would have the freedom to publish what I wanted to publish without the inanity of university politics. I had taken the unprecedented step, at UNO, of putting together an editorial board of nationally prominent writers and scholars, all of whom resigned when I was sacked. Several of them agreed to help me out in my post-UNO incarnation, most notably Peter Thompson, professor of romance languages at Roger Williams University. Pete had introduced me to a number of literary translators while at UNO, facilitating our publications of Nobel nominee Antonio Gamoneda, among many others. I set up, then, a new imprint, called Diálogos, to publish works of cross-cultural significance, mostly, but not all, works in translation.
Since leaving UNO I have been publishing, between Lavender Ink and Diálogos, about 20 books per year. I'm doing this, I should add, almost entirely single-handed, as far as design and production go. I have a number of people who help me out by directing talent my way and helping me with editorial decisions---and for this let me just thank, here, Peter Thompson, Mark Statman, Joel Dailey, Megan Burns, and Nancy Dixon---and occasionally I've had interns or hired people for specific tasks. But I do all the design and most of the marketing and distribution. This is, as you might imagine, a substantial workload for a person with a day-job, a writing career and a rock band to boot, and there came a point, about two years ago, when I began to ask myself exactly why I was torturing myself in this way. There was, and is, no doubt that the press is taking away from my own writing. I often sit down to work on my novel and suddenly realize I'm late on some deadline or another and start working on someone else's work instead. So I came to a point where I decided I was either going to have to find someone who could truly help me run the press or I was going to have to abandon it.
I began a search for someone to bring on board. There were two things working against me in this search, however. The first was that, since the press barely breaks even, whoever would come in would have to work for no money, just like me. And the second was that I'm way too much of a control freak to let anyone else have any real say in operations. And I reached a point of fairly high anxiety, despair even, over this. It finally hit me, though, that what I needed to do was embrace the press's---and my own---eccentricities rather than trying to normalize, that maybe the press itself was going to be my magnum opus.
So my hope for the future of the press is that it be this eccentric thing with my indelible signature, a kind of Watts Tower or Las Pozas of a press. I hope it will continue on, the way these follies have, after the death of its creator, but if it doesn't, qué será....
b. What do you think about the concept of the avant-garde in the southern US?
The exact same as I think about it in the Northern US. The avant-garde, I'm afraid, is now dead as a signifier of any real cultural phenomena. It had a good run---it had real meaning for the Modernists, for the Beats, for Black Mountain, for Dada and Surrealism and Cubism and Abstract Expressionism---but the Language Poets, I think, succeeded in draining the last bit of significance from the term, so that it now means nothing more than any other -ism. It's nothing but another genre to conform to. There is nothing going on right now anywhere in literature that could even remotely be construed as a herald of new ways of seeing and thinking. No one really even wants to do such a thing. This might or might not be such a terrible thing. The notion of an avant-garde assumes a certain artistic status-quo, an establishment that is being left behind, and I think the avant-garde has lost its meaning because this establishment no longer exists. The worlds of publishing, art, film, and drama are now so prolific and various that it's almost impossible to do something that doesn't fit in a generic structure. I never hear anything, these days, I haven't heard before. Indeed, the only "avant-garde" thing I can think of to do, in this particular moment of history, is to be quiet.
But this is only half your question, the other half being that modifier, "southern." As you know, I edited, back in 2003, Another South: Experimental Writing in the South. This was a collection of avant-garde poetry being written in the South at that time, and I proposed the project to University of Alabama's Modern and Contemporary Poetics series with the specific intent of defying a certain prejudice against the southern US, a prejudice that saw the South as a cartoon of itself, a Gone with the Wind caricature that was laughably inaccurate yet seldom questioned. The very fact that you ask the question (I mean, who would think to ask about a northern or western avant-garde? Those regions don't seem to require a modifier; they are assumed in the term itself...) says it all.
What's involved here is the very same bias that Zizek speaks of in "The Subject Supposed to Loot and Rape," his article on the national perception of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Or, as Deleuze put it, "If you're trapped in the dream of the Other, you're fucked." We in the South have been trapped in some New Yorker's dream for some time now. The stereotype has actually gotten worse, I think, in recent times, as the cultural hegemony of New York and California have been eroding and they scramble to bolster the pretense that they still matter.
Sometimes I think there is some sort of absolute, ordinal bias that has infected Western Civilization since the Middle Ages. One sees it in Rousseau's wacky explanation of the differences between Northern and Southern (European) languages... it's even in Augustine.
c. What are your requirements for what a good book of poems should do?
Well, let's just say it should do something. It should do something beyond what normal language does. Normal (one could say normative) language is a defensive response to the fragility of the ego. It is a propping up, like a constant, preemptive argument. It reaches its epitome in political speech, that speech which measures every statement not on its relation to truth or reality but on its relative standing within the power relations established by other statements. The best metaphors for normal speech acts are military strategies, deployments, attacks and defenses.
Poetry should be something other than that. This might sound reductive, simplistic and vague, but it's really the only thing that matters, and it's a very difficult thing to accomplish. It isn't done simply by embracing objectivity (though that is certainly a start). You don't do it by abandoning the word "I" (though that, too, can be a step in the right direction). It's done, I think, by losing consciousness, what we call consciousness, and simply being in the world and letting it speak through you. The perfect poem espouses no polemic; it describes a leaf in the way that reveals the structure of the universe (it really is fractal like that). It goes beyond the human. This is what Spicer meant when he said "Metaphors are not for humans."
d. Who are some of your favorite writers?
I could say there are too many to list, but the real issue is that I just don't think that way any more. For one thing, Foucault is right when he calls into question the hegemony of the "author" as the ultimate conceptual frame for grouping texts. My own books, for example, are quite various; each of them arises out of a very different experiment or compositional method. While Sleeping, I of the Storm, Transfixion, and Memory Wing are different enough that I actually think an objective reader would have trouble identifying them as being by the same author. I'm not alone in this; though there are certainly some writers who, like Emily Dickinson or Whitman, have a distinctive and consistent style that is immediately recognizable, but I would contend that there are just as many who are all over the stylistic map, writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joyce, Silliman, Charles Bernstein...
This may sound like I'm dodging the question, and maybe to a certain extent I am, but these days I am much less interested in individual writers than I am in, let's say, movements, by which I mean cultural contexts, "scenes" out of which writing and other arts are produced. The Modernists imagined "cultural islands" and I think the notion actually has some merit. The San Francisco renaissance, that scene which orbited around Spicer and Duncan and Robin Blaser, and out of which the Beat movement arose, is a great example. The Language poets interest me primarily because of the way they built their scene and turned it into a movement. The New Orleans scene has waxed and waned since I've been involved in it, and the political and generally extra-aesthetic forces that have shaped it would make a very interesting study.... The reason, I think, that MFA programs have flourished to the point of overpopulation of late is that they have attempted to recreate real artistic movements, with the comradery and passion and competitiveness of a real scene but within the artificial environment of the university. MFA programs represent the disneyfication of writing. They are simulacra of real artistic discovery, available only with a paid ticket. It isn't that nothing good goes on in them (I've taught in and directed one myself), but a real movement can only happen outside this system, in the political and economic "real world."
All that said, I'm going to mention just a couple of poets from the New Orleans scene whom I believe are worthy of a lot more attention than they've gotten. Joel Dailey is one of the smartest and most prolific poets alive today. In all his dozens of books, one is hard pressed to find a throwaway line. And the scene he has created via his magazine, Fell Swoop, is one of the most interesting I know of. Another undersung New Orleanian is Megan Burns, whose writing is literate and beautiful and never backs down. She, too, has created a scene out of her Trembling Pillow press, which was originated by her and her X, poet Dave Brinks.
e. Do you think there's an unnatural distinction between poetry and prose in the publishing world?
I guess that depends on what you mean by natural. There is indeed a distinction in the world of publishing and in the "real world" also. I myself am becoming more interested in prose, these days, with experimental (and not so experimental) fiction taking most of my interest right now. Part of the distinction, of course, is economic. Poetry simply does not sell. Tennyson got rich from sales of In Memoriam; such a thing is unthinkable today. No poet lives off her work any more. Poetry actually has very little audience; even other poets read very little of it outside their own circle.
But the truth is that nothing literary sells except novels and "nonfiction." Short stories sell in comparable numbers to poetry. The big publishers cite this data in their decisions not to publish poetry. But the question, to me, is whether these sales trends are due to some "natural" proclivity of the reading public or to the actions of the publishing houses themselves. No book sells without a marketing push from the publisher; there is a long list of things they do pre-release to make the book launch successfully from courting reviewers to crafting an authorial persona. It would be interesting to see what would happen if a book of poetry were given the launch that, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel gets. "Economics" isn't as simple as the provider providing what the user wants; these wants are created, and at some point the publishing industry decided it no longer wished to pursue poetry as a public commodity. Whether this decision was politically or ethically or economically guided, or some combination of the three, is endlessly arguable, as the vicious circle is now here to stay.
But the good news is: the days of the big publishing houses are numbered. Medium sized presses like Copper Canyon are now giving them a run for their money with both awards and sales. I think it won't be that long before micro-presses like mine are the norm rather than the exception. It will be interesting to see what happens in the world of the text after that.