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Photo: Alicia Solsman

Forum Follows function

Local independent poetry publishers find their literary niche

By Josh Potter

 

It’s the first 1st Friday of 2009, and the Upstate Artists Guild on Lark Street in Albany is teeming with cheery gallerygoers. Men, women, college students and children, swaddled in down and wool, waddle around tables full of finger food. Hanging on the walls is a large variety of work—photographs, sketches, and paintings—part of the New Beginnings show, which opens this evening. Relative to the quiet winter sidewalk outside, the crowded gallery is testament to a vernacular truth within the Albany arts world that, while the scene tends to keep a low profile, a little digging will grant the culture seeker its spoils.

Around the pretzels, under the low ceiling, and at the end of the human corral, there is a small doorway leading to a tiny backroom. Like a Russian doll hiding inside another of its own kin, this is where the Albany small-press publishers are hosting their book fair. The room is packed not only with artgoers, who chanced upon the fair in their mingling, but by representatives of five local presses. The room is likewise full of the gallery’s (and for that matter, our culture’s) strangest artifact: books. Ranging from hand-hewn chapbooks by local authors to glossy perfect-bound anthologies of translated foreign poets, slim, photocopied zines to lit journals one could just as easily scoop up at Barnes and Noble, the offerings are as broad as the presses that print them and the individuals that put them together.

The fact that Albany is home to any small press may come as a surprise, but this is forgivable, given the nature of their wares. Books do not assault our senses in the way our expectations have been charged for the information age. They can’t be sampled like a song on iTunes or even browsed like a painting in a gallery. They do not allow for passive apprehension and instead demand not only that the reader get up, go out, procure the individual title and open it, but sit and spend time with it. With poetry, the textual form in which these local presses largely deal, the degree of engagement is even greater.

Those people who have made it to the gallery and found its backroom shuffle by the tables. Some pick up the books and thumb through their pages. Occasionally one is purchased, but even this action is a mere preamble to consuming the art of language. These are the terms of the literary world—the same ones that keep it vital.

On the walls of this room are photographs of local poets—a collection that poet, photographer and open-mic stalwart Dan Wilcox calls “the world’s largest collection of photos of unknown poets”—so it’s tempting to think of the presses represented this night as the Albany literary scene, yet the title might not only be overly simple, but simply beside the point. Like the work they publish, the presses are deeply nuanced in the ways they operate and the ways they interact. With a range of aesthetic objectives, target readerships, production values, and logistical hurdles, small presses in Albany tend to extend the adage that form follows function into the realm of publishing.

If you want to know anything about poetry in Albany, Wilcox is the man to ask. A retired state employee, he grew up in Delmar, was drafted into the military, and spent a good chunk of time in New York City before returning to the Capital Region, but when he arrived in 1987, the poetry scene was just kicking in. He befriended Tom Nattell, who wrote The Simple Life column for Metroland and had been running Readings Against the End of the World, a 24-hour event held each year around Earth Day. Together they started an open-mic night at QE2 (where the Fuze Box is currently), and over time it got to be what Wilcox calls “the granddaddy of the open mic scene.”

Mary Panza, who runs Albany Poets and its affiliated magazine Other:___ with Thom Francis, reflects with similar fondness on the open-mic scene of the late ’80s. “It exploded because there was nothing else like it in the area.” As the scene grew, more poetry open mics opened at area bars. Regarding the Tuesday open mic at the old Lionheart (where Bombers is now), she says, “If you were five minutes late, you were 35th on the list.”

All the while, Wilcox was busy documenting the poets that came through. “I would go to readings and take notes of what the poet looked like so I could recognize them on the street,” he says of his time living down the road from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York, “but then I thought, ‘I’ve got a camera; I might as well start taking pictures.’ ” By the time he moved to Albany, this habit was firmly in place.

In 1990, the documentarian urge took a textual turn, and Wilcox decided to start producing chapbooks—handmade volumes of shorter length and lesser quantity—for the poets in the scene. The first couple featured his own work, that of local poet Don Levy, and a small collection for a reading at the Albany Public Library.

“It was just eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch paper with a couple staples down the side,” Wilcox says of his first books. He calls the method “cheap and dirty,” but it served the basic purpose of landing unpublished poets in print. He could produce one or two books each year and not have to worry about the rigors of the publishing business. The press had no title until a friend he was publishing decided to try and sell the book on Amazon.com. In order to do so, Wilcox came up with the name A.P.D. Press, got a business checking account, bought a few ISBNs (commercial identifying numbers), and made himself a press (dwlcx.blogspot.com).

“It’s never been like some big marketing thing,” he confesses. “I just help poets out and build my catalog.”

One of the poets Wilcox published was Rachel Zitomer, a University at Albany Ph.D candidate in philosophy, and regular reader on the open-mic circuit. Zitomer’s dissertation analyzed poetry communities outside of academic institutions and used Albany as a model. Her core thesis was that “whereas poetry in academia is based on preservation, poetry in [a community like Albany] is based on engagement, and thus on ephemerality.”

Indeed, it seems like the one thing that presses like A.P.D. and Other:___ have in common is a foundational objective toward engagement, born of performance-based poetics, that renders publication of the written word secondary to that of community and self-expression.

“Because we are not academics,” says Panza, “we don’t have that whole ‘publish or perish’ mentality.” In fact, Panza and Francis were literally handing out copies of Other:___ for free at the open house.

Albany Poets (albanypoets.com) is as much an organizational body, networking apparatus, and community of friends as it is a poetry press. “The important thing is that we provide a microphone and a Web site because it is your right to express yourself,” Panza says. “We want to give you the forum to do that.”

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Other:___ , then, functions more as an extension of this mission to give poets, who may not feel comfortable reading aloud at an open mic or at the organization’s yearly Word Fest gathering, an audience for their work. It can, similarly, be seen as an extension of what Zitomer calls an “aesthetics of openness” that refuses “hierarchical valuation” and celebrates the scene as a “perpetual series of temporal moments.”

In writing about the open-mic community as an academic study, Zitomer posits a fairly rigid distinction between the goals of these two communities. Whether or not that divide also exists for print and performance poets is another matter.

“The area seems to be splintered,” Francis says, “and it always has been. There’s what I like to call the ‘street’ poets and the ‘school’ poets, and the only time they come together is when we do the Jawbone [UAlbany graduate reading] series.” Even Wilcox has articulated this dynamic with a poem he wrote in 1988 called “Where are the professors?” in reference to community open-mic events.

To call this fragmentation of Albany poetic events antagonistic, though, might be going too far. Chris Rizzo, a UAlbany Ph.D candidate and sole executor of Anchorite Press, says, “Such antagonisms are [invented], so far as I can see.”

Rizzo too looks to the Jawbone series as proof that a constructive, creative community can be fostered between academic and local poets. In this same breath, he laments the fact that Jawbone will not have the resources to continue operating this season.

If this type of divide exists, it seems not to be unique to Albany. “I think you find the perception of that divide in a number of communities,” Rizzo continues. He looks to Boston as an example, where there are sufficient academics as well as independent local poets to constitute many vibrant scenes.

Similarly, the divide between poetry that is built for the page or penned for performance might be more of an illusion. Anchorite, in fact, was born in 2003 of a Boston reading series. In an effort that parallels that of Wilcox, Rizzo began making monographs and broadsides for the poets that attended the readings. And similar to Panza and Francis, Rizzo handed them out for free. The broadsides became pamphlets, the pamphlets became chapbooks, and pretty soon Rizzo had a press on his hands.

When he moved to Albany to begin his studies, though, Rizzo and Anchorite became uprooted from they community they served. “When I came here it became more abstract. In Boston there was a boots-on-the-ground, concrete proposition stemming from the reading events. [The press] became more fluid and mobile here. I was still filling a need, but for a community that was somewhere out across the country.”

The story of Matthew Klane and his Slingerlands-based press Flim Forum (flimforum.com), reads in a similar way. After living in Boston and studying in Buffalo, Klane landed in the Capital Region and started his press in 2005. The goal was to print poets with whom he felt an aesthetic affinity. This meant, though, that he’d be drawing on a pool of poets he’d encountered in Boston, Buffalo, and elsewhere. Along what constitutes a sort of transnational poetic archipelago, Klane and Rizzo find both their work and their readership in a community that is not easily localized.

Therefore, the medium in which they deal is books.

Klane and Flim Forum co-founder Adam Golaski (who does not live in the area) considered the anthology to be the medium that best served their objectives. “We knew we didn’t want to do a journal,” Klane says, “but thought that if we went ahead and published individual, single-author volumes, they wouldn’t get much of an audience or have much energy. We thought about anthologies as a way to make books that are like journals but had a little bit of corrective toward what annoyed us about journals.” The press’ first anthology, Oh One Arrow, featured emerging writers who didn’t yet have much name recognition, but included enough of their work in serial bundles that the anthology functioned much like a perfect-bound collection of chapbooks.

Working against preexisting models, Klane and Golaski followed rather a formal duty to the work they chose to publish. “I like to publish whole sequences, or large sections of sequences,” says Klane. “I wanted big pages. I don’t like headers, footers, or page numbers because they interfere with the visual integrity of the page, so I don’t have headers or footers. I’m into visual work—not work that uses images or drawings, but work that uses language in its visual sense.”

Since the publication of Oh One Arrow and Flim Forum’s second anthology, A Sing Economy, the press has moved in the direction of single-author volumes. The Alps by Brandon Shimoda is their first foray. “Brandon is a poet who perfectly fit our goals. He thinks in form, in sequence, over space. It’s visual as well as sonic. He’s a poet we saw as emerging but ready to have a stage on the national scene. And that’s really what we’re looking for: to publish authors who we really respect, who share our aesthetic, and who are not widely published in book form.”

While Rizzo’s aesthetic preferences do not necessarily coincide with those of Klane, they share the goal to disseminate emerging work. Rizzo speaks, though, of the “reversibility” of that poetic dynamic of import and export. “[Anchorite] is valuable,” he says, “because it takes outside work and brings it here, as much as it exports work from around here.”

Furthermore, it seems that aesthetic considerations are not the only ones that factor in when Anchorite decides to publish its two or three books each year. “It’s aesthetics, but also the politics that emerge out of the aesthetics, and those key into the economic considerations of a small press. For instance, I’m going to put out a chapbook by George Kalamaras. He’s an older poet, pretty well-known in smaller circles, with fantastic stuff. The aesthetic is not one I necessarily share with him, but I really appreciate what he’s attempting to do, and that keys into our small-press economy.”

When Rizzo speaks of Anchorite’s “outsider” leanings, the title is mostly in reference to this small-press economy. To clarify, he posits an admittedly “flattened-out” three-tier system in poetry publishing. On the top, you’ll find large-scale corporate publishers like Penguin or Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This is a level that can be sufficiently regarded as the mainstream. On the second tier are presses that don’t necessarily aspire to the scale of the top tier, but resemble the work in some way. This is where Rizzo places Flim Forum because it’s neat and professional, and conceivably could be shelved at a Barnes and Noble. However, because of Flim Forum’s experimental slant, it defies the economics of the first tier. The third tier is for super-small presses that feature handmade work with little or no distribution. This work is “outside” in the sense that it would have a very hard time fitting in the top tier.

Rizzo, however, acknowledges a certain fluidity to this model. A prime example would be a chapbook he published for poet and UAlbany professor Pierre Joris. Joris is the type of poet who could publish handily on the top tier, but a manuscript of 30 pages or so makes a better fit on the scale that Anchorite operates.

“If there’s a fourth tier,” Rizzo says, “I’d like to be there. One thing that Anchorite has going for it is that it’s super small and can accommodate a wide range of work. The process of making books suffers if you’re rushing through them, and I’m only one person.”

Alternative infrastructure does exist for the small press. Small Press Distribution is a nonprofit organization in Berkeley, Calif., that brings independently produced books to the marketplace. With SPD’s catalog and Web site, independent publishers can reach an international readership. However, the service can be something of a mixed blessing. While Klane uses the service, it cuts substantially into an already tenuous profit margin, such that he prefers that customers buy directly through his Web site. Rizzo has decided not to use SPD at all.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

In the way it has liberated most art forms from the material marketplace, the Internet has also become a useful tool for poetry presses. Electronic technology is limited, however, in the way it divorces language from the page and so corrupts the type of spatial integrity Klane so ardently tries to preserve. Rizzo has expressed interest in using Scribe technology, which allows you to upload a PDF, thus preserving that spatial integrity while taking advantage of electronic infrastructure, but even this seems to be a bit digressive from these press’ core objectives.

Whether it’s poetry built for the page or the stage, there is a core degree of engagement between poet and audience that underlies each one of these local press’ aesthetic missions. For Wilcox, Panza, and Francis, human interaction is easy because of an inherent local orientation. But raw, primitive word-of-mouth is an equally important aspect of what Klane and Rizzo do.

“If you’re working in poetic communities that appreciate this kind of work, you hear about these kinds of things when they come out,” Rizzo says. “I physically, literally, call people.”

Rebecca Wolff, Editor of Fence magazine and Fence Books, echoes this sentiment. Ten years after the press’ inception and two years after moving to Albany for an affiliation with the New York State Writers Institute, Wolff marvels that “the vast majority of what made it happen was just talking to people, nonstop.”

Because it was at a time when there was great energy in the New York poetry scene, Fence’s goal to find “a place for work that didn’t know what it was doing” turned into a “providential journey.” While the press’ presence in the local literary scene has dovetailed slowly, Wolff has “lately been thinking of [literary communities] with that cosmic sense to ‘think global, act local.’ I feel like it’s important to get out wherever you are . . . just getting together with people, being a part of whatever the scene is.”

In this sense, a local book fair like the one at UAG can be just as important and useful to a press of any size as the big annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, which Fence and Flim Forum will both attend.

“‘Poetry is for crap because there are no fast cars in it,’ ” Wolff reads from Bad Bad, a Fence book by Chelsey Minnis. It’s another frigid January night at the UAG, and this time around representatives of the participating local presses have gathered in the main room to read from their work. The line garners an “it’s funny because it’s true” sort of chuckle from the crowd, but the assertion is not meant to dismay. In the face of a culture that has grown more and more rapid, poetry is like the artistic facet of the “slow food” movement: meant to be enjoyed for its process as much its product. The two, however, cannot be entirely separated and, for this, the notion of a small book press is still vitally important.

The evening is a sort of who’s who of area poets between those at the mic and those in the crowd, and, needless to say, the variety of work runs the gamut. Before reading on behalf of Flim Forum, Buffalo poet Eric Gelsinger expresses his gratitude for the opportunity to read alongside Pierre Joris, who’s work inspired Gelsinger to enter the world of poetry “for better or for worse.”

Indeed, the Albany small-press poetry world is rife with ups and downs (as Albany poet R.M. Engelhardt recalls his own venture, Dead Man’s Press, itself now dead), but it seems that as long as there are people to read the printed word, there will be presses out there to print it. In Albany, this effort might not constitute a unified front, but it’s in this aesthetic and logistical disparity that new presses are birthed.

While he speaks on behalf of his press, Klane may just speak for everyone involved when he says, “Giving poets a forum is the only goal.”

jpotter@metroland.net


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