Q & A: Chapbook Publishers
Brian Teare on Albion Books
Brian Teare is the author of numerous books of poems, an Assistant Professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, and is the publisher, editor, and designer, of the micropress, Albion Books.
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What is your own personal history with chapbooks? How did they first catch your interest?
Brian Teare: To talk about my interest in chapbooks, I have to talk about my love of printing done on the letterpress, because I have always associated the two. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, there was a lot of fine letterpress work being done, though I didn't know until later it was because the library housed a rigorous and well-respected book arts program. Fabulous printers like Shari Degraw of Empyrean Press were in training there at the time, and there were some collaborations with faculty in the MFA program that resulted in beautifully produced broadsides and chapbooks. On the one hand, I was very intimidated by these objects because of their beauty and their relative expense; in my total ignorance of the craft, I perceived them as fragile and as not being made for twenty-something freaks like myself. On the other hand, I had a very physical reaction to their "aura," for lack of a better word, though who knows what I thought at the time? Probably they just looked "fancy" to me, though now I know I was attracted to the ways in which careful, total consideration of design and the traces of the printer's and binder's hands affix a visual signature to the made object. They looked like nothing else I had encountered in the world of printed matter, and if I was too intimidated to get involved with printing and binding at that time, I was seriously smitten.
About a decade later in the Bay Area, my first chapbook, Pilgrim, was handset, printed and handbound by Jason Davis of palOmine press, which was housed in the warehouse of bookseller Jeff Maser, for whom I then sometimes worked. In 2003, Jason and Jeff had commissioned from me the poems that would in 2004 become the first chapbook of their imprint, a gift by which I was at first overwhelmed. I was not yet a reader of chapbooks and was still fairly ignorant of the craft of letterpress printing. I must have thought chapbooks were all incredibly short; I know I persisted in my perception of letterpress work as somehow fragile, even after a tour of Jason's print shop, with its neat type cabinets and hulking Vandercook. Still intimidated, I wrote eight very small prose poems that would take up very little space and need very little type. The chapbook is physically very beautiful: dark brown covers with a label pasted on, tan text paper flecked with threads of darker brown. Jason's typesetting is impeccable. It was a gift of such beauty and care I could hardly believe it. Looking back on it now, their gift has grown in magnitude. It certainly turned me on to the chapbook as a physical and compositional form. But more importantly, having my work cared for and presented in that way brought me closer to becoming a practitioner of letterpress printing and handbinding.
What made you first decide to start publishing chapbooks?
Brian Teare: Albion Books sort of meandered into existence in 2008. Since 2004 I had been teaching at the New College of California; its financial and administrative infrastructure began to collapse in 2007, and I quit in January of 2008 because the College hadn't paid its faculty since early October. During this financial and professional disaster, I'd begun adjuncting at several other schools in the Bay Area, and once I quit NC I temporarily had a little extra time on my hands. My partner at the time suggested I learn to do something new that I'd always wanted to do: bookbinding and letterpress printing. That winter and spring I took a lot of classes in both binding and printing at the San Francisco Center for the Book, and I began to volunteer at the Center as a binder and printer's devil; by midsummer I felt ready to try my hand at hand setting and printing a broadside and putting together a chapbook with letterpressed covers. When I started, I didn't have any goals as a publisher because I didn't even think of myself as a publisher; I was simply seeing if I had the skills to put together a small edition on my own.
That first chapbook was a gift for a friend, the poet Jane Mead. I wanted to celebrate her friendship and thank her for her support of my work—and also to properly mark the publication of her third book, The Usable Field. That first chapbook was also the pedagogical product not only of many classes at the Center for the Book, but also of several years of apprenticeship as a member of an editorial and publishing collective called Woodland Editions. Spearheaded by Jaime Robles, the collective put out anywhere from two to four chapbooks for the three or so years I was a member; each chapbook was made in an edition of one hundred, and we did any labeling and all of the collating, folding and sewing by hand. From Jaime I learned the kind of planning involved in making an edition and also the rudiments of desktop publishing; she taught me how to use Quark and also gave me a lot of digital typefaces. From our sessions making books as a collective, I learned how much labor even a small edition takes, but I also learned how to prepare and organize the necessary materials and put together an assembly line of sorts, to make a lot of books in a short period of time. In essence it was years of collective effort, pedagogy and the gift economy of literary community that brought me to publishing, but it was the desire to keep that economy circulating that made me a publisher. In the summer of 2008, Albion Books was born: I published Where in the Story the Horse Mazy Dies in an edition of 30 or so, each chapbook accompanied by a handset, letterpressed broadside.
Could you talk a little bit about your own process of making and publishing chapbooks?
Brian Teare: When I lived in San Francisco and had access to the studios at the Center for the Book, it was much easier to make work, to make it exactly the way I wanted, and to make it relatively quickly. Because I was committed to minimizing the amount of new paper that went into each of my chapbooks and broadsides, I largely used off-cuts and found paper to make my editions; it was easy to get such free or cheap materials through the Center and the printers and presses associated with it. And because I also had access to a fabulous type collection, a large Chandler and Price floor model platen press, and a big guillotine, I was able to improvise in terms of design, and figure things out in the shop without having to worry about time—if I needed to re-cut some paper, I could do it in a matter of minutes. And because the C&P's platen was quite large and I had drying racks available, I was able to set whole covers or broadsides and print two or three colors in a matter of hours.
In Philadelphia, lacking a Center for the Book, I work with scarcity as a major constraint. I have no reliable source of off-cuts; I have two typefaces, one of which is missing the capital "P"; I print on a 6 x 10 Kelsey tabletop press, which sometimes necessitates up to six separate impressions for one cover; I have no drying racks, so I have to be very careful when printing images with a lot of ink coverage; and I have no way to accurately or cleanly cut large amounts of paper. I design, plan, and produce a book with all of these constraints in mind, which also necessitates that I spend money on paper (and getting it cut) and put in a lot more time in the print shop, which exerts major pressure on the sustainability of the press as a long-term practice. I can't pretend not to be bummed about this, since running a press of any size is an endeavor that threatens to consume far more energy and resources than it can by its very nature return—publishing is in the end always more about the dispersal of energies rather than their consolidation.
All of which is to say I'd wager that each of the six chapbooks I've designed and printed in Philly has largely demanded I improvise more practical solutions than creative ones. But in important ways, having to focus on practicality has also necessitated creative solutions to the resulting aesthetic problems and has pushed me to try things—like printing on the furniture and using linoleum blocks to create "images"—that having a full shop of type and ornaments didn't necessitate. Scarcity has also encouraged me, albeit in different ways, to continue experimenting with design and with binding, which has resulted in books like Rachel Moritz's and Juliet Patterson's double volume Elementary Rituals/Dirge. And these kinds of challenges have kept the press rewarding despite the increased difficulty of maintaining it as a creative practice.
What is unique about the chapbook form, or why chapbooks and not book-books?
Brian Teare: I think of small press publishing and the chapbook as somewhat analogous to each other. Small press publishing functions kind of like the grasses and weeds that keep a hill's surface from eroding—not only because their roots serve as the structure that holds a broader ecological community together and keeps it from being centralized around one or two larger systems, but also because small press publishing is so often overlooked and under-supported. Everyone mourns a tree cut down, but in our literary imaginations, small press publishers—like weeds and grasses—seem to be expendable, less valuable. This is perhaps our greatest weakness, but I'd argue it's also our greatest opportunity for strength. Given the impact and dependence the publishing industry has on the environment and given also the depth and persistence of the economic downturn, I think it's important for a press to be able to flourish in conditions of scarcity, to demand as little capital and support from the earth as possible. And though I understand the very important work that tree-like institutions can do in a literary landscape, my idea of publishing embraces more the qualities of weeds and grasses: flexible, adaptable, minimal, ephemeral, as easily uprooted as rooted.
I think of chapbooks as likewise flexible, adaptable, minimal, and ephemeral, and I like the ethics inside of the aesthetics of this particular made form. Because they are still seen by many as "lesser" or "minor" forms of literary publishing, they usually travel through more informal, more improvised distribution channels than books, and they are more likely to persist on the outskirts of literary institutions and to engage in alternative economies like barter and gifting. This being on the margins in turn attracts certain kinds of publishing personalities and certain kinds of writers who want to take advantage of a marginality they already feel less as stigma than as a given working condition of their lives, perhaps both politically and materially as well as aesthetically. In my experience, this verdict of being of minor importance and marginal encourages chapbook publishers to take risks in terms of construction and materials, and it also encourages them to use their presses both as a means of community formation and as a way to support work that might otherwise not find a publishing platform. These opportunities in turn attract writers who appreciate the community created by small press publishers, and whose work requires the aesthetic freedoms offered by many small press publishers. Much of the most exciting contemporary poetry seems to come to us first through chapbooks and the culture that has grown up around them, and I remain grateful for the endless labor all these editors and publishers and printers and binders do in service to our communities.
Do you have recent favorite chapbook from another press?
Brian Teare: So many folks make work that astonishes me! I learn from their innovations and take heart from their dedication; and I love the texts so winningly held by their hard work. So to single out any one press or chapbook seems crazy when there's so much to love. I love Crane Giamo's Delete Press edition of Brenda Iijima's Going Blooming Falling Blooming; I love Erin Morrill's Trafficker Press editions of Ted Rees's Outlaws Drift in Every Vehicle of Thought and Corinna Copp's Miracle Mare; I love the edition the folks of Furniture Press have made of Jesse Nissim's Day Cracks between the Bones of the Foot; I love Dawn Pendergast's Little Red Leaves textile edition of Emily Abendroth's NOTWITHSTANDING shoring, FLUMMOX; I love Michael Cross' Compline edition of Leslie Scalapino's and Kiki Smith's collaboration The Animal Is in the World Like Water in Water; I love the edition the folks of Spork have made of John Beer's Lucinda; I love the editions New Directions has made of Sylvia Legris's Pneumatic Antiphonal and Forrest Gander's Eiko and Komo; and there's lots more I hate to leave out (including the presses that have issued chapbooks of my own), but that's the problem with lists.
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