Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Part Two: Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Part Two

(Part One can be found here).

There has been some debate around the expectation that small presses should abide by rules and guidelines versus small-press publishing being fueled by a gift economy and donations. What kinds of transparency does a publisher owe to their readers and authors in terms of submission guidelines and publishing expectations? 

SMS: I think we're caught between two models right now.  The old model was self-publishing and micro-press publishing.  That's where Tinfish started, publishing chaps of 100 copies and a very short run journal that was xeroxed.  But we rather quickly became a “real publisher,” meaning that our books cost more to produce and came out in larger runs.  The production values went way up.  So there was more need for resources.  It's very easy to get big fast, because there are so many worthy manuscripts floating around out there.  And I have no objection to presses that publish a lot—Salt and BlazeVox come to mind.  That doesn't mean they aren't publishing good books or that they don't care about what happens to their product.  They are working with possibility, which is a finer thing than prose . . . While I would never publish as many books as they do, I applaud them for their efforts.  And, if a publisher tries to live off of his or her work, why not?  It may seem “suicidal,” as someone wrote on an fb page, but so much more gratifying than many other jobs with steady incomes.

If a press asks for money from its authors, something I have no problem with, I do think they should be up front about it.  Otherwise, I don't think authors need to know the details, except perhaps to realize that the work of publishing involves a lot of resources by someone(s) else—editing, designing, printing, distributing, marketing, and so on.  Some of the nastiness of the recent discussions revolved around a fundamental misunderstanding of the work and resources involved.  My students sometimes tell me that they are going to make money with their poems.  One class accused me of not taking them seriously when I laughed at this notion.  We need to disabuse others of the notion that seriousness = money-making, while letting them know that it takes money to put out a product.  Our most recent Tinfish book cost us over $2,000 to print (600 copies) and I bought advertising cards and sent out review copies.  The book could have been less gorgeous, but we made our choices—it could also have been more gorgeous and a lot more expensive to make.

It's also a good idea, as Craig Santos Perez and others argue, for authors to work harder to promote their own work, and work that they think is important.  The problem there is that the fine line between disseminating important information and sounding like someone selling refrigerators (though my local Sears salesman was a former student!), is easily crossed.  Keep the emphasis on the work, is my advice.  Then make sure people know about it.

CM: Thank you for breaking that down.

MW:   The question of the transparency that publishers owe to readers and authors is an important one, and I like Susan’s answer. But is there any reason that the focus of transparency, even in this conversation, should be on publishers alone? Should there be transparency (and is there any?) in Creative Writing MFA programs? What about in education institutions more broadly? Or in the work of political organizations and corporations? The fact is, in all those larger social institutions, there’s little and sometimes no transparency. That lack of transparency serves the interests of those with most access to money and most power.

In the case that led to this discussion, a lot of the expressed frustration with small press publishers, and the expressed frustration about that frustration, comes from a context of massive lack of transparency and honesty in multiple institutions, and not just in relationship to literature. And while many small press publishers, Tinfish and Bloof and others, have been lately explaining and confessing the details of their practices, corporations fuel their power over public life by deploying much larger resources under legal cover and never have to mention it.

CM: Mark, you offer good points in helping us to get out of a myopic framework. At the same time, we don’t interact with small-press publishers on the same terms of MFA programs or corporations. I believe this merits a distinct (and useful) thread. The question I asked around transparency was specifically between a writer who might become a press author and the press. This is a different dimension than those in the relationships you bring up, e.g., I may get my MFA certificate based on the criteria spelled out in the application process, but the meaning of the MFA may not match the implied promise of the degree.

That said, I think one of the best parts of operating in the small-press publishing world is that a sketchy or shady corporate framework is not the standard. There are several people working hard to demand that corporations be more transparent, and I don’t think there’s anyone arguing that there should be low-transparency on any corporate or institutional agreements, so I don’t think it’s true that we’re asking more of publishers more than we are of more powerful institutions, even though the fact that we are often more successful in having reciprocal conversations with publishers makes it seem as though they are subject to more critical scrutiny.

MW: I appreciate you trying to focus the discussion more specifically. Your points have also helped locate for me one of the things I find myself concerned about in this conversation. We’ve put the focus on what writers might ask of and need from publishers, but I’m not sure we can ask that question fairly without also asking what publishers might ask of or need from writers. I think part of the reason that there was recent controversy was an assumption by too many writers that publishers are more or less just a writer service industry, doing the janitorial work of creating a nice clean place for writers to put themselves center stage. I’m not saying anybody thinks this consciously, but that’s often in effect what happens. It’s too easy for writers to think of small press publishers just as people serving to advance a writer’s career, instead of as people who are often writers themselves and who are also working collaboratively to put forward the interests of an interconnected group of people.

SMS: So the new model is “real publishing.”  And there's a need for it, because MFA grads and others need jobs.  To get a job teaching you need to have published.  And you need “real” books, not chaps, journal publications.  No quarrel there.  The quarrel comes in when the relationship between author and publisher becomes one of producer and—how to put this?--hired but unpaid help.  This model is much less personal, much more capitalistic, and much less equitable.  Another danger with this second model is that it makes publishing less a visionary enterprise than a business.  (Not that businesses can't be visionary, but I would rather use another metaphor for small press publishing, something that describes an enterprise between business and gift economy.)  Tinfish Press has been lucky that our vision has—in some instances, if not in many others—proved marketable, especially for classroom use.  “Experimental poetry from the Pacific” has been rare, until recently.  We helped create a market for it, and the texts with which to teach it.  Several of our books have sold in the thousands.  They help to pay for those that sell in the hundreds, or in the tens.

The discussion reminds me, in odd and mostly unparallel ways, of conversations in the adoption world.  We're talking about a practice (adoption, small press publishing) that has a value (spiritual, familial, aesthetic) apart from the monetary, but which inevitably enters the marketplace.  Then the question becomes, to what extent does our pure ethics inevitably get muddied by realities?  And how can we act ethically, even after acknowledging our lack of purity?

CM: Susan, you ask a complex question and I appreciate the depth of it. To begin, I believe we can act ethically by making a conscious effort to communicate constructively and with respect for each other. If you think someone is naive, maybe try to remember when you were naive and be a friend, be a neighbor -- if not to an individual, at least to the art. 

If your goal is truly to have another poet shut up and sit down, I want to ask about the violence of that reaction. 

Mark, I am glad you bring up that publishers might ask things of authors; it may be the question at the crux of this upset. I, personally, believe completely in cooperation. But, I continue to feel that disclosing the terms of cooperation after a manuscript has been accepted is not a good model, and I don't believe that mode is likely to yield positive relationships. Maybe I am proposing an undue burden on the publisher to have figured out what is needed from authors -- I do appreciate that a lot of publishing labor is already invisible and thankless -- but there is right now an opportunity for presses to consider publishing terms, and if they are stated up front then we might avoid vitriolic controversy.

(End of Part Two)

Third and final part coming next week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation (Part One)


Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Part One

Following a recent controversy in the small-press publishing community, I reached out to Mark Wallace and asked if we might have a broad discussion on the issues and hand towards potentially avoiding an ugly repeat. I knew Mark and I did not totally agree, which is why I reached out to him. We also looped in Susan M. Schultz, editor and publisher of Tinfish since 1995. -- Carol Mirakove

Susan M. Schultz: Thanks for asking me to speak to the issue.  I blogged about the particular controversy when it first hit the airwaves, here: I read blog and facebook posts by Johannes Gorensson, Craig Santos Perez, Amy King, Reb Livingston, Matvei Yankelevich, Shanna Compton, and probably others, as well as many of the threads written about the controversy.  But of course there's much more to it than whether or not one press asks its authors for contributions toward the publication of their books.

CM: Absolutely, but a point of clarification was not whether or not a press asks authors for contributions but how and when.

How do we distinguish critical discussion from destructive attacks? Name-calling seems to always reflect far more poorly on the insulter than the target. Why does this happen in our community? How can we criticize practices constructively, without personal wars being waged?

SMS: I've worked in an English department for over 20 years now, and if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be a lot happier there.  We could create a forum to discuss these issues and put out a list of rules and regulations, beginning from “no name calling” and continuing with “keep it civil,” but I don't know that that works either.  Such discussions happen rather organically (good to remember that many poisons are also organic).  Part of the problem is that, name-calling aside, we all take our own and others' practices very personally, indeed. 

CM: You make excellent points -- we certainly don't want to regulate speech. But, it seems to me that we take some others' practices very seriously, notably others we know, and other others' practices and positions are met with hostility.

SMS: Even apart from overtly personal attacks, every conversation about contests, prizes, subscriptions, funding drives, how many books we publish in a year, and so on, is implicitly personal.  One of the uncomfortable values of this discussion is getting out in the open just how vested we are in some practices, and how hostile we are to others.  I'd rather see us moralize less and encourage each other more.  Or make the rhetorical point that we do not like certain practices, but do not condemn others for using them.  Tinfish does not have contests, for example, because I find them an odd mix of revenue enhancement and the promise of cultural capital, but I know full well why many presses run them.  Cash flow. 

Mark Wallace: Distinguishing critical discussion from destructive attacks seems easy enough. The focus should remain on the ideas in question, not the personalities or behavior of the people expressing the ideas. It’s a matter of tone too. Hostility or dismissiveness, even when focused on an idea, quickly moves into the personal, since the more one’s tone highlights emotion, the more people become emotional in response to it.

Still, to say that it’s easy enough, in general, to distinguish between the two, doesn’t change the fact that in practice, there are many murky situations in which the boundaries get blurry, especially since, as Susan says, people take their ideas seriously. We can’t help but have an emotional relation to them.

The Enlightenment, of course, invented most of our contemporary ideas about the value of dispassionate, rational discussion. But the very belief in it brought in whole new waves of irrationality, not just in all the ways that people continued not to behave rationally, but also in the ways that many notions of Enlightenment rationality were nothing more than new ways of being irrational.

I’ve always appreciated what Dostoevsky said relative to the Enlightenment (if you’ll excuse but also note the way it’s gendered): “Men are so necessarily mad that imagining them sane must be another form of madness.”

I’m not sure much can be done to change the nature of public discussion. People come from so many backgrounds and ways of understanding words that standards for discussion vary from context to context. Professional and intellectual and literary discourses do have defined social standards, no matter how fuzzily followed, but it shouldn’t be surprising that not everyone has absorbed or respects them.

Public language has always involved murderous hostility. Right now, we’re in a moment when the unfounded hostile accusation has tremendous power in U.S. politics and culture, as just one for instance (I don’t say “more power than ever” because I don’t think that’s true). Hostile lies and accusations, if there’s enough power behind them, can force individuals and groups to spend most of their time defending themselves regarding things they didn’t even do, and explaining and even confessing the things they actually do. In fact, this current discussion of publisher’s financial practices is happening mainly because of the power of such accusations.

I don’t believe, by the way, that there’s any such thing as “our community” of writers. Sure, those of us who have been writers for a long time are likely to have some (many, in my case) trusted, respected, and  loved comrades, but even the small world of experimental/alternative etc etc etc poetry and poetics features a constantly changing list of active participants. Look at the names of who is publishing in any literary magazine that you like now as compared to 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, and you’ll see how fast the participants change. None of us know more than a portion of those people, and it’s an open question about how well we get along even with those we do know. Certainly our feelings of community towards and with others are real, but I don’t think that there’s any stable entity there that belongs to any of us. Community is established through ongoing interaction and is always fragile. It can’t be relied on too much.

That said, I do think individuals and groups can and do influence the nature of public conversation in limited contexts. I’ve long been interested in fostering friendly but open intellectual discussion among the people around me, and I think I do it well, and I’m hardly the only one who does it. Still, hostile or irrelevant commentary can’t be avoided entirely even in the best conditions.

CM: Mark, you foster open discussion exceptionally well, which is one of the reasons I approached you about having a discussion amidst a very heated debate.

You reveal that the two of us have defined community differently, and while multiple definitions are “correct,” you explain that community is established through ongoing interaction where I imply earlier that it is defined by a common interest, in this case an interest in small-press poetry.

However community is defined, my concern with the hostility of late is this: the way we treat individuals in our microcosms, especially in the microcosms we choose (e.g., small-press poetry), informs the way we act in the world at large. If we aspire to a global respect and peace then we have a golden opportunity to hone those practices amongst our friends, and friends of friends, and strangers who share interests in things about which we are most ardent.

SMS (interrupting): I'd suggest that we stop trying to define what community is, and simply act as if we are members of a community.  Enact community rather than sit back and try to figure out who's in and who's out.

MW: With apologies for being contrary and insistent, Susan, I don’t quite agree with that approach. I think we often need to act as if the people we’re dealing with in the world of poetry are strangers—which, much of the time, they are, at least to some degree. I think we need more awareness of the fact that other people, even if they’re poets, don’t share our values or assumptions. Precisely one of the reasons that this issue became controversial recently was that a lot of people discovered that they didn’t understand each other, which came to them as a surprise because they had assumed a lot of mutual agreement. Many people involved assumed that they knew what a poetry press was… except, as it turned out, they didn’t share the same assumptions at all.

Our responses to people in the world of poetry would probably change if we went in with the recognition that community can’t be taken for granted or assumed. Like any relationship, it has to be worked out. Speaking just for myself maybe, even with my close friends I’ve often become most frustrated when I assume, in advance and unintentionally, that because they’re my friends, we agree about things and understand each other. As it turns out, we often don’t.

I would have no problem with calling such interactions instances of community, I suppose, if we described “community” as a group of individuals interacting because of a shared interest even when they might not have much otherwise in common.

(End of Part One)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

San Diego’s Social Geography in Innovative Literary Aesthetics

If you're in or near the San Diego Area, I hope you'll head out and join us at the &Now Literary Festival on the UC San Diego campus, from Thursday October 13 to Saturday October 15.

Here's the panel I will be part of, along with a great group of other writers, and I'd love to see you there.

San Diego’s Social Geography in Innovative Literary Aesthetics

featuring talks, readings, or performances by:

K. Lorraine Graham, Bruna Mori, Jeanine Webb, Mark Wallace
Thursday, Oct 13
11:30 a.m. to 12: 50 p.m. 

&Now Literary Festival
on the University of California San Diego campus
DeCerteau Room
Literature Bldg.


Original full text of the panel proposal:

"The Aleph?' I repeated.

"Yes, the only place on earth where all places are-seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending" (10-11)

…"Then I saw the Aleph…. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass?" (12-13)

-Jorge Luis Borges, "The Aleph"

This panel will highlight innovative literary approaches that engage with the social geographies of San Diego. Los Angeles is often the social, critical and artistic space in which writers explore literary geographies. In "Taking Los Angeles Apart: Towards a Postmodern Geography," Edward W. Soja asks, "What is this place? Even knowing where to focus, to find a starting point, is not easy, for, perhaps more than any other place, Los Angeles is everywhere" (222). While Los Angeles might be everywhere, San Diego often seems like the nowhere which desires but has never developed the cultural projection and ideological reach of Los Angeles. Yet because of this, the social geography of San Diego is a fruitful space in which to explore how American spacial and temporal fantasies about play out.

We take the phrase "social geography" to include issues of natural landscape, human created landscapes (rural, suburban, and urban, and all other ways in which humans shape the environment), and the political, cultural, and psychological goals and effects of human interaction with the physical world. By positioning textual worlds as spaces which exist in creative tension with the material spaces in which readers and writers live and move, engagement with social geography can extend conventional understandings of literary art's social consequence.

Borges noted that language and description tend to be linear and sequential. However, attention to social geography allows us to envisage and describe the simultaneity inherent in all landscapes. This discontinuity both separates and links time (history) and space (geography). In Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory, Soja notes, "Prophesy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us" (22). The spaces of San Diego are particularly adept at hiding consequences.

While the methods of describing landscape and environment in conventional poetry and fiction are well known, how do writers working with more innovative literary structures approach the problem of describing, or otherwise engaging with, social geography-especially in the spaces of San Diego which are so adept at hiding consequences?

Lyn Hejinian's phrase, "We are parting from description," articulates how some innovative literary approaches of the past twenty years have been resistant to the idea of referential social realism in description.  Yet many innovative writers in recent years have been considering non-conventional ways of engaging with specific social geographies. Bhanu Khapil's Humananimal and Allison Cobb's Green-Wood, for example, consider how ideology is embedded into social-geographical forms that are commonly understood to be "natural" or transparently factual.  As opposed to more conventional notions of writerly description as removed, unbiased, objective, and totalizing, these more experimental approaches engage with social geography in ways that are fragmentary, partial, ruptured, oblique, subjective, or layered, while recognizing that any form of description intervenes in and shapes the environment it engages rather than standing impartially outside it.

The fact that UCSD is hosting the 2011 And Now Festival makes the 2011 festival a perfect occasion for highlighting recent work that has engaged specifically with the social geography of the San Diego region and Southern California more broadly. San Diego has never been a significant center of literary activity in the U.S., and even to the present day, investigations of the San Diego region in literature remain relatively rare. At the same time, the social geography of San Diego is a complex, troubled one. Urban and suburban expansion, border culture and politics interact with fragile local ecosystems in a way that leads to a variety of unique social and ecological problems, but problems that are also indicative of larger global changes.

In keeping with its focus on the innovative, the panel is open-ended in terms of genre. Participants may give readings of their poetry or fiction, or present a brief paper, or work in a genre that mixes "creative" and "critical" elements.

Details about the participants:

K. Lorraine Graham is the author of Terminal Humming, (Edge Books), and her visual work has appeared in the Zaoem International Poetry Exhibition at the Minardschouwburg, Gent, Belgium, and the Infusoria visual poetry exhibition in Brussels. She has a BA in East Asian Studies and Chinese from George Washington University, an MA in English from Georgetown, and is currently a second-year student in the writing MFA program at UCSD. Her artistic and research interests include performance and embodiment, hybrid genres, poetry as pedagogy, and multilingual texts. She is at work on an obsessively-cited, partially-collaged text called White Girl, and Ostrich Play, a performance text in two forms.

Bruna Mori is a writer and educator, preoccupied with peripatetics and process-obsessed. Her books include Dérive (Meritage Press), with paintings by Mathew Kinney, and Poetry for Corporations (forthcoming from Insert Press), as well as the chapbooks Tergiversation (Ahadada Books) and The Approximations (Second Avenue Poetry). She relocated to San Diego over a year ago, where she has taught in the writing programs at the University of California at San Diego, Woodbury University's School of Architecture, and New School of Architecture + Design. She also writes for design + research firms and on behalf of cities, and is Lucien's mom.

Jeanine Webb's work has appeared in many journals, including the West Wind ReviewZYZZYVA, The Antioch Review, the San Diego Writers' 2010 anthology A Year in Ink, and is forthcoming in Lana Turner. She is one author, with Brian Ang, Joseph Atkins and Tiffany Denman, of the poetry pamphlet Poetry is not Enough. She earned her M.A. in Creative Writing at UC Davis, where she taught a workshop in Making Poems. She is currently working to assemble a collaborative Durutti Free Skool for radical poetics in San Diego for spring 2011.

Mark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a novel, The Quarry and The Lot (2011), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). He teaches at California State University San Marcos.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

&Now Literary Festival 2011: Tomorrowland Forever, at UC San Diego Oct 13-15

The complete program for the &Now Literary Festival in San Diego is now available here. An event like this doesn't happen often in San Diego, and is not to be missed.

Area college students should bring their I.D. and can attend the conference free of charge.

&Now Festival of New Writing: Tomorrowland Forever!

OCT. 13 – 15, 2011 @ UCSD

&NOW is a festival of fiction, poetry, and staged play readings; literary rituals, performance pieces (digital, sound, and otherwise), electronic and multimedia projects; and intergenre literary work of all kinds, including criti-fictional presentations and creatively critical papers.