In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives. This month we focus on poets’ innovative publishing projects.
Interview with Teresa Carmody, from CCP Episode # 196: Place. June 14, 2009. Transcribed by Kelly Bergeron.
Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest on the phone, from Los Angeles, is Teresa Carmody. She’s a writer and the publisher and editor of Les Figues Press, based in Los Angeles, publishing very interesting work, largely in prose, largely experimental or innovative prose, I would say. But what is really interesting to find out is what Teresa Carmody would say. Welcome Teresa Carmody.
Teresa Carmody: Thank you.
LS: Great to have you on the phone, on the line from L.A. Can you say a little bit about the publishing vision for Les Figues Press?
TC: Absolutely. We started Les Figues about four years ago. When I say we, I mean my girlfriend at the time, now wife, Vanessa Place, along with another poet who lives in Olympia, Pam Ore. And we started it, in part, because we were interested in having public conversations about aesthetics and poetics and really challenging writers—including ourselves, because we were all writers—to try to say what it was we were trying to do in our own writing. To sort of tackle some of the big questions and to not leave those questions necessarily to critics or academics, solely. We wanted to publish work that was highly innovative, work that is mostly written by women, though that’s not an editorial stance or part of our mission. So basically we came up with the idea of publishing a series of work that we call TrenchArt, and that’s our primary publishing project. If you would like, I can talk a little bit about the structure of that series.
LS: Yes. I’ve noticed that on the books. The phrase or the word TrenchArt, but then after the colon, TrenchArt, there is the Material Series, the Parapet Series, the Casements Series, the Material Series, and the Tracer series. So could you say a little bit about that structure?
TC: Yeah. So the idea is that each series includes four individually authored books that we, as publishers, think are in some kind of conversation with each other. In other words, each of the writers and/or visual artists—because these genre distinctions are very loose in our minds—but all are engaging with similar themes or similar aesthetic issues… there is some kind of conversation happening between the texts. Which is really, in some ways, the larger project of literature. When you write, you are writing both to the tradition that you are coming from, and you are writing to future readers. We wanted to compress that project of literature into a year-long series. So each series, as I said, has four individually authored books. We generally think of it as two works of poetry and two works of prose. But again, the line between poetry and prose is very fluid. And then each series also has a book of aesthetic essays. Each of the writers participating in that particular annual series write an aesthetic essay or poetics in which they talk about what they are trying to do in their work. We publish that as the initial book to the series; it opens up the whole conversation. The aesthetic book is usually in a very limited edition. They usually have some kind of unique binding—we’ve used bolts, we’ve used a spiral bind, we’ve, of course, sewn things. So overall each annual series, like the TrenchArt Material Series, for example, has five books. A collection of aesthetics plus each of the individually authored books. As another level of discourse in that structure, each of the individually authored books includes an introduction written by somebody else. So let’s say that you were approaching this highly innovative work of literature, such as Vanessa Place’s one-sentence novel, Dies: A Sentence. You could read her aesthetic essay that was published in TrenchArt: Material and that would help you access that work. You could also read the introduction that Susan McCabe wrote that’s published in the book, and that would help you to access the work. And then of course there is the work. So there are multiple layers of discourse happening around any one particular piece of literature.
LS: It’s interesting to think of that level of conversation between books that occurs amid any single series. Of course, I did mischaracterize the work that Les Figues is doing. I had a particular work in mind when I spoke of experimental fiction at the onset. But you are publishing poetry and lineated work, as well. And of course, as you say, the line in exciting writing is always fluid between what might be prose, what might be poetry, or what might be on the far side of either. So thank you for that clarification and particularity in terms of describing the project of Les Figues Press. You know, the phrase TrenchArt gets glossed in the back of the books this way:
The best known trench art dates from World War I, when silversmiths scavenged bullets and wrought them into grand cruciform, as regular smiths hammered out bible covers from scrap iron.
Could you say a little bit about your innovation of TrenchArt from World War I, as the guiding sign for the project as a whole?
TC: Absolutely. When we started the press, we had been having these conversations for a couple of years, but when we actually decided it was time to do it was right after George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. Reelected, that’s in quotes, I guess we could say. So we had this idea also that in a time when it seemed like people wanted simple explanations, a black and white world, our response as writers should be to create something out of the detritus of war, so to speak. Something that was complicated, something that was really intellectual, something that would require a reader, or require an attendee if we are talking about an event, to participate, to engage, to think. And so, we decided to call this work TrenchArt, which, as you read from the back of the book, was a wartime phenomena. If you were to Google it, you could see all of these great examples where these soldiers would take this scrap iron and scrap metal and make various kinds of art out of it. In some ways, that’s what we wanted to do in literature.
LS: So three questions that occurred to me Teresa. One would be, as you pointed out, you publish all kinds of people, but largely the work of women. I have a book by Stan Apps, who I think is male, but many of your other authors: Jennifer Calkins, Kim Rosenfield, Christine Wertheim, Nuala Archer, Pam Ore, and of course Vanessa Place, who I hope to speak to shortly, are women. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that. I guess it’s not anything as simple as an identity poetics, but there is nonetheless an aesthetic and politics that I think is involved in that aspect of your publishing. And then secondly, if you could say a little bit about the look and the shape of the books, because they are very particular, very long, very impressive kinds of books. And I just wondered if you could talk about the particular politics of your trajectory as publisher and then the look.
TC: Yeah. Well we’re women who started the press, and we had many conversations and we still do have conversations about how… essentially what we wanted to do was publish work that we really liked and thought was excellent and that we thought would have a difficult time finding a publisher elsewhere. That sort of leans into the fact that we’ve published more women, in the regard that it can be more difficult for women who are doing highly innovative work to find a home for that work. Now we also felt very strongly that we did not want to confine ourselves to only publishing women because we wanted to be able to publish whatever work we thought was excellent, but also part of the reality of gender politics is that we’ve seen over and again… well it might be easier to explain in terms of certain kinds of funding, or encapsulating your project into something that’s easily digestible, to say, “we publish exclusively experimental work by women,” right? That’s an easy thing to understand. It’s also easier for men to dismiss that. We want to engage with men. Our next series, that we are just launching right now that we are calling the Maneuvers Series, is actually our most man-heavy series—it has three men and only one woman.
LS: Ahhh… The men go into maneuvers. I see…
TC: But also the name fits quite well because each of the writers in that series is doing something with time and form. So they are literally maneuvering the form or the time, as a kind of constraint in the work. So for example, the poet, Paul Hoover, we’re publishing his collection entitled Sonnet 56, which is 56 formal variations of Shakespeare’s sonnet 56.
LS: Fantastic. Yeah. He’s a wonderful poet, Paul Hoover.
TC: Yes he is, and a wonderful person. You know, in terms of talking about publishing more women…
LS: No, it’s an interesting grounds for… because routinely there are publishers who publish more men than women and it’s not even a question, it’s just what they do as it were. So I didn’t mean the question that way. I was just wondering if there were… like Kelsey Street Press, in San Francisco, only publishes women. They say that outright and that’s part of the project of their work.
TC: Right. Or Belladonna*.
LS: Or Belladonna*, for example, in New York which is built along a certain kind of feminist line that makes the argument for such a necessity of a publisher. So it’s interesting to think about the fluidity and certain direction that you are exploring, but without it being, well, as black and white as that.
TC: Right and we actually see that in some ways as mirroring the type of work we are publishing, that we don’t want to have these hard lines. We don’t want to have a hard line between poetry and prose. Just like we don’t want to have a hard line between the emotion and the intellect.
TC: And in many ways there is a fluidity in gender, as well. So that’s part of it. The other question was about the look and feel of the book. Yeah. We wanted, if you haven’t guessed by now, we thought everything through, which doesn’t mean we always knew what would happen. But there is always a reason for everything that we do and it’s the same with how we decided to design the TrenchArt series, specifically. We wanted something that you could theoretically put in your pocket. So we decided to make the books skinnier than an average-sized book, so the width is only four and a quarter. However, they are long, so they are nine and a quarter in height. So even if you could put them in your pocket, they don’t quite fit in the pocket. That was one piece of it. We were actually in Paris at the time and we were looking at all of these beautiful pamphlets and books in kiosks that were just on the street. We were also looking at, I don’t know if you are familiar with the French publisher, Gallimard?
TC: So our front covers are a complete rip-off of Gallimard, the tooth line design.
LS: I see, now that you point that out.
TC: Yes. Which we thought of as this very classic, sort of traditional, but classy look. And then we decided that the back of the books, instead of having blurbs or marketing material, that we would reserve that space for visual art. We would ask either one or up to four visual artists to make work for any one particular TrenchArt series, that they would make work specifically in response to the text. So each of the back covers has an original piece of work that has been selected or created specifically for the text. We’ve also given the visual artist room to decide how they want to develop a project across the 5 books, if they are doing it for all five books. Or they cannot do that. For the first series, TrenchArt: Material, the artist Stephanie Taylor ended up creating a whole story about Chinese cooking using a method that she has in which she translates syllabic sounds of one text into another. So she started with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s the “Second Fig” based on Les Figues, and created this whole story of Chinese cooking. So if you lined all five of those books up in a row they would actually make a narrative.
LS: Yeah. That’s interesting! Actually it was her work, Stephanie Taylor’s, on your back covers that I was most drawn to. Her “Inspiration of the Homeland” for A Story of Witchery by Jennifer Calkins, which you’ve published. And then the Stephanie Taylor piece on the back with ideograms and a drawing of a kind of mountains or stones:
And drying vines cling to a mass of silt, dying pines ring of sass and lilt, bugs, bees, and grouse surround a fez of fanned crumbs, plumbs lie in lines, flung in past.
I see the relationship between a poem and a recipe, or a cookbook and the way one thing could pass into being another. It’s a beautiful conceit.
LS: And a really refreshing thing to have on the back cover of a book rather than the blurbs. I mean we love blurbs, too.
TC: Of course. But, the blurbs are on the website.
LS: That’s true; the blurbs are on the website. We are speaking with Teresa Carmody, who is the editor and publisher of Les Figues Press, and the website is email@example.com, or that’s the contact. And www.lesfigues.com. So Teresa, thank you so much for doing these books and for coming to the phone to speak about them. It’s been a pleasure.
TC: Yes. Thank you.
Teresa Carmody is the author of Requiem and three chapbooks: I Can Feel (Insert Press, 2011), Eye Hole Adore (PS Books, 2008) and Your Spiritual Suit of Armor by Katherine Anne (Woodland Editions, 2009). She is the co-founding director of Les Figues Press and currently teaches at California Institute of the Arts.