The different strata of the small press ecosystem are bound and wound in collaborative action and influence. Within the world of small press publishing, everything, everyone, and every place (physical and digital) is interconnected, but often in ways that are not apparent. As publishers of Small Po[r]tions, a limited-edition Risograph-printed journal that focuses on experiment and innovation, we were interested in examining the practices of small press publishers who are also poets to see how they apportion their energies and how they situate themselves within this ecosystem. In these interviews we map small press connections through the discussion of collaboration among presses, editors, writers, book artists and readers. That is, collaboration in an expanded sense: influence, inspiration, community. Ecologies require study to sustain them. These interviews look to be a part of a broader and continuing conversation on the ways presses and poets sustain themselves and enrich one another.
Travis Sharp: What are the origins of Bone Tax: how did it begin, why did it begin, who did it begin?
Ross Robbins: In 2013, I started self-publishing my writing. I’d wanted to get my work published for a while, as all writers want to be published, I guess, except for Emily Dickinson. I met Kevin Sampsell at Powell’s, which started carrying my chapbooks, and people responded to them. They bought them, at any rate. I got it in my head that I wanted to publish other people. As I was working toward making that happen, I was offered the opportunity to start a reading series at a coffee shop I used to go to. I started putting together the reading series, and the two happened organically. They grew out of each other.
The first book Bone Tax put out was Robert Duncan Gray’s Ticklish Animal. It was just me at the beginning. Noland Bo Chaliha joined up as the first designer. Then he left for South America and Zachary Cosby became a part of it. Now it’s the two of us. We look for people we want to publish and support, and we both do the reading series.
TS: What about the name Bone Tax? Where does that come from? At the reading you introduced this as “paying the bone tax.”
RR: It’s really cheesy, but I had a dream in which my parents were fighting over how they were going to pay the bone tax. That phrase stuck in my head. So I went with that.
TS: It’s a surreal experience: paying the bone tax.
RR: Well, it’s the kind of name that can mean different things to different people. Usually I say, what does it mean to you? A lot of people think it’s sexual.
TS: I think it’s medical.
RR: I think so too.
TS: And bodily. But I just think about body a lot.
RR: Thinking about bodies. Bone Tax. It’s snappy, you know. BONE Tax.
TS: Bone Tax is unique in that it combines the press and the reading series into an enmeshed entity. They’re the same animal. Many presses or journals present events as something separate from, not an integral part of, the whole. Bone Tax releases books, is a regular reading series, and publishes pamphlets of work curated at the readings. There’s a nice communal aspect to that. It’s not just “we’re making books and hoping they get out there” but also “we’re inviting people to come, to participate.”
TS: Which I find as one of the things that drew me into it, other than the fact that it’s just good writing. You invite the authors to come. Robert [Duncan Gray] was there, Robyn [Bateman] was there. Is that something that recurs?
RR: Oh yeah, they’ve both done the series. I’ve hosted Robert at four different readings now. A big thing I want to do with Bone Tax is community building. Many of the people who come to our readings show up every month. And being in Portland right now—it’s a wonderful time to be a part of this community. It’s grown so much, and everyone knows one another and is so welcoming. We put on release parties and the reading series, and they’re all part of the same community, ultimately.
I really like that I can go up there every month and see these people. That’s almost more rewarding for me than the product. I like having the book out there, but I like to look out and feel that I brought these people together.
TS: You’re presenting poetry both privately, in this chapbook or pamphlet that you can read at home, and publicly in this reading series space.
RR: Yeah, I like the pamphlet idea. I like being able to give something to people to take with them. We make a pamphlet every month. We’ve experimented with some different forms. We did broadsides last month. One month the pamphlet was made of individual sheets stapled along the side. We’ve tried some different sizes and formats, which gives us the opportunity to play around with the design aesthetics.
TS: As a press/reading series you’re not just publishing books. The event is part of the publishing experience.
RR: I want to promote these people because I love their writing. Rob was the first author I wanted to publish because I respect his writing so much. I feel like everyone should know who he is. He is a force to be reckoned with. He’s wholly unapologetically unflinchingly himself, and he makes the art that he wants to make. Robyn read at Rob’s release party, and I really liked what she read so I asked her if we could put that out. And CA, I asked if I could put a book out by him because he’s CAConrad, and never expecting him to say yes. That was a surprise.
TS: So would you say that the reading series is a distribution model for Bone Tax?
RR: Absolutely. We’ll sell a good amount of the first printing at the release parties. People buy books at the reading series, and even if it’s just a couple of books that people are picking up each month, you’re continuing to get it out there.
TS: It’s really surprising how few books you have to sell to pay for the next run, the next book.
RR: Oh yeah. Especially because I’ve been able to find ways to make these books inexpensively. Paper and printer toner are my biggest expenses. I do all of the printing myself. I sew them. With CA’s we stapled them because I didn’t want to sew 500 books. I haven’t made Zachary start sewing books with me yet. I like doing it, but it’s time consuming.
TS: Selling the books takes time as well. Community is a form of distribution, but maybe there are limits to that.
RR: We never did any of this to make any money out of it.
If you want to get rich you major in business, become a bond trader. You don’t become a small poetry press publisher. If everyone in the community has an opportunity to hear and read everything we’re putting out and if you know a handful of people who had never heard of these writers, if they get a copy of the book, then it’s worth it. We just want to sell enough copies to make the next book. Enough to justify continuing to do it, and that doesn’t take very much. I would like to get the books further into the world than just in Portland, and that’s a challenging thing. When I go on tour for Mental Hospital next year I’ll bring copies of all of the Bone Tax books to give away.
We give away a lot of our books. I just want people to read them. That’s the biggest thing. Just for people to read them.
TS: I think the focus away from money is a major part of poetry. Poetry is one of the few industries that is not capitally interested, or interested in capital, or capital is not interested in it. Poetry is useless in generating profit. There is nothing there. And maybe there’s something nice about that. This is an area in our lives where we don’t have to be concerned about making money.
RR: I’ve tried to make poetry the main focus of my life.
TS: It’s not a business.
RR: I can put the money thing far away from the center of my life. That is part of the joy of it. People aren’t doing this for profit. We’re not meeting one another and spending time together to make money. We’re building community.
TS: Community building seems like it is also time consuming. Bringing in new people, readers and writers you’ve never met before. How do you bring in new people to publish or to perform at the reading series?
RR: Even before I started Bone Tax, just as an example, I liked to go to the small press section at Powell’s, and there have been multiple instances where I strike up conversation with someone and ask if they ever go to readings or if they’re writers themselves, because almost everyone who is buying poetry is also a poet. There was one person named Claire Iris. I met Claire on the MAX. I saw that she was reading a book of poetry, so I invited her to a reading. And then she actually showed up! And kept showing up! And then she read at Bone Tax last month. I had never seen her before, but by striking up conversation on the bus she’s part of the whole thing now.
I just want to play God. That’s all.
TS: You do get to play God: soliciting work, revising, collaborating. It’s their work but also your work as the editor. You’re putting it out there.
RR: So far I’ve solicited work from the three people we’ve published so far: Robert, Robyn, and CA. With Robyn, I heard her read most of what eventually became the book, and all I did with that was ask her to write one more poem near the end of the book, and there might’ve been a couple of words we changed. I tend to be hands-off. I know what I’m willing to hear as far as changing my own work, and I want them to make those decisions. With Rob’s book, I don’t think we changed anything. With CA, I let him edit it himself. He showed me the first version of the manuscript then changed things until we published. But I let them do it for the most part. Unless there’s something that is glaring, I let them edit it themselves.
TS: More curatorial than editorial.
TS: Do you think the curatorial instead of the editorial is a plus in poetry?
RR: I think so. I assume that they know more about their work than I do.
I’ve been lucky so far. Nothing needed to be changed. With Robyn’s book the biggest thing was the title. I thought the book should have a stronger title. She thought about it and asked some friends. Rob was the one who suggested DEAD AS for the title. That’s funny. Because they work together, they’re friends.
Just the title. That’s the only thing that I had any recommendations on. I can’t remember what the first title was. And that says something, doesn’t it? It needed a punchier title. And it got it.
TS: It’s telling that people you publish and curate are within the same community, are working with one another, are collaborating with one another. It is existing to DO something, existing within a community. It’s not just, “Oh I like poetry so I’m going to publish poetry.”
RR: People will continue to make art with each other. And the more that I can introduce these people to each other, all that cross-pollination continues to happen. It’s nice.
It seems that every week in Portland someone is starting a press or lit mag or reading series, and it’s nice being in the middle of that, the explosion of creativity. I think everyone should create something.
TS: Do you think being in Portland right now, with the poetry community as it is, has been productive for your work as a poet, an editor, a reading series curator?
RR: There’s a lot of motivation there to create, to keep producing new writing. Occasionally we get together and show one another our new writing. Most of the writers in this town, especially the main people who are at every reading, I’m familiar with their work, I’ve read their work, I know their work and I get to see how their work is evolving. There is that inspiration to want to keep making new stuff so you can show it, share it.
TS: Which also builds community.
RR: Yeah, it does.
I feel really lucky to be part of this scene. You aren’t dealing with a lot of egos or meanness. It’s not exclusionary in any way.
Someone was saying: Portland right now, is it going to be—50 years from now—like Paris in the 20s, or like Greenwich Village in the 50s? Are you going to have this handful of inspirational writers? And maybe? There are probably a lot more people publishing poetry now than there were then. I don’t know what set of factors would cause a writer or handful of writers to rise to the top.
TS: It seems to be more interesting that there isn’t this handful, that there is equitable access. There’s the internet.
RR: That’s true. Everyone has a voice now.
TS: And with so many zines, so many presses, so many reading series, everyone—which is a result of the internet right, everyone can make their own journal.
RR: The thing about Portland right now: you do have that where there are so many people writing and publishing and being published, but for the most part it is all really strong work. It’s not a matter of having this handful of writers who are putting out really good work and these other people are background noise. We have a ton of poets who are putting out universally good work. We’re spoiled.
TS: Do you think the amount of publishers is a cause or an effect of Portland’s poetry community?
RR: They feed into each other. There are people who move here because they see how alive the community is. They move here and start their own press, their own reading series, their own journal. Everyone has their own. It just keeps growing. It’s a monster.
TS: It’s a delightful monster.
RR: Yeah, it’s a good thing.
TS: If you had to have a monster, the poetry press monster would be preferred.
RR: A lot of presses, a lot of reading series, a lot of writers is definitely better than the alternative. I’ve been putting on a reading series for ten months now, four writers a month, and I’m not close to having invited everyone that I want to invite. And that’s nice. These are the problems you want to have.
TS: So you work on Bone Tax with Zachary Cosby. What is that collaboration like?
RR: Initially Zachary came on to do design work. He is an excellent designer whereas I am a mediocre designer. The best thing I ever designed was I Want to Say How I Feel and Be Done with It Forever. It was kind of pretty.
Zachary’s come to play a more and more central role, recommending people for the reading—now we both make that decision. He’s recommended people who we might publish, he does the design work, I do the production. He does all the work, and I host the reading series. We both do what needs to be done. It’s a very easy collaboration for him and I. We get along.
TS: Last night you also collaborated with Spare Room. You had a joint reading.
RR: We inadvertently scheduled across the street from one another at the same time. That was the first time we joined up with another series. It turned out well, though.
TS: Is your writing at all informed by your work on Bone Tax? I’m curious how those roles of writer, editor, and curator commingle.
RR: The people I’m publishing: I see in their writing something that I would like to accomplish. That’s why I’m publishing them. And the people I’m reading end up inspiring my writing. Either I steal from them, as all poets steal from one another, or as is the case here in Portland, it inspires me to try harder, to improve, to write more, to write better.
TS: It’s important to think about how the collaboration between poet and publisher works, because you’re also on the other side of the process with books out and forthcoming.
RR: Yeah, I am. My first full-length book Mental Hospital comes out in 2015 with YesYes Books. It was accepted for publication when it was 40 or 50 percent done, so I got very lucky. People always have this story of finding their publisher: “I’ve sent the manuscript to 200 different publishers and they all said no and then it finally was accepted.” I didn’t have to try. I got very lucky. With that book there will be some editing. There are things that need to be changed.
As far as suggesting changes goes, if I’m going to publish someone I’d rather present it to them as: I don’t know if this line is working, you might consider how this part reads, rather than suggesting specific changes. I don’t want to go so far as seeming like I want to rewrite their work for them.
TS: Who are some writers you’re indirectly collaborating with: influences, inspirations, people’s whose work you’ve built off of or borrowed from?
RR: Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, To Anacreon In Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust, Emily Kendal Frey, Sorrow Arrow. I’m just listing some of my recent favorites. James Tate’s first book The Lost Pilot.
It’s like when people ask you what music you’ve been enjoying and you can’t think of anything. I’ve never listened to music. I’ve never read poetry.
The Wasteland and Other Poems by John Beer. Zachary Schomburg, Fjords Vol 1. Tom Blood, The Sky Position. That’s the book I read that encouraged me to be less literal, less narrative, more abstract in a way, more disconnected in places.
Plagiarism is inspiration. I think that’s how the art form has grown over the years. People say there’s nothing original left to say. At this point we’re just changing the tittles and the cover art. If I can take my vision of the world and how I see poetry and filter it through all of the people I appreciate, then I’ll have something new. My writing didn’t really start to improve or become what it is now until I started reading tons of contemporary poetry. When people ask me how to improve their writing that’s what I say. Read lots of books.
TS: So thinking of the future of Bone Tax. What changes do you have in mind for the press/series?
RR: We’re going to start inviting more out of town poets, and with people who are on tour you can’t just do the third Saturday of every month. It has to be more sporadic. So that’s something we’re going to do. Have it less often but have it be more of an event.
TS: Currently the interest is in inviting a lot of Portland writers.
RR: I just wanted to give all of the people I knew in Portland a chance to be a part of the series, and I’ve met a lot of people because of it. People have expressed interest in being a part of it. We want to be really inclusive and invite everyone.
TS: But now also moving towards bigger names.
RR: Bigger names.
We’ve had big names who are from here. Zach Schomburg. Emily Kendal Frey read at CA’s release party. We had all four curators of If Not for Kidnap come in to do the series one month. That was fun. Again, it goes back to how spoiled we are in Portland. We have so many options.
TS: Portland has a vibrant poetry community, but is there a downside to that? Maybe if everything is in Portland, then it’s hard to move outside of that?
RR: It does start to feel like the world, and everything beyond it, is inaccessible.
TS: We’re in our own little bubble in the Pacific Northwest.
RR: We really are. It’s a good bubble to be in. But like I was talking about with distribution, I don’t know how I’d get Bone Tax books in other places outside of Portland.
TS: We’re in the bubble.
Ross Robbins is the founder of Portland, Oregon’s Bone Tax Press and the author of Mental Hospital: A Memoir, forthcoming from YesYes Books in November 2015.
Travis A Sharp is a Seattle-area queer poet, teacher, and publisher. Travis is a co-founding editor of Small Po[r]tions and Letter [r] Press, is an editor at Essay Press, and works for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry. Travis has an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from the University of Washington, Bothell, where Travis tutors and teaches writing.