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.
Lynarra Featherly: Maybe we could start at the beginning. How did Poor Claudia get started? What is Poor Claudia’s creation myth?
Stacey Tran: Marshall Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen started Poor Claudia in 2008. Poor Claudia started out as a print journal and they would occasionally produce handmade, limited edition publications.
Travis Meyer: The original emphasis was on crafted small press items: letterpressed broadsides tucked into an intricately folded piece of beautiful cardboard. It was all very laborious and took many hours of work for Marshall and Drew to produce the books. They were doing it as best friends and a big part of the project was a way for them to hang out and get to know authors. I think for Drew especially it really became a solid project, something he took very seriously after his first AWP. He discovered that there was this national community interested in the writers Poor Claudia was publishing.
LF: So was there a realization for Drew after AWP that they were going to need to do less intensive manual labor—to figure out how to do more in a shorter amount of time?
TM: Yes, but at the same time the work Drew and Marshall were doing between 2008 and 2011 was still mostly handmade and limited edition, so even with having gone to AWP, it was still their intention to do very small limited handmade runs. It wasn’t until Stacey and I got on board that the organization started turning away from the labor-intensive handmade work and more toward digital design and online curation.
LF: How did you two become involved with Poor Claudia?
ST: They needed a website.
TM: I’m a web developer by trade. I met Drew at one of the Bad Blood poetry readings. I knew that I wanted to become more involved in the Portland poetry scene, to be a member of a local publishing organization and Drew steered me toward Poor Claudia. Their website was atrocious, bare bones. Drew took me out for drinks at Rontoms where he introduced me to Marshall. We got pretty tanked and ended up at Ladd’s Inn where they told me, “You’re our new web editor”. I designed the website and started running an online series called Crush. Over the next couple of years Drew and Marshall became more interested in work that took them away from Poor Claudia and in their wake we were sort of left behind and took over the reins.
ST: I knew Travis and Drew through the same circles, and during this time, they asked me if I would be interested in taking on a curatorial role at the press. Poor Claudia was going through a transition; we wanted the scope of the press to expand in print as well as online. We tested out some ideas, some stuck, like 10 Sources and Phenome. At first it was slow, but then we gained momentum and we began to see an obvious growth in the readership.
LF: You both got your start then by being in the right place at the right time, and that place is Portland, and Portland’s thriving small press publishing and literary scene. How much does Portland contribute to how Poor Claudia operates and what it does now?
ST: I’m not sure if small press publishing is indebted to place anymore. We get so many readers and submissions from writers from all around the country. In the 20th century small press was dependent on regionalism and cities as centers for communities to develop. Now with the way we communicate on the Web, it seems that small press publishing can be more transportable (or even nomadic), and place doesn’t seem to have as much of a stake in defining the act of writing, reading or publishing as much it once did.
…which is not to say Portland isn’t a special place. There are more people emigrating to Portland than most other cities in the country, and many of them are coming here with the aspiration to be artists and entrepreneurs. It really seems in this city, regardless of its smallness, people are really fans of each other. New reading series pop up regularly because people want to get to know each other and see new faces, and hear new voices. Right now—perhaps more than before—Portland is effervescing with a great energy to create. It’s easy to make things here. It’s cheap to live here, and buy paper, and print books. The coffee’s great.
LF: Poor Claudia publishes several different print series: Signature, Folio and Timeworm. What are some of the features or differences between those series?
TM: For the Signature series, we envisioned a clear, distinctive design concept for all the books that would be in the series, hoping this would create a recognizable standard or brand identity for Signature, which represents the work of established authors. This series, then, is principally for writers who are more comfortable with the curatorial strictures of Signature, especially in terms of design, but also in terms of content as Signature is comprised primarily of full-length poetry books. Folio, on the other hand, has fewer strictures, although it started out as a more distinct series design-wise. The Folio series started out as a pamphlet and chapbook series where we folded and sewed 8.5” x 11” sheets of paper. The traditional sense of the word “folio”—as in “leaf” or “folding the sheet once”—was how we originally landed on the term. The series has evolved, however, into a perfect-bound book series, though the design concept for Folio is less distinct than Signature. With Folio, we’re embracing a more diverse approach with the series—like each “leaf” is different, each book in the Folio series will have its unique, individual design. For instance, we wanted to put one of the authors that we’re working with right now in Signature, we’re big fans of his work, but because he wanted the space to do what he wanted to do—he had a very specific idea for his cover for instance and wanted to use certain typefaces, which goes against the graphic design ethos of Signature—so Folio was a better fit for him in that regard.
ST: Folio is more of a catchall in terms of design and also in terms of genre. The lines are not as hard for Folio. We like the format and style we have for Signature right now and we are going to stick with that format—until it changes and becomes another form that we stick to. The chapbook The Soft War is an example of the more laborious handmade items that we have done, and we retired that model. Folio series was our chapbook series. Now it’s expanded to be a broader publishing tier.
TM: Folio is now a place, more so, for authors to experiment.
ST: And a place for different kinds of texts; we are not looking for that series to be just poetry. The Signature series is a focused place for us to publish full-length poetry books.
LF: Do your print runs vary much between your different print series?
TM: The print runs vary depending on budget and what the authors need for their readership. In the end the number of books in a run doesn’t really matter because we keep all the books in print. We’re moving away from limited runs so if a writer has, say, a very small initial run of 50 and they sell out and there is still interest in their book then we’ll just print another run and list it as a second printing. Having larger runs doesn’t provide the author with more opportunities for distribution necessarily, it just gives us a smaller margin with which to invest in other books.
LF: Can I ask you what the number was for the first run of one of your recent publications, say, The Three Einsteins, a book of poetry from author Sarah Galvin?
TM: Three hundred.
LF: As far as small presses go, is that a fairly small run?
TM: It is quite small. If you look at other small presses like Octopus Books, who are good friends of ours, they’re doing off-set printing with very large runs, but they’re also publishing folks like Patricia Lockwood and Heather Christle, who’ve developed a very large readership.
LF: Are you interested in growing to a point where you are doing runs of say ten thousand?
ST: Yes, I think that we are open to that—not now though. We talk a lot about that—we try to think about who we can pursue, what kind of work are we interested in seeing in our catalog and about reaching a larger, expanding audience. If we did that it would mean that we’d have to get to a place where we’d produce those bigger printings.
TM: There are a lot of technical problems involved in expanding what we do and a huge part of that is financing. Small presses need to have a credit line that affords them the elasticity to be able to deal with times when a book sells really well and times when a book doesn’t, and our press just isn’t capable of getting those types of credit. I think that it’s gotten more difficult for a lot of small publishing organizations to publish because of the credit crunch. A lot of people that I know who are in publishing and are doing really well were able to get credit lines before 2008. They could have been making a university adjunct professor’s salary of 30k a year and still have gotten a credit line of 9k whereas now, and with our age, we just don’t have those opportunities.
LF: I would have thought that the more difficult part of small press publishing would have come from the side of distribution and visibility and not so much from the finance side. Can you tell me a bit more about distribution?
TM: Distribution and finance go hand in hand, with an organization like SPD, Small Press Distribution, their model is to pay out on a quarterly basis, and there’s only a 50% return on each book. That isn’t a lot compared to our website where we’re used to margins that are much better for us and also used to having the money in our pocket right away. This is where financing comes into it, because if we sink all of our money into an author and they sell really well, and then we have to wait three months for another deposit from SPD, that makes it more difficult to reinvest as quickly as we need to.
LF: Where are Poor Claudia’s books going?
ST: We maintain a strong relationship with Elliott Bay Books and Open Books in Seattle, two Powell’s locations in Portland, and Berl’s and McNally Jackson in New York. We keep in touch with each other, and it’s great to have successful neighborhood bookstores that support small press publishing. That helps with our visibility, since most of our correspondence and interactions are indeed online, we still rely on the classic first impressions that books make in person.
LF: Do you think that you benefit from being in Portland when it comes to exposure and sales?
TM: New York writers especially have a great deal of exposure nationally, Emily Skillings is a good example; she’s shipping out quite a bit, and Monica McClure as well. They’re both Brooklyn writers, but we get a lot of orders for their books from all over the country, from places like Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona or Utah. Many of our orders are going to college towns. It’s a lot of people in the creative writing world who are interested in reading them. They’re the folks working as adjunct professors with jobs in small towns, or are students in MFA programs. A very small percentage of the people that we know in Portland actually buy our books except at our readings.
LF: Do you see Poor Claudia as operating in a sort of middle ground between a very small press that is all non-profit and unsalaried and a large publishing house that operates under the imperative to make money?
TM: The other day I was on the website of a local bookstore called Division Leap. If you want to talk to somebody who knows about books, Adam is the guy, he’s wonderful. I was reading his blog and he mentioned this magazine called Kulchur, which was published in New York in the ‘60s. Kulchur published a lot of the New York school poets and I was interested in who was financing it. I looked into the editor and found a little blurb on Columbia University’s website that was a description of the way she and her husband (Lita and Mortin Hornick) went about running the magazine, and it was like looking into a mirror for me and Stacey. The way she was operating this magazine was as a business, but a business that was constantly losing money. We don’t want to avoid working within the capitalist system; we would very much like to have the capital to make Poor Claudia sustainable, to invest it in the authors we want published, and maybe even to pay someone full-time to make it happen.
LF: That one of you might have a salary.
TM: Or better yet, that we might be able to pay somebody to do some of the things that we don’t like to do.
LF: In thinking about how writing moves into your world, does most of what you publish come through the Submittable portal on your website?
ST: We also do a lot of outreach to solicit authors whose work we already admire and want to share.
LF: To take a specific example then, how did you come to publish The Three Einsteins?
ST: The Three Einsteins was a book that Drew was interested in; he edited and proofed the book. We worked with Sarah to finalize the layout and design.
LF: Could you take me through the publication process for Poor Claudia from selection to publication? What does the relationship between you and your authors look like in this process—again taking Sarah Galvin as an example?
TM: With Sarah, it was a bit different because Drew worked with her on the editing. We suggested a few edits of our own, none of which she took, but it was actually quite a simple process with this particular book. Drew and Sarah had already formatted the book so I typeset it, sent it to Sarah and she sent it back with a few small edits to the poems. It was very simple, very painless. I think it took me less than eight hours to get the manuscript ready to be sent out for printing. A book like Rich Smith’s, All Talk, on the other hand, was very involved. I worked with him on that book from beginning to end and it was a more detailed process.
LF: Is the work that gets done to get a manuscript ready for publication a fairly collaborative process between you two and your authors?
TM: It is a collaborative process but one that is structured by a publication agreement. In the past when things were more casual at Poor Claudia we would run into a lot of problems. It’s become easier for us to create a kind of line between us and the authors to ensure the project is as successful as possible. A lot of times authors don’t know that, especially with the small press world, in which there isn’t an agency process. Larger presses have literary agents to serve as an intermediary between publisher and author, to run defense—we don’t have that.
ST: I was thinking about the book Boyfriend Mountain. It is authored by two people—one half of the book is written by Kelly Schirmann, and one half of the book is written by Tyler Brewington. The book is formatted by what’s called a tête-bêche, which in French means “head-to-toe,” with the two collections meeting in the middle upside-down from one another. Working with two authors meant that a lot of work went into the design and layout, as well as working with two sets of poems. Travis and I both wanted to express each individual author’s voice through the type we chose, the way the poems looked on the page, white space, line height, etc. Tyler and Kelly asked me to work with them to configure the sequence of the poems, which I’ve never done before with another book. As editors, we have an expectation that our authors would work with us and sign off on suggestions for changes. It depends on the work and the author as to just how much work goes into moving the book to publication. Each manuscript calls for a different kind of attention. In Sarah Galvin’s case that was easy, with Rich Smith there was a lot more work that went into it.
TM: Yes, Rich Smith’s book was a lot of work, a lot of layout and design work, a lot of edits on the line level. You know, that is something that I have fantasized about, going into graduate creative writing courses as a publisher and showing writers how to actually compose their work on a computer.
ST: Yes, not on an 8½” x 11” page format.
TM: That’s a mistake many poets make, formatting in 8½” x 11”, when most printing is done in 6” x 9”. That is to say, poets should think about line breaks, spacing and white space in terms of what works on a 6” x 9” page.
LF: Let’s talk a little bit about your online content. You have three series that you publish online, Crush, Phenome and 10 Sources. How much do these various works circulate in the world?
TM: I manage the back end of the website, and have always been really interested in the technical aspects of the site. Stacey’s more active on the front end. She’s the curator of 10 Sources and I generally handle Crush, and we share the responsibility on Phenome.
ST: 10 Sources has been great. We solicit contributors and they’ll say, Yes! I love the series and I’m excited to contribute. I believe that people do still read.
LF: Is there something about Portland that keeps you believing that people do read? Something about Portland and the liveliness of the literary scene that keeps some of those doubts about writing at bay?
TM: I think that the Portland poetry scene in 2011, 2012 was very centralized and very active and extremely social and I think that the influx of writers, not just poets, to Portland between 2008 and 2012 was enormous, it was just crazy. Everybody you met had just moved here and wanted to meet people. Everybody was just starting to date each other, getting to know each other. Some groups arrived en masse after being in an MFA program together in other cities. Readings were happening, series were popping up, authors from around the country coming in to read in Portland, and the poetry was excellent. You go to an event and it feels like an “event”. If you want poetry where you live, just start organizing events and it’ll happen.
LF: So has the scene mellowed some from 2012?
TM: I don’t think that it’s mellowed, I think that it’s gotten more intense, but more intense in a less centralized way. Before, large groups of people from the Midwest, from Minneapolis and Lincoln and Omaha were coming into contact with big groups from the Southwest. Two reading series emerged: Bad Blood and If Not For Kidnap. Both of these reading series hosted impressive writers coming through town. Now there are more series: À Reading, Bone Tax, and another, Pure Surface, which Stacey hosts at Valentine’s with the Portland dancer/choreographer Danielle Ross.
LF: I know that both of you are writers as well as editors, do you keep the two separate or does your work as an editor bleed into your writing and your writing into your work as editors?
ST: It’s hard to keep the two separate. I think that my work with Poor Claudia inspires my confidence to write, or at times, to not write, or to curate Pure Surface, or at times to seek out other collaborators/projects, for example. I can be reading an email for Poor Claudia one minute and then writing a poem or calling up event venues to pitch our next reading. I get into the zone usually about mid-morning, early afternoon and do a lot of multi-tasking.
LF: Do you find yourself getting work done on the computer and then reaching over to a scrap of paper to jot down some creative work?
ST: Oh yeah, my attention is usually in many places at once, and it is certainly a beneficial part of my process being able to multitask and work back and forth between creative work and my 9-5 role as marketing director of an architectural studio
LF: 10 Sources has a feel to it that might speak to your thinking and working in the “inattentive” spaces in-between technician and dreamer.
ST: Yes, I think that’s true. I went to a local gallery, Yale Union, and picked up an annotated bibliography Angie Keefer created for five talks she gave there in 2013. I carried the bibliography with me everywhere I went for 2 months, talked to friends about it, got excited, doubted the idea, kept thinking about it. Ultimately, 10 Sources is an experiment I dreamt could get a range of folks to create poetic bibliographies because I wanted to read them.
LF: More broadly then, what kind of work does Poor Claudia dream of publishing? What are your publishing imperatives?
ST: I’d like to see Poor Claudia continue publishing projects that are special to us and our authors. We want Poor Claudia to be a space where authors get to experiment and play, try on something new, in case they don’t get the chance to elsewhere/again. In 2015, we’re releasing the press’s first translation project, a writer’s travelogue, a book concerned with data aesthetics and artificial intelligence, a collection of essays about Instagram, and of course, full length poetry works that we’re really honored to publish. Personally, I’m drawn to interdisciplinary writing—and I would like to see our catalog grow and be a little unpredictable.
TM: I’m interested in publishing a broad and diverse range. I want Poor Claudia to be a press that’s difficult to pin down. I worry that books are becoming either purely decorative or strictly “useful”—I want our books to be objects people devour, or places to which they repeatedly return.
Lynarra Featherly is an experimental poet with a poet’s interest in critical theory. She received her MFA from UW Bothell’s MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics program. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Letter [r] Press, which publishes the journal small po[r]tions journal. Lynarra is currently a member of the faculty at The Evergreen State College where she teaches creative writing, poetics and philosophy.
Stacey Tran is a curator of a performance series, Pure Surface, and an editor of a small press publisher, Poor Claudia. Her poems have appeared in Imperial Matters, inter|rupture, BOAAT, The Volta. She lives and works in Portland, OR.
Travis Meyer is a writer, designer and editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon.