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.
Laura Burgher: One of the defining features of Fact-Simile Editions is the emphasis on book arts, and using reclaimed and recycled materials in unique ways to capture an involvement with the materiality of the text. You have created book as pill bottles, book as scrolls, book as painted canvases. I’m interested in how you define a book.
JenMarie Macdonald: That’s actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It was Selah Saterstrom who taught me that the world is a book. Everything…Anything can be read. She used the example of trash on the street, and how you could see a broken pen, crumpled up receipt and broken baby rattle, and create some kind of narrative of the event that happened there.
So the way I think about a book is very loose. It’s anything that can be read. That’s one of the reasons why we make the books that we do. Our definition of what a book can be really doesn’t have a hard and fast boundary.
Travis Macdonald: Maybe it’s as simple as saying a book is a container. A container that can hold some context for a given set of thoughts. Whether those are words and images together, words on a page, or even a page as traditionally defined. We’ve done some scrolls that I consider books. And also a collection of scrolls. So there are containers within the containers.
We’re interested in finding new containers outside of the traditional spine-held, two book boards with a bunch of pages in-between. We’re finding ways of taking the book off the shelf and making it something else. Make it interact with its environment. Make it tactile. Make it something that you not only can hold, but have to hold, have to feel in order to really truly experience.
This is not something you can get from a computer screen, or something you can keep on a shelf and forget about. This is something that just begs to be interacted with in a way that is physical and different than the experience a screen or bookshelf can give you.
LB: What informs your decisions on the physical shape the book will take? What is your process of thinking through the different ways a reader can read, and changing that level of engagement with the book?
JM: DoubleCross Press is publishing an essay of mine that explores these very questions in their Poetics of the Handmade series.
The manuscript is my first informant. It usually tells me what its physical shape will be. But the material we have available to us provides a nice constraint. I tend to identify the ways a manuscript performs, then build a structure that performs in kind when the reader engages with it.
I don’t know that our decision to do what we do is in reaction so much as it is in participation. The ways that new technologies have changed the way that we read created awareness that when a book is not a traditional codex plus cover, the experience of reading it is different.
If we put a digital book on a screen and receive its message via light, what is that experience like? If we create Turkish map folds within a book that need to be opened in order to read a full poem, what is that experience like? I’m attracted to books that expand the definition of reading and make books with this in mind.
LB: When it comes to the creation of the chapbook, how much interaction do you have with the writers throughout the editorial process? Do they have a say in the design of the book? Of what shape it will take?
JM: When we choose manuscripts, we can see the physical forms of what they may be while we are reading them. While we haven’t worked with our authors in changing their text significantly, we do work with them by explaining the form we’re thinking about doing and applying to the text. So it’s a collaboration in that way. They’ve provided the text and we’re creating a home for it. That’s the best way I can think of it. We’re building a home for the text.
TM: We propose a form and bring our vision to the writer, get their input on it, and adjust as needed. I think there are parameters the writer often comes to us with and sometimes that’s within the manuscript and sometimes it’s something that comes out of the conversations that follow…but it is a collaborative process. There is some back and forth in terms of fine-tuning.
LB: In addition to your collaborative work with the press, I’d like to know a little more about the collaborative writing you do with one another. You mentioned a ten-year project that began on the day of your marriage, and you have a chapbook coming out from ixnay press called “Bigger on the Inside” that you wrote while watching episodes of Doctor Who. Was this something you had planned to do or was it a more spontaneous in-the-moment project?
JM: It’s hard sometimes to remember that point of origin. I believe it was organic. And a kind of justification. Like, “if we’re sitting here and binging on these episodes maybe we can make it feel more productive by writing poems.” We had done this kind of writing practice before, exchanging a notebook back and forth on different travels. Writing a line each. So this was a process that we had already been engaging in and felt very familiar to us. And there is a lot of great language and imagery, storyline and narrative in Doctor Who. It seemed very natural to pass a notebook back and forth to capture some of that.
TM: We started watching Doctor Who before we started the project. The project came later. We’ve had the idea to go back and write poems for the episodes we originally started with but haven’t gotten to that yet. It was always about noticing the language and realizing there was a rich field of sonic qualities and imagery at play there and we wondered how we could pull it out of that context and put it through our own filters into something else…into poetry.
LB: Have you used that process with other television shows or media? Incorporating the language or imagery into your own writing?
TM: We watch a lot of Doctor Who. There’s a language at work there that is much more fertile than a lot of television. We try not to watch too much television. We’ve written poems around or through a couple of movies. We did one for Sixteen Candles, I think.
JM: I think you’re right; we did do one for Sixteen Candles. During our travels we typically end up writing collaborative poems, and may even accumulate an entire chapbook on a vacation. The writing we’ve done with Doctor Who is more ekphrastic, and we are engaging with and collaborating with the actors and BBC writers as well as one another. When we’re writing travel-based poems, we’re capturing memories, language, images, things we hear and see. It’s got a different feeling to it in that way.
TM: It’s a different sort of feedback loop. We start with a shared experience, whether it’s on the screen in front of us or in the world around us (in the case of our travels). We each recognize that we are two different filters, and that singular experience is being run through those two different filters and coming back together in different ways. Ways that work with each other, play off of each other and sometimes conflict with each other. These perceptions of the experience are ultimately at play on the page.
LB: Thinking about how these filters are coming together, past the point of the writing, do you have a certain process for editing the material, and melding the filters? Or does it seem cohesive already?
TM: Once it’s on the page, we do it together and talk through the choices, such as line breaks, and what should be cut. But at that point the poem is there, it’s just up to us to find it. So refining what’s on the page is a collaborative act. We talk through it, try different things. Instead of someone saying, “give me the laptop,” and taking the driver’s seat.
JM: We did a collaborative interview with Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop, and Rosmarie talks about this third voice that erupts in the fertile space between the two of them. I think by the time we’ve let the poems rest long enough, when we approach them to edit, it really has solidified into that third voice and we forget who has really written which line.
It’s easier to edit in that way. I find it easier to edit these than my own work because of that third voice. I almost approach it in the same way we edit when we’re making editorial decisions for the journal.
TM: What enables you as an editor to make the decisions you need to make is lack of ownership. So whether that’s editing your own work and stepping away from it long enough that you no longer feel as heavily invested or closely tied to the words on the page. Or, in the case of collaboration, stepping away long enough to not even remember who wrote what.
LB: Does your work as editors and collaborators influence each of your individual writing as well?
JM: Definitely. Collaborating has activated a playfulness, an act of play on the page that I didn’t really experience before. And hearing Travis explain his editorial choices for our collaborative poems has informed my own decision-making.
I would say that being an editor has made me a better reader, which has improved my writing. Reading submissions has developed my understanding of where the strengths of the page are, where the connective tissue is, and where the looser, fattier pieces are that need trimming. Really reading submissions, reading great submissions, reading all kinds of submissions has strengthened that editing process in my own writing.
TM: I would agree with all of that but it just also occurred to me that there is a similar sort of feedback loop happening there. We’re both writers so we read a lot of journals before submitting our own work, and we’re thinking about other people’s aesthetics before sending work to them.
In that there is a play between the reading and writing. They’re reading the work we’ve curated. We’re reading the work they think is a fit. Automatically there is a relationship forming even before we approach the page.
So, ultimately, the relationship between the work we receive, and us as editors is informing how I read other journals, and how I send work out to other journals. It’s almost like we’re getting a targeted glimpse. Instead of having to read far and wide (though we do) to find journals you resonate with, people are sending work to us they think will resonate based on what they’ve read of our stuff.
JM: To add one more thing, I find it easier to participate in the literary community by being on both sides: as an editor, as well as a writer who is submitting work. I know what it’s like to read through all of the submissions and have to make difficult editorial choices of what goes in the limited space of the journal.
It’s not just about looking at work as good or bad; we have to make the curatorial decisions of how well the works operate in conversation with one another. It’s really about crafting an entire document.
LB: What are some other ways you participate in the literary community?
TM: I am biased, but we do have the advantage of living in what I consider to be one of the best communities of writers I’ve ever had the privilege of being near. When we moved to Philadelphia we were coming from New Mexico where “community” was a much looser term…
We really had to build our own community through correspondence, reaching out to writers in New Mexico and elsewhere who we admired, who we wanted to work with, and ultimately who we wanted to be in conversation with. Coming to Philadelphia, those conversations are a lot closer. There are a lot of great poets living in this city at this time and we have the privilege of knowing them and being in conversation with them. And being friends with them. That’s ultimately it.
JM: I go to poet baby showers, poet bridal showers, poet weddings. Poets come over to my house and I cook for them. I’m taking food to poets this Tuesday. We curated part of Boog City Festival in New York City this past February so we selected ten different writers from both Philadelphia and New York to share their work. We hold events. We go to events…
TM: And then the larger conversations that I think are happening with the magazine, publishing the work, putting other people’s work out there. All of that is community building ultimately.
JM: Kevin Varrone and some other local poets hosted Philadelphia’s first poetry festival, Philalalia, at Temple University this past September. So we of course had a table there and participated in that. Really any opportunity that we can participate, we try.
TM: And I think just in terms of being a small press. Ultimately that’s a community-building tool. And publishing other’s work and—
JM: Making spaces for one another. Just in life. And work.
TM: We all need to do that. I’m very grateful for all of the people that have published my work over the years. I think for me those two things have always been very closely tied together. That there’s a responsibility to—it’s not a one-to-one exchange, but—to make spaces for others. Because I wouldn’t be able to write if others didn’t make spaces for me.
LB: It’s nice to think of all of these writers and small presses sustaining one another within this web, all floating together. Do you have an idea of a trajectory for Fact-Simile? Can you anticipate the longevity?
JM: I think as long as I’m participating in the literary world I’ll be trying to create those spaces for other people. I’m interested in that exchange of ideas, that exchange of conversation, and that exchange of space, of supporting one another. So for the foreseeable future, we’ll keep doing this.
TM: I think Fact-Simile is one vessel, one container. It came out of an idea that I had early on, but it didn’t really become a press until we became a couple. In that way it’s very tied to our past. How much it has to do with our future I suppose is really tied to how long it is a useful container and beneficial to others.
Everything has its lifespan. If the day comes when we feel that Fact-Simile is not continuing to evolve and change in ways that are beneficial to other writers and ourselves, then we’ll find different ways to direct those energies to make some new sort of space.
JM: That’s mostly what I’m interested in: the ways to make space. And also ways to change how we read… So there’s more of a philosophical trajectory than a blueprinted, “Well, we want to do this or this or this.” It’s a more subtle thread that organically erupts rather than anything we’re setting out to plan or achieve.
LB: Considering threads, I would say your Letters From the Editors have a way of beautifully and succinctly tying each of the pieces in the magazine together. In Issue #7, you wrote that you never attach a specific theme to an issue, but certain patterns have a way of emerging as you curate. Do you think you would ever impose a theme upon an issue? Why have you, thus far, preferred the organic way of fitting everything together?
JM: I prefer the organic way because I’m deeply interested in a global or universal consciousness, and how those kinds of themes do erupt. It’s very fascinating to witness and that’s probably one of the reasons we started to curate in that way. So I would have to have a really good reason for imposing a theme. I would need to feel compelled to do so.
TM: I don’t know if I could think of a reason why we would do a theme. Maybe if we ever did a tribute issue… But there have been a number of occasions where this could have been a viable option, and it still didn’t feel like a good move.
Both in our collaborations and in my own work, I’m really interested in the idea of chance and choice converging. And our submission process is a really great opportunity for that to happen. If you make space for these patterns to emerge, you can be surprised by what you see. Rather than saying, “I want to see this” and waiting for it to manifest itself.
JM: “Pattern” is a good word for it. I think these are more patterns than a distinct theme. Theme seems almost kind of heavy, where it really is more of a subtlety. More like a thread that runs through the journal rather than a rope.
LB: That’s a really nice way to put it. Starting out with a mass of submissions and slowing pulling together threads of similarity.
TM: Well it’s interesting… So part of it is, we might be on a certain frequency during the months that we’re reading. But it also seems that time and again the actual poems and the work are these things we like naturally. We like them for reasons beyond the pattern but there is this pattern as well. There’s just something in the air that year or month that has these writers writing about a similar thing or including a common word. I wouldn’t call it a theme but there’s something that ties it together.
JM: What are those birds that all of the sudden follow one another but they move as a group?
JM: Starlings, that’s it. That’s what it reminds me of…starlings. When we’re reading and one submission will have one some kind of theme and then I’ll read five more and they’re all kind of following. They all kind of latch onto that thread.
LB: Do you solicit writers or do they all come in as open submissions?
TM: We decided early on that we were not going to solicit anyone for the magazine. We want it to be an open forum and to have those patterns emerge organically. We try to get our magazine into other peoples’ hands, people who we admire as readers as well as writers. I think, hopefully, they find some resonance there in the conversation that is happening and want to be part of that conversation.
We solicit the interviews. So that’s very often the starting point for an issue. But beyond that, the only solicitations we’ve ever done were for the trading card series. We didn’t take submissions for the trading cards. It was more of a curated project.
JM: We like to be surprised. And we’ve been blessed. And we’re grateful that so many great writers have submitted through the blind process rather than wait to be solicited. We’ve been really, really lucky.
LB: Yes you have some wonderful material in the magazines for it just coming to you.
JM: Like gifts.
LB: I’d like to know more about the genesis of the trading card project. How did that come about?
TM: I collected a lot of baseball cards when I was young. It was kind of an obsession of mine as a kid. As I grew older, my obsessions moved into poetry and so, at some point, it occurred to me that maybe there was an opportunity to bring those two obsessions together.
One of our missions for the press is to really make poetry tangible, something that you hold in your hand and not something that necessarily has to sit on a shelf. Trading cards seem like this great way to be doing that. And it allows us to distribute poems out into the world in a different way. These are not something that gets lost on a bookshelf or filed and forgotten about, but it provides a different sort of interaction in the world.
We use the term “fetishization” a lot. They’re like fetish objects the same way that baseball cards and trading cards have been for decades. We were very interested in giving that same power to poetry. That’s how we originally set out to pursue the project, only thinking we would do it for one year. Now we’re wrapping up the 5th year and just published our 60th card. Now that we’re at a good round number, we’re going to go on hiatus with the project and maybe do a second series down the road.
LB: Do you have many people with subscriptions to the cards? Do you know how many you have distributed?
TM: A lot of subscribers every year. Some people will subscribe for a couple years and then leave off for a couple years and come back. Some people will come in and buy the whole set up to date.
We also give a lot away. We give them to the writers to give away as well. Ultimately, we want it to be promotional for them. This is a poet’s business card. It has a picture of them and a piece of their work on there. So when people ask them what kinds of poems they write (god I hate that question) they can hand them the card and say, “Like this.”
LB: I feel as though you’ve created a whole new economy of value with the poetry cards. As opposed to baseball cards, where you’ll flip through guides to discover the accrued monetary value based on the status of the players, these trading cards acquire a much more valuable social and artistic capital. Have you ever thought of exploring your poetry trading cards in terms of this other definition of “value”?
TM: I think if they’re worth more than the cardboard they’re printed on someday that’d be great. Ultimately they are valuable just by virtue of a having a poem on them. It’s more about bringing that vessel and that delivery mechanism to a place where it is a little unexpected and it’s all about promoting poetry. That’s the real value. There will be no collector’s guides.
JM: We’ve seen the cards appear in photographs in different places, like people’s bathrooms, kitchens, of course offices at school. My favorite photos, which popped up on our Facebook feed, were a series of 4 photos in a row of children holding the trading cards.
If you go through the Fact-Simile Facebook page and click through our photos people have tagged us with their kids holding these cards. And it’s really great. It’s really lovely. That’s the type of currency I’m interested in.
TM: That could be someone’s first poetry experience…hard to put a value on that.
JenMarie Macdonald is a writer and bookmaker living near Philadelphia. She is the author of Sometime Soon Ago (Shadow Mountain) and forthcoming Home/Wreck (DoubleCross Press). She collaborates with Travis Macdonald on chapbooks, including Graceries (Horse Less Press) and forthcoming Bigger On the Inside (ixnay press), as well as their press Fact-Simile Editions.
Travis Macdonald was recently named a 2014 Pew Fellow in the Arts. He is the author of two full-length books – The O Mission Repo [vol.1] (Fact-Simile Editions) and N7ostradamus (BlazeVox Books) – as well as several chapbooks, including: Basho’s Phonebook (E-ratio), BAR/koans (Erg Arts), Sight & Sigh (Beard of Bees), Time (Stoked Press) and Hoop Cores (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). He is a Don Draper impersonator by day and by night he co-edits Fact-Simile Editions (www.fact-simile.com) with his wife JenMarie.
Laura Burgher is a co-founder and co-editor of Letter [r] Press and small po[r]tions journal. She received her MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from the University of Washington Bothell, where she currently teaches and tutors writing.