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Small Press Publishing Goals: Making Future People’s Heads Explode

February 27, 2015

“My mission is to create beautiful, strange little books that a grad student studying the small press movement of the early 21st century will find in a special collections somewhere and they will make her head explode.

Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?

Well, last season we only put out three titles, and they were all poetry. Outer Pradesh by Nathaniel Mackey, which we’re now nearly sold out of since he won the Bollingen Prize for it;His Days Go By The Way Her Years by the Taiwanese poet Ye Mimi, translated by Steve Bradbury and which we’re now nearly sold out of since it got reviewed so nicely in a bunch of places; and Mimi and Xavier Start in a Museum That Fits Entirely In One’s Pocket by Becka Barniskis which has turned into an album and a video collaboration.

This season, which will be out for AWP in Minneapolis, we’re doing four titles. Third Person Singular by Rosmarie Waldrop with collages by Keith Waldrop is a gorgeous little sequence of poems that is one of the most beautiful books I’ll have made. The Anatomy of a Museum by A. Kendra Greene is our first non-fiction title, and it’s a book-length essay on the Icelandic Phallological Museum that is quirky and lyrical and should not be missed. The All-New by Ian Hatcher is a text-based poem from a digital literary artist, which is really interesting in and of itself, and the poem is brilliant and political. The fourth is Drown Your Babies, a collection of experimental translations and re-tellings of Columbian myths by the non-fiction writer and translator Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas.”

I did an interview with Entropy about Anomalous Press:

Judging A Book By Its Cover (And Interior!)

February 11, 2015

Form fixed, or flowing? That’s the question I think about a lot in terms of new book forms. Is a particular text flowing, like water, able to shape itself without losing anything to many different containers (page sizes, margins, font faces, leading, etc.) depending on the preference of the reader. Or is a text, like many poems, fixed. The line has to end where it ends or the meaning and artistry of the text are compromised. There’s clearly room in the digital book world for both, though other than PDFs there isn’t a great solution for form-fixed texts on digital platforms like ebooks yet.

But it’s a question that only sometimes comes up when thinking about print design. That is, anymore. Today, it’s not only easy but surprisingly affordable to have a text printed in whatever size book you want (within a range). You want a small square book, 4″ x 4″? Why not! You want a “standard” book size, like 5.5″ x 8″? Easy. You want something really long, say, 10″ x 6″? Absolutely. This is thanks to the dramatic changes brought to printing by the increased quality and easy of digital printing. Digital printing is so flexible, and precise, you don’t even have to work with whole numbers or standard fractions. A book that is say 3.1415926″ x 5.1415926″ might be a bit absurd, but it’s more or less possible.

Oh but it was not always this way. Not even recently. When I started in book design, size was still ruled by standard trims, and lengths based on divisions of a parent sheet into 4s or 8s. So when you started out to make a book, you determined size and page length first, based on what you could afford and what options the printer had available (which were usually limited based on their particular equipment and paper suppliers). Then the margins, and then the text went into it. If some lines were too long, they got edited, or indented to mark that they intended to continue but ran out of room on the page. And authors knew those were the options, and were willing to edit or compromise visually as the case may require.

This was also the reasoning essentially behind presses choosing a book size for their titles, and then never changing it. It made the budgeting easier, the file prep (especially in the days before InDesign saved books), and essentially everything else that goes into the production of a book, easier.

But as I said the advent and improved quality of digital printing in the past ten years or so has changed everything. So much so that when I started my own little publishing venture, Anomalous Press, we designed six radically different books for our first season, each based on the particular demands, tone, and feel of the text. We did a lovely little book of fiction called Ghost by Sarah Tourjee that is 4″ x 6″ in a slim, classic, pocket-sized design. We did a crazy poetry/translation hybrid text called An Introduction to Venantius Fortunatus for Schoolchildren or Understanding the Medieval Concept World through Metonymy by Mike Schorsch that has the trappings of a textbook, complete with assignments like “1. Anologia entis is the idea that any likeness between God and the creature discloses a still greater unlikeness. Compare and contrast. It demanded a bigger presentation, and so it is 6.5″ x 8″. The phenomenal English translation of a French image-to-word translation of a Tintin comic Mystérieuse by Éric Suchere, translated by Sandra Doller, needed a graphic treatment that was still evocative of a comic, and so it became a 7″ square book.

I had the flexibility to design from the text into the book, rather than fitting the text into a pre-determined book size that may or may not have worked, but almost certainly wouldn’t have highlighted what was compelling and surprising about the text, because of that digital revolution. And I’m so glad. Because the visual component of literature is important to the way it’s read. Most obviously with poetry, where the line is the measure of its sound, but even with prose. We read something set in, say, Comic Sans very differently than we do something set in Times New Roman. When a page has dense text blocks and narrow margins, it’s more demanding to read, requires more focus and more attention from the reader. But when a prose text block is too light, the margins too wide, the type too big, with too big leading, it feels insubstantial, like a cheap drugstore romance.

It was important to me as a designer, and as a writer, editor, and publisher, to treat each text on its own terms, and I’m very glad I’ve had the chance to do that with my own press. But I do freelance design work for a number of other presses, including several that have a standard set size and form. Within the constraint there are still a lot of ways ways to make each text its own piece. And there is something really lovely about seeing them all lined up on a bookshelf together, a little family of texts. One editor of the series has a rule: no overset lines. She argues that it destroys the music of the line, and I suspect she’s right. Instead, once a book is laid out, she and the author or translator or all three will go over the text and rewrite it to the margins of the book. One author I did a book with did the same for her page breaks, taking them as deeper pauses in the flow of the poem, and knowing that those had to come at just the right moments.

My own first book of poetry Featherbone is coming out this year with Ricochet Editions, and they have a standard size for their books. And so I’m coming up against these issues all over again, from an author’s perspective. I’m struggling to find a way to let the long lines breathe (landscape format?) while still preserving the integrity of the poems on the page and not breaking them mid-poem (which only really works in portrait).

Thoughts? Experiences? Do you judge a book by its visuals?

Canyon in the Body by Lan Lan translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

February 9, 2015

In many ways this book is exactly what I expected. It is a collection of beautiful, light, lyric poems, in a very traditional translation that is beautiful, light, lyric and focused on image and meaning and very occasionally sound. If this appeals to you, you will love this book.

For me, though, there wasn’t much beyond a few occasional moments that really grabbed me about it. Lan Lan is clearly a finely attenuated poet, one who puts great care into the construction of her poems as image-based description, focused on nature and love, often using one as metonymy for the other. My very favorite moments in the book came as surprises, where the poet herself is inserted into the description in a startling way:

I saw sparrows skim over the roof
with gurgling sounds
I can grow lush wings
and chase them
I can flower, golden or scarlet
until the first heavy snow
Whoever I see becomes mine:

Things that can cry will survive
I or a band of night rain
wind in the woods and water sobbing

But those moments were few. For the most part the poems are pure image, description, heavily focused on landscape. They on the whole seemed to me a little small, perhaps a little trivial even. But that those were me first thoughts troubled me a little. I wondered, is this a sexist critique? Is this the unexamined expectations of poetry and what is an important subject for poems (i.e. whatever the male gaze decides) determined by the norms of a predominately white male European poetic tradition? The introduction, and one of the blurbs, refers to her as concerned with “domestic” meanings and beauty. Was that somehow prejudicial to my reading?

I don’t have answers. I’d like to believe that my aesthetic preferences are without ethical reproach. But knowing what I do about privilege, and conditioning, I wouldn’t count on it. So I’m left feeling uncomfortable with my apathy towards this book, wondering whether it’s a reflection of valid aesthetic preference or societal conditioning.

One thing I can be sure of, though, is the translation. Not because I read Chinese (I don’t, at all), but because I know how to read translations. It’s essentially unobtrusive, transparent, so to speak, and so tries to efface the translator herself. In this aim, it is extremely successful. There were only things that (I believe unintentionally) drew my attention to the translator. The first was something I noticed right away, that persisted throughout the book, which was the seemingly haphazard use of capitalization and periods. Some lines are capitalized when they are not beginning new sentences, but it doesn’t seem to follow any structural logic. I don’t know if this attempting to preserve something in the original Chinese that isn’t quite conveyed by this English usage, but it consistently drew attention to the English as being not quite normative.

The other was a single passage, in the poem “Now, Untouchable”, which seemed muddy, confused, compared to the general clarity of image throughout. My first thought was that the translator hadn’t quite gotten it.

Shamefully facing a bowl of rice, facing the untouchable
rotten intestines squeeze out wormwood and sobbing
Torrential waves fiercer than the sea are surging under the rubble
enough to destroy a huge rock pressing on my forehead

Overall, though, this is an extremely beautiful book, that will certainly appeal to many readers of contemporary poetry who are looking for a kind of truth and beauty in nature as a reflection of the truth and beauty of humanity.

The Future of the Book

January 30, 2015

I had a really interesting conversation a few days ago with someone I met on an airplane. I don’t normally speak to strangers in public, as an introvert it actually sort of terrifies me. But something compelled me (technically, my window seat and three teas) to start a conversation with him, and I’m so glad I did. Because it turned out he was extremely interested in the future of reading and the future of the book.

It got me thinking again about reading, and how reading is changing, and how I’d like it to change. And the other day I played a little game with myself and imagined reading the way I would want to experience it, regardless of technology and reality. And here’s the future of the book that I want.

I want a flexible, luminous paper-like material that is capable of displaying both e-ink and high resolution graphics. I want several sheets of that, say, 10-15, at around the size of an iPad mini, but bound together (and stitched in signatures, not perfect-bound, so that it would lay flat easily when opened, but could also be propped up with a stand like a tablet). I want it to have a touch interface, but also allow for the use of a stylus. That is my ideal book.

And when I’m reading it, I want to be able to turn the pages, and the digital text will flow ahead of me, even as I reached the end of the blank pages and started again. It would have to accommodate both free-flowing content (for example, your standard novel), and fixed-form content (poetry, textbooks, hybrid work, and experimental forms that require particular display parameters like indenting or images in specific relationship to the text). And, beyond text-based content both traditional, experimental, form fixed, and form flexible, I would want it to run apps. But not like Candy Crush. Apps like Vniverse, by Stephanie Strickland and Ian Hatcher.

Books as apps that require interactivity. That contain multiple modes of content delivery and generation. Apps like A Humument, which is an iteration of the decades-long art project and erasure poem Tom Phillips has undertaken. Apps like Abra, another by Ian Hatcher, with poets Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin, that works both within and apart from a paper book. I really think that this is one of the most interesting new book forms out there, the app.

I want to be able to have some control over the display of form-flexible content (font, size, color, margin size), but none of those things for form-fixed content and apps. Still, with form-fixed and apps, I want to be able to have margins as an option. Because I also want to be able to write on the pages of this book.

I want to be able to annotate it with a pen, underline, circle, doodle, and highlight, and in different colors. I want also to be able to select text and add it to my notes – like remember back when you were reading textbooks for college classes and you took notes? Well, that’s how I read still. I want my notes to be attached from within the book file that I’m reading, but also accessible apart from it, in an outline format, with quotations selected from the text and linked back to it for easy attribution. But I also want to be able to write notes and summaries with either a stylus or a wireless bluetooth keyboard.

And I want it to link to my Goodreads bookshelf, because that’s how I keep track of everything that I’m reading. Ok, almost everything. With an ISBN number. But I want the process to be more fully automated. That it knows what page I’m on, that I can go from my notes to a review that is public and publishable on my blog, and on Goodreads, without having to switch from application to application.

Oh, and I want to be able to tweet excerpts as I’m reading. Not copy and paste into my Hootsuite app, and then fiddle with it to get it to 140 characters, plus the #amreading hashtag, and #poetry or #translation or whatever else is appropriate. I want to be able to select the text in the book and right-click or use some other shortcut gesture to indicate that I want to tweet that excerpt, and have it open a dialog where I can add the appropriate hashtags, @s or whatever else I may want. And then that can go to my Twitter, and/or my Facebook and/or my Google+ and/or my Tumblr. And also to my notes on the book, because if I think it’s good enough to share I probably want to remember it. A second kind of notes file on the book: quotations.

And, I want to be able to listen to music through this device as I’m reading. I want to have the option to listen to music the author recommends, or music that I select. And as an author I want the option to say “here, listen to this while you read my poetry.”

Finally, I want the ability to share my marginalia and annotations, either publicly or with just a few people. Lots of control over that – not just “all the marginalia” but at the level of each annotation with different sharing options.

That, my friends, is my future of the book. Wake me when we get there.

That Time I Had To Look Up “thot”

January 27, 2015

I’ve been called many things by many people. I’ve also been called many things by many people who think I’m this Erica Mena, and not the Erica Mena I actually am. It’s because I have a googleganger. And it so happens that, though I am slightly older than her and so have our name on most social media platforms (from before I even knew about her), she is much more “famous.” I use the scare-quotes because she’s a reality TV “star,” famous for being dramatic and pretty, and had we not had the same name I never would have heard of her.

I learned about her, and the reality TV world she is a part of, around Christmas in 2010 or so. Since I’m @ericamena on Twitter, and I use it primarily for literary purposes, I had until then set it to send a text to my phone anytime someone tweeted at me. And one night, my phone blew up. You hear that phrase, but can’t imagine what it means unless you have received several dozen hate-tweets sent directly to your phone in a matter of minutes. It was startling, especially because they were so nasty. It became clear to me almost immediately that they weren’t actually meant for me, but there’s still something unnerving about a large number of strangers insulting you and telling you to go die. I turned off my notifications, responded to a few who were tweeting over and over that they had the wrong user (and even got one or two apologies!), and blocked the rest.

Then I started getting emails for her. Start-up fashion designers, make-up artists, music producers, asking me to work with them, wear their clothes, etc. I even got proofs emailed to me of a photo shoot she did. And then Instagram. I get tagged all the time in weird club scenes. I’m followed by approximately 600 people who think I’m her. Once someone even managed to “chat” me through my email in a way that came right to my phone. That was unnerving, and my husband figured out how to turn all that off, thank goodness. You know, neither of us owns our though. I keep thinking I should buy it, but it’s now a “premium” domain, and out of my price range.

Every now and then I check my direct messages on Twitter, just to see if I’ve missed something really intended for me. And that’s how I first heard the word “thot.” Thot, according to Urban Dictionary, is a slang term for hoe, whore, slut, or any other pejorative you might use to sex-shame someone (usually an attractive woman). It originated as an acronym for That Hoe Over There, and is now it’s very own hashtag on Twitter.

It doesn’t bother me, being called a slut, or a whore, or a hoe, or a thot. Not only because I know these insults aren’t meant for me, but because I don’t really understand why they would actually matter. I’m a feminist, and progressive about just about everything, sex included. I think it’s perfectly fine for women to have “sex for pleasure” as the Urban Dictionary definition indicates is partly what makes someone deserving of being called a thot. I think it’s fine for women (and men) to have more than one partner at a time, so long as it’s all safe and consensual.

Of course the kind of people hurling these insults via Twitter are, to put it mildly, not the great minds of the world. They are the kind of people who watch reality TV, and do it often enough that they become personally invested in the lives of people they’ve never met, and will never meet. They become so invested (dissociative?) that they feel compelled to try to hurt these people because of the perceived hurts they themselves feel at the strangers’ behavior. So it’s not terribly surprising to find the same old misogynistic vitriol spilling out of the virtual mouths of these people.

During the few months when the other Erica Mena was in a same-sex relationship with one of her co-stars I had some hope. Suddenly she seemed like a public figure doing some work for bisexual awareness, and general sexual progressiveness. All of a sudden, lesbians and bi women were tagging me, and praising me. It made me feel a little optimistic about the reality-TV effect. But when she became engaged to Lil’ Bow Wow, all that stopped, and even the lesbians and bisexuals, those supposed bastions of progressive sexual politics, resorted to the tired language of slut-shaming.

Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall

January 26, 2015

Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall is a phenomenal philosophical exploration of one of the few questions that everyone at some point, consciously or not, confronts. The decision to procreate, as Overall argues, is one of the most fundamental and important decisions that a person makes in their life. And it’s so rarely treated as anything more than an individual and highly personal preference that this very thorough, rational, moral analysis of the question is simultaneously shocking and immensely valuable.

Last year my best friend gave me the audiobook I Can Barely Take Care of Myself to listen to as my husband and I moved from Providence to San Francisco. One of the chapters, my favorite, was about how people feel entitled to weigh in on the decision not to have kids. An anecdote she tells, one I’ve lived more than once, is at a party a perfect stranger, minutes into a conversation, brings up kids (usually their own) and then asks if she intends to have any. The author (and I) usually answer no, and try to move on. But then the stranger feels compelled, like some sort of child-bearing evangelist, to tell her (and me) how big a mistake it is, how much we’ll regret it, how having children is the single most important thing they’ve ever done and she (and I) are incomplete humans for not wanting to do it. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to say “I’m barren” and walk away. But that’s a lie, I know that I’m fertile, and yet I know that neither child-bearing nor child-rearing is part of my life plan. And I don’t feel the need to justify it, especially not to strangers.

So the premise of Why Have Children? was an absolute surprise, and a welcome one, to me. The author argues persuasively that the higher moral burden is not on those choosing not to have children, but in fact on those choosing to have children. Because, essentially, the choice not to have children has fewer potential risks of harm both to the parent, to the possible child, to the society, and importantly to the environment. She examines the two questions of inherent rights: does one have an inherent right not to have children, and does one have an inherent right to have children. She finds that the former, the right not to have children, is stronger than the right to have children, ethically, but that there is a right to have children under specific moral circumstances.

And that right has to do with the creation of a relationship with the child. She examines a number of often-given reasons for wanting to have a child—the continuance of the family/species, the desire to love and be loved unconditionally, the sense of social expectation or prestige—and finds them all lacking. There are good reasons, she argues, for wanting to have a child, but these are not them. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because I think you should read the book. It’s philosophy, but at a level that is approachable for the non-philosophers among us. There is some dense reasoning, but it’s explained thoroughly and in a way that approaches accessibility.

The most engaging chapter for me came towards the end of the book, where she examines the environmental impact of reproducing and how that bears on our right or obligation to have or not to have children. The final chapter was perhaps the other most interesting part of the book, if only because she argues that unconditional love is in fact not a valid reason for wanting to have a child, and not even a desirable condition of parenting after a point. It’s another extremely well-thought-out argument that is shocking, perhaps even offensive to some of our social norms. But, as she says:

The idea of having unconditional love for an individual who is older than six or seven [providing for normal development, which she does earlier] suggests that it does not really matter who the loved one is. If love for a person is truly unconditional, then it is unrelated to the loved one himself. …

But who the loved one is does matter. Real human love is love for particular human beings. We love people for who they are. And most people want to be loved for who they are, not loved in a way that is indifferent to their particularities. …

But another and much better kind of conditional love is the kind that says, “I love you for who you are; I love you because you are you. I love you because of what you do, what you say, and what you are becoming. Your needs, hopes, and choices endear you to me.”

Ultimately, she says and I agree, the moral burden is heavier on those wishing to reproduce. It is in fact not an unreasonable thing to ask potential parents to consider their abilities, motivations, and capacity as parents to form a relationship that values their child for who their child is, and not who they hope the child will be. And, as she concludes, it is not an unreasonable thing to consider our environmental and societal impact in making these choices. Regardless of where you stand on this question for yourself, this book is immensely valuable in understanding all the various approaches, reasons, and questions one might ask when deciding whether or not to become a parent. And frankly, if you are already a parent, there is some great advice for how to parent ethically in here.

And not that it should matter, because her reasoning is extremely elegant and sound, but when I was telling someone about the book the first question (and seemingly the only one they thought was relevant) was “does the author have children?” The answer is yes, two, and she discusses it in the beginning and again at the end of the book.


[Check out what else I’m reading on Goodreads.]

[I tweet quotes from books I’m reading, and other stuff too, @ericamena]

“All good poetry is experimental”

January 20, 2015

I recently had the humbling experience of doing poorly on an interview for something I really wanted. I actually interview terribly, so it’s not really surprising to me, but still disappointing nonetheless. One of the members of the committee interviewing me is a poet I’ve admired for a long time, who’s work I’ve studied and taught, and I’m sure that didn’t make things any easier, nerves-wise.

One of the questions posed to me that I hadn’t anticipated, hadn’t even ever been asked before, by this poet is “why do you call yourself an experimental poet?”. It was here things started to unravel for me.

What I should have said, if I’d been able to articulate the flood of contradictory thoughts, was something about genres defining reader expectation more than anything else. That labels, and categories, and genres, and styles, do less to define the writing than they do to define the reading.

Take Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN, recently nominated for a NBCC award in both poetry and nonfiction. Take Susan Howe’s genre-defying My Emily Dickinson. Take Christian Bok’s Ventrakl. Take most lyric confessional poetry, that is simultaneously memoir and poem. Take Neruda’s Canto General, simultaneously history and poetry. Take the Bible, for God’s sake. Read it literally, read it figuratively, read it as poetry, read it as history, read it as translation. And then tell me what kind of book it is.

Poetry requires so much of its reader, and poetry that challenges expectations also teaches readers to read in a new way. Genre, and style, and category, these are more than teaching, they are marketing techniques. Ways to define audience and expectation before the reader gets to the text. Here is a book of poetry, and you expect something. Here is an essay, here is a memoir, here is history, and you expect something else. Here is something that is both. That is neither. What do you make of it?

Experimental is defined against traditional. Traditional is currently the lyric confessional, but it used to be something else. Traditional used to be modernist, before that it was Romantic, and before that, something else again. Poetry is vast, it contains multitudes. But the multitudes don’t always want anything to do with one another. Style is a way of differentiating, and in some ways, and for me perhaps most importantly, a way of finding community and kindred in the vast sea of poetry.

But what troubles me, often, about defining those communities is that they involve the negating of value of any other kind of way of doing poetry or being a poet. I think another reason for me, in answer to “why experimental” is because many experimental poets are less likely to disparage other ways of doing poetry. And when I teach poetry, especially at the introductory level, I want to encourage all the ways of poetry in the world. Because even if you, or I, or someone else doesn’t like it, there’s someone that probably does. The “it’s a fine thing, just not my thing” approach to poetry.

So why do I call myself an experimental poet? In part because that is the word that the poets I feel most kindred to use to describe themselves, or critics use to describe them. In part because the expectations it carries with it and imparts to the reader are perhaps more open, less restrictive. In part because I think it helps me define my audience: an audience expecting risk and strangeness, less invested in the “traditional,” whatever that may be at the moment.

But still none of these seem like good answers. At the end of the interview, the poet gave me a good answer, that I’ll remember for next time. He said, “Wallace Stevens said ‘All poetry is experimental.'”
“Oh, that’s a good answer.” I said.
“I would say that ‘all good poetry is experimental.” He answered.

Even better.


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