Saturday, January 2, 2010

New News: Delete Press

In writing a review of CJ Martin's latest book, out from the new Delete Press, I asked Crane Giamo, one of the editors, for background information on Delete.  Martin's chapbook, WIW?3, part of a series, is startlingly good, really one of the best books of poetry I've read this year (which is why I'm SLOWLY writing a review of it), yet as amateur book artist, I couldn't help but delve into the object itself.  The book is beautifully constructed, coptic bound, the cardstock thick and letterpressed typesetting gorgeous.  Each comes with its own handmade sleeve (again, beautiful). All materials (I think) are recycled.  So, I emailed Delete and asked them what gave rise to this new press, as well as how they worked with CJ.  The latter will be another post--here I'll just say that Crane said they worked quite closely with CJ throughout on the design of the book. For now, I want to pass along what Crane forwarded me--fellow editor Jared Schickling's mission statement, or mini-essay-as-response to my question. 

Why Delete Press?


We start interning at a university-affiliated journal and notice a number of things right off the bat.  Despite advertising itself as a journal seeking “new” and “upcoming” writers, suggesting that unsolicited submissions have a fighting chance of getting through the selection process, the journal’spermanent editorial board solicits the vast majority of its published material.  These editors, English department faculty and staff, solicit work from writers they admire and from their friends, and it’s common for an issue to contain not one unsolicited poem.  Someone working in the field tells us one builds a successful journal through solicitations, which we believe is true.  Our problems are with the posturing of the journal and the quality of the work finally printed.  Most of the work that we see reach publication is mired in popular and established models of writing and thinking being pushed and explored in mostly prominent English departments.  We notice how many poems, often in obtuse ways, use all the coveted buzzwords of the day—“location,” “Other,” “cartography,” etc. 


But perhaps our biggest problem is the manner in which unsolicited manuscripts are treated.  They go through an evaluation process resembling an assembly line.  A row of graduate students read the same manuscripts successively—if at any point a reader doesn’t like one, that manuscript is rejected.  There is little conversation—one likes it or one doesn’t.  We notice that the most mild, broadly appealing poetry can get through all those different readers, many of whom seem new to the manifold worlds of innovative, contemporary, at times underground poetry of the past century. Furthermore, if at any time a manuscript manages to satisfy all of these readers, hungry and curious and perhaps easily excitable at “discovering” titillating poets and poetry, the work still has to pass that issue’s lead editor.  (Return to first point; and note that student readers are students of thepermanent editorial board.)     


The press that publishes the journal also runs an annual book contest.  We literally despise every book that wins, aware of the innovative, important, and more interesting work happening elsewhere at presses that aren’t asking reading fees, submitting artistic endeavors to a “contest,” nor offering cash prizes.  The contest model amounts to extortion.  Artists, such as many writers are, will produce and distribute their work in the absence of support from markets, academies and presses.  History shows this.  Writers don’t need presses.  Presses, however, need writers.  As we work with five different presses currently, we’ll add that we value the work many editors and publishers are doing.  They give us our books and digital media in aesthetically pleasing formats, and in this can do a great honor and service to a writer’s work.  They create space in which a work may live.  But how is it that we’ve arrived at a moment where publication with wide distribution, cash prizes, and the institutional praise attending that are the barometers by which the work of a press is valued and comes to be desired?  To suggest that this isn’t the case is to simply deny the actual situation.  We have a publisher friend who can’t tell us one title published by such-and-such press, but yet he wants his press to affiliate with theirs and be welcomed into its larger community of writers and presses—why?   And he requires, by requiring contest fees, that writers support him financially in his endeavor, as his press’s books aren’t selling as well as he’d like.  What values are exposed in this situation?  Presses requiring reading fees will argue it’s the only way to sustain their projects—but do we need presses that can’t sustain themselves by virtue of the work they’re producing?  Why do we go to presses?  What exactly are we looking for?


The problems with the contest model also include the nature of judging.  The ideal judge for a contest is one that meets with the press’s aesthetic, and one who is famous, making the contest look attractive to aspiring writers, thereby attracting more submissions and the accompanying fees.  The writer thinks, “If Eileen Myles or Billy Collins or…would only choose…endorse my work,” and thus, the winning manuscript will be one that conforms to pre-existing notions of what constitutes “winning” poetry.  It is not possible to run an “ethical” contest despite the lip service couched in the CLMPCode of Ethics.  The contest model of publishing is antithetical to the health and evolution of poetry and its forms.


We quit to work with a smaller press doing chapbook contests with the occasional full length.  The contests continue to prove disappointing—in six or seven contests we are excited for one manuscript, but the judge doesn’t choose it.  The founders of the press admit to publishing work in which they have no interest.  They hand their most important decisions over to someone whose interests are not necessarily in line with the publishers’ needs and desires.  So again the question, whom and what is the press serving?  All the while various ideas on how to publish work that excites us are mired in what ifs that are irrelevant, centering on how to create a popular and commercially viable press.  Instead of engaging in more satisfactory work, all we do is talk about it, a discussion accounting matters perpetually sidetrack.  A few of us talk it over and decide the nature of the aspiration—success, fame—is the problem, a dumb dream masking the fact that evolutionary poetry begins as an unknown, and often remains so throughout its author’s life.


We decide it will be possible to run a self-sustaining press by soliciting and publishing work we deem important.  Period.  The trick will be to choose truly (according to our lights) outstanding work, to put much care into the construction of the book, and to do this in small, limited edition print runs that don’t cost too much.  The measure of “too much” will be something we can’t afford funding out-of-pocket.  It may seem idealistic to suggest that a press doesn’t need to rely on reading fees in order to happen, that it can sustain itself on the quality of the work it produces, in light of how few consumers of poetry there are and the many presses they already know and can choose from.  But here we are with our first print run almost sold out and our money investment returned.  We put this next to our remembrances of boxes stuffed with contest winners and journals from ten years ago awaiting their readers.  We don’t try to account for the possible truth involved with our own dream, other than to say that we have faith that other readers and writers share our vision—where the quality of the work is all that matters—we have faith that there will be buyers for work that hasn’t thought once in terms of posterity, popularity or commerce. 


We won’t suggest that vanity and conflicting interests do not attend this experiment called Delete Press.  We benefit in ways that have little to do directly with its work, and we appreciate those benefits.  But we run the press with the interests of the press in mind, because we’re whores topoetry. 


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