This is a What’s My Scene? post from Rosanna Stevens.
In my whole life, I’ve lived six hours in Seattle, Washington. Two of them were as close as I’ve ever been to going on a blind date. When we met for the first and only time, it was under the agreement that we would turn up to Long Provincial – a downtown restaurant we were all yet to try, but one of us has heard good things about. Tara Atkinson and William Fitzgerald are two parts of the directorial team who put together Authors Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature or APRIL – a week-long festival held every March in Seattle. The APRIL staff is made complete with co-Director Kellen Braddock and Coordinator Frances Dinger – both Seattleans who couldn’t make it to our date. We’d agreed on lunch after I had been curiously drawn to their website, and I had only a travelling bag and an accent to be recognised by. While we slurped on pho, we exchanged descriptions of the different writing cultures in Seattle and Australia
APRIL is about to turn three. At the close of the 2014 festival APRIL will have introduced more than 85 authors and 50 independent presses to Seattle readers. APRIL isn’t limited to an annual event – much like Australia’s own Emerging Writers Festival, Tara and Willie program smaller events year-round. Their repertoire includes a bookstore bike tour over the summer, a book club committed to a new author and independent press every month, and last October they set up a small press matchmaker booth in an art gallery. Using paper chatterboxes (or cootie catchers, whichever floats your childhood boat), the project assigned gallery-goers to one of four books to take home. A year on from our encounter in a softly-lit Vietnamese joint, I dropped the two a line to talk about where APRIL fits in the American literary landscape.
ROSIE: APRIL is all about connecting the limbs that make independent press: writers, readers and publishers. Who have you featured in the past that we should know about?
TARA: One of my favorite moments from APRIL past has been Matthew Dickman reading my favorite poem of his, which is available from The New Yorker online, at our reading party. This is a poem by Sherman Alexie. And this is a poem from Chelsea Martin. It’s sort of old (2008), so I feel a little bad sharing it when she has so much newer stuff out, but reading this poem was one of the first interactions I had with small press literature and still a favourite. This excerpt from one of Rebecca Brown’s essays is really good, too.
WILLIE: Here’s Heather Christle’s tumblr. Ed Skoog is one of the festival’s guardian angels/continuing inspirations, and he has a podcast. Mark Leidner, who is reading at this year’s fest, is a Twitter must-follow. Chelsea Martin does comics for the Rumpus, and Roxane Gay is EVERYWHERE — oh man, she is just the best.
ROSIE: It’s interesting that you can share all of these recommendations with me and I can’t recognise a single name, but for you they are such familiar and excellent writers and artists. The world of independent press in the States is, like your country, foreign. So if you had to explain the nature of American independent press to, say, an alien or an Australian, how would you paint its portrait?
WILLIE: In the US, we have ‘the Big Five’ — five media conglomerates, and through the various publishing companies they own, they publish and sell most of the ‘big’ books of the year, whether those are literary fiction, memoir, nonfiction, popular fiction or whatever. Each of these five large publishing companies might encompass dozens of smaller publishing companies — the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group (usually just called Holtzbrinck) has Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG) and Picador under its umbrella, along with several other publishing outfits. Making things even more byzantine is that the publishing outfits under these large umbrellas often have imprints of their own — FSG has the imprint Faber & Faber, for example.
Operating in the shadow of the Big Five are hundreds and hundreds of small presses and journals. Some are large and really well established — they’re not really ‘small presses’. They fall more under the label of ‘independent publishers’: Grove/Atlantic, and W.W. Norton are tenured publishing houses that aren’t affiliated to any of those conglomerates. (Norton published Matthew Dickman’s latest book). Others are smaller and scrappier: Future Tense Publishing, based out of Portland, OR, has been around for more than 20 years. Kevin Sampsell started Future Tense in his kitchen with a long-armed stapler and, I presume, a lot of coffee and/or beer. Presses like that start up all the time.
Small press/independent publishing isn’t new, exactly. Even if you’ve never heard of small press publishing, you’ve probably read some of it: the publishing house/bookstore City Lights, started by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, and, well, just about everybody. Grove published Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
Also worth noting: both Grove and City Lights came under serious fire, both legal and otherwise, for publishing works that the authorities deemed obscene and incendiary (specifically, Howl and Tropic of Cancer). They fought those charges, won, and helped establish the artistic and aesthetic freedoms we enjoy today.
TARA: I think this Library Journal article about the Penguin Random House merger explains a lot about the state of American mainstream publishing right now. I like this article especially because they talk to some of the bigger independent publishers, and you get a sense of just HOW much bigger these Big Five houses (that are owned by even bigger media conglomerates) are than even the big independent houses.
I wanted to point out, too, that many independent publishers in the US are non-profits, so they’re often explicitly addressing cultural outcomes, sometimes the more general cause of “Literature”, sometimes advocating for specific voices that are underrepresented in mainstream culture. Which is obviously very important.
I think publishing is especially interesting in an American context because it relates so closely to a lot of issues that Americans care about: equal representation for minority groups, freedom of speech, yet you and I and a few other people probably think about the difference between independent publishing and mainstream publishing from time to time, but not many people think to look at who published their book. There’s been all of these really great grassroots movements dealing with food and local economies and shopping local and looking to see where your tomato is coming from to minimize carbon footprints – not that these are widely practiced necessarily, but the message has reached the mainstream – and I think APRIL and other independent literature supporters apply a lot of the same ideas to reading.
ROSIE: Where does APRIL see its place in this publishing ecosystem?
WILLIE: Well you’ve got these bigger, more established houses and these smaller, scrappier small press outfits. And the position we take is this: smaller independent presses consistently publish the most daring, challenging, vitalizing writing in the United States today. It’s where the next generation of great American writers flourishes.
As the Big Five have grown more conservative in their choices — publishing, at any point on the spectrum, is not an easy way to make money — small presses have emerged as the place to find the new important American voices. It’s also no exaggeration to say that without small press publishing, poetry in this country would be — certainly not dead, but vastly different. Small press publishing is the lifeblood of contemporary American poetry.
These small presses work without the resources for publicity, and many can only put out a couple books a year. They’re far from charity cases – these presses are run by talented, well-connected and incredibly dedicated people – but they should be recognized by more readers around the country and, hopefully, the world. APRIL hopes to help with that.
You can show APRIL some love and keep up to date with the development of the festival by liking their Facebook page, scrolling their tumblr, grasping onto their twitter handle, or visiting their website.
Rosanna Stevens is a writer living in Canberra. You can read her upcoming work in The Lifted Brow and The Griffith REVIEW.
This project was supported by Arts ACT