Between November 28 and December 8 of 2010 I asked the (at the time) Spork Press cabala—Jake Levine, Richard Siken and Drew Burk—questions about their chapbook series. At that point they had printed 5 chapbooks. They’ve since published several more. For over two years the interview sank deeper and deeper into an editorial slush pile (because it’s huge) and then finally disappeared. I’m publishing it here now and my blog because there is great stuff here and Spork is still publishing with a vengeance, including chaps by Joyelle McSweeney and Feng Sun Chen.
Q: Spork seems intent on pissing people off through both the transgressive content of some of the chaps and your editorial practice of explaining why you reject submissions. Judging from your blog, you’ve been wildly successful so far:
“I am sickened when I finally finish Spork, and I think about the people who applaud such work. Who are they? A race of protected snobs ensconced in the plush chairs of expensive clubs, pinkies raised on their tea cups like the slimy red hard-ons of their homosexual lapdogs.”
Are we snobs? If so, is this a problem?
Drew B: About the pissing people off thing… I don’t think we go out of our way to piss anyone off, but neither are we nice for the sake of being nice. Okay, neither am I nice for niceness’ sake. I spent some time cutting hair in La Jolla, many years ago, and when I was doing that, this intimate thing that’s all touching and closeness, I’d only see the hair, not the person. Only the hair. And that’s a bit of what’s going on now. I don’t see the authors, just the words, what the words do or do not do, what the words attempt and how well they succeed, and often I’m not responding to the author at all, I’m responding to the piece, talking to the piece itself, and the author’s just there as the mediator. Or maybe I don’t do that at all, but I feel like I do, especially right now while I’m saying that’s what I do. After a while, the author comes into focus and I communicate with him (or her. Shit, shit. Her, I totally meant to say her) directly about the work… at any given time I’m in semiregular contact with a perpetually changing cast of fifteen to twenty authors, working on pieces, sharing stuff, and things are all nice and nobody’s mad about anything. So I’m not thinking about people who are mad about whatever, since everything, in here, is so nice.
And like Richard said… we do whatever the hell we want to do. We love what we do, and we want to continue to love what we do. To consider too much the impact and how folk are gonna react to whatever would diminish the love.
I was hoping we could fight. This interview. I wanted a fight. This guy in Chicago threatened to sue me, then he sent me two full manuscripts and a bunch of headshots. My buddy Dan and I beat each other up on stage while Shya read his poems — I mean that’s just RUDE. Ain’t nobody gonna just up and call us out on our apparent contempt for… for what? Just what the hell are we so contemptuous about anyway? We could have so much fun, but here we are, being all INFORMATIONAL. I think Jake cares more about playing nice, and Richard’s Richard, but me, I don’t get any of this and I would like it clarified. Or I would like for it to take a swing at me. Me: akimbo and splayed, beseeching and really really wanting to know.
And yeah. We’re snobs. I hope we are. So much effort and work goes into doing it well. I just wish it wasn’t only crazy cabdrivers pointing it out.
Jake L: Dear Joe and all, I’ll get to the questions, but first I’d like to say:
Drew is an asshole. For several reasons I won’t go into right now, but one of them includes purposely twisting the industrial blue kind of cheap paper towel bandage I sloppily wrapped and taped around the cut off part of my finger, creating this brand-new gaping flesh sensation… He also laughs, hysterically, in your face when you are in extreme pain. When you get cut at Spork HQ, which you will, because Drew’ll cut you, you have two options of bandagery (is that a word… I don’t know, but I like it). Hello Kitty band aid or industrial makeshift bandage. Then his daughter will laugh at your fucking Hello Kitty band aid while you continue to slave away cutting board and folding stacks while Drew broods over you smoking a cigarette. Then the wife will come out and scream at you to go get some fucking toilet paper on account of you happening a shit in their bathroom. She’s got chickens on her shoulders. No one is allowed to shit. You don’t fuck around with a posse or woman like that. Meanwhile, Richard is watching us poolside, margarita in hand, through the monitor in the stomach of a waitress robot (who looks like the maid in Spaceballs) . The only one who can save you is Jamison, but you don’t fuck around with Jamison, because Jamison can be the coldest motherfucker. That’s why we call him icey j steel. When he walks into the room, everyone throws up their hands and screams “the jam is on” and then he snaps his finger and says “hell yeah! the jam is ooon”. then everyone usually gets naked and dances, except for Andrew, because Andrew is the DJ and the designer and as anyone in the publishing industry knows, the designer never gets naked or dances because he is the only true professional.
Most of the old printing shit we have isn’t even used for making books. It’s for thinking about how to take old shit they used to make books with and reappropriate as sexual objects. Spork HQ is really a dungeon, with chickens, with high life, and Richard is videotaping the whole thing.
As far as pissing people off-
We’re honest and honesty pisses people off. It’s too genuine. When I compare submissions to the work of Leonard Nimoy in rejection letters, it makes me feel sane, and I say so in the letter. I feel cleaner telling people what I really think. We don’t do formal rejections and we actually spend the time reading the work. We usually write about half a page about what worked and didn’t work and people are generally really appreciative, unless the person’s work is exceptionally bad. If it’s apparent they haven’t read what we publish or anything published by any writer of any merit in the last fifty ears, then we act accordingly (like assholes). My least favorite people are writers that don’t read. Our chapbook series reflects the authors and types of book we want to read. It’s honest in that way, that we like to read.
To answer the homosexual lapdog question, I’ll tell a story. So I went to this off-site AWP reading with my good buddy Andrew and saw this dude talking about Antonio Pigafetta and history and trailers. In between poems, I whispered to Andrew, “dude this dude must have a homosexual lapdog.” And because we were drinking PBR in an art gallery in Denver, listening to readings by authors on independent presses, it was true. We all have homosexual lapdogs. Except for Richard, he’s got lapdog robots and that dude who wrote that review is a complete asshole. That’s why we published him on the blog!
As far as snobbery goes, I don’t know if it matters whether we’re snobs or hipsters or made for T.V villains. I sometimes even wonder whether it matters that we exist when we are making the books, when we are broke, when we are throwing our last moneys into the printer, when we are sleeping on the concrete floor and waking up next to the press. I guess we do it because we like to hang out. I have this friend, Erika Jo Brown, who wrote something recently about how great writing alleviates the feeling of loneliness, like in that poem “October” by Louise Gluck. It’s kind of Edmond Jabes of us to say that the book is our fatherland, but it kind of is. We have to keep making books because we are nostalgic for home / we have to keep making home because we are nostalgic for books.
Q: Why is–
Pansy as pensee
revises its petal–
edits the mile
the bee dances
the text’s ample
fact (Dan Beachy-Quick)
–contained side by side with–
Burnt-robed Daddy and come
smeared Baby on bubble’s outer edges, piss on it,
no other, vain, honor, thy, false wit, pull penis from
pants and piss on it, better yet, defile with defecation,
squat and this shit alphabet, then tickle her till she
shrieks (Gordon Massman)
in one chapbook series?
Jake L: D.H Lawrence’s carbon copies of his pensees, his pansies, were confiscated in the post office by authorities for fear of obscenity. I guess what I mean is that Dan and Gordon’s work have a lot in common. The fact that Dan tackles W.C.W at his word takes incredibly nerve. He flips one of the most anthologized, memorized, famous poems of the 20th century on the grounds that W.C.W’s poetic posturing was immoral. It’s poetically obscene to take the great dead and rewrite their poetry, but Dan does it and that’s why he’s the gangster of the American lyric. I don’t think anyone is better.
Gordon also bears big balls. Who writes about incest, perversity, the carnivalesque with more sincerity or energy than him? The propulsion, the compression of sound in the long line, the continuous pounding of enjambment creates a system and form that Gordon enacts consistently and with great effect. As far as obscenity goes, there’s a purity of Ars Poetica in Massman, not the postmodern notion of meta-text, but in the words of Archibald Macleash, “A poem should not describe, but be.” The beginning of 1849, or what we like to call “the incest poem” begins, ” I am in love with my daughter, she loves me, and / we have husband wife sexual relations, how / gratifying to spawn from one’s seed one’s mate, / to perfect her, she worships and obeys and we / sleep side by side, often intertwined, I diapered / and washed her, caressed babyflesh, blubbered / her tummy, sang to her before slumber, I taught / her correctitude of fondle, the masculine lap” and so on. You really get in there.
So, when you get down to the nitty with these chaps and their chappies, I think what binds them as a group is the clean sense of the book, the work as single project. Each chapbook reads as a singular unit– it begins, develops, and ends. That’s what we were looking for. We also wanted to reflect who we are as readers, what we privilege when we read… I think what Jamison and I look for in poems / poetry is whether or not anything is at stake and what kinds of risks a poet is willing to take. All these poets take risks big enough to make their work urgent and present. I think these schools / camps / aesthetic hullabaloo that define presses and series are a part of some larger system I don’t quite understand. If it’s great poetry, I read it. I don’t care if C.D Wright is blah and who Charles Bernstein pissed off and why G.C Waldrep’s haircut makes him the conceptual powerhouse of Tupelo or how Chelsey Minnis won’t return my phone calls and is a closet lesbian. I’m not here to judge what words or subjects great poetry utilizes. I’m just trying to read what’s on the tip, what excites, what inspires, what changes, and a whole more what’s.
When I say the series reflects what we value as readers, I think I can talk a little bit about the reader as editor function of, well, editorial labor at Spork? editorial privilege? When Bowie said, “where were the spiders, while the fly tried to break our balls”, is a type of existential question at least worth pondering when considering becoming an editor. For us the job is threefold, sixpence. (I just wanted to throw in sixpence cuz after threefold I was feeling mighty and rustic). We have the chapbooks, the physical issue, and the weekly online segment. They aren’t different hats we wear, necessarily, just one great hat with different functions. Like a Russian ushanka, which I often don when writing rejections and drinking degtine with onions and herring.
1) When Jake got back from AWP he told Drew, “hey Drew, we should make chapbooks.” Then they had a meeting with Andrew and Richard. Richard said, “Get me a latte, then get Dan Beachy-Quick to do us a chapbook.” Then they made a list of 50 authors on a napkin they’d like to make chapbooks for. Jack Spicer and Frank Stanford were on that list, but they were crossed out later when we ruled out soliciting dead people. Out of that list Jake and Andrew conspired to go with DBQ and Gordon Massman for the first two for two reasons. It would gives us seemingly endless editorial range and we would never get into the debacle of publishing work that was outside what we “normally” do, as we don’t “normally” do things– like you said in the question, content-wise, there is no greater distance between DBQ and Massman. Secondly, we wanted to reflect the type of work we are reading. Running a series, as a fan of poetry, is a pretty awesome job. You get to ask your favorite authors for their newest work which you get to read before anyone else does. You create a dialogue with them and a relationship. It’s a real satisfying enterprise, particularly when it’s not attached to institutional or state supported funding.
2) I think what David B. was getting at with the longing for spiders is what happens when you send people truthful personal correspondence about their work when they anonymously submit to your online publication because they found it in a random internet search for “publish poetry online” and they get incredibly angry with you because it was obvious that they didn’t take us seriously when we asked them to read the “type” of work we publish, or just anything more than the selected E.E Cummings or 100 Best American Poems books they bought back when they went to Indiana State and took a freshman English class and their professor was so young, attractive, and inspiring, or the silence of the Russian lady when we tell her that we won’t translate the 60 poems she sent us in cyrillic even though we think it’s great that she recently got two poems translated for a conference in France that are about “physicality” and “space”. Really, I think editors should try out writing individual letters to each submitter and attempt to be as honest as possible. I told one lady she was cliche in a really mean way. She told me if I lived in a glass house she would be the first one to throw a stone into it. I said to her, see what I mean?
Richard S: I do my own thinking, like: who will get me a latté and a chapbook by Dan Beachy-Quick? I got me a good team. I think big enough to make the awesome happen and I think small enought to keep Drew from making books out of jam and light, which he would have done if not for my small thinking.
Drew and I realized, at the beginning, that consensus was a dream-killer. Any member of team spork can do whatever they want whenever they want. Strangely, it coheres. “Let the kids be kids.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s robot friend told me that once.
Most of the peoples think Eleanor was the robot, but it didn’t go down that way. History belongs to the victors. English belongs to those who use her. Robots belong to no one, but most of them are friendly.
Q: Your chapbooks are a lot like…books—little hard cover books. They have weight and their own kind of rigid tactility. How did you come to this particular design?
Jake L: Drew will be able to answer this question best, but it involves high-life, american spirit blacks, a dude named john ashtray (who is a full time paint by numbers artist), brooklyn pizza, the tips of several of the fingers on my left hand, and chicken shit smeared on the spines of books. He’s got three chickens. Also, Drew likes to do things the long, hard, and right way. I remember showing Charles Alexander (CHAX) the books we were making, telling him the number of the run we were doing, and how much we were charging. He thought we were crazy. But it’s nice when your chapbook doubles as means of self-defense and are procurable for less than a police baton or mini-machete.
Drew B: Chapbooks don’t necessarily play nice on the shelves. They huddle together or hide between bigger books and they do not yield their basic information willingly. They must be questioned directly if you’re gonna get anything out of them, even just their names. They’re like 7″s. They’re special and wonderful all on their own, sometimes, but often they’re just snippets, throwaway things not intended to do anything more than make you buy the bigger things they’re excerpted from. Your 7″s they’ve probably got their own special place, all together, where they can be sorted through easily, the one you want located with a minimum of fuss… and I like looking over and seeing them, seeing mine, but they’re apart, separate, different. So I guess, for the most part, we’re not producing singles or EPs. They’re books. So we treat them like books.
The design of the chapbooks started with Andrew’s graphics and us trying to figure out how to translate his design into a physical object without merely printing the image on something and then wrapping that around a board or a book. What we came to eventually was to split the image up into layers — the plate on the board, and then the color elements in his design went on to vellum, the front and the back toying a bit with degrees of transparency, the base image obscured or revealed by the distance the vellum is from the board, and then further the various degrees of precision we were able to manage through the layering of our processes. We really liked the result, but then three books into it started to get a little dissatisfied with it (the vellum is expensive, tricky to use, and when you hold the book for a few minutes sometimes your fingers will pucker the vellum)… we’d already gone into production on Drew Krewer’s book, so we stuck with the design, but for Schomburg we went with the two-color letterpress thing. One plate engraved, one cut by hand, the result echoing (for me) the feel of the illustrations from those Highlights magazines I’d read in the doctor’s office when I was a kid. We produce in batches of 50-100 at a time, so as the books sell out, we’re going back and redoing the covers of the earlier chaps the way we did Zachary’s. Everything we do is a constant evolution. There isn’t a single thing we’ve done that’s been exactly the same from start to finish. We change things all the time. We’re kinda always satisfied and always changing.
Also, they’re not so hard to do, it’s not so different, what we do, from what other people do… we just go a few steps further, spend a little more time in some spots than others (and that’s probably a lie, in that this is just what we do and we’ve done it, with our hands, many thousands of times and so the real statement there is that we do less to do what we do than other people do to do what they do, you know? there’s muscle memory, there’s patterns and processes… it’s easier for us to do the steps that we do than it would be for us to try to do something else)… and besides, we’ve got the gear, we’ve got the hands, and we really like hanging out with each other, doing these things we do.
Also, summers in Tucson are brutal, it’s hot, the jobs all go away, and so another version of our story is that we were sitting around doing nothing and Jake had this reading he was doing and he needed some books for this reading, so we spent two straight weeks making this thing out of available materials. We were drunk probably half the time (the second half of every session), and we all complained a lot about the stupider parts of the process (stupidity brought about by our using the available materials rather than starting from nothing then making a plan then executing that plan intelligently and efficiently), and we identified a whole bunch of things we’d do different — they’d be smaller, no turn-ins, they’d have raw board that we’d just print directly on with plates we have that guy make for us, we’d cut blocks ourselves, we’d get a belt sander, etc… We’d written a list of authors we’d like to do chapbooks for, so we’ve started crossing names off that list.
Richard S: Drew started making blank books in the beginning. They didn’t sell. They were too precious for the peoples’ lousy thinkings. Why honor a blank mind? Because you should, but you can’t make an income and the peoples’ will get mad at you. I honor your blank mind, you say. Shove off, they say. So Drew says we should maybe honor some of them full minds. They get their thinking all done and worked out, and then Drew makes an object out of their thinking and Jake makes an electronic non-things out of their thinking so the peoples can read the thinking when they can’t hold the thinking.
I think chapbooks are like EPs and that bothered me for a while because EPs are, like, not enough music. But really, when we were working on the magazine we would ask the contributors to publish in batches because it saved us from sending out so many free contributors copies. And then Jake started saying “chappys” which made Drew mad and I like it when Drew is mad because he makes me do stuff when I’d rather be doing other stuff so I said okay let us go then, you and I, to make some of them chappys.
Drew and I agreed that we would respond to every submission with the truth, as we saw it. Drew almost went to jail and I was almost disappointed in the world. With the chappys, we can approach a writer and say “We’ve already decided to not reject you, so let’s get the work to the peoples.” And so we do. Well really they do, the spork team, all of them. I wave my arms around and get headaches. Drew stopped letting me make the books years ago. I can’t fold or glue to his standards. On that, we all agree.
Q: Drew wrote: “there’s muscle memory, there’s patterns and processes…”
Keep talking about this. How does constructing thousands of these books by hand construct you?
Drew B: Tell you one thing it does, it makes you cringe when you see you’ve mixed your number and said there is patterns instead of there are patterns.
Jake L: I think there’s a nostalgia in our culture (all of western culture) for a return to “realness”; the distance we’ve created for ourselves from physical reality and displacement from a time when we read books made of initial and lasting quality.
Look at the trendiness of vintage outlets, the insatiable marketing of products that have “the quality of a bygone era” which has become the statusquo. The Spork books themselves have a much longer shelf life than machine built books, have their unique flaws (which ultimately define their individuality), and I think are objects of nostalgia in that they are durable, handmade, new, and affordable (10 bucks). It’s like the “vintage” quality and feel that’s real, but new. I think Andrew Shuta said it best, that most try to design books to look like the shit we make. I liked that. I guess our role, as we see it, is to produce objects that honor the work, work that we feel is necessary to publish.
(sidenote: I also want to take a large solid and blunt object to smash Kindle’s face in, but that’s a long-term goal. O.k, onward.)
I think building the books, returning to physical labor after going through the editorial and design phases is kind of like what Henri Bergson was talking about when he said that we could explore virtual realities of consciousness by resistance to mechanical repetition and predictability. The ironic thing is that a lot of us have to leave virtual reality in order to resist the “mechanical repetition” and “predictability” of our lives. Building all our books by hand becomes a sort of meditative experience, the return to artisinal consciousness. Folding, cutting, rolling the press, the sander, the cut off fingers, the blood stains, the sweat, states of drunkenness, sleep deprivation, and delirium reached by binding for 12 continuous hours, hours spent in the company of others not speaking for what would otherwise be uncomfortably long periods of time, is all a kind of relief from most of our daily existences. It also requires committed attention and resolve to finish a project. I think I spent the entirety of the summer, when I was in Tucson, between Richard’s house and Drew’s studio building books. It defined my existence. Drew quit his job to build books. I guess it kind of became an M.O for our lives… Slaves to the endless and eventual stack that you end up shipping away.
Drew B: Whenever you use a tool, your brain adjusts its body map to account for the tool, treating it as an extension of the body. I reckon everyone knows that. But it’s the correct answer, and the more we do it, the more our understanding of ourselves includes the tools we use. When we’re “binding books”, say maybe the part where we’ve got the printed pages for folding, we (since we’re all right-“handed”) have the bone folders in our right hands, and they stay there, flat, extended extra fingers, while the left hands grab the sheets, most often 5 sheets to “a” signature (and we always start out counting each sheet, but it goes pretty quick to where we’re grabbing the right number of sheets by feel). Fold the sheets toward you, extend the flat, rigid finger, crease, retract the finger, flip the signature, re-extend the finger and re-crease, set the signature aside, and repeat until there’s the book (3-4 signatures in a chap, 10-15 in other publications). I imagine that guitar players would have an easier time with the process than maybe a pianist would. Pianists would do better with the covers, working both sides, while guitarists have better success doing one side of the cover, turning it around and doing the other, using the right hand for the manipulations, the left pressing silent chords on the surfaces, keeping things quiet and still. I don’t actually have to imagine that, we’ve explored it some.
The sewing part, we all start out close, standing right up to the workbench , but a few books in, having traded the flat fingers for the needle things, people start to step back and a kind of small dance ensues. The days when there’s more of us doing our small dances than there are crowding the bench are days we make the most books.
In simple details: the muscles in my right hand are vastly more developed than in my left, the left shoulder stronger than the right, the left elbow most prone to agony, followed close by the right wrist. These are some small physical things. Non-physically, we’ve soured ourselves on most commercially produced book products. People get annoyed with me when they hand me a copy of their book and the first thing I do is examine the spine. The second thing is to examine the hinges, if there are any. Then I feel the paper, the cover, bend it, open it, close it… then some time later I actually treat it as a thing that contains words. The books take a toll on our bodies, and so in some ways I have greater and unrealistic expectations from them. We’re scarred and callused and nearly always have recent lacerations that thread and wax and glue interfere with… Oh, cranking the press builds the right lat… we become hideous and freakish, twisted and hyperspecialized. I hope we become hideous and twisted anyway. The changes are subtle at present. But you can see them if you’re looking.
And I’m not sure what Jake’s saying about the Kindle. I don’t know that I share what I think his opinion is. Some things are mere information and we don’t have to put our hands to them. I’m okay with the electronic, if what the electronic means is that fewer crappy paper things are produced, and eventually the task of the physical is left to us, to people like us, to all of us doing these things we want to do for the things we love. It doesn’t hurt me at all to think about a time where the books that exist were all made by people who loved them enough to give themselves to it, to their being, to the generation of their existence a difficult thing rather than this easy thing we have now. Let the market have the electronics and let us have the meatspace.