Tuesday, December 07, 2010

To Self-Publish Again or Not?

I've published circa seven poetry chapbooks over the years. Mostly these were self-published—not out of inflated vanity, but because I had the design, typesetting, and printing skills to do the job myself. I was a professional designer, with access to the necessary tools, so it was not hard to pull off. I even did bindery myself, in those cases.

In the case of those two or three chapbooks that others published, I still contributed typography and design, and/or illustrations. As an artist who does work in more than one medium, I have found that some publishers do appreciate a skillset that lets you give them something finished, which they only have to approve.

I have no problem with self-publishing, unlike some who judge it harshly. Poetry after all has a long history of poets publishing their own works—Walt Whitman is only one example, as he was a pressman and printer, too. The first 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass by contemporary standards would probably be dismissed as "vanity press." But if you have the skills, why not use them in the service of your own art, as well as in the service of others? Copper Canyon Press, which has become one of the premier American poetry publishers, began as a handset press, a cottage industry done out of love; in addition to the many handsome early editions CCP made (I have some in my library), they also contributed to the revival of the beautiful typeface Deepdene, originally designed by Frederic Goudy, which was used to set many early CCP books.

I've also made some specialty little broadsides: color laser-printed, hand-sewn little broadsheet-style diatribes on subjects political and erotic, or both. The three or four longest poems I've ever written have been explicitly sexual and homoerotic; two of these specialty books are chosen from that set of poems—and the content itself assures that some readers will treat it as political.

Mostly I've given these chapbooks and broadsides away. I've donated a few to fundraisers, raising money for causes ranging from AIDS support groups to Hospice care. I've sold a handful, no more than that.

cover illustration for chapbook

I've been talking about doing an art book that is completely handmade by the artist, myself. This past year I've set up a crafts work table and shelves in my basement. I can do all sorts of things there, and I find myself at that table often enough, even if all I'm doing is sorting photo prints. I've been thinking about this art book project more and more. I don't know yet what the contents will be. But that doesn't mean I can't make the paper now, or pre-visualize a book design. The handmade paper may need to be printed with handset type, or calligraphed, rather than printed. I anticipate the finished art book to be another multi-channel creative work, incorporating original text—probably poems—visual art—photography and/or drawings—and decorative illumination.

Hardcore word-oriented folks like some poets of record view all of this "supplementing the text," bas mere decoration, ecause to them the text is paramount, and everything else is decoration. I disagree completely. I am arguing for an equality between media, and equivalent attention paid to each. The design is not mere decoration for the text in an art book. The text might actually arrive last in the process. The beauty of a hand-made book lies in its tactile and visual pleasure at least as much as does in its textual contents. The point is that they should all work together, enhancing and complementing each other.

My question to myself at the moment, however, is: Would I ever self-publish another poetry chapbook? Would I ever bother to make another collection of poems for publication—except perhaps as part of an art book, or other multi-channel piece?

When I was at the Chicago Institute of Art last week, in the Modern section I stumbled across an entire wall full of Jospeh Cornell's little handmade puzzle boxes and curio cabinets. I've been thinking about something similar: a cigar box, perhaps, with a carving or woodburned image on it, then you open it up and find another image or carving, that might continue a narrative; or as with haiku, have two juxtaposed images that comment on each other, and give meaning. I can see some possibilities for a box that reveals both imagery and words when you open it.

Obviously I am self-publishing again: which is one of the purposes of this blog. Obviously I practice multi-channel creative self-publishing, having made at least one short film incorporating text moving across the screen, sound design, and original videography and still photography.

I am not drawn to video-blogging for the simple reason that I don't feel particularly photogenic. I am comfortable in front of the radio or podcast microphone, indeed I have many years of broadcasting experience to give me some self-confidence in my speaking voice. (A rather high-pitched and quiet one, unless I consciously focus and direct.) Rather than video blogging, I am more likely to make short multi-media films, and post those. Another project for over winter, perhaps.

My podcast contains numerous ambient recordings made on roadtrips I've made across the US. One of my favorites of these was a recording of a thunderstorm made one January while sitting on the lip of the Grand Canyon in Arizona: the storm clouds, thunder and lightning, were actually happening right across from me, in the Canyon, while snow and light freezing hail were falling on the truck: Clearing Storm, Grand Canyon Abyss. One short film I want to make will be based around this sort of winter scene, with ambient sounds, and a poem or two.

I'm not really interested in making Personal Statements. The world can fix itself, without my intervention. People label some of my art as political merely because it speaks some sort of truth that they had been avoiding up till now. Disturbing the universe is always a political act, on some level.

I view the art I make mostly as reportage: of states of mind, of places and presences encountered, of states of consciousness beyond the standard solipsistic narcissism that dominates most poetry nowadays. I'd rather convey the experience of meeting fox and ravens in the desert Southwest than talk about my personal problems. Poetry isn't always therapy, or never just therapy. I'd rather present what I've seen, and not coerce you into accepting my viewpoint, and let you make up your own mind. It's not the news of human dramas on the television; it's the "news of the universe," and therefore it often operates on the timescale of the geologic sublime, rather than on a human timescale.

I recognize of course that this is a political stance of sorts, too. But it's a branch of ecopolitics, it has values dating back to the Paleolithic, and it's shamanic. So it deals with the spirits of the land, rather than with my own life-history (except where these overlap). It's also in alliance not with the self-absorbed urban mainsprings of poetry, but with those California poets and photographers of sea and land, such as Robinson Jeffers, George Sterling, William Everson, Gary Synder, and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.

So would doing another chapbook be worth it? I suppose it might be, if I had a reason to. Perhaps a special occasion, or as a gift. For the moment, though, I think the art book project is more inherently interesting, in part because it uses more channels of creativity than the merely verbal. Meanwhile, I recognize that I've never really stopped publishing—but the tools to self-publish keep getting better, too, and more competitive in terms of quality. So who knows?

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

There was a time when to be read you needed to be in print, end of story. I’m fully aware that more people have read my poetry online than ever read my poetry that has appeared in print and yet I wasn’t satisfied until I had a collection that I could hold in my hand. I suspect it’s an age thing. The problem with things stored on computer is that they get forgotten. We have to view everything through this ruddy letterbox (which is how this screen I’m looking at right now feels to me most of the time) and there’s no room to spread things (or even myself) out. A book, especially a book where some effort has gone into the production, is not simply just a container for words; it is an experience, an experience that you can relive with comparative ease. All you have to do is remember where you put the damn book but most people don’t have so many books lying around that they can’t find the one they’re after; all files on a computer all look alike.

My wife has bought me a Kindle for Christmas and since she couldn’t wait I have it now. I have mixed feelings about it – I miss the touch screen that my Rocket eReader has – but I’ll get used to it. I fully recognise the ecological benefits to having books and music stored electronically but I find it a little hard to appreciate them as experiences as opposed to possessions. I have little doubt that the next generation will not have the same reservations. A computer file doesn’t feel like much of a gift through, does it? And books are a stable in my household. I would regularly give my daughter a half-dozen books along with all her other Xmas and birthday presents and once she’s finished her university course and has time to read again I’ll go back to that.

I have always given handmade collections of my poems to my friends. With the ease and cheapness now of print on demand publishing I would have no problems running off a half-dozen copies of something special purely as presents. As a commercial venture though unless what you’re selling is extremely populist then you don’t need me to tell you there’s no money in it.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree about the physical, tactile pleasure of having a book in hand, that is a printed object, not just pixels on a screen. The pleasure of reading out of a book is one reason the book itself is not in danger of dying out—there will always be physical books, even if many people also now read on the Kindle or similar device.

What predictors of the demise of the book never seem to understand is that the book, as you say, is not merely just another means of delivering text to eye, just another data-carrier, it's an actual object that many still love to hold, and always will.

People who make that argument don't really understand that the contents of the book, the text, the words, are only part of the experience; but then, I've often noted that people who make such claims have no real design sense, either. For them it IS all about the words, not about the packaging. Speaking as a book designer, though, I can tell you that even those people miss the design aspect when it isn't there. Look at the whole controversy about poetry on the Kindle, and how it fails to preserve the line-breaks and other aspects of poetry presentation on the page.

And as I've said, there will always be art books, special editions, etc., being made.

For me, making a chapbook was never about it being a commercial venture. As you say, for many years print was the only way you'd ever conceivably get read. So I made some chapbook runs specifically and literally to "get the word out." It's just that I also made them as beautiful as I could, since I had the design skills to do so; and who knows, maybe they would have stood out from the other chapbooks. Or not. But not even the independent bookstores really carry do much chapbook business anymore, unless they're specifically dedicated to poetry.

My question now, in these changing times, is it worth it to make a chapbook again (except as the occasional gift), since those other ways of getting read DO exist. As usual, I tend to take a wait and see attitude towards it all.

10:26 AM  

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