Interview: David Abel and Sam Lohmann (Airfoil, Peaches & Bats, Envelope)

Since 2010, Portland-based poets Sam Lohmann and David Abel have been publishing chapbooks under their Airfoil imprint. Over several email exchanges in spring/summer 2013, Sam and David spoke about the pleasures and pains of running a small press, their respective projects Peaches and Bats and Envelope, and future plans for Airfoil.

Jen Hutton: How did Airfoil come about?

Sam Lohmann: David and I were spending a lot of time together working on other projects, and he had a poem he wanted to make into a chapbook (Commonly) and I had a poem I wanted to make into a chapbook (Onlooking) so I guess it just seemed obvious that we should start a chapbook press together. Deciding to do that was easy, but it took us about six months to agree on a name. David also publishes Envelope—a series of folded broadsides in envelopes, given away for free—and I was using the name “The Firm & Aerie” as a handle for my publications, and we realized that Airfoil was a beautiful word that balanced halfway between the two.

JH: Do you have an editorial mandate for the press?

SL: Does that mean something like a mission statement, or guidelines for what we will and won’t publish? We haven’t made anything like that explicit, even in conversation with each other. Our approach to the press is pretty casual and so far we’ve worked project-by-project rather than attempting to define overall goals or long-term plans. We seek manuscripts by solicitation only, and thus far have only published chapbooks by ourselves and by four close friends whose work we thought should be better known. In general, I think we favor writers who are active in our poetry community (not limited to Portland) and don’t already have lots of other publishing opportunities. The selection reflects our taste—we embrace the experimental and the political but ultimately look for what gives us pleasure and excitement as readers, which can’t be defined programmatically.

JH: I really love the cover designs of Airfoil’s books. By using letterpress they seem unified, but each one is distinctive. What sort of considerations do you make in designing your books? Does the poet have input on the design, or is the design informed by the content?

SL: Thank you! So far we’ve tended to divide the labor so that I design and print the covers and David designs and lays out the interior text (with the exception of Onlooking, which I did myself). We talk and send things back and forth in the process. Most of the writers we’ve worked with have given us free rein over the design and haven’t had many suggestions, but we always solicit author input and send proofs before printing the interior text.

David Abel: Sam both draws and writes (and, of course, prints)—and I have a background in typography, and a long career as an editor. So the division of labor was quite natural. I take great pains to find a typographic design that suits and serves the text. Several of the chapbooks have been quite complex (in particular, the Chris Daniels), or had particular challenges (the varying lengths of piece in Jeffrey Lee’s, and the dual-language titles in Chris Piuma’s) and in those cases I’ve consulted fairly extensively with the authors to be sure that my understanding of their intention(s) was adequate.

SL: My cover design process is somewhat improvisational and usually occurs through typesetting and printing rather than beforehand, so it works best if I can be kind of high-handed about it—luckily the writers seem happy with the results. I hope there’s some unity to the look of the covers—I’ve retained some elements, with variation, through all of them. The size and shape of the chapbook comes about as a response to the text, and our choice of colors, typefaces, paper, etc. has some (mostly intuitive) relation to the text. Sometimes cover design ideas come directly from the text or title.

JH: I’m curious to know a little more about the literary scene in Portland. Sadly, I’ve never been! Is small press production and experimental poetry thriving there? As writers and bookmakers, tell me what the best things about living in Portland are.

SL: It’s a very lively scene, and really seems to have exploded in the last few years. The Independent Publishing Resource Center (iprc.org) is a really wonderful resource for tiny publishers of all kinds, a great place to learn and do letterpress printing on the cheap, and indispensable to Airfoil and Peaches and Bats. There are more reading series than I can keep up with and lots of young folks doing interesting things. Both David and I are members of Spare Room (flim.com/spareroom), a collective that organizes a long-running reading series (it’s now in its twelfth year). We average a little more than one reading a month (about fifteen a year), usually pairing a local poet with an out-of-towner, and it’s been a great way to stay in touch and meet poets. There are some amazing bookstores (Powell’s, Mother Foucault’s, Division Leap, Reading Frenzy) that carry our stuff and all kinds of things I want to read.

JH: For each of you, what are the most and the least enjoyable things about running a small press?

SL: I love reading new work by writers I care about and working with my friend to design and make attractive, functional delivery devices for that work. I hate having to decline unsolicited submissions, and I’m not very good at maintaining business relationships with bookstores or doing promotion.

DA: The great pleasure for me is the sense of being directly involved in the birthing of the books, and the building of literary community. Distribution is the most difficult and least enjoyable aspect of publishing, but the model we use makes it a little bit easier: We publish small editions (usually about 200 copies), and we keep the expenses extremely low by doing all the production labor ourselves. (Sam prints the covers at the IPRC; I print the text on my laser printer, and we do the binding together.) So we can afford to give a substantial portion of the editions to the authors, and the editions seem to be slowly selling out.

JH: When not doing work related to the press, what are you up to? I’d love to hear more about what you’re working on now—new projects, teaching, day jobs…

SL: I teach at a preschool part-time and I’m almost finished getting a Master’s in Library Science degree. After I graduate in August I’ll be looking for library work. My involvement in poetry and publishing has definitely declined while I’ve been in school, to my chagrin. I do my own writing when I have time, and go to readings when I can.

DA: I wear a lot of hats. To pay the bills, I do a lot of freelance copyediting and proofreading, sell out-of-print and rare books as Passages Bookshop, sometimes teach, and do a bit of consulting. For more than a year and a half I’ve been involved in a collective of visual artists and writers called 13 Hats (13hats.org), and our work is culminating right now in two exhibitions and a new publication, The Feralist—it’s an exciting time!

JH: What are your future plans for Airfoil?

SL: The next Airfoil publication will be a set of 64 one-line poems printed on cards, by Judith Roitman of Lawrence, Kansas. The edition will be small, about 60 copies, but it’s an ambitious printing job—the whole thing will be letterpress, quite different from what we’ve done before. We’ve been working on it for a while. When that’s finished we’d like to do some more chapbooks. There has been talk of copublishing projects, but nothing firm. I imagine we’ll keep doing what we’re doing for as long as we both enjoy it.

JH: Sam, Peaches and Bats seems like a very different project from Airfoil. What was your idea behind the (maga)zine?

SL: I started Peaches and Bats as an assignment in college. It was a poetry course taught by Leonard Schwartz at the Evergreen State College and he simply said “edit and publish a literary journal”! It was a good excuse to write to a poet I admired. I also included poems by my grandmother (who is a poet), my mother (this was her only published poem that I know of) and myself. I don’t think I’ve ever had a clear idea of the magazine’s purpose, it’s just a vehicle for sharing work that interests me and participating in the ongoing conversations and gift economies of poetry. I made zines as a teenager and grew up in a DIY music/art subculture, so a literary zine seemed like a natural extension of that. I continued doing the magazine after moving to Portland. It was a great way to make friends with poets. I want it to be affordable, unpretentious, attractive, short enough to read in one sitting. It should be simple enough to make and distribute that it doesn’t dominate my life.

JH: Does Peaches and Bats have an editorial mandate?

SL: Again, not explicitly. I read a lot of poetry and solicit work from poets I admire, but also sift through unsolicited submissions and sometimes get really amazing stuff. I think it’s important to bring together work from different generations, regions and aesthetics in a context where they can speak to one another without seeming to compete. A (probably very skewed) picture of Portland/Pacific Northwest poetry develops cumulatively through successive issues and I enjoy that, but it’s not a specifically Northwest magazine and there are contributors from all over. I love the way themes emerge organically within an issue, but I can’t plan for them.

JH: Is there a story behind the title?

SL: Peaches and bats was a popular motif in Chinese art and decoration, with Taoist origins. I saw a terrific dish painted with peaches and bats at the Art Institute of Chicago and remembered it years later when I was trying to think of a good name for a magazine. Its symbolic meaning isn’t important to me (though maybe it should be) but I thought the name was vivid, simple, and sounded good.

JH: David, Envelope too seems like a very different project from Airfoil. What was your idea behind the series?

DA: The first Envelope was published to commemorate the first Spare Room reading, given by Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk in 2002. I wanted to do something that had immediacy, and that was inexpensive, that could be given away. Some of the emphasis on immediacy, and certainly the sense of keeping the production inexpensive, has carried over into Airfoil.

Initially I thought I could publish one issue a month, but it’s turned out to be more like two issues a year. More than half of the issues have been occasioned by readings, but quite a few came about otherwise. After number 24 (the last of the “second series”), I thought I was done; my plan was to reprint a small number of complete sets (mainly for libraries), and put it to rest. But I keep thinking of other issues I’d like to do . . . it’s hard to stop.

JH: Do you have an editorial mandate?

DA: The single-sheet format imposes a constraint on length (though I’ve stretched that surprisingly far in some cases). My own interests as a reader are broad and eclectic, but with a center of gravity in experimental territory. I’ve liked having very different kinds of work appear in the series, and the addition of visual material in the later issues—both pre-existing works, like Fran Herndon’s and Erich Haeckel’s paintings, and new pieces, like my three uncredited visual poems—has opened up new possibilities.

JH: Could you speak a little more about those visual poems and their relation to the publications they appear in (no. 19 [Cedar Sigo], no. 21 [David Brazil], and no. 22 [Jared Stanley])?

DA: Cedar sent me a poem for number 19 that I liked very much. It was fairly short, and I didn’t want to divide it across the inner spread, which left me the options of leaving the first verso page blank or finding additional material. So I asked whether he was interested in sending me another poem to pair with it, or an illustration—and he replied that what he would really like was for me to provide an illustration of my choosing! That was an intriguing invitation, and led to the first of the three visual pieces.

What all three pieces have in common is that each is in some way literally derived from the text that it accompanies. A different translation or transformation process is used in each case: for example, for Cedar, all of the keystrokes of the poem were used to generate icons in a symbol font. I then manipulated those icons typographically to create a vaguely homuncular shape. (Yet the lineation of the poem is preserved.) In David’s case, I used his last last name to select an excerpt from a list of names, and then truncated each name fore and aft; in Jared’s, the source text is a series of tree names found in the poem.

JH: How did Herndon and Haeckel’s work come into the picture? Was their inclusion your decision, or the poets’?

DA: In both of those cases, the poets brought the imagery to me, directly or indirectly. Laynie Browne had written that series of poems in direct response to the Haeckel images (which she’d originally come to know through her husband’s scientific research); I don’t think that she would have asked me to find and use the images, but I had the opportunity at the time to do color printing at cost, and I became enthralled with the images myself. (There was also the sheer luck that I found very high-resolution files online.) Similarly, George Albon had written his poems in response to Fran Herndon’s paintings, but wasn’t necessarily presuming that I could reproduce them. It was a happy circumstance that I could, and in both cases, everyone was quite happy with the results.

JH: I was thrilled to see Joseph Cornell among the list of your contributors. How did that particular publication come about? Will you be working with other non-living poets/artists in the future? How do you see these publications fitting in with your existing catalogue?

DA: I’ve been a fan of Cornell’s films for a very long time, and when the filmmaker Jeanne Liotta (who had worked on cataloguing Cornell’s archive at Anthology Film Archives in New York) read aloud part of that list of Cornell’s personal collection at a screening of his films in Portland, I asked her to send me the full list. At that point, I just wanted to read it. There was a long delay, but when I finally saw the list a couple of years later, I realized that it would make a fine Envelope.

If I do continue, I suspect that there may be more archival material, or reprints. I’m always coming across obscure texts that I’d like to restore to light, albeit in a limited fashion. (Currently weighing on my mind is a short Julio Cortázar piece about the painter Pierre Alechinsky, as translated by Paul Blackburn.) Perhaps it will even become a dominant characteristic for a future series.

JH: The envelope is more than a container for these broadsides and small pamphlets, but do you ever find it hinders what you want to do?

DA: It’s certainly a constraint. There have been a few projected issues that haven’t materialized, and in some cases I failed to adapt the text to the format. But for the most part I’ve found the constraint to be enormously productive; perhaps even the true engine of the project. I often find that is true with my own writing and other artwork as well.

JH: How is Envelope distributed?

DA: Almost entirely by hand. A large part of the edition goes to the author(s); I make copies available for free at readings; I have just a few subscribers who might get copies in the mail—though even they are just as like to get handed a stack of recent issues when I see them in person. I take current issues along when I travel, and so on.

JH: I find Envelope’s “mandate” very compelling: “a curve tangent to each of a family of curves.” You’ve mentioned that Envelope’s scope is broad and eclectic, and I like imagining the press’s m.o. as a vector just touching all of these other forms and practices. Would you be willing to elaborate on that statement, or perhaps give a little more information on its source?

DA: The source of the statement is the definition of “envelope” in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition)—the desk dictionary that is pretty much the standard across the publishing industry (and thus always within reach for my work as a freelance editor). The “curve” and “performance limit” definitions that I adapted are for specific technical contexts (mathematics, aeronautics); like so many other poets, I’m fond of the textures and unexpected associations of language appropriated from other disciplines. But happily you’ve hit on another aspect of the dynamic, which is wonderfully implied by your choice of the word “vector”—the combined senses of connection, constraint, and (especially) directionality.

 

Jen Hutton is a writer, artist, and Canadian expat. She is currently stationed in Los Angeles.