Elle Silver: How does running a small press cross-pollinate with teaching to influence, and/or benefit each experience?
Aaron Cohick: I really started teaching when I was in graduate school, pursuing my MFA in Printmaking. The professor who mentored us, an intermedia artist named Dan Collins, always encouraged us to connect our teaching to our studio work. This is something that I still struggle with, because I think it’s not about teaching the work or ideas that one is interested in (though that may be a part of it), but it’s about how the actual class structure, the pedagogical approach, embodies or complicates or reinforces the ideas and ideals in one’s studio practice—studio practice as daily life, as a way of being in the world. So teaching helps me as an artist because it forces me to articulate certain ideas or practices, and to see how they might fare in the hands of others. The classroom can become a kind of open testing ground, with ideas and techniques being volleyed from student to student, and student(s) to teacher, and transformed in each instance.
The classes I teach right now (my position at Colorado College is technically a staff position, so I only teach two classes per year) are always very technically oriented in that they are intro level for book arts and letterpress printing, but also very heavy on context and ideas—the history and the why of it all—to think publishing as in making something public, as a potential model for students to thoughtfully approach their own lives, whatever they may end up doing. The classes move between (much like small press publishing itself) the very inward focused activity of producing the books, to the very outward focused activity of trying to circulate them in the world, and back again.
ES: How do you fund Newlights Press?
AC: NewLights is funded entirely by sales and by the money that I make at my day job (running The Press at Colorado College) and the money that I make as a professional artist (being paid to do talks or teach workshops). The NewLights “bank account” is my own, and I don’t really keep track of the money that NewLights spends vs. what I spend. I usually have a pretty good idea of how much each project costs in terms of materials, and I try to price the books so that I will make all of that money back, plus enough for another book. These days it’s been taking between 1 and 2 years to sell an edition of 100 books out, so the money coming in is always in small chunks. Rarely does it feel like “Payday!” or even “Okay, I just made my money back.” I just accept that I will or I won’t, and keep making books.
ES: What do you think are the most common misperceptions about funding a press?
AC: I think that many people, even folks in the literary world who don’t run a press, believe that it’s easy to sell books, or that the audience is always potentially unlimited. Selling the books is always an active, involved, mostly fun and always exhausting process (getting the word out, sending out review copies, soliciting reviews, finding and going to fairs, sending work to bookstores, organizing readings, etc.), and sometimes the audience for a book is actually pretty small, especially in poetry. Especially in weird poetry mixed with weird visual art and design. The books can be sold, but it takes time and energy, and there are eventually, limits—there might only be 100 or so people willing to pay $20 for a particular book. There might be a lot of people who will take that book for free, and then not care about it, but I am, quite honestly, not interested in getting the books to those people.
The “gift economy” of small press poetry and art is a really important, really wonderful part of this world. I trade and give away books, and receive them as gifts regularly. I believe that it’s also important, as part of my life as a citizen of smallpressland, to buy books from the other presses/authors/artists that I am interested in, even when I don’t have to. Books cost money to make, and it’s important to support the people that make them with actual money. Economy is exchange.
ES: Who would you say is your ideal audience is for NewLights?
AC: The “ideal” audience is anyone who is willing to engage the books in their wounded totality: as texts to be read; as art-objects to be experienced through sight, touch, and smell; as temporal rhythms or sequences to be placed alongside or inside daily life; as products of focused, unalienated, “impractical” labor; as political objects resisting dominant modes and messages; as moments of community moving through the world; as splits, cracks, pieces of light or bone, movement or vision; as potential.
The “ideal reader” only rarely exists at a single moment—the kind of reading or reader (readering?) described above develops over time, in multiple iterations. I try to make books that can encourage and nourish that kind of attention, for themselves and for the reader-in-the-world.
ES: Do you intentionally try to attract that audience or let the work find its readers?
AC: A little bit of both. NewLights does not do much advertising beyond blog and social media posts. I’m terrible about sending books out for reviews and /or prizes. I’ve been trying to get better, to be more pro-active about promotion, mostly for the authors and artists that I work with.
One of my favorite ways to show the NewLights books is at book fairs. But my approach is very hands-off, because I want people to see the books first, without feeling pressured by me to buy or not. I will greet them, let them know that they can handle anything, and offer to answer any questions. Then I will let them look and read, and ask questions if they wish. I will be as helpful as possible without putting any pressure on the reader. That’s pretty much my approach to all of this.
ES: What major life lessons has running a small press taught you?
AC: The only “lesson” that comes to mind, maybe because NewLights will turn 15 years old in May, is the value of persistence and patience. The work continues to get better (I think so anyway, on the good days), and continues to be more enjoyable. Thinking in more general terms, I’ve seen how small press publishing can unite, motivate, energize, empower, complicate, formalize, disrupt, or even commemorate or eulogize a particular community at a particular time. It is a weirdly powerful & powerless activity.