Interview: Brent Cunningham (Hooke Press)

What inspired you to start Hooke Press? Can you tell me about its nascent stages and how it developed to where it is now?

It’s a little hard already, 8 years on, to recall all the details, but back in 2005 myself and Neil Alger were both working at Small Press Distribution.  Much of the spirit of SPDs mission is a DIY sense of publishing, encouraging people to take the means of publishing production into their own hands, so that had something to do with our desire to found our own press. We also felt, I think, that we had learned enough of the tricks of small press publishing that we weren’t going to lose a bunch of precious money.  That turned out to be true, by the way: the project has about broken even. In terms of the aesthetic vision, the original idea for me–I think Neil had a different sense–was specifically to fill a small hole in small press poetry publishing.  My idea was to publish mostly books that weren’t poetry, but which were written by poets. The idea ran parallel to an impression I have that there aren’t really enough talks, lectures, or non-academic panels where poets can discuss the framework their work takes place in.  I think, for example, of the talks series Bob Perelman used to run in his place in the 80s in San Francisco. That plan isn’t quite what Hooke ended up as, partly because it really is a lot easier to get a manuscript of poems out of a poet than a manuscript of non-poems, and partly because those kinds of contextual, non-fiction texts, when they turn up, inevitably get pulled into more formal, academic publishing contexts.  Those publishers have an institutional capacity to get the word out, so the writer won’t necessarily give their text to a tiny chapbook press. But I think that that poets-writing-things-other-than-poetry sensibility still conditions the Hooke books in many obvious and less obvious ways.

I love how you publish not only poetry but criticism, theory, writing and ephemera as well. Very Robert Hooke-like indeed! How do you know if a particular work is a good fit for your press? I notice that you are not currently accepting manuscripts; how do you normally stumble upon the right projects to get excited about?

One thing about poets: they’re really good at building social networks, largely through readings.  I feel like they’re generally much better at getting their physical body out in the world, among other poets, than, say, fiction writers.  Most the writers we’ve published so far were poets I’d known personally for some years, which isn’t as much about coterie and “who you know” as it might sound. For one thing, the reason I knew them personally was because I had gotten interested in their work and started a conversation with them about it.  At the same time, Hooke has given me the great pleasure of being able to go to a reading, or run across some poems online or in a magazine, and to be able to walk up to someone I don’t know and offer to make a small book for them.  That’s what happened with Melissa Mack, I went to a house reading she gave and loved the poems, and afterwards said are they unpublished and if not can we make a chapbook together.  By the way, if you’re interested in the problem of how poetry relies on personal connections you might look at Lytle Shaw’s book Frank OHara: The Poetics of Coterie. It does a nice job of asking whether an aesthetic community based partly in personal contact is as exclusive and restrictive as it maybe seems.

In terms of what we look for aesthetically, I always say the main thing is that line in our “about” section about how poetry is a locale rather than a genre. I think it’s fair to suppose that all the writers we’re drawn to share an aversion to poems as stand-alone, beautiful, eternal objects, in favor of a sense of the poem as the products of ongoing social relationships and practices.  This sensibility shows up overtly in something like Tyrone Williams’s Hooke book, which is a non-fiction remembrance of his friend, but I believe a close reading will discover it as well in something as non-discursive and abstracted as Hugo Garcia Manriquez’s Two Poems.

The reason we don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts is simple.  There’s really a lot more great writing out there than Hooke has time or means to do. At one point we drew up a list of poets we’d be excited to publish and it shot to over a hundred in a few minutes.

I love how each of your chapbooks is unique yet still distinctively Hooke. What goes into designing each one? What factors do you take into consideration?

I usually design the covers, so thanks!  At first their look was somewhat determined by the production process.  We started out using a small silk screen machine called a Gocco.  This is a Japanese product originally designed for people to make their own greeting cards, but which turns out to be perfect for making chapbook covers.  To save time and screens we’d keep the colors to just a handful, so that gave them part of their “look.”  Also, silkscreening is quite an inexact science, with mis-prints and smears and the like being part of the process, so we’d usually look for more graphic, iconic images that would remain strong even if their edges smudged a bit.  Anyway, we don’t use the Gocco anymore.  The technology behind color xeroxing has gotten a lot better in the last decade, and allows reprinting of the books that sell out, so we’ve gone with that, but I’m still drawn to simple, graphic images and text within a highly restricted color palette.  Until recently, Neil did all the typesetting, and I have to say (now that I’m trying my hand at it) he possesses a real genius for it–and there’s a lot more to it than you might think.  A few spaces can make a big difference.  At this point, with Neil no longer as closely involved, I’m just trying to mimic the templates he set up.

If Hooke Press received a tremendous amount of money from an anonymous donor today, and you could spend that money however you wanted, would you want to change anything about your current operation? Why or why not?

I still have dreams of having a perfect bound press, so maybe I’d spend it on that.  Right now I’m reading a new book about the history of Grove Press called Counterculture Colophon and it stirs up some of those old ambitions.  But if I went that direction I’d also do more fiction and nonfiction. Working as I do in bookselling, there’s no question to me that a pure poetry press won’t, in the end, necessarily reach many more readers as a perfect-bound press than it will as a chapbook press, so the extra money wouldn’t be all that meaningful.  If I had a whole lot of money I’d probably buy a bunch of letterpress machines and go the other direction, the model embodied by the publisher of my first book, Ugly Duckling.  Not out of a huge fetish for letterpress but, again, because I think that physically making things in a real space together results in a social network, a living community, that can than be turned by its members to all sorts of other uses as well, including at times meaningful political ones.

In addition to running Hooke Press, you have also worked for Small Press Distribution for a number of years. We have been contemplating the following question in class, and I was wondering if you could weigh in with your thoughts: do you see a distinction between small press and tiny press?

In bookselling these distinctions between presses are fairly specific, although they are conditioned by commercial needs and realities.  The categories are always loose, i.e. very hazy at the edges, and also may be somewhat idiosyncratic to my own personal arc within the publishing world, but they are basically these.  First you have the majors, the Random Houses and the Simon & Schusters and the Hachettes, often doing initial runs of 5,000 and up, and with massive staffs, all based in New York.  It’s estimated that the six or so major commercial publishing conglomerates account for the vast, vast bulk of all the books sold in a given year.  Then there are the independent presses, doing runs of 1,000 or more for each title, with a staff of maybe 3 to 15.  University presses are normally about the size of an independent press, so although they have a slightly different business model they are, to booksellers, basically a type of independent press.  Then there’s the small press, usually a one- or two- person operation where everyone involved has a day job.  They do runs of 500 or, usually, even less, at which point most begin to print their books digitally/POD rather than offset.  Below that is what booksellers usually call the micropress world (aka the tiny presses), which covers everything from chapbooks to zines to broadsides to pamphlets. Micropresses sometimes have runs that are larger than what small presses print, as is the case with many popular zines, but they’re distinguished by booksellers from small press material because they don’t usually have ISBNs or spines with printing on them, both of which are necessary to sell an item in most stores.  I should also mention the self-publishing world, which, to booksellers, means something they also can’t really sell in their stores since it can’t usually be returned if it doesn’t sell.  Still, self-publishing is a world where the sales can end up being larger than the sales of many small presses.

There are other sub-worlds and branches in publishing (book arts presses, textbook presses, etc.) but to me this is decent and sometimes useful map, as long as you don’t take it as rigid.

I read an interview you did with Poetry Society in which you mention the importance of historical and geographical factors in your work. As a writer, publisher, and visual artist, how does living in and running a press out of Oakland influence your practice? Is there a particular literary or artistic scene that you feel a part of? 

Even though I just left Oakland for the city directly south of it, San Leandro, my heart is still in Oakland.  It’s just a  terrific place to try to figure out how art and writing might or might not relate to some very present problems in contemporary capitalism, especially what it can and can’t do around racial tensions and histories, shifts in gender perceptions, and the all-powerful problem of economic disparity. I love troubled, beautiful Oakland largely because it is such a cauldron of competing ideas.  Maybe I relate to that, because my own head feels that way much of the time. Living there feels challenging to your presumptions every day, which is uncomfortable for awhile, but if you get used to it then most other places start to feel complacent, almost boring.

This last question isnt so much for my class as it is my own selfish curiosity. I always love asking creative people I admire about their habits. Do you have any particular rituals or notice any trends with regard to your creative process or working style? For example, E.B. White did not like listening to music while he worked, Gertrude Stein did a lot of writing in cars, and Glenn Gould fasted on recording days to make his mind sharper…

I write on a computer, inevitably.  One thing I’ve noticed, in terms of habits, is that my right fingers hover over the arrow keys constantly–always zipping around to make small, obsessive changes no one else would likely care about, switching “on” for “in” and the like. Not sure why I don’t use the mouse more for that, just an idiosyncrasy.  Since I became a dad six years ago I’ve become, I think, very efficient at writing, actually.  The limiting of one’s available time has the opposite effect you might think, making some of us more productive rather than less.  So for instance I don’t prep my writing space at all, not like I used to–music is on if it’s on, socks are on if they’re on, just go go go because in ten minutes the baby might be crying.

I noticed that many of the chapbooks end with something a little different. Some have colophons (which, at least of the Hooke books I’ve seen, tend to focus on typeface), while Two Poems by Hugo García Manríquez has a biography and Melissa Mack’s chapbook has a note of gratitude. How do you decide what goes at the end — author/poet’s choice? Publishers having a little fun? The understated, poignant colophon in Pink Tie seems absolutely deliberate and perfect; it really had an effect on me. The subtle variation in end pages does not go unnoticed! 

You’re definitely a small press wonk if you’re asking about the colophon and back matter of books!  I guess I’d say, first, that Neil and I share a certain brand of playful spirit which has affected that stuff.  For instance he liked the semi-joke of putting long, detailed colophons for what are really very small books, or detailing the history of what is really a pretty mundane font.  We’ve also kept up the joke that the mysterious Holocene Research Society funds Hooke Press, for instance.  But for the most part what you’ve noticed is a product of working with poets who have very specific desires for elements of their books.  We try to be flexible and listen to that.   In the end that’s really why you make a chapbook press. Yes, it’s partly to reach a small audience, but it’s also to provide some hard-working writers with an experience of meaningful collaboration and control–to give them some of the feeling you yourself, as a creative person, have probably always wanted.  And, of course, to the degree you give it out it comes right back, just like almost anything done for love.

Chrysanthe Tan is a composer, violinist, and writer living in Los Angeles. Find her at: www.chrysanthetan.com.