Interview: Elizabeth Clark Wessel (Argos Books)

“Argos Books is an independent literary press, founded in 2010 by three poet-translators. Our aim is to support poetry, hybrid genres, translation, and collaboration, with a special interest in work that crosses cultural and national borders. While publishing innovative work is our primary focus, we are also invested in facilitating critical dialogues among communities, genders, and languages. We have two curated series with the goal of engaging with diverse work in unexpected ways: the Little Anthology series, small anthologies that capture a community, subject or point of view, and Side by Side, collaborations between artists and writers.”

About page, Argos Books Website

Leah Clancy: I see that Argos is not currently accepting submissions. Do you expect that you’ll open than up soon? What determines when you open and close submissions? And what’s the general process for soliciting someone’s work?

Elizabeth Clark Wessel: We plan to have an open reading period sometime in early 2016. Our submissions are closed right now because we have a really full publishing calendar over the next year and a half. We don’t have any set process for soliciting work. Several times I’ve approached authors after seeing a phenomenal reading (Bianca Stone & Khadijah Queen, for example). We also publish people whose work we’ve been familiar with for a long time, because they are close friends and collaborators (Montana Ray & Marina Blitshteyn). But most of the work we’ve been publishing lately came from the last open reading period we had.

Leah: I’d love to know about how you chose your logo—did one of the artists that you’ve worked with on a book design it? What is the significance of that dog/how does it relate to your press’s mission?

Elizabeth: Argos is Odysseus’s dog. He’s the first creature to recognize that Odysseus has returned. I think at that point the dog dies with joy. We liked the idea of faithfulness and early recognition as metaphors for publishing. This quote from Loren Eisley was something we used in the beginning as a sort of guidepost: “The magic that gleams an instant between Argos and Odysseus is both the recognition of diversity and the need for affection across the illusions of form.”

The dog was drawn by my brother-in-law Jonas Banker, a Swedish illustrator and one half of the design team BankerWessel. (They do incredible work.) The dog drawing originally appeared in a logo they designed for a small press I started in Sweden in 2007, Stray Dog Press. After I moved back to New York from Stockholm, and found my collaborators E.C. Belli and Iris Cushing – I thought running a press solo was too lonely – we decided that whatever we called our new press we wanted to keep the dog as part of our logo. So really the name Argos comes from the drawing. My husband, Mårten Wessel, did the design of the text. He does the majority of our book design and is involved in pretty much every aspect of running the press other than the editorial decisions – in fact I think he was the one who suggested Argos as a possible name. (Also, thanks for asking about the dog! I love that dog!)

Leah: How important (if it all) is a social media presence to Argos?

Elizabeth: Sigh. I think we’re not as good at that as some of our contemporaries. I do try to keep our Facebook page current, and we have a twitter account whenever I can remember the password, but I don’t feel like we have a millennial social media presence. I think we could do much better with that. However, I feel like face-to-face encounters have been extremely important to the building of our community, and I don’t think that will ever change. We are IRL-type people.

Leah: What do you aim for to try and set your press apart from other small presses? In what way do you feel most connected to other presses?

Elizabeth: Well, I think that we’ve been very dedicated from the beginning in making choices that would challenge easy categorization. Some presses, like Action Books which we admire immensely, are very explicit about their mission, but we’ve been feeling our way along and evolving. There are some constants. We have always been extremely interested in work by women, in hybrid work, in collaboration, in work that has a clear political point-of-view. Still, I just look at the books we’ve published, the books we have coming out, and I can see how they are connected by a singular sensibility. I know how absolutely excellent and groundbreaking the work is, and how interesting it is to read side-by-side. I feel like what we’re doing is special, and that’s what keeps me going. I think it would be very hard to continue, if I didn’t feel like these books were essential to the world.

One thing that I feel sets us apart – and I can say this because I don’t design the books – I really think we make extremely elegant chapbooks – simple, useful, and clean. They are designed to be read and held, but also to be beautiful objects. There’s whimsy there, too. I think it’s the perfect match for the books we choose.

As for how I feel connected… well I feel deeply connected to the community of small presses. Keeping poetry in the world is not a thankless job exactly, but it is time-consuming and expensive, and it’s not very glamorous. I have a pretty intense affection for my fellow small press editors and volunteers, and I think the work they’re publishing is some of the very best work in American letters. I felt such joy when Gregory Pardlo got the Pulitzer, partially because he seems to be an excellent poet, but also because he was published by a small press (Four Way Books). That’s my team! The longer I drag my books from book fair to book fair the more people I get to know in the community, and I think they are a weird and passionate and generous bunch. Long live small presses! They are the future.

Leah: Last one, for now: I know Aiden Arata (she’s the best!) from the Creative Writing program at NYU, and that she worked with you, E.C. Belli, and Iris Cushing when she was in Brooklyn. What are your policies on internships, alternative methods of payment, and so on? Does bartering or gift economy play a role in compensation?

Elizabeth: Aiden is the best! We miss her! Actually, Aiden interned with me and Iris at UDP the year that we were starting Argos. After we finished that internship, she approached us about doing an internship with us for credit. We obviously thought it was a little funny that she wanted to intern with such a new press, but she really liked what we were doing, and she probably learned a lot being there so early on in this process. Needless to say, she was really helpful, and afterwards we kept her on as an assistant editor until her schedule got too busy.

We had one intern, Grayson Wolf, who I think was our intern for at least two years. It was very informal. He just always showed up to help us when we needed it. He’s a gem and a very good person and poet. Neither Aiden nor Grayson received anything from us besides free books. Those “intern” relationships happened organically, more like fellow travelers, and we’ve never wanted to set up anything more formal. Maybe we will someday, and then we’ll have to face questions of compensation. I have a lot of thoughts about internships (having done so many myself), so I wouldn’t want to start something without clear guidelines and a strong teaching element. But my UDP internship was extremely useful to me, so if I could be of use in that way to someone else, I’d be very happy.

Leah: Thank you so much, Liz! Viva Small Presses!