Interview: Shanna Compton (Bloof Books)

Carmelo Valone: In regard to Daniel Borzutzky’s Bedtime Stories for the End of the World:

1. Did he submit a few pages of work first? Or his whole manuscript?

Shanna Compton: Daniel’s chapbook came in via our Open Reading Period in 2013. He submitted the whole manuscript, as the guidelines request (up to 25 pp. of poetry). It is, however, an excerpt from a longer work, but stands on its own in this format and selection.

2. How important do you think the use of humor is when talking about those harder sadder and yes, difficult topics?

Humor is an excellent and time-tested tool for dealing with difficult and uncomfortable topics. Not all jokes are “funny.” We have several poets in the Bloof collective who use it frequently, Daniel among them. Two other great examples would be Jennifer L. Knox and Peter Davis.

3. How involved was Daniel in the process of the book design? Did he submit a dummy? Or did you propose the style?

The design of the book was a collaboration between us. In our call for submissions, we give the poets the option of submitting not just their manuscript but a proposal that can include thoughts on the design/presentation and even the promotion of the chapbook, if it is chosen. That not only helps me (and the other members of the collective who are also reading) understand the manuscript and the poet’s vision for it, but also gives us a lot of insight into what the poet’s expectations are, from Bloof as a press. It helps us decide if we’re a good fit together. And even if the ideas are impossible, too expensive, or outlandish in some way, they are inspiring to read. Our discussion evolved from Daniel’s original idea (a hardware or loop attachment so the book could be hung in the bathroom—a joke about it being light reading) into what we ended up with. The hand-applied linocut flames over the city allowed us to achieve a lot of bright color (alarm/danger/disaster signaling) on a moody dark cover. I think we didn’t do a lot of sketches for this one, unlike some. The hardware/hook idea morphed into the metal grommets for the stab-binding. So, we got there together, talking back and forth. And Daniel’s seven-year-old son helped choose the paper colors.

4. Politics of a poet and/or poem. Have you ever had to reject a poem as it just was too “right wing” and/or propaganda-like? (If you are on the Right I’m sorry and we can just switch it around) I don’t assume anything in regard to personal politics.

Not at Bloof, no. We’ve not received anything like that. Though I can say we have received a few (not many) things that I found sexist or homophobic or unconsciously privileged in a way that meant they were not a good fit. I don’t need to agree or be comfortable, totally, with a work to find it publishable—in fact, provocation is welcome and expected in the poetry I like best. But my personal ethics (and those of the other collective members) of course come into play. I think if someone were to send a work like you describe, at minimum it would indicate they’d never read anything we’ve put out, and that almost always means we’re not a good fit for them. (I don’t know why anyone submits to presses whose books they haven’t read. It’s just a waste of their time, and ours.)

5. What is the role of us as poets; or more so your role as a small publisher in giving voice to those who have already been silenced? (I refer to Daniel’s Chilean/Zurita translations) I know you did not publish this book but you have published political and, yes, marginalized voices, I’m sure. So my bigger question is: whose responsibility is this, to give voice to those who are gone? That of the author or the publisher?

Well, the author obviously is the person whose voice is speaking. Our job as publishers is to amplify that voice, and create space for it, to cultivate a context and environment in which it has the best chance of being heard. (And Action Books does an excellent job making space/giving context to translated work, including Daniel’s Zurita translations.) Magazines and curators and institutions of various sorts also work to present, introduce, and direct attention toward marginalized work. I knew Daniel’s own work, but had not yet looked closely at Raul Zurita’s, until I saw them perform together at the Dodge Poetry Festival a few years ago. So in my case, my exposure to Zurita’s work was brought about by four different entities: Zurita himself, Daniel’s translations, Action Books as the publisher of their bilingual book, and the organizers of that festival who put them on the stage in front of me. (Action has just published another book by Zurita, translated by Daniel: The Country of Planks.)

My second set of questions is in regard to Jackie Clarke’s Sympathetic Nervous System:

1. Was she involved in the design of this book? Obviously there had to be a closer communication between you two as the book and the poetry’s form are quiet symbiotic.

Yes, Jackie was very involved. This is true for all of our chapbooks (and the paperbacks too, though in a less intense way since that format is more standardized). But in the case of the poems in Sympathetic Nervous System we had additional challenges: her spacing is unusual but essential to how the poems work, and the lines are long. So in order to achieve the ideal presentation of the poems, we discovered (through a trial and error) that we needed a page at least 10 inches wide, to allow the spaces within the poems to do what they do and also to provide enough space around the poems for comfortable reading and binding. Once we went that wide, I realized our original idea of a trifold cover was not possible, because it would require a wingspan that would make the book difficult for the reader to hold. Even with a wingspan of 19 inches or so (two 10-inch pages open, minus the gutter/binding), the book needed to be somewhat flexible, I felt. So we went with a slipcase. That was a style I had been wanting to try anyway, and this turned out to be the perfect project for that. We talked all along the way about the cover imagery also. Originally we were thinking hand-lettering along with the dendritic architecture of nerves (which look like trees), but we went with hand-drawn nerves and digital type in the end, basically flipping the idea. It just worked better. And the green is Jackie’s favorite color—though I didn’t know that when I offered it.

2. Is there a wrong way to read her book form wise? Column wise?

I don’t think it’s wrong to spend time looking at the clusters of words in various ways—there are a lot of resonances between the phrases and I think the spacing encourages that kind of exploration. But when she reads the poems in performance, she reads them straight across, from left to right. You can hear the spaces sometimes, and sometimes not. I think the formatting of the poem invites multiple ways of reading. One of the things I immediately fell for about this work is that I felt drawn in, and immersed, and it repaid sustained attention and rereading.

General questions:

3. In the future should big presses help small presses in regard to keeping doors open and/or keeping small presses alive?

I don’t know about this. My first job in publishing was for a Big Publisher (which is even Bigger now). I think what the industrial publishing houses are doing is very different from what we are doing in the small press scene, though there is some overlap. They do create space for writers and bring attention to new voices and have cultural impact that way, of course—but those things seem, to the publishers at large if not to the individuals who work for them (who undeniably love books), to be secondary to their primary concerns, which are financial.

4. In a perfect world, how many books could you handle publishing per year?

I’m actually happy with our current output: 2-3 paperbacks a year, plus 6 chapbooks, with an occasional bonus project. That’s an expansion from where we started. If we expand further, I do not think I would be able to be as hands-on with every project as I am now. I do get to work on other books for other presses, as a freelance editor and book designer, and those projects are great too, but they are not as immersive, since I’m generally involved only with one aspect like typesetting or whatever, and so not as personally satisfying. I like doing both, and of course the freelance jobs help me pay bills.

5. Do you prefer an author to send his or her own artwork (if it is required of the poem) or do you enjoy a more “creative license”?

It depends on the project. I love working with a poet to create a design concept that fits what they’ve written, in close collaboration. But we’ve also included artists in the process: The paintings on the covers of all 3 (soon to be 4) books by Jennifer L. Knox are by Charles Browning. Elisabeth Workman’s book was designed by her spouse, Erik Brandt, whose work I greatly admire, and the photograph is by one of his students at MCAD in Minneapolis (where Elisabeth lives). Peter Davis drew the artwork for his book Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! and also collaged the type, and then I added the color. We’ve also collaborated with artists from the past we admire: like the cover of The Sonnets by Sandra Simonds is me riffing digitally on Joe Brainard’s stenciled design for the original C Press edition of Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets.

6. How do you decide your prices, and/or a better question: how do you pick out your “run sizes”?

It’s important to me to keep the books accessible, which is why we use a hybrid model for printing and distribution. Basically for the paperbacks we try to keep them $15 but will go to $16 if the book is over 100 pages or so. The print runs for those start at 500, but all of them except the two newest have been reprinted multiple times in various amounts, as needed, and we keep them perpetually available through POD in addition to our own stock. The chapbooks I rather arbitrarily set at $8 and they are all limited to 100 copies. We offer discounts at events, for bundles and subscriptions, and preorders (which is how we fundraise to pay for printing new books). Now we’re extending the availability of the chapbooks in paperback compilations (6 chaps in a single volume, called Bound), because that makes them available to more readers and to folks who were requesting that format for teaching or library circulation. This allows bookstores to carry them also, since they are trickier, as handmades, to distribute to stores. Oh, and free PDF versions of all the chaps as they sell out of handmade editions. I’m not big on the idea of scarcity or preciousness, even if some versions we make lean toward fancy materials. We want the poems to be read.

7. What kind of books have you always dreamed of publishing (form wise) not author wise? Make sense?

Honestly, Bloof is doing exactly what I want it to be doing. We do get to make special projects too, between the books, like the hand-painted posters I did for the launch of The Sonnets or the mini broadsides we do for bookfairs, etc. I would like to do more digital things, and we’re planning a video channel and website expansion to host them. These things complement the books, but also will allow us to make room for more work, more authors. Too much is not better, though. We’re “tiny by design” so I don’t want to get so caught up in more-more-more that any individual project can’t be attended to properly. It’s about what’s manageable, but also about what’s best for the books, and what’s most satisfying for us as we make them together.

8. What was the first chapbook that you bought?

I’m not sure if you mean for the press or for myself as a collector. The first chapbooks Bloof published were in a set of 6 in 2013 (Jennifer Tamayo, Becca Klaver, Hailey Higdon, Jared White, Kirsten Kaschock, and Pattie McCarthy). But I’d made other chabbooks and broadsides before Bloof, mostly for or with friends, so not “bought.” I can’t say for sure the first chapbook I ever purchased as a reader/collector because that would have been early 1990s, but probably W. Joe Hoppe’s Emits Showers of Sparks? When I lived in Austin, the only local poets I was aware of were the Blue Plate Poets, and he was one of them. He had a few chaps out then from his own Lucky Tiger Press, which I still have.

One response to “Interview: Shanna Compton (Bloof Books)

  1. Pingback: My Tiny Press Project Interview/Project Skinny | carmelo valone·

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