Geist blogger and Editor-In-Chief of Poetry Is Dead, Daniel Zomparelli, will be organizing an ongoing series of interviews with poets, and people doing interesting things with poets. If you are a poet doing interesting things or have a tip off for Daniel, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracy Hurren and Kathleen Fraser have been starting a new small book press, and they’re doing it using all that is available to them thanks to crowd sourcing and innovation, while using classic book printing techniques. Geist.com met up with them to discuss the future of their small press and their current book author and poet, Cynara Geissler. Their website is hurpublishing.com and you can help them out with start-up support for Cynara’s book Small Stunted Ways at indiegogo.com/small-stunted-ways.
Daniel Zomparelli: When you decided to go the route of publishing, what had you jumping into your own project, or rather, what had you starting up your own publishing firm?
Tracy Hurren: When we were completing the course requirements for the Master of Publishing program we learned a lot of stuff, but it was all theory, and when it was more hands on, it was in a simulated environment. This was great, but we wanted more; we wanted to continue playing and experimenting with what we had learned in the program. In order to do this we needed a sandbox—that's where Hur Publishing emerged from. In its inception Hur was about creating a place for me, and soon after Kathleen, to "play house." I feel weird telling people I have a publishing company because it really doesn't feel like that; it still just feels like I'm playing. You can learn a lot from reading books and attending lectures, but you can learn even more from getting your hands dirty. This is still very much so what Hur is about.
Kathleen Fraser: When I started the Master of Publishing program at SFU, I had essentially no publishing experience so the things we were learning had no real context for me. Hur wasn't my brainchild but when Tracy started talking about it I was eager to get on board because it gave me a way to see how all these parts of the industry we were learning about, and all the external forces at work, interact in the real world. I think it also makes the challenges clearer. It's easy to sit in a classroom and say, well, publishers are doing all these things wrong when there are easy solutions, but when you are actually trying to get a book to the printer, let alone sell it through, it becomes clear how much indie publishers do by the skin of their teeth. So Hur, for me, was a big part of my education, and it's also (as Tracy says) a safe place to experiment with unconventional practices.
DZ: Cynara, what compelled you to work with their new small press?
Cynara Geissler: I have a small journal/small press background (I co-edited Juice The University of Winnipeg's Creative Writing Journal in my undergrad) and I really believe inthe importance of literary small press and experimental small press publishing. They are in the position editorially (without the exact same commercial concerns of some larger presses) to steward culture in unique, provocative and necessary ways.
After completing my undergrad in 2007 I was seriously considering embarking on a small press venture of my own. I come from the prairies, Winnipeg, specifically. Artists, really support each other there. I have been to a packed-house open-mics when it was 50 degress below zero. I have had the tremendous good fortune of being able to work with and take courses with really talented writers, whose books I would love to help put in the world. I really believe that there are not as many publishers/opportunities as there are talented and book-ready writers. I moved out to Vancouver for the MPub program hoping to find kindred spirits and a small press partner to make this happen.
When I saw Tracy's design work—she makes beautiful hand-bound books that respect and challenge the print book format—I knew she was somebody I absolutely needed to work with outside the classroom. Same with Kathleen—we went for coffee early in the program and I was blown away by her general erudition and thoughtful, thorough editorial insight. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, writing as Alice B Toklas, wrote that in her she met few geniuses and "each time a bell within me rang." Meeting Tracy and Kathleen was a bell-ringing-genius-alert moment for me. so when they joined forces to form a press I definitely wanted to get in on the action.
I wasn't really, at first, thinking about my own work, but what they could bring to the work of my talented friends and acquaintances. One of my favourite "experimental" poetry books is this tiny (7.1 x 1.3 x 0.3 cm ) illustrated version of Ron Koetge's poem "Kryptonite." (I believe it was published by Blue Hen?). The illustrations by Roy Fox enrich and complicate the text and I have been wanting to embark on some sort of illustrated poem project ever since. I mentioned it to Tracy in one of our design classes and that resulted in me sending her one of my poems, and then she asked for more, and then it evolved into a larger chapbook project.
DZ: Kathleen and Tracy, what compelled you towards a poetry book?
KF: Cynara is a colleague we both admire and respect, and when she said she had unpublished poetry we knew it was going to be amazing. We saw her writing and loved it, because it's smart and polished but also very quirky and unexpected, and I'd like to think that's Hur's modus operandi. I don't have a lot of experience editing poetry, and it's important to me that Hur keeps me on my toes; this has been a great opportunity to learn new skills. But also, it's hard out there for a poet. Poetry doesn't sell well, so a lot of publishers don't take a chance on it. It's important to me that as a publisher we remember that artists are our allies, and we need to give newer voices a chance to be heard. Otherwise the cultural landscape becomes stagnant. I hope that Hur continues to be supportive of emerging voices well into the future.
DZ: With a lot of presses running towards the ebook and online publishing, how do you see the press growing over the years?
TH: Our mandate from the start has been to be agile above all else (Kathleen can probably talk more about this concept—she's writing her thesis about it). Hur is an organic force. This is probably why our list (all two books!) don't seem very cohesive. At this point we really are still playing, finding our voices, figuring out what we're good at and where we fit within the industry. We are in not rush to figure these things out—we are still young and green and growing. Currently ebooks aren't something we are thinking about—not because we don't think they are important, but because we aren't as interested in them as we are in print. Not all books are best suited for print (this is where ebooks come in) but the type of books we want to publish are best served by print. That being said, I'm sure one of these days Kathleen or I will decide that we want to learn more about making ebooks, and we'll look to Hur, our playground, as the save place to experiment with the medium.
So with the above in mind, I can't claim we have a road map or a 10-year plan for Hur. But we do plan to continue to grow—slowly, but steadily. It has always been our goal to turn Hur into a full-time gig, but I don't think either Kathleen or I are in any rush to make this happen. Ultimately, taking things slow now will be a benefit in the long run for the company; we aren't as wobbly as we were a year ago, but we still aren't ready to run.
KF: Tracy mentioned the Agile publishing model, which grew out of the Agile Manifesto for software development drafted about 10 years ago. It's a very short document with a lot of implications, but mostly what it means for us is that we "fail faster." We know the publishing industry is kind of broken right now, for a lot of reasons, one of them being these massive, inertial top-down companies and business models. Agile publishing is about starting projects from scratch, trying new, unexpected methods, and setting yourself up to fail over and over, in different ways, until all of a sudden you don't fail because you've hit on something that works. That means iterative development, low up-front investment costs, and thinking in terms of people, individuals, rather than in terms of money or scale. I know this sounds jargon-y, but it really comes from the basic philosophies that simple is better, and innovation is important.
So I see the press aiming for trial-and-error development rather than a traditional growth model. In terms of online publishing, I think it's a great way to reach audiences and give authors more exposure, and it's really important to us that we are web-savvy. But so far we've done projects that we think really belong in print. I don't think everything does—a lot of great writing happens online, and a lot of genres of books probably work better as ebooks. So I think we as an industry need to start thinking critically about what books will be augmented by being in print, and what it is about their form that adds to their content. Luckily Tracy is an incredible designer and has a sort of reverence for printed books that shows through in her work.
DZ: Has Cynara's book started going through the editorial process? How is the process of a more involved author working out?
KF: The book is in editorial, and the author is very patiently waiting for my latest suggestions. It helps a lot that Cynara is a friend, so we've been able to sit down over coffee and talk about what she's trying to say in her work, what's working well, what might work better. She has spent years working on these poems, with the help of some fantastic poets, so when she gave me the manuscript there weren't really any lines she hadn't already thought very carefully about. Although obviously the poems need to speak for themselves (and they do, quite ably), I felt it was important to respect that writing and workshopping process by letting Cynara explain the decisions she'd made. I've really been enjoying working with her, and I'm honoured that she has entrusted her amazing work to me for editing.
CG: The poems in this chapbook are the result of several years of workshopping and revising with a dedicated writing group of fierce women (shoutout to Gloria, Louella, and Ahniko!). Maybe it's because I've been on both sides of the page so to speak, but I really love receiving and deeply value editorial feedback. Was it Swift who talked about style as "proper words, proper places?" That's what I want to achieve with my poetry. I want to be lucid, honest, accessible, and precise. Kathleen's thoughtful questions and line edits are helping me to further polish the work.
DZ: As a poet in the digital age it becomes a strange idea of the book. A lot of poets find their work published online and through blogs, and I wonder about how this affects the poets process. Cynara, when working on this manuscript, did you have a book/concept in mind, or was this a process of collecting poems? Or had you even envisioned your poems in a book format?
CG: I consider myself a digital native. I've been keeping online diaries since I was a pre-teen so I've actually have never viewed the internet platform as lesser, or a compromise, it has been a part of my life for much of the time I've been writing. I view it as another platform, not separate from "the outernet" or print but capable of doing different things than the printed page. I do think digital conventions (shorter lines, colloquial or "blogging" or "chat" style) tend to find their way into my work.
My idea of what makes a good chapbook or even defines a book has evolved and expanded since I started the MPub and spent more time studying how the book has evolved throughout history and will continue to evolve. The tightly thematic poetry book is but one iteration of "collection." I had been chastising myself for not writing poems that were more obviously connected with an eye to a very specific chapbook. I felt like a lot of my work was promising and kept wanting to submit work to chapbook competitions and then second-guessing myself because it wasn't all about trilby hats, or lasers or being a beekeeper. Then I read one of Stuart Ross's Hunkamooga columns (in subTerrain) where he confessed that many of his favourite poetry books were often loose collections of people's best poems. I thought, I've really worked at these poems and they deserve a chance, and sent what I thought were my best poems to Kathleen and Tracy at Hur. And I'm so glad I did. Working in publishing I know how many manuscripts ache for eyes. I am really happy that my stuff spoke to them, and that my work is in such capable hands. It is a very lucky thing to have a press believe in you and your work.
DZ: Are there any future books in mind for Hur Publishing, and dream authors you are after?
TH: What a boring answer, but, no. I think we will probably take a little break—one book a year seems to be all we have in us. We are both working full-time jobs (Kathleen at Caitlin, me at Drawn & Quarterly) so our focus will shift to this for the time being, to learning as much as we can from our time with these publishers.
KF: I hope we can continue to work with Chris Carrier and Cynara, who have both been dream authors. One book a year is going pretty well so far, so maybe expect us to announce our third book in a year or so. But I hope that someday I have the time and resources to turn my full attention to Hur. It won't be anytime soon; I love working at Caitlin, and I also have a whole bunch of student loans, and running a start-up indie publisher isn't really a steady source of income.
DZ: I think crowd-sourcing pre-sales is a wonderful way to get a book off the ground, as a poet your largest supporters can be those closest to you. Is the current project finding any hindrances, or are you finding a lot of support for this?
TH: So far the support has been great. We haven't done too much to promote the book yet, but still donations have been coming in steadily. Hopefully articles like this will help with that, and maybe generous Christmas spirits will work to our advantage.
KF: I'm really grateful for the generosity we've seen already. People started backing the project almost immediately with very little promotion on our part, so I'm very hopeful that we'll be able to raise enough funds to do this book justice.