It was free to go into an Anti-Reading, and you usually came out with free stuff—we made free chapbooks and artists books and stacked them for people to take. I don’t think we ever sold books there. So it was not a guerilla publicity effort—it really was a Happening. There were participatory poetry games, exhibitions of one-of-a-kind and small edition artists books, and never a central event or a reading: we piled the usual chairs in the center of the venue, since there was no specific viewing direction. The audience were participants, and so were we. The UDP folks and the Loudmouth Collective all had a taste for decentralized activity, process over product, instigation of play, and an anarchic politics at the margins. We were antagonistic to the institutionalized art and poetry worlds with which we were only tangentially in contact. I’ve written before that the Anti-Readings were a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone (Hakim Bey’s term) in a quickly gentrifying city; it was a bohemian space of play where human connections promised no "access" to professional advancement, and nothing was for sale, except the dollar bill poems, which were sold at a loss, of course.
At that time, UDP was making a little money back on some of its books, which helped pay the rent or the printers, but members of the Presse often contributed out of pocket to pay for new book projects and to subsidize the rent. The grants we could get back then were quite small, often as low as $1,500 and rarely approaching $10,000. Strangely, though we are able to get larger sums, grant-support still make up about the same percent of our budget as back then. The art granting system in the US is geared toward the larger organizations in a way that’s quite deleterious to the culture. The bigger you are, the more money you get, and so small and scrappy initiatives that could actually do a lot more with a grant get stuck or frustrated or close quickly. I’ve written quite a bit about this and shown some numbers and charts in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.
I want to say that delving into the history of UDP or other small presses or art-related publishers isn’t the point in itself. It’s useful if you are looking to understand something about the present situation, or to ask questions about what could be a politics of small press publishing now. Susanne brings up eco farmers, and in the US some have made the analogy between small presses and boutique farming and such things, but often this is rather consumer-oriented, like the slow food movement, or other such things. Personally, I find a rather large difference here in that poetry and artists books aren’t really consumable—we don’t “need” it to survive, though as William Carlos Williams said, “men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”. The distribution of books is not solely local (nor should it be) in the way that a “responsible” food- distribution network would be. Poetry and artists books have very little to do with bourgeois “foodie” culture, in my experience. Poets often can’t afford the local produce; the system is so broken due to global labor inequity that the only garlic I can buy at my local supermarket is from China, and at the weekend open-air market, it’s three times the price, or more. Sadly, buying healthy, local food in the US is mostly for the well- healed. The Community of Literary Magazines and Presses, a member organization we belong to, tried an annual event in Hudson, NY, which paired small local farmers and “craft” food people with small publishers and little magazines. The result was quite saddening: people bought fancy organic cocktail mixes and expensive ice cream and then walked around the book tables without much real interest, and rarely bought anything unless they felt guilty. I came away thinking that the rubric of the “local” as it’s understood for food culture was a demeaning way to think about publishing and literature in particular.
KYRA: I’ll just chime in again a bit more in response to your thoughts about “thinking outside the box”. I’m sadly no authority on Sub Pop—despite my appreciation for it, it was a bit before my time! But I hear what you’re saying and can definitely see the correlation. I think you’re right about the “gourmet” quality of small presses. If we are not in it for the pleasure of collaboration and to create something together, I don’t know what we’re doing it for. No one becomes a writer or musician or artist of any kind, expecting an easy ride to a cool million, poets least of all—or if we do, we are quickly met with a rude awakening. In my case, as a writer involved in small press poetry, it’s been interesting to also have one foot in the fiction world, where at times, if one is lucky, there is perhaps a greater opportunity for books to actually “make money” or for authors to garner substantial “payment” for what they do though none of that is ever guaranteed or as straight forwardly beneficial to the author as it may appear. I have friends who have published books with major publishers, only to be devastated by things like having absolutely no say over what the covers of their books will be. I’ve known authors who have taken book projects away from major publishers to instead work with independent presses, where they knew they would get more individualized attention, despite much less financial gain, if any.
People often spend years working on a single book or project or album, and to not have some level of care put into bringing that creation into the world, can be heartbreaking. However, that is often the reality. The discrepancy between the mainstream and the underground or small/independent worlds feels massive. There are of course pluses and minuses to both of them. But it may be that the kind of artistry and handmade element you were perhaps describing may only be possible with something like a small press where sales are never the impetus, and everything is a labor of love. Some might say there is a certain preciousness to some of the objects we make, but by “precious” I don’t mean shiny or pristine or perfect. In many ways, we also try not to be too precious, to be spontaneous enough to make room for the beauty of messiness, immediacy, for things to be accessible to people and made without too much fuss, and to allow for rough edges.
As we know, most small presses don’t subscribe to the mass market, or rely on sales to stay afloat. They are in great part funded by grants and donations and sustained by people who are passionate enough about the work to be willing to make sacrifices to get it out there. All of that sets certain limitations, as far as things like reach and resources go, but it also allows for a certain freedom in production and creativity. Because we are small, we are able to make small things, things we strive to take the time to make beautiful in spite of commercial logic, and which can become very important to the few who really appreciate them. Many of the people working in small presses are poets or writers themselves, and this is perhaps also a reason there is a certain level of understanding around what it can mean for an author to have their work transformed from a manuscript into a book.
This isn’t to say that small presses operate within some kind of utopia, that there isn’t a lot of hard work and struggle involved or that UDP is unique in this dilemma. It’s a constant challenge and “thinking outside the box” is not just needed as an approach to the creative or editorial side of things, but also on an administrative level. The trials and minutiae of managing distribution, development, funding, publicity and so on is endless.The basic questions are continuously evolving and put before us. How can we make all of this possible? How can we afford to keep our lights on? How can we deal with the changing landscape of publishing? What is the box now? Are we part of it? I suppose what I meant most in using that phrase, is not to express a sentiment of being against any way of doing things, but rather to say that there isn’t ONE way of doing anything, and to be part of a small press is to know that one will have to proceed with a certain level of creativity, openness, and daring, however we manage to achieve whatever our goals are as a publisher.