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Amy Wright: Sona Books promotes its mission to publish “Quiet, Risky, Small, Text-Image Chapbooks.” How do you define and recognize risk in writing?
Jill Magi: I think of risk in two ways: in terms of content that might be otherwise ignored, suppressed, considered “minority” in point of view, adversarial to mainstream culture, or even an intervention in what might considered “experimental.” I also think of risk in terms of form: works that might play with language to the degree that in reading, we need to ask, as poet Ann Lauterbach has pointed out, “what is this text doing?” rather than “what does this mean?” I also look for works that challenge the very definition of “poetry” and work that is research-based or looks outside the individual experience toward macro social structures. So, for example, I found Corrine Fitzpatrick’s work really compelling—it’s fairly straightforward narrative, but it’s based on transcripts of interviews with her Filipina grandmother; hers is a war-time history and story not often told, and told in a way that stays so close to multi-lingual and hybrid speech patterns. So I consider that work “risky,” especially because it’s a family story and so might be overlooked in experimental or “avant-garde” circles. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, I published Alan Davies’ A Token is a Thing Upon the Tongue and he is a lion of Language poetry. So in his work, the risk is in the language itself, bending and stretching it way past any conventional use or utility.
AW: Will you share the history of the press and its inspiration?
JM: Surely! Thanks for asking.
In the early 2000s, I was turning away from fiction and toward poetry. I was educating myself in whatever I could find under the name “experimental.” I had written a novel that was probably too non-linear and language-driven for mainstream publishing, but had spent years querying agents and editors to no avail. I was, therefore, interested in self-supporting structures and alternatives to mainstream publication and in hunting these possibilities down, I ran across the Subpress Collective—a group of poets who donated I believe 1% of their annual incomes to a pool of money from which they drew to publish each others’ books. This, of course, had roots in DIY culture and Subpop Records comes to mind immediately. At that time I also found, online, a collection of small presses hosted by Duration Press, and I began to go to programs at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery. While Poets & Writers magazine was discouraging writers from starting more presses, I was thrilled to see that the Poetry Project web-site had something called “the tiny press center” and they encouraged more publications—and told the story of mimeo presses in the 70s, a time of flourishing DIY experimentalism in poetry. These things inspired me, and at the same time, my own writing was becoming more fractured, more language-driven. Then I took a week of classes at Naropa in the summer of 2002 and I heard Anne Waldman state, quite plainly, “poets publish other poets,” and I thought, “I could do that.” I had a background in graphic design and had been making handmade books for a while, especially with the adult literacy students I had worked with in New York City for years. I also knew many poets who were shy about publishing their work—they were my friends and I approached them first. I wanted their work to reach larger audiences. I set up a subscription structure because I didn’t have any disposable income to put out to make the books. Subscribers came from the poets’ families and friends, and paid $25 for four books annually. I adjusted the print run to match the funds that came in. This way I stayed “in the black.” I ran the press in this way for ten years, and this year was the last cycle of subscriptions. Around the time when I was just starting up, Matvei and Anna from Ugly Duckling Presse got a hold of one of the titles I published and they reached out to me to invite me to sell my wares at a small press festival in Brooklyn. I showed up and met, in one day, Tracy Grinnell, Brenda Iijima, Jen Bervin, and others, and they all wanted to know what I was up to. They are, still, to this day, members of my poetry community.
AW: At book fairs, and when Iʼve worked the Zone 3 Press book table, it is our handmade-paper chapbook many visitors handle first. Chapbooks occupy a special niche in publishing, in terms of size, tactility, the small, conscientious packaging of a long poem or series of poems. Will you elaborate on that position and its offering to writers and publishers?
JM: Honestly, I tend not to think of “niche” and “position” at all in this work, but I do know what you mean about the “tactility” of chapbooks. Yes, I’ve seen this too! I do think about publishing as community, and believe that if we pay attention to our desires as writers and readers and bookmakers, we will quite organically achieve all the positioning we need.
There is a long tradition we’re working in as well: the poet’s chapbook has been a part of many different communities of poets through the ages. It’s a form that makes so much sense—and here is why: the chapbook allows for writers to put out segments of longer works before a whole book is ready; a chapbook allows for certain paper options and sizes that might be unique to its handmade form; a chapbook can be an experimental space outside of commercial publishing.
I am interested in the chapbook as a generative form—the way a writer may actually write into the space of the chapbook—Sona Books has always been about this. For example, when I hear of a writer with a project in mind, I like to propose a chapbook at that stage, so that they can begin envisioning the work in this slightly smaller-than-book container. So I think the presence of the chapbook as a form and tradition enables us to shape projects that we might not otherwise imagine.
Sona Books has also always been about readers: family and friends who might not browse poetry bookshelves anywhere, but now receive these smaller works and have to navigate them without, quite possibly, any experience at all in reading “risky” texts. To that end, I have sent out flyers entitled “How to Read a Sona Book” to give new readers footholds into the work.
AW: In your publisherʼs statement, you say that part of the role of editing is listening for new voices, “the quiet or quieted community members especially.” Why the importance of quiet? Is there an inherent value in listening hard for what might otherwise be missed?
JM: When I think about the whole world of publishing—and I try not to do this too often!—I am sure that experimental and risky works are harder to come by, and so it’s safe to say those voices are silenced. But we’re not victims! I do not live my life lamenting the fact that you won’t find my books on the shelves at large bookstores. So be it. We just have to work harder in more personal ways to sustain our communities and reach out, whenever possible, and let folks know about all the variety of literature that exists. I would rather act in this way in the world than sit back and wait to hear from my agent or editor on “sales figures” or where I’ve been scheduled to read. In a small way, Sona Books is about this personal reach—the lively world of personal distribution networks.
Then, in terms of personalities, I am probably drawn to the writer who is working hard but not doing so much self promotion. Or they may not have the time or inclination to go to lots of poetry events and “be seen.” I have found myself in this position, and so as a publisher, I look for those in my circle who might be shy or might not have time to get their work out there.
AW: Sona Books has been in operation for a decade. How has the culture of the book changed over this time and what do you hope for its future?
JM: What a great question! And I don’t have a precise answer because I think to answer this I would need to do some research. But there are some things I have noticed, and I’ll report on them here.
I think there is a sense that books are moving into electronic form and on-line publishing is more popular than ever. Yes, this might be true, but I see absolutely no evidence that the perfect bound book or the paper chapbook is going away. So it’s not an either/or thing at all. In fact, quite the opposite! In ten years I have seen new presses start; in the last ten years the City University of New York Graduate Center started a chapbook festival that involves several presses and the NYC Center for Book Arts; in Chicago, the Read and Write Library is going strong and I was just interviewed by them about press archives and preservation practices; the SUNY Buffalo Library continues to collect Sona Books and other titles from chapbook presses; Small Press Distribution in Berkeley has added several presses publishing perfect-bound books to their ranks; over the years I’ve worked with several students who have started chapbook and small presses and there is even a reach into letterpress culture as well. So if things are moving to digital forms, this evidently does not mean that any other form is going away.
The thing about the bound, paper book is that it is an amazing piece of technology. It’s portable, affordable, you can read it in several directions, re-read, flip pages forward and back, and then keep it on your shelf for future reference. In fact, as a technology, the form of the book will, I am sure, outlast any movement to the digital realm—especially when folks begin to realize that the books they “purchase” digitally can be recalled whenever the publisher wants to recall them.
What I hope for the future is that more poets and artists will take the means of production into their own hands and get their work out there by starting presses and supporting each other’s work through festivals, reading series, and writing reviews. When we, as writers and artists, imagine our work on the page, held by just one other person, our work changes—and I believe it changes for the better. We are stepping into relation, and imagining this community of readers requires that we work harder on our projects, make more careful revision decisions, and it means we are not at all passive in that relationship. This, to me, is politically radical in itself, it’s healthy, and can teach us about how to make community in many other ways as well.