Interview with rob mclennan
How did above/ground press start?
In late 1992, after seeing a variety of bpNichol and bill bissett chapbooks and magazines among all the other Canadian small press items on the library shelves at the University of Ottawa, I self-produced a small chapbook of my own, followed soon by two more in the spring and summer of 1993. In 1993 I was twenty-three years old, and had been attempting to write “seriously” for a couple of years, and producing chapbooks seemed a natural extension. Given how relatively easy all of this seemed to be, I produced the first official “above/ground press” item in July of that year, followed quickly by at least two or three others.
Basically, I made something of mine and found it relatively easy to do, and so I made something by someone else. And then another thing. And then another thing. I was a little more outgoing (read also: loud) than many of my immediate peers, so had no problem utilizing that enthusiasm to promote some of their work on top of my own. I started organizing readings to help (in part) to promote the people I was publishing (The Factory Reading Series goes back to 1992) and even co-founded the ottawa small press book fair to help sell some of the books a number of us were starting to make around that time (twice a year since, founded in October 1994).
Tell us a bit about above/ground press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
above/ground press currently produces roughly fifty or sixty items a year, depending on my mood, energy, submissions, time and finances. The bulk of these publications are single-author chapbooks of poetry, with the occasional single poem “poem” broadside, as well as quarterly issues of the poetry journal Touch the Donkey. I also spent more than a decade (until 2006) producing some forty-five chapbook-sized issues of the long poem/sequences journal STANZAS (see the full bibliography here). Given I started producing chapbooks alongside STANZAS, I thought it would have been foolish to sell both side by side. I hadn’t much of a network yet, so I decided to distribute STANZAS as a free journal, which would also, then, help promote some of the chapbooks the press was producing. The journal started with a print run of 500 copies (I sold the occasional ad space to assist with production and mailing), which bumped up to 750 by issue #7, and 1,000 by issue #31 (although #41 was produced in a run of 1,300 copies). Part of me had wanted to continue the journal beyond 2006, but I think, on the whole, the journal simply ran out of steam, and I moved on to further schemes (I had begun producing the Ottawa poetry pdf annual journal ottawater by then, for example).
Some of my early influences for above/ground included those 1960s and 70s GRONK publications by bpNichol and issues of blewointment by bill bissett. I’ve always been fond of what bpNichol termed the “gift economy,” and the biggest goal of above/ground press (“above/ground” as opposed to “underground”) has simply been to get the work into as many interested hands as possible.
I later discovered Maggie Helwig’s Lowlife chapbooks, produced out of Toronto in the 1980s and 90s; I very much liked the rough aesthetic of her production, realizing that chapbooks could look great and produce amazing work without having to look a particular brand of “slick” or “refined.” Other early influences include Barry McKinnon’s Gorse Press, Tsunami Editions, George Bowering’s long poem magazine IMAGO and Writing magazine out of the Kootenay School of Writing, as well as early publications by Coach House Press, House of Anansi and Talonbooks. I’m sure there are dozens more I’m forgetting.
Within a few years of founding the press, I had either discovered or witnessed the emerging of a variety of small presses, including Louis Cabri and Rob Manery’s hole books/hole magazine, Victor Coleman’s The Eternal Network, Joe Blades’ Broken Jaw Press, derek beaulieu’s housepress and Jay MillAr’s BookThug, among so many others. Part of the fun of producing work is being able to exchange, and see what others are doing.
My aesthetic for the books themselves: to produce inexpensive but nice looking editions in runs averaging 250-300 copies, a number of which I distribute gratis for a variety of promotional reasons. I think, over the past half-decade or so, I’ve become much better at design, but am still cutting and pasting (literally) to produce originals (which is why I can never send an author a digital proof). A while back, I wondered if I should actually learn how to do design properly, but then, after twenty-plus years, I figured: why bother? I should stick to what works. For now, anyway.
Roughly a hundred and twenty are sent out into the world via subscription/friend list and to potential reviewers, and the author receives fifty copies as their author payment. The rest I slowly distribute through other means over a series of years (and years).
My mission is rather simple: I produce work that excites me, and work to get it out as far as possible. My tastes run rather catholic, I’m told, and run from the more traditional lyric to the more experimental (including visual/concrete), while leaning far heavier on the latter.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
Some of my current and recent titles include chapbooks by John Barton (his third above/ground press chapbook since 1995), Carrie Olivia Adams (her second since 2013), Buck Downs, George Bowering (his tenth above/ground press item since 1998), Pearl Pirie (her fourth above/ground press chapbook since 2008) and Christian Bök. I produced a series of chapbooks by Julia Polyck-O’Neill (her first chapbook!), Dana Claxton, Andrew McEwan and Michael Turner for a recent conference and author’s festival at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, which was pretty cool. All four were participating, and on top of my usual distribution I sent along fifty copies of each of their chapbooks to the conference/festival for free distribution.
At this moment, answering questions (December 1, 2016), I’m three items away from an accumulated eight hundred above/ground press titles, but, depending on when this gets posted, I might have surpassed that by quite a bit. In no particular order, I’ve forthcoming titles by Jessica Smith (her third above/ground press title since 2006), Sarah Fox, philip miletic, Sandra Moussempès (trans. Eléna Rivera), Sarah Swan (her first new publication since her first poetry collection appeared in 2003), Geoffrey Young and Carrie Hunter. I figure I’ll make another couple of items before the end of the year, but for now, I haven’t a clue yet who might be the author of above/ground press item #800.
I usually have a small handful of unread submissions hanging around at any given time (I’m perpetually behind). Still, most of what I produce is solicited, whether sending someone an email after reading a poem (perhaps) in a journal that especially grabbed my attention, or an author I haven’t produced anything by for a while. It’s a good mixture, especially knowing that even through my so-called “stable” of repeated authors I’ve been fortunate enough to put together their first, or at least very early, chapbooks. I’m thinking of authors such as Stephanie Bolster, John Barton, Gil McElroy, Cameron Anstee, Marilyn Irwin, Pearl Pirie, Jason Christie, Jessica Smith, Hugh Thomas, Katie L. Price, derek beaulieu, Kate Schapira and so many, many others. There are a ton of authors I haven’t published yet that I would love to, but I’d rather keep that list to myself; just because I want work from someone doesn’t mean they should be pressured into it. I’m aware that every aesthetic can’t be shared with everyone.
The twelfth issue of the quarterly poetry journal Touch the Donkey will also be out in mid-January, with new writing by Gil McElroy, Colin Smith, Nathaniel G. Moore, David Buuck, Kate Greenstreet, Kate Hargreaves, Shazia Hafiz Ramji, Erín Moure and Sarah Swan. I’m pretty excited about that. I’ve completed most of the interviews for the issue so far, which will appear on the Touch the Donkey blog over the three months following the issue’s release.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I never did include Touch the Donkey in my above/ground press numbering. I suppose it was easier to keep the information for the journal in an entirely separate computer file, so I could conceive of the journal as a self-contained, albeit sibling, project.
We used to ask, “What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?” We’re still interested in the answer to that, but we’re even more interested to know what you think needs to change.
A worthy question. I think there needs to be far more reviews across the board, both for small and micro press titles. I mean, why bother making more if what has already been produced isn’t being discussed?
As far as exciting: I’m constantly asking publishers to send along titles for potential review, and some of my favourite go-to presses include BookThug, Graywolf, Coach House Books, No Press, Omnidawn, Fence, Ahsahta, New Star, Talonbooks, Vallum, Apt 9 Press, Black Ocean, Pedlar Press, Nomados, The Song Cave, Invisible Publishing, Burning Deck, Sarabande Books, Ugly Duckling Presse. There are far too many to properly list.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at above/ground press?
Around 1994 or so, Gary Geddes told me that when they founded Quadrant Editions in the 1980s (which later became Cormorant Books), they kept themselves alive through subscriptions. I’ve offered subscriptions since, and run them annually, marking calendar year. I have roughly eighty to ninety subscribers any given year, and have for a while now, which helps pay for more than half of production, which is quite nice. I might sell occasional items at the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair or the annual Meet the Presses in Toronto, but on the whole, I see remarkably few orders on individual titles (four individual orders for the Rae Armantrout chapbook was quite baffling). That I do have nearly one hundred subscribers who receive everything does assist a great deal, knowing that these are folk who might not like everything I produce, but they like enough of it, and they (presumably) trust my judgement and enthusiasm (and wish to support it). That’s nice.