This is the third in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our small press database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Interview with Joyelle McSweeney, Editor
How did Action Books start?
We started Action Books in 2005. We wanted to publish poems by Lara Glenum and Aase Berg (trans. Johannes Goransson)—poems which were causing a sensation in literary journals but could not be published as books because they went ‘too far.’ So we decided to become the press for poems that go ‘too far.’ Now I think we’re the press for gorgeous, strange, sticky, spectacular, be-wigged, weaponized and lit-up work in English and in translation.
Tell us a bit about Action Books. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
For me, historical Modernism is a huge influence—I like the work that tries to make a big loud strange guttural radiant dismaying noise in the face of crisis, that is symbiotic with crises, that never works itself out of the presence of crisis. So we publish international authors in translation like Kim Hyesoon, Hiromi Ito, Raul Zurita, Tytti Heikenen, as well as US based writers like Olivia Cronk, Don Mee Choi, Abe Smith, Lucas de Lima. We want to put our queer shoulders to the wheel when it comes to work that is strange, off-the-grid, given to fighting, singing, that doesn’t make a whiny little play for craft or universality or empathy or any of those bait-and-switch literary ‘values.’ Since I was a kid in the Reagan administration, I’m allergic to any kind of values.
I’ll also add that we try to make our translators really visible sticky interesting protuberances in the Action Books body. Don Mee Choi, Jeffrey Angles, Daniel Borzutzky, Molly Weigel, Michel Gil-Montero, Niina Pollari are just some of the wonderful poets and translators who are part of our exacerbated love-army. And I must also praise the punk artist, DJ and designer Andrew Shuta who for the last several years has been solely responsible for our books being objects and not glitch-possessed, virus-transporting killer word docs.
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?
We’re just about to release Hiromi Ito’s Wild Grass on the Riverbank, trans. Jeffrey Angles, which is a wild narrative poem about a bunch of Japanese migrant kids in California who might be alive, or dead, or in Japan, or who might be wild grass growing on a riverbank. It’s surreal, heartbreaking, forceful abject stuff and a very wonderful occult rerendering of the force of the immigrant. It’s a great companion to Lucas de Lima’s Wet Land, which is a drenched erotic interspecies revolutionary elegy in which the form of the book itself is worn away and then put on again like necessary drag. Then we will bring out ‘The Country of Planks’ by Zurita, trans. Daniel Borzutzky, which is the first book-length excerpt from Zurita’s epochal self-poeming Zurita to appear in English. Anyone who has been inspired to recommit to poetry and/or to poetry’s political force because of Zurita and his colleagues’ example will treasure this book. The edition is going to be sharp.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
When we got started we were part of a smallish cohort of indie presses, trying to emulate Rebecca Wolff’s Fence and Susan Schultz’s Tinfish and our comrades Ugly Ducks and trying to figure out how we could use this new digital thing to make the whole thing feasible. But now indie pressing has diversified and flouresced in terms of editorial tone, mission, media, genre, format, frequency, etc., different ideas about permanence and distribution, so much push and nimbleness. I love it. I feel like I’ve been gunned down and I’m bleeding out luxuriously on the birthday cake in Normal Love and I’m lactating and wearing Warhol’s wig.
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 Action Books?
The money thing is broke. But there will be other things. Crowdfunding seems crazy to me: nobody buys books, but maybe they will help pay for the print run. That’s doing something collapsible and inverted and interesting and throwback there, but also it’s permanent crisis. But at the risk of sounding like a grandpa, I’ll say this: if you want to be published by a press, buy at least one book from that press. Then we wouldn’t be so pinched, wouldn’t need reading fees, wouldn’t need to limit how many authors we can take on, etc.
You publish a relatively even balance of translated and original works. What informs that balance? And how do you choose what translations to publish?
I love translation; it’s two artworks crammed into the place of one, a dizzy oversaturation, a virtuousic double act, two con-artists in syncope. Love it. Usually the translators contact us if they feel they are working on a poet who fits our general aesthetic and would be of interest to our readership. Those translators know we like voicey, surrealish, obstreperous, moody, image-heavy and surprising poetry of insistent urgency. We love trouble. Trouble everyday. I’ve been amazed by the way readers eat up these works in translation.
Recent Action Books releases: