Interview with Elisha May Rubacha, Editor and Designer; and Justin Million, Poetry Editor
How did bird, buried press start?
Elisha: It’s kind of a love story. My poetry editor, Justin Million, found me when he was looking for feature readers for his then brand new Show and Tell Poetry Series. A mutual friend with a shop had my Linen Thread zines in stock and suggested that I might be interested in participating. He bought the first issue, liked the poem, and got in touch with me. We hit it off immediately. I got more and more involved in the series, but started to feel the itch to make things after I finished off the set of ten Linen Threads. I’ve worked in graphic design for most of my adult life, and Justin is the most impeccable poetry editor I’ve ever met, so it was really just a natural progression.
The name came up out of discussions we had about the nature of publishing. It’s meant to reflect how a published work is brought to life, but simultaneously buried. With so many publishers completely uninterested in previously published work, a lot of amazing writing is left to rot after its brief moment of recognition. After we buried an actual bird in Jackson Park that Justin had found fatally wounded, I suggested the name buried bird press, and ever the editor, Justin revised it to bird, buried press. We got my friend and collaborator Emma Barrett to illustrate our alive and dead birds, and with the logo in hand, finally launched in July of 2016.
Tell us a bit about bird, buried. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Elisha: I grew up a zinester, and although I’ve moved past my gluey-handed cutting and pasting perzine phase, I think that DIY aspect has stuck with me. I do most of my design work digitally now, but I’m partial to incorporating handmade and unique elements whenever appropriate.
The visual aesthetic is often minimalist. I’m really into maps and diagrams, which comes across pretty quickly when you flip through the body of work. The most important thing to me is that the form reflects the content.
The mission is to print great work from writers and artists from or living in Ontario. If I can make those objects beautiful, or weird, or special in the process, that’s even better.
Justin: My first mission as Poetry Editor is to find work that is accessible. I think accessible poetry is in shorter and shorter supply, and many poets are celebrated for their vocabulary, their twisting of meaning, rather than meaning-making itself. It’s funny how quickly we’ve forgotten the WCWs of the world, the Whitmans. My mission as an editor is to champion work that poets can share with the people around them, most likely their families, who insist that they “don’t get poetry.” Do you get time-travel movies? Do you really understand Twin Peaks? No, you don’t, but you will go to extraordinary lengths to recommend the more popular brand of head-scratching art, because the cool guy from work is watching it… but where are champions of poets? Most poets worth their salt spend the majority of their time trying to simplify the more difficult aspects of our difficult world for our universal benefit. Why would anyone not want to encourage and help to promote such a noble pursuit? Let’s get started, I say! If poetry really has the power to affect profound change in the actual world, and by that I mean the only world that matters, the real world outside screens, the personal, brick and mortar world, the messy world, the world that’s growing harder and harder to parse and navigate, then the least you could do is buy someone a goddamn book.
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?
Elisha: We’ve had a bit of an accidental theme developing of climate-related work. The first was a dystopic short story called 10 by Patrick St. Amand based in an environmentally devastated Lake Huron. Our two most recent poetry chapbooks seemed to follow suit, and are especially topical considering this year’s hurricane season down south. The poems in Mayami by Ben Robinson are a sort of flood story with lost legendary cities, and mapmakers who can’t keep up with the changing landscape. Ben was especially fond of the design work we did for our live-assembled books that I made in conjunction with poetry editor Justin Million’s live-writing monthly KEYBOARDS! Those are all handmade, and each one is unique, so I tried to do the same thing for Ben by hand-painting all the covers. A Functional History by Tim Mook Sang, although certainly less apocalyptic, has weather reports, shipwrecks, and one solar-powered watch. It’s a bit grittier, and includes a handjob on a bus. Both texts were selected and edited by Justin, and I handled all the design and production work.
In November, as part of Kate Story’s new Precarious Festival, I did an installation showcasing the entire making of 10, from digital design to physical production. Visitors saw firsthand the usually invisible labour involved in bookmaking. The last twenty copies of the run were assembled publicly, alongside the screen recordings and projected videos taken while I made the first thirty. This book was particularly involved. I hand-cut the shape of Lake Huron from every single cover, each of which took a full five minutes, not counting the other cutting, folding, and stapling required. Live art making is a growing interest of ours, and audiences seem to be responding to it. For instance, the most recent KEYBOARDS! chapbook I did for Justin’s work was a very limited edition of five copies, all of which were spoken for before they even existed. As a gardener, I think a lot about the need to be connected to where our food comes from, and how much more it’s valued when we do know. That same logic applies to the arts. If people see where it comes from, I think they value it more, and feel involved, as though it’s theirs as well.
This month, we’re launching another themed set of books, this time focused on robots and AI. The poetry collection by Lindsay B-e is a concept piece in which artificial intelligence has become prevalent, but is then wiped out by an electromagnetic pulse caused by a severe solar flare. The introduction suggests that the collection is very controversial in its future context. The poems are all based on existing work, like “Psalm 23,” and Tomas Tranströmer’s “From March 1979,” but they’re revised to recognize the lives of robots and cyborgs. Normally I’d be resistant to publishing work that goes so far beyond intertextuality, but the world it exists in captivated me and really makes the poems new. The short story, written by Ryan Knowles, is about the first robot to experience emotions, and the woman who developed him. Their perspectives alternate throughout the text, but both experience difficulty relating to others. The third publication is a play, which I will actually be directing as the entertainment for the launch. It’s about a son who has gotten his father a robot, worried that dad needs a little help taking care of himself. Dad disagrees.
We have even more projects lined up right into 2018. We had to take a break from accepting submissions over the summer, cause we just have too much good work on the docket.
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.
Elisha: One of the things that we’re doing differently is giving feedback to everyone. When we reject people, we usually get lovely thank you emails in response (with a few colourful exceptions of course). It’s important to us to contribute to the whole literary ecosystem by providing criticism that I know emerging writers are desperate for. Growing up a writer can be hard, and if you aren’t lucky enough to be integrated into a writing community, your early readers are usually family and friends who are just going to keep telling you how good things are. That can be a nice confidence boost, but it doesn’t improve your work. Naturally, this level of attention takes up a lot of time. Originally we had hoped to have quick responses, but between our day jobs and our detailed rejections, we’ve gotten pretty behind. – Or I have, as the prose editor. Justin is amazingly on top of things.
We’re also very determined to improve the way our culture values the arts. That’s a big project, but right now we’re doing our bit by compensating writers to the best of our abilities. Justin, very nobly, pays all the readers in the Show and Tell Poetry Series out of pocket. Currently the press pays with five contributor copies, which from what I understand counts as a paid writing credit when applying for grants. Someday I hope to be able to pay properly, but in the meantime, I’m comforted by the idea that we’re helping emerging writers become eligible to get that money from funders.
I had a bit of happy culture shock when I briefly lived in Montreal after graduating and discovered that there, when I said that I’m a writer, it did not elicit sneers. In fact, it seemed that it was even a respectable thing to be. Honestly, it blew my mind. I’ve identified as a writer since I could spell, so I’ve developed a thick skin. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me I should get used to asking, “do you want fries with that?” or for all the times someone suggested that studying philosophy and literature was like flushing money down the drain… But I see now that it doesn’t have to be that way. I think that shift has to start with artists deciding to value themselves, which might mean turning our backs on opportunities that only pay in “exposure.” What we do is essential, it’s human, and I think it’s time to stop acting like we’re just dabblers or hobbyists, and take ourselves seriously, instead of trying to save face with naysayers. They’re wrong.
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 bird, buried press?
Elisha: I’m not crazy about reading fees unless they come with a subscription, or sometimes in cases of reputable contests. A publisher charging a reading fee is like all these businesses that are fighting the minimum wage hike. – If they can’t afford to exist, maybe they shouldn’t exist. It’s exploitation.
Our numbers have been improving a lot faster than I anticipated. Originally we intended to make three chapbooks a year. By the end of 2017 we will have exceeded that goal threefold. Part of that is that we’ve gotten so many submissions that excited us that we couldn’t help ourselves, but we wouldn’t have been able to do that if sales hadn’t been as good as they are. The early sales of every book pay for the production of one or two more books. It’s been snowballing rapidly, and I’m feeling pretty chuffed. The initial investment was out of our pockets, with a little thrown in from a patron as well. But since then, the books have been paying for themselves. Of course, neither Justin nor myself are paid, except in the odd work meal when we’re too swamped to cook. It isn’t about personal profit, although I think I speak for both of us when I say we would be absolutely delighted if we could make a living doing what we love.