Interview with Kyle Flemmer, Editor in Chief
How did The Blasted Tree Art Collective and Publishing Company start?
The Blasted Tree started midway through my undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. I was learning creative writing and took some publishing courses to supplement my studies, but everything I encountered skewed towards Careers in Publishing™ rather than the brass tacks of book publication, i.e. the actual finding, editing, typesetting, printing, binding, and selling of books. So over the summer between my second and third year I started making stuff, little booklets of my own fiction and poetry at first, but I got some work from friends and classmates as well. I put up a website with an online store, organized a launch party, and away we went.
A lot of my energy in the first year came from the misguided notion that I was alone, that it was Penguin Random House or bust, and that if I didn’t publish emerging authors and artists, nobody would. Underneath that I think was the fear of not finding a tribe of like-minded people. Of course, as soon as I started putting stuff out there I realized I was entering a vast community of small press publishers, a veritable army of people photocopying and folding and stapling zines and chapbooks in living rooms around the world. It felt good to tap into this whole new (to me) level of circulation, and my motivation quickly shifted from “showing the world what’s what” to “growing something worthwhile.”
Tell us a bit about The Blasted Tree. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
At first my activities via The Blasted Tree were influenced by Metatron Press, a small publishing outfit which came together in Montreal shortly before I moved there. I had discovered a couple of their chapbooks (on the prototype display rack at the print shop by my school) and decided I liked the content they represented, the low-cost publication format, and their palpable brand identity, which said young and hot and contemporary but most of all inclusive and forward-thinking. I knew I needed a similar identity, one that looked to the future of publishing rather than hearkened back to some imagined glory days.
Another major influence at the outset was derek beaulieu of No Press, who very generously discussed his publishing philosophy at length with me over coffee. He conferred such gems as (I’m paraphrasing): a publisher should create two spaces for every one they take up; circulation is paramount, give everything away if you have to; and, publish all walks of life, including viewpoints which may run counter to your own. I have been, admittedly, swayed pretty deeply by his position, though I am a degree or two more miserly with my handiwork.
These two influences led to me think at length about what I had to offer, both to the art and to the community, and I’ve settled on innovation and materiality in print design combined with free and unrestricted access to our digital content. Over time, The Blasted Tree has increasingly featured odd and eccentric content that just doesn’t seem to belong elsewhere, projects that beg for an out-of-the-box take on publication format or materials. By offering a combination of print and digital media, I can, on one hand, bring these projects to life in unique physical manifestations, and on the other I can be sure they remain accessible to anyone with an internet connection, hopefully in perpetuity.
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?
One of our summer publications is a collection of lyric poetry by David Dowker entitled Time-Sensitive Material. In it, Dowker shakes up the stuffy language of philosophy, natural science, and linguistics to make surprising new arrangements. A limited edition of 50 chapbooks were printed on ivory linen paper and hand-bound in distressed parchment paper covers with a white tissue flyleaf.
The other chapbook we put out this past summer is a visual poetry chapbook by Australian author Catherine Vidler. It’s called Keyboards and features a series of textual glitch poems which get progressively glitchier from part to part. I made the covers out of unsoldered green circuit boards, and each chapbook comes packaged in a translucent anti-static bag. The idea is to evoke a computer chip which has been damaged in transit, compromising the contents of the chapbook.
This fall we’re working on a strange play about two LSD-riddled rats, an experimental short story, some wavy visual poetry employing constructive and destructive interference, and an erasure of the Holy Bible. Honestly, things have been getting weirder and weirder around here, and I’m totally on board with that direction.
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.
I’m not really sure what needs to change, though I think I’ve put my finger on one of the major problems facing small press publishers. Some of the biggest pressures I struggle with are those of the 24/7, “always on” publication cycle. The attention of our readership is demanded and divided in ways traditional publication is simply not equipped to compete with. But our readership isn’t wrong, the tools they’re inclined to use are at hand, and change is inevitable. Small presses, and print media outlets in general, need to find a way to meet people in the middle, to convert the fast-moving, low-investment exposure of social media to a slow-moving, deep engagement with print media. An added complexity is the need to monetize that conversion. I try to share process documentation to our social media to encourage engagement with a project before it’s published in the hopes that people are aware of and ready to buy it on launch. I can’t say I have any proof it’s working to sell physical copies, but traffic on our website is steady.
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 The Blasted Tree?
I cope by not really caring how the money side of things shakes out in the end. Our print publications are priced to turn a small profit, should we sell every available copy, which we almost never do. We compensate our contributors with copies of their work, plus we have trade relationships with several other small press publishers, so only about 60% of the print run is available to sell for cover price. I set a budget from there and try to produce the project within it. The website, marketing fees, pretty much everything else, I just pay for out of pocket. A little bit of money trickles in here and there, but I have the distinct impression that more money trickles out.
Frankly, I work three other jobs besides running this publishing company, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t operate it in the capacity I am now if I weren’t. Some people have expensive hobbies like skiing or collecting vinyl or whatever; I spend my money on fancy paper and printer ink and postage fees. There isn’t any real sanity in it, I’m just privileged to do it without having to skip any meals.