Interview with Steve Halle, Founder/Publisher
How did co•im•press start?
co•im•press started on account of a number of things. First, I credit learning about and reading books from the vast and varied ecosystem of small and independent publishers, especially micropresses, with redirecting the way I engage with contemporary literature, which I perceive as being in an almost unimaginable period of richness.
Like many readers and writers, I had been mainly an author-centric reader, and I would investigate and follow certain authors identified as important, canonical, or of interest. Around 2008, I really started to gain an awareness of micropresses and editors, especially the ones who were crafting lists that were unapologetically pursuing a particular, well-defined aesthetic and/or political ambition in the work they were publishing. I found myself tired of the arbitrary, undefined best-ness that a lot of journals and presses were trying to pass off as a mission or an aesthetic. I began to trust editors more as I understood how large they loom in saying what matters to literature right now, shaping the life of their readers’ minds, and fostering the conversations of the time.
Second, I had developed enough practical chops with the day-to-day work of publishing to be able to accomplish most, if not all, editorial, design, production, and distribution tasks on my own (in-house) if I was willing to hustle hard enough and set some clearly defined limits.
Third, I had been editing an extremely DIY online journal called Seven Corners (7C) and had the opportunity to publish new Chicago and Midwestern poets I thought were really exciting and sort of hit on this strange, visceral-mystical, emotionally compelling aesthetic I liked, especially Holms Troelstrup and Carina Finn. After publishing their work, I learned by turns that each had a manuscript (Within Mutiny for Holms, Lemonworld & Other Poems for Carina) that they were having a hard time getting published by other presses. Those became the first two books that were part of a five-year, ten-book phase of co•im•press.
Tell us a bit about co•im•press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
co•im•press’s mission is to publish strange (read: fabulism, mystical realism, Afrofuturism), transgressive (read: grotesque, perverse, queer, dis/eased, preoccupied with the body/transcending the bodily), and “unpublishable” (through other means) poetry, prose, and translations by unsung or under-sung authors and translators. It currently publishes two books a year. The press is committed to publishing translations and to working with writers from underrepresented groups. Translation submissions are the only work the press is always open to read via Submittable; all work in English is typically solicited.
I want the press to have a sense of immediacy vital to a small-ish, specific contemporary reading audience that seeks literature with a what I call a visceral-mystical aesthetic—work that seeks a way to engage the big questions by examining the particular leaky, fleshy, grotesque difficulties, embarrassments, and traumas of being embodied.
co•im•press’s closest influences are Action Books, Black Ocean, Noemi Press, Spork, Birds of Lace, Fence, and Tarpaulin Sky. The editorial perspective of the journal Mandorla: New Writing from the Americas is also a significant influence (Roberto Tejada, Kristin Dykstra, and Gabriel Bernal Granados, editors). I worked on production and marketing/distribution for Mandorla from 2009 to 2013 via Illinois State University’s Publications Unit, and through that work, I also learned of its forerunner in spirit, El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn (Margaret Randall and Sergio Mondragon, editors; there is a really great documentary on The Plumed Horn, too). I admire the way Mandorla’s editors and contributing editors created an open, networked community of writers across languages, borders, hemispheres, which can be divisive elements if we let them. Working with Kristin Dykstra when she was at ISU, I learned: that publishing can be a political act, to respect translators as much as authors, and the importance of translation as an art and practice. I also became attuned to the shameful dearth of translated works published in the US.
I also learned a tremendous amount about editing, book and journal design, the publishing business, and general professionalism from my predecessor at the Publications Unit Tara Reeser, who has been a wonderful mentor in literary publishing and has also been a supporter of co•im•press.
The press has also been influenced by and learned a lot of lessons from FC2, Cracked Slab Books, dancing girl press, Tiny Hardcore, Jaded Ibis, BlazeVOX, Futurepoem, Anomalous Press, Bloof Books, Horse Less Press, Nightboat Books, Phoneme Media, Switchback Books, 1913 Press, Ugly Duckling Presse, and Belladonna*, among others. I follow all these presses and the people who make them go.
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?
In 2015, co•im•press published Oxen Rage by the well-known (outside the US, anyway) Argentine poet Juan Gelman, translated by Lisa Rose Bradford, which was recently longlisted for the 2016 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. It is the kind of book that I can’t believe the press was able to publish and bring into English for the first time. Oxen Rage is a playful, sprawling, pensive, and devastating collection that is a milestone for Gelman and does a little bit of everything poetry can do, while inhabiting fully the spirit of its time and place—1960s Latin America after the Cuban revolution. The translation is a lifework for Lisa Rose Bradford, too, as she has been working to be able to English the book since Eduardo Galeano challenged her to translate Gelman in 1975.
co•im•press also just released I Am a Face Sympathizing with Your Grief: Seven Younger Iranian Poets, edited and translated by Alireza Taheri Araghi, which just came out in December. It is an edgy, absolutely contemporary collection of poetry that will make readers reconsider everything they think they know about Iran and the tradition of Iranian poetry. The relatively unknown poets gathered in its pages are exciting writers, and their work ranges from examinations of growing up during the Iran-Iraq War to a sequence of poems referencing Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.
In 2016, co•im•press plans to publish tasks by the Cuban poet Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, translated by Katherine Hedeen and Valdivia by Galo Ghigliotto, translated by Daniel Borzutzky, a book that I first encountered when parts of it were published in Mandorla, issue 15 in 2012. I’m really excited about both books, which are slated for a fall 2016 release, and they are evidence of the really high level of translation submissions the press has been receiving.
Beyond 2016, the press plans to publish Ghost Opera by Mercedes Roffé, translated by Judith Filc and Hoy by Juan Gelman (the last book published during his lifetime, although I recently learned of a posthumous book), translated by Lisa Rose Bradford. I’ve been attending the ALTA Conference the past couple years, where I’ve learned that not only is not enough translation taking place in the US, but there is also a significant lack of gender equality in translation publishing. I’m planning to launch a coedited series in the coming years that publishes exclusively women authors translated by women translators.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I’m excited by the depth and breadth of incendiary writing the small/independent press community publishes each year. It’s a rich, ever-expanding muchness that is capable of accomplishing important cultural work.
Also, I’m intrigued by the possibility for small/independent press publishing to intervene for equality in publishing, since mainstream publishing seems too monolithic to escape its inherent white maleness any time soon, both in terms of workforce (89% white according to Publishers Weekly) and the authors it publishes and chooses to promote. Organizations like VIDA, with its annual count, and individuals like Roxane Gay, who has continually called out the lack of racial equality in publishing in venues like the Rumpus, and Meytal Radzinski, whose website Biblibio advocates for gender equality in translation publishing, which is currently publishing 67% male writers to 31% female writers in translation, have been important resources that have shaped my editorial awareness, as have many other contemporary conversations about small press editing and publishing.
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 co•im•press?
It’s hard, no question, and in some respects I don’t cope. The muchness that I love in question four diverts attention from the needs that a micropress like co•im•press has to remain viable as an organization. I mean, many people in the small press world start doing the work because we know how many good books are not getting published—for reasons economic, political, and otherwise—and we want to use our time, talents, and entrepreneurial spirit to remedy the omissions.
But I’ve noticed—and I’m no exception here—that small press publishers like me jump into the work with the ambition and talent to be culturally successful but without the business acumen and wherewithal to be commercially viable without help. Few people (other than Roxane Gay) tell new publishing entrepreneurs what we need to know to run a micro publishing organization and do all the tedious grunt work in marketing, distribution, fundraising, and straight-up hustling that making it go—let alone be successful—entails.
co•im•press won’t have contests or charge reading fees because I think they turn authors from producers to consumers who receive too little in return for their consumption, especially when I would estimate small press authors are also typically the number one purchaser of their own books. Contests also create the false premise of a meritocracy for literature and endorse arbitrary, uninterrogated aesthetics of best-ness.
I am not opposed to crowdfunding and grant seeking, and I’m working to get 501c3 status for co•im•press (it is a nonprofit literary organization incorporated in Illinois), but the press operates at a loss right now. I try to make up for the loss by doing freelance book design work, which I happen to love, to subsidize the cost of producing and shipping books.
Although the press seems to be gaining momentum with readers, the stakes have gotten higher. Printing Oxen Rage cost more than three times as much as any other book the press has published. It weighs 27 oz. per book, which makes it expensive to ship, too. I’ve never budgeted a project like it before (including acquiring rights), so I’m in uncharted territory. But the book is so good!
Like many small presses, I’d love to publish an author whose success will become an engine that drives the press to new places—like Zachary Schomburg for Black Ocean or xTx for Tiny Hardcore—but not every press gets those rare opportunities. It seems, though, that it is one major factor for presses that flourish, although reading Adam Robinson’s interview with J. A. Tyler on Mud Luscious’s closure was an eye-opener, as it seemed the press was hurt by Tyler’s idealism and its inability to handle its own success.
Your website says, “co•im•press has an unabashed favoritism toward underrepresented writers working in Chicago and the Midwest. It is Chicagoist.” How does that Midwestern-ness manifest in literary form?
I mentioned earlier that I had a shift from author-centric to press-centric reading habits around 2008, and I’ve had a similar shift to consciously make more of an effort to read living writers. I’m interested in publishing, hosting readings, and being a literary citizen for and with writers who are active in the community right now. To me, this naturally extends to writers and translators living and working right now in Chicago, Central Illinois, and the Midwest—where I’m from and live—since I’m much more likely to encounter them and their work in person. Encountering writers both on the page and in person matters to me, still, even if it’s just the peculiar alone-togetherness that I value as an introvert. I also think of Chicago as a synecdoche for the greater Midwest, with its gritty-but-innovative, get-after-your-business, rusty, working-class ethos juxtaposed with its deep, persistent, ugly, and monstrous flaws. Something about that mixture continues to hail and fascinate me, drawing me to the place and the writers and translators who understand and attempt to process the paradox in their work.