Interview with Kent MacCarter, Publisher
How did Cordite Books start?
Cordite Books began quite recently, November 2014 to be exact. But Cordite Press Inc., the non-profit that publishes Cordite Poetry Review, was founded in 1997. The first five issues of Cordite Poetry Review were newsprint broadsheets, then it went online-only just a few months after Jacket began. Interestingly, it was these two poetry publications that pioneered the space for Australian literature (of any kind) online, before many other publications that have come and gone, and even before a number of Australian newspapers, too. I took over as Managing Editor of the journal in 2011—expanding its purview to include scholarly research and translations while steering the journal in a far more international direction. We entered a cultural partnership MOU with The School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University in 2016, began Cordite Books in 2015 and are currently putting together our 80th issue of the journal.
For a number of reasons—including budgetary and pragmatism (as I am everything janitor to CEO of Cordite Publishing Inc.’s operations, our excellent editorial masthead for the journal notwithstanding)—I decided to do series of books in groups of ten. Each series has a unique cover and text design to unify them, else the manuscripts I’ve taken are diverse. I’ve approached members of the Australian Book Designers Association who are putting together exciting portfolios (and willing to work freelance) to shape our series design concepts. The books are not print-on-demand, are made with higher quality recycled card and paper stock than we could have opted for, and are all between 60-100 printed pages, deliberately slender. So we indulge some luxuries in our books’ production and remain frugal—I do all commissioning, editing and typesetting, for example.
Cordite Poetry Review will never revert to print. Online is sensible, manageable and keeps Cordite Publishing Inc. nimble and at the ready for international collaborations. Our printed books are an important extension of and counterweight to the online journal and its current and future readers. The journal has been free to anybody on earth with telephony or web connectivity for twenty years now, and it’s accumulated a solid readership (60% Australia and New Zealand, 40% rest-of-world). A result of this longevity means that, for the books, we began with an ample and highly engaged ‘market’ that our list gets exposed to with every quarterly issue. Some writers that have been contributors to the journal have now become Cordite Books authors.
We began distributing our titles via Small Press Distribution in North America in September 2016. Yet in Australia, New Zealand and throughout Southeast Asia, we currently (and will remain for the foreseeable future) distribute the books directly, as we are intrinsically sewn into the breadth of Australasian poetics already. We do have an online shop, have been fortunate enough to get a few titles adopted by large university courses, and do consignment sales in many of the large indie bookstores around Australia. That said, the primary way we ‘move’ our print books is as a payment option for journal contributors. I spend untold hours completing various state and national funding applications to be able to pay contributors (Australian residents only, sadly), and a cash payment is always an option, but 15-20% of our contributors opt for their choice of five of our titles and free postage instead of AUD$70 for a published poem.
The print books ‘provide’ back to the journal in all the beneficially symbiotic ways you might imagine. Together (and so far), the journal and books—published and promoted in the intertwined manner that they are—keep a more fluid and balanced means of continual existence than if we only did one or the other.
Tell us a bit about Cordite. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Most of our books could be filed under ‘experimental’—we all know what that is supposed to mean, though I have issue with that appellation. We are particularly interested in work that’s standing firmly—be it nude in boots and shouting from puddles, or more ornately said in oceans of robes—in gender, sexual and social identity issues, Indigenous Australian literature, ecopoetics, archival poetics…though any work that uniquely and unabashedly uses language, idiom, shape and negative space would interest us. Cordite Books is influenced by a litany of other small presses in Australia, not necessarily by what they are doing, but by what they’re not. Our mission and aesthetic braid into one effort: print poetry that isn’t afraid to be itself, massive success or failure. There are numerous excellent writers in Australia—Alan Loney, Javant Biarujia, Amanda Stewart, Berni Janssen—that have histories of being overlooked or in some way became marginalised by the more vocal and self-appointed standard bearers of Australian poetics. Writers who haven’t published a book in years, say. Or never. That’s our stable. First books that waltz right up to a cliff and leap, done by exciting writers like Natalie Harkin, Omar Sakr, Tanya Thaweeskulchai, Mez Breeze and Claire Nashar, are exciting to produce, hastily folded parachutes, meticulously crafted text and all.
Again, all of the above stems from and feeds back into Cordite Poetry Review. With the journal, and via its procession of disparate guest poetry editors mixing a few direct solicitations with the anonymously-read poetry submissions (predominant in each issue), we can explore a huge span of Australia’s poetics. In the journal, I can sate my interests for international collaborations such as we’ve done with Arc Poetry Magazine in Canada, a bilingual special issue with the Lontar Foundation in Jakarta, and a bilingual, Dalit Indian / Indigenous Australian special issue with the Monash Asia Centre. We can also do e-chapbooks that feature exciting new work, as we did with Liyou Libsekal on some African poets, from Scotland with the Scottish Poetry Library, and an upcoming one we’re currently putting together with Vladimir Lucien on Caribbean poetry. Or something more transmedia, such as the special issue that asked comics and graphic novelists to cover a poem.
It’s true that Cordite Books is a reflection of my taste, though there are many poets I admire—many good mates—that I’d never publish because they’re doing just fine with other small presses. I’m more interested in reversing the radicalization that’s been foisted on—or at least the perceived radicalization by those guilty of the foisting—poetry that is willing to take significant risks, is not afraid of the academy or hypermodern idiom, reflects the diverse culture that Australia is (read: awfully far from lily white) and is written by authors who haven’t found a publishing home (or ran away from one years ago).
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 January 2017, we’ll open submissions for an electronic poetry special issue, done in collaboration with the Electronic Poetry Centre in Buffalo and their 2017 conference. With Cordite Books, we just put out collections by UK expat Kris Hemensley, who runs the fabled Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, and compositional linguistics maven Chris Mann, an Australian expat who’s been in New York’s art coteries for years, performing with Annea Lockwood, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. It’s been over 30 years since Chris or Kris has published a collection in Australia. Forthcoming in early 2017 are books by code poet and digital gamer extraordinaire Mez Breeze, queer writing from Arab Australian millennial Omar Sakr, a superb distillation of prairie aesthetic from Canadian expat Matthew Hall, an invective from Jeanine Leane, a Wiradjuri writer from Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, and a second outing from Anne Elvey that acutely interrogates her own whiteness and white privilege in post-colonial Australia. Series 3 is just barely coming into focus with forthcoming collections from Lindsay Tuggle (her The Afterlives of Specimens: Science and Mourning in Whitman’s America is out with University of Iowa in 2017), Australian expat in Moscow Helen Lambert, and a fascinating deep dive into the equestrian business of tragedy from Siobhan Hodge.
Cordite Books had a solid presence at Active Aesthetics Conference held at UC Berkeley in April 2016, a direct attempt to bring together and cross-pollinate Bay Area and Australian poetics. So I am hoping that momentum can be sustained in getting contemporary Australian poetry out into the world. Lyn Hejinian and Canadian poet Shane Rhodes have been especially active in making this happen for Cordite Publishing Inc. the past few years. Let’s see where it leads?
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 can only answer this from an Australian context, of course. And within that, it’s a fecund time not only in Australian poetics, but in the natural extension of that creation—micro publishing—all made possible by umpteen digital options and the general abandonment of poetry publishing by medium and large presses. Unlike short stories, novels, non-fiction and the blogosphere, poetry enjoys a worldwide cottage industry of online, micro and small presses not bereft of editorial decisions and peer assessment that, say, a budding short storyist does not have access to in kindred form. I’m not referring to chapbooks—those live on, live well and always have in Australia. More, it’s the flourishing of online / print hybrid publications run by writers—yes, often publishing friends, but by no means exclusively—that is encouraging to see. These are the presses that travel from zero to…something, whatever that may be, and whomever it may be written by. After that, Cordite Books and Cordite Poetry Review, along with a number of other Australian publications, comes into view for those that want to go from one to…somewhere else. It’s a very narrow but critical band in the publishing genome in Australia.
In terms of change, the strictly white, frequently macho glaciation period that insists on defining what Australian poetics is, should be and can be is rapidly melting…and that’s climate change I can get behind. Yes, I am a white, English-speaking male, married with a son, mortgage, a used sedan and a well-worn passport, but many of my peers are not, have not and do not. I can’t not consider that in my editorial mandate and choices. My awareness of this privilege is not enough, action is required. Thankfully, here, I am not alone.
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 Cordite Publishing?
I’ve already noted a good bit on how the machinery of an online journal and print books is jiving in the vagaries of Australian small press publishing. Cordite Publishing Inc. is a non-profit organisation: it’s much more important that the journal remains freely accessible than it is to earn profits from a subscription model. That said, such a platform is impossible without money coming from somewhere and, for us, that funding arrives via our national, state and city funding partners. That kind of funding doesn’t remotely affect what we publish, no matter how suspicious some people are of that succour. It’s been a tumultuous few years in the Australian arts funding environment, and it is politics at all levels of government that define how miserly or generous support is on any given date. I had the chance to be in San Francisco for a few months early in 2016, learning what I could from McSweeney’s, how they get new poetry publications over the line and into readers’ hands, and what’s going on with that organisation’s process of shoehorning itself from Imelda Marcos’s closet into a sensible, non-profit publishing boot. From what I gleaned, arts funding in Australia remains far more generous than what is available in the States, be it public or private monies. There are plenty of unsexy tax status issues at play too, in Australia and everywhere else.
We have cultivated fruitful relationships with a number of government arts bodies, and that’s what keeps the journal going, our Amazon cloud seeded and the contributors paid. Full stop. The books nearly cover their own costs. Some do, others not quite. Print runs are small enough to stay on-shore. Authors are offered a modest payment for the publication of their manuscripts. We hand out stacks of copies for review, as prizes in other publications, festivals or indie radio subscription drives. It’s all a byzantine mix of facts, current states and ur-realities we’re yoked to, which simply is.