Interview with Aaron Cohick, Founding Editor
How did NewLights Press start?
NewLights was kind of an accident, an accident that changed the course of my life. I started it as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, in the spring of my sophomore year, in 2000. I was a painting major, and needed a printmaking credit. I decided to take a part literature/part printmaking class called “Zines,” co-taught by the artist Hilary Lorenz and the poet/art critic John Yau. Our “textbook” for the class was Rodney Phillips and Steve Clay’s A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. We learned how to screenprint, set type and print on a Vandercook letterpress, and to bind books. We wrote, we made things. I loved it. For the final in that class, I produced the first NewLights book, a book of poems by a high school friend, Justin Edwards. At the time I really had no idea what small presses were, what artists’ books were, etc. All that I knew was that I had found the thing that I was supposed to do. I kept making books, started organizing readings, met other people in the community, started to gain awareness of the history and contemporary discourse(s) that I was a part of. I don’t want to say that things “kept growing,” because NewLights has never “grown” per se. But books keep happening, and I am completely committed to making them happen.
Tell us a bit about NewLights. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Thinking back now, I can see that the experience of making that first book is still embedded in the rest. In some ways NewLights Press is a micropress. I tend to think of it, right now, as “publishing as an artistic practice.” And for me, publishing has to include production, the making of the physical things. So I make all of the books and prints, from proofreading to design to printing to binding. Publishing is Form, Content, Production, and Distribution all locked in a generative tension.
Here is a slightly condensed version of the official mission statement:
The NewLights Press is an independent printer & publisher working at the intersection of experimental writing and artists’ books. All of the books are printed & bound “by hand,” using a variety of techniques, ranging from the obsolete (letterpress) to the utilitarian (laser/Risograph) to the meditative (delamination). […] We are not searching for the Ideal Book—we are looking hard at & reading closely from the book-in-the-world. […]
Some NewLights books are collaborations with other artists and authors. Some books are authored entirely by the NewLights Press. Some of the books are not books. One of the nice things about a press that is not a press, an institution that is not an institution, is that it can mutate as it needs to.
The aesthetic of NewLights has changed over the years, and hopefully will continue to change. Right now the defining term is noise. The book is a physical object, subject to the beauty, punishment, and clamor of the physical world. I am not interested in a retro zine/mimeo aesthetic, and especially not in the imperial/white space, Apple-branded, “clean,” “minimal,” “transparent,” or “ideal” design. That being said, different books/texts require different approaches, and I try to keep my own interests as a designer/printer flexible enough to accommodate a variety of texts. I would never want to overpower a collaborator’s text or image with my work, but at the same time I don’t strive to hide my labor as a designer and producer.
I put a great deal of effort into solid craft production, but not in a way that is precious or seeks to hide itself. NewLights books are tactile. They are emphatically produced, emphatically physical. They smell like ink and paint. They are made in editions from 250+ to 1, and range in price from $5 to $2000. (The unique, expensive ones are few and far between.) Currently I am experimenting with woven/flexible printing blocks (blocks that are made to move, change, and print a slightly different “image” with every pass of the press) and a reconfigured/reconfiguring alphabet based on modularity and scribal conventions.
As far as influences: I just started reading a new book of essays by John Yau, called The Wild Children of William Blake. As mentioned above, John was one of my first teachers in this whole book/poetry thing, and his early encouragement of my efforts was critical. As I read that book I can see his fingerprints all over my thinking.
Presses: Ugly Duckling Presse, Cuneiform Press, Coracle, Compline, Further Other Book Works, Timeless, Infinite Light, Little Red Leaves, Granary Books, Temporary Services…
People: Emily McVarish, Emily Larned, Bridget Elmer, Tate Shaw, Divya Victor, Nancy Spero, Amos Kennedy, Jr., Wallace Berman, Jack Spicer, Marc Fischer, Leon Golub, Robert Motherwell, Ken Campbell, Dafi Kühne, Russell Maret, William Blake…
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?
Earlier this year I released the third iteration of The New Manifesto of the NewLights Press, as well as a submanifesto to go with that that iteration, called Alphabet One: A Submanifesto of the NewLights Press. That newest iteration of the New Manifesto is the first book to really use that new alphabet referenced above (tentatively called the “Threshold” alphabet), and the submanifesto is a guide to go along with it and aid in reading. I just released the first issue of a magazine called REAEDR, a magazine of one-word poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. That was a long project, and the issue itself is a beast—a single page is 10” x 16.5”. It feels good to have it done and out in the world. The next thing is to play more in the possibilities of the Threshold alphabet with a series of prints and drawings, leading toward a book. I want to offer the prints as a subscription, something that I’ve never tried before, weirdly, in 17 years. I’ve found myself being drawn to images and narrative, so I’m eager to see where that might go when linked with the formal/structural disruptions of the work with the alphabet. I’m also working on the second version of a broadside/object by Nico Alvarado. We did a William Blake-style broadside of a poem of Nico’s that I was never 100% happy with, so I decided to re-do it, because I love the poem and I love Nico.
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.
That’s a great question, but I don’t think that I’m qualified to comment on what “needs to change,” as I can’t pretend to know enough about the independent press world and what other people are up to. The ongoing work on making the small press world more inclusive is necessary and heartening. I try to participate in that work as much as I can. I am an educator and manager of a letterpress studio at a college, and my students and I have done several community-based, social justice awareness/fundraising print projects. Following Simon Cutts, I tend to think of printing and publishing as a kind of public art (that can cross into the private), and using/addressing that has become more and more important to the work.
I’d also love to see (and be a part of!) more crossover and collaboration between the small press world, the makers and publishers of artists’ books, the makers and publishers of comics and graphic novels, the makers and publishers of indie music, and visual artists/designers in general. There is an enormous/exciting potential in all of that mix, both in the work and in the possibilities of how it can make its way into the world.
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 NewLights Press?
NewLights is a very different operation from most small presses in terms of scale and cost. I’ve always had a day job, of course, and for the past 10 years or so I have been fortunate enough to have day jobs that have given me access to the kind of equipment that I need to do my work. The output of NewLights is so small that I’ve always been able to focus on the work and what it requires, with only a vague sense that I needed to charge enough per book to make my materials cost back. (Time is another issue, and it’s becoming more and more important these days.) I have only recently begun tracking costs closely (I went legit as a business a few years ago). Last year I lost money. This year I will make a bit, nowhere near enough to provide any kind of living income, but just enough to keep things moving. My wife and I have been saving money for a long time so that we can set up art studios at home. We are on the verge of making that happen, and it will be a huge thing once it’s done. I just try to keep the overhead low, and make sure I spend as much time as I can in the parts of the work that bring me satisfaction. I try to follow the printer Amos Kennedy’s dictum: “Make as little money as possible.” The goal has always been—and continues to be—to build a life through the work. One of my favorite artists, Emily Larned, just released a book about Bloodroot, a feminist collective/vegetarian restaurant/bookstore in Bridgeport, CT. The title is my new mantra: Our daily lives have to be a satisfaction in themselves. That is the goal.