Interview with Mark Harris, Editor/Publisher
How did Ornithopter Press start?
The initial inspiration came during a visit with my friend Peter Yovu in Vermont. We went for a walk in the woods and talked about Bashō, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wright’s late poems . . . I think we might have touched on Tranströmer’s Baltics. Casting about for the different and the unusual as poets often do. “What if we were to start a journal,” one of us said, and then, “How about launching a press?” That last proposition stuck. As it happened, the timing wasn’t right for Peter. I’d gotten the bug, though, and eventually followed through.
I have a visual art background and works on paper are the focus of my day job at an art museum, so chapbooks were a natural way to begin. For the first few years, I kept it simple and published two chapbooks per year. The recent publication of a full-length book of poems by Eve Luckring marks a turning point for the press. Her book The Tender Between is perfect bound and distributed through a wider network than the chapbooks, which are limited editions. Branching out required a whole new set of skills, mostly computer-based. The experience has been surprisingly entertaining, and an opportunity to use ideas I’ve held since my student days at the Rhode Island School of Design. The challenge in every case is to make a package worthy of the words, a sympathetic pairing of form and content, not an easy task. I’m always eager to learn from other book designers, and to make the most out of limited resources. The beauty of good design is it doesn’t have to be expensive. Anyway, that’s my ideal.
Tell us a bit about Ornithopter Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
The press’s visual aesthetic tends to be stripped down. Black and white body text. Art on the cover only. Design flourishes that distract from a book’s content probably won’t make the final edit. Flourishes in the writing are a different story. My own taste in poetry—the press focuses exclusively on poetic texts—is varied and not neatly consistent. In addition to the writers mentioned above, I’m engaged by ties that can be traced through a nexus centered at Black Mountain College around which Creeley, Niedecker, Joseph and Anni Albers, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage and many others interacted. Living lines can be drawn from there to the present. There’s the connection via Creeley with California poets and ultimately the Language School. The lines aren’t straight, of course, and they’re always interconnected. Rae Armantrout is one of my favorite poets.
I’m interested in writers who offer exceptional counterpoints to the literary mainstream. These days that usually means people situated outside the Academy. That’s not always the case, though. Take for example John Martone, who worked for years at Eastern Illinois University. John’s a quiet person, not a self-promoter, and an eccentric thinker in the vein of his friends and mentors Robert Lax, Cid Corman and Lorine Niedecker. With few exceptions, he produces his own books, often by hand, and distributes them through the gift economy. I asked him if I could publish a chapbook of his work in the hope that it might reach an audience outside his circle of devoted readers. He agreed. We were both pleased with how So Long turned out, and the experience helped point to one role the press can play in the lit community.
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?
Recent chapbooks include Imago by Peter Yovu, Branch to Finch by Sabine Miller, and for Want by Cherie Hunter Day.
Eve Luckring’s The Tender Between, launched earlier this year, is the first title in a prospective collection of perfect bound books of poetry.
Right now, I’m focused on continuing in that new direction, and will open a window for submissions this summer. The link to submission guidelines, which are routinely updated, is here.
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.
The survival of any truly independent press is a minor miracle, the result of passion and hard work, and there are several small presses going strong out there! My favorites resist the pull of the mainstream as sold to us by the industry. I love the experimentation I’m seeing lately.
To your second question, idk, people could buy more books from small publishers rather than corporate titans. We poets and small publishers could use social media, as flawed as “it” clearly is, to come together in a more organized and fruitful way.
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 Ornithopter Press?
I’m not a fan of the vanity press, and if you stack fees high enough that’s what you become, isn’t it? No, I don’t charge any fees, and won’t if I can help it. The trade-off? I guess my contract isn’t the most generous out there, but it’s fair, and the best I can offer. I manage to keep out of a financial hole by doing all editing, proof-reading, art and design, press release, and so forth myself. Time constraints, repetitive injuries, eyestrain—those are first world problems, and no big deal. I took a hard look at the numbers going in and while there are a few smallish presses that manage to leverage economies of scale, that advantage doesn’t amount to much without the additions of grant money and donations, which are hard to come by. The work is, for me, rewarding and sometimes fun.