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Interview with Ken Taylor, Founding Editor
How did selva oscura press start?
In the past, I’d been asked to write poems in response to art and also had the privilege of artists responding to my poetry that have been published in various small presses, performed as part of a public project or made into a short film. I am a fan of collaboration in this way and wanted to collect these and also reach out to other artists I’ve known for a long time, whose work I admired and never had a chance to work with. I also wanted to start a press and thought I’d cut my teeth on this project instead of possibly messing up someone else’s work. The end result was “dog with elizabethan collar,” the first publication from selva oscura press.
Tell us a bit about selva oscura. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
I started things with my own money from a consultancy I formed in 2014: Hey Clown Ventures. selva oscura press was just a name and not an entity. And the name obviously comes from “the dark wood” of Dante’s Inferno, but also from the notion that when whiskey is aging in commercial barrel houses, enough of it evaporates (called the “angel’s share”) to turn the bark of nearby trees (or actually the moss on the bark) black. It’s what revenuers looked for back in the day as a tell tale sign in hunting down illegal stills. I suppose that comes as close to anything in describing my aesthetic. That, and something Fred Moten said in one of our recent email exchanges: “poetry should be at least ten times more beautiful than that pig on Green Acres.”
My mission is to publish a mix of established poets and the first book of others. The press is now an official 501(c)(3) non-profit and will rely on donations and sales going forward.
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?
The most recent publication (fall 2015) was a chapbook: “Moment’s Omen” by Nathaniel Mackey. The next project is “Zippers & Jeans,” by J. Peter Moore, my partner in crime at the online arts quarterly, Lute & Drum and an excellent poet. It will be his first full-length book and I’m very pleased to be able to bring it out. I think the press has enough money to publish another book this year. Fred is on my board of directors and has some folks in mind, but we haven’t committed to anything yet.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
It’s exciting to me right now because it’s new! I suppose it has always been this way, but small presses are run by people who really care about poetry, who want to put beauty into the world, and who want to see work published that they feel is important and interesting and might not otherwise be published. It certainly isn’t about making money. The IRS tax-exempt designation for 501(c)(3) entities should actually be called: “not nearly making profit.”
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 selva oscura press?
Making beautiful objects is expensive. You are either associated with a university and have research money (which I am not) find your own money (which I am doing) or you charge nominal fees or run contests to raise the money to print and distribute your book (and/or you rely on SPD and split revenue in exchange for distribution). And you do this knowing you’re going to take a hit. When a former small press publisher learned I started selva oscura press he said, “Bless you. You know you’re going to lose your ass.” Hopefully, I can put out at least one book every year. That would be my idea of success. Otherwise I’ll wait for the cookie jar to fill up with nickels and put out the next one then.