Writing about Anomalous Press for Entropy‘s own small press database project, founding editor Erica Mena offers this summation of the press’ mission: “to create beautiful, strange little books that a grad student studying the small press movement of the early 21st century will find in a special collections somewhere and they will make her head explode.”
It’s simultaneously a modest and ambitious mission: to expand consciousness, to endure, but by means of a scale more diminutive than grand, and a design aesthetic that eschews the anti-glamour of the minimal and instead aims, rather plainly, to appeal. I might even compare the Anomalous catalog to a quilt. Each title inhabits its own dimensions (quite literally; Anomalous is not shy about issuing books in odd sizes) and yet all of the titles, diverse as they may be, constitute anything but a miscellany. The patterns that both frame and intersect with these books, however, are emerging—or, more to the point, those patterns follow the contours of a state of emergence.
To better understand how Erica Mena and her pressmates are piecing together new awarenesses within the compass of “the lyrical,” I reached out last Fall to two Anomalous authors. Specifically, to two authors who have published somewhat unclassifiable prose with Anomalous, a press that I had mostly associated with poetry. Why had they chosen Anomalous as a home for their work? What had their experience been like? How had becoming an “Anomalous author” altered their relationship to their own books, and to their writing practice?
We sometimes forget that publishers don’t just fabricate and distribute. Publishers mediate, and that mediation extends in multiple directions. Many thanks to Scott Esposito and A. Kendra Greene for so generously furnishing these important reminders of what that mediation means, and how careful consideration of its angles and forces is central to any appreciation what literature is, not to mention what literature can accomplish.
— Joe Milazzo, March 2017
[JM]: First, let’s talk about your books as objects, as the result of a specific (handmade, or least hand-driven) printing process. How important has that aspect of your work’s presentation been in your own reading and understanding of it? Now that your text exists in its specific material form, how has your appreciation of it altered (it at all)?
A. Kendra Greene [AKG]: I really love how it feels in the hand. I’ve also come to appreciate how the chapbook asserts the authority of the stand-alone essay, affirms that it should exist and can hold its own, while also playing with what you might assume a book has to be. In writing about collections, I think a lot about the power of objects and pleasure of physicality. Both in terms of subject and the use of language in this essay, I think it makes a lot of sense for the writing I do to be wrapped in a way that connects archaic tradition and more contemporary innovation.
Scott Esposito [SE]: Great timing with this question, as just this week I’ve been having a very apposite lesson in the power of book as object. A few days ago I printed and bound a draft of my upcoming book on film, The Doubles (forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms this fall), and now for the first time I’m reading it off the screen and as a whole book. The effect is really mind-blowing. Even though I’ve been immersed in this writing for well over a year now, it’s almost like reading this work for the first time. And I know that when I eventually read The Doubles in galleys it’s going to feel different again, and then when I actually read it as the finished, published book, it’s again going to once again undergo a change. So I would say that my book’s presentation is hugely important. I know that there’s a purist line about how the writing is the writing, no matter if we’re reading it on a Kindle, in a published book, in the pages of The New Yorker, or inscribed on stone tablets, and while I do have some sympathy for this line of argumentation, to me it’s indisputable that the context of the content asserts a substantial influence on how we experience a text. As to The Surrender, it was definitely an experience to read it as a finished book. Seeing this story come together on my screen was very different from actually holding it in my hands—when I picked up the print edition, I immediately reacted to how it felt as an object. Putting it into friends’ hands had a reality and a pleasure completely different from sharing it virtually as an electronic document.
JM: Assuming you ever did, at what point in your compositional process did you begin giving thought to how these works might connect with an audience? What factors (or circumstances) influenced your decision to collaborate with Anomalous Press on connecting with an audience?
AKG: I should perhaps say that in general I feel like writing is a matter of putting notes in bottles and throwing them in the sea. Who knows what actually lands with a reader? How much stranger and unlikely is it that any response ever washes up on your shores? The whole process of audience seeking is pretty mysterious to me.
The Stone Collector is the second chapbook Anomalous has published from my ongoing essay project on Icelandic museums. There were other essays we considered, but I think of these two essays (now chapbooks) as a kind of diptych: both feature natural history collectors of the same generation; both deal with the relationship between an individual collector and their family/friends/community at large in bringing a museum into being; but the Icelandic Phallological Museum is emphatically masculine and internationally known, while Petra’s Stone Collection is strongly feminine and best known as a domestic treasure. The success of the first chapbook, Anatomy of a Museum, was a surprise, and as The Stone Collector went to press I was worried for it. I wanted it to be an equal player with Anatomy, but it’s such a quieter essay and I wasn’t sure readers would find their way to it. But if Anatomy appealed for its unusualness, Stone taps into something universal. Readers tell me stories about their personal history with rocks and stones, and it’s so striking to me that there are things that feel unique to us because we haven’t ever talked about them, but if we did we’d encounter all sorts of people who also have these feelings.
On the subject of deciding to collaborate with Anomalous, it’s certainly influenced by an affinity of aesthetics. Erica and I met in a letterpress shop, and I really admire her commitment to making beautiful, satisfying physical objects that feel good in your hands. She knows her paper and her layout and why I feel strongly about orphans and widows. It didn’t take any convincing that the right endpapers could go a long way to setting a mood. I also wanted these essays to have images, and Erica was on exactly the same page.
SE: Audience is definitely something I think about whenever I write anything meant for public consumption. I don’t at all believe that taking into consideration a reader’s experience constrains your expression as a writer. To the contrary: I think it’s a great way to (among other things) sharpen your prose, eliminate indulgences, and consider your work from different angles. If anything, it makes my writing richer and more adventurous than it would be otherwise.
With the pieces in The Surrender, consideration of my audience took on a somewhat unique importance, as I was revealing something that I had kept secret for my entire life. So in “The Last Redoubt,” which is the middle essay in The Surrender and which was first published in 2014 with The White Review (a year and a half before The Surrender was released), I thought very hard about how to go about explaining who I was to the world. It presented unique opportunities for narrative suspense, which was fun to play around with, but I was also very, very careful about how I went about this: aware that I’d only get one chance to do this for the first time, and also aware that I was stepping into a genre that had become very well-trod, I wanted to do it with a great deal of sensitivity, depth, and originality. So I had to balance what I felt as my obligations to myself as a genderqueer person with my obligations to whoever would read this essay, as well as to the genre as a whole.
After it became clear that “The Last Redoubt” would be the middle essay in a triptych to be published with Anomalous, my considerations for my audience shifted. My primary task was to find an overall aesthetic for the book that would work for the subject matter I was writing about, but that also would allow for “The Last Redoubt” as the middle piece. I settled on the idea of narrating “first” moments from my genderqueer life—basically to recount each time I felt like I had broken new ground or had taken a cognitive step forward, and to unite those with my philosophical framework on gender. Once I had that figured out, the task was to execute this plan compellingly, and this was when I began to think very deeply about how my audience would experience the book. I wanted the book to feel very visceral, very physical and palpable, and also very honest, very truthful, and to embody my ideas on gender through these real-life moments; no ideas but in things, as William Carlos Williams wrote. I felt that was the way to be faithful to the aspects of my genderqueer life that have felt most alive and most compelling to me, and to how I discovered my ideas on gender through the process of exploring who I was.
As to working with Anomalous, I knew that Erica and I had similar thoughts about the subject matter of The Surrender, so it seemed like a good idea to take the next step and publish it with her. Erica also has a good grasp of my aesthetics as a writer, an important thing in a publisher.
JM: As you both note, your recent Anomalous titles are concerned, in their own ways, with subjectivity. Both The Surrender and The Stone Collector work to hold open a (safe) public space for private, unacknowledged, neglected or misapprehended aspects of self. How consistent is that concern with the form of the essay? More to the point, as two individual readers intimately acquainted with Anomalous’ catalog, how compatible is that concern with your understanding of how the Press is stretching the boundaries of the essay as a genre?
SE: Maybe I should start this by saying that we seem to be in a pretty interesting moment for the essay as a genre. A lot of publishers (both mainstream and small press) are doing really interesting work in that genre, and a lot of my favorite novelists are pushing their work into territory that can be considered essayistic. I like seeing the boundaries of the genre being stretched in these ways. Oftentimes it feels to me that the essays and novels I like best are approaching the same territory from different sides, so it’s only natural they should meet in the middle somewhere. Probably, many of my favorite books would be something that does just that: in some ways it looks and operates like fiction, but it also works and functions and feels like a first-person essay.
All that said, it’s funny, having now read quite a bit of trans literature and met a number of trans authors, I’ve found that there is a definite range in terms of how publishers want writers to depict these experiences on the page, which I think mirrors how these publishers tend to view nonfiction in general as a genre. I don’t know exactly what a different publisher would have expected from The Surrender, although I do think that some of them would have wanted to do the book differently than it ended up. So it was definitely a helpful thing to know that Anomalous understood and supported the approach I wanted to take.
I went into The Surrender not knowing exactly what I would find. Basically, I just wanted to be me and find myself in the writing of it. At the very beginning, all I really knew was that I wanted to be as honest and truthful as I could, and I wanted to write in such a way that the struggles I depicted took on a measure of universality.
AKG: I think there is a tremendous amount the essay can accomplish, but the careful working of self and perception has a long history as one of its strong suits. I personally found the essay because I was living in Korea and trying to make photographs. Everything about photographing in Korea was hard, materially because these were the waning days of film and darkrooms, but mostly because I couldn’t shake off the authority a photograph tends to announce and I felt anything but authoritative. The essay, on the other hand, has room for all the qualifications and tentative exploration and shades of subtlety I needed to report my experience. It’s one of the great virtues of the genre that it so handsomely accommodates such hazy or slippery modes as doubt, uncertainty, questioning, and memory.
In some ways, I think the boundaries of the essay can’t help but be stretched. Or maybe it’s more that they’re already stretched, inherently stretched, that we’re drawn to the essay because it is so accepting of possibility and we aren’t redefining anything so much as we’re just claiming new territory within expansively generous borders. In some ways I’m a pretty traditional essayist, albeit conservative in my use of “I,” and finding space for that is sometimes hard to find. If Anomalous stretches the boundaries of the genre, I think that it’s because it doesn’t really think about genre. It cares about individual voice and the beauty of language and the politics of how we can and do conduct ourselves in the world and how we determine what is possible.
SE: Kendra, I’m curious to know what these museums mean to you personally, what your connection to them and to Iceland is. And I’d like to know a little more about Iceland itself—why it is that the place has these sorts of features, and how it feels to you to be there, and why you’ve become taken by it.
AKG: Well, I admire any place that doesn’t sweeten its whipped cream, and I find the world easier to navigate when you always have the default option to find a thermal bath or the public pool.
Part of what I love about Icelandic museums is often just how they are as physical spaces, how they’ve been put together and how likely that it involves some really stunning stagecraft. I had an interest in one Icelandic museum before I had any interest in Iceland itself, and now I have no shortage of fascinations there. I’m still just blown away by the ways museums in Iceland have capitalized on the museum as a storytelling institution. It makes sense in a place with such a rich tradition of story and literature and language, and maybe if you just have to commit to having a museum for the summer, you take more interesting chances on what that museum might be?
My professional background is in collections, and I’ve long been intrigued by the friction between public-facing institutions being so institutional and the very human effort required to keep them going at all. More personally, I love the scale and the scope of small, highly specialized museums—that impossible assertion that of all the things one might possibly pay attention to, great effort has been expended to bring this one particular thing front and center.
AKG: Scott, I’d like to know more about your thoughts on the chapbook as a home for the essay. A friend wrote to me this week to remark on what a different experience it was reading The Stone Collector than her usual approach to books, because it’s length (or perhaps more accurately, brevity) meant she didn’t feel like she had to barrel through and charge toward the end. Are we due for the manifesto in praise of short works or stand alone things?
SE: I think this is a fantastic question, and I’m going to come right out and say up front that I really like the idea of chapbook-length works. I’m co-signing your manifesto right now. I’m someone who has read my share of enormous mega-novels, and certainly I’m in awe of an author like Tony Judt who can write a thousand-page study of postwar Europe (and make it ridiculously engaging to read), but I also really, really love and admire books that are incredibly focused and tight. I love the sort of book that feels like it doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it, which, let’s face it, most books 300 pages and up have. I hate the padded-out feel that longer books can have, and I try to be ruthless in excising anything unnecessary from my own writing. So I was really engaged by the opportunity presented to figure out how to tell the sort of story I wanted to tell while keeping that sense of tautness and distillation that the form required.
I’m pretty excited by this renaissance we’re seeing in the book-length essay, and I love the feel of a short, tight book-length essay—for instance, someone like Barthes is a god to me. I think that books like this can transmit certain kinds of thoughts, arguments, and experiences that big books cannot. I love the epigrammatic quality they can have, the compression you can see in their language. And, I have to say, these sorts of books fit into my everyday life and the spaces that I generally have to read in day-to-day much better than the larger volumes. So it’s great to see a press like Anomalous providing space for authors to create works like this.
JM: Both of you are members, and in your own various ways, of literary communities that are also engaged with translation. How is translation operative within or relevant to the aesthetics of these individual books which are themselves not works in translation (in a conventional sense, anyway)?
AKG: Oh goodness, issues of translation come up all the time. The entire project of writing about Icelandic museums is a little sticky because while the common translation is “museum,” the Icelandic word safn is perhaps more closely “collection,” as seen in the way a library is literally a book safn (a collection of books, not a book museum), and a group of sheep is a safn of sheep (again, a collection of sheep, not a museum of sheep). So my fascination with how easily an Icelandic collection can become a museum, the tremendous porousness of that border, is already bellied in the Icelandic, which can use the same word for both.
Nor is safn the only word that translates as “museum.” My shock that there are 220 museums in a country of 330,000 people is complicated by the fact that while the translation almost invariably gives us museum, the Icelandic distinguishes between “collection” and “exhibition” and something like “center.” The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft originally translated itself as The Exhibition of Sorcery and Witchcraft, but “exhibition” connoted temporariness to English speakers who got confused about whether it would still be up, and anyway it was so often written about as The Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft that it was easier to conform than keep asserting the translation that most accurately reflected that there were essentially no museum objects here. When I went to find the Museum of Prophecy, it was in a small town reachable by bus service, but only provided you called ahead so that the bus driver (in fact, a man in a private car with the bus number printed on a piece of paper on the dash) knew to pick you up. The driver and I spoke inverse amounts of Icelandic and English, and when he didn’t understand “Museum of Prophecy” I kept saying and writing down “safn.” And because it was the wrong word for the exhibition they actually had, he didn’t know where to drop me off in a town of 300 people.
I’m lucky in my research that most Icelanders speak English, but most documentation is still in Icelandic, and some of my subjects ask friends or family or employees to our interviews to act as interpreters for their answers. Generally, these interviewees don’t so much need my questions translated from English, as they want to be sure they have someone who can make sure they express what they want to say. Which leaves me with decisions about how to quote something said in Icelandic then interpreted to me. It leaves me with decisions about how to or whether to credit the interpreter. As a practical matter, it creates a delay in the conversation that gives me time to be a more careful notetaker, and it adds another person to think and listen and ask questions and add context.
Doing the audio versions of these chapbooks has made me especially conscious of my use of Icelandic place names and traditional objects and sayings, and how differently they read on the page as opposed to out loud. I notice there are things readers and people at readings are less comfortable bringing up or talking about because they don’t want to mess up the pronunciation.
And I worry about talking too much about translation as a metaphor for things that aren’t translation at all, but it feels relevant to mention the drawings in the chapbook. I love that Annie Nilsson interprets these essays and gives me another way to see them. And I think it’s interesting that even though she often works from photographs I’ve taken, I don’t think about the photographs at all when I see her drawings.
SE: It almost goes without saying that so many translated authors were huge influences on the literary style of The Surrender, but even more than that, so many translated books were immense parts of the journey I recount in this book. I try to pay my debts to many of these works by listing them at various points in the book’s third and final essay. I even discuss a few select works in depth, and it’s safe to say that if I had not read these specific books, the end result of my journey would have been much different. Surely the fact of them being translated and coming to America from other cultures played a significant role in what they were able to tell me. The Surrender is all about opening up the range of what is “normal” (or just giving up the idea of “normalcy” altogether) so seeing so many different cultural perspectives on the questions I deal with in this book was a very liberating thing for me.
And I think the act of translation itself may have helped me in the transformation I achieved through The Surrender. I have worked in the field of translated literature for nearly a decade, and seeing up-close attitudes about things like the original, the copy, simulacra, cultural biases, approximations, improvisation, performance, the general instability of language, etc., etc. definitely changed how I looked at the world and what I thought about the ideas of “male” and “female” as discrete cognitive entities, or even just as categories with fixed and nonporous meanings.
I’ve definitely been struck by the fact that “translation” and “transgender” begin with the same five letters, and I’ve thought about what exactly translation is and how it might inform me when I examine my attempts to move between genders or exist on the borderline between them. Obviously there are limits to this comparison, and I don’t want to push it to make claims that aren’t there, but I do think there is something to the fact that moving between genders and moving between languages have both proven potent sources of wonder and inspiration that have come to dominate more and more of my adult life. To me, it could not have been a coincidence that both of these things have come to impose themselves upon my artistic and personal lives with greater and greater degrees of necessity. It suggests something deep that is reacting to these stimulants, that needs them and seeks them out.
I could never imagine living strictly within the confines of my birth culture and birth language, just as I have never been satisfied living within the confines of my birth gender. The process of exploring the former is generally seen as a wonderful adventure of which one should be proud and celebratory, and I have never felt at all ashamed of it; the latter is not always viewed in the same light, and I’m very pleased to have reached a place in my life where I now see it as the wonderful and enriching exploration that it is. I would like to do my part to work for a world where more and more people see these phenomena in the same way.
JM: What are you each working on now, and how do you see that work having been influenced by your experience as an Anomalous author?
SE: As I mentioned earlier, right now I’m wrapping up my film book, The Doubles, which will publish this fall from Civil Coping Mechanisms. This is my most ambitious book project to date, being 15 interlinked essays that will comprise about 80,000 words, or 2 1/2 times the length of The Surrender. As with The Surrender, The Doubles blends the personal, the critical, and the philosophical, and although the two books cover very different subject matter, in my own mind I seem them linked in some important ways. It’ll be interesting to see what connections readers eventually draw between them.
The ways in which writing The Surrender has influenced The Doubles is a question I’ve thought about quite a bit. Definitely being granted the space and support by Anomalous to create The Surrender in any way I chose gave me an important opportunity to figure out how to work on a book-length piece of creative nonfiction, an experience I’ve drawn on a lot while figuring out how The Doubles works. Also, writing The Surrender allowed me to create a very particular essayistic voice—although the voices I use in The Doubles are not the same as the voice used in The Surrender, I can see the genealogy between them.
Basically, having done The Surrender has really allowed me to embrace the identity of essayist and begin to explore how that looks on larger and larger projects. It’s also allowed me to attract a new readership that likes and understands my work and to connect with other writers out there who are working in similar veins.
AKG: Right now we’re heading into production on the third chapbook from Anomalous in the Icelandic collectors series. This one is about a bird museum, and partly I liked the idea of completing the triptych of how collections become museums, but also I had this vision of a chapbook with an extravagant number of bird drawings and how incredibly delightful that would be. I’m not sure how often I’ll have a publisher who is so illustration-friendly, and it seemed urgent to do this chapbook while we knew we could.
I should maybe say that those first three essays represent the opening movement in a collection about how objects spark museums and museums stop needing objects. To answer the original question, what I’m actually working on at this very moment is a new essay about an award-winning Herring Era Museum. When I think of this book-length project I always see it having images, but I don’t count on finding a publisher who agrees, much less can deliver on that. I think of the bird chapbook as a celebration of the life of these essays in chapbooks, where we give them all the advantages of design and collaboration. One of the pleasures of working with Anomalous has always been their embrace of experiment and artistry.
But if I really think about how I’ve been influenced by being an Anomalous author, about how that affects the herring essay I’m struggling with right now, it has to do with how they support not just essays I love but essays I fret might be too odd or too quiet or too something to find a fit. And then they dress those essays so they can go to the ball. Their unwavering faith in my voice is a touchstone as I work out a proper architecture to hold up these really long essays, and especially as I push through the figuring of how to make them sit together and support the arc of a book (with illustrations and endpapers and maps and all).
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books, 2013) and The Surrender (Anomalous Press, 2016). His writing has appeared in numerous venues, including Tin House, The Washington Post, Salon, the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, The Point, Music & Literature, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. He is editor in chief of The Quarterly Conversation, a senior editor to Two Lines, and a contributing editor to BOMB. In 2017 he will publish a book of creative nonfiction on film.
A. Kendra Greene began her museum career adhering text to the wall: one vinyl letter at a time. The University of Iowa gave her an MFA in Nonfiction and the opportunity to costume a giant ground sloth in its Museum of Natural History. She’s been a Fulbright Grantee and a Jacob K. Javits Fellow, and most recently Visiting Artist at the Dallas Museum of Art’s Center for Creative Connections. Her Anomalous Press titles are Anatomy of a Museum: Or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Icelandic Phallological Museum, But Were Afraid To Ask (2015), The Stone Collector (2016), and Vagrants and Uncommon Visitors (forthcoming June 2017).