Interview with Eric Benick and Nick Rossi, Executive Editors
How did Ursus Americanus Press start?
Ursus Americanus was officially launched in June of 2016 out of a reading series I started in Nashville, TN called Life is Boring. I had recently moved back to Nashville after 6 1/2 years in Portland, OR and was eager to get involved in something organizational, curatorial and creative that could be an asset to the community. Through Life is Boring I met Nick Rossi, whom I admired for his diligence, his kindness and his sincerity towards community and art. Nick was already involved with a lit journal, Sobotka, that he founded with his friend Kathy Klimentowski in Chicago, which made him twice as experienced as me with publishing. I had been interested in starting a chapbook press for a couple of years (and came close to starting UAP prematurely in Portland), but didn’t know how to do it alone. Nick and I became close, drank a lot of North Coast beers (Brother Thelonious and Old Rasputin), talked endlessly about Fugazi and Young Thug and poetry, and so one day I asked him if he might be interested in starting a press. We built a website, had my friend, Sean Hood, design a colophon, contacted submission registries like Duotrope and got a small business license. The functional aspect is really boring, which is why I gave you so much backstory. A lot like getting married.
Tell us a bit about Ursus Americanus Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Ursus Americanus Press likes work that is too small to be a full-length collection, but big enough to be perfect bound. We have called it “small work” in the past, by which we mean, solely in relation to its size and not its content. To us, everything worthwhile should be able to fit in your back pocket. Aesthetically, we like simplicity. I’m a total Luddite. Nick is a graphic design whiz-kid autodidact. We both like thick, sexy stationery and good writing. We are influenced by Dischord Records and Lil B and City Lights and Spring and All and DAMN. and Philly Punk and people who grow their own food. We also love North Coast beer and Bell’s Two Hearted IPA (Eric) and Miller High Life (Nick) and Three Crow Bar in East Nashville, although neither of us live there any longer. Our mission is to stay alive, read as many manuscripts our eyes can handle, get better about our response times, and put work out into the world that we feel is fresh and generous and troubling and, most of all, unlike anything we’ve read.
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?
We are a few weeks away from releasing our newest title, The People’s Elbow by Rax King, which is a personal essay broken into thirty recitatives that examines sexual assault and professional wrestling; specifically, The Rock “Dwayne” Johnson, who plays a mythic and integral role to the speaker’s struggles with PTSD and living day to day while femme-bodied. We are excited and honored to get the chance to help bring Rax’s work into reality. In the future we would like publish work that scares us or knocks us out cold or makes really good risotto and organizes protests. We are as dramatic as they come, but also pragmatic.
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.
We love the work of Octopus/Poor Claudia, Monster House, Ugly Duckling, Sibling Rivalry, Belladonna, Disorder, Greying Ghost, and dozens of other presses that we are learning about daily. I think presses, that I know of, are doing admirable jobs with the overhead of submissions, selecting interesting, challenging work that might never find a home at Poetry or the like, and for, basically, no money. I would like to see more poets, especially grant-winning, tenure-having, stable-ass poets with all the celebrity a poet can have seeking out smaller presses more. Sure, there are limitations to that idea, as many small presses can only handle so much production, but I think you can build specific projects that work best on a smaller scale. I think it would help to dissolve the tired notion that the best poetry is coming out of the biggest journals and the biggest presses (even big “small” presses). The biggest movements in avant-garde poetry were built on small press (Language, Black Arts, Black Mountain, Negritude, Objectivism, etc.) and I would be happy to see a return to that, in some way or another. We have the great fortune of having a reliable printer, so, in theory, we can produce as many books as we can sell.
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 Ursus Americanus Press?
We work full-time jobs. We read hundreds of submissions by ourselves (sorry if it took us a year to get back to you). The books pay for themselves. We will never have a reading fee unless we are ever fortunate enough to sponsor our own chapbook competition with an award and a notable guest judge. We will likely never use submittable because we can’t afford it and email works just fine. If we were ever to receive any large sum of money, it would go to paying our authors. As of right now, the only thing we can afford is to give our authors a sizable amount of contributor’s copies in hopes that they can sell each one for $100 and pay their rent.