To Self-Publish Again or Not?
I've published circa seven poetry chapbooks over the years. Mostly these were self-published—not out of inflated vanity, but because I had the design, typesetting, and printing skills to do the job myself. I was a professional designer, with access to the necessary tools, so it was not hard to pull off. I even did bindery myself, in those cases.
In the case of those two or three chapbooks that others published, I still contributed typography and design, and/or illustrations. As an artist who does work in more than one medium, I have found that some publishers do appreciate a skillset that lets you give them something finished, which they only have to approve.
I have no problem with self-publishing, unlike some who judge it harshly. Poetry after all has a long history of poets publishing their own works—Walt Whitman is only one example, as he was a pressman and printer, too. The first 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass by contemporary standards would probably be dismissed as "vanity press." But if you have the skills, why not use them in the service of your own art, as well as in the service of others? Copper Canyon Press, which has become one of the premier American poetry publishers, began as a handset press, a cottage industry done out of love; in addition to the many handsome early editions CCP made (I have some in my library), they also contributed to the revival of the beautiful typeface Deepdene, originally designed by Frederic Goudy, which was used to set many early CCP books.
I've also made some specialty little broadsides: color laser-printed, hand-sewn little broadsheet-style diatribes on subjects political and erotic, or both. The three or four longest poems I've ever written have been explicitly sexual and homoerotic; two of these specialty books are chosen from that set of poems—and the content itself assures that some readers will treat it as political.
Mostly I've given these chapbooks and broadsides away. I've donated a few to fundraisers, raising money for causes ranging from AIDS support groups to Hospice care. I've sold a handful, no more than that.
cover illustration for chapbook
I've been talking about doing an art book that is completely handmade by the artist, myself. This past year I've set up a crafts work table and shelves in my basement. I can do all sorts of things there, and I find myself at that table often enough, even if all I'm doing is sorting photo prints. I've been thinking about this art book project more and more. I don't know yet what the contents will be. But that doesn't mean I can't make the paper now, or pre-visualize a book design. The handmade paper may need to be printed with handset type, or calligraphed, rather than printed. I anticipate the finished art book to be another multi-channel creative work, incorporating original text—probably poems—visual art—photography and/or drawings—and decorative illumination.
Hardcore word-oriented folks like some poets of record view all of this "supplementing the text," bas mere decoration, ecause to them the text is paramount, and everything else is decoration. I disagree completely. I am arguing for an equality between media, and equivalent attention paid to each. The design is not mere decoration for the text in an art book. The text might actually arrive last in the process. The beauty of a hand-made book lies in its tactile and visual pleasure at least as much as does in its textual contents. The point is that they should all work together, enhancing and complementing each other.
My question to myself at the moment, however, is: Would I ever self-publish another poetry chapbook? Would I ever bother to make another collection of poems for publication—except perhaps as part of an art book, or other multi-channel piece?
When I was at the Chicago Institute of Art last week, in the Modern section I stumbled across an entire wall full of Jospeh Cornell's little handmade puzzle boxes and curio cabinets. I've been thinking about something similar: a cigar box, perhaps, with a carving or woodburned image on it, then you open it up and find another image or carving, that might continue a narrative; or as with haiku, have two juxtaposed images that comment on each other, and give meaning. I can see some possibilities for a box that reveals both imagery and words when you open it.
Obviously I am self-publishing again: which is one of the purposes of this blog. Obviously I practice multi-channel creative self-publishing, having made at least one short film incorporating text moving across the screen, sound design, and original videography and still photography.
I am not drawn to video-blogging for the simple reason that I don't feel particularly photogenic. I am comfortable in front of the radio or podcast microphone, indeed I have many years of broadcasting experience to give me some self-confidence in my speaking voice. (A rather high-pitched and quiet one, unless I consciously focus and direct.) Rather than video blogging, I am more likely to make short multi-media films, and post those. Another project for over winter, perhaps.
My podcast contains numerous ambient recordings made on roadtrips I've made across the US. One of my favorites of these was a recording of a thunderstorm made one January while sitting on the lip of the Grand Canyon in Arizona: the storm clouds, thunder and lightning, were actually happening right across from me, in the Canyon, while snow and light freezing hail were falling on the truck: Clearing Storm, Grand Canyon Abyss. One short film I want to make will be based around this sort of winter scene, with ambient sounds, and a poem or two.
I'm not really interested in making Personal Statements. The world can fix itself, without my intervention. People label some of my art as political merely because it speaks some sort of truth that they had been avoiding up till now. Disturbing the universe is always a political act, on some level.
I view the art I make mostly as reportage: of states of mind, of places and presences encountered, of states of consciousness beyond the standard solipsistic narcissism that dominates most poetry nowadays. I'd rather convey the experience of meeting fox and ravens in the desert Southwest than talk about my personal problems. Poetry isn't always therapy, or never just therapy. I'd rather present what I've seen, and not coerce you into accepting my viewpoint, and let you make up your own mind. It's not the news of human dramas on the television; it's the "news of the universe," and therefore it often operates on the timescale of the geologic sublime, rather than on a human timescale.
I recognize of course that this is a political stance of sorts, too. But it's a branch of ecopolitics, it has values dating back to the Paleolithic, and it's shamanic. So it deals with the spirits of the land, rather than with my own life-history (except where these overlap). It's also in alliance not with the self-absorbed urban mainsprings of poetry, but with those California poets and photographers of sea and land, such as Robinson Jeffers, George Sterling, William Everson, Gary Synder, and Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
So would doing another chapbook be worth it? I suppose it might be, if I had a reason to. Perhaps a special occasion, or as a gift. For the moment, though, I think the art book project is more inherently interesting, in part because it uses more channels of creativity than the merely verbal. Meanwhile, I recognize that I've never really stopped publishing—but the tools to self-publish keep getting better, too, and more competitive in terms of quality. So who knows?