Canarium Books

by Sarah Thompson

In the 6 years that Canarium Books has been publishing poetry they have published 16 books (with four more forthcoming), each of which has expanded the realm of contemporary poetry through the distinctiveness of its poetic voice. Canarium’s editorial setup contributes to its innovative presence in poetry. Rather than run annual contests, Canarium’s four editors (Joshua Edwards, Robyn Shiff, Nick Twemlow and Lynn Xu) solicit manuscripts from poets they admire as well as cull manuscripts from their yearly open reading period. This process seems conducive to the organic formation of an aesthetic – an aesthetic which is less a unifying force and more an attempt to incorporate a diversity of voices. The result is a body of work of impressive quality.

For such a small press, Canarium authors have garnered high accolades. Among these are John Beer’s The Waste Land and Other Poems (2010) which won the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and Suzanne Buffam’s The Irrantionalist which was shortlist for the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada’s prestigious poetry award). John Edwards, who also designs Canarium’s gorgeous books, spoke with me about the press, about small-press culture and about the value of poetry.

ST: Would you tell me a bit about how Canarium began, under what circumstances and with what vision? How has that vision evolved into what Canarium is today?

JE: Canarium developed out of a yearly journal, The Canary, which I edited with Anthony Robinson, Robyn Schiff, and Nick Twemlow. The journal lasted six issues–all really fun to work on, but they took up a lot of time and were difficult to finance. Publishing books seemed an interesting next project, and we were all very keen on working with authors one at a time to make books. It magically came together when the University of Michigan, where I was doing an MFA, offered to help fund a press. Nick, Robyn, and I were joined by Lynn Xu shortly after that, and we published our first two collections, by Ish Klein and Tod Marshall, in spring 2009. We’ve basically just tried to find interesting voices since we began, and the vision evolves as we add more books to our list and the thing changes shape.

ST: How do you see Canarium’s place in small press culture and in the larger realm of poetry? Any thoughts on small press culture in general and its function in the poetry world?

JE: I’m not really sure about Canarium’s place in small press culture, but I do know that our authors are writing incredible poems that are important contributions to the conversation. As for small press culture in general, seems to me it’s the most vibrant realm of poetry in the U.S.. Small presses generate most of the community’s energy, publish the majority of books that move the art into its future, and create realms for discussion about so many things. As for the poetry world, every year I believe less and less that it exists as such, but small press culture takes center stage in the lives of many, many people, and can foster alternative value systems that are important for the world at large.

ST: What excites you in/about poetry? What do you find important and vital in the work that you publish? How does this contribute to Canarium’s aesthetic?

JE: What interests me most about poetry is how it reveals that language can be more powerful than thought. I’m also drawn to voice, and Canarium’s aesthetic is very much tied up in the distinctiveness of its authors’ voices and to its authors’ relationships to their lines of inquiry. In some ways our aesthetic is very open, but there does seem to be a common intensity or focus to the work we publish.

ST: I love that Canarium seeks to get more translated work out into the world. Can you tell me about why/how this came to be part of Canarium’s project? What do translations add to what you have said about small press publishing- that it generates energy, creates realms for discussion and can foster alternative value systems?

JE: Translation has of course always been essential to the life of poetry, introducing forms and ideas from one tradition to another. By publishing translations, we get to participate in the excitement of new possibilities.

ST: Could you say a little more about this statement that ‘language can be more powerful than thought’ as relates to poetry? This strikes a chord with me as what I consider a compelling reason to read poetry.

JE: The poetry that I like most foregrounds the mystery of language. Language is the engine at its core or the force that carries it along. As Rosmarie Waldrop wrote: “I don’t even have thoughts, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand.”

Poet Ish Klein has two books out with Canarium and will soon release her third poetry collection, Consolation and Mirth, with the press. I spoke with Ish about her experience working with Canarium as a writer.

ST: How did you come to find a home at Canarium?

IK: Nick Twemlow and I had one year of overlap at the Iowa Writers Workshop. (My years are 95-97 and he’s 96-98). That is how we know each other. Before Canarium Press was a press it was a journal called The Canary.

Josh Edwards started that with Nick and Anthony Robinson, I think, in Oregon. I guess they sent out a call to the poets who they know and like. Nick asked if I would contribute some poems and I did. This would be in 2004 or thereabouts.

Around this time Josh Edwards was living in Philadelphia (I lived in Philadephia 2001-2010). I met him at a reading in the Italian Market. We became friends having the shared interest in Poetry. After a while Josh said that they are thinking of publishing books, could I give them a manuscript and I said yes and that is how it happened. He said there were no promises and I accepted that but I was very happy when they published my first book Union! in 2009.

ST: Are there certain values or a certain vision (aesthetic and otherwise) within Canarium that you find cohesive with what you are doing with your work?

IK: The overwhelming quality that I think of when I think of Canarium is that of generosity and a willingness to participate in the experiments of thought/emotion into language. There seems to be an effort to include as many distinct voices as possible. This does inspire me and my work.

ST: What has the process of working with Canarium editors on publishing your books been like? How has the process influenced/effected you as a writer and your work?

IK: It’s been an excellent process. There is the problem solving element. We have to work within a budget. For example, with the first book (Union!) I wanted it to open at the top like a legal pad or be continuous like a scroll. But that is not possible because it’s expensive and unwieldy. We decided to make it center justified to convey the words reaching the writer/reader starting in the middle and expanding both directions which going down the page. It still conveys the ideas of many simultaneous directions.

Another way I’ve been influenced by the editing process is that it has made me much more attentive to punctuation. Which I must admit, I do not always use in the grammatical sense. I find in poems I am likely to use it more in the sense of musical rests and notation. Anyway, when they bring it to your attention you really have to figure out what you are doing. So that was eye opening: to recodify punctuation to myself.

What Josh has brought to the process is the progression of the poem. We typically have a back and forth as to how the order should be and I end up agreeing with him. Among his gifts are the meaningful sense of progression as well as a beautiful sense of design.

This process has affected my writing by reminding me to consider these things like punctuation, order and detail. And when you are giving work to colleagues you deeply respect, I think it makes you write better. Just because you encompass the response and from there you want to go a little further.

Hear Ish read a poem from Moving Day here.

Check Out Canarium’s Most Recent Releases:

And Forthcoming Titles:

Check out these videos of Canarium authors:

Suzanne Buffam reading at Woodland Pattern, Milwaukee
Robert Fernandez Reading at Counterpath Press in Denver, CO

Finally, check out Canarium’s lovely website.

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