by Whitney Kerutis
The inner thrumming that pulsates from the belly of Letter Machine Editions is a catalogue of boundary-challenging voices; work that, as described by Co-Founder now sole Publisher and Editor Joshua Marie Wilkinson, “is hard to describe, passionate, odd or unusual…” Since its beginnings in 2007, the press seeks to send out into the world, artistically crafted books of poetry and prose that are not just new but innovative pages of language and experience.
Located in Tucson Arizona, the non-profit press began as a door to, “being a part of the conversation.” Now, having established itself among other small presses, LME functions with a volunteer staff of six: the Publisher and Editor, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, at the head of the venture with Lisa Wells as Contributing Editor, Jake Syersak and Brianna Sheaffer as Readers for the press and Kelly Andrews as Copy Editor. Whitney Kerutis works as Social Media Editor.
The press’s staff along with a consistent belief in quality production and a diverse catalog has landed the press plenty of recognition. From the press’s web page, “The press in the last eight years has been honored by the National Book Foundation, the LA Times Book Prizes, Poetry Society of America, the Arab American Book Awards, and other organizations. Most recently, Fred Moten’s book The Feel Trio was named a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry as well; it also won the Gold Medal in Poetry from the California Book Awards.”
Sitting down with Joshua Marie Wilkinson, we talked about where the press finds it’s roots as well as what the future looks like for the press:
Whitney: What was the motive for starting Letter Machine Editions?
Joshua Marie Wilkinson: Well Noah Eli Gordon and I were grad students at the bar at City O City in Denver in 2007 and we decided to pool our meager resources to publish two manuscripts that we loved, Sawako Nakayasu’s Texture Notes and Travis Nichols’s Iowa. That’s what began it all. Anselm Berrigan and Sara Veglahn were kind enough to let us publish chapbooks, though we had nothing but our own trials and errors to support them with.
WK: What would you say the press’s proudest moments have been thus far?
JMW: Well, seeing the first titles released was pretty thrilling; reading The Feel Trio in my back yard with poets Dot Devota and Brandon Shimoda on the day it arrived; hearing Farid Matuk read in Denver for the first time after we published his first book; and, lately getting a huge delivery of Alice Notley’s new book in my department office—there were so many in my little office that I could barely squeeze through the door after the delivery guys dropped them off. Seeing the cover proofs of Evening Oracle—which features a photograph a young Japanese woman covered in snakes—the other day also stunned me, like—this is gonna be a book so soon, finally!
WK: Looking back to 2007 at the start of the press, how have your visions and goals for the press changed or evolved?
JMW: Well, after Noah decided to leave the press in 2014 to direct Subito Press for CU Boulder, it was tricky for me to figure out what the press would look like without it being a conversation with him. So I just kept bothering my favorite writers—Fred Moten, Alice Notley, Brandon Shimoda—for work and took it from there.
WK: Looking at the list of poets the press has published so far, I notice some very well-established names along with many new-on-the-scene faces. How does the press balance it’s catalogue of authors between new and returning as well as authors of color and different genders, etc.?
JMW: This is all apart of thinking about the press. For me, its about the work. Not necessarily trying to appear balanced, but if you pay attention to contemporary writing, it’s not hard to find great writing by diverse voices. I’m always thinking about it. I want the press’s focus to be on bringing forth unusual and interesting work; A book that is going to be different from anything we’ve previously done. Diversity of aesthetic approaches and authors. We try to maintain relationships with our previous authors and have been very lucky to get second and third books from some of our authors such as Fred Moten but we are just as excited to see our previously published authors get work out in other presses and receive awards for those works as well.
WK: For small presses, it seems social media is playing a large role in the overall success of a press getting “buzz” from audiences, buyers and reviewers— and some might speculate its survival among the sea of small presses. How does Letter Machine engage with the social media?
JMW: Personally, I hate social media. But I recognize that it’s really good for certain kinds of things—just getting information out to somewhat-interested parties. So, there’s that. My goal is to make a space of unusual works that any other press—big or little—would pass over. Social media is one tool in all that, I suppose.
WK: How does being a poet and professor affect your role as the publisher and editor of the press? Does working in publishing effect the way in which you write poetry?
JMW: I think all these things overlap, probably in ways that I don’t really understand. They’re all facets of what I love: reading, writing, teaching, thinking, sharing, editing, and celebrating poetry.
WK: With the expansion in recent years of small house publishing, has your strategy for publishing at all changed to adapt to the growth of presses?
JMW: To be honest, not really— There are a lot of presses out there but some of those will fade and some will remain. It’s always exciting the first few years of a press when you’ve just created this new thing and your friends are interested in what you are doing. But then the funds dry up and— I think a lot of it comes down to the quality of work being produced. We take care of the materials given to us, even if that means publishing less. I’d much rather be a better editor, take on better manuscripts, and produce better books in terms objects that you hold and feel than work with disposal materials. My goal has always been to make as beautiful an object as we can with the best and most unusual books that are less likely to find a home elsewhere.
WK: You mention that some of these new presses will fade when the excitement begins to wear off, having done Letter Machine Editions for eight years now, how do you stay interested and passionate about what you are doing?
JMW: I care enough about the work, the kinds of poems and prose we publish. For me it’s not hard to maintain interest in the work, It’s harder to make time and to be a good editor.