Omnidawn Press

by Lily Duffy

As small press publishers of poetry and fiction go, Omnidawn is distinctively ambitious. Founded by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan in 2001, the press holds four annual contests (two for chapbooks, two for full-length manuscripts) and publishes an average of six books per year—recent titles include include Julie Carr’s RAG, Gillian Conoley’s Peace, Endi Hartigan’s Pool [5 choruses], Karla Kelsey’s A Conjoined Book , and Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [guma’].

Single-author collections are not Omnidawn’s only publishing project. OmniVerse , an online journal of poetry, essays, interviews, and cross-genre work, is published on the first of each month, and in July 2014 the press will publish the inaugural issue of Best American Experimental Writing (BAX), a new annual anthology curated by a guest editor (this year’s is Cole Swensen), as well as series editors Seth Abramson and Jesse Damiani.

It was also recently announced that OmniVerse essayist and Omnidawn Advisory Board chair David Koehn, with the help of several guest poets (including Rusty and Omnidawn authors Maxine Chernoff, Donald Revell, Gillian Conoley, and Brian Teare), will be leading an online workshop in fall 2014. Partial scholarships are available for “Prosody & Revision,” and all proceeds will benefit Omnidawn Publishing, introducing a new, educational facet to the press’ already well-established engagement with the writing community.

An interview with Rusty only made the generous and energetic spirit behind Omnidawn that much more palpable:

Lily Duffy: The Omnidawn website states that the press publishes “writing that opens us anew to the myriad ways that language may bring new light, new awareness to us.” How do you think Omnidawn books see themselves in relation to the world, occupationally, ethically, and/or otherwise? What are some of the larger statements or arguments you feel these books are making about what literature can (or should) do?

Rusty Morrison: I experience each book that we’ve published as establishing uniquely its relationship to the necessary instabilities in its vision of every aspecting turn of world. I would do each book an injustice if I were to lump them together into an amalgam. I respect your question, in that you are asking how each book reads itself reading the world. Every poem, every page, every line is, in some manner, evolving as a world, while reflecting upon a world, that dissolves the static it was (“static” as “stasis” and “static” as “noise”). Thus the works demand from themselves that their vision NOT be uniform or homogenizing. There’s a wonderful excerpt online from Barbara Guest in which she says

The poem is fragile… It needs to reach through the armed vehicle of the poem,

to loosen the armed hand.

Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is
important.

I offer these delightful sentences from Guest for their excellent kinship to our conversation, and in order to turn their meaning a bit, and use them also to suggest that it is often the fragility that a poem exposes, and that the poem exposes in the poet, in her relation to the work, that can help both writer and reader break through her armor of expectation, her armor of assumption that the poem is a vehicle going to a somewhere that has a where-ness easily assumed.

I am less interested in imagining what might be “larger arguments” made generally by our poets and more interested in the ways I must simply return to each book, and find anew how it changes my life in the instant of reading it, again and again.

Some of our books, like Robin Clarke’s LINES THE QUARRY, address what might be called politically crucial topics. Others, like Norma Cole’s WIN THESE POSTERS AND OTHER UNRELATED PRIZES INSIDE, might be reframing the very means of speaking topically about presence. I could make some comment about every book, but simple framing statements are not useful. Reading the poems is useful.

So I will leave it to Barbara Guest, who is a master at de-framing the frame of the conversation, as she turns outside in, and inside out, regarding what is being done and undone, what is apparently donned, and what is the sneaky addendum of gorgeous adornment that is kept hidden, in the conversation we call literature.

LD: Is there a story or some sort of epiphanic moment behind the inception of the press?

RM: There are so very many parts to this story! I’ll tell you two parts:

a) The name ‘Omnidawn’ was Ken’s idea. Ken Keegan is my husband and press partner. In college, he was inspired by the architectural designs of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes. Ken had wanted to bring many artistic mediums/genres together and build a theater-in-the-round space for performance, readings, presentations, gallery openings, etc, to house them. And he planned to call it the “omnidome.”

b) In 1999, I’d gone back to grad school (again). This time for an MFA in poetry, and I had the wonderful opportunity to work with Brenda Hillman. I knew I wanted to study with her because of her amazing poetry, but I also learned that she was an excellent teacher who believed in community, and in creating opportunities for sharing the writing of one’s peers. I was also very lucky to have Lyn Hejinian as one of my teachers. She, too, was a phenomenal teacher and mentor in the craft of writing and the vision of community. Ken was inspired by something Lyn Hejinian said: “if you want to be invited to the best parties, you should learn how to give one.” Her words were what gave Ken the idea that we might create an “omnidawn,” a press, that would, in some sense, fulfill his early vision (the omnidome) but do it in a way that would allow us to publish poets whom I revered and new writers whom we wanted to bring to readers. We both were inspired by Lyn’s idea of giving to readers and to writers the best “party” we could! From publishing poetry books, we intended to move into other genres and mediums, as time and energy might allow. We have been doing this, expanding however we might, since 2001.

LD: How has the press changed over the years—were there things you implemented or felt strongly about in the beginning that you’ve since shifted positions on?

RM: As we’ve added staff, we’ve been so excited to see the myriad ways in which their visions enlarge our own. This seems in keeping with our name “omnidawn,” so I’m not sure that our position has shifted. But, certainly, our position’s pliancy has increased. Our wonderful staff has kept us limber. Most recently Gillian Hamel has become our Poetry Managing Editor and taken over many important responsibilities; she remains our OmniVerse magazine’s Managing Editor as well. Our full staff includes:

Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan, senior editors & publishers

Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel, managing poetry editor & OmniVerse managing editor

Cassandra Smith, poetry editor & book designer

Peter Burghardt, poetry editor & book designer

Turner Canty, poetry editor

Liza Flum, poetry editor & social media

Sharon Osmond, poetry editor & bookstore outreach

RJ Ingram, poetry editor & social media

Juliana Paslay, fiction editor & bookstore outreach manager

Gail Aronson, fiction editor

Melissa Burke, social media

Sharon Zetter, grant writer

Josie Gallup, feature writer

LD: What, for you, is the most difficult part of running a press? Have you found ways to help make this part easier?

RM: I used the word “limber” above, and I believe this is an essential quality in my work. It is difficult to not let past standards become rigid. But it is, of course, essential to keep attuned to what we most value, essential to take the extra moment needed to sense each decision, and consider its full array of possible consequences. It is not exactly difficult, but more, it is a constant necessity to stay awake, to be mindful, to have the valor needed to ask oneself at every small turn, “how will this impact our future?” Daily meditation practice is sanity enhancing, since it allows me to keep breathing!

LD: Pretend Omnidawn is a person—what adjectives would you use to describe h(is)(er) personality?

RM: I don’t think of “omnidawn” as a person, as a noun. My practice is to imagine “omnidawn” as a verb, as the collective action, in action, of

–our staff when they are engaged in presswork, and

–all the writers’ works that we publish.

When I think of Omnidawn as actions in the world, then I continually ask myself to widen my perception to consider both the obvious and less obvious impacts of those actions.

Again, by thinking this way, I can continue to imagine what shifts in our verb might yield in ways we haven’t yet realized.

But this takes me back to Barbara Guest!

If I substitute the word “press” for the word “poem” each time it appears in this quote (below), then I can see that Barbara Guest has given me a useful few statements to repeat to myself as I sit down for a daily meditation before I enter into my own ‘action’ as one of the poets engaged in presswork:

The poem is fragile… It needs to reach through the armed vehicle of the poem,

to loosen the armed hand.

Losing the arrogance of dominion over the poem to an invisible hand, the poet campaigns for a passage over which the poet has control. Yet the unstableness of the poem is
important.

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