by Alexis Almeida
When I think of Burning Deck, a few words come to mind: visionary, understated, incisive, mythic, innovative. Though I think these are all fitting terms in a way, what makes Burning Deck unique is that it could never be confined to any of them – open-minded as it is specialized, Burning Deck has created a unique name for itself without being easily definable or simple to pin-down.
Aside from having carved its own valuable space in the publishing world, Burning Deck is the collaboration of two brilliant poets: Rosmarie and Keith Waldop. The two met in Wurtzberg, Germany in 1954 and immediately wanted to work together — their first project was translating a Nietzsche poem. Soon after, in 1961, Burning Deck started as a small literary magazine. In the time between now and then the press has grown immensely. Rosmarie and Keith have published around 235 titles, and recently celebrated their 50th anniversary as a press in 2011.
I was able to speak to Keith briefly about Burning Deck, but before addressing it here, I’d like to run through a brief timeline:
1961 – Burning Deck Press is founded. Though it called itself a quinterly magazine, it only published four editions before it turned to publishing chapbooks. Later, with the help of NEA grants, it was able to start publishing books of poetry, and occasionally some fiction.
1984 – They merge with ANYART Contemporary Arts Center, becoming the literature program of the not for profit organization from Providence.
1985 – Letterpress printing is discontinued, as developments in automatic bookbinding makes it more cost effective to go in that direction.
1992 – The French translation series, “Série d’ Escriture,” is founded.
1994 – The German translation series, “Dichten,” is also founded.
AA: I really appreciate your taking the time to answer a few questions! What led to the decision to start the press? Can you talk a bit about some of your original plans/hopes for it?
KW: We realized simply that there was no press doing what seemed a necessary function, keeping some track of these things.
AA: Who were some of the first authors you published? What were some of the criteria for deciding who to publish at that time?
KW: The first we thought of printing was Creeley. He and some of the San Francisco poets were virtually unknown in the rest of the country.
AA: I know Burning Deck was originally a magazine – did its aesthetic focus shift at all when you started exclusively publishing books? When did translation become an important part of the press?
KW: There was no shift in focus at that time. We went to books because that made it easier to move around. We simply printed what we thought was important and was not yet available.
AA: I know Burning Deck is dedicated to innovative and experimental poetry – Michael Palmer has even said that without its presence “we experimental poets would, simply, not exist.” Can you talk a bit about how you might define innovative or experimental poetry? Are there any poets writing today whose work seems particularly innovative?
KW: I can only say that I have read much poetry of all kinds. I look for work that surprises me against this background.
AA: Can you talk a bit about the transition from letterpress to offset printing?
KW: It was purely a matter of what was financially possible.
AA: Do you have any advice for people hoping to start a small press?
KW: At this point the easiest seems to be web-publishing, which I know nothing about. For print books, the most difficult thing is distribution. Getting in touch with Small Press Distribution early would get you valuable advice.
A Few Things About the Press:
Beginnings: In 1961, the poetry world was somewhat divided between supposed “beat” poets and “academic” poets. Burning Deck did not play into this split, and started publishing a good swath of poets – from Zukofsky to Creeley to Snodgrass – though sometimes the poets themselves would complain for having been published alongside others with starkly different aesthetics. Among those published in “Burning Deck Magazine”: Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Donald Finkel, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Heath-Stubbs, LeRoi Jones [Amiri Baraka], Robert Kelly, X.J. Kennedy, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Christopher Middleton, Natalie Robins, Louis Zukofsky.
Authors: As stated above, Burning Deck was not solely concerned with “literary schools,” – however, according to Rosmarie, the shift from publishing the magazine to publishing exclusively books led to an increased focus on“work that foregrounds form and structure in innovative ways.” Although they do print well-known authors, they have remained dedicated to lesser-known writers, writers that other publishers wouldn’t necessarily take a chance on. They have have published the first books of Mei Mei Berssenbrugge, Lyn Hejinian, Ron Silliman, John Taggart, and Anthony Barnett – all who were virtually unknown before their books were published with Burning Deck. Some other poets they are especially proud to have published are Alison Bundy, Ray Ragosta, Michael Gizzi, Cyrus Console, Catherine Imbriglio, Jane Unrue, Craig Watson, and Dallas Wiebe, and more recently Elizabeth Willis (Turneresque), and Peter Gizzi’s Artificial Heart.
Translation: This is a large feature of the press. Though Rosmarie is German, and the two met in Germany, they were both also on fellowships in Europe from 1970-171, spending the majority of this time in Paris. This is when they were introduced to many French avant-garde writers, including Edmond Jabes, who Rosmarie would both translate and write about later. Burning Deck became an important for introducing French & German avant-garde writers to an English-language readership. Recent from Serie: Jean Daive’s “Walks With Paul Celan,” translated by Rosmarie, and from Dichten, Gerhard Ruhm’s “I My Feet,” also translated by Rosmarie.
Printing: In 1961, letterpress was beginning to be replaced by offset printing, and many people were getting rid of their letterpresses. Because of this, the Waldops found it affordable to use one while they were in grad school, but by 1985, it became more feasible and affordable to use offset. They remain committed to smyth-sewn, acid-free paper to ensure good quality but low process. On the topic of design, Rosmarie offered: “In the early days of Burning Deck, when we were handsetting and handprinting we tried to make the cover design simply out of letters, lines and print ornaments (i.e. lead ornaments we could stick in the letterpress). Keith did most of the covers. When we went to offset this changed. Keith still did most of the covers, but if the author wanted a particular image, design, or designer we went along as long as it did not cause unaffordable expense.” She has also said that “…it is printing, even more than editing, that has affected my own writing. Printing letterpress (especially setting poems by hand, as we did in the beginning) is so slow a process that I became extremely aware of any unnecessary ‘fat.’ It has helped me make my poems leaner.” They currently use SPD distribution.
- In 1984, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s The Heat Bird received the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation
- In 1985, Ron Silliman’s Paradise received the San Francisco Poetry Center Award
- In 1991, Burning Deck was the focus of a weekend-symposium at Foundation Royaumont, in France.
- In 1996, Cole Swensen’s Numen was finalist for the PEN West Award
- In 2001, Brown University’s Writing Program held a 3-day Festival for Burning Deck’s 40th anniversary
- In 2008, Catherine Imbriglio’s Parts of the Mass received the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America
- In 2008, Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of LINGOS I-IX by Ulf Stolterfoht received the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation
- In 2010, “L’Aventure ‘Burning Deck’” was a feature of the “Lettres sur cour” Poetry Festival at Vienne, France
Exhibitions of Burning Deck books have been held at Wesleyan, Brown, and Long Island Universities, at Woodland Patterns in Milwaukee, various libraries, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Centre Internationale de Poésie Marseille and, most recently the Poetry Foundation. Single books have been included in exhibitions at the American Institute of Graphic Arts, Stedelijk Museum, and Kensington Art Association, Toronto.
by Connor Fisher
Coffee House Press is a small, literary press based out of Minneapolis. The press was founded by Allan Kornblum and publishes eighteen books a year. The genres of works published include fiction, poetry, non-fiction, memoir, and anthologies. Notable authors who have had books recently published by Coffee House Press include: Eleni Sikelianos, Travis Nichols, Brian Evenson, Selah Saterstrom, and Mark McMorris.
The press’ website, in addition to providing a regularly refreshed list of current authors and an online store, houses a list of upcoming events involving Coffee House authors and a blog. The blog contains various types of material surrounding the press and its authors, including artist statements, book excerpts, and written thoughts and statements from current and previous residents in the Coffee House Press Writers and Readers Library Residency Program.
Due to the relatively large size of Coffee House Press compared with many small presses (Brent Cunningham of Small Press Distribution considers Coffee House an “independent press” rather than a “small press”), the press tends to have a more inclusive aesthetic than many smaller presses. Coffee House does not exclusively publish work within any single, specific genre or subgenre. Its catalog includes works of mostly-realist literary fiction (e.g. The Kind One by Laird Hunt; a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award), documentary poetry (e.g. Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak), experimental poetry (e.g. Julie Carr and Dan Beachy-Quick, among many others), and notable poets associated with the New York School (e.g. Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman), alongside numerous anthologies, memoirs, and works of nonfiction.
Interview with Publishing Assistant Molly Fuller
Connor Fisher: I see from coffeehousepress.org that the press is located in Minneapolis—was it founded there as well, and was the press created for a specific reason (e.g. to fill a gap in the literary scene of the time)?
Molly Fuller: Coffee House Press originally started as a mimeograph magazine called Toothpaste Press, in Iowa in the 1970s.It was a sort of way to bring the care and tradition of classically designed books to more avant garde writers. [CHP founder Allan Kornblum] wanted to make sure these writers were not just printed but published; essentially to also bring the commerce and professionalism of publishing to these writers operating on the margins.
CF: How is Coffee House funded?
MF: We are funded by a variety of sources, revenue from sales comprising the largest part. We are also a 501c3 nonprofit, so we additionally receive money from government and private grants and individual contributions. Even though the amounts are different, all of these sources are equally important as we could not operate without all of them.
CF: I saw online that Coffee House publishes about 14-16 books a year (fairly large for a small press)—does the press have an ideal size that it would like to reach (whether larger or smaller), or has the number and quality of manuscript submissions and book sales determined the size of Coffee House, to some extent?
MF: We actually publish 18 books a year at this point and we feel pretty satisfied with that number. It’s large enough that we can bring a good amount of great literature to the reading community, but also small enough that we can really spend a lot of time working on the books and with the authors. I would say that is the main reason we have settled on that number; we are a staff of ten, and the amount of care we put into each book is largely what determines our size.
CF: the Coffee House mission statement states that the press aims to “produce books that celebrate imagination, innovation . . and the many authentic voices of the American experience.” In meeting this goal, does the press adhere to a specific aesthetic or polemic? or does the quality of the manuscripts themselves determine which are selected for publication?
MF: We don’t necessarily subscribe to any particular aesthetic; we don’t want to be a static entity. We change and grow, and are allowed to do so because we aren’t fixed on any one particular type of book or author or genre. We publish new books in context with books we’ve previously published, so in a lot of ways our list guides itself, certainly in conjunction with our long standing staff and authors. We have a full-time staff that is working years ahead of the books that are coming out currently, so that really allows us to be flexible, but also selective in choosing what we put into the world. Quality of the manuscripts plays a huge role in what we publish, but there are some things we specifically don’t publish, genre fiction being one of them. A person may have written the best traditional historical romance any of us has ever read, but that doesn’t fit in with the mission of the press. The mission guides our selections and we publish on a very broad range of topics, in a variety of styles. I guess I would say one thing that determines a CHP book is a unique element; a bending of traditional language, format, or style; an element of surprise so to speak. We are, in a way, a home for orphan books; books that add to the cultural vitality of the reading community but that probably wouldn’t get picked up by a big publishing house.
NewPages.com Interview with Allan Kornblum
In mid-2006, newpages.com interviewed Coffee House Press founder Allan Kornblum—the interview can be accessed here. In the interview, Kornblum expands upon his motives for starting a small mimeograph magazine in Iowa in 1970 (which would eventually become Coffee House Press) and discusses the importance of typography and letterpress printing to the formation of Coffee House Press.
An Overview by: Alexis Smith
From the Beginning to Now
Caketrain press and journal was established in 2003 out of Pittsburgh, PA.
Erected by the bright minds of recent University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg graduates, Amanda Raczkowski and Donna Weaver, the press seems to have come about due to an unceasing literary commitment. The two new editors quickly invited Joseph Reed, another UPG colleague, to join their endeavors as layout designer. In 2006 when Donna Weaver left the press to pursue a career in journalism, Amanda and Joseph became the sole editors of Caketrain. The couple married in 2008 and have continued to run the press ever since:
“The feelings we share about literature are what brought us together in the first place (we met when co-editing the student lit mag at University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg as undergraduates), and then we stayed together when school ended, and starting our own small press seemed like a natural progression and a good way to continue to champion the writing we love.” – Joseph Reed from a 2010 Interview
An editor dream team, they’ve made a distinct niche by consistently publishing innovative, fresh writing packaged beautifully.
The co-editors explained in a 2011 interview that “the design of the book is essential to the proper presentation of the work. All of our layout is done in-house, and our cover art acquisitions result from the vast scouring of images from visual artists all over the world. We look at thousands and thousands of images every time we prepare a new book.” It is this dogged precision that sets Caketrain apart in a world of evermore small press endeavors.
And Caketrain must be set apart−unlike numerous struggling small presses, this press has done nothing but grow. Since it’s initiation a decade ago, they have published ten issues of their literary journal and almost twenty books of poetry, memoir and fiction.
Each year the press holds a chapbook competition that alternates between genres of poetry and fiction. Guest judges such as Claudia Rankine, Deb Olin Unferth, and Rosemarie Waldrop have chosen the winning chapbooks; Tan Lin is currently judging for the 2013 chapbook competition. Needless to say, these judges provide fresh perspective for the press. Amanda and Joseph claimed in an interview from 2011 that the chapbook competition is “in some ways the most exciting part of the process each year.” These chapbooks are more like book-length manuscripts that fall nicely in line with what Amanda and Joseph have termed the “chapbook tradition” due to their limited edition and low cost.
Since 2008, Caketrain has managed to publish not only the winning manuscript from this competition, but also the runner-up. By 2010 the press was producing three books a year. This third book is just good writing. For example they published The Weather Stations by Ryan Call, a debut collection of short stories that went on to win the 2011 Whiting Writer’s Award.
Funding and Book Sales
Unlike a lot of other small presses, Caketrain has not gone the route of seeking grants or outside funding. Amanda claimed in an interview from 2009 that “they never thought about having the journal as a source of income.” So although things for the press are financially tight, they are still eking out enough to get by. The attitude that Caketrain is not a financial endeavor has allowed the press to persevere for inexpensive book costs. All of their books and journals can currently be purchased for the unbelievably low price of $9.00 from their website. Or, you can buy any two titles for only $13.00.
This insistence on low book price limits the press’s sales venues; they cannot sell through many bookstores due to issues of commission rates, and refused to sell their books on Amazon until recently. However, the press has maintained affordable access to good literature and set up a model where they control most packaging and sales.
A Little on Aesthetic
“We like to describe the works we accept as “language monsters,” but as much emphasis as we put on language, we also expect the work to be emotive.”- Amanda Raczkowski from a 2010 Interview
“For us, the innovation in writing comes at the ground floor of words. We don’t ever want the language to simply convey a meaning or message.” – Joseph Reed from a 2010 Interview
By publishing works so earthed in the level of words, Caketrain’s ever-growing repertoire begins to make a place. This place is one that can richly expand, allowing works in Caketrain’s catalogue to be in conversation with one another. The slice of a line or sting of a sentence are insistent sensations that repeatedly startle and captivate readers. The consistency of this captivation can be seen in what readers have to say in review:
- “meticulously crafted and full of sure-handed description”- Michael Kimball on Lake of Earth
- “words clamp on and refuse absolution”- Lily Hoang on Collected Alex
- “with verbal fire and range, these poems move easily”- Paul Hoover on Listening for Earthquakes
- “accidents, waste, and everything ‘unmarketable’ are transformed into tender and precarious verse, showing, forcefully, the poem’s power to redeem and renew” –Denise Newman on Mistake
- “Hemingway said somewhere that he wanted to write like Cezanne painted…Ernst be damned, I want to write like Sara Levine writes” –Michael Martone on Short Dark Oracles
- “Heidi Staples is one of the most sparkling, indelibly unique writers in English there is”- Mary Karr on Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake
All of these reviews grapple with language intrigue; words become the things worth talking about. Pristinely crafted, Caketrain’s aesthetic could be said to discard more traditional concerns of narrative, politics, form and conceptualism in favor of the word itself−one does not read a story or poem, one reads words that make.
Looking to the Future: An Interview
Joseph Reed said in an interview from 2009 that the two of them were reading “250–300 submissions a month.” Since Caketrain journal releases only one issue a year including “about 50 submissions, in whole or in part,” they have an acceptance rate ranging from 1-1.5%. Although earlier in the journal’s career there was time to send back personal rejections, their sheer influx of submissions no longer allows for such practices. As Caketrain has probably grown since even 2009, it becomes understandable that Amanda and Joseph recently took on two assistant editors.
These two assistant editors, Katy Mongeau and Tanner Hadfield, are the newest and only staff additions to Caketrain press and journal in several years. I am lucky enough to know Tanner Hadfield; he is a peer and good friend of mine at the University of Colorado. An MFA candidate, Tanner has done nothing but excel as a teacher and fiction writer. In honor of celebrating the Denver area literary community and indulging my curiosity about an assistant editor perspective, I asked if he could spare the time for an interview. He graciously consented and what transpired is as follows:
A: How did you come to be an assistant editor for Caketrain?
T: Good fortune, mostly. Amanda and Joseph announced their intentions to take on assistant editors through an open application period a while back. I’d been a huge fan of their aesthetic and catalogue and decided to throw my hat in that bad boy. I guess they liked my hat.
A: Do you have a favorite title from the press?
T: Oof, tough one. Every single one of our books rocks the sweet spot for me. I love Tongue Party by Sarah Rose Etter. I love our newest title, Lake of Earth by William VanDenBerg. If I had to pick one, you know, gun to the head and all that, it’d be Take Care Fake Bear Torque Cake by Heidi Lynn Staples. It ruffles my mind most. There is not another book in existence so simultaneously cordial and deliriously peculiar. I adore it for that.
A: There is a distinctive style present in Caketrain’s publications. How would you describe the aesthetic mission of the press, if there is one? And does this alter your editorial decisions when reading submissions?
T: Lots of lovely words and ideas come to mind, but they’d sooner or later sell it short. It certainly alters my decisions, but not too much. That’s because I’m lucky enough to be someplace where any aesthetic mission informs / aligns with personal taste.
A: Does working for the press affect your own writing?
T: Absolutely. Not sure I want to qualify the affectation at this point, but I’d recommend a glimpse of the other side to anyone who’s looking to publish, with regards to the type of writing you’d like to get out. It’s terribly illuminating.
A: What are some more difficult aspects of working for the press? What are some aspects you absolutely enjoy?
T: Everything’s coming up roses!
A: Are you and your co-assistant editor, Katy Mongeau, in charge of similar tasks for Caketrain, or do your focuses tend to vary?
T: It’s kinda like Annie Get Your Gun. I forget who’s Annie, though.
A: Amanda Raczkowski & Joseph Reed are married and live in Pittsburgh; Katy Mongeau also lives on the east coast. Since you live in Boulder, do you ever feel a sense of disconnect from the other editors of the press? Does your specific location in any sense provide a variation of aesthetic?
T: Do I ever feel a sense of disconnect? Sure. We’re all quite busy and human. What makes it work is patience, understanding. Amanda, Joseph, and Katy are all terribly good people, and I’m quite blessed to be working with them in that regard.
As far as a variation of aesthetic, that’s a really interesting question, but the answer is no. None of us seem caught up in biases tied to locales or scenes or trends, which is key, given the limits distance inflicts on communication.
I feel it’s important to mention here that Amanda and Joseph are still very much the truth, and we’re operating under their vision. I’m really just an aide. So I’m not sure a variation of aesthetic would be perceptible regardless.
A: If you could choose one color to describe the work published by Caketrain, what color would you choose?
T: A soft dove gray. Muted, yet rich. Classic, yet chic. Undertones of both cool (blue) and warm (pink). Mwah!
A: Have your experiences with Caketrain, and possibly Subito and Timber as well, given you a desire to start a journal or press of your own at some later point?
T: Absolutely. However, I’m not yet ready to handle the whole of something like that, and I wouldn’t want to shortchange anyone’s efforts. There’s too much of that going around. Too much noise, too little beauty. It’s a huge commitment. But one day, yeah! I look forward to it!
Thank you for your curiosity about Caketrain [a journal and press]. I encourage you to visit their website. There, you can read free PDF portions from all books in their catalogue and judge for yourself whether this press is a personal fit.