Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Shanna Compton, Poem and Conversation


Think of her
as kindling
informed by light
that it collects
at her bright tips
Come under
the power of
her example:
the necessity of abandon
a theme of memory
& spiritual comeliness
a blandishment
to which none can hold
all ladies

Lemon Hound: You were poetry editor at Soft Skull before this, what made you decide to start you own press?

Shanna Compton: I left Soft Skull not because of their merger, but because I wanted to focus purely on poetry again. Soft Skull was a terrific place for me to work--I was Publicity Director/Editor/Associate Publisher/Reading Series Curator/book designer, sometimes all at once, and I enjoyed working on fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. But poetry is really where my deepest interest lies, and as with a lot of smaller presses, it was tough to make it financially viable for Soft Skull. An even smaller press makes certain things easier and less expensive, and allows me to focus better. Bloof was set up in such a way so that I can be really flexible, yet not overextended.

But I've been moving toward my own press for a long while now. Actually, I ran two teeny presses before starting Bloof. In college, I published a couple of chapbooks and a zine. Then there was Half Empty/Half Full, which I started with the help of a friend, artist/graphic designer Charlie Orr, who invented the press name when he created that great logo. So Bloof is really an expansion or extension of what I'd been doing all along. I've kind of taken a reverse route to get here, or a full circle: from publishing a zine, to working at a big trade publisher, to editing a university journal, to working at a small independent, to refocusing with a micropress. The main difference is that though it's very much a DIY outfit, the distribution I'm able to get rivals that of a much larger press, thanks to the POD networks I'm using, and the direct distribution via the internet. I'm going to keep doing the handmade chapbooks and watercolor-printed broadsides under the Bloof label, along with the perfect-bound books.

LH: Why Bloof? Does it mean something? Does it have a history?

SC: No, it doesn't mean anything. I've seen it once or twice as a comic-book sound effect. When I was choosing the name, I kept shying away from anything that seemed too symbolic or totemic, like animals or whatever. I wanted a sort of blank to fill, if that makes sense. I like the way the word sounds, and the look of the double o's in both words--"Bloof Books"--and that its personality is not fraught, overrefined, or frou frou.

LH: Is there enough poetry in the world?

SC: Do I feel a lack? No. But should we all stop writing now? No. That's like asking if there's enough music, or too many flavors or colors. I can't imagine losing interest in something that's been so essential for me for so long.

LH: Are there enough poetry presses out there publishing the work you want to read?

SC: It's hard to determine whether there are more poetry presses around now or if it just feels that way because I'm more attuned to them, paying more attention, and/or because they’re more visible because of the Internet. It’s probably some combination. I've read that there are more poets writing and publishing than in previous decades--and that's plausible. Whatever the case, the range of choice available to readers and writers of poetry is certainly an improvement over the huge, homogenous, bearded-professor dead-animal poetry façade the trade publishers have presented use with, monolithically, for so long. (Ironically, “trade publishing” is a blip on the timeline, historically speaking, with very small private presses and self-publishing having much longer tradition!) Most of what seems vital about poetry to me happens at this samizdaty sort of level. The small indies and micropresses are bringing out the most exciting work. And as long as I keep running across poets I like who aren’t being published, I’ll be publishing poetry.

I think DIY publishing and self-publishing is something every poet should experiment with, because it's really fulfilling in ways that even "winning" the submit-reject game will never be. I don't buy into the scarcity-increases-value theory, or the idea that poetry is a rarified experience attractive only to an exclusive group of intellectuals or academics, blah blah blah. Some people like to position themselves and their work that way, and I don't get it. It's not only self-isolating, it's condescending to potential readers. I'm not speaking of difficulty vs. accessibility. It's more an attitude or stance I find off-putting. You know, in the way the stereotypical record-shop guy is a freaking expert but disdains the act of sharing that knowledge or appreciation with anyone--as if musical sophistication and popularity were mutually exclusive.

LH: Your second book, For Girls, is a direct address to women of the world, a kind of behavior guide for girls...but what kind of girls?

SC: I don't really think of the poems as being addressed to contemporary girls--or maybe the poems are but the so-called sage advice is not, because it's mostly bunk. Rather, the poems were a vehicle through which I looked at the historical tradition of advice-literature aimed at women, and through which to wonder just what it is about girlhood or womanhood that's so attractive to these pushy yet usually well-intentioned advisors. It was fun to take on the schoolmarmy tone, or the moralistic tone of a pastor, or the verbosely authoritative tone of domestic law, or to pick through the effluvia of the Internet, and the process gave me insight into how our society viewed--and still views--its female members. I began by poking fun at an antique etiquette manual and ended by realizing, again, that as a culture we're still expecting a lot of contradictory, absurd things from girls and women, and we avail ourselves of every conceivable opportunity to let them know it. Frankly, we used to be as lot more subtle and polite about it. Luckily, girls themselves are as rebellious as ever.

Addressing the women of the world would be a much more ambitious project, and not one I'd feel in any way confident taking on! I certainly couldn't see poking fun at the customs of child marriage, or enforced illiteracy, or teenage prostitution, or what have you. I'm keenly aware that only a poet with the relative socioeconomic privileges from which I’ve benefited could have written this book. That's part of what makes the genre of "women's advice" so absurd to begin with.

LH: What constitutes being a good girl poet?

SC: Beats me, honestly. Maybe "being good" doesn't get anybody anywhere, since "good girl" is usually taken to mean one who sublimates her own desires to please everybody else. No thanks, right? I have often wished, both aloud and to myself, that my being a woman did not have to make any difference in what I write or how I write it. But it does. Women writers don't get to ignore gender, and I've learned that the hard way.

LH: I’ve been thinking about this question of gender and cultural work that many women seem to be doing. It occurs to me that as you say, it’s difficult for women to ignore gender, and also difficult to have humor in it. There is textual play, but that play seems very limited, or specifically defined…I’m not sure what I mean here, but I guess I’m asking about gender and humor…any thoughts?

SC: Yep, I think you’re touching on another one of these precoded expectations for women, and more broadly, for poetry. To be truly funny one often has to be bawdy, inappropriate, or “off-color,” qualities that are considered neither very “ladylike” nor “poetic.” But humor in poetry is another long, rich tradition that only relatively recently has been pooh-poohed and devalued, as if it’s not a serious or artistic endeavor. And yes, there’s also an expectation that a feminist woman shouldn’t risk seeming frivolous or dismissible by engaging in comedy—that’s often a self-directed expectation by feminists themselves. I take humor seriously though, and so do writers like Jennifer L. Knox, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, and many others. Comedians in other genres, from literary satirists and fictioneers to songwriters and stand-up artists, use humor to do “cultural work,” so why not poetry? We’re seeing an ivory-towerism at work there. Personally what I find funny generally has a darker undertone—humor works best under challenging circumstances. After all, laughter is a biological/physically stress-reliever and social lubricant, a natural response to fear, embarrassment, frustration, etc.

LH: You've published a lot of chapbooks, and a first book, Down Spooky, that was well received. Did you have second book anxieties?

SC: With For Girls, not really. Perhaps because it's not the book I was trying to write. (The book I was trying to write is in a drawer; it made me anxious as hell.) For Girls is what I wrote when I couldn't work on the other manuscript. And because I was already in the process of establishing Bloof, I decided not to worry about sending it out, or go through that second-book publisher search that can be such a pain. I let myself off that particular hook! (Not coincidentally, the other two books Bloof has announced so far are also second books, by poets whose first books I edited at Soft Skull.) There are so many presses depending on first-book contests, to generate both money and publicity, that second (and third, etc.) books are often more difficult to publish than first books. This is fucking silly to me. I entered contests too, and was a finalist a few times, then had a book published that way. Like most people, I felt like I didn't have a choice. But I do have a choice. And this time I made it.

LH: Yes, the whole contest/first book emphasis is startling. As is the relatively low numbers of women starting presses/magazines and self-publishing. Did you feel supported to make a lateral move in the literary world?

SC: Are there fewer women engaged in these kinds of publishing? I’m not sure I agree. If you look around at letterpress printing, as at the Center for Book Arts in NYC, or the micropress/DIY scene, particularly the Etsy-based craft presses, there are lots and lots of women publishing themselves and each other. I think even the trade and text-book publishing industries are female-dominated, particularly in editorial and publicity departments. That’s an extrapolation from my own experience, but I could swear I read 68% female someplace. How that translates into number of books by women published, I don’t know, and would be interesting to see.

Anyway, re: feeling supported…the response to Bloof so far has been very supportive, I think. The books are selling well (especially Drunk by Noon), and the book tour in the spring is shaping up nicely. But part of the point of this kind of publishing is that it doesn’t require a lot of support—I mean, the financial support of writing grants, or sponsorship by a nonprofit distributor, or contest fees, or university affiliation, or what have you. All Bloof needs is the support of its authors and their readers, and hopefully, a few reviewers.

I know there are probably some people who believe it’s tacky (or whatever) to self-publish, and will prejudge For Girls on that basis, even at the same time they’re buying the new Radiohead album, or seeing the latest David Lynch movie, or coveting a painting spotted during an open art studio tour. But that’s not an argument I feel like having anymore. The poems are the same whether I publish them or somebody else does. It takes no more confidence for me to publish myself than to ask/expect someone else to do it for me. I like retaining control of how the work is presented, what the book looks like, and knowing where it goes. It’s fulfilling for me to take on that responsibility, rather than handing it over.

LH: The recent Chicago Review debate suggests that women still aren’t realizing their potential in terms of the actual numbers. Does this bear out for you? And do you see the web and/or self publishing as an antidote?

SC: I think one of the most important points made in Young & Spahr’s “Numbers Trouble” essay got kind of lost in the aftershock. What they said was that the numbers are only part of the story, and the numbers they looked at were only some of the numbers. For instance, the magazine survey taken by the CR editors themselves (in the same issue) included only one journal I’ve submitted to in the last decade. I see women everywhere, running presses, curating reading series, managing listservs, embracing digital technologies like podcasting and video (another thing women are supposedly less interested in or not as good at), teaching, etc. The Internet and DIY publishing scenes are big correctives, since there are no gatekeepers, sure. But I also think women may have other priorities than “being published as often as men,” which is not a terribly lofty goal to me in the first place. Maybe bigger-louder-famouser-oftener isn’t the idea, so much as writing what one wants to write, how one wants to write it. When women poets don’t fit a traditional literary mold, or write about so-called feminine themes, they still meet resistance, absolutely. But they’ve got other options than simply continuing to knock on doors that won’t open.

LH: Who are the girls we should all be reading?

SC: Oh, let me see. Some (contemporary) women poets I've read recently or frequently revisit: Obviously I'd recommend the other women published by Bloof, Jennifer L. Knox and Danielle Pafunda, but also Nada Gordon, Anne Boyer, Sharon Mesmer, Eileen Tabios, Dorothea Lasky, Angela Rawlings, Susan Wheeler, Heidi Lynn Staples, Reb Livingston, Evie Shockley, Susan Briante, Mel Nichols, Juliana Spahr, Sandra Simonds, Jennifer Moxley, Barbara Jane Reyes, Cathy Park Hong, Ange Mlinko, Mairead Byrne, Joyelle McSweeney, Lara Glenum, Ana Bozicevic-Bowling, Stephanie Young, Jennifer Bartlett, Ada Limon, Catherine Meng, yourself...there are so many it's hard to make a list that won't embarrass me later through omission. Isn't that wonderful?

SHANNA COMPTON’S books and chapbooks include Down Spooky, (Winnow, 2005), GAMERS:Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels, (Soft Skull, 2004), Big Confetti (with Shafer Hall, Half Empty/Half Full, 2004), Closest Major Town (Half Empty/Half Full, 2006), and Scurrilous Toy (Dusie Kollektiv, 2007). Her poems and essays have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2005, The Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel, Exchange Values Vol 2., Bowery Women, and the Poetry Foundation website. She lives in a valley near a river in New Jersey.

Two more poems by Shanna Compton can be found on an earlier post.

Two poems from Jennifer L. Knox.

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