Thursday, June 14, 2012

10 Questions for Petri Press

Starting today, we'll be running a short series of interviews with small press and small magazine publishers who, you know, get so much attention already that this is sort of redundant. We begin with Petri Press, a two-person operation out of Iowa City, IA. We recently emailed publisher Micah Bateman with some questions.

1. So, you've named your press Petri Press. I want to know two things about this: 1) Why? and 2) How does one pronounce this, really? Is it "pee" "tree" or "pet" "ree"? How do you say it, and how do you want other people to say it?

I've always said "pee" "tree," which Merriam-Webster Online confirms. But I also like the Dick Van Dyke Show pronunciation.

2. I'm curious to know more about your vision for Petri Press. Is there a driving aesthetic? A lack of a driving aesthetic? Is it even a fair thing to talk about certain presses in terms of particular aesthetics? Some might argue that doing so does a disservice by being somehow reductionist. What's your take?

I'm sure the more astute will be able to detect if not a driving aesthetic, an allegiance to certain groups and traditions. Eliot says you should have five main poets you admire and emulate. I have a lot more than this, but I'm slowly whittling down. I would bet most of the poets I'll publish are probably Stevens fans. What I really want to say is that I'm not at all concerned with curating any sort of "vision." I just want to publish poems or poets I admire. It just happens that many of them went to the same school as me, which is how I know about them.

3. Picking up there: it's always seemed to me that the question of genre in fiction--that is, what counts as "literary" versus what's seen as "genre"--is also a concern in the world of poetry. In fact, the divisions between aesthetic schools seems particularly distinct. You've got political poets, you've got so-called language poets, you've got confessional poets, and ecologically-conscious poets, and on and on. Is this kind of broad categorization a fair way to make poetic distinctions or is it largely useless?

I think we try to make sense of things with categories, but they don't exactly work. Sometimes it's difficult for me to distinguish Language poets from Dadaists or post-Language poets from what George Oppen was writing. And I'm a sucker for those poets I consider American Surrealists, but none of the living writers I consider such will own up to the name. And all poems seem confessional in a way, but we only recognize the more personal-narrative ones as such. Categories may be useful in describing poets' most salient qualities or allegiances if you're recommending a book to a friend, say. But ultimately it's all muddy water and at its worst can be used for unfair dismissal, i.e. "He's just a Dean Young follower," which is something I'd probably say but shouldn't. Who knows?

4. You've kicked off the website with some lovely art in the header and with poems by Nico Alvarado. Is there a significance to starting with Alvarado's work? This is going to sound silly, but when I saw that Alvarado was the first person you've published on the site, I wondered if you'd be going in alphabetical order. But that's probably just grade school conditioning at work....

I'm not publishing in alphabetical order, but I might list the authors that way. I wanted to start with Nico's work because he's one of my favorite poets. Before I started graduate school, I came across this poem and was so impressed by it that a year or two later, trawling the MFA thesis stacks at the University of Iowa library, I remembered the poem when I saw Nico's name. I checked out his Workshop thesis and kept it almost two years. Then I finally got the idea to send him a fan letter, which I hope spurred him to write some more. He was kind enough to give me the first three poems for Petri.

5. What's your editorial schedule going to look like? How frequently will you be publishing online and how many chapbooks are you looking at putting out annually?

We hope to publish a poet a week online and a chapbook every summer. Wish us luck.

6. Nobody reads. Nobody cares. Publishing is dead. The world's going to hell in a handbasket by all measurable quantities. Seems an optimistic move to found a press now. Are you an eternal optimist up against impossible odds, or is the situation I described really not as bad as all of that?

First, I don't think the situation is bad at all, just different from what it used to be. Second, 6 billion people might not read poetry. But I read a lot of poetry, and while there might be 6 billion poetry zines out there, I've only found a couple that I consistently enjoy. So this is really just a venture in founding a press for myself as a kind of running commonplace book. The optimism comes in making it public with the thought that it might mean something to someone besides me.

7. You're a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and are a poet yourself. The role of publisher is, I suspect, new or new-ish territory for you, no? How do you--as a writer--avoid the conundrum that many writer/publishers face when they're faced with either soliciting, rejecting, and/or accepting and publishing work by writers whom you know? Is a sort of nepotism a concern in a venture like this one, or is it a natural thing that a publisher might well with to publish work by friends, colleagues, former students, etc.? 

I have mixed feelings about nepotism and poetry. When Jorie Graham was selecting for book contests, she was picking incredible books. It's just that many of them were by her students. Well, of course they were by her students! She had already selected them for admission to her graduate program; why would it not make sense that she would then select their books? Then Foetry came around and put a stop to all that. As a poet who's sending out a manuscript, it's nice to know that contests are more transparent and less nepotistic. But as a reader of poetry, I have to think book contests were better when Jorie Graham was selecting the winner. I also have to think that it's unfair when acquaintances are counted out of the few book contests that exist for poets, especially when they've been a student of D.A. Powell or Carl Phillips, say, who together judge 150% of the contests and have taught 10,000 poets. But of course this has nothing to do with Petri...

There are poets I've never met whose work I love. But I know about them because they're already well published. I'm more interested in publishing poets I admire whose work is not so ubiquitous. But then how do I know I admire them? Because they are my teachers, classmates, students, etc., and I've seen their work in workshop packets or thesis stacks and such. I'm still working on the etiquette for asking for different poems from what was sent to me by friends and acquaintances. I certainly hope I don't get into the business of publishing my friends' worst poems just as a gesture of friendship or collegiality. From my friends thus far, I've been asking for specific poems by name that I know I love. But I haven't opened for general submissions yet, so we'll see what that brings when that time comes.

8. What do you hope you will have accomplished at Petri Press after one year? After five? 

I just hope I've collected enough cool poems to prove that the state of the art is still strong, if misrepresented.

9. Your collaborator (and wife) is Andrea Kohashi. She did the art for the website, I know. Will she also be doing the art for the chapbook series? Also: will the site be primarily text, as it is now, or will we see more visuals as the site grows? And finally, I have to ask: what's it like working on a creative venture with your spouse?

Yes, Andrea will be making the chapbooks herself, art and all. I'm not sure about visuals for the site. My kneejerk reaction is to say that it will be mostly work of the textual variety. But I'm leaving myself open to anything.

Working on a creative venture with one's spouse is actually great, provided the divisions of labor are absolutely clear. Andrea designs the header; I pick the poems. Andrea designs the chapbooks; I pick the authors. Etc. If we had to negotiate, I'm sure we'd be dead in the water.

10. I notice that while you'll be listing your authors in the right sidebar of the site, there are currently no author bios. On the one hand, I like that impulse--to let the work stand for itself without the trappings of a biography which (like it or not) always seems to change the way people find and read poems. On the other hand, if you're not including bios on the site, you're sort of shrugging off a long-held convention of book and magazine publishers. So, why no bios? Will is always be this way?

I guess I just don't understand the convention after Google. First, I don't care what awards people have won or where they went to school; generally this information just pisses me off in knowing what mediocre poets have won the Pulitzer or been a Stegner Fellow. Second, if writers' work strikes me, I'll just Google them and check them out online and then in a library or bookstore. I'm trusting that any reader who encounters a poet online at Petri Press will know how to use a search engine. Third, I want all the poets on Petri to be regarded in the same manner and not ranked by accolades. I'm trying to compile a running catalog of good poems, not accomplished poets. And those who are accomplished, one will probably know by name anyway.