Spotlight: Argos Books

Interview by Ken L. Walker


I’m excited to present the next interview in this project of compiling American independent poetry presses into a singularly-formed database. My goal, herein, as hopefully came through with the O’Clock/CLOCK press interview, is to create a solitary space where poets, readers of poetry, archivists, publishers, etc. can all come for information and direct responses (straight from the publishers) regarding poetry, translation and, most importantly, the publishing process . Again, the end goal here is to compile a comprehensive Wiki-type database (by the end of 2012) of American, independent, poetry presses, in order to benefit poets seeking information about presses; but, as well, to produce an ever-growing electronic space for publishing information. The following interview, in particular, takes its stance with the three editors/publishers/poets of the wonderful Argos Books.

The founders of Argos Books (begun in 2010 in New York City) — Elizabeth Clark Wessel, Iris Cushing, and E.C. (Emily) Belli — have managed in the last year-and-a-half to publish more than a handful of amazing books, chapbooks, and broadsides. These texts have featured the multi-talented list of: Bianca Stone, Steve Hahn, Marina Blitshteyn, Guy Jean, Francisca Aguirre, Karin Gotshall, and (out in 2012) Safiya Sinclair. Argos has also published and distributed two anthologies. That’s a particularly strong resume for a mere eighteen months of business. All their releases appear ornate, classically simplistic and display a carefulness that hearken a different era. Artifacts, basically. Artifacts, now. The three women that began the press are poets, as well as, translators, ultimately concerned with language in the sense of task and in the sense of subjective-relation not to mention the sense of cultural-crossing. Their submission process seems to be open all year round but they are specifically seeking works of translation yet to appear in the English language. They view the press as a way to simultaneously express personally poetic viewpoints while establishing and furthering the community we all appreciate so much. Publisher, Elizabeth Clark Wessel, thinks poetry to be a “great place of freedom.”


KW:  What was the impetus to begin Argos Books?

IMC: When I met Liz at Columbia’s MFA program, one of the first things I learned about her was that she’d started a small press in Stockholm, Stray Dog Press. She’d published one book, the lovely and inimitable A Sky That is Never the Same by Steve Hahn, which featured a beautiful cover hand-stamped in such a way that no two covers are the same. As a lifelong bibliophile and lover of book arts, I was inspired by the obvious love that went into making the book. When Liz said she wanted to continue making books here in New York, I was pretty thrilled about teaming up and creating a new vision for our own press. We had a few very giddy meetings in the spring of 2010 about what to call it …Emily joined us around that time and it all kind of fell into place.

In a way, Argos was started as a response to everything we were experiencing around us: as poets, as women, as students, as translators. If I can speak for all three of us, I’ll say we all share a deep enthusiasm for work that transcends certain boundaries, such as those between languages, communities and “genres” of art and literature. We were all very passionate about books that were already pushing those limits. We started asking, “how can we get more of this out there?” That question quickly evolved into “how can we get our own particular and brilliant vision out there?” For me, it involved a lot of newfound self-confidence and generosity.

ECW: Part of the impetus for Argos was my longing to do a group project. I realized pretty quickly after doing that first book that publishing was not something I wanted to do on my own. Writing is such solitary act, so I feel like I get enough of that.  I wanted partnership and feedback. I heard Anna Moschovakis speak last year at AWP — how mall press publishing is a kind of long-term collaborative art project. I like that idea. That feels right.

Taking the long view, I suppose I’ve had, maybe still have, a kind of romantic notion of what a small press is.  I like the small print in an old book. I like the obscure, the anachronistic. My sense of literary history is that publishers and scenemakers are for the most part forgotten. I like that. I don’t know why. So Argos Books is also, for me, an attempt to be a part of that tradition: the supporter, the maker, the backer, the framer.

KW:  Tell me about the process of making and marketing some of the work?

ECW: The method of production of each book that we’ve done is completely different. Some books have been very DIY, done completely at home on our printers. Some were a combination of home production, with covers letter-pressed, or with the help of the great and kind people at UDP. Some were sewn with the help of friends; some we sewed at home while watching TV over a long period of time. Some were perfect-bound and professionally printed. The needs of each book were different, depending on the aesthetic requirements, timeframe, budget, and length. My husband, Mårten Wessel, is very involved in the design and production side of things. I love his book designs, and I think his eye really helps us to look a little more professional than we are. Most of our marketing is based on events (readings, release parties) and word of mouth. We do send out the books to reviewers as well, and we’re very thankful for those who’ve taken the time to read and write about our books.

EB : It’s a family affair. Liz and Iris are my hotline. I’ve made mistakes. And learning the marketing aspect of things is a trial by fire kind of situation. But the heart is there. And the work is really good. Somehow the final product ends up beautiful despite all the variables.

IMC: In my view, a book as an object has a huge influence on how its contents are read and received. The book-making aspect of this venture was one of its biggest draws, to me, perhaps because I find the experience of holding and reading a beautiful book so pleasurable. Perhaps I enjoy the power of creating that experience for other people. The communal aspect of book-making is wonderful. We’ve gotten to know so many people over the letterpress at UDP, and around Liz and Mårten’s kitchen table, scattered with books and string and sewing needles. The work we’re doing is so intimate; to me everyone involved somehow becomes a friend, and the dialogues that emerge from those friendships are just as much a part of the work as making the books.

KW:  What do you see is the biggest hurdle/dilemma for independent publishers?

EB: Money. Perhaps time too. In my case, I’m going to be contributing remotely for the next few years. So that is an impediment too.

ECW: I’m with Emily. Money. Time. I’d add finding readers to that list.

IMC: The time thing is an interesting hurdle. Most everyone I know who’s involved with a small press not only has some kind of day job, but is also a poet or writer of some sort, and spends time on their own writing. So much of the exciting and necessary work of having a small press can’t be too structured, timewise—it’s spontaneous (meeting people, reading) or it takes an indefinite number of hours (fiddling with subtle font changes). Having the time to make it work requires flexibility, and creativity, at least for me. And patience.

KW:  Tell me some great rewards, benefits, and/or advantages you’ve come across at Argos.

IMC: I’ve always felt a deep kinship with people who love to read and write, and so books are an essential part of that kinship. Making a book from start to finish is a deep and satisfying way to engage with work that I myself would want to read. It’s like loving tamales your whole life, then one day learning how to prepare, cook, and serve them really well. The affinity deepens. My appreciation for books has grown a thousandfold in the year and a half Argos has been around, as has the awe I feel for the work writers and editors and other publishers do. As a poet, it’s gratifying to spend so much time with work I admire, to read it so closely, and help it move into the world. It’s a way to directly influence the thriving of cool poems, of good ideas. It makes me feel more human.

EB: Having complete independence to take on projects that are close to our hearts is rewarding, as is correcting some of the omissions of the larger poetry community (that is sometimes reluctant to move forward and let in new work). I think there’s room for everyone. If the work is beautiful, ingenious, there should be a place for it. If we can help carve out little niches like that, we can leave a trace.

ECW: So far there have been a myriad of rewards — the process, the feeling of making stuff, the relationships formed with authors and other bookmakers. Positive reactions to the books feel fantastic.  Also, one unexpected benefit of working as an editor is that it’s given me some distance from rejection. Rejecting some really great writers, who just weren’t right for us, has expanded the way I view receiving rejections when I submit my own work.

KW:  What would be a good definition of a “poetry community?” (I ask this because I think you all are creating a micro-community while being parcel to the larger more over-arching one.)

EB: Despite using it often, I find the term “community” so abstract. Do you simply have to be writing to be part of the poetry community or do you have to be actively engaged? Different people have different understandings of what it means to belong to a community. And we need that range. In my case, I feel like I want to be a good steward of my peers, and promote the work of people whom I admire. I can’t imagine sitting happily in my corner. That would naturally make me more actively engaged. But we need hermits too! So I guess my idea of community would encompass people who are involved, and people who are less involved.

IMC: I live in Brooklyn and go to a lot of poetry readings. Oftentimes I’ll look around at the audience and realize that I’ve seen many of the audience members give readings, and many of them have seen me read. We may not know each other beyond that, but there’s a thrilling sense of closeness that we share because we know each others’ work. Many of the poets I know have a hand in editing, translating, publishing or teaching. Everything overlaps. It’s very rewarding to get to know people in all these different capacities, to realize the ways they’re all linked. Those linkages, for me, expand the experience of poetry so far beyond the fact of words on a page. They make it multi-dimensional, more of a way of life than an activity. People sharing that way of life in the same place and time—however you define place and time—constitute a community.

ECW: Community is indeed an abstract concept, yet I know it when I’m around it. Recently I went to a round table with the VIDA founders — Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin. The women and men around that table, all of whom are passionate about poetry, were building a community, talking about a community, trying to improve a community, in the same way the kids sleeping in Zucotti Park are trying to make things better for the vast majority of a much larger community. For me there is an ethical dimension to making books because there is an ethical dimension to life. I’m driven by the idea that what we make makes the life of this community of writers better. I know it sounds hopelessly naïve, maybe even pretentious—but then again, why else do it, because we’re certainly not getting paid.

KW:  Are there any poetic, say Modernist or contemporary as a summation, movements that inspire you?

IMC : That last question about community got me thinking about different poets I admire who acknowledge their community in their writing, such as Bernadette Mayer or Alice Notley. New York has a particularly rich history of poets getting together to define and explore aesthetics, tendencies, socio-political situations. It’s so interesting when the dialogue flows over into the actual work. When « real life » penetrates art and vice-versa. I think much of the work we’ve chosen to publish does that, in some way. Translation and collaboration are formal ways of setting up that kind of inter-penetration, but it’s happening all the time. I have long admired the sheer open-mindedness of Language poetry (poets like Lyn Hejinian and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge) and am interested in bringing the valences of translation and collaboration into a similar kind of wide-open space.

ECW: The work and attitude of the New York School writers (first and second generation) have always been very important to me, but I have a wide range of influences. Right now I’m very inspired by the innovative work being done by contemporary women poets (Maggie Nelson, Mónica de la Torre, Harryette Mullen, Eileen Myles, to name a very few). But I think there is so much exciting contemporary work. I love this moment. Also, I’ve always been very interested in and inspired by non-English language traditions, and publishing and supporting translation plays an important role in the ethos of our project.

EB: Woolf, Eliot color so many things for me. As far as contemporary work goes, I find Franz Wright hard to dislodge as one of the greatest poets of our era. His work moves between your fingers—it’s so alive—and yet it’s so ghostly. It’s infused with this soul. As a French speaker, I’d have to name René Char and Francis Ponge as touchstones. Jean Follain remains unmatched in terms of concision. I’ve also started discovering some wonderful new Swiss poets from my own country. I may want to introduce some work by them in the near future. It’s interesting because the whole country is multilingual you know. That must affect the relationship to language in a very precise way. Like, you’re never 100% at home in one language. One year you’ll speak German better, the next you’ll get to speak more French or Italian or whatever. There are also few female poets from Switzerland who get much attention. So maybe I’ll want to do something about that.

KW:  Is there an essential quality to poetry that separates it from the rest of the arts (as in, the craft and practice, itself; but, on the publishing side, as well)?

EB: I think poets work in the shadows sometimes. They’re not always visible but, in the end, I believe they have quite a big impact—because it’s the art that other writers (fiction, nonfiction writers) turn to when they get bored. Or look for some kind of answer. Often poetry can allow itself to be irreverent or curious or experimental because, by already being marginalized, it has nothing to lose. And to a certain extent, I think our limited reach can sometimes free us to do work that has no other purpose than to follow an instinct, to be inquisitive, to test some sounds, to pronounce aphorisms. It’s also very hard to label. The range of styles these days is indescribable. But some readers like to stuff things neatly in a box and put a tag on it. Well, that’s not us. We’re all over the place as a community. But if you can get behind that sort of diversity, you’ll see it makes things all the more exciting.

IMC: I like what Emily said about the freedom that poets have, because a smaller percentage of the “reading public” pays attention to poetry. That said, the folks who do pay attention pay very close attention. That seems, to me, to be the main difference between poetry and other arts: the depth of attention it commands, the way it can examine language on even the most microscopic level. I have always been a slow reader. I discovered about ten years ago that I enjoy spending a long time staring at the same tiny group of words. There’s a whole world that opens up inside, around, between words, letters and phrases. I love exploring that world, as I believe a lot of poets do.

That said, I’m really curious (with Argos in particular) about how poetry can work in tandem with other arts, to the point where they’re no longer separate. There’s a series I’m editing, the Side-by-Side series, that brings together poems and visual art. For the first book in the series, This Landscape, poet Paige Ackerson-Kiely and artist Adie Russell each made work in response to each others work. One didn’t “illustrate” the other per se; they managed to make this cohesive whole, in which the distinction between “poem” and “picture” didn’t matter so much. It became a third thing. I think of the collaborations from the 1950s between Ashbery, O’Hara, Koch, and artists like Larry Rivers—that work forms a cohesive whole, as does the visual/poetic work of William Blake. I know those are very exalted figures to evoke, but that’s the kind of work I get really excited about. I want Argos to be a venue for work on that level of innovation, in our particular cultural climate.

ECW: On a prosaic level, poetry is cheap. Pen and paper are easy to come by. Even the cost of making books is low in comparison to making a sculpture or a movie. Anyone can do it, and anyone does. And yet no one seems to be interested. Culturally speaking, we’re flying under the radar, and I think that’s exactly how it should be. It’s a place of great freedom.