Spotlight: Forklift, Ohio

Interview by Ken L. Walker

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This is the third interview in a long-term project to compile a database of valuable information provided directly by independent American poetry presses which should, in time, hopefully document the ever-changing use of print media and New Media formats being used by countless poetry presses and publishers throughout the country. I’m excited, this go-around, to present the in-depth responses of most of the crew over at Forklift, Ohioa press that produces a highly engaging website, magazine, and number of books. Forklift’s aesthetic targets the direct, the wry and the flame-throwing while not shying away from honest emotion and offering a fresh intellect. They publish the well-established as much as the never-seen. What is, perhaps, most assaulting and intriguing about Forklift is that it is an entity managed, run, etc. (for the most part) out of Ohio. I think the implications there speak volumes about  the lack of an American epicenter (beyond New York City’s plethora of history and reading series) regarding poetry’s contemporary practices. By this, I mean that not even fifteen years ago, one had to migrate to the heartbeat of the thing — Seattle for music, New York for arts, Paris, etc. I think that is no longer a thing an artist, poet, or musician has to do. Things have changed and, herein, we have a bit of proof. This interview offers the perspectives of three of Forklift’s multiple-member staff — Eric Appleby, Matt Hart, and Amanda Smeltz.

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KW:  What was the impetus to begin Forklift,Ohio?

MH: Eric (Appleby, Forklift’s designer and publisher) and I met during an Ethics course at Ball State University in 1991.  We were both Philosophy Majors.  We sat in the back row.  We were serious, but not very serious.  We both liked nonsense.  Joked back and forth about the course material, and were skeptical of the ridiculous jargon-y language philosophers use to try and pin ideas to the wall (without understanding—or being willing to acknowledge—that since it’s all abstraction, there is no wall). We soon found we shared an interest in language and poetry in particular, which doesn’t depend for its effects/affect on scientific reasoning or the facts or certitude.  And while we certainly couldn’t have articulated it then (and probably only barely now) we knew somehow that poetry, unlike other uses of language—other “language games,” to borrow from Wittgenstein—was a means of short-circuiting the facts, logic, certitude and capital T-truth.  But rather than merely cutting the power and leading to meaninglessness/nihilism, it lead out beyond the denotative communicative particulars and into the atmospheric fireworks of metaphor, image, connotation and association.   It was a blast!  And the people who were doing it seemed to be the people who were having the most fun.  They weren’t sitting around growing their beards on mountaintops ratiocinating, they were  and messy and contradicting themselves and everything as a way to make a new thing, banging on the clanging in the streets at all hours, proving their humanity and connection to the particulars of living at every second, no matter how painful or muddled or small.  There was a great community of poets in Muncie then—Patti White and Tom Koontz in particular were wonderful mentors.  One thing lead to another and with a bunch of other folks we started a journal called Nausea Is the Square Root of Muncie to publish ourselves and the community of poets we’d somehow inserted ourselves into.  It was nuts.  We had no resources and really had only just started writing and reading poetry, but suddenly we were poets, accepted by the community and having a ball publishing our friends, hosting and giving readings, taking (gulp) English classes.  (We stayed in Philosophy, which for all my seemingly negative criticality about it was a lot of fun and certainly intellectually stimulating, if only as a foundation to undermine or resist it.)

Fast forward to 1994.  After a grand detour to grad school in Philosophy at Ohio University, I moved to Cincinnati in 1993.  Eric and I were in a band at the time, so he moved to Cinci, too, when he graduated from Ball State that May.  Forklift came together in the Fall of ’94 more than anything else as a way to recapture the great fun and spirit of collaboration/community we’d had in college.  We were new in town and didn’t know anybody, and we were both writing and reading everything we could get our hands on.  It was a no-brainer to do a new journal, both as a way to continue what we’d started atBallStateand as a way to get to know our new hometown.  I suggested we call the journal Forklift.  I was really into big, awkward machinery at the time (and also, I’m embarrassed to admit, there was a Pavement song called “Forklift”) so the word was in the air.  But Eric said Forklift’s not enough.  We need to locate it, make it a place rather than a thing, so Forklift,Ohioseemed obvious and perfect.  The decision to do poetry, cooking, and light industrial safety was sort of immediate, too.  Poetry we’d been doing, and we loved the sort of absurdity and beauty of juxtaposing it with industrial rules and regulations, the equipment, the mechanics, but we’ve also always been into cooking and there’s something deliciously poetic about the recipe as a form—the list of ingredients, the colors and flavors and smells they evoke, and the instructions, the notion that if you follow them you make something you can eat, but if you follow them with imagination you’ll maybe make something unforgettable.  It was only later that someone else pointed out that “fork lift” is also what one does when one eats, and that (what was for us an) unconscious connection is exactly the sort of thing we’re trying to activate in the journal itself.

We’ve now done twenty-three issues with #24 out this spring.  The only real difference between the start of things and now is that we have more help.  Tricia Suit (who also went to Ball State with Eric and I) is our Managing Editor, i.e. Test Kitchen Manager, Social Media Mogul, and Keeper of the Stun Gun.  Merrill Feitell, who joined us around issue #18 is our Fiction Editor.  And the newest addition to the team is Amanda Smeltz, who took over as Poetry Editor, after Brett Price, who’d been with us since issue #16, stepped aside to do his own awesome thing, American Books/Steck Editions.

Logistically speaking, the journal is still funded and assembled with a combination of found, purchased, begged, stolen and otherwise borrowed (forever) materials.  We don’t advertise.  We’re not affiliated with a school or other institution.  We don’t apply for grants.  We do gladly take donations.  We would love to have a patron or a Forklift manufacturer as a sponsor, but not if we have to do anything to make it happen or be accountable to them in any way.  In short, we love doing the journal on our terms, and I think that’s part of what’s kept it fun, surprising, and interesting/maddening all these years. In addition to the journal, we’ve also started doing chapbooks and this spring we’ll do the first Forklift Books book, Chad “Juan” Sweeney’s Wolf’s Milk.  We’re now officially 17 years in without a lost time accident. 

KW:  Tell me about the process of making and marketing the chapbooks, the books, the magazine, and any other print materials.

EA: Well, naturally, it’s an assembly line of sorts. Not a terribly efficient one, though as Matt just mentioned we do have an excellent safety record.

The big handoff to “production” comes once all the work has been selected by our editors. I generally don’t read the material until it’s all been chosen, at which point I dive in and start “chunking” the pieces. I begin by making stacks based on arbitrary affinities among the poems, stories, and recipes; though, in truth, it’s just as often some tension, opposition, or other absurdity that provides an organizing principle. Occasionally, fragments of this process are preserved and remain/become visible, but generally not by design. I see my mission as a designer, first and foremost, as getting out of the way of the work, but at the same time, creating possibilities for the pieces to interact with one another, with the found images and recipes and other design elements.

I collect old shop manuals, home economics texts, food pamphlets, and other early 20th century books that touch on related topics. I like to find texts that cover very narrow topics in great depth (I have one called “The Potato“)—though, to be useful, they need to have illustrations or strong textual elements that we can (ahem) appropriate for design purposes. I maintain the “Forklift Library”—which is a section of bookshelves in my house—and have received many fine donations for it from friends and family. I have a number of these pocket-sized reference manual/catalogs that were carried by tradesmen—steamfitters, plumbers, electricians—which provided the original inspiration for the current form factor of the journal.

As for marketing, it’s probably the less-interesting answer since both the managing editor, Tricia Suit, and I have the word “marketing” in our day-job titles. You’d think that would mean that we’d have some kind of killer marketing plan, but the reality is that Forklift is what we do for fun. It’s the old saw about the shoemaker’s barefoot children…

Over the years, we’ve grown gradually from making a couple hundred copies per issue to our current run of 500. The biggest share of growth has come from participating in the annual AWP bookfair and a few smaller, regional events. We’ve been fortunate—most of our publicity is word-of-mouth, and it’s been enough to completely deplete our stock of back-issues and increase our run with every new issue.

AS:  The books I’m less involved with, as my main role is with the journal, the reading /editing / selection process with submissions. You know, poems. But the magazine is definitely made with a visual, physical emphasis that we hope echoes and converses with the content. Reclaimed materials, odd things cast off. Appleby found some weird insulation for the cover a few issues back that’s still shedding little white Styrofoam dots all over my desk. You know, it’s a journal of cooking and light industrial safety, too, which is quirky and quotidian and specific. So as far as marketing goes, it’s just like – hey, are you a weirdo? Great. Us too. Ever driven a forklift? Even better.

KW:  What are some great rewards, benefits, or advantages you all have come across since you began?

MH: Oh that’s easy: It’s all about the people, both their work and who they are.  It’s such an honor and privilege, not to mention an inspiration, to be able to consider and publish the work we do.  And I really mean that sincerely, whether it’s someone established like Mary Ruefle or Nate Pritts or relatively new like Chris Mattingly, Kevin Shea, or Carrie Lorig.  We read everything multiple times.  There’s no slush pile (We don’t believe in a slush pile).  Our job is to read the work as best we can on its own terms and, if it moves us, try to make it fit.

Often people ask me about our submission policy, which requests that people query the editors before sending work.  That’s not so that we can weed people out.  It’s because we’re not always reading submissions, but we still want to hear from folks (and we’re terrible at updating the website).  Additionally, it keeps the submission bombers away—the people who send out the same submission to a hundred random journals at once.  We’ve found that they won’t actually go to the trouble if they have to query first.  That’s why we do what we do.

Anyway, when a new issue comes out, it’s always wonderful to be a part of something that we actually had a hand in helping to build, but it’s just as great to be reminded (by the issue itself) that it’s the culmination of work by numerous people that makes not only Forklift, but so many other D-I-Y journals possible.  Our longevity has more to do with the people that read and contribute to Forklift than it does with us.  It takes a warehouse.

AS:  My understanding of publishing is as a vehicle for conversation and relationships, art feeding a group. Working with Forklift is to enter into a vivid conversation with a wide range of writers, from the very established to the very young, excitable, inexperienced (like myself). The conversation is the sustaining thing – that whole gaggle of poets we know and put forth usually have in common a marked singularity. Several times I’ve found myself reading things I haven’t seen before ever, that remind me of nothing, and that is a delight. Surprises! Matt also knows dozens more contemporary writers than I do, which has had the humbling and lovely side effect of me reading poems and remarking on them when absolutely I should know the poet, but I’m a doofus and don’t yet… it keeps me very honest in my responses to work. Also perpetually embarrassed and learning. Benefits all!

KW:  You all have published some great people — Dean Young, Kiki Petrosino, etc. Do you use the magazine as a barometer for the books? What’s the in-between process there?

MH: Using the magazine as a barometer for the chapbooks is a good idea, but we don’t actually do that.  It’s a lot more willy-nilly.  Usually it’s just a case of knowing somebody’s work and hearing that they have a chapbook manuscript available.  I actually asked Alexis Orgera to write a chapbook just for us, which turned out to be Illuminatrix.  Chad Sweeney’s The Lost Notebooks of Juan Sweeney de Las Minas de Cobra came out of a drunken story he was telling me about riding on the tops of trains in South America and jokingly telling people all over the southern hemisphere that he was a “famous American poet named Juan Sweeney”.  Russell Dillon’s been a favorite of mine for years.  Michael Schiavo had published some of the Ranges poems in Forklift, and I asked to see the whole manuscript.  I thought it was terrific, so I asked him to select a chapbook for us.  The same sort of thing happened with Kiki.  Dean Young’s 31 Poems was hatched with Dean and Dobby Gibson over beers as an under the radar “new and selected.”

It goes on and on like that, and the plan is to do the books the same way—no contests, no submission period.  The plan is just to publish books by people who we think are deserving and whose work we’re excited about.  It’s organic and sort of random, and that’s the way we hope to keep it. We have a new chap coming out in March by Stuart Dischell called Touch Monkey, and there’s one other thing in the works that I’m not yet at liberty to discuss.  Stay tuned…

KW:  What do you see as the biggest hurdle or dilemma for independent publishers?

MH: Maybe Eric can speak more to this, but I don’t really see any hurdles or dilemmas.  If you want to be an independent publisher, be one.  And don’t worry for an instant about doing it the right way.  There is no right way.  The right way is probably to be a corporate publisher, and who the fuck wants to do that?  Then you have to deal with real big money.  Money (and I’m sure I’m shooting all of us in the foot here) turns everything to shit.  So, yes, maybe money is the biggest hurdle/dilemma.  Get away from money as much as possible – the end.

AS:  There’s a risk of stagnation, I think, if a publisher’s following remains too narrow. You want a group of people who feel connected to what you’re doing, who value what you value, but you don’t want the conversation to only matter to three dozen people in one town, you know? Insularity bores me. One hopes for both tight-knit community but also wide readership. Practically, questions of distribution and exposure are large hurdles to widening that circle. Where do we get to show this thing? AWP? How else do we do that? Forklift has been around long enough that there isn’t a huge worry about whether or not anyone cares about it, but that fresh and varied people all over the place are newly discovering it matters to me.

EA: It has to be the astonishing rate at which the essential “means of production” keep becoming more and more accessible. Technology is, of course, what comes to mind–from desktop publishing and duplication to E-readers and new media–but I also mean the attendant economic and social shifts, the forces that create and destroy the audiences, the venues, the vehicles and opportunities (ahem, “markets”) for the printed word. Yep, the stuff is amazing and an awful shame. It’s a victory for democratization and the hopeless cheapening of literature, it’s giving voice to those who need to be heard (The homeless have a newspaper!) while inviting the blatherers of the world to spew mountains of crap.

But, seriously, I’m not judging here; we avail ourselves of the latest tools in the creation of Forklift. We’re not Luddites. If anything, we could be accused of being sentimental. Basically, this dilemma means that we’re continuously challenged to re-think and re-invent what it means to “publish a literary journal.”

Forklift started out on tabloid-sized newsprint–and they don’t even crank up those web presses for fewer than 1000 copies, but even so, it only cost us a few hundred bucks to publish an issue back in the 90s (though it seemed like a lot more money back when we were just out of school, probably because we hadn’t signed mortgages yet). I remember how our good friend Nate Pritts put out the first couple issues of his journal, H_NGM_N (a la Ted Berrigan’s C Press, among others), using an actual mimeograph machine (and if you know what that is, then you remember how good it smells) before going to his current online format.

Which reminds me to mention another part of this dilemma: the “means of consumption.” Today more than ever, it is a consideration that is tightly coupled to the production (have you seen the competing e-reader standards?). Nonetheless, I still feel weird talking about it with regard to publishing since, throughout most of its history, the same object occupied both sides of the equation. Reading a book wasn’t like listening to music on the radio or phonograph, where you had to buy a new piece of furniture to enjoy it (comfy chair and lamp optional). That you could fold it up and put it in your bag or pocket has long been the joy of the newspapers and trade novel. This was—and is—the positive aspect of “accessibility.”

We could lament the disappearance of print shops and binderies and such, but the fact is that we’re benefitting from technology as much as anyone. But if you ever worked at a newspaper or magazine, then you’ll probably join me in cringing at the suggestion that blogs and cameraphones have turned everybody into journalists. This same topic has been beaten to death in the music industry—blah blah pristine digital recordings blah blah someone’s living room blah blah, and everyone’s a rock star. Without the long journey and staggering expense that was once required to get from demo to album, or, from manuscript to book, one can argue that quality control isn’t what it used to be (I believe Matt correctly referred to this as the “Steve Albini” argument).

But it’s worth re-visiting this shift in the music business because we’ve had a few years now to get some perspective on how the change from vinyl/tapes/CDs to downloadable digital media has actually changed the way that artists create and release their work. This is a timely conversation, as e-readers seem to have come into their own in the past couple years (I’d place the exact moment somewhere in 2011, between the release of the iPad 2 and the launch of Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire this past holiday season).

Paradoxically, these same trends have made a fetish of their respective physical media. For example: vinyl records are having a sort of renaissance thanks to audiophiles (who prefer the “warmth of vinyl”), collectors, and DJs who use actual turntables. Likewise, you’ll find recording studios promoting their collections of vintage gear, sweet-sounding rooms and “good vibes” to draw musicians out of their home studios.

This brings us back to Forklift. Our answer to the question has been (so far) that we’re definitely of the 20th Century “artifact” school of publishing, though more Henry Ford than book art. We cut, collate, staple, bind, tape and glue the thing together by hand so that our readers don’t have to recharge anything before enjoying the anachronistic sort of “multimedia” experience (since it really does have poetry, cooking, AND light industrial safety—not to mention awesome short fiction and other miscellany). I can’t speak from experience, but I’d assume the biggest hurdle as a full-time Independent Publisher is making a living.

KW:  What would be a good definition of a “poetry community”? I ask this because I think you are creating a micro-community while being parcel to the larger more over-arching one, a huge part, at that, being connected to other publishers, etc.

AS:  There are a bunch of people between the two covers of each issue that have some things to say to each other, and we’re there to lasso and corral them, feed them whiskey and eggs, make them take the train together. I mean that proverbially and literally. I want you and your poems to wake up hungover on my couch tomorrow. That’s how we want writers to commune. I have no idea how Forklift is related to the big-house, national poetry world, but I’m hopelessly myopic.

MH: I don’t think I have any idea how I would define a “poetry community”—I mean, I want it to be open to possibility, change and augmentation, even fragmentation.  Definition seems counter-productive as it puts a wall around something that I want to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

EA: I’m happy to say that the population of Forklift,Ohiois ever-growing and peopled with some of the most remarkable characters you’ll meet. But I’d also resist to calling it a “poetry community” for reasons similar to Matt’s. It’s not a “poets only” or “poetry fans only” place. There are any number of people who’ve made valuable contributions that wouldn’t classify themselves as either. I’ve come to see our subtitle as a reminder that poetry is something we do (read, write, and publish) alongside the other necessities of life—eating, working—and it’s far from the only thing that binds us.

KW:  In that case, is there any difference within region – that is, do you see yourselves as an American publisher or a midwestern publisher? What are, if any, the issues of place-basedness?

EA: I like that construction: “place-basedness.” The short, boring answer to your question is that “place” is probably more of a trope than a particular location that we strongly identify with. It’s the soup pot in our kitchen, wherever it may be. Back when Matt and I first met, there was another group of students atBallStatethat ran readings and called themselves “The Smaller Midwestern Poets.” The idea that they named themselves–like a band or something–was part of what inspired us to organize, to take our nonsense seriously and put a name to it.

As he described earlier, the process of naming Forklift was completely ridiculous and borderline-embarrassing (well, at least for Matt). It should be explained that the title of our first journal, “Nausea is the Square Root of Muncie,” came out of one of our Philosophy classes, though I think it was originally supposed to be “Chicago.” I think it was as an example to show how a statement can be valid (syntactically correct) but neither true nor false. The other one I remember was a recurring reference to “the present king of France.”

I think I can speak for both Matt and myself when I say this: though we’ve spent most of our lives in theMidwest, we’ve spent more than a little of that time feeling out-of-place. I don’t say that because we don’t like where we are (because we do). For me, it’s always been more about the people around me than the place–and I think I’d apply that equally to Forklift: the people make the place. Forklift exists because of the people that believe in it–many of whom happen to live inOhio, but just as many elsewhere. The best map is the “Inventory” pages of any issue.

AS:  I know the journal was founded as a way of making an outpost in a country where it seems all the exciting conversations happen on the coasts. I know I’m sometimes embarrassed of my east coast parochialism, so working for friends based inCincinnatifeels like a good counterbalance to theBrooklynpoetry environs. The journal is post-industrial in heart, which says to me that we like the burned-out, rusty, humble. But we publish people from all over; the authors are always spread pretty evenly across the States.

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

MH: We’ve always loved the Dadaists and Surrealists artists, but there’s also The Beats and the New York School poets, Fluxus and early-industrialized culture and value.  In general I think we like the early 1900s up to the 1960s.  Oh hell, but then came punk rock in the 70’s, the DIY ethos and mess of which are super important to us. Okay, so we’re inspired by pretty much everything that happened in the 1900s before we were born, 1971 and 1969 respectively.  At least, I can see the 1900s to 1960s fingerprint all over what we do.  Disciplines were crossing.  Materials were being juxtaposed, the clashes of cultures and values were extreme, innovation and invention was everywhere apparent.  Codified institutions were being challenged and dismantled.

And yet we also like the now a lot, too, both for its presence in the present and for the way it drifts into the past and shifts (sometimes violently) into the future.  And while we don’t have the same sense of progress and faith in universals that (some) people had at the beginning of the last century, there is a sense that things are changing.  The water is boiling.  It’s devastating and surprising and “a joy forever.”

AS: I think Matt and I do place an emphasis on the ever-evolution of poems, the kinetic, the risk of showing your guts a little. I like technical proficiency but never at the cost of all that’s surprising or downright honest in poems. Does that relate our aesthetic to a movement? The free-association of Surrealism, maybe? The kinda-adolescent energy of Futurism? Who knows. Movements muddle. Movement in poems does not.

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)?

AS:  On the publishing side, I see no essential difference between poetry and the other arts, only circumstansial: representation on the page, questions of visual design, issues of distribution and market and exposure. But all those questions come up with visual art, live performances, music. In the practice I’d argue otherwise: there’s no other art whose material consists solely of language, primal forum of being. There’s no other creative process that happens so spontaneously in the self – also in the Other – because of that “material,” language. It’s very weird. And very normal. Perhaps that’s why publishing will always feel funny. I can memorize a poem and have it written inside my mouth, needing no physical vessel but my vocal chords and tongue. Like a song. But here I am, putting it on pages so I can physically hand it to other people, inhabit it without external sound. Here it is! I put this forklift squarely between the poet and the person.

MH: On the poetry side, the short answer is that language is the only artistic material that can be used to talk about itself.  Poetry isn’t just the words, it’s the words and the music at the very same time, and the materials one uses to make it, are exactly the same ones (employed and deployed in a different context) we use to talk about it, make sense of it, and push ourselves out beyond (or deeper into) where we happen to be currently.  Nobody would ever think of using paint to make sense of—to understand—a painting (at least not in that clearly delineated way we usually mean to “understand” or communicate something).  And the reason for this is that our primary conceptual framework is linguistic/metaphorical—not visual, not auditory.  Language isn’t primal, but it’s primary once one learns it.  There’s no going back to the darkness of the pure sensations (whatever that even means) of the pre-linguistic as much as we may try to do that.  Certainly poetry, because it’s made of words, doesn’t get as close to the pre-linguistic as maybe music or Abstract Expressionism once did, but it does remind us that language is weirdly positioned—built for and functioning in and as multiple contexts—while at the same time carrying with it the power to make sense of both its own context and every other, both artistic and otherwise.  This is not to say that with language everything can be explained and understood, but that where things can’t be explained and understood (rationally) we can find ways using language to make the mystery more mysteriously unsayable and sensible—in terms of the mystical or the contradictory or the expressive, what have you.  They’re all—the mystical, the contradictory, the expressive—linguistic concepts.   Poetry wants to be as big as the world, and it’s the only art that may actually be able to accomplish it, as language functions one way or another in, and as, any context one can imagine.  And when and where it doesn’t function, it can say that too.

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