Interview by Ken L. Walker
I first met Jennifer Woods in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky while she was working for Sarabande Books. I constantly popped into the Sarabande offices to see friends and it quickly became apparent that whatever space Jen occupied was the room that everyone should have been in, or, wanted to be in. Right after I moved to New York for graduate school and Jen left (on good terms, of course) Sarabande, she began publishing a letterpressed magazine devoted to new poetry called Lumberyard. The magazine, due to its high-quality letterpressing and edgy, sometimes twisted, mostly moving poetry, took off. And, recently, Jen and her brother Eric (designer/printer) have been putting energy into two other projects — the ever growing Typecast Publishing and the web magazine Sawmill. That process led the Typecast team and the Tuesday: An Art Project crew to publish the anthology Oil & Water in the wake of the utter epic failure that BP earned in the Gulf of Mexico; Oil & Water went the true distance where many anthologies fall short, not only in its repertoire of poets (Matthea Harvey, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and John Keats), but in its packaging of letterpress factoid cards and recycled thin-board slip covers. The acumen of Typecast is the root of the uncovering and further enveloping and discovering of great American poetry with such a consistent casting of writers — Adam Day, Fritz Ward, Chris Mattingly, Matthew Lippman, Matt Hart, Catherine Wing, Sherman Alexie, Jessica Farquhar, Allison Hutchcraft, Jessica Jacobs, Russell Dillon, Amanda Smeltz, and so many more. I know Jen Woods to be one of the most endearing and patient poetry readers around; this statement will hopefully go a long way with those readers wishing to submit to the press, but also in the sense that so many magazines are becoming worse and worse at actually reading their slush piles or gathering new talent from said piles. Typecast certainly does, however, and they do it with a cleansed ethic and hard-work-pays-off-for-everyone mentality.
KW: What was the impetus to begin Lumberyard and, then, at what point did Typecast Publishing come into the fore?
JW: The inspiration for Lumberyard was pretty simple: I was dissatisfied with what I felt was a resignation in the literary world, in particular that poetry was “a lost cause” to our culture-at-large and there was no hope that publishing poetry could be a self-sustaining, profitable enterprise. With a new presentation, one that considered the habits and preferences of the modern world, I felt confident people of all stripes would willingly digest and enjoy poetry in the same way humans have for hundreds of years, especially if the marketing behind it refused to accept conventional wisdom as truth, going after pockets of readers written off by the literary community long ago. After all, I certainly didn’t come from a family of academics, nor did I have any friends growing up who loved poetry, and yet I do. What sold me on poetry was poetry itself—nobody had to teach me to love it, I just always did. Surely I wasn’t that much of an anomaly.
My brother was about five years into effectively building a letterpress and design studio, Firecracker Press, and his work made me think we could combine our two loves and produce something really amazing—after all, we both worked in “print” at the end of the day. So, I immediately called him with this idea and we began brainstorming (which continued for nearly a year before the first issue of Lumberyard was ever released). The nature of his very specialized printing business served as a model to show how the application of thoughtful, creative business practices can and do affect the trajectory of a for-profit enterprise. And listening to advice from those who had a defeatist attitude towards the arts—or those who felt uncomfortable mixing the arts and business—was a surefire way to fail at what I had in mind. Honestly, his guidance and advice in the beginning proved to be my personal saving grace. He said many smart things to me in those early days that I still keep in the forefront of my mind.
Typecast Publishing came along after several years of successfully producing the magazine and watching our numbers grow at the same time the economy was tanking. I was employed at a nonprofit press, and everywhere around me arts organizations were preparing for the worst, as fears that grant money and private donations could dry up if the recession didn’t make a quick recovery. I had to hedge my bets, and I took a gamble on what we were building. I left my editor job behind and decided to expand our efforts with Lumberyard into a full-fledged publishing company. One that would take a diligent approach to how the business was built as well as the quality of work published. Sink or swim, I had to test my theories about the publishing business and see where it was failing because of the economy or the digital revolution, and where it was failing due to negligence or lack of research and development.
KW: Tell me about the process of making and marketing the books, the magazine, and any other print materials.
JW: This is the joy of working with a sibling—that we’ve known one another and understand where the other is coming from so well we can entertain this difficult and creative dance several times a year and usually get what we want from our efforts. This dance is hard to describe, but I’ll give it a go.
First of all, we take our time to fully develop every step required in making a book, from editorial to execution. We’ve had projects that spent more than a year in the planning stage, before we ever begin to typeset one line. We start by talking in generalities about the project, mainly: what is the emotion we are hoping to produce in the consumer when they pick up a Typecast product? The answer to that question is the cornerstone from which everything else is built. And once we have a final manuscript the designers are given carte blanche to attack the project in the way they see fit. I’m an editor, a word person, and while I have confidence in my ability to create a “concept” I am not an aesthetic professional. When we give Firecracker freedom to steer the visuals-ship, we get back great work. And once a solid proposal for the book object is presented, the hardest part begins. We have to fit our idea within the confines of a budget. Here we rule nothing out, deconstructing the book-making process down to square one with each project. We take no aspect of printing or binding for granted. And while it can take months, sometimes, to realize our concept in an affordable fashion, this challenge is where we come up with our best and most innovative ways to make a luxurious thing for our readers.
Finally, as far as the marketing goes, our modus operandi is this: while we love our readership from card-carrying members of the contemporary literary movement, we don’t focus the bulk of our marketing muscle into wooing that demographic. The reason is simple; if we spend all our time preaching to the choir we’ll never reach our larger goal of bringing new readers into the joy that is the discovery of compelling voices in literature today. Since we are for-profit, building new readers is not just a line in our mission statement; it is our bread and butter. I love that pressure of having to succeed. And it has made me love business in a way I never knew I could.
KW: Since, then, you all are a for-profit, how do you market outside the realm of the literary which begs another question: How do you feel about the (mis)statement: everyone knows that only poets buy poetry, as I presume you intend to do something about that.
I have to fundamentally disagree with the statement “everyone knows that only poets buy poetry.” That’s completely untrue. But often we’re the only literary-minded group reaching out to those other communities of people. My favorite example was when Lumberyard was asked to go on Road Dog Trucking, the largest trucking satellite radio station in the US, to talk about why truckers should read more poetry. There’s a million reasons why, I just happened to be the only person suggesting that conversation. We made an issue of the magazine just for lonely nights on the road, and dedicated it to the trucking community. We have truckers that subscribe to the magazine to this day. Now, as you mentioned, we are for profit, so I’m not gonna cough up all our trade secrets when they’re openly available to anyone willing to do the work. Audiences are waiting if you’re willing to go get them. There’s so much to love about poetry, why would we ever assume that only a niche audience would be interested in it? Poetry is one of the oldest art forms; it is in our DNA. And you underestimate poetry at your own peril if you don’t believe that. So, what I intend to do about the statement is never buy into it — ignore the hype.
KW: What are some great rewards, benefits, and advantages you’ve come across since you began?
JW: The greatest reward for me is that every day I get up and work with a small entourage of creative people—artists, writers, craftspeople—who are passionate about and talented at what they do. I get to know their individual creative processes intimately. When I was a girl, I fantasized about how great writers almost always had a group of creatives around them to bounce off ideas, or talk late into the night about whatever mystery their artistic expression was attempting to solve (this is what happens when you grow up in a rural setting, pre-internet, and you are a bit of black sheep). To think that such activity is what’s required of me now to do this job well, this literally is a dream come true. Although I spent a good portion of my childhood dreaming about this responsibility, every day that this is my reality is still a happy surprise.
JW: We’ve found some great poets through the magazine, no doubt. Matt Hart was a stranger to me until he submitted an oddball little poem for our second issue. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I liked or understood it—I just knew I couldn’t stop rereading it. There was a music within that wouldn’t stop pestering my brain. When we accepted the poem into the final pieces for that issue, Matt wrote me one of the first “fan letters” I ever received. I began seeking out his work to find out more and the rest is history, so to speak. I’ve spent many years now trying to unravel the mystery that is Matt Hart’s brain, and this journey has been one of life’s most rewarding.
But we don’t only consider poets who’ve appeared in our magazine—hell, not every book we publish is poetry anymore. The main thing we seek is authenticity. If the writer is authentic to him/herself, the readers will feel that from the page. They will invest. And we need books that encourage and nourish that investment. If the writer risks nothing of the self on the page, we probably won’t risk putting muscle into the project.
KW: What do you see as the biggest hurdles and dilemmas for independent publishers?
JW: The biggest hurdle right now is having the courage and willingness to reinvent what being a publisher means. You’ve got to be flexible and ditch the urge to be reactionary as inevitable change continues to wash over the industry. Not to sound like a total jerk-off, but it’s true I no longer see hurdles or dilemmas as much as I see opportunities to solve problems. As an industry, publishing became a sleepy giant adverse to change, and as a result, other business-minded people have taken advantage. Now those same publishers like to bitch about Amazon being the devil, etc, and maybe they are. But it doesn’t answer the question, “Why did you let the devil catch you sleeping?” If people who care about books aren’t at the forefront of the industry, I’m not sure what publishers expect. Luckily, and more and more each day, I meet publishers like O/R who aren’t afraid to try new approaches, and when I’m fortunate enough to talk to those publishers I begin to feel optimistic that the future is as bright as it always was. The future, it turns out, depends on what you do with it and not so much the temporary circumstances of today.
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.
JW: I think a poetry community should be any group that makes you feel inspired about poetry, whether it’s writing, reading, or publishing. With Typecast, we try to create a space for as many people as want to come along and have a good time with poetry. While we can’t possibly publish all the work we like, we do like to make everyone feel they are welcome to have a seat and hang out, enjoy the ride.
KW: Is there any difference within region – that is, do you see yourselves as an American publisher or a Midwestern or a Southern publisher, etc. Is this Ohio River Valley poetry? What are, if any, the issues of place-basedness?
JW: Well, since I’m rural, and throughout my adult life, southern, I guess I’ve heard a lot of rubbish about how you have to be from here or there to make it in the arts. I’m not denying that a New York zipcode doesn’t make it easier in some respects, or that as a youngster I didn’t have fantasies about the day I would move to the big apple and start my life. But, as it turns out, I quite love where I live and would never downplay our roots to appear different than we are. Part of our appeal, I suspect, is that authenticity, which stems from a desire to allow our readers to feel comfortable and at home when they interact with our products. Last time we had an event in Brooklyn, half the audience came up to me after to talk about Kentucky—how they were from here, too, or had been to the Derby, or had an aunt that lived here and they loved to visit, etc. Clearly they were telling me things they usually kept quiet, since the conversations were all whispered as if to say, “I don’t usually admit this but….” I’m a firm believer in just being who you are, and so if our southern-ness identifies us in some way, I wouldn’t be very conscious of it I don’t think, beyond this sense from time to time that our geography does something to make people feel at ease. You might have better luck getting an answer to this question from our readers than from me. But, all that said, I see Typecast as a distinctly American publisher––proudly based in the south.
KW: Are there any poetic, say Modernist or contemporary, movements that inspire you?
JW: Movements are like colors. There are shades within each that I love, yet a full spectrum of color is the best. More than a school or movement, I want bullshit-free expression. I don’t care if you’re a formalist or a dog-catcher, if you’re risking something every time you publish a poem, I’m going to read the work and try to get the most from that experience. For me, inspiration comes from a new point of view that I myself have never considered, a new way of looking at a blackbird, a wheelbarrow, a war, a broken heart.
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)?
JW: I’m of the school that all the arts have more in common than not. If you’re a serious artist, the creative process behind such a person is fairly universal, no matter the medium. We choose different signifiers as artists, but the signified is still the same: some parts of life are so big, strange, scary, fantastic, confusing, uplifiting, that only some abstract form of communication can get the point across in a way where a group of people can investigate it together (which is what happens anytime you read a book or attend a performance or walk the halls of a gallery). If you’re a dancer, a painter, a poet, an architect, and the work comes from an innate need to express from within, you’re going to practice, practice, practice. Chances are, you’ll think that the practice (or in the case of a writer, revision) is never done. You’ll wear yourself out, forfeiting most other things at one point or another, for the space to continue creating. You’ll never consider doing anything else. Everything else is just details.