[This text was written for the 2010 American Theater in Higher Education Conference in Los Angeles, CA. Special thanks to Daniel Banks, Jorge Huerta, Anne Garcia-Romero and Oliver Mayer.]
Travel light, get rid of everything, make yourself as free as the air.
If I feel a little like the character interpreted by George Clooney in the film “Up in the Air,” it’s because I’m in a conference room, in a hotel, and I’ve been asked to give a craft talk on self-publishing. A deluge of images from films that feature craft talks and workshops in hotel conference rooms runs through my mind. Usually films take a satirical slant to these events, and I must admit that I’m not above recognizing the possible elements for satire in this format. I also know that a gathering of colleagues, artists and scholars is an opportunity for not only social networking, for which conferences tend to be known, but a rare chance for enriching cross-country dialogue on themes and issues and working methods that affect so many of us in the field, whether we have a foot firmly in academia, or chart a more liminal, precarious nomadic and bridge-like path between the arts and the academy.
I’m a US Latina playwright currently based in New York City. My work has been presented at venues of various sizes, shapes, indoors and outdoors, including McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn, across the US and abroad. This fall my play based on Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits receives its regional premiere at Denver Theatre Center. I’m in pre-production with it right now, right now as I speak to you. You see, in the era of traveling light, up in the air… holodeck-ing multiple narratives and multi-tasking related and unrelated duties, is simply a way of being. Art, after all, is a form of play, as Plato said in The Republic all those years ago [X 601, Oxford edition 1941, p.325]. The play of art is ever in the air, whether one is writing, attending a conference, or publishing a new book.
My relationship to publishing began when one of my first plays Gleaning/Rebusca was published by Arte Publico Press in the anthology Shattering the Myth. Being on the artist-writer end of the process with that book, and quite early in my career, was thrilling, and slightly overwhelming. At the time, the idea of having my work in print was surreal, to say the least. I’d written the play nearly six months before it was accepted for publication, and I was still trying to figure out what I’d written, let alone ready to see it in print and alongside such stunning colleagues as Migdalia Cruz, Cherrie Moraga, Josefina Lopez, Edit Villareal and Diana Saenz. It also made me feel as if I were finally a “real writer.” Publication validates work. Words in print feel more real than when they’re streaming off of your printer. The idea that someone could pick up the anthology somewhere miles and miles away and connect with my characters and say the lines I’d given them was incredibly moving. It still is.
As more of my plays were published in journals and anthologies, I became increasingly interested in what it would be like to be on the other side of the publication desk, and work hands-on with text and other writers as well as to be in a position to advocate for work that I felt should be in print. The curiosity about the editorial process led to my first book Out of the Fringe: Contemporary US Latina/o Theatre and Performance (2000) co-edited with Teresa Marrero and published by Theatre Communications Group. This anthology coincided in publication release with two other books that sort of snuck up on me: Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes, co-edited with Maria M. Delgado, and a book of some of my translations of Federico Garcia Lorca’s plays and poems (both for Smith & Kraus, 1999 and 2000). So, my inquisitiveness about the editorial process suddenly saw me knee deep in not one but three publications with tight, consecutive deadlines, and different, varied questions about formatting, layout, and flow of content.
One of the things that I discovered about being on the other side of the publication desk was that I enjoyed immensely reflecting on the thematic and logistical juxtapositions of the many tiny micro stories inside the bigger macro story of the overall book. Content flow and layout got to me, perhaps because such juxtapositions are also central to the act of writing plays. Whatever the case, I embarked on a mission to bridge the artist-scholar divide and try to instigate new conversations on theatre and performance in print. Theatre in Crisis? Performance Manifestos for a New Century, co-edited with Maria M. Delgado, for Manchester University Press followed three years after the first volume for TCG, and five years later my first book as sole editor Trans-Global Readings: Crossing Theatrical Boundaries, was released also for MUP.
Since then, I have assembled another anthology Divine Fire: Eight Contemporary Plays Inspired by the Greeks for BackStage Books, co-edited special issues of the Journal of American Drama and Theatre and Contemporary Theatre Review, took on the roles of contributing editor at the international theatre journal TheatreForum, and associate editor at Contemporary Theatre Review for Routledge in the UK. Throughout this willful journey as an editor, learning fast and loose on the job about what the rules were, making my own rules up, and defying the standard seven chapter book format, I was also carrying on with my primary life as a playwright and tending to its necessary dreaming as well as trying to figure out how to continue to create opportunities for more expansive dramaturgies in new writing (practiced by colleagues in the field) to be seen and heard.
“When freedom is practiced in a closed circle, it fades into a dream, becomes a mere representation of itself. The ambience of play is by nature unstable.”
–Guy Debord, On the passage of a few persons through a rather brief period of time.
In 2003 I founded the theatre alliance NoPassport. In 2007 the alliance launched its imprint NoPassport Press, and I became a publisher as well as an editor. This craft talk alights a bit on the journey that NoPassport has taken and why, and how self-publishing can be a catalytic force for change.
Consider the book.
The object we take to bed,
On road trips,
Pack in suitcases and messenger bags,
Share with friends,
And wear out
Until it sits on a shelf, eventually,
Well-loved but discarded perhaps,
A repository of memory.
The pact a reader makes with the object
Perhaps is as strong as the one made
With the text itself and the virtual relationship
Between the author and reader.
The object carries with it meaning:
The many hands that have touched it,
And by the many places it has been touched.
When a reader looks at a book in their personal library,
All sorts of memories are evoked with a mere glance –
Where one bought the book in the first place,
How one came to “discover” it,
Who recommended it?
Or did it simply call out from the stacks?
And how long the book has been part of one’s life.
Books have gravity.
Their weight sometimes determines the relationship a reader has with them.
When Roberto Bola~no’s posthumous masterpiece 2666 was released in its masterful English-language translation by Natasha Wimmer, I remember the painstaking decision-making process involved in the purchase of it.
Should I get the 1500-plus-page tome or the serialized book set?
What kind of experience did I want to have with the novel?
One that overflowed or one that was compartmentalized (by the physical fact of a front and back cover for each mini-book, and thus, the tangible effect of presumed closure)?
The actual weight of the hardback edition was also a determining factor in the purchase.
2666 weighed about as much as a mini laptop. If I carried it around with me, would it replace my laptop in my messenger bag, compete with it, or would I need a separate bag that would comfortably accommodate both?
Eventually the serialized book set won out, for the sake of convenience,
And perhaps too out of a desire to buy into the illusion that Bolano’s epic vision
Could be contained into discreetly “manageable” mini-tomes.
Whatever the reason, the process by which the purchase occurred, is inevitably linked in my mind to the reality of the books in hand.
Books take time.
Sometimes as little as two hours,
sometimes as long as a year
And if we return to a book…for the pleasure of re-reading… even more so.
There are authors with whom we develop binding relationships
because of the time stolen with them, as well as with the objects that contain their prose.
Whether it be David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,
Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,
or Virginia Woolf’s The Waves,
the characters, settings, linear and non-linear narrative arcs,
and emotions conjured by these authors
as well as the quantifiable time spent with their work,
makes a reader feel as if these writers are friends.
After all, their work is part of our life experience.
What happens to time, then, when it shifts away from the spatial and emotional relationship one has with an object and moves toward the intangible relationship
One has with electronic content?
Electronic Content and the Virtual Text
Ten years ago the great hype began about the electronic book, or e-book. It was also ten years ago (2000) that such genres as fiction, poetry and nonfiction became known as electronic “content, and that novelist Stephen King pulled an old manuscript out of his reject drawer, offered it as a serial on the Internet for a dollar or two per chapter, and drew thousands of subscribers. In other words, the process by which the publishing world has seemingly changed “overnight,” has hardly been so. Growing pains exist, naturally, in how publishers have had to re-think the production, marketing, advertising, and warehousing of books. The market is in flux. Bookstores are shutting down at the high and “low” end of the financial spectrum. Readers seek entertainment and information “content” electronically more and more, and the demand for e-books is greater than the current availability of titles available in digital format(s).
Critic Daniel Pearce in his essay “The Aura of Literature in the Age of its Virtual Dissemination” (Contemporary Theatre Review Vol. 20.3, 2010) points to remarks made by novelist Paul Theroux in an interview with The Atlantic where he expressed dismay at the predominance of the e-book and the inevitable loss of a book’s physicality – its Presence- as well as its talismanic quality. Pearce states:
“Wistful and sympathetic to Theroux, public conversations among literary and publishing traditionalists have tended towards this vocabulary, bemoaning the absence of a “something” in the e-book, while prizing the “physicality” of the printed book, its status as a “talisman.” Though these lines of thought—which often appear, modified only by rhetorical animus, as full-blown lines of argument—make sense to anyone who has cherished a single volume and populated it with markings, their vagueness remains striking. Often beginning with a word like “physicality,” a concept opposed to vagueness by definition, they are then loosed back into the language cloud of the “talismanic,” the ineffable. The qualities of the moribund* book that will be missed, it seems, are bound up with the book’s physicality without being fully explained by it; either the very reasons for missing the book resist explanation, or the only explanations for missing it resist precision.”
The resistance to precision that Pearce notes has as much to do with time, as it has to do with the manner in which virtual documents exist for readers. First of all, it’s important to remember that a book, despite its container, is essentially a virtual entity. It’s composed, after all, of signs and symbols and while the language of signs and symbols may be codified and collectively agreed-upon by a specific culture and society for whom the readership of the book is intended, it remains, in the end, a virtual experience, albeit a complicated one. The physicality of the object, which Theroux cherishes and to which I’ve referred in the opening section of this essay, is important insofar as the craft and artistry of book-making. The texture and color of a page, the quality and type of font, the interior layout and formatting of text and image are elements that, in addition to the binding itself, contribute significantly to the spatial, temporal and perceptual experience readers have with the internal signs and symbols before them.
the elements (a pop-up link)
Consider the book
As it rests on the screen.
Note the balance of blank pages to text-filled pages,
The size of the margins,
The type of font,
The amount of white space the writer requires.
Consider the cost
Of putting a book together.
The more pages the book has, usually the higher the cost,
Which affects the type and size of font used,
And the measures taken to preserve the author’s intentions.
Remain practical about what is possible in an effort to stay green
But also discuss with the author
Where that specific line break falls and why,
And if there will be a dedication page.
Contain the book in your brain.
Watch it scroll before you in your mind,
As if you were holding it in your hand.
What is the tactile experience of the book, its essential texture?
How do you wish to communicate that unique texture
Given the restrictions of the publishing house’s style or lack thereof?
Imagine what the sensual experience will be for the human reader
Browsing through the text electronically.
How will the reader’s perception shift
When the book s is transformed from the hand to the screen?
For books conceived with illustration as a key artistic component or collaborative aspect of storytelling (discussion of the graphic novel at the moment is outside of this specific rumination) the multiple levels of artistry and craft required towards the creation of the object are an integral part of the reading experience.
In the virtual, intangible landscape where e-books reside, text flows without hard touch (save for fingers on a keyboard or the click of a mouse and/or browser), but layout, formatting, and font continue to signify, as does cover (page) art. Binding, however, does not. Books on Kindle and the Nook are weightless and return to the virtual space where they begin, in effect, as signs and symbols rescued for meaning by elements of culture, perception and consciousness. Nevertheless, the time it takes to read an e-book and the manner in which that time flows is perceptually different than when text is contained within the body of an object. The flow of words on a screen moves “faster” than on the stuffy pages of an antiquated book. The dust-less universe where e-books and downloadable text documents reside alters the experience of reading.
Conventional prose paragraphs are read less line by line than flow of thought pattern to next flow of thought pattern. As a reader, the totality of the virtual experience with text is composed of clusters of impressions, rather than an accumulation of key emotional moments, phrases, or even words. When one reads an e-book, text floats and washes over one in a sea of signs. E-book reading encourages glossing through language, and the visualization of text as a series of planes and moveable surfaces (think of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch effect or Michael Joyce’s pioneering work with hyper-fiction). One may scroll backwards or forwards but it’s actually more difficult to create landing places for yourself as a reader in the electronic format, and this has nothing to do with being able to “mark” the text or not.
It’s important to consider the virtual experience of reading, outside of its metaphysical and philosophical qualities for a moment, because in the world of publishing, virtuality is sometimes all you have. I don’t question whether e-books are here to stay. The massive shake-up in the last ten years in the print publishing world at the mainstream and boutique level is ample evidence that e-news, criticism, e-entertainment and e-books are the now and future. The regard held for the physicality of a book, however, is one that I think will be re-appraised the more digital Western societies’ reading experiences become.
The role of the editor and publisher in the land of play
“Force yourself to see more flatly.”
– Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock
– (Harmondsworth, 1997)
When you receive a text document as a publisher and editor, your first duty is to the text itself: to read it thoroughly and engage with it and its ideas openly and in good faith, irrespective of your own aesthetic lean and/or taste.
What story is being told?
How is it being told? And why?
And for whom is the story?
These are basic questions to ask of a text. The impact of a specific story on the field and on culture and society are questions to be brought up later. The first encounter with a text is as a generous and open reader with a history of (reading and viewing) storytelling in your front pocket. This history comes into play when one re-views/re-sees the text document and begins a conversation with the author or multiple authors, if that’s the case, about the process of creating a document that will then exist for a general reader.
What experience do you want the reader to have?
What is the physical flow of that experience?
And how will space work to determine that flow?
When you publish play-texts, in and out of translation, these questions become more complicated because plays are hybrid textual beings in the first place. Scripts for live performance are both literary objects and scores of spoken and physical gestures for future embodiment. Plays exist in durational time and space, in actors’ bodies, hearts and minds, and in an audience’s collective and individual body and memory bank. Plays are physical scores. Their poetry is of the page. Yet, it is impossible to capture a play, even if it is text-based, entirely within the digital field or tangible object of a book. Plays are already virtual entities. The act of writing a play is an evanescent, alchemical act of transcription. Plays exist in the imaginary, and even when their language is embodied, the manner in which they operate on an audience is ultimately liminal. Perhaps the argument, then, is why publish play-texts at all?
Certainly, in the last forty years in the US, less and less plays have been published. This is as much to do with the niche market of play publication and the fact that the target readership, despite burgeoning MFA theatre programs around the country, remains relatively small, as it does with a trend against reading plays as dramatic literature. My decision, then, as a playwright and arts advocate, and editor with a history devoted to publication of writings on and about theatre and performance, to transform a virtual arm of NoPassport theatre alliance, which I founded in 2003, into a publishing one may be interpreted by some as quixotic or even foolhardy.
However, I’m a believer in the power of the printed word, not only as a writer (obviously) but also as a reader. I came to plays first through the page, thinking of them as dramatic literature. I know all too well from personal experience but also from those of my colleagues that the ability to have access to reading materials, to texts, to “necessary theatre” (to quote Jorge Huerta, 1987) that otherwise would not be available, was and is crucial to expanding the field of possibility, knowledge and understanding of what can be written for, seen, heard and felt in live performance. Texts are records of time. They are memories documented against forgetfulness. There are visible stories and then there are invisible ones that have yet to be told. The more access there is to those culturally invisible stories, the more they can become, if not part of a stream of history and writing that will vanish and retrace itself across time, then at least a vestigial document of memory for those readers who bore them witness.
If as an artist and advocate one is committed to advancing the field a little, making a wee dent or mark, by pushing and nudging at the form of writing and theatre-making – the practice – then there is also an obligation as a citizen of the arts and of the world toward taking matters into collective hands to make stories and forms rendered “impossible” or “invisible by dominant culture, and try to make them possible simply by being in the world somehow, and of course, letting colleagues know of their existence (i.e. access and distribution).
Publishing is an industry, but it is also a service. To the field. If one sees a gap or gaps in the field of knowledge or access, publication can be one way to help fill in the gaps and create greater cultural context for work(s), and thus, expand the field. NoPassport is an unincorporated theatre alliance devoted to cross-cultural action, practice and change, toward creating and supporting works that reflect cultural diversity and difference with an emphasis on US Latina/o work. Fractured Atlas in New York City is NoPassport’s current fiscal sponsor. Budget cuts in the arts across the country have hit hard and particularly in the already-struggling and shifting world of theatre arts publication and especially at small presses devoted to the production of multicultural (the buzz word for funding in the 1980s) texts. Such cuts have meant that works that for myriad reasons have been deemed less “commercial” are less likely to be published. If the bottom line has always meant a great deal in publishing, now that the industry is struggling to re-identify itself due to the advent of e-books and self-publishing, it’s even more so. What happens, then to artists who have a proven career track record but whose work is not readily available? Or who are early in their careers and do not yet have a platform?
In 1917 Leonard and Virginia Woolf founded their own publishing house Hogarth Press as a means of taking production matters into their own hands within the Bloomsbury set and thus encouraged not only the publication of Virginia Woolf’s work but also those of TS Eliot, EM Forster and more. It’s easy to forget that had it not been for Hogarth Press and the entrepreneurial stance taken by the Woolfs, access to an extraordinary body of writing perhaps would not have been possible hundreds of years later. But one needn’t go as far back as 1917 to consider the impact self-publishing can have. In 1998 Dave Eggers famously founded the literary journal Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and swiftly expanded his publication and community-writing to include 826 Valencia, The Believer magazine (2003), the DVD journal Wholphin (2005) and more, and effectively changed the publication and media landscape. The poetry and spoken word collective Cave Canem, committed to the expression of an evolving Black literary aesthethic, has been publishing, supporting and producing book-related tours and holding workshops for over ten years now and the roster of artists in its coalition include winners of distinguished prizes in arts and letters. Bonnie Marranca and her then-partner Gautum Dasgupta founded Performing Arts Journal Publications independently initially and were among the first to publish significant works of performance and theatre criticism and plays of the Off-Off Broadway theatre movement in the US in the 1970s. It’s more than well-documented how the indie music scene has transformed the music industry. An early career model in the indie world is singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who self-released her own music on her own label. Another influential artist on the scene is Sufjan Stevens who co-founded Asthmatic Kitty Records and produces not only his work but supports an exciting list of talented musicians and singers who are part of the eclectic AK family.
Waiting is a huge part of the writing game, and always has been. There are countless, even clichéd, stories of writers waiting ten years to get their first novel published, or waiting for the approval of the editors at The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Paris Review. That world of waiting still exists, even if it is changing. There is, of course, existing and powerful publishing elite, but the perhaps slightly disdainful look given to an author who self-publishes (the assumption being that there is no curatorial or editorial process involved in order to vet the quality of the work) is falling a bit by the wayside. Novelist and poet John Edgar Wideman, who’s regularly published by prestigious houses, self-published a collection of his short work early this spring with Lulu.com. On Sunday August 1st, 2010 The Los Angeles Times ran a lead article in their business section about the new firm Open Sky, “a tech start-up based in lower Manhattan, which is developing an online platform for established authors, bloggers and celebrities to sell products they believe in and can endorse right off their own websites.” [page B7]
While the Wild West atmosphere of internet self-publishing can be a practical and logistical minefield, the possibilities it offers to those with an adventurous and risk-taking spirit is exciting. A print-on-demand book of about fifty to 100 pages from initial document formatting to ISBN purchase to online retail distribution on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and others can cost as little, respectively, as (USD) $250 to produce effectively. Since the early dawn of venerable I Universe, many other self-publishing online sites have flourished, among them Lulu.com, Fast Pencil and more. These sites serve as clearing houses, distribution channel links and (sometimes) customer support for emerging or established writers venturing into the self-publishing world.
Although I embraced wholeheartedly the financially risk-laden, lack of infrastructure world of self-publishing, one of the dangers I wanted to avoid as founding publisher and editor of No Passport Press was to not thumb my nose at the existing models of established publishing houses, even though my intent was and is to try to maintain a flexible, artist-driven publishing imprint. One of the first things I did with No Passport Press was to call upon esteemed scholars and practitioners in the field to serve on the advisory board (Daniel Banks, Maria M. Delgado, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Elena Greenfield, Christina Marin, Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, Patricia Ybarra, Sarah Cameron Sunde, Saviana Stanescu, Tamara Underiner) and provide the imprint with a rigorous and collegial sounding board for our publishing proposals, and to gather as well a thoughtful editorial team comprised of George Nathan award-winning critic Randy Gener, scholar and dramaturge Otis Ramsey-Zoë, arts practitioner and editor Stephen Squibb, and pioneering scholar Jorge Huerta. Often, yes, at day’s end, I may be doing a great deal of the hands-on work on the books, from formatting to choosing the cover design to actually tallying up the quarterly to bi-yearly sales revenue reports, but the knowledge that there is an intelligent, daring, tough-minded team on whom I can lean or who can at a given moment take the lead and who is committed to the mission and vision of NoPassport on an aesthetic and political ground is a blessing, and something I do not take lightly. Cave Canem is a successful publishing coalition because its community of artists is deeply committed to the work and its dissemination. Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s are a force with which to be reckoned, not only because of his estimable and outstanding talent as an author, but the drive, ambition, and literary reach of his advocacy for existing writers and also toward “rescuing” texts from literary oblivion.
A little journey in self-publication
NoPassport Press began its publication arm in 2008. Its first series of titles were collected play-text volumes from playwrights Oliver Mayer, Anne Garcia-Romero and Alejandro Morales. Each volume features contextual essays and/or interviews on and about the authors’ works from either leading practitioners or scholars in the field. Poet and playwright Luis Alfaro and scholar Jon D. Rossini provide context for Oliver Mayer’s work. Director Juliette Carrillo does so for Anne Garcia-Romero. I conducted an in-depth interview with Cuban-American, NY-based dramatist Alejandro Morales, an interview which originally had been commissioned by The Dramatist magazine, in order to contextualize his three published plays. None of the plays published in this first series had been available in print before, save for an earlier draft of Mayer’s piece Ragged Time. The three writers and their collaborating essayists took the gamble with me to see what would happen in the virtual world with their print-on-demand texts. We launched the books at the 2008 NoPassport national theatre conference held at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City, and hoped our modest best that the mere fact of getting these works out could and would make some kind of difference or even lead (in the best of instances) to productions of these fine, idiosyncratic and beautiful plays from the still “undiscovered world”. of US Latina/o theatre.
The response to these three print-on-demand volumes has been steadily growing. Scholars are incorporating some of the plays or the entire volumes on their course-lists. Acting students are finding the plays online via recommendation from their professors. Drama Book Shop in New York City has made a commitment to stocking these and all future books from NoPassport Press. The main challenge was and still is visibility and awareness that these books exist. Without being able to invest in a major press packet, set up shop at Book Expo, or infiltrate the exclusionary, corporate publishing-driven non-independent physical bookseller(s), NoPassport relies completely on a grass-roots network of artists to get the word out. Critical reception channels, especially for theatre books, tend to be in the main academic journals that as of right now still will not review texts from non-established publishers, and the less than handful of non-academic theatre magazines who are struggling for advertising dollars to get by. The obstacle right now to this start-up enterprise is not only, then, finding funding monies to support the level and reach of work we want to do, but also the elusive and consuming nature of time, time and more time. [note: NoPassport accepts personal tax-exempt online donations through Fractured Atlas, but due to how corporate funding structures are set up, it is not eligible to apply for more substantial and therefore, more transformative organizational monies. Kickstarter is another funding tool available to us and other creative artists, if we wish to initiate a limited-time-frame drive]. Self-publishing is one thing. Running a business is another. As a freelance artist running her own career, NoPassport Press is like running a second career. This, however, is not a complaint. Merely a statement of fact. If you want to set up a business, even one without set rules, but one still indebted to the rules of publishing online or not, which include setting up online retail distribution, listing book titles in Bowkers Books in Print, obtaining ISBN numbers and barcodes, then know that it will take time and tons of energy to make things happen. It also demands an enormous amount of patience, good will, and belief in the power of community.
The first artists who took the gamble with me -: Oliver Mayer, Anne Garcia-Romero and Alejandro Morales – continue in the support of NoPassport and its mission, in the no-humility job of promoting their own work, but also the works of other colleagues, and my relationship with them as editor and publisher of their texts – that live somewhere in cyberspace before they become hard copies shipped to their destinations – remains loyal and in the spirit of adventure with which we initially embarked.
Since 2008, NoPassport Press has launched play collections and single text editions from Migdalia Cruz, John Jesurun, Amparo Garcia-Crow, Matthew Maguire, Octavio Solis, Saviana Stanescu, Federico Garcia Lorca (in English-language translation) and the publication of an evening-length performance text in five parts from authors Tanya Barfield, Lynn Nottage, Karen Hartman, Chiori Miyagawa, and myself. Scholars and practitioners who have graciously provided contextual essays to the titles published between 2009 and 2010 are Alberto Sandoval-Sanchez, Priscilla Page, Fiona Templeton, Jose E Limon, Naomi Wallace, Douglas Langworthy, John Clinton Eisner, Jean Randich, Martin Harries, Sharon Friedman, Marianne McDonald, Lisa Schlesinger, James Leverett, Amy Rogoway, Tamara Underiner, Todd London, and Marvin Carlson. The need to sustain a critical dialogue between work in print and scholars who are passionate enough about the work to introduce it to new readers and fellow colleagues in the field, and be able to offer historical context moreover for the material at hand is a crucial programmatic aspect of NoPassport’s mission. [My talk centers on NoPassport because that’s what my experience in self-publishing is, but I hope that the advice offered is taken as merely one possible model by which to set up a thoughtful approach toward the publication of new work, and not simply, a desire to glut an already-glutted and sometimes hardly discerning online book market.]
In 2011, NoPassport Press plans to launch between ten and eleven new titles at the 5th annual NoPassport theatre conference held at the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City on March 4 and 5. It’s the biggest gamble we have taken thus far and one that may exceed what is possible for the editorial team and the collective as a whole to even begin to manage, let alone get the good word-of-mouth out with any efficacy. Cross-promoting a package of titles inevitably pits one against the other, even if that’s not the case, and like an indie music label, it takes care and effort to make sure each title is seen, heard and given its proper due out there in the wide, information-filled, too-many-book-filled world. Eleven new titles would push our overall titles list to twenty five for a publishing “house” that pretty much operates nearly entirely in a virtual format with a handful of live events a year comprised of working artists, many of them freelance and not affiliated to institutions or organizations.
What kind of limits should self-publishing place on itself?
What happens when ambition, heart and drive make one want to push even further?
Is there a limit, in effect, to and on dreaming?
Loss, Regret, and Gravity
Consider the book.
The reader purchases the object
In order to read it at leisure,
And to claim a sense of ownership.
It’s easier, after all, to go to the local library
Although, of course, they may not always have
What you want in the catalogue
Or be open still, for that matter.
The book, then, as an object,
If it makes it into your possession
Is a prized thing indeed.
The rush of wanting to read and dive into its story,
Or reference material, etc., is a unique pleasure –
A pact made between reader and author.
At some point the object is sold or given away.
The book finds itself perhaps in a dustbin
Or a used bookstore,
Where another reader will discover it
And transform it into a prized object once again.
There is a history of loss and regret with books
That are given away, because of a need for more space
In a room, or a move from one apartment to another, or one office to another.
Readers can’t keep or carry all the books acquired in their lifetime.
Sometimes the decision to dispossess oneself of a book
Is rash, sudden, frivolous.
Sometimes the act is one of release, necessary for the soul.
Perhaps the object carries with it too many memories
That are too painful to revisit.
Books weigh on readers, and frequently overwhelm them.
There is at one and the same a desire to let go
And a desire to hoard.
The relationship of a publisher and editor
Has to a book is similar to the one of the reader.
Publishers carry the books they have helped either create
Or birth into the world with them as well.
The history of their making,
The long hours spent on copy-editing,
The months of struggling over revisions
on a manuscript before it goes to print,
the electronic and live conversations with the author,
the endless details involved in proofing
and preparing galleys
are as much a part of the object or its electronic equivalent
as the content itself.
When a book is retired,
due to lack of sales, or the need for a revised edition to be published,
the sense of regret and loss that a reader feels
when they have to give a book away
is mimicked in the publisher’s soul.
A book on Kindle sustains, thus, a mythic status
Because the illusion is maintained that through the digital format
A reader can keep all the books acquired in their lifetime,
But will they re-read them, I wonder?
Will they go back and seek out that sentence or paragraph they love as readily as they once did with the object?
If the reader deletes a book in their Kindle library, is there less regret
Than when they physically hand over the object to the book seller at the Strand?
The virtual author and the virtual public
In the Borders bookstore café sits a young woman with a coffee in one hand and Kindle in the other. The text scrolls across her screen as she scans it with her eyes, letting the words float through the machine’s digital space and no-space. The Kindle weighs about as much as an old-school paperback, and already feels as if it needs a major upgrade or at least a nifty makeover to a perhaps sleeker, less cumbersome design. The young woman sits in a physical space surrounded by hard copies of books, some shelves with music CDS, DVDS, and three racks of magazines. She’s oblivious to the books which surround her, as she remains focused on the text stored on her Kindle, but she’s chosen to read and drink her iced vanilla latte in a bookstore nonetheless. Somehow the book as object retains its old-fashioned and impractical allure. After a short while, the woman stops reading, checks her e-mail on her mobile phone, and rises. She glances at a book face-open on the shelf. It’s been shelved under “Staff Picks.” The book is William Gibson’s futuristic classic Neuromancer (1984), and alongside it is Gibson’s more recent novel Spook Country. She eyes the cover art for Neuromancer and runs her fingers across it lightly, smiles, and walks away into the heat of a summer’s day in Kips Bay in New York City. She passes by a poster for the film “Up in the Air” and barely notices it. The reader is entranced by whatever she’s been reading on her Kindle, loose-limbed and full she is with its poetry. The sun beats and the virtual author stays connected to the so-called virtual public, who is not virtual at all but altogether human and ever hungering for the craft, skill, talent and imagination provided by poetry and stories, fictive or otherwise, told by authors complicit with or negating authority (and author-ship)
Poet Carl Phillips in his book of essays on the life and art of poetry Coin of the Realm speaks about the book as follows:
”The fact of the book, if assembled for publication and distribution, means a consciousness, no matter how intuitive the writer, of audience. We mean to say something; and whether the book has a narrative arc or is more the record of a particular mind in motion, whether that motion is linear and hence sequential or simultaneous and many-directioned, in the manner of symphony or collage – whatever the method, we intend at some level for what we mean to be listened to, considered and finally understood. […] If a poem is the evidence of self-inquiry; then the assembly of a book of poems is the socialization of self-enquiry; what is socialization but a bridge by which two parties might begin to meaningfully interact? [p. 192-93]
Publishing a book, therefore, is a social act, regardless of whether the book is a hypertext novel, a photographic essay, or a play. What publishing imprints seek, be they established, corporate-structured houses like Simon & Schuster or Knopf or indie-minded or run outfits like Soft Skull, Dalkey Archive Press, or NoPassport, is engagement and understanding with an audience, and the potential for cultural transformation through the humble act of reading and letting poetry or a story into the body and mind of a reader, and through that engagement, an awakened spiritual and/or political consciousness. The book as object, capable of being crafted cheaply or with beauty, forlorn now perhaps in the age of virtual dissemination, continues in conception and design, how publishers reflect upon the page as a stage for text.
The young woman who was reading at the café has slipped the Kindle into her tote bag. She’s swept up once again in the routine of everyday life, its contours, habits and frustrations, but her social and imaginative world has been affected through her contact with the creative act of reading, and entering the world of another (published) text. By which production means the text reached her is not her concern. She may, in fact, be oblivious to whether the text she either purchased as an e-book or as a download is from a mainstream house or from an artist collective doing it on their own ragged, devil- by –the- bootstraps- terms. It’s the quality of the engagement – the faith in it and the prayer that is writing itself – that matters.