I was fortunate to meet Mathew Timmons at the Silver Lake Jubilee, where he presented me with a review copy of PARROT 2, by Harold Abramowitz. PARROT is a 23-pamphlet series that pays homage to Black Sparrow Books’ SPARROW series while challenging our expectations of literature. The pamphlets cost $6 each, and a subscription is available for $81. A signed and bound limited edition can be pre-ordered from Insert Press for $100.
Abramowitz’ book, A House on a Hill (A House on a Hill, Part 1), is beautiful, melodic, and hauntingly repetitive. During the course of our conversation PARROT 3, All Bodies Are The Same and They Have The Same Reactions, by Allison Carter, was released.
I love the way the series plays off Black Sparrow Press’ monthly single-author magazine SPARROW. The design cues are obvious, but do speak some about them.
I originally thought of this series as a joke with Stan Apps who used to co-edit Insert Press with me. I had a couple issues of SPARROW around and in our irreverent way we were joking about the D. H. Lawrence quote that seemed to be on each and every issue: “LIVING, I WANT TO DEPART TO WHERE I AM”–D. H. LAWRENCE and the line in the blurb about SPARROW on the front cover at the bottom claiming that “The poet is prophet.” The D. H. Lawrence quote just seemed perfectly ridiculous and abstract or as Stan would say, “deep,” and the two of us being writers and sometime poets ourselves, we worried about a world of poet prophets. Also, it really seemed like that bird featured on the front of SPARROW was not a sparrow at all… So, it was an inside joke that took a few years of kicking around before the idea came to fruition.
After Stan moved away from Los Angeles I took over the press and through a very good friend of mine, Janne Larsen, met a brilliant printmaker who was game to work on some projects like this. And I truly mean that Maggie White is a brilliant printmaker. Her recent work with artists Emily Joyce and Melissa Thorne is jawdropping to say the least. The design of PARROT is Maggie White’s redrawing of SPARROW—and really the whole series an effort at re-inscribing the spirit of the SPARROW series here in Southern California. Maggie White was able to contact a printer that used to work with Black Sparrow to get suggestions on the types of paper we should use, and obviously we were somewhat obsessive about various details. For instance, you’ll notice that S – PARRO – W/T shares some letters, and so we always leave room in the masthead for the S in SPARROW on each issue. You may also notice that the quote which appears on each issue of PARROT: “VOMIT A NEW RADIOTELEGRAPH, NITWIT!” attributed to A WELCH NERD, is a perfect anagram of the original quote. And how fitting that A Welch Nerd happens to be a perfect anagram of D. H. Lawrence—it makes you wonder whether or not he realized the coincidence himself. The explanatory text on the front cover of each issue of PARROT was written by editing down a number of “shannonized” (or computer manipulated) versions of the original SPARROW explanatory text. And then there’s the toucan we feature on each issue of PARROT which of course refers to the stylized image of the bird featured on each issue of SPARROW, which looked decidedly more like a mockingbird than a sparrow. In addition, on the back of each issue there are a number of toucans that correspond to the issue number of PARROT. We started printing these on St. Patrick’s Day this year and have gone from PARROT 1 through PARROT 4 each time adding an additional toucan to the back cover. This is the most fun part of the design process and it should only get more and more wacky as we move through all 23 issues over the summer.
PARROT is beautifully produced, tell me about the process.
The design of PARROT is outlined above. The covers are screenprinted by Maggie White, the brilliant printmaker. We mix the inks on site based on a general idea of the colors we want, basically the model for the two tone covers is taken from those retro two tone suede sneakers that became popular when the nineties was reaching back into the seventies for recyclable cultural material. I layout the interiors and print them on a laserjet printer then collate the covers with the interior pages, staple them, fold them and take them to the guillotine and cut them down to size. The author then sits down and signs and numbers 1-50 copies of the 125 print run which are set aside for the bound limited edition copy we will put out at the end of the run.
From there it’s a digital and social networking process of scanning the covers and posting the information and imagery for each issue to Facebook and Twitter and to my blog, General Projects, and of course to the Insert Press site.
Beyond that there is the process of sending out subscription copies and copies for review. I try to work closely with the author to come up with a list of 20-25 people whom we should send a copy of PARROT and who might mention the project on their Twitter feed, or their Facebook, or their blog or website. And then as with any endeavor, the follow through work of trying to get reviews written and printed and setting up readings and working with venues, etc.
The actual production of the books is time consuming, but it’s the PR work that takes up the most time and is actually some of the most important work of the process. If you have a small press and don’t plan on really working to get your titles out there and to promote your authors, why produce the book in the first place?
Tell me more about content. BSP did a lot for the Southern California’s avant-garde community, the writers John Martin called “the outsiders,” and whose lineage he traced from Whitman. Do you hope PARROT will invest in the next generation of outsiders? Is that who you’re focused on publishing?
I have always been committed to printing the work of authors who write amazing work just before everyone else has ever heard of them. In a way that’s the case with this series and in a way it’s not. Allow me to explain. In 2005 I was in a group show, Many Happy Returns, in Chinatown, Los Angeles, curated by Michael Smoler at High Energy Constructs; it was a show that investigated the intersections of poetry/literature/language and the visual/media arts. I presented the work of a fictional author, Robert Darry, alongside various objects and some media work of his, including a chapbook. Blanc Press was the press I invented as the publisher of the chapbook and to make Blanc Press seem real I asked various writers around Los Angeles to give me a title of a work that could have been previously published by this fake press which, of course, I was never intending to actually publish. I received a number of over the top, completely ridiculous titles and many people when they saw the list of authors and titles became highly interested in this press they had never heard of that had published all these crazy titles by some of their favorite authors.
And then a few years went by and the idea of PARROT came along and it seemed only fitting that I should ask all of those Blanc Press authors to actually sit down and author a work to go along with the title they had originally given me and then I asked a few other new participants in the project to come up with a title for me which they would then sit down to write, people I had met since the original idea in 2005. The result is that most of the writers in the series as it exists in 2010 are now fairly well known and have published widely and been very active. As a nod to the original idea the explanatory note on the Insert Press website and on the colophon in back reads: “The PARROT series was originally issued by Blanc Press (Los Angeles) from 2005-2010. Insert Press is reissuing facsimile editions of each title from the PARROT series… ” That’s simply not true: Blanc Press never published any of the titles and Insert Press can’t really reissue facsimile editions of something that never existed, and that’s all a part of the fun.
As far as the list of PARROT authors, all are writers who have spent significant time as writers in Los Angeles, most all of them currently live in Los Angeles, and many have lived here for quite a while. In general, the works published by Insert Press have some connection to Los Angeles. This is important to me because I feel that Los Angeles has had a long history of avant-garde or “left of mainstream” writers that are consistently overlooked by communities and presses in the Bay Area and New York City (for example) and it seems to me there are few presses currently in Los Angeles publishing work—work that I find interesting anyway—by Los Angeles authors, besides possibly Les Figues Press, Make Now Press, and Palm Press.
PARROT will print Harold Abramowitz’s A House on a Hill (A House on a Hill, Part One), Amanda Ackerman’s I Fell in Love with a Monster Truck, Will Alexander’s On the Substance of Disorder, Stan Apps’ Politicized Pretty Picture, Amina Cain’s Tramps Everywhere, Teresa Carmody’s I Can Feel, Allison Carter’s All Bodies Are The Same and They Have The Same Reactions, Michelle Detorie’s Fur Birds, Kate Durbin’s Kept Women, K. Lorraine Graham’s My Little Neoliberal Pony, Jen Hofer’s The Missing Link, Maximus Kim’s Break Bloom Burn, Janice Lee’srFried Chicken Dinner, Bruna Mori and George Porcari’s May I take Your Order?, Joseph Mosconi’s But On Geometric, Vanessa Place’s Forcible Oral Copulation, Amaranth Ravva’s Airline Music, Stephanie Rioux’s My Beautiful Beds, Ara Shirinyan’s Erotic in Czech Republic, Michael Smoler’s Pieces of Water, Brian Kim Stefans’ Viva Miscegenation, Mathew Timmons’ Complex Textual Legitimacy Proclamation, and Allyssa Wolf’s Loquela. A list of these authors books, chapbooks, journal publications, essays, plays, exhibitions, and media projects would astound you in terms of how long the list is as well as in terms of the venues these writers are publishing and performing in.
I myself don’t so much believe in carrying over notions of the avant-garde from the 20th to 21st century, whether that be the “kill your fathers,” the death of xyz, the deliberate obscurity assumed, or in the kind of “nothing else came before now and nothing else will come after” spirit that reigned over the 20th century avant-garde. To call any of these writers “outsiders” cheapens the term for the real “outsiders.” These are writers that are highly visible to poetry communities around the country and around the world. Everyone publishing here is well known far beyond the boundaries of Los Angeles and probably isn’t known so much for being from Los Angeles as for just being a good writer andor artist. It think that the avant-garde has been turned inside out and while there is still a place for all the reworkings of the 20th century avant-garde in today’s literary communities possibly one of the best innovations of the avant-garde today has been to pick up the language of the mainstream wholesale and drop the posture of obscurity and alienation, at least to some degree.
In other words, what may be considered outsider work has adopted the framing language of insider work after having noticed that so much about a book or a piece of writing was being determined by the language around that work, the language that framed the work for the reader. So, there was no reason to frame something as necessarily difficult writing or something that could only be understood by an elite. When you present work as something imminently understandable and ultimately enjoyable, then people expect to understand and enjoy it and it’s surprising how often our expectations are similar to self-fulfilling prophecies.
I truly appreciate the work of Black Sparrow Books and the outsider spirit of John Martin. His quote, “There have always been two streams in American literature. First, the ‘insiders,’ the ones who conform to accepted standards. Some of these insiders are very good writers… but their work is of interest only up to a point, [because] they completely satisfy readers’ expectations of what literature should be. On the other hand, there has also been this second, parallel stream of ‘outsiders’—mavericks, beginning with Walt Whitman.” Today, literature is a relatively open field as most people have very little idea of what to expect of literature. The outsiders can use the insider rhetoric to setup the standards and define the expectations of what literature should be and then fulfill those standards, those expectations.
I’m focused then, on writers who, to some degree, shift the definition of literature and revise the standards by which we will hold them accountable.