Issue #133 — June 12, 2012
For this week’s feature, Sapling talked to Sampson Starkweather, a Founding Editor at Birds, LLC.
Interview conducted by Kit Frick
Sapling: Birds, LLC is an indie poetry press that “specializes in close author relationships to make the most awesome books in the world.” Cheers to that. As a relatively new small press on the block, what should people know about Birds?
Sampson Starkweather: Well, I suppose the most important things to know is the books themselves, some recent titles include Dan Magers’ Partyknife, Emily Pettit’s Goat in the Snow, Sommer Browning’s Either Way I’m Celebrating (which includes comics) and Dan Boehl’s Kings of the F**king Sea (which includes color art by artist Jonathan Marshall). Other than what you can quickly find out about us on our website, I’d say that we take a hands-on approach with each author to try to bring the book to its fullest potential. Since we are all poets ourselves, essentially we want help our authors fulfill their dream, and give them the best publishing experience possible. This includes collaboration at every step of the process: editing, cover art & book design, interior layout, marketing, promotion, distribution, readings, and ultimately to maintain a friendship and sense of family.
S: How did the press’s name come about? Is there a good story behind it? (If not, here’s your chance to make one up!)
SS: The story behind it basically started with me trying to sneak into AWP in 2006 in Austin; the story is told in this poem in TYPO; here’s part of it:
“At AWP, I went to a panel on birds in contemporary poetry—
the truth is, I was late and they wouldn’t let me in without registering and an ID badge, so
I missed the whole thing.
I wore a nametag at the conference that read: Affiliation: birds
yet people went on
treating me like a person. Though some said we were doing good work “over there,”
which was hard to argue with.”
There is a lot of anxiety that goes into naming anything, especially for poets, who are hyper-sensitive to the nuances of language, so I think the name was sort of a gift, the way it came to us accidentally and stuck. The “Birds” portion connoted this mix of irony and sincerity that felt true to our aesthetic; we all love to make fun of poetry and have a sense of humor about it, but at the same time we also have a lot of birds and trees and things like that in our poems. I think the name captures that paradox. The idea of being a poetry “business,” an LLC, intuitively seems like such a contradiction/oxymoron so it was important for us acknowledge the capitalist side of it, but at the same time it allows us to do what we believe in: to put great books and more beauty into the world.
S: If memory serves, Birds, LLC hasn’t held any contests or open reading periods to date, but has rather kept its editorial “ear to the ground” to seek out fresh new poetry manuscripts. Do you foresee this continuing as the primary editorial MO, or might interested authors anticipate avenues through which to submit work in the future?
SS: Yeah, this has been one of our biggest challenges, we would love to publish 5 or 6 great books a year (we publish 2 a year), but we simply can’t afford it, financially or time-wise to give each book the treatment and attention it deserves. Currently we either solicit or people just ask us. It’s also important to mention that the press was largely born as an alternative to contests. Each of us were spending tons of money and time on contests and worst of all, editing/organizing/writing our books towards what we thought had the best chance of winning a contest, i.e., getting through the slush, appealing to x, y or z judge, rather than towards what the book wants (what the poems want to be). Birds, LLC seeks out manuscripts that are ambitious and would make great, dynamic, unique books, whether they are conceptual, transgressive, collaborations, or incorporate comics, art, etc. We are less interested in just putting out another collection of poems, but rather books that take risks and create a unique reading and publishing experience.
S: Where do you imagine the press to be headed over the next couple years? Are there any changes you foresee taking place in the near future?
SS: I’m not sure what the future holds, which is by design and what is exciting about the press. We try to remain open and flexible to any possibility or experiment in publishing. So far we’ve been focusing on first-book poets, or writers who might have trouble publishing elsewhere/deemed risky to publish, and while we’ll continue to focus on writing that takes risks and promoting women, I don’t know if we’ll be as focused or determined on publishing just first-books, but rather whatever seems like the most exciting next book and fit for the press.
S: As an editor at Birds, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?
SS: The hardest part would be the time and energy it takes, which takes away from your own writing, social life, etc. The fact is, as a small independent press with no ties to universities, grants or contests, who survives solely on book sales, we have to do a bit of everything to survive. Meaning we can’t just focus on editing, we also have to deal with taxes, accounting, bookkeeping, legal issues, working with design/layout, marketing/promotion, event planning, reading tours, storage/distribution, working with bookstores and SPD/Scamazon, updating our website, endless emails, social media, and working with our authors on everything they need. Strangely that’s also sort of the best part, getting to do everything and working with so many amazing people to put art in the world and the friendships that are made. From a purely editorial standpoint however, the most rewarding part is working with an author and a manuscript that has potential, then transforming it into a fully-realized book that makes people happy and who tell you it improves their lives by bringing beauty and ideas and imagination into the world.
S: It’s an oft-voiced concern that there’s a crisis on the horizon (or already underway) in the publishing world. As a small press editor, what’s your take on the state of publishing crisis, or lack thereof?
SS: I think it’s important to distinguish that the general publishing world and the “poetry publishing world,” are two very different things. Anyone who decides to be a part of the “poetry publishing world” goes in with extremely low expectations and with the understanding that they will be lucky to break even financially; essentially it’s a labor of love and practically a gift economy (especially for those without any university associations, donors/grants or contests revenue). So by that measure, there is no crisis in the “poetry publishing world.” In fact I’d say it’s the opposite, there is a kind of freedom granted when making money is not a factor, and a golden age for small independent poetry presses. Ten years ago you would be hard pressed to count the indie presses on your fingers, now there are hundreds and many are outselling university presses, and collectively small presses are putting out the most exciting work. This is the work that represents the future of poetry.
S: If you were stranded on a desert island (or in a submarine or in the Grand Canyon) for a week with only three books, what books would you want to have with you?
SS: Well I’ve been obsessed with Cesar Aria lately, reading his books the way a starving stranded person would devour a feast, so as a kind of substitute for food, I’d bring the only one of his books that I haven’t read, How I Became A Nun. I’d also bring Antigonick, the new collaborative book by Anne Carson with illustrations by Bianca Stone, two of my favorite artists. The third book I’d bring would have to be Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works, which I could read infinitely.
S: Just for fun (because we like fun, and the number three), if Birds, LLC had a brain, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?
SS: Well Birds, LLC has five brains, so that’s difficult, but I guess I’d say: poetry, music, love.
To check out Birds, LLC online, head on over to: http://www.birdsllc.com/
Sampson Starkweather is a founding editor of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press. He is the author of The Heart is Green from So Much Waiting, Self Help Poems, City of Moths, and The Photograph. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.