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6,717 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Oiling the Tinman’s Jaws: An Interview with David Memmott

by Greg Johnson

...we recall from pockets
from personal altars where they accumulate
these natural artifacts that honor
how we fit together...

—from “Sandpainting,” Watermarked (2004)

Greg Johnson: The first time I met you, you gave an explication of “Fish Factory” (Watermarked, 2004) that follows me—I often see, in Technicolor, forklift forks driving through walls; “slimers and butchers” going about their daily business; your ballroom queen in blood and scales, pirouetting with a casserole. Most of the poems in Watermarked have their roots at the coast, although you have lived in the inland northwest since the ’70s, and some of them (in varying form) have been frequently requested and anthologized since then. Will you describe how your relationship to certain poems changes over 30+ years?

David Memmott: I tend to follow the William Butler Yeats school of endless revision, so it’s like having a lot of children living under the same roof. You love each one individually, but they all have different personalities. Some take after you and some are stubbornly self-directed. Some are always close by huddling under your wing and some endure in spite of benign neglect.

I still have poems that feel incomplete and every time I read them I change something—just a word usually, sometimes a line—all the time looking for this feeling of wholeness. A poem like “Fish Factory” has changed very little in 30 years. I don’t have a lot of poems that spring from the head fully formed. When they do, it’s a special relationship. I’m not looking to change it anymore. Instead, it takes me wholly into a space and time in a way no memory can.

When I read a poem that has reached that stage where I wouldn’t change a word, there’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, and pride—proud papa, proud because the work takes on a life of its own and no longer needs you.

...What we couldn’t see couldn’t hurt us then
but wrong ways now gnaw
blind spots in tunnel vision...

—from “River’s End,” Watermarked (2004)

GJ: One of those changes that I love is in “River’s End,” which appears in Oregon East X (1980) [Eastern Oregon University] as well as in Watermarked. The poem describes a late-night bender that ends up in an all-night diner over steamed clams. In the early version, a wonderfully raw and almost triumphant telling of the story, your waitress “swims into amnesia/ blotting out canneries, docks,/ rutted roads at river’s end.” Twenty-four years later, some bittersweet regret has crept in, the triumph is gone, and it’s you and your mates swimming into amnesia. The first version reminds me of Bukowski, the last feels like Stafford, and in between is a life lived.

DM: Actually I never viewed the waitress in the earlier version as “triumphant,” but took a rather judgmental stance in relation to life at river’s end, critical of the nowhere job, the dead-end waitress who will be working for years in the same restaurant, unable to get herself out of the ruts and find the road out.

GJ: I meant that the voice of the poem was triumphant—the waitress certainly was not.

DM: In Watermarked I wanted there to be a sense of a world ending, the consequence of a dead-end vision driven by a boom-and-bust mentality and the ending of the optimism of Westward Movement at the edge of the world, where to go further West is to end up in the Far East. There’s such a history at the mouth of the Columbia River for both Indians and whites. White culture goes back to Lewis & Clark and the War of 1812, and in all that time this vision typifies a kind of solipsism, the inability to get outside yourself, and I express regret, even guilt, in the fact that our culture has exhausted its resources, conquered its frontiers and destroyed any sense of wonder and any essential wild nature in the process.

The waitress is very much the opposite of the “ballroom queen” of “Fish Factory” who dances in a line of “slimers and butchers,” a woman vitally alive underneath the cannery clothing and the grayness of menial work. What changed over time is my perception of the relationship between observer and observed, the poet and subject.

Instead of the persona seeing himself as separate and perhaps slightly elevated in his role as observer, he comes to see himself instead as part of the total environment, affected by the same tides and toned down by the grayness of the place and consequently living on the same level as the waitress, perhaps with the same prospects—amnesia, “rutted roads at river’s end,” a failure to climb up and out and finally break free.

There’s a commitment more to the place and to that rare circumstance in one’s life when internal and external landscapes are disturbingly in sync. The voice becomes the voice of a place and time. Its tone is dreary and overcast not only because of the rain, mist and fog of Astoria and being at the busted end of the boom, but also the Vietnam War. I lost a close friend in the Tet Offensive and his death forever changed my life. But I hope that behind the poems in Watermarked one can feel the hope of getting beyond oneself, and finally defeating solipsism.

GJ: Your interest in science is deep-seated and has influenced your writing for years. I had never even considered the possibility of SF poetry before meeting you (a chastening admission for a bookseller) and the tension between the primal and the technological in your poetry is a great source of energy and motion. How did you go from “beside the fire/ i lie half-awake/ with tamarack smoke/ and beer” to “the juncture of mattereality/ bobbing in the holoflux beyond the siren wail/ of old women/ crumbling/ before the purge of perfection” or your recent Stephen Hawking poem [“Disciples of Paradox”] (published on-line by Strange Horizons [25 February 2008]?

DM: When I was in college, science was not interesting to me at all. As an English major, all my science classes had been mandatory and, quite honestly, uninspiring—until I was a senior, taking an upper-level science fiction class from Dr. Werner Bruecher.

One thing Dr. Bruecher did, which proved to be life-changing for me, was invite Dr. David Gilbert, who taught physics, to present an overview on new physics and astronomy. Although I knew about black holes and red shift and relativity, Dr. Gilbert, in about two hours, expanded my universe and it’s been expanding ever since. I will forever be grateful to both of these teachers, yet at the same time I was pretty pissed off because I’d used up my G.I. Bill and it wasn’t until the end of my college career that anyone opened up my world to science. Physics for Poets, which Dr. Gilbert was using as a text for some lower-division class seemed like a good place to start.

I never did find that text, but found something perhaps even better, Fred Alan Wolf’s Taking the Quantum Leap—which I would recommend to this day for anyone wanting a basic history of physics up to and including the basic ideas of new physics. For me, it was a good launching pad.

I’ve been a late-bloomer in most things so one shouldn’t be surprised that I didn’t begin any serious study of science until I’d graduated with an English degree. I started devouring every book I could find written for the layman, i.e. Fritjof Capra, Paul Davies, John Gribbin, and perhaps more significantly all those exploring the juncture of science and mysticism like Ken Wilber, or the role of consciousness in our understanding of the physical world, from Jungian psychology to shamanism.

My development is not one of progressing into science and letting go of mythology, rather a left/right progression of striving for a more whole-brained approach of using mythology and science together to achieve better balance in art and living, or in the art of living.

...I enter you as I would a bunker
at the rivermouth, feeling my way
The cracked voice of Jim Morrison wails,
“Break on through to the other side.”

—from “Tidal Wave Warning—South Jetty 1968,” Watermarked (2004)

GJ: Music and visual art have both been important practices for you as well as significant influences on your work. Would you describe how you differentiate these creative impulses as well as how you integrate them in your writing?

DM: Jazz and poetry have many elements in common—rhythm, phrasing, timing, breath, texture, tone. I know you can play a jazz standard, one time bringing tears to my eyes, and the next getting my foot tapping. You reach a level of maturity and confidence in your craft which gives you a sturdy platform on which to dance. Every dance is different but you draw upon and incorporate different gestures and steps and movements which taken together are clearly “expressive.” In his book, The Bow and the Lyre, Octavio Paz uses the term “image” if I recall it correctly to mean a fusion of elements that is more than visual.

A good poem is an image, which is something more than its use of imagery. It’s like the practice of “visualization” in healing where one not only tries to see with the mind, but bring the senses into the remembering and re-experiencing so when one “visualizes” a beach, for instance, you can hear the wash of the waves, the clacking of rocks knocking together in a backwash, the excited cries of seagulls swarming over a run of herring, feel the wind on your face as a storm brews in the Pacific, the warm sand between your bare toes after the sun goes down, the throbbing orb running before you in the wet sand, the dazzle of wave-polished stones, the smell of rotting kelp, stepping barefoot on a beached jellyfish or on the prickly needles of beachgrass...but the reason Watermarked took so long to mature into a sequence was that all these impressions of the mouth of the Columbia River and the Northern Oregon beaches didn’t necessarily constitute a “voice.”

Perhaps the voice was ultimately given meaning by the place, but music and visual art are as important to me as language because, at least in poems, words are more than words—they are colors, they are sounds, they are brushstrokes, they can be opaque or transparent, they denote and connote, they are themselves and more than themselves. Like us. They require a certain kind of attention. And my intent is not so much to “differentiate” the creative impulses as that implies a more deliberate process like assigning certain impulses to designated tasks (“Today I will write a poem” or “Today I will play my guitar” or “Today I’ll do digital art”) when I take a posture suggested by William Stafford in “welcoming what comes,” following the path of least resistance.

...where we cut first string
of our second fiddle and play
the minute waltz...

—from “The First Time,” Oregon East VIII (1978) [Eastern Oregon University]

GJ: Your poetry reading has the forceful yet effortless energy of a jazz musician (something I really noticed when my quartet accompanied one of your readings). The longer rhythms of your career are fascinating as well—the changing forms and idioms of your writing. I like the fact that Watermarked came about at the same time you were finishing your novel and rekindling your press after a “chapbooks only” hiatus. How does PrimeTime fit into your personal literary narrative?

DM: Is there a narrative equivalent for the William Butler Yeats school of endless revision? If so, that’s where PrimeTime belongs. I finished a science fiction novel back in the early ’80s called Contact Zone, and I found an agent, Sharon Jarvis, to represent it. She actually came close to getting it published, but thankfully I looked at it again after a year and felt it would have been most embarrassing to publish it so withdrew it. The narrative needed more development. I thought I could do better.

As I attempted to do better, the narrative just grew and changed and developed until it could no longer be contained in the framework of a single novel. I ruthlessly cut out parts of the story and focused on what ultimately became PrimeTime. It only took twenty-five years. But I do have a good start on the second and third novels so I might complete them yet in my lifetime.

GJ: Can you give a brief synopsis of PrimeTime and then we can talk a bit about your themes and what’s going on in the novel.

DM: A brief synopsis of PrimeTime might be to simply say it’s an exploration of possible consequences of planned and unplanned interactions between human and posthuman in virtual worlds and between privileged elites and their clones and ultimately their immortal replacements.

Mercury Blue, a young Joyrider, finds a bridge from The Commons into the more sophisticated “gated virtual community” of NuBelize, a Dreamtime program that has been upgraded to Primetime. As a Commoner, she is not prepared for an encounter with a “primer” and is contaminated, her mind strangely entangled with an actress and former porn star by the name of Foxxy Hart, whose marriage to media magnate, Wilbur Hart, is famously strained.

Mercury suffers from flashes in which she sees Wilbur and Foxxy on a tall ship, but can’t make sense of it. Mercury is part of a band of Joyriders whose favorite pastime is The Flirting Gig, a game in which they leap in front of trains. A newcomer to the band challenges them to extend the game by dropping on top of the train and then penetrating secure sectors of SubZero, a network of underground tunnels.

Mercury’s little brother, Petie Blue, is killed at an underground warehouse but not before he captures video evidence to prove the NuWorld Institute is purging illegal body clones and other biological materials no longer required as their technology has so advanced that Inner Sanctum elites are becoming immortal. Mercury knows Petie’s footage could change her life, if she can only find a buyer. But she must also worry about the leader of her band of Joyriders, Taz the Razz, as he knows she’s taken off with something quite valuable and is tracking her.

PrimeTime raises the question of who is truly qualified to design the next step of human evolution. Can humanity really improve upon nature or only imitate it? The narrative structure models the world it describes, full of change and impermanence, full of identity conflicts due to pressures fracturing the traditional humanist sense of self.

Almost every character changes through the course of the novel—until they’re no longer the same person at the end. There’s no real hero, no real villain. All the characters are seriously flawed. All the narrators are unreliable. The novel is structured as a kind of postcyberpunk Menippean satire utilizing multiple points of view, interconnected subplots, and a nonlinear narrative style to create a novel in which the sum is greater than the parts.

GJ: Menippean?

DM: After Menippus, the Greek satirist. Menippean satire, according to Wikipedia, is “a term employed broadly to refer to prose satires that are rhapsodic in nature, combining many different targets of ridicule into a fragmented narrative, similar to a novel.” Like the term “postcyberpunk,” my reference here to Menippean satire is fully the result of an effort to find what species I’m running with.

GJ: As I reread it, I was struck by the level of humor and eroticism and social commentary—the thing bursts out of the gate with a highly-charged virtual sex scene and roils through multiple complex points-of-view and myriad changes of tone and focus as it unravels a labyrinthine future that is as much commentary as prediction. Your vision of this world is so broad that dystopian or cyberpunk references seem a bit limp—is this whence your label of “postcyberpunk” derives?

DM: I was aware in writing the novel that I was consciously working against the dystopian model. PrimeTime is both dystopian and utopian depending on who’s talking. It also utilizes elements of cyberpunk but goes beyond cyberpunk. I wanted to retain what Lawrence Person in his essay, “Notes Toward a Postcyberpunk Manifesto,” calls “the immersive worldbuilding technique that gave [cyberpunk] such a revelatory quality.”

But I’m probably more of an absurdist or fabulist than a science fiction writer, more interested in satire and social commentary; even the technology in the novel is “tongue-in-cheek” use of tropes. I felt if I could “lighten” the vision in much the same way as Philip K. Dick (not to compare myself to the genius who once looked over my shoulder in a dream while I sweated over stories in search of something original and said, “I already wrote that.”) but using humor to humanize an almost non-human future.

GJ: What a wonderful/horrible dream—it would make a great scene in a graphic novel. Jim Morrison knocked on my window one night and told me to “keep on doing what you’re doing,” whatever that means.

DM: The future of PrimeTime is admittedly more about the present, but I needed characters, situations and locations which carried the satire, pushed the limits, yet made the point that we’re on the edge of totally redefining what it means to be human.

As a satire, I suppose it’s cautionary in saying we could go too far, but there’s also an openness to whatever comes. The characters are accepting and adjust their lives to go on with a more balanced vision. I personally wouldn’t have used the term “postcyberpunk” but after finishing the book I realized I actually had hopes the novel might be read which meant it had to be marketed, which meant I needed to describe it.

My research led to Lawrence Person’s essay. He wrote it some years ago when he was editing Nova Express, but it was the best description I’d found for what I was attempting with PrimeTime. After I got over the fact that there were already others out there doing the same thing and, consequently, making my effort seem less than “one of a kind,” I decided there were worse things than learning other minds might work in the same way. In fact, it’s something of a theme in the novel.

GJ: Person may have been fooled by the tech bubble of the ’90s, those halcyon days of potential as the internet exploded beyond reason and one of our favorite neocons was espousing the end of history, but he seems to give too much weight to a sort of fundamental optimism in the genre (indeed, at one point he says something to the effect of needing a new word to substitute for “middle-class,” as our economic mobility would soon render the word obsolete). Utopian literature is flawed in the same way dystopian literature is flawed; namely, it is all-or-nothing and therefore inhuman. Your novel encompasses the gritty underclass, struggling for survival, and the elite, drowning in wealth and power, but with transcendent intentions. That you see this dualism occurring in the world of Primetime, as we are transitioning to the post-human, strikes me as more real and more honest.

DM: The issue of class and power in PrimeTime is reinforced, I think, by the comparison with the Postclassic Mayan culture where new temples are built over old temples as power constantly changes hands and royalty is more and more separated from nature until perhaps the power is corrupted and perverted by self-reference.

The decision Benito makes at the end of the novel in the face of the unknown is very human, but also humble. It would be the utmost arrogance to “resolve” the unknown, and I personally find it aesthetically distasteful to explain everything at the end. Benito’s report at the end is like a postscript, but he doesn’t report what he knows; he holds back. I’ve read so many novels that attempt to resolve all the questions and conflicts in the last chapter, and they feel forced to me, driven more by a commercial requirement than any artistic integrity. Not every story needs to be neatly resolved.

GJ: Some 20th-century iconography shows up in PrimeTime (entirely appropriate in a novel set in 2032); I particularly liked the Tin Man, and I wondered if he showed up in “Where the Yellow Brick Road Turns West,” your early, unpublished poetry collection.

DM: The Tin Man shows up repeatedly in my writing assuming different forms with different perspectives. The Tin Man in PrimeTime is a parallel for the “fabricated man,” the promise of immortal man. Unfortunately, he too is flawed.

The Tin Man appears also in my writing in reference to my stepfather, the man who raised me, and who installed furnaces for a living. He was so much like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Under all that soot, armor, and stern countenance was a caring man with a big heart. I loved that scene where the Scarecrow and Dorothy oil the Tin Man’s jaws after he’s been left in the forest for so long. I’ve come to consider my own practice as oiling the Tin Man’s jaws. The Wizard of Oz is woven into my fabric. I still remember the first time I saw that black-and-white world ripped apart by the tornado. I really identified with Dorothy.

My early childhood in Michigan was darkened on more than one occasion by tornadoes and heading for the cellar, but there was also the metaphor of destruction as my home was torn apart by domestic violence. My mother finally escaped and headed West with my sister and me. When Dorothy opens the door of her house after the storm and steps out into a Technicolor world, that’s how coming West was for me as a child. It was like a religious experience, all that open space and the promise of new beginnings.

GJ: Some have questioned your multiple POV technique, and I’ll admit that I wanted to read a whole book about Mercury Blue, but I trusted you to tell your story. This sort of begs the question, is it too much to ask of your audience that they trust you?

DM: I think it depends on why a reader reads and why a writer writes. Some dedicated readers of mystery have murder in their eyes if a writer of a mystery doesn’t have a dead body on the first page. Many readers are unwilling to go anywhere new and prefer the same stories told over and over or the same formulas repeated ad nauseum.

If one reads PrimeTime with the expectation that it is a certain kind of science fiction novel, for instance a product of the Clarion School of science fiction, then he or she will likely be critical as it will diverge from the narrative line they’ve come to expect.

The writing of PrimeTime was a process of discovery for me. I didn’t merely follow an outline or faithfully comply with anyone else’s standards for what constituted a successful narrative. If all the traffic signs keep everyone humming along down the same highway at the same speed without any exits, the one who decides to take a risk and get off onto a backroad will be marginalized.

But the backroad may lead to some place that truly enriches one’s experience. That’s where the trust comes in. The writer is a guide into new territory. New territory isn’t home. If it were home, it wouldn’t be an adventure. If a reader really likes Mercury Blue and then the story switches to another character, rather than get all distracted because an expectation was denied, maybe going along will lead back to her. A reader has to be willing to take the journey with some assurance that the writer has at least completed the journey so knows the road. The expansive view of narrative in PrimeTime which includes multiple points of view was necessary to create a kind of modern Swiftian tale in which the author can digress and comment on anything that reinforces the story as a sum that is greater than the parts.

...I hope to someday be a self-sufficient
harmless and eccentric old fool
who dares to dress up in costumes and
hang around the school.
Though you would have me locked up,
I will be Robin Hood
stealing back the sacred fire
kept barely alive in a small chest
and loose it in the night
to skulk through the tangled tinder of sleep
and I will blow and blow
until your children dream dreams.

—from “Sounding the Praises of Shadows to the Merchants of Light,” House on Fire (1992)

GJ: When did you know you were a publisher as well as a poet?

DM: There wasn’t any baptism or sudden conversion to publishing. It was more like the case of the Dungeness crab that boils before he realizes the water is getting hot. I don’t really know if I’m a better writer because of my work with publishing or if I’ve sabotaged myself by allowing my attention to be diverted. There has definitely been a problem with pigeon-holing as people often can’t see me as both a writer and a publisher.

I began the journey into publishing as a student editor at Eastern Oregon University (then called Eastern Oregon State College). I was editor of the last issue of underpass and associate editor of the first issue of Oregon East. As editor, my advisor, George Venn, set up some wonderful opportunities to learn about design and printing. One of those was a special one-on-one tutorial with Sam Hamill of Copper Canyon Press.

As soon as I graduated and found a job, my first vacation was a two-week letterpress workshop with Tree Swenson at the Fort Worden Writers Symposium. Besides one of my own poems, I typeset, designed, and printed as a broadside a poem by Carolyn Forché. But alas we lived in a small house in Union with no garage and nowhere to put such a monstrous operation as a letterpress and all its typecases, so my interest in learning about printing and bookmaking was delayed until I acquired my first computer, a KayPro 4. As soon as I was able, I started producing a newsletter for writers. That led into the magazine Ice River, which received a CCLM seed grant. The magazine is probably where I became addicted and it’s been a love/hate relationship ever since. Within like three years of publishing the magazine, I was publishing books.

...I’d always imagined only great storms with gale winds
could ease up such a girth and lay it so high
on the shore, above the hiss and roar, stranded
in burning sand beyond the farthest reach...

I’m getting a rope on all this now
so it will still be here tomorrow.

—from “Roping the Log,” Watermarked (2004)

GJ: I assume “Roping the Log” is a poem about writing (among other things), but I think of it also as a great description of what you have always done as a publisher and what small press in general is capable of: changing the world in ways small and large, and doing it without benefit of “great storms with gale winds.”

A look over your backlist reveals genre-bending originals, nearly-lost treasures, collector’s items, and a few bona-fide classics, most of which were artistic triumphs and none of which were probably major financial successes. I know your publishing model never centered on downstream returns, as copyrights always revert to the author. I like to think of this as a publisher’s version of the maieutic method whereby you act as midwife to a book but retain very little control, unlike the prevailing, market-driven method whereby editors and heads of imprints and publishers consider themselves integral partners in the creative process and arrogate to themselves substantial rewards. However, I would like to know what you see as your publishing model and how it has evolved.

DM: “Roping the Log” actually happened. But in the back of my mind, as I watched this long-time resident of Rockaway Beach cutting a drift log for his fireplace and telling me how he should have roped the log the night before, I was aware of the parallel with what writing was all about. Poetry in particular is my way of getting a rope on these moments so the tide of life cannot wash them away—it’s probably because I’m over 50 and get anxious now and then about forgetting things.

As an editor, I’m basically “hands off.” That is, I select work because it feels “complete” and ready for publication, or the author needs only to fine-tune the manuscript a bit here or there. If it really rings my bell, I keep copyediting notes and pass them on to the author at the time I offer to publish the book and let them know my limitations.

In most ways the publishing end of things is defined by my limitations. I might make some suggestions, but seldom demand that an author conform to my vision of the work. It’s not supposed to be my vision. If I’m to have any vision in relation to someone else’s work, it should be a vision of how it will look in print or how I might help them get it out into the world. I make sure the manuscript is copyedited by a couple of other readers, mostly volunteers as Wordcraft of Oregon doesn’t have paid staff. But I don’t think it’s an editor’s job to stamp their name all over a book and make it their own. It is a privilege to work with such wonderful and imaginative people and if I decide one’s work isn’t ready or doesn’t fit into what I looking to publish, then it’s better to simply decline to publish it than to edit it into my vision.

My philosophy of publishing can be put in terms of “big splash versus small ripples.” The big-splash philosophy is difficult to sustain and requires a whole lot of resources, requiring a commitment that I can’t make if I’m also committed to writing. But small ripples can widen and widen over time, until a book has reached farther than I ever would have imagined.

If I were presented with a guaranteed bestseller, I’d strongly encourage the author to get an agent and do everything they could to capture that opportunity because it’s very rare that one is in the right place at the right time with the right product for financial success in this business.

Most of the writers I know work other jobs though writing is their true passion, their life’s blood. But it’s easier, perhaps, to make a living doing something else and letting your writing be less about money and more about art.

If I had to make a living as a writer, I’d be concerned about killing my love of the practice by having to write for hire, to someone else’s specifications. Now I’m not averse to making money off writing or publishing, nor am I setting out to achieve a reputation as an alternative press in which I heroically publish heroically flawed material that’s fundamentally non-commercial. There’s a whole range of quality work out there that simply falls outside the mainstream, meaning it might be too literary, it might be too controversial, it might be appreciated by too small an audience to excite corporate boards. But it can be damned good writing. It’s important to realize that the entire NY publishing establishment is now controlled by four multinational media corporations, and most editors are acquisition editors not literary editors. Their primary interest is in obtaining hot new properties.

GJ: This is one of the reasons I really struggle with the stigma that adheres to self-published books. There are long and grand traditions of self-produced and self-distributed musicians; independent filmmakers have found increased exposure to appreciative markets; visual art is nearly predicated on unique, personal approaches and self-marketing; yet the elitist ideal of the moneyed, erudite publisher acting as intermediary and selecting that material which is suitable for consumption is still the operative model, even though it has been obvious for years that it doesn’t work—cream doesn’t rise to the top but the lowest common denominator does, as long as books are viewed as just another product and the only person you have to convince that your work is worthy is an agent, of all things.

DM: Unfortunately, the kind of books I publish usually get lost in a big bin stamped “non-commercial” or “unmarketable” along with every self-published book and vanity/subsidy product that finds its way into print because it’s become so easy thanks to all these companies offering services to help the aspiring writer realize their dream of becoming published.

As a small press/independent publisher, I look for work of lasting value, books that might well discover their audience twenty years from now. I’m always surprised when something I published years ago is suddenly discovered, as was the case recently with a small book by Thomas Wiloch, Mr. Templeton’s Toyshop. The book was discussed on the official website of the popular horror writer, Thomas Ligotti, and suddenly I had a small run on his book. That feels good, not only because you earn a few dollars, but because I knew Wiloch’s book deserved more attention, that he was writing in a form that he’d made his own.

Have you seen the 2006 documentary film by Andrew Shapter entitled Before the Music Dies?

GJ: Not yet, but it’s on my list.

DM: What is said about music in that film can be said for book publishing. A publisher builds a brand, and consequently a business, on its content, not just for the money. You want the books to succeed or fail on their own terms, not get screened out by reviewers looking for press runs of over 5,000 or whether or not the publisher can send its authors on tour to ten big cities.

One thing said about music in the film is that the institutions are gone or changing, yet this comes at a time when more tools than ever exist for the artist to make art. What I haven’t figured out is why independent music and film should have wider acceptance than independent publishing? I’m doing the same thing as a small label in the music industry, but if you don’t have a recognized distributor or you’re choosing a method of producing the books that is print on demand instead of inventory publishing, your publishing efforts are denigrated before anyone has even judged the content, and those who do judge seem to be programmed by all those out there who have a keen interest in making your work their own, right down to tying up your copyright.

GJ: Not to mention that POD publishing is a green practice—it should be embraced and would be, by a progressive, socially responsible industry.

DM: Absolutely. I admire the approach of most independent booksellers like yourself. I mean, the acquisition of small quantities of a wider range of books. The practice for most of the chain bookstores is based on “sell it while it’s hot then return,” which has a heavy carbon footprint.

There’s an article in the August 2007 issue of PMA Independent, the newsletter of the Independent Book Publishers Association. The author of the article, Mike Dyer, of Chelsea Green Publishing, says “Given the total number of books shipped last year and the average rate of returns, we found that an extra 1,305 million pounds of books traveled an extra 59 million miles, consumed 8.4 million gallons of diesel fuel, and released 188 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. And these figures don’t include returned books reshipped to vendors, or damaged returns being sent to a recycler or, worse, to a landfill.” I think small presses would be happy if booksellers bought one or two copies and had them shipped directly to a specific location. It might mean “more frequent, smaller orders,” but a “nonreturnable buying structure” can work for both bookstores and publishers. Something I hope to explore more is the Chelsea Green Partner Program and how we might move toward carbon-neutral shipping. But the bias against print on demand pulls us in the wrong direction.

GJ: I can’t help but feel that this bias is a desperate attempt by the industry to retain its stranglehold on production and distribution. I admit to enjoying a bit of schadenfreude as I watch the music industry implode. I think we’ll all be better off once we get past the grandmothers being sued for improper use and the claims of any and all copying being piracy, and I look forward to a similar re-ordering of the publishing business.

DM: Since I don’t acquire copyrights but only rights to print a specific edition via contract, I happily refer all requests for copying or interest from major publishers or anyone wanting to write a screenplay to the authors. Any reward for such interest should rightfully go to them. The publisher, in my opinion, should be able to do business and recover costs by selling the book. That’s one reason Wordcraft of Oregon, LLC, did not follow the popular route of literary publishers by going non-profit. I simply refuse to believe literary writing cannot be profitable.

If I’m not earning a living at it, it’s not because of the shortcomings of the work I publish, but because I am not well-enough equipped or well-enough financed to reach the right audience. Literary publishing does have a niche, but it’s highly competitive and the numbers are shrinking.

I’m perhaps one of a growing number of writers and publishers who realize the future of publishing is for writers to become their own publishers, whether it’s by creating on-line blogs and author sites with “buy me” buttons for their books or through designing and publishing their own books then marketing them by going around to bookstores to hawk their wares.

After twenty-some years of publishing, I can safely say that the last ones to split the smallest share of revenues off publishing are the writer and the publisher, and at least the writer has the opportunity to pick up readings and workshops to help supplement the low earnings. Publishers have little to fall back on, except their integrity. Probably something like 80% of all earnings off small-press books go to designers, printers, marketing, and discounts to bookstores and distributors. The writing’s on the wall—or should I say the wire?

GJ: What’s in your “upcoming projects” file?

DM: Well, Wordcraft of Oregon has several exciting new projects in 2008. First on the publishing schedule is a book of whimsical and surreal poetry by Matt Schumacher, entitled Spilling the Moon, which just came out.

This summer there’s a new story collection, Crazy Moon, by Nebula Award-winning author, Leslie What, followed by a literary novel based on the final years of Katherine Mansfield’ life, called Katherine’s Dream, by Linda Lappin, an American living and teaching in Rome.

In the fall, we are publishing a new story collection by Alex Kuo, White Jade and Other Stories. And we’ll finish up with a poetry collection, Between Desert Seasons, by Willa Award winner, Ellen Waterston.

On the personal front, somewhere in 2008 I plan to publish a poetry collection called Giving It Away. I’ll be developing an author site with blog, doing more digital art and focusing my fiction energy on completing a novel, Canned Tuna, with a split narrative following two primary characters, both confronting their own changing reality revolving around the Vietnam War. People might find this story a little strange, but I’m loving it. The story is finally getting under my skin and slowly coming to life. Total Immersion, book two of the SF trilogy, Dreamers Round, to which PrimeTime belongs, is probably another year off. I’ve got a good start on several novels, but it’s hard to find the time to really enter their worlds sufficiently to complete the journey. I just end up lost on the road.

—Previously appears in Perigee (Issue 20, April/May 2008); republished here by permission from Johnson and Memmott


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Greg Johnson

teaches saxophone at Eastern Oregon University. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies from the University of North Texas, where he studied with James Riggs and was a member of The Two O’ Clock Lab Band and the Dallas Jazz Orchestra. A member of RondeHouse Media Arts Konsortium (a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the arts in downtown La Grande, Oregon), Johnson is an active saxophonist in Northeast Oregon, playing jazz, rock, blues, and classical music in a variety of contexts. He serves as an editorial advisor for RondeDance: A Literary Annual (Wordcraft of Oregon), proceeds from which help to support the RondeHouse Reading Series.


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

David Memmott

is the author of six collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two novels, including Canned Tuna, a Vietnam-Era fabulist anti-war novel which is forthcoming in 2017 from Redbat Books’ Pacific Northwest Writers Series. Also forthcoming in that series in 2018, an over-size art-book collection of his digital art, poetry, and prose: Alchemy Doesn’t Begin With Gold. His poetry collection, Lost Transmissions, was published by Serving House Books (2012) and was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. He is a Fishtrap Fellow, Rhysling Award winner, recent Playa Resident, and recipient of three Fellowships for Publishing from Literary Arts, Inc., for his work at Wordcraft of Oregon, the press he founded in 1988. He serves as a consulting editor for Phantom Drift: A Journal of New Fabulism and lives in La Grande, Oregon.

Featured Artist in SHJ:16

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury