Umberto Eco, from his collection of essays, On Literature (English translation published in 2004):
I have often asked myself: would I still write today if they told me that tomorrow a cosmic catastrophe would destroy the universe, so that no one could read tomorrow what I wrote today?
My first instinct is to reply no. Why write if no one will read me? My second instinct is to say yes, but only because I cherish the desperate hope that, amid the galactic catastrophe, some star might survive, and in the future someone might decipher my signs. In that case writing, even on the eve of the Apocalypse, would still make sense.
One writes only for a reader. Whoever says he writes only for himself is not necessarily lying. It is just that he is frighteningly atheistic. Even from a rigorously secular point of view.
Unhappy and desperate the writer who cannot address a future reader (334).
I didn’t use Eco's quote to debate or analyze its contents; I used it because I think it speaks to the tremendous importance of those who bring books to life: publishers.
Presses are one of the most essential part of the writing community. And because “small presses” typically strive to publish work “beyond mainstream literature,” small press publishing houses are vital to poets, translators and writers of experimental fiction. Today I am featuring an interview between Rusty Morrison, co-founder of Omnidawn Publishing, and Gillian Hamel, senior poetry editor for Omnidawn and managing editor for the press’ online imprint, OmniVerse. In 2001, Rusty founded Omnidawn Publishing with her husband, Ken Keegan. Today Omnidawn is one of the most well respected, highly regarded small presses in North America. Omnidawn, with tremendous help from Gillian Hamel, has also renovated the press’ old blog into the zine OmniVerse, which has become one of the best contemporary online resources for interviews, new creative work and essays. Omnidawn Publishing’s website lists approximately 50 full-length poetry titles (many of which have won prestigious awards and prizes), and OmniVerse now credits over 100 contributors; a stunning achievement, especially when one considers Omnidawn’s short 12 years of existence and its small masthead of staff members. Interestingly, both Rusty and Gillian combined two of my questions: 1.) What’s the most difficult part of working in this industry, and 2.) What’s the most rewarding part of working in this industry? Says something, doesn’t it?
Eco: “One writes only for a reader.”
Me: “One writes (or reads [or lives]) only to experience the thrill of fascination.”
In any case, these are two women who deserve a lot of praise.
Sarah Suzor: How did you meet? And how long have you known each other?
Rusty Morrison: Gillian is a friend of Sara Mumolo, who works for Omnidawn. Sara told us that she knew a poet who would be a perfect addition to our staff. Gillian has exceeded every expectation that I had; she’s become such an integral part of our team, I can’t imagine Omnidawn without her.
Gillian Hamel: I came to Rusty and Omnidawn through the wonderful, nebulous network of the MFA program at St. Mary’s College in the fall of 2009. My friend Sara Mumolo, who went through the MFA a year ahead of me, had been in Rusty’s workshop at SMC and was interning at Omnidawn. She got me some review copies of Omnidawn’s books for our MFA’s literary journal, MARY: A Journal of New Writing, and I was so impressed by their exquisite design, literary sophistication, and all-around excellence that I asked her about interning there as well. She was happy to set me up with Rusty, and I couldn’t be more grateful to her for being another pillar of influence in my involvement with poetry.
SS: What about your career would be most drastically different if you two hadn’t met?
GH: In a way, everything – Omnidawn opened up so many different avenues to me of exploration and innovation in understanding poetry, making books, and talking to other poets. I doubt I would have taken such initiative to design and manage an online journal, or to start my own chapbook imprint. There are so many other important people I would never have met. Most importantly, however, to the question of ‘career’ within this question, I might not have ever learned to take myself seriously as a poet and a functional participant in the project of poetry – which is to say, I would not have learned not only to trust my abilities in those areas, but also to understand when my limitations aren’t as serious as they seem.
RM: I did a second-take when I saw the word “career” in your question. I understand why you’ve used it, since you are asking about my work as Omnidawn’s co-publisher and poetry senior editor. And, certainly, in that context, I want to talk about the ways that Gillian Hamel’s presence continually renews and enlivens my approach to what Omnidawn can do and can become. I also sense that your question is broad enough to allow me to share the ways that my relationship to Gillian has enlivened my own writing, since I do see myself as being a poet as much as I see myself as a publisher. These two kinds of work fill the space that should mean “career” to me. The dictionary defines “career” as “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress.” Poetry and presswork certainly have taken over all “significant” time in my life, but I wonder if one can speak of “progress” when discussing a creative project—be it a press or the poems I write. How does an artist gauge “progress”?
One of the most valuable aspects of my relationship with Gillian is that her vitality—her continually fresh approach to aesthetics—opens me to my own beginner’s mind. I can trust that she shares my way of seeing “progress” as including regress and digress, and even a salting of anti-gress, which can lead to new ingress. These aren’t typical words for articulating “career” path success, but they are essential words for constantly re-envisioning what a press can do, and what a poem can do.
SS: Rusty, why did you start the online magazine, OmniVerse?
RM: There wouldn’t be an online magazine called OmniVerse, if it weren’t for Gillian. Ken and I had wanted to create a magazine that would be a place to foster conversations about literature and the arts (a place where we could publish work that had nothing to do with Omnidawn), but it wasn’t until Gillian envisioned the form that we actually ventured into this.
SS: Gillian, how did you get the position of Managing Editor for OmniVerse?
GH: We’d had a slowly dilapidating blog, in its heyday a lively hub of news and discussion of all things Omnidawn and the broad poetic community, curated expertly by the inimitable Craig Santos Perez. As he began to limit his involvement in this project and focus more on his teaching career, Rusty generously offered me the position of the blog’s senior editor. However, my inability to navigate the format so capably combined with our rising presence on other social media outlets eventually rendered the blog much less relevant than it had been. The space in social media to focus on Omnidawn was well-established, and so we wanted to cultivate something for the work beyond Omnidawn’s immediate reach of publication. With Rusty’s support, I decided the best thing to do was serve another facet of Omnidawn’s involvement in the poetic community and, somewhat selfishly, fulfill a longtime dream of mine of founding and editing a literary journal. In my opinion, there will never be enough places to showcase the diversity of new work, criticism, and engagement in our art form, and I’m glad that Rusty and Ken agreed there was a place at Omnidawn for me to indulge this passion with one more outlet.
SS: What’s the most difficult part of working in this industry? What’s the most rewarding part of working in this industry?
RM: My husband Ken Keegan and I began Omnidawn in 2001 because we believe that small, independent presses are essential: they disseminate fresh, lively, culturally pertinent and provocative literature. A society needs many small presses so that widely diverse ideas and points-of-view are easily accessible to everyone. As Italo Calvino tells us, “… the function of literature is communication between things that are different simply because they are different, not blunting but even sharpening the differences between them, following the true bent of written language."
Ken had wanted to begin a press for years, but we never felt we were secure enough financially to do this, and we never felt that we had enough time. But, in 2001, we realized that there is never enough time or money to begin a project like this—we realized that if we waited any longer, then we’d never do it. So, we plunged in, aware of the precarious nature of publishing. We have no regrets; we are excited about every new book, every new project. But it is an excitement tinged by our awareness of the precariousness and challenges of small press life. I suppose that our awareness of the risk helps us to savor every moment, every pleasure.
I share this history because I think it’s the best answer for both parts of your question. I am constantly rewarded by the opportunity to be in conversation with writers whose voices are resonant and relevant to the changing moment in which I live. What’s most difficult is that the work of running a press doesn’t end at 5pm, and the week doesn’t end on Friday afternoon. We remain thrilled by the challenges, and always a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities.
GH: I decided to conflate these two questions because – and perhaps this is going to sound a little cheesy – the ways in which the work of poetry challenges, frustrates, and exhilarates me are pretty much inextricable. The limitations of things like money and physical space and time are obviously stifling and need no further examination, but the fact of their inevitability makes the result of your work a victory that is both indulgently contrarian and deeply valuable. It seems facile to make these kinds of statements, but I think it’s sort of pointless to argue against them, especially where poetry is concerned. We all know we’re working in such a fraught, marginalized space, and we carry on in spite of that and because of that and with the sort of forbidden knowledge that it’s actually what makes us thrive. In a way, I kind of love that things like e-readers are becoming so ubiquitous because it’s begun to validate the craft of what I do – as the imperative for the cheap and utilitarian in printed books disappears, we have more room to explore the medium, to discover the interplay between printed and digital materials, to return the art to the form and let the poetry breathe in the space that’s been created.
SS: Rusty, what is most valuable about working with Gillian?
RM: Partly, I’ve answered this in my reply to your first question. But I’ll give you an example of my pleasure in working with Gillian: When we were about to begin the poetry collaboration that you asked us to create for you, Gillian quickly offered to write the first installment. She has a limberness of mind that seems ever-ready to engage, to participate, to expand a predicament into ‘play’, as well as to propose in that play a process. As I read her deft, airily engaging first installment of our collaboration, I could see that she’d created a form which would let us respond to each other while also exploring our own preoccupations. She used the concept of ‘collaboration’ as subject matter, but kept that use light enough so that we could speak to it in our own manner, from our own ‘mannered’ presentation of agency, from our own speaking mannequin.
SS: Gillian, what’s your favorite memory of Rusty?
GH: Recently, I’d been having some anxieties about my own writing process, and I was having anxieties about coming to Rusty with those anxieties. I think I try a little too hard, in the service of my ‘career’ (whatever that might be), to maintain a veneer of professionalism, especially where our Omnidawn relationship is concerned, and I owe a lot to Rusty for putting a little pressure on my need to stifle what was always going to be a very organic exchange of creative as well as professional influence. On top of my own communication issues, both of us are so busy with our publishing work and with my side jobs that it was difficult to find a time for us to sit down over lunch or coffee and figure out what my problem was – in the end, at Rusty’s behest, we ended up sitting in her car outside my office and talking things out, and I think it was one of the most honest and transformative conversations we’ve had, and a huge relief of anxiety for both of our writing processes. I don’t think I would have ever thought of such an imperfect setting for such an important conversation, protective as I am about having some beautiful, well-lit, quiet space to be with poetry. It’s back to that issue of the frustrations of time and obligation forcing you to do something that is actually a more perfect form of the thing you were trying to do than you could imagine, and it’s something that I probably would never have learned to embrace without Rusty’s influence.
SS: Gillian, if Rusty had an all expenses paid vacation, where do you think she’d go?
GH: Rusty and Ken take on such a burden of work that I’d love to see them do something totally escapist and indulgent like spend a month in Italy or something, but I know that in particular what Rusty would really want is to just sit down somewhere quiet and spend time reading and writing.
SS: Rusty, if you had an all expenses paid vacation, where would you go?
RM: I will take “all expenses paid” as meaning that I would be given some stipend that would allow me a couple weeks off! I’d just hunker down with all my favorite books and my laptop and write.
SS: Gillian, why do you think it’s important to cultivate these working relationships?
GH: I’m a staunch believer that no one should work alone or really do anything alone. It’s thrilling (particularly in a romantic, American way) to imagine yourself freewheeling away at some enterprise by yourself, but it’s too easy to proceed in a vacuum and never understand the context of what you’re doing. It is necessary to have someone around you reminding you that an outside world exists. The sharp differences between individuals are of course just as necessary, but they create these permeable spheres of influence and generative discomfort that is both vital to and even sort of a macrocosm (or microcosm, or even just a parallel form? They’re so evenly weighted and relational) of the work of poetry. Working with Rusty has tempered a lot of my anxieties and encouraged me to forge ahead with many things I would have previously avoided, not the least of which includes accepting what my perfectionistic brain would ordinarily think of as failure (and I don’t just mean accepting failures as they occur, but also the even more important distinction that the possibility of failure is not always something even worth considering).
SS: Where do you see Omnidawn/OmniVerse in ten years?
RM: Ten years! Sometimes I wonder if I can see ahead ten minutes! Of course, we have goals for Omnidawn, and we work to achieve them. But we keep an open mind regarding how the press might respond to the changing face of small press publishing. I am not someone who makes future predictions. I do keep a constantly renewing wish list—and I let those wishes spiral outward from all the compass points of our current activities. Much of that wish-list is in pencil. But inked into my hopes for the future are the names of the people who make up Omnidawn’s staff. We have regular meetings where we talk long about our own creative work and the creative work that the press can achieve. I envision that intellectual environment as remaining the core of what Omnidawn becomes.
GH: As a clearly classifiable ‘young person,’ I have difficulty imagining the future in ways that aren’t wild and implausible. However, one of the things I can imagine in a way that’s plausibly unpredictable is the evolution of the culture and composition of Omnidawn – not just in the possibility of growth and new staff, but in the evolution of dynamics among our existing staff members and how we are all constantly transforming the way we work together. I’m sure I’ve used the terms ‘exploration’ and ‘innovation’ many other times in this interview, but these are essential qualities to the mettle of Omnidawn that are embodied in our staff in a way I’ve never seen in people before, and the natural eruption of ideas for new and better additions to the work of publishing and of poetry is a thrill to watch at every meeting. As I’m sure Ken and Rusty will be too humble to tell you, Omnidawn has really carved an indelible foothold in the community and work of poetry in its first ten years, and I’m sure that in the next ten years it will not only endure but continue to cultivate an even stronger, deeper, evolving presence in its changing landscape.
SS: Gillian, what’s the most inspirational aspect of working with Rusty?
GH: I’d say one of the most vital and encouraging things I’ve learned from Rusty is the nature of limitation – when it is insurmountable and necessary, when it is imagined or absent, and when it doesn’t matter at all.
To read Rusty and Gillian's collaboration click this link: Download Gillian.rusty.collab.final
http://www.omnidawn.com Here’s a link to Omnidawn Publishing’s website.
http://omniverse.us Here’s a link to Omniverse