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.