DD: How did Lithic Press come into being?
DR: Before Lithic I was a geologist, an astronomer, and a teacher of earth and space science. Lithic means, pertaining to stone. Long before I became a geologist, my Dad was the poet of the family, so the possibility of poetry has always been about. I wrote a poem in second grade that gave me a good feeling. I wrote a poem in 1992, another in 1994, then they started coming more frequently. About 12 or 15 years ago, I became close with Jack Mueller, a lifelong constant poet-maker with deep knowledge and strong presence. He is a prolific trickster. As Hank Stamper might say, he'll “never give a inch.” Jack was a fixture in San Francisco in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, with Ginsberg, Corso, Doyle, Hirschman, Cherkovski, and the ongoing gang. He is a mountain (in the house at the top of the hill at the end of the road.) Thousands of 3X5 cards and bar napkins with rapidly sketched cartoons, sharpened by fast comment, piled on the dining room table. They captivated me. “Let's make a book of these napkins!” That became, Whacking the Punch Line, and that was the beginning of the Lith.
Lithic Press started taking off about two years ago when I hired Kyle Harvey to do design and layout work. Kyle is a beautiful human: multi-talented, motivated, poet-musician-artist, and a brilliant designer! It is amazing to work with him! Lithic would not be what it is without him.
DD: Tell us about your catalog. What do Lithic poets share in common?
DR: Our catalog has about 30 titles from 20 writers. A little more than half are chappies, the others, perfect-bound longer collections. With the idea of creating rare books, we've done a couple of cloth-bound, numbered, Limited Editions (Jack Mueller's, The Gate, and Kierstin Bridger's, Demimonde.) There is one anthology, Going Down Grand, Poems from the Canyon, that includes poems from more than 50 writers, and a couple of cartoon books, collections of Jack’s, compression sketches, along with, Whacking..., there is, Who Said Hawaii? I can imagine publishing books on Natural History or really anything that becomes obvious to make.
As far as I know, all Lithic writers put their pants on one leg at a time. I’m attracted to writers who pay attention to language in addition to any feelings, destinations, or particular sympathies. In all our books, I find some essence of existence, some insight, some play that makes the journey more stimulating.
An overriding thought that Mueller has ground into me and his many minions is, Obey Emerging Form, which comes to him directly from his acquaintance with Robert Duncan, and the importance he gave Olson’s thoughts on projective verse. The idea has grown in me, transcends my writing, leads me to drill, bolt and hang rocks from ceilings and trees... led me to open a bookstore. I look for manuscripts that obey emerging form.
DD: Can you talk about the importance of your bookstore?
DR: Books take my breath away, always have. I still see myself in the library as a kid, looking up at all the shelves. As I struggled to write a report, the night before it was due, I couldn’t fathom how all those books could have been written: so many words, sentences, paragraphs, page after page. It was magic. Still is. I’ve always loved to be among books, each one a little universe. Or a multiverse. Or just one good verse. I have Montaigne pinned on the wall,
“...I never travel without books in peace or in war. Yet many days or months go by without my using them. Meanwhile, time runs by and is gone ... you cannot imagine how much ease and comfort I draw from the thought that they are beside me...”
The bookstore has exposed rafters from which I hang rocks, pine poles, beaver-chewed willow sticks, globes of planets, asteroids, books, and who knows what’s next! Trilobites crawl across the counter. There are spinning chunks of basalt and rocks that hang up from the floor. The bookstore is a classroom, a field trip destination for school groups, a community center, a meeting place, an art gallery. We have frequent poetry readings, scientific talks, and music shows. It’s a thinker’s hangout. I ran a planetarium for many years, the bookstore is an extension of that.
Located in a small town on the western side of a western state, on the 2nd floor of The Old Bank Building, a block off the main drag, in a country whose president doesn’t read too much, business is best during our events. I’m optimistic, our name is spreading, drop-in traffic is increasing.
DD: Could you tell us about some of the titles forthcoming in 2017 from Lithic Press?
DR: We had an open reading last year for chapbook submissions, and three chappies are soon to come out from Karl Plank, Trish Hopkinson, and Kevin Carey. Four or five other chappies will come out this year. In addition to Adam's Stray, we’ll have four additional longer length poetry collections, including, Saying Your Name Three Times Underwater, by Eugene, Oregon poet, Sam Roxas-Chua. In a break from tradition we’ll be publishing a chapbook of non-fiction by John Fayhee called, Driving Around the West with Drugs. We are also going to re-issue Jack Mueller's, Whacking the Punch Line, as a coloring book for grown-ups. All the titles are in the catalog on our website, here.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
DR: The first full-length collection I did with Lithic was Jack Mueller's, Amor Fati, which started with paper-clipped and stapled, crumpled piles of papers and manuscripts stacked on the milieu of Jack’s dining room table. Molding that into a book, in the thunder and wonder of Jack’s arguments with himself, was hugely invigorating. It took four years. I sent it to The Boss. Three years later it looks well worn on his desk. A major theme in Springsteen’s recent autobiography is indeed, amor fati.
DD: How has your work as an editor and book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
DR: Before Lithic Press began to grow, there was about ten years during which I had a lot of very quiet time. I ran an observatory in southern Africa. I worked at night. The days were free, there were giraffes out the window, I tracked zebra and rhino, spent days on the hillside with the baboons, hyenas were about at night. The sky, the land, my friends... were all new. Time moved slow. My home in Colorado is a sanctuary. There is an observatory, beaver ponds, birds of prey, coyotes at night. I live with dogs. I’ve been blessed with enough nothing to get something done. Since I opened the bookstore, poems come less frequently than before (but I did get published! My, Primate Poems, came out late last year.)
I love facilitating the making of books. But as a publisher, I’ve had a glimpse of something of a mania among writers, and anyone who has ever written anything, to ‘have a book.’ Maybe it’s related to celebrity culture and the urge toward ‘fame.’ It can be ugly. I want to work with writers who write because they can’t help but to write. Books, for them, obviously need to be made. While writing remains important to me, I take my poems as they come and don’t worry too much at the time that passes in between. I don’t force it. As so many have said, I am a poet - when I am writing a poem. Otherwise, I am just another chump looking at the stars, paying taxes, dusting the shelves... I am attracted to writers who have vibrant connections with the world - beyond writing.
DD: Could you introduce Adam’s work and discuss the strengths of Stray?
DR: “Solitude's Best Apprentice” is the title of first poem in this collection. It details the mastery Adam’s father displayed with woodworking tools, making something from ‘nothing.’ Adam’s work is like his father’s hand on the chisel. Every poem is finely wrought with attention to detail, knowledge built from long apprenticeship, and a helpless desire for the work.
These poems are written from the inside out, like a Kesey novel, and like in a Kesey novel, I am drawn to what I do not know. I might get the names over time, stumble on dark paths, take sure steps with sharpened knives, severed ties, lies, and all kinds of unsaid. His longer poems are explorations from some honed place to wherever. He wanders. He remains open to ‘begging home a stray’ - up in Ralls - where I’ve never been but it feels familiar. Adam’s book looks to the north and walks off. He is a husband. His short poems are a fist. He has a glacial scar carved on his whorl.
In the Lith, above my head, The Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead hangs from the ceiling on 24 gauge silver wire. The 1954 cloth-bound edition had been gnawed off the shelf and partially buried next to the compost pit by my book-loving bitch, Luckie. It hangs just above the bar table. I have to sit up straight to read from it (who sits up straight these days?) Randomly I find,
“...It often seems to me that European man was at his best between 1400 and 1600. Since then our appreciation of beauty has become too overlaid with intellectualization. We educated people have our aesthetic sense too highly cultivated and do not come to beauty simply enough...”
Whitehead goes on. Adam’s poems come to beauty (and brutality, and a wide variety of intense mundanities) with an educated simplicity.
DD: The sonnet, the near sonnet, and a kind of nonce sonnet punctuate Stray. In a way, this is the phantom form underwriting the collection. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with this form?
AH: I really like the verb “punctuate” here. I think of received forms as a way to address tradition, to offer a small aside to the arc of where we’ve been and where we might be going. For me, the sonnet makes sense. It’s elastic, it’s flexible, and it can stretch gracefully and with resonance. It’s a way for me to organize my thoughts. Thematically, there’s a lot of, well, straying, physically, spiritually, emotionally—we stray from obligations, from duties, from love, from home, but I like that there are formal returns in the collection, which I hope echo in sound and sense from one poem to another. That underwriting you mention serves as a ghost refrain of sorts. Each poem is a crafted thing, but, once I started really considering how all the poems were in discussion with one another, I realized how a collection, too, is a crafted thing; it’s curated, tweaked, and shaped. I found a lot of comfort and joy and frustration and doubt in that process, and the sonnet and its looser relatives—the “Staring Down” couplets, too—offered touchstones for the shape the collection ultimately took.
I think of poems in general and received forms in particular as balancing authenticity and artifice. They’re crafted and structured to highlight the appearance of spontaneity, to feel necessary, and that they could not be otherwise. There’s a tautness in working toward authenticity and artifice, a fundamental tension, that I enjoy, and I find real satisfaction in reading poems that navigate and explore those concerns. So I tried to write the sort of poems I like reading.
AH: Being a cradle Catholic gives life a shape whether you want it or not, and, like the sonnet or poems in general, offers places to dwell, rooms for us to knock around in for a while before bustling back into the world. For me, being raised Catholic provided way stations for my days, big and small rituals that marked time passing and gave that time meaning and shape: the rosary, for one, but also the larger rituals, the events that celebrated transitions from one phase of life to another, Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation. Those are stylized moves, rich in circumstance and filled with gesture and longing. The ritual expresses and evokes, enacts and points toward the hope for structures that transcend. Catholicism was the vehicle for these concerns, but that’s a circumstance of geography and history, a chance happening. It certainly could have been otherwise, but it wasn’t otherwise. I can’t undo that. Somewhere along the line, I realized that my Catholicism, no matter how lapsed still fires off in my synapses, it’s baked in and feels nearly genetic. In all my thoughts and feelings and approaches, the Church, in both positive and negative ways, has its say. And, for me, I find that poems have something of that structure that brought comfort and meaning and expression when I was growing up. I’m not glib about those tensions. Poems are rituals unto themselves. When poems are working well, they’re living chambers with intricacies and shapes—sonic, formal, rhetorical, metaphorical—, but they’re also expanses with possible selves and ambiguities shaped consciously and unconsciously, but shaped with intelligent hearts and empathetic minds. Those are the ones I want to write, and they’re the ones I want to read and reread and tape to people’s doors when they’re not looking.
I’m not a good Catholic in the way my grandmother would define it. I’ve not gone to Mass in a couple years, I’m ragged with doubts, and there is much that I find challenging. That said, the sense of wonder and awe in my gut, the realization that the world can be one place of majesty and terror, profound humaneness and abject cruelty, strikes me as a particularly spiritual issue. On the other hand, the Winter Daphne’s in bloom, and the Camellias are too. And there are swing sets and a broken down garbage truck and a fundamental collapse of political obligation to serve from below and to do so with sincerity and decency and intelligence. Those tilt-a-whirl scales have been slamming around for a long time, and we’re all of it. Poems, for me at least, can offer a shape to that. Poems, like religious belief, like ritual, can offer distillation and elevation and attention. They’re also “the things of this world” and I like to think of us all as Wilbur’s heaviest nuns working on our difficult balance.
DD: Who are the poets that have influenced you the most?
AH: I take something from almost everything I read. I love reading Frost’s North of Boston, flipping through Pound’s Pisan Cantos and seeing what sticks. I find Cummings’s Tulips & Chimneys, especially the five parts of “Chansons Innocentes,” influencing my thoughts quite a bit. I read a lot of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. I return to Harmonium, too. Plath’s bee poems, Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, those are important to me, too. CK Williams, the early stuff especially, and Philip Levine, the gritty gentleness I found there stuck with me. I read Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires and Refusing Heaven probably more times than I should have.
DD: What contemporary poets do you most admire?
AH: First, I’d be faithless and unkind if I didn’t say how much I admire the poet-mentors at NMU and TTU who worked with me. You hear stories about negligent faculty, and maybe you see some of it, too, but that was not my experience when it came to talking poems, getting feedback on my work, getting suggestions for places to submit, and the like. And the fellow students I worked with at both places were supportive, motivating, and talented. In those ways, I’ve been very fortunate.
I also admire, in no particular order, Frannie Lindsay, David Bottoms, Robert Morgan, Sarah Lindsay, Connie Wanek, Martha Serpas, Peter Everwine, Lance Larsen, and Christian Wiman. I heard Ross Gay read “Nursery” a while back, and it’s never left my ear. I like Steve Scafidi’s work, too. Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods was a revelation as was Heather McHugh’s Upgraded to Serious. Karen Skolfield’s Frost in the Low Areas, the title poem especially, is excellent. I also enjoy Alberto Ríos’s work. Edward Hirsch’s Special Orders comes to mind, as does Thomas Lynch’s Walking Papers. I also admire Terrence Hayes. He was in a small town one over last year, and his talk meant a lot to me.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
AH: There’s a ton of room to write in terms of form and content. I find good poems all over the place, and I don’t know if they’ll be historically good, but that’s not the point. They’re good right now, and I like reading them. Maybe in five years I’ll cringe at those same poems I liked so much. But that’s taste and maturity and whatever else goes into our critical faculties. The poetry landscape seems to be okay with itself, and the mountains, deserts, swamps, cities, burgs, and towns are livable. Auden talked about reading work he knows isn’t very good but that he liked—it was his time, though, so what’s the problem? I read Verse Daily and Poetry Daily most mornings and subscribe to some lit mags, and I’m dazzled and moved and energized by the variety. I have critical assessment, of course, and I rank and sort and stop reading if I don’t like something, but I don’t get too severe about it. The stakes are high, they’re very high, but the importance of poems in my life won’t be made more meaningful by severity or exclusionary reactions. If I don’t like something, I stop reading. I might come back to it. I might not. I like wondering which poems being written now will last and be loved years and years from now. Cases can be made, I guess, but I can spend my time better by supporting the work I love. I think the variety we see is a sign of health, a realization of the importance of poetry in our lives.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
AH: Meaningful engagement with and support from our communities. I’d like to see more opportunities for poets in public schools or running workshops in rural communities and to have those events recognized as essential to the well-being of the community, not anomalous or cute. That’s close to me. I live in rural South Carolina and got to work with students on a Saturday workshop where we studied haiku, traditional and contemporary, discussing how image can work, how it expresses and evokes, how it suggests. That was a meaningful day; we had a lot of fun, but it was more than that. We slowed down. We read. We talked. We wrote. We wrangled with our responses, and, in doing so, we tried to make a shape for those responses. There are instrumental values there, skills that transfer to other aspects of our lives. But that’s a lucky by-product. It is inherently worthwhile to read carefully, to consider a poem on its own merits, and to respond in a community to your thoughts on the matter. It’s a way of thinking and feeling. And poetry adds real value to our lives. I have this little story in my mind of two state troopers sidled up to each other in their Interceptors in the median of a state road, driver’s side window to driver’s side window the way they do, exchanging well-read poetry collections.
DD: If you could only read and say and remember one poem (written by someone else) for the rest of your life, what poem would it be?
AH: Milton’s Paradise Lost. For a few reasons: I could win friends and gain influence by having marathon recitations. I could run for office, win, and recite it as a filibuster, providing explication as needed, sort of like Patton Oswalt’s Star Wars filibuster but way more serious. Lame joke aside: Paradise Lost is audacious and ambitious and so satisfying to read. Almost every line is worth our attention.
DD: I’d like to end with the poem “To the Bed Bug.” This poem surprised and delighted me. For me, it gently evokes John Donne’s flea. Could you introduce this poem?
DR: I asked my old climbing buddy, Smeds, if he felt bad squashing the skeeters. He said he didn't like the killing but when they marched on his territory it was war.
Reading Donne’s, “The Flea,” is to listen in on some impassioned reasoning from 400 years ago. Reading it gave me a headache (behind my right eye.) Oh, darling, just smoosh the damned thing already and take my heart. But what a glimpse into the ways of the days of way back when: those manners, the intricate speech patterns, all the fluffy frilleries, same goddamned insects.
Adam’s “little buddy” could be seen as playful pondering. What will they say 400 years hence when this Bed Bug is encountered? Perhaps it will sooth a headache and cause a yearning for this high time: it displays an openness to fun, such easy speech, such an indication of freedom to wander where thought will roam - with such nuanced insight, same hot blood.
TO THE BED BUG
Little buddy chugging
beneath my cotton sock,
and an endless gut,
welcome to me,
a humble type-O host.
My blood is your blood,
eh, ami? Or is it amie?
Classy, aren’t I?
Urbane and friendly,
worrying French gender
that way. You’re worth it,
best lesson in commensalism.
I get you. I’ve taken
the orphan’s clingy ride
with style, rendered myself
immune to all but need.
I, like you, work to keep
a bleeder gently bleeding.
Danny Rosen founded Lithic Press in 2008, and the Lithic Bookstore & Gallery in 2015. His book, Primate Poems, came out in 2016. The chappie, Ghosts of Giant Kudu, came out in 2013 from Kattywompus Press. Danny’s genetically based optimism is arises from his familiarity with deep time and big space. He worked in geology, astronomy, and for many years ran the Western Sky Planetarium, providing astronomy education for schools and communities throughout western Colorado.
Adam Houle is the author of Stray (Lithic Press, 2017). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Shenandoah, Poet Lore, Blackbird, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. Claudia Emerson selected his work for Best New Poets 2010. Nominated for both a Pushcart and for Best of the Net, he was also a semi-finalist for the Boston Review/“Discovery” Prize and a finalist for the Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry. He earned a PhD from Texas Tech and currently lives in Darlington, South Carolina with writer and editor Landon Houle.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor for DIALOGIST and the poetry book review editor for Arcadia.