“Looming with the legends”
I've never met the San Francisco-based poets Micah Ballard (Baton Rouge, 1975) and Sunnylyn Thibodeaux (New Orleans, 1975) in person, but we’ve been corresponding via letters, e-mail and telephone since 2007. I was aware of their work before that through our friend in common, the poet Cedar Sigo. Aside from being writers whose work I deeply admire, Micah and Sunnylyn are also the editors of a small publishing venture that goes by the names Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions (depending on what type of project they’re working on at the time).
Auguste Press/Lew Gallery Editions are not sold anywhere, the only way to find them is to contact the editors directly. Each of their publications is made by hand and printed in limited editions that are sent out to their mailing list of friends and contacts across the country. While their operation is very much inspired by the long tradition of avant-garde poetry in the Bay Area throughout the 20th century, their publications have a loyal following all over the United States.
I recently interviewed Sunnylyn and Micah via e-mail, asking them to discuss their publishing venture that’s now in its 14th year. Finding August Press/Lew Gallery Editions books might be difficult but it’s worth the effort. So is their own poetry, which includes Micah’s collection Waifs and Strays (City Lights Books, 2011) and Sunnylyn’s Palm to Pine (Bootstrap Press, 2011), along with a slew of chapbooks, broadsides and limited edition pamphlets. What follows are their unedited responses to five questions I sent them.
Could you talk about when and how the idea of Auguste Press emerged? Are there any particular small presses that inspired you?
Sunnylyn Thibodeaux: We started in 2000. At New College of California there was a great small press bookstore, Blue Books. I was in awe of the hundreds of stapled selections by poets I’d never heard of and those I had. I wanted to do it too. We could make books and print our friends. Why not? Why not print my work and the work of our friends, come up with a cover, and hand it out to the people we respected. We called it Auguste Press because, well, my birthday’s in August and because I was so enthralled with the work of Lew Welch. We share the Leo status. He’s the 16th and I’m the 17th. It’s embarrassingly that simple.
Friends had little presses as well and we learned what we liked and didn’t like through the variety of chaps that Blue Books had. They had these rotary book displays that you could spend hours spinning and pulling out new voices in some new design from someone in New York or Santa Cruz or Boulder. Mike Price & Kevin Opstedal’s Blue Press was highly influential as well as Noel Black’s Angry Dog Press. The community on and off the page through Blue Books, not to mention New College’s Poetics Program, was a total game changer for me.
Micah Ballard: By the time we arrived in San Francisco our favorite poets had, in a sense, already led us to various printers. Dave Haselwood of Auerhahn Press always comes to mind first because of John Wieners’ The Hotel Wentley Poems. And naturally one follows the press and gets turned on to other writers. Philip Lamantia’s Narcotica and Philip Whalen’s Memoirs of an Interglacial Age among others. And Wallace Berman’s Semina and the circle of friends there, all interacting and living together.
I’ve still never held an issue of Semina so that’s just me romanticizing it. Like I do Bob Creeley’s Divers Press, Ted Berrigan’s C Press, or Joe Dunn and Graham Mackintosh’s White Rabbit press. Of course there are photocopies of certain rare books passed down which serve as great little pirate editions. By now I’ve convinced myself that our photocopies of books are really first editions.
There are so many others, especially journals and magazines that are influential. Lately we’ve found issues of Diane DiPrima’s and LeRoi Jones’ The Floating Bear, Dennis Cooper’s Little Caesar, Bill Berkson’s Big Sky, and Duncan McNaughton’s Fathar. For my birthday years back Sunnylyn gave me a copy of Ed Sanders’ Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts. It was issue number 5, volume 6, April/May 1964. I can’t think of anything more luxurious right now than holding it and reading Frank O’Hara’s “Un Chant d’amour” (after Jean Genet) on crumbling pink construction paper typed on an old typewriter.
The publications of Auguste Press and Lew Gallery Editions are beautiful, hand-made objects in and of themselves. Where did you learn how to make books and could you describe your process as bookmakers?
MB: Thanks. Our books are really simple, both in their design and production. Most of them are obvious throwbacks from the mimeograph books/zines of the 60’s and 70’s. So it’s not like we’re Holbrook Teter and Michael Myers setting type and making linoleum cuts all night. But it does take a long time to make them. One of the main reasons is because we type most manuscripts on an old Remington typewriter, which I like to refer to as the “ghetto letterpress.” If we’re going to print a book by the simplest means, we might as well spend a lot of time with it to make it as alluring and elegant as possible. We try to make books that look like art objects, or little talismans that want to be picked up and experienced. We often keep our favorite “small press” books out, or propped up on the bookshelf because they’re entrancing to look at and they can really charm a room as much as a painting on the wall. Especially if you really dig the poems. It’s like having the poet in the room with you. What better company is there?
ST: Funny, I’ve never thought about how we learned. I feel like we haven’t in some sense. People these days use programs for this stuff and we’re all about scissors and tape. But I remember in high school working on yearbook and having to eye copy and art and work with the layout to fit things always thinking for a balance of aesthetic. So maybe there are some lessons that lingered. But I always feel like the poems dictate this more than anything. As of late we’ve been sticking with 8 ½ x 11 but that’s not always the case. Some things want to be saddle-stapled, some trimmed. We learn something new every time we print a book. Nothing’s set in stone and there’re often things we toy with from spray painting staples (which wore off) to embossing the Auguste Press symbol (which curled the paper.) It’s a full-blown art project— trying to put the poetry we love and respect into a physical representation that follows through to be a thing of beauty. That’s our hope anyway.
MB: And however or whatever we do, there’s always a hiccup, especially since we’re just mainly using photocopy machines. We’ve always strayed away from bright white paper because it’s just not kind on the eyes and to me that effects the reading experience. I mean hell, if the poem’s magical it’s gonna stay magical, written in blood or printed on thousand count Egyptian cotton sheets. So we’re always looking for natural, or “off white” paper, mostly 60 or 70 lb., and a heavier card stock that’s not too thick. Then we try to find a good copy machine with a fresh toner that makes dark, clean copies.
If the poems allow it, we’ll oftentimes shrink the font down when photocopying so we can manipulate the size of the book. It’s lovely to see a smaller font, as if we used some rare typewriter. We’ll then ask a friend who’s a visual artist to make a piece for the cover. When Will Yackulic lived in SF I’d just show up to his house with a six-pack and he’d make the cover on the spot. Sunnylyn’s also made a few covers and I taught myself how to use an old proof press to letterpress the cover of our one-shot magazine, Morning Train.
What made you decide to transition from publishing larger books with Auguste Press to smaller ones with Lew Gallery Editions?
ST: I’ll let MB take this one.
MB: With Auguste Press we usually print one book a year because that’s all we can afford and it’s difficult to find the time what with having a full-time job, a 3-year old, etc. I’ve never thought of myself (or us) as publishers. Being a poet and writing poems is primary so that will always come first. We wind up printing books when the poems are slowing down for one of us. It’s a good way to keep the flame burning and also get one out of a lull.
Lew Gallery was an accident. Our good friend Charlie is a professional skateboarder and has travelled nonstop for quite some time. He’s not a writer per say, but like many, keeps a little notebook and jots things down while he’s on the road. He let me borrow his journal and I wound up making poems out of his entries. I then made a small book, 50 copies, and typed Lew Gallery on the back and sent him the books with a note that said, “welcome to the encrypted order.” Not that it matters, but the name Lew Gallery comes from the gallery I did out of my office at New College before they shut down. So, it’s just a way to extend that high-vaulted space into a book format. I hope one day we can put them all together and make an anthology, so that each book will serve like someone’s section in a zine.
As someone who has published with your press and who avidly reads every new publication of yours, I deeply appreciate the sense of community your project has created among poets spread out across the United States. Are there any particular highlights of your experience with Auguste Press/Lew Gallery editions that you’d care to mention?
ST: For me, the highlights are probably the books that challenged me in some form or another. The whole process of putting together a book is like an orchestration and some parts can take a wrestling but the breakthrough—oh boy! It isn’t done by me, but more so the muse and I am just a conduit. It’s a fantastic charge. With that said, Mascara, is my favorite book by experience. Will Skinker slipped a chunk of poems under Micah’s door at NCOC and MB brought it home months later. I started to read through them and was all over it. I spread that work all over the floor and kazam! It was as if they ordered themselves through sparks from the energy of the poems to my fingertips. I’ll never forget how that book formed itself.
The cover took the longest because I wanted the same magic to happen, but I couldn’t force it. Will would draw something, I’d collage something, but it’d just not feel right and then one night Micah said “here it is” and he showed me a collage that I had made a year earlier as a gift for Joanne Kyger but I never went to Bolinas to give it to her. I guess that piece knew it had another role.
MB: I totally forgot about that. I do remember typing “Mascara” and Will’s name and pasting it on the collage though. On another note, for me, the main pleasure is in typing a manuscript, because after a while you start feeling like you’re writing the poems. And there’s the nerve-racking feeling of trying not to make a mistake. Which is kind of a rush, like when you’re six poems deep and haven’t made a typo and it feels like light is coming out of your fingertips while you’re banging away on this heavy machine. It’s very corporeal and euphonic. You can learn a lot about writing by typing someone else’s poems.
I also enjoy watching the manuscript form. Some friends write towards a book, others already have one, and some want us to choose what poems will go in. Oh, and another highlight is of course the collating party. It’s a large collaboration and we’re all assisting in the alchemy.
What future plans do you have as editors/publishers/bookmakers?
MB: I think we’ll just keep doing the same thing, printing one or two Auguste Press books a year, making random Lew Gallery books, and continue giving them all out. We’re all part of this bi-coastal poetry community and everyone’s creating great work so we’ll definitely just keep printing little books to share. One aspect of Lew Gallery Editions that I really dig is that we’ve printed friends whose primary medium isn’t poetry; they’re interested in it of course but they’re usually busy painting or making music.
ST: I’m so excited to have another AP in the works. Everything has slowed down since we’ve had Lorca. We used to have multiple things brewing, now we’re even more selective and un-timely (sigh). The cost slows us down, but having a 3 yr old tear up the place and want to help is more so a distraction.
But, we are working on a collection from Duncan McNaughton. I am so over-the-top about this project as I admire his work tremendously. He is a dear friend and will forever be a teacher, an absolute master poet. We are just getting our feet wet with this manuscript so there’s not much more I can divulge. It’s set to be called Tiny Windows and it will be out this year. I’d love to get to another magazine as well. This has been on the back burner for a handful of years though. After McNaughton, my hope is to print a Bay Area poet that I admire but I haven’t approached her yet and I haven’t talked to Micah yet. Micah—did you know this?
MB: I never know.