It would be difficult to discuss Hamilton, Ontario chapbook publisher serif of nottingham without also discussing its publisher, editor and most published author, Hamilton writer, composer, collaborator and performer Gary Barwin. Since the press was founded in 1985, serif of nottingham has produced chapbooks, pamphlets and broadsides, predominantly of Barwin’s own work, including co-publications (and writing collaborations) with Stuart Ross’s Proper Tales Press and jwcurry’s 1cent, as well as a more recent shift to producing works by other authors: American poets Michael Sikkema and N.F. Huth and Toronto poet Ally Fleming. In 2010, Barwin was a co-winner (with Sandra Ridley) of the bpNichol Chapbook Award for Inverting the Deer (2009), a work produced through serif of nottingham. Until the schism that broke down the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, resulting in the re-formation of Meet the Presses, Barwin was a regular exhibitor at the semi-annual event, nearly always with a new publication or two to present. Since then, he has become a regular exhibitor of the fairs hosted by Meet the Presses.
There has been an incredible lack of writing done on Barwin’s small chapbooks, as well as his work as an editor and publisher, and what little might have appeared could easily be buried in the 1980s and 1990s explosion of small press in Toronto, including, possibly, reviews or mentions in the late reviews journals WHAT! (produced by Kevin Connolly) and Mondo Hunkamooga (produced by Stuart Ross). Perhaps this lack comes simply for the rarity of publications and the fact that they were, until quite recently, almost exclusively publications of Barwin’s own work. During the period he was been producing his first serif of nottingham chapbooks, Toronto was in the midst of a burst of small and micro press activity, with the invention and organization of the original Meet the Presses (an occasional fair that evolved into The Toronto Small Press Fair) and chapbook presses such as Maggie Helwig’s Lowlife Publishing, Kevin Connolly’s Pink Dog, Daniel Jones’s Streetcar Editions, Victor Coleman’s The Eternal Network, Nicholas Power’s Gesture Press, Stuart Ross’ Proper Tales Press and the collaborative Underwhich Editions, among others, all producing numerous works by their editors/publishers, as well as works by Lynn Crosbie, Daniel f. Bradley, Michael Dennis, jwcurry, Clint Burnham, Lillian Necakov, Lance La Rocque, Gil Adamson and many, many more. I have yet to find a copy, but Burnham’s own Allegories of Publishing: The Toronto Small Press Scene, published in 1990, is an important document for this period, as are the two issues of the critical journal, Open Letter: A Journal of Writing and Theory, he edited, “Toronto Since Then (part 1)” (Eighth Series, Number 8: Winter 1994) and “Toronto Since Then (part 2” (Eighth Series, Number 9: Summer 1994).
Part of what is interesting about Barwin’s trajectory has been his ongoing willingness to experiment, moving from poetry to short fiction to novels to concrete poetry and sound works, all of which he has composed and performed by himself and in collaboration, with the seeds of much of what he has done in trade book form coming out of his earlier, smaller works in chapbooks. His trade works of poetry, short fiction and novels include Cruelty to Fabulous Animals (Moonstone Press 1995), The Mud Game (collaboration with Stuart Ross; Mercury Press 1995), Big Red Baby (The Mercury Press, 1998), Outside the Hat (Coach House Books, 1998), Raising Eyebrows (Coach House Books, 2001), Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth (The Mercury Press, 2004), Frogments from the Frag Pool (collaboration with derek beaulieu; Mercury Press, 2005), The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House Books, Fall 2010), The Obvious Flap (collaboration with Gregory Betts; BookThug, 2011) and Franzlations: the Imaginary Kafka Parables (collaboration with Craig Conley and Hugh Thomas (New Star, 2011). He has also produced numerous musical compositions and published works for children and young adults.
When and why did the press originally begin? Where did the name come from?
Darkness. Fonts. The sheen of glossy grey Xerox paper. I clad in white samite and sports socks. The arcane allure of a long armed stapler, the numinous and tactile attraction of cover stock. Be fruitful and multiple. Edit well.
And: In 1985, when I was a student at York University in second year, I took a creative writing class at York University with the brilliantly laconic and insightful Frank Davey. He told us about this event downtown called "Meet the Presses," a gathering of small presses devised by Stuart Ross and Nicholas Power. He encouraged us to create books and get a table. I did and ended up attending both Meet the Presses and the Toronto Small Press Book Fair/Indie Literary Market for the next nearly 30 years. Stuart, Nick, plus some others of us, re-formed Meet the Presses a few years ago and have put on Literary markets so wildly fun, successful and attended by almost thousands, it hurt my saddlestitching.
As for the name: in the manner of hair salons, I thought I needed a moniker for the press with an apposite bad pun in it. And I love the idea of "serifs," — unnecessary little training wheels or antlers for letters. Sudden turns in the path of the lettershape.
What I find interesting about your serif of nottingham editions is that it remains an extension of your own writing, much in the ways Stuart Ross has approached his Proper Tales Press, or even myself, with above/ground press. How do you see the evolution of the press since it began?
The press began simply as a way for me to distribute my work. Writing graffiti on the side of mammoths or tubers for the wide-lapelled hunter-gatherers of 1980s Toronto. But very quickly I realized that that simple act had more complex potential.
I also realized, as I once said in an interview with Alessandro Porco (and note how self-publishing here involves quoting myself…) that:
“publishing is not a neutral act. It is implicitly political and aesthetic. The publishing is part of the aesthetic of the work, in terms of its look, its distribution, and how the audience interacts with the work, both in terms of reading it, engaging with its writers and publishers, and in how it finds its audience.”
My publishing made me part of creating and engaging a community of writers, readers, and publishers. Those simpatico. It was old school social media.
Publishing meant that my work entered the discourse, the literary conversation. It put a frame around it. Work could come hot off my typewriter, Atari computer, pen, or the photocopier at my wife’s office and out into the world. And it was distributed in a number of ways. Direct contact at readings, for example, when meeting writers and readers. Through mail networks. I sold copies to libraries, collectors, archives and at book fairs.
Sometimes I played with the "commodity" aspect of publishing, the idea that I was creating a product that had "value." Once at a small press fair, I sold my books by weight. I also sold books for a penny which had a penny stuck to them. One CBC reporter who happened to be covering the fair got in a bit of a fulminating colophon about that idea.
And aesthetically, I was able to "set" the work in a form that best suited it. A small booklet containing just one text. A single page. Handcoloured broadsides. The design could be determined by the work. Could enter into and contribute to the aesthetic of the text. Looking back, I love how I can see the evolution of DIY publishing: from photocopied typewriting, to pixelated dot matrix printing, to Photoshop and InDesign laser printing.
Over the serif of nottingyears, I have published a range of things. Mostly chapbooks, but also broadsides and various "ephemera" (collages on envelopes, prints, leaflets, etc.). In this, I was initially influenced by bpNichol and jwcurry and their diverse publishing projects. How does writing find its physical form in the world? How does it navigate through the world and into readers’ brains? How can a poem be a handshake, a glance, a punch in the face with proper kerning?
Most of what you have published through the press is your own work. How do you decide what other authors/chapbooks to produce?
For the last while, my work has increasingly had the opportunity to appear in other places (books, journals, recordings) and especially in online forms which didn’t exist when I began (blogs, literary journals, archives and other small presses, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). So now I have other places to publish my work. If I write something and, advisedly or not, want it to be available to the readers of the world before the last pixel has settled, I can stick it on my blog or post it to any number of places. So, I’ve increasingly wanted to use my press to publish people that I want to have published. I’ve also increasingly been thinking about my mentors, about people that I admire in the literary world.
They engage. They give back. They help support other people. They seek out voices that are underrepresented or could enter the discourse in a different ways. And I’m able to help shape and edit small manuscripts.
Some current publishers are Stuart Ross’s Proper Tales Press, derek beaulieu’s housepress and No Press and your [rob mclennan’s] above/ground press.
So, like the Grinch, whose chapbook empire was two sizes too small, I’ve begun in a modest way to expand the goals of the press.
In the last few years, I’ve published Michael Sikkema, NF Huth, Ally Fleming and have a book by Kevin Spenst lined up. I also began a publishing project with Paper Kite books in Pennsylvannia called Tadpole Supernova where I published Hugh Thomas and Gabriel Gudding.
I have also used serif of nottingham to publish some collections of work by the street-involved youth of the Urban Arts Initiative writing program (“We Are Who We Are”) that I run in downtown Hamilton. So their voices can be "framed," valued and enter the discussion.
Part of choosing what to publish is to provide opportunity. For the writer, but also to introduce work to different audiences. So the Americans Huth, Sikkema and Gudding aren’t known well in Canada. And Canada — nay! the world — needs more Hugh Thomas.
Publishing increasingly for me has been like performing chamber music. Working with others to create a satisfying aesthetic thing-in-the-world, sensitive to the moment and also to the inherent voice of the work.
You've been involved with Meet the Presses since it began. What do you see as its primary goals, and how well have they been achieved?
Meet the Presses’ is an all literary-publisher showcase focused on sales of literary books, chapbooks, magazines, and recordings. We imagine it as our one day ‘dream bookstore’. The "Indie Literary Market" is a curated event — that is, the participating publishers are chosen by the Meet the Presses collective. The Indie Literary Market gives the public an opportunity to meet literary presses and directly purchase publications that may not be readily available (or available at all!) in bookstores and other commercial outlets.
Although we have termed it a "market," the Indie Literary Market is not market driven. ‘Indie” means non-commercial. There is a reason, a conscious decision, that the presses publish the works in this way. Not because they have to, but because they want to. For us, success is an authentic interaction between engaged writing, publishers, and readers.
We also see our events as responding to and facilitating community around literature and publishing. The technology of the book is not one merely of information technology, but interactive technology. Readers, writers, and publishers come together to share their "joie de livre" in a context that is outside of the strictures of predominantly market-driven publishing. We can turn on a dime, because we don’t need thousands of dollars to continue. Our "share-holders" are people who share in our work by holding our publications in their hands, and share our mutual appreciation of independent literature and publishing.
Have we succeeded in our goals?
I feel that Meet the Presses provides a great context, a fellowship, a coalition of the willing, an axis of indie, a biodiverse vector for alt reading and publishing.
And I’m really pleased that there continues to be new generations of publishers and readers as witnessed by our last Indie Literary Market this fall. And more are emerging all the time. Some relatively new small presses that I like are Leigh Nash & Andrew Faulkner’s Emergency Response Unit, Cameron Anstee’s Apt 9 Press, Ferno House and the Toronto Poetry Vendors.
Whenever I teach writing, I encourage my students to make their own books. To get their work out into the world. To develop a community of writers and readers. Having writing jump out of the typing fingers and begin a dialogue.
And to end, my favourite story about the press: In the late '80s, I used to busk on the streets of Toronto. One evening, my wife and I went down to the corner of Bloor and Brunswick in the Annex. I played saxophone while further down the street, my wife stood selling poetry chapbooks. Several men stopped their cars, thinking that this whole poetry selling thing was a front for prostitution. “How much?” they asked. Did she say, “I believe in DIY, now go…”? But amazing to think that anyone could mistake poetry for “Communicating for the Purpose.” It’s so much more high risk.
A very incomplete list of some of the less ephemeral serif of nottingham publications. I think it was Cocteau who said, "the greatest archive is no more than a memory out of order.” Where the author is not noted, it is Gary Barwin.
We Are Who We Are (workshop group): Warning Contains Superheroes.
Sikkema, Michael, The Sky The.
We Are Who We Are (workshop group): Warning Contains Stories.
Huth, N.F., 3 Words.
Fleming, Ally, what happened was: he flew.
The Saxophonists’ Book of the Dead.
The Punctuation of Thieves.
Inverting the Deer.
a periodic table of the alphabet.
The 10th Sigmund Freud.
The Great Themes.
Mike Harris Made Me Eat My Dog & Other Strange Fish.
Like Bozo’s Nose or Time Itself.
Big Red Baby.
A Flapping Red Flag.
The Lovely Carlotta, Queen of Mexico.
Family Relations Are So Complicated.
The Iridescent Phlegm of Bagpipers Glorious with Flu.
Surplus Ballyhoo, with Stuart Ross. Co-publication with Proper Tales Press.
Mollusks of Jealousy.
“one night i was playing with my tongue.../ I have something to tell you” (with Stuart Ross) Co-publication with Proper Tales Press.
The Stars Are A Pale Pox On The Sky’s Dark Chicken,
Studies In Micro-Scansion.
Oracle of Dog.
a short history of breath.
Toward Windward with jwcurry.
St. Catharines, Ontario.
Rover. (as one cent #223)
The Sun Disappears.
Shepherds in the Parking Lot.
A Sound like Fire.
King Arthur was A Mountie.
A Million Dollars.
How I watched until the moon.
Phases of the Harpsichord Moon (broadside).
Phases of the Harpsichord Moon.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
Photo of rob mclennan by Stephen Brockwell