Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

above/ground press at twenty-two

 
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above/ground press

By rob mclennan

I’m amazed at how long I’ve been doing this (months away from half my life). Sure, it feels like more than a single decade, but it certainly doesn’t feel like more than two. We recently celebrated twenty-two years of above/ground press at Ottawa’s Raw Sugar Café, as Amanda Earl, Hugh Thomas and Ashley-Elizabeth Best launched brand-new chapbook titles, and I wasn’t sure what to say, without repeating myself from prior celebrations.

There aren’t that many chapbook presses, I don’t think, that can boast more than two decades of continuous publishing, especially with the same singular person at the helm. There was a statistic passed along at one point, suggesting the average age of a small/micro literary press is in the five-to-eight-year range. So far, above/ground press has produced more than 760 items: predominantly single-author chapbooks of poetry (averaging a print run of 250, but some have gone as high as 1,200), but also including more than three hundred “poem” broadsides and more than twenty issues of the long poem STANZAS magazine, as well as a handful of other journals—Missing Jacket, drop and the current Touch the Donkey and The Peter F. Yacht Club.

Activity leads to other activity, and one could easily claim that extensions of the press (given they are also edited/produced by myself) would include the late Poetics.ca (with Stephen Brockwell) and ongoing ottawater, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), as well as The Factory Reading Series (founded: January 1993) and the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair (founded: October 1994). There have even been more direct extensions of the press, from the anthologies Groundswell: the best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (Broken Jaw Press, 2003) and Ground Rules: the best of the second decade of above/ground press, 2003-2013 (Chaudiere Books, 2013). I’ve already got my eye on twenty-five.

During my tenure as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, I produced a limited series of monthly chapbooks from September 2007 to May 2008 under the moniker “ALBERTA SERIES.” Focused on Alberta authors, such as Catherine Owen, Douglas Barbour, Christine Stewart and others, copies were distributed to above/ground press subscribers and friends alike, before appearing as a whole online as free pdfs. I keep thinking: if another writer-in-residence position comes along, what might the next publishing project entail?

The goals are rather uncomplicated: the distribution of writing that excites me. This mantra runs through my writing, editing, publishing, reviewing, criticism and interviews equally. There is so much great work being produced that it needs to be seen; so much great work that could be produced, if there is the right kind of support for their creators (including publishers); so much great work that needs to be discussed, so we can move even further.

But all this began with chapbooks. Back in 1992, I had been digging through stacks of contemporary poetry in the library at University of Ottawa and kept discovering the most magnificent publications by bill bissett, Nelson Ball and bpNichol, and wondered why we didn’t have anything like that happening in Ottawa. Further digging made me realize we had, from publications by William Hawkins and michael dennis to Colin Morton’s Ouroboros. And so I began. And it began to grow.

The press has always maintained more than a couple of threads, from the excitement of being able to produce chapbooks by poets who have, through their own work, taught me much about how to approach my own (John Newlove, George Bowering, Judith Fitzgerald, Gerry Gilbert, jwcurry, Nelson Ball, D.G. Jones, Monty Reid, William Hawkins, michael dennis, Dennis Cooley, Phil Hall, Artie Gold, Robert Kroetsch, David W. McFadden, Barry McKinnon, Ken Norris, bpNichol), to an array of contemporaries I’ve been fortunate enough to feel in dialogue with (Nicole Markotić, Lary Bremner, Stephen Cain, Jay MillAr, Sharon Harris, Rob Manery, Mark Cochrane, Natalie Simpson, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Rob Budde, Gary Barwin, Kathryn MacLeod, Lisa Robertson, Joe Blades, Jason Christie, Christine Stewart) to those poets who have trusted me with one or more of their early solo publications (Wanda O’Connor, Fenn Stewart, Marcus McCann, Ben Ladouceur, Cameron Anstee, Brecken Hancock, Helen Hajnoczky, donato mancini, Marilyn Irwin, Natalie Hanna, Jordan Abel, ryan fitzpatrick, Shannon Maguire, Jamie Bradley), and occasionally even their first solo publications (Stephanie Bolster, Amy Dennis, Karen Massey, Roland Prevost, Janice Tokar, Jennifer Baker, Meghan Jackson, Carla Barkman, Clare Latremouille, Anita Dolman, Rhonda Douglas, Max Middle, N.W. Lea, Jesse Patrick Ferguson). The press has also engaged with an increasing number of American poets over the past decade (Rae Armantrout, Deborah Poe, Sarah Mangold, Paige Ackerson-Kiely, j/j hastain, Jessica Smith, Rachel Moritz, Megan Kaminski, Elizabeth Robinson, Amish Trivedi, Hailey Higdon, Carrie Olivia Adams, Jennifer Kronovet, Kate Greenstreet, Rosmarie Waldrop, Noah Eli Gordon, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Eric Baus), furthering a scope as well as an ever-increasing network of writers, readers and friends.

There is also something very satisfying about being able to see multiple through-lines of authors with repeated above/ground press publications, wishing to continue to encourage and support a variety of writers as they continue to evolve (Stephen Brockwell, derek beaulieu, Stan Rogal, Pearl Pirie, Gil McElroy, Amanda Earl, Hugh Thomas, kemeny babineau, Gregory Betts). There have even been some who have seen subsequent trade publication through Chaudiere Books (most of our list, actually), after an extended period of prior publications through above/ground press. Obviously these are remarkably selective examples, many of which could exist on multiple lists.

And of course, the slew of publications of my own, which have become fewer and further between.

There have also been the geographic circles, concentrically moving out from local to national to international. During those early days, Ottawa hadn’t much in the way of literary publishing, and the city’s literary production has managed to continue through a variety of ebbs and flows that saw repeated cycles of feast and famine. Part of what I’ve deliberately attempted through the press has been to keep costs low, and produce good looking publications that can be inexpensively produced in quantities larger than limited. More than one hundred copies of any item are mailed across North America (and even into parts of Europe) for the sake of subscribers; I send out review copies, which, shockingly, have actually started to lead to an increasing number of reviews. And there have even been a few inclusions of above/ground press items on the annual bpNichol Chapbook Award shortlist: 2012 (Hugh Thomas and the Michael Blouin/Elizabeth Rainer collaboration), 2013 (Fenn Stewart) and 2014 (Jason Christie).

There is nothing worse than discovering a publication or a writer long after a particular item is out of print, and numerous above/ground press items have remained in print for years beyond their initial appearance. I want those who are interested in having a copy to be able to have a copy; I want the work to be distributed widely, and read. Otherwise, what’s the point?

And while the bulk of distributed copies might be to subscribers, there are still copies that make their slow ways into the world through individual orders, or appearances at various readings and small press fairs across North America. A few years ago, I even began sending promotional/outreach copies of new publications to small press fairs in the United States; promising that, if you could get to a particular fair, you might be able to pick up, gratis, a copy of a brand new item, produced in part for the fair. I’ve sent Katie L. Price and Pearl Pirie chapbooks to the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, damian lopes to the NYC/CUNY Chapbook Festival, Sarah Rosenthal and Kaia Sand to AWP, and Kate Schapira and ryan fitzpatrick to PHILALALIA (Philadelphia). A chapbook by Gregory Betts was produced as a handout for a conference he organized at Brock University; a chapbook by Frank Davey was produced as a handout for a conference celebrating his work and career at the University of Western Ontario; and a chapbook by the late Dennis Tourbin was produced as a handout as part of a retrospective of his visual art at Carleton University Art Gallery.

While there deliberately hasn’t been any over-arching aesthetic push at play through the publications, there is writing I’m more interested in, and writing I’m less interested in. The press moves entirely where my reading interest moves, and develops alongside my own reading, as well as my writing. If I am producing a chapbook by a particular writer, it is because I am excited about the work and want others to be excited as well, able to distribute chapbooks in a way that I couldn’t, if I weren’t the publisher.

I still design, fold and staple every publication by hand, in front of late-night television. I suspect by now I’ve worn most of my fingerprints smooth.

I told myself years ago that I would keep doing this until it was no longer fun. I don’t see that happening for a very long time. If ever.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly “Tuesday poem” series at the dusie blog, and the “On Writing” series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. 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. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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