How Shall I Live Now: Interview with Kaveh Akbar

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Kaveh Akbar is the founding editor of Divedapper. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, APR, Tin House, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. He is the author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James, 2017) and the chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic (Sibling Rivalry). The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille MEdwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida.

Tell Tell’s Tim Lynch talks with Kaveh Akbar about his debut collection of poems, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” focusing on the life and daily work of a writer in recovery, and the different gratitudes of inhabiting that particular life.

Tim Lynch: Ok, so the way I come into this book—well, I myself am in recovery.

Kaveh Akbar: Oh, thank you for your sobriety!

T: Thank you so much for that! And in terms of that recovery aspect, the book helped to clarify my own experiences. I mean, as I was walking around reading it, I found myself writing my own little fragments at the bottom of the pages. And you’ve talked before about bringing all of yourself to a poem, so I’m wondering what the process of writing these was like? In what ways did they show you to yourself?

K: Oh, that’s fantastic! I love that, the idea of poems generating more poems!

So much of writing these poems was a kind of self-love, or even a gesture towards the possibility of self-love, learning to love and live with my new self, who I didn’t really know at all when I started writing these poems. You know, I started writing the earliest poems in the book just in the very, very early stages of recovery, and the book kind of moves chronologically from the late stages of addiction into early recovery into sort of middle recovery. So the poem was really a place where I could go and try to make sense of anything, you know—make sense of the fact that I was given this second shot at life. There’s that line in the poem “Against Dying,” “how shall I live now / in the unexpected present,” and I think that’s the fundamental question of the book. You know, my disease was such that at the late stages, it’s not hyperbolic to say that I was dying. My body was giving up. And so for that to have been halted in its tracks, when for millions of people, it doesn’t get halted, it just keeps going and leads to the one inevitable end that it can lead to—trying to make sense of that. It’s almost a kind of survivor’s guilt.

T: You mention that passage from “Against Dying,” and it reminds me of that point at which we become aware of how entirely different we are from who we were. We become driven; we begin to love what we do. In what ways have you experienced this specific notion of happy strangeness, either in writing this book or with any successes you’ve had with poetry, with Divedapper or otherwise?

K: Yeah I don’t have to tell you, the process of going from addiction to even relatively mundane recovery is total whiplash, total astonishing bewilderment. Like people are looking you in the eye and not clutching their purses when we cross them on the street. Even that alone is a total shock. So to go from a bottom as is described in the early parts of the book into a life now, four and half years later, where I’m teaching at a university and have many people who depend on me every day in various ways, and people ask me questions as though I’m a real human being who’s capable of answering things—there are no words to describe how strange it is. Because the person I was still lives in my brain, and the fundamental condition that had me that way still lives in my brain. You know, my self-will directed life, if I let it, would take me right back to that place.

T: Right. And to sort of bridge that notion into writing, most writers, I think, struggle with trusting their own judgement, whether understanding when a poem is done or just understanding oneself as a writer in general. Was there a point in your writing life where you understood that this was worthwhile, that you could make a life of this as you have?

K: I live a fairly monastic life that doesn’t require a lot of upkeep. I have a cat to support, but in terms of what I require on a daily basis, if I have money for books and simple food, I’m more or less taken care of. That is to say, the prospect of making a life in poetry never seemed that daunting to me because it doesn’t take a lot to maintain the life that I have now. I guess I was never all that anxious about the practical side of things. I’ve had, since I was a teenager, a real clarity about poetry being the thing that I want to do, and I’ve never really doubted that. I’ve certainly gotten distracted, but I never really doubted that one way or another I would end up writing poems as the meat of my days. There was a time I was driving forklifts at a Subaru factory, and I’ve worked in a million kitchens, but even through all those times, if you asked me what I did I’d tell you I was a poet.

T: So that’s pretty much been your defining backbone throughout everything?

K: Yeah, even when I was in the throes of addiction, people would ask me what I was into and I’d say that I was a poet. Even when I wasn’t really writing I would tell people, with an absolutely chilling lack of irony, that I was living the poems I wasn’t writing, and I would really believe that.

T: Even so, I think it’s something to admire, from anyone struggling with something daily, to have that foundational strength, and that you’re making that strength out of the poems.

K: Right.

T: Ok, so—someone asked you before what your favorite poem was, and you said it was your acknowledgements.

K: (laughs)

T: I thought that was beautiful! And in some ways, you’re at the forefront of this poetry community: People go to your Twitter page as sort of an anthology, and you’re always so gracious to everyone, always boosting work. So how does it feel to be so largely a part of this community that is so large?

K: Yeah, I’m still kind of learning. I would say that anyone who writes poetry is part of something enormous and large, and anyone who writes poetry is a hero to me for that. We’re participating in a conversation that precedes us by millennia, and assuming that the men who run the world are able to keep their thumbs off the nuclear button, it’s also something that will outlive the last person who forgets our name by millennia. So, to participate in that conversation is the highest honor in the world to me, and it’s the hugest thing in the world too; it’s an enormous conversation that is infinitely larger than any one of us or any one poem. So it is my great foundational gratitude that I get to be some tiny little blip in that story.

T: Right. And there’s something I’ve found with gratitude for myself too—sometimes I have to allow it, and sometimes I have to really cultivate and pursue it. Is that something that you find yourself?

K: Oh absolutely, I think that’s a really beautifully phrased question. I think, especially right now, where we find ourselves as citizens of a country that is regressing at such a rapid rate, it’s very easy to feel downtrodden or low when you look at the news or even the weather report and you see how the earth is trying to defend itself against us. It’s really easy to lose hope. It is more work now than it was two years ago for me to stay oriented toward gratitude, and it is work; it’s always been work. But that is the orientation upon which my continued existence is contingent. There is no meaningful, substantive life for me that is unmoored from gratitude.

T: That’s sort of echoed for me in the last line of “Despite their size children are easy to remember they watch you”: “just say yes and step into the consequence.” The simplicity of that yes. Understanding gratitude and then understanding the work that comes from it, I think, is essential to this book.

K: Absolutely, absolutely, I think that’s a really insightful connection.

T: So to take it down to the poems, you’ve talked about “tonal cohesion” before, this idea that the poems are all orbiting around the same thing, and having read the book, that makes total sense. There are images that echo, and poems that foil and clarify growth—I’m thinking specifically right now of “No is a complete sentence” and “God.” Could you talk about your construction of the book, how you saw it as these varied perspectives?

K: Well, hopefully, there is a kind of narrative arc to the book that goes from, like we talked about, late addiction into early recovery into middle recovery. That was my ambition for the arrangement of the poems, but I also do think that there are certain obsessions of the poems that reverberate productively. You try to think about how you can create harmonious reverberations as opposed to dissonant reverberations, which is to say, you’re trying to sing an octave above the song or an octave below the song, not a third of an octave—you want to hit that exact right frequency. And I’m thinking a lot about the various and sundry forms that are in the book, the ways that they return and don’t return, and the kinds of cadences that that builds.

A really perceptive review that I read of the book said something like, reading the poems in order isn’t even necessarily the best way to read them, and I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but I do hope that if you sit down and read the poems in order that there’s something fruitful there that elevates them above the experience of just reading them hodgepodge.

T: There is definitely that narrative, and one of the things that goes through the poems too is this idea of naming. What does the naming mean to you in the poems or otherwise?

K: Obviously naming is really, really important to the book; it’s evoked in the title of the book. I’m very, very interested in the ways that naming something does and does not give it power. The kinds of force that naming something accrues, and the kinds of potential it unlocks. But then also the impetus of naming: language is a big concern of the book. I more or less lost my first language, and so the countless poems in the book that orbit around naming, and calling things things, and taxonomy, they’re interested in those ideas.

T: Right, and then what do you do with the names once you have them? And related to that in my mind, I really want to go back to that notion of “how shall I live now,” and this sense of gratitude. So—what do you do with gratitude besides feel grateful?

K: Oh, that’s interesting. I love the succinctness of that. I would say that ideally, if you are able to orient yourself toward gratitude, the logical next step is to push it outward, to share the gratitude with other people. That can mean bringing gratitude into other people’s lives which typically happens through some kind of service. If you hoard all your gratitude to yourself, it’s like holding a candy bar in your mouth for a week—you’re gonna get cavities. Or maybe a better metaphor is, if you keep a candle burning in your house, it’ll eventually just melt itself, but you can light a million other candles from that single candle.

T: That’s beautiful. Perfect. Ok, last thing — I have a Philly workshop group and they all say hello, so I have to shoutout Shevaun Brannigan, Alan Beyersdorf, Dave Muir, Nomi Stone, Daniel Brian Jones, Irène Mathieu, and Raena Shirali!

K: Oh, yeah, beautiful, beautiful, hello to all of them! Give them all my e-hugs! I love so many of the people you just mentioned so much.

T: Beautiful. This one actually comes from Irène, and also because we all want to know: What was baby Kaveh like? Like on a particular Saturday in 1999, what would baby Kaveh be doing?

K: Hahaha! A particular Saturday in 1999. That’s a good question. Well, Simpsons reruns only came on during the weekdays, so it wouldn’t have been on a Saturday night. I would likely have a plate of cookies in my room and a stack of library books. My mom used to do this thing where she would go to the library every week and just get a random stack of books. It would be like, a biography of Louis Pasteur, and a novel about dog sledding, and a book on the velociraptor. Just this completely disparate array of books, and she would just bring home a stack of fifteen or twenty every week and just leave it in my room, and I would just read whichever ones I wanted and put those on the stack and she would take those ones back the next week, leave the ones that I still wanted, and come home with a new stack. She did this every single week, and so for the longest time growing up, what I did for the meat of my time was just lie in bed in my room with a plate of snacks and some soda and just read all day. I had a Super Nintendo I was pretty into, but my parents were pretty strict about only letting me play for an hour a day on the weekends and not at all during the week, so the thing that I could consistently do to entertain myself was to just read through these giant-ass stacks of books that she would always have around the house.

If you wanna know what baby baby Kaveh was like, apparently I was a complete terror. My brother was this perfect child who slept eight hours a night and never cried, and apparently I just would dart out of the house any time the door opened and head straight for oncoming traffic. There’s this famous anecdote in my family of me trying to jump off this huge rickety bridge in Iran, and my dad catching me at the last second.

T: Yup. That one’s a poet.

K: Hahahaha. Yeah, I should’ve known.

T: And that actually kind of connects back, these stacks of disparate books. I mean, there’s so much of the world in your book. It makes perfect sense that you spent so much time consuming the world in that way.

K: Yeah, yeah, it’s a very hungry book that just wants to put everything in its mouth, from language to people to food to narcotics to places. I think it just wants every part of the world in its mouth.

T: And I think it does it beautifully. I think it really shows—particularly for anyone in some kind of recovery—it shows that the world is still there.

K: Yeah! Yeah, that’s beautiful. And this was really, really wonderful. I’m always grateful to talk about poems and I’m always grateful to talk about recovery, and this was the nice middle of that venn diagram, so my gratitude is orders of magnitude greater than what I had even anticipated.

T: Grateful to be a part of that.

 

Tim Lynch has poems published or forthcoming with tenderness, yea, Connotation Press, Mead, and more. He was awarded a 2015 Piper Global Writing Residency in Southeast Asia and has directed various workshops for young writers through Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, where he is an MFA candidate. He conducts interviews for Tell Tell Poetry.

Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

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J. Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas. His work appears widely and includes the chapbooks Highway or Belief (2013 Button Poetry Prize), Ascension, (2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize), and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County (2015 Tree Light Books Prize). His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize, named a finalist for the National Poetry Series and Writers’ League of Texas Book Award, and received the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he earned his MFA. Brownlee currently lives in Austin and is at work on Diamond Kings, a novel and A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, a second full-length poetry collection. Both manuscripts are rooted in rural Texas.

Tell Tell digs into the nitty gritty with Scott about his experience publishing with a small press, specifically Orison Books—the challenges getting there, the joys of being there, and pulling your head from the sand to celebrate the people beside you.

 

Tell Tell: So, Scott, can you describe the process, I mean, putting together the manuscript, then sending it out, and finally publishing with Orison?

J. Scott Brownlee: I started putting together poems I thought would be a book, oh, probably three or four years before it actually got picked up. I was pretty confident at first that I knew what I was doing. I had an idea for the order to put the poems in, structured it, gave it a title I thought was good, and started sending it out immediately. In hindsight, I probably should’ve worked on individual poems a bit more, but, you know, if you don’t start it, you’re never going to have it. You gotta start somewhere, so I think that first step is putting the poems on the ground, seeing how they go together, how they don’t.

But basically, I put together this book, sent it out, it got rejected a lot—oh gosh, probably more’n a hundred times over a couple years. And you enter the contests, and every once in a while what happens in that landscape is if you’ve got something that’s potentially a book, eventually you’ll hit some sort of semi-finalist, or you’ll get a little note from somebody, but it’s mostly No’s. I think you can focus on publishing individual poems as you’re building your book, and that gives you a sense of how competitive it’ll be in a bigger contest—because if you can publish in big journals then chances are your book’ll probably stand up against others’.

So I sent it out the first year and it didn’t do that well, but it got a semi-finalist so I thought, “Oh cool! There must something here!” So I kept editing it, working on it, went to grad school, got a lot of support from mentor poets to make the individual poems better. And then when I sent it out in grad school I’d get a little closer, a finalist here, finalist there, and I thought, “Oh yeah, it’s going to happen really soon, anytime!” It was still a year and a half before anything good happened. I remember a point where I was actually doing worse in the contests with what I thought was a better book—instead of getting finalist I was getting semi-finalist in the same contests and I thought, “Uh oh, what’s wrong here, am I getting worse?” And that’s where some of it is just random, like the readers, and the ranking of the manuscripts. I cast a wide net in the beginning, but over the years I’ve narrowed it down to which presses aesthetically are a good fit and which ones clearly are not. I’ve learned not to waste my time and money sending to something that’s not going to align.

Right, so how do you go about reading for the aesthetics of a press?

Well, if you know one or two of their poets you can just read their stuff online to get a sense of what’s going on. I’m a narrative poet, so if it’s language poetry and experimental, and it’s about some sort of idea as opposed to an experience, you know, I could try to fit that square peg into a round hole all day but I probably wouldn’t have any luck.

Orison was a brand new press. It was the first year they’d done that prize, so I think Luke [Hankins, Editor] was kinda combing for people that would be a good fit, because in the early stages of the press you have to be the ambassador. So he wrote to me and said, “I like your poems. I think you should think about sending it.” So I got that feedback, and thought, “Well, ok, this press is taking an interest,” and I saw the judge, C. Dale Young, and he’s a good editor. If I won that I’d get both of those people to work with.

I did win, and after that it was kinda working with the press to change the book—and I thought it was pretty done. But there are so many ways to order a book of poems, and C. Dale Young was really helpful. We had a couple calls and he took a few more looks and I reordered it from some of his recommendations, and I even wrote a few more poems. It kind of opened up the book for me. It gets to a point where you don’t know what to do with it anymore, and that’s where an editor comes in. And they’d both been editors for a bit, so I trusted to try out what they had in mind, and they certainly gave me that privilege where if I didn’t like something I’d go back to my ideas, so that made me open to changing.

So Luke reached out to you directly?

Yeah, I think that’s pretty common. If I’m an editor and I start a new press of rural writing, I’m going to first figure out who all’s doing that writing, right. And then I’m going to have to generate their interest, so I’m sure he probably queried people that were doing the same kind of writing. It wasn’t a promise of publication at all. I’ve actually never gotten that offer from anyone and have only published through contests. One thing that’s kinda interesting too is you think, “Oh the judge wouldn’t like my poems if their poems aren’t the same,” but I have a chapbook that’s on Button Poetry, and Rachel McKibbens, a really good slam poet—and page poet—was the judge. I didn’t think in a million years that she would like my poems and she loved them. But I think there’s a line too. A Mary Ruefle or Jorie Graham would never pick my poems because mine are so far away from what they’re trying to do. But I’ll still take a risk on some others if I like the press and feel like they would represent what I’m trying to do.

Orison is based in Asheville, NC. Being a narrative poet, and more specifically a poet of place, did that have any influence when you were sending out your manuscript?

It certainly helped. I had actually lived in Carolina for two years, and I knew some people and had some mentors there, so when it came time to actually do some outreach for the book and set up readings and things it was pretty easy. Luke set up one in Asheville and then from there I was able to set up one in Greensboro, one in Raleigh. If the press was in, say, Wyoming, I might’ve gone there for the launch, but I don’t think we would’ve been able to stack like we did. So Carolina was where I had supporters and a readership, and the other place was Texas. I was living in Philadelphia at the time we launched it, so I did a little bit on the East Coast too, but mostly I just did Texas and Carolina because I’m writing this Southern poem and it’s just going to be an easier sell in those parts of the country.

You really have to do some kind of tour, but you get to structure it on your own, I think, if you’re working with a smaller press. Luke definitely helped. He set me up with a few festivals I didn’t know the context for, sent out the books to a lot of post-publication contests. A lot of the on the ground readings, especially in smaller towns, it’s really up to you. If we had a bigger press we’d have some more help but you’re kinda on your own so you use your network. You have other poets, you know, you sleep on their couch this time, and when their book comes out they sleep on yours, and you kinda use that back-and-forth. You do that guerrilla tour and people say, “Oh you’re so popular, you did this tour!” And I would tell them, “No, I’m not popular at all—honestly I just emailed a lot of people.” It didn’t magically happen. Maybe it could magically happen if you have a big enough social media presence, but I never had that, so you have to knock on some doors. And most independent bookstores are happy to have you. They’re going to sell a couple books and they don’t have to pay you anything, so everybody wins.

Could you talk about the differences of experience in working with a small press versus a large publishing house?

Yeah, I think one big one, Orison, when we started that year, we only put out my book and one other book, so you get a little more time with a small press. Obviously you’re not getting as much PR exposure as you would if you were with Copper Canyon or something, but I think the difference would be that, particularly in the press’ infancy, the press has a lot at stake in your book. If your book doesn’t do well, neither does the press, so it’s very mutually beneficial. And with the bigger houses usually you get a marketing team around you that’ll help with galleys and stuff. They have the funds to send them out for reviews and to generate that hype. Luke was really good though. He sent out about two hundred copies, so we got a lot of coverage for the book.

Another thing is that a big house will put out eight or ten books of poetry a year. Where, yeah, you’re going to get the editor’s full attention, but you’re also going to get it divided by eight. And also probably going to work less with one person and more with a team. Some people are going to do one part of the process, and then there are others, whereas with us—it was me, Luke, C. Dale Young with some editing stuff, and the designer, and that was it. But yeah, I mean, the big presses in poetry are still small. I think that’s important to emphasize. And I think you just need to know if they’re going to stick it out or if they’re just doing this for fun because they started a press, and I think from talking to editors you can usually figure that out pretty fast.

But Luke’s still doing it, and the press actually did a lot better after my book. Yehoshua November’s book Two Worlds Exist was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and Jordan Rice’s book Constellarium was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which is the prize for the best first book in the country. So right away, the press exploded, and one part is, I think, Luke understands the market. He actually did hire a guy who would do marketing for us on Twitter and help me get readings, you know—he got coverage in a local newspaper in Texas, and that was really cool and wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Usually you’ll get that at a larger press, but Luke had a vision for that market strategy, which I think is good to ask before you sign a contract, like, “What’s the plan for outreach? Are we going to send it out to contests after publication? Am I going to pay the submission fees for that as the author?” And what we agreed was that I would pay the submission fees and Luke would provide the books, so he gave me thirty books. We got a lot of coverage as a result, and I think that’s part of the reason the other books at that press did so well.

So what happens, then, after your book comes out?

Well, I have to say, after your first book comes out, it’s a sort of flatline. At first it’s like, “Your book! Your book,” and you win a prize. I won this Texas prize and I was just, “Aw, this is great!” Went to the Texas Book Festival, felt like a real author, taught at this really cool festival. And then, you know, six months later, you’re kinda yesterday’s news, and it’s back to the drawing board and lots of rejections. I mean, I think it’s good to know it’s not “the grass is greener.” Yeah, you’ve got the book, it exists, if you die your poems exist outside of you, that’s good. But you’re back at square one with the submissions process.

I think the main thing though is to continue to write. You can professionalize the hell out of poems, and that can lead you to publishing maybe 50% more in the short term. But in the long term, if you’re not consistently writing, you’re not going to have the material to go back and edit to professionalize in the first place.

How has working with Orison changed you as a writer, whether in writing poems or in the way you live as a person? Or has it?

Yeah, I would say so. I would say it’s a little less anxiety having something out in the world. First books, people think, “Oh I could’ve done better.” I actually really like mine. I feel like I put a lot into it. But it makes you understand that you’re part of this larger community, and that it’s not just about the next prodigy or whatever. It’s a team effort. You know, when the book would do well we would celebrate, but also when someone else’s on the press did well we would celebrate. As an author, you can really dig your head in the sand and think it’s really just about you and your book and your future, but then you get a little community where you can root for everybody.

Going in, I wasn’t really sure because it’s this press about the life of the spirit and I was like, “Well is everyone really religious in a particular way?” I came to find it’s not about religion per se at all. It’s more just about writing that engages questions around the idea of the spirit. There are people of faith who are associated with the press, certainly, but it’s artists who are open to supporting other people regardless of perspective. They’re a press that has really emphasized LGBT writers, you know, Jordan Rice’s book that came out right after mine. She’s a trans woman, and so it was really cool to be part of this community that is really inclusive. Like Jordan and I did a reading together when her book came out that was really fun, and none of that would’ve happened if I had buried my head in the sand and said, “Oh I have to win the APR/Honickman or the Yale Younger,” and just wait forever, you know—if I hadn’t sent it in and took a risk on this book, going with this press. So I think that was a lucky decision, and one for which I will always be grateful.

 

Interview with Angelo Colavita

Empty Set Press button c/o Empty Set Press

Empty Set Press button c/o Empty Set Press

Founding editor of Empty Set Press, ANGLEO COLAVITA lives and writes in Philadelphia, where he hosts Oxford Coma, a nihilist poetry reading series. His work has appeared in Apiary Magazine, The Philadelphia Citizen, Mad House, Rolling Thunder Quarterly, Be About It, Outcast Poetry Journal and elsewhere online and in print. His first chapbook, HEROINes, was published in March of 2017. He talked with us about starting his own small press, doing weird things like printing business cards and buying merch tables, and broadening community through publishing.

 

Tell Tell: Alright, so Empty Set Press. How did it start? What’s it all about?

Angelo Colavita: I have a fondness for experimental poetry, just the weird in general. And there wasn’t a press in Philly that specialized in that, and I wanted to, from other people’s encouragement, publish a book of my stuff. I was reluctant to because most of my poems were written while I was using heroin. I wasn’t that proud of a lot of it. I wanted to move away from, one, that whole mindset, but two, I wasn’t too productive and I didn’t wanna write a fuckin’ “drug book.” So I compiled a chapbook and turned to Chris McCreary and Shanna [Compton] from Bloof Books, and I was like, “Hey, how should I go about publishing this,” and they were both like, “Yeah, you should start your own press,” instead of self-publishing. So I set up the press strictly to release my own poetry and have it be legitimized in some way. When my book came out, it really just had the Empty Set Press logo.

 

TT: How did you come up with the name?

It was like the ninth name that I picked. Dark Circle was one, because there’s a poem called “Dark Circles” in the chapbook. I was like, “Oh Dark Circles, that’s like, brooding and cool.” And somebody publishes comics under dark circles. All right, well, what’s like “dark circles.” So I picked something like “Black Dot” - I tried so many with “black” as the name, and there’s so many presses already in existence that are like that, like Black Lawrence, Black Radish, so alright fuck that. So my intermediate algebra course was talking about empty set, which is just, “has no value,” and I was like, “Oh that’s so nihilistic.” So I Googled it, and nobody had Empty Set, so that was the name. And the brackets are cool, so I had a logo and everything. Very minimal effort.

So how did you get into publishing other people’s poetry?

So what was advised of me was that I should set up the press, and as soon as I make the money back, publish someone else immediately, and Maryan [Captan] was the first person I had in mind to publish. I was like, “Who do I know that I work with well creatively,” because there’s a difference between editing and proofreading. I mean we were already sending each other poems back and forth; we have the same kind of work ethic; we both like - the weirder writers the better; and I was shocked too - she’d never had anything published like that. So when I had the money, I asked Maryan if she had a manuscript and said I wanted to publish her, and she had this dream manuscript waiting for someone to publish. So she sent it to me; we did the editing, the layout - she had ideas about the double-sided chapbook, which I loved, and we pumped it out in a month, two months. We spent a lot of time on phone chat, through Google Docs. I think that’s the advantage of a small press too. You get to work really closely with the author. I got to put out something I’m proud of, and something that she’s just ecstatic about.

What comes after you have somebody else in with you?

So while I’m editing Maryan’s book, I’m also setting up Empty Set as an LLC, because I’m fine with just printing my logo on the back of my chapbook and it seems legit, but for Maryan’s sake, I wanted this to be something she could actually reference. Setting up a website, making it an LLC, so it’s like, “Empty Set Press, oh, that’s a real press, it’s not just Angelo.” Even though it essentially is Angelo in his fuckin’ bedroom putting together chapbooks, it’s the start of something bigger.

What’s a regular day, then, now that you’ve got a few titles going?

Regular day, I’m online almost all day. Whether I’m on social media, looking up other presses, other writers, just trying to keep a strong presence, so people see the name, see what we’re doing, and so I see what other people are doing too. Like, as far as community: Healthy competition is good, but I don’t want to say I’m competing. I want to have something different to offer. In my head, Empty Set is doing something nobody else is really doing, as far as the experimental stuff, and rather than seeing that as “the new shit,” this is “a new shit” that can just coexist with popular work. Like bedfellows or Mad House, tremendously popular. Why would I want to step on toes? I’d rather work side by side with them. It just makes the community stronger. So some of the social media isn’t about me. It’s other people’s stuff, readings that have nothing to do with us, stuff related to what we’re doing, even just related in the sense of, “There’s this awesome reading across town, go check out Kassidi Jones at Pecola Breedlove.”

So I spend a lot of time online, check my emails a million times a day. Then usually I’ll come to a coffee shop and I’ll try to have somebody’s manuscript and do some editing - which is where I learn a lot of layout. A lot of [running the press] is learning as I go too. I’m limited because I don’t have professional programs or anything, so I’m learning little tricks. Like, if I get halfway through, save it as a .pdf, and then put it back into a .doc form, I can change other things that I couldn’t do initially, so I’m learning little loopholes with that. So [Maryan Captan’s] Copy/Body was a huge learning experience for me, as far as the actual construction.

What’s one thing you didn’t know you needed to know?

Money. I knew I needed money, but it doesn’t end at filing for your LLC and all that. So - roughly $500 to get registered as a small press business, but then you have your domain name, hosting. I’m completely illiterate when it comes to HTML, so I do Squarespace, which is great, because I get my domain name, they host, and I can do all my commerce. Then there’s knowing sales tax laws, and just, accesories, like a table to sell merch, a banner, business cards, transportation, microphones and amps for readings at weird venues. And printing. I went through Fireball Printing, and they were great. They were mostly doing art prints, and so it was really nice paper, and they were really willing to cooperate with all the weird layout shit. And, again, highlighting the whole community thing, I had a local artist do the cover, I used a local printer, and it just broadens the community and the audience that’s gonna be buying.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened because of Empty Set?

I think a lot of things are weird. I went from being this piece of shit who didn’t do anything with his life, and now I’m, like, driven. I’m doing [Philadelphia's Small Press / Hand Made Poetry & Book Arts Festival] Philalalia, and I have a table there, and it’s a big deal to Empty Set. I thought it was weird that I got business cards with my name on them. It was weird writing my first rejection letter for an unsolicited manuscript. I’m not at a point where I’m accepting unsolicited manuscripts, but I still read them, because who knows, somebody might blow me away.

The weirdest thing is that I didn’t realize I would like it this much. The press is another creative outlet. Like, the creativity shouldn’t end with the poems. The chapbook itself is art. The branding is art. The readings, the event is art. Just all of it.

What are the ideas for the future, under Empty Set?

There’s gonna be a heavier tie-in with [the nihilist reading series I host,] Oxford Coma. There’s a million writers in Philly. I want to know who’s up-and-coming, who’s new - I want new stuff. The ideal situation with Oxford Coma is that you have these established writers, and then get somebody new in there, who kind of vets for what Empty Set publishes.

I just want other people to be as excited about it as I am. I’m a bleak guy, for the most part. So Oxford Coma and Empty Set, they’re typically dark, but not necessarily just that. There’s gotta be more than just being miserable. You’ve gotta be innovative and willing to try goofy things. Like with Patrick [Blagrave]’s, like, “Here’s thirty poems I wrote to Sallie Mae,” perfect, that’s great. Cynthia Jones’ book is gonna be all poems about trauma with color-coded pages for trigger warnings. Chris McCreary and Mike Lamoureux’s book are all incantations for various demons. Love it. That’s the stuff I wanna publish. My predominant concern is Philadelphia and its immediate surrounding area, and who doesn’t have a platform for their work - people doing experimental stuff. And sticking with the chapbook as art. It’s a part of poetry history. Like, early Ginsberg published as chapbooks through City Lights, and it all started like that. The chapbook is where it’s at. I will publish perfect-bound books at some point, but I like the old school saddle-stitch. But smooth paper, nice cover stock, like - keeping with the tradition, but modernized.

Modernized old school chapbooks of weirdos. . . I’ll work on that mission statement.

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