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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