Sunday, August 04, 2013

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Nikolai Duffy on Like This Press

Like This Press is an independent small press committed to publishing high quality and beautifully designed books that do things just a little bit differently. The press is particularly interested in poetry, prose poetry, fragments, stories (the more curious the better), interviews, essays, and books as objects. There is an editorial leaning towards experimental traditions. The press prefers work that is formally unusual, questioning, unexpected, and challenging; work that is interested in thinking about the hows and whys of literary practice, the place of books in the world, the relationship between writing and living, art and life, between literature, art, philosophy, religion, science, history, medicine. Currently Like This Press specializes in publishing pamphlets and short volumes, as well as limited edition books-in-boxes (consisting, usually, of three inter-connected pamphlets or two volumes collected in beautiful hand-printed boxes). 

Nikolai Duffy is the founding editor of Like This Press, and a Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has published various essays on experimental writing practices, contemporary poetics, and small press publishing. Recent poetry has appeared in Shearsman, Shadowtrain, Stride, Blackbox Manifold and E.ratio; his cross-genre work, the little shed of various lamps, is published by Very Small Kitchen ( His book, Relative Strangeness: Reading Rosmarie Waldrop was published by Shearsman in April 2013.

1 – When did Like This Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?

Like This Press was launched in May 2012, with the publication of JT Welsch’s pamphlet, Waterloo, although it had been taking various shapes in my mind for about two years before that. With the rapid rise of the ebook, as well as, to an extent, the increasing automation of book production, I wanted to do something that thought of publishing as an artisan’s craft. I’ve always sided with the sense of poetry as poesis, a process of making, but simply printing words on the page seemed to contradict that sense of poetry. I wanted to make things, and I wanted to get my hands dirty! In doing so, I hoped to provide a forum and an outlet for work which put a sense of making at the heart of its practice. I suppose this is partly why I’ve been drawn to works which blend word and image, and particularly those which collage word and image into a kind of dialogue. The artist’s book holds a great fascination for me, though often I lack the budget and access to the equipment to make that more central in the press’ mandate. I’ve learnt many things, but most particularly: 1. that the business of publishing is very time intensive; 2. that, despite global reach, the small press community of publishers, writers, and readers operates on the model of a local community; 3. that the relationship between author and publisher must be, before anything, personable; 4. that there are more writers than readers; and 5. that balance sheets are wrongly named.

2 – What first brought you to publishing?

I published a limited edition chapbook with Mark Cobley’s Red Ceilings Press. It was a great experience. I enjoyed the process of receiving a proof, the thrill of collecting the finished books from Mark in the foyer of Central Library in Manchester. I liked holding the finished thing in my hands. Again, I suppose it was something about the tactile nature of books and I wanted to do something similar myself.

I’ve also been really interested in the physicality of books and book production for a while, an interest that was piqued in particular when I visited the Tyopgraphy Museum in London several years ago. I think it’s more established now but it was an old, ramshackle place then, hard to find, largely unorganised, with boxes of type lying out on every surface. It was a place in which to lose yourself. I watched type being made. I wanted to do it myself. I still do. I like Glenn Storhaug’s sense of ‘printing poetry aloud’, which he describes in the following terms:
‘The letterpress hand compositor not only feels the weight of each word - and the weight of the surrounding space - in his stick, he also has to wrestle with all the different margins as he locks up his four or eight pages in the chase ... In a page containing a poem set to wide measure but with many short lines, the spaces will demand more attention, and weigh more, than the type. The successful page releases the text to meet the reader. Generous margins (with no unnecessary folios or other clutter) and ample leading create space and light against which the words stand like branches against the sky or images in stained glass: light shines through rather than on to the poem so each word is given a three-dimensional presence. Sharp printing (ideally letterpress) of a carefully chosen face at least 12 points in size - with careful word spacing acting as punctuation where the poem demands it - is of course essential for the achievement of this effect. Silence and speech, as light and shade, work in measure on the page, the poem breathes, the poet sings in the reader's head.’
I also always remember the experience of first encountering B.S Johnson’s book-in-a-box, The Unfortunates. I’d not come across anything like it before. Later I saw Anthony Burgess’s book-in-a-box in the archives at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation. It was beautiful. And from there I discovered Aspen Magazine (archived at, and more recently Anne Carson’s Nox.

As well as all this, though, discovering, when I was an undergraduate studying English at Goldsmiths College, that work such as Joyce’s Ulysses had initially been published by a small press opened my eyes to alternative literary communities. Such communities felt radical and exciting. I’ve always been interested in alternative practices. In whatever small way, I wanted to do it myself.

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

This is a really complex question. With high costs, time-intensive labour and limited sales, small press publishing does not produce an economy of sustainable scale. In economic terms, the business of poetry is not so much a trade related to profit-led consumerism as it is by the more informal and non-monetary custom of local communities, social networks and gift economies. On this model, poetry is not a commodity. Rather, the production and distribution (giving) of poetry takes place within the context of non-monetary social networks, themselves organised by notions of kinship, mutual interest and status. Particularly important here is the notion that it may well be that such gift economies are not simply the mainstay of present and future models of poetic production but also the grounds for its self-legitimation, which is to say, the very reason for these social networks to exist already in the first place.

According to Charles Bernstein, ‘These institutions continue, against all odds, to find value in the local, the particular, the partisan, the committed, the tiny, the peripheral, the unpopular, the eccentric, the difficult, the complex, the homely; and in the formation and reformation, dissolution and questioning, of imaginary or virtual or partial or unavowable communities and/or uncommunities.’[1]

To put it another way, small press publishing, distribution, subscriptions, mailing and sales depend upon a community of readers: friends, colleagues, organisations, institutions, patrons. It is made up of a network of connections, of like-minded people and people who would like to be like-minded.

The small press poetry publisher at best occupies a somewhat paradoxical social position – while their labour is not so much motivated by the financial basis of the marketplace they are still actually engaged in the business of producing a saleable commodity. The crucial point is that small press poetry publishing operates with a business model whereby the cost of production outweighs all and any return. And thus it’s one thing to be given a grant to begin but when each print run produces an overall net loss, it’s quite another to continue. It is in this way that small press poetry publishing exceeds Marx’s sense of a restricted economy (with its bottom line barometer of market value) and yields rather a so-called general economy or economy of (beautiful) waste that has eyes only on the present.

As Rosmarie Waldrop writes, ‘The key word here is the present, not being constrained by any considerations of the future in which the work might be read, appreciated, sold […] In contrast, if I am concerned with building a career I write as an investment rather than spending […] My eye is on the market, maybe just on the approval of a group, in any case on the future. I voluntarily submit to the order of reality, to the laws which ensure the maintenance of life or of career.’[2]

At issue here is the difficult and often highly contradictory notion of poetic value. In financial terms, there is little or no ‘gain’ from poetry. The economy of poetry is an economy of loss rather than growth. In relation to this, for Charles Bernstein the value of poetry is not to be determined by its economic role but rather by a particular understanding of its cultural function:

Poetry’s social function is to imagine how language works within its culture, while pursuing a critique of the culture; this suggests that poetry can be a countermeasure to the reinforcement of cultural values at the heart of both popular entertainment and consumer politics. At the same time, poetry’s aesthetic function is to refuse even this ‘value’ in the pursuit of what Louis Zukofsky calls the pleasures of sight, sound, and intellect.[3]

Such notions of non-monetary value no doubt also go some way to explaining the cultural marginalisation, in relative terms, of poetry: in a sale or return culture there is little room for a literary form which doesn’t simply critique that culture but which even devalues the very terms of its own ‘value’ in favour of complex categories such as aesthetics which, arguably, are even more abstract than money. This is Bernstein again:
‘The very distance that separates poetry from the dominant forms of the macro economy of accumulation give poetry a social, political, and aesthetic power, because – at least potentially – poetry’s realizations of, and reflection on, its ‘host’ culture are not only trenchant but otherwise unobtainable. A culture that despises its artists may need them even more than one that embraces them.’[4]
As Bernstein continues elsewhere, ‘the power of our alternative institutions of poetry is their commitment to scales that allow for the flourishing of the artform, not the maximizing of the audience.’[5]

In commercial publishing, benchmarking is key whereas in small press publishing difference is everything: commercial publishing seeks classification because such categories provide both marketing strategies and sales potential (if you like this, you’ll love this); small press publishing, on the other hand, establishes value by privileging aesthetic exclusivity. Technē, for instance, is a quality inseparably linked to that singular poet and which can be neither fully reproduced nor bought wholesale. Put another way, commercial publishing is contractual; small press publishing is social.

I believe all of this. I agree with it. It is my outlook. But I also think the small press world has to be careful not to reduce itself to reactionary affronts, or closed-door vanguards. Much mainstream publishing is not about writing, in a strict literary sense. Perspectives are very different. There’s room enough, I think, for the world of small press and larger scale publishing to coexist without really worrying about the other one is doing, or not doing, or making available, or not. I’m wary of any principle of validation that grounds itself, first and foremost, in opposition.

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
I’m not sure the press lays claim to any sense of exclusivity but it certainly places itself within the related traditions of innovative writing and diy publishing. It wants to explore the influence of format on form, to think about notions of what the term ‘book’ might mean, as well as the sorts of thing a book might actually be for.
5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
Word of mouth. I hold to this sense of the correlation between small press publishing and local communities. There is no better publicity than recommendation.
6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

It varies. I’ve been quite closely involved with some titles, and much less on others. Editing intrusions, though, tend to be at the level of overall structure more than individual line, but this is largely because I’m more interested in the cumulative effect of a book of poetry (chapbook, or otherwise) than I am in extraction of individual lines or phrases.

7 – How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

Distribution is small-scale and local. All titles are only available direct through the website. This is partly because Like This Press is a small-scale operation, but it’s also because of my sense of the relationship between small press publishing and local communities. There are some excellent small press distributors out there (InPress in the UK and Small Press Distribution in the US spring to mind) but I’m not convinced that paying a distributor would expand the reach of Like This Press titles very much. Readerships are small and those who are likely to read titles such as these are usually already active within the small press poetry communities. I’m also very wary of large corporate booksellers who, while making books easy to order (and even obscure books made in small print runs), care very little for the actual community that makes and supports this work. Small press publishing is an alternative community; it suggests alternative ways of doing things; private distribution is one expression of this. Besides, on some levels, the internet is a great leveller.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?

While the actual process of publication is very much a collaborative process with each author, by design and necessity Like This Press is a one-person show. I edit, typset, design, print, make, market, and distribute. I like working this way. Many of the books LTP has published have been made while sat on my sitting room floor. My wife also helps with production.

9– How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

This is a really interesting question. I’ve always been interested in thinking in terms of the book as a whole rather than at the levels of individual poem or line, and this has only got more so as I’ve worked on Like This Press. I’m interested in the way different elements of a work riff off one another and produce something else. For me, one of the great things about the length of chapbooks is that they are particularly well suited to exploring the possibilities of the poetic sequence. I’m much more interested in this than I am the individual poem. My book, The Little Shed of Various Lamps consists of a series of inter-related fragments and is an attempt to put this kind of idea into practice. It’s a form which seems to lend itself particularly well to blending poetry and prose, as well as to blending different kinds of discourse, particularly in terms of exploring the relationship between creative and critical writing, between poetry and the essay.

10– How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

I have not, as of yet, published any of my own work with Like This Press. I may well publish something of my own one day but if I were to do so it would be because I wanted to explore the format and possibilities of the book-in-a-box. For other work, I would prefer to seek publication by other means. This is partly about validation, partly about recognising that other publishers might do a much job of producing a traditional book than I could, and also because I don’t want to clog Like This Press’ limited resources with my own material. And at base I would miss the dialogue and collaboration of working with another editor.

11– How do you see Like This Press evolving?
In the immediate future I would like to focus more on the concept of books-in-boxes, particularly in terms of exploring the possibilities of collaborative books and projects. I would also like to explore in much more detail the notion of what constitutes a book in the first place, what other alternative formats a book might take.
I would also like to begin a limited edition series which produces handwritten and handmade pamphlets.
12– What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
Much of what I have done and do feels like an acute learning process but I am probably most proud of simply getting Like This Press out there and keeping it going, to date, for a year. I am also immensely proud of the Like This Press catalogue. The press has published some very fine work. The most challenging element of running the press is getting such quality work into the hands of readers.
13– Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
In addition to some of the influences mentioned above, as well as the world of small press literary publishing more generally, Burning Deck, run by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop for the last 50 years, has been a source of great inspiration to me. Seeing some of their early, stapled pamphlets made me realise it was possible to do these sorts of things yourself. I’ve also been greatly interested in the work put out by Sylph Editions. The quality of books put out by Cape Goliard has always impressed me, and I remember well the experience of encountering the understated simplicity of Editions des Minuit. Longbarrow Press is a small press I would like to know much more about. 
14– How does Like This Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Like This Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?

I would like for Like This Press to be much more engaged with the small press literary community. There is a very enthusiastic small press scene centred around the series of events and readings curated by The Other Room but I look forward to expanding those horizons. Dialogues with other presses, journals, and writers is of paramount importance; it’s all too true that there would be no press without these networks. Charles Boyle and Chrissie Williams’ annual Free Verse Book Fair is a really important event in terms of bringing the disparate strands of the small press network together, but I would like to see more collaboration between presses, and more dialogue about what small press publishing might achieve.

15– Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
Public readings and events are vital. Time has precluded the organisation of these on any serious scale, but I am looking forward to what I hope will be the first in a series of Like This Press readings and discussions, when a group of Like This Press authors will be reading at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester ( The readings will be followed by a panel discussion of the place and culture of small press publishing. I think this kind of dialogue is vital in terms of sustaining the various practices of small press publishing.
16– How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Despite the fact that the press specialises in the handmade pamphlet and stresses the importance of the sense of touch to the reading experience, there would be no Like This Press without the internet. The press launched on Twitter. Books sell via the internet. Most often, it is the space of first meetings and dialogues. Despite the very local nature of small press publishing, it’s hard to see how any of this would be sustainable without the ease of communication afforded by online communities and networks.

17– Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

Like This Press is currently closed to submissions, although this measure is only temporary. I’m not sure there is necessarily a particular type of work that I am, or am not, looking for. I like work to surprise me. And I like work that builds itself into sequence. If a work doesn’t do this, I might like it, but I’m unlikely to want to publish it.

18– Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.

Three of the most recent titles from Like This Press have been two collaborative works by SJ Fowler, with Ben Morris and David Kelly, and Andy Spragg’s very wonderful To Blart & a Kid. Each title comprises the collation of different materials gathered together in a box, and each fuses word and image in a collaborative process. They are emblematic of everything Like This Press stands and I’m very honoured to have had the opportunity to publish them.

SJ Fowler and David Kelly’s Gilles de Rais comprises 34 loose-leaf postcards in a box and is an  interchangeable narrative reflection on the life and legend of Gilles de Rais that fuses avant garde poetry and modernist line drawing.

SJ Fowler and Ben Morris’ The Estates of Westeros also comprises 34 loose-leafed postcards and marks one of the points at which avant garde poetry meets avant garde illustration. The Estates of Westeros is a meditation on the living space of the housing estate framed through the universe of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones.  Where Gilles de Rais explores the absurdity of mythmaking in that which once was real, the Estates of Westeros explores the grinding realism at the heart of the fantastical.

Andy Spragg’s To Blart & Kid, in the words of Amy De’Ath, ‘is a stop-start pile-up of angelically goofball, loosely metrical verse and a sharp chart of repetitive fear; a proprioceptive documentary-tale of an outrage only sometimes felt among the meek in a time of “well-pulped vocations and lost confidence”. Here between the clouds of overseer and overseen, Spragg shows you what’s yours and what’s not, and in the process enacts a kind of ontological crisis that is already blithely churned up by a cement-mixer, or “located in the foot-well of a minicab.”’ It comprises one poetry pamphlet, one photo book, and three illustrations by the artist, Natalie Orme. More details are available at:

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

[1] Charles Bernstein, ‘Provisional Institutions: Alternative Presses and Poetic Innovation’, My Way: Speeches and Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999) p.154.
[2] Waldrop, ‘Alarms and Excursions’, p.51.
[3] Eric Denut, ‘Interview with Charles Bernstein,’ The Argotist Online,
[4] Denut, ‘Interview with Charles Bernstein.’
[5] Bernstein, ‘Provisional Institutions,’ p.153.

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