Interview with D.H. Tracy of Antilever Press
Kit Frick (from Sapling #147)

Sapling: Antilever Press is a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 “to discover, publish, and promote excellent contemporary poetry and criticism.” As a relatively new small press on the block, what should people know about Antilever?

D.H. Tracy: That doesn’t say much that no one else says, does it? The key there, I suppose, is the “and” in “poetry and criticism.” We are especially interested in strengthening the practical relationship between the two, and I’ll say more about that in answering your third question.

But editorial vision is probably only interesting insofar as it comes out in the works a press produces. In a way, what I’d most like people to know about Antilever is the existence of our launch titles: Johnathon Williams’s The Road to Happiness, with its cumulative portraits of the poet’s wife, father, and place; Sarah C. Harwell’s Sit Down Traveler, with its witty sendup of the poet-oracle as wage slave on one end of the Psychic Hotline; George Kalogeris’s DIALOGOS, with its riverine connections between different phases and eras of the European mind, and its gentle cohabitation with other poets’ voices. The forewords for these books are available indefinitely on our site, and of course get into it more deeply.

S: How did the press’s name come about? Is there a good story behind it? (If not, here’s your chance to make one up!)

DHT: Caitlin’s Auntie Levera bequeathed us $66 million, so we felt naming the press after her was the least we could do.

That one was the made-up story. “Antilever” emerged fully formed from Brian’s formidable Joycean forebrain (at least that’s the part of his anatomy he said he used). We like the associations, via “cantilever,” with opposition, support, vantage, advantage, extension, reach, span, balance, counterbalance, and structural soundness. And the domain name was available.

S: In addition to accepting standard submissions of poetry, criticism, essays, and translations, Antilever also invites submissions of “sponsorship proposals,” in which established authors are invited to introduce another writer’s poetry manuscript with a critical foreword. That’s a really exciting idea; can you tell us how it came about and why Antilever chose to open this route for submissions?

DHT: Indeed we have high hopes for this (and to clarify, the proposal’s author need not be at all established). The idea was born of three parents: frustration with blurbs, the “preview problem” (I’ll say more), and faith in the powers of criticism generally.

When A writes on the back of B’s book, “these radiant, lapidary poems are both luminous and radiant,” we have a statement that can’t be cashed out with anything except A’s reputation. There isn’t enough space to present evidence for claims, so the blurb tends naturally toward hyperbole and becomes a kind of argument by authority. This is a poor kind of argument, and no one would resort to it if three thousand words were available instead of thirty. Our intention, with the sponsorship proposals, is to make those three thousand words available. We see the critical foreword as the inverse of the blurb: where one presents no evidence and rests on reputation, the other rests on evidence and is indifferent to reputation. One shelters nonsense and the other can’t.

Secondly, poetry is in a situation where the quantity of titles being published has overwhelmed the capacity of the literary culture to talk about them. This is to be contrasted with the situation of, say, movies. I have talked to journal editors who have complained about having almost nothing to go on when picking books out of their mounds of review copies. I have hyperliterate friends who haven’t picked up a new book of poetry in years, because their circles have no recommendations to make (and they have no recommendations to make to their circles) and random sampling is so punishing it only confirms them in reaching for their Keats. (Imagine the opinion of movies you would form if you randomly sampled the multiplex.) The collective complex of “stuff to go on” Brian Phillips has disarmingly labeled “taste,” and the collapse of taste makes it very difficult to maintain a mental model of where one’s reading is likely to be rewarded. From this angle, a critical foreword is a way of seeding the conversation and providing “something to go on.”

Finally, and most importantly, people have interesting things to say about poetry and ought to have the space to say them. A foreword like the one Louise Glück wrote for Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale seems to me so successful, so in and underneath its subject, as to make one wish that for every book. In the forewords to and commentary on our launch titles, we were delighted to see points appear that had not occurred to us ourselves as editors. David Ferry’s analysis of the prosody in DIALOGOS, Katrina Vandenberg’s sketch of recent Arkansas history, Christopher Kennedy on how emotions and daily life are and aren’t distanced in Sit Down Traveler—these are substantial points, which could serve any given reader as background, guide, or provocation. Nor would they necessarily come up in the denser, evaluative context of a review.

Though it adds significant complexity to production, our plan is to include a critical foreword with every book of poems. Some prize series do this, but as far as I know, no other press has made a practice of it.

S: Where do you imagine the press to be headed over the next couple years? Are there any changes you foresee taking place in the near future?

DHT: Bookish types have been in an extended tizzy over the past few years about changes in the publishing industry and, via the demise of paper books, about changes in the act of reading itself. I will state very cautiously that a little more entropy in the means of producing, obtaining, and reading books will on the whole be favorable to smaller operators. It might not matter, though. As a press specializing in poetry and criticism, we are practically immune to market considerations; or, more accurately, there are no market considerations for us to need to be immune to. We have near-complete freedom and can adjust course at whim.

I’m prepared to accept the prognostication that the definition of “book” is going to change rapidly in the next few years. For our part, very soon we will be releasing ebooks of our launch titles, and ebook co-releases will be a matter of course after that. The big surprise to me is how primitive the technology is—the tooling is rough, the devices and ecosystems are fragmented, backwards compatibility requires kludges, no one thought through poetry support, and none of the impressive digital typesetting software developed over the past thirty-plus years has been leveraged. When you are looking at an ebook, you are essentially looking at a web page from 1996. There are forums full of rants by scandalized typography geeks. From the point of view of content creators, ebooks entail more work for a less satisfactory result. This will all improve in time, I’m sure, and keeping up with developments will claim a lot of our attention in the near and medium term.

Sea changes aside, the next couple years should see us get another dozen or so titles out, and the prospect of seeing our list develop depth and personality is exciting. What are we going to find out there?

S:As a small press editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?

DHT: A small press is a small business of sorts, and it has all the frustrations attendant on a small business, with the bonus feature that it will never make money.

But on a day-to-day basis I think the hardest part is also the most exhilarating. You are constantly being presented with crazily divergent tasks. Unless you are T.E. Lawrence, 90% of these will be outside your comfort zone. On Monday, you are an expert in IRS nonprofit minutiae, talking up accountants and lawyers; on Tuesday, you are up to your elbows in the nano-adjustments of layout; on Wednesday, you are Joe Photoshop, converting the color spaces in your graphic designer’s latest batch to conform to your printer’s new ink level requirements. On Thursday you are figuring out how to get hanging indents in block quotes to reflow properly on first generation Kindles. On Friday, you were planning to read some manuscripts, but instead you are back and forth with the web studio’s Beijing office trying to figure out why the fix for bug #697 works on the staging server but not on production. The work requires a kind of positive capability that perhaps doesn’t come easily to poets, and you have to resist the urge to lock yourself in a closet with your notebook and your Asperger’s.

As for the best part, I’ve had authors be moved to tears at seeing their finished books. I can’t say I’ve done anything else that has made people cry for joy. Wonderful. Just stupendous.

S:What one or two small presses deserve serious props in the eyes of Antilever, and why should more people be checking them out?

DHT:When we were getting underway we solicited advice from as many people in the small press world as we could. They were uniformly positive and forthcoming, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that their optimism tipped the balance for us at an early stage—their having done it was proof it could be done. Stephanie Anderson at Projective Industries, Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal Press, Peter Gale Nelson at Paradigm Press (presently dormant), and Monica Fambrough, formerly at Wave Books, were all especially helpful. Those presses are all worth checking out, not least for the spectrum of design they represent.

S:Just for fun (because we like fun), if Antilever had a brain, what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?

DHT:Probably, “Typos, typography, and how nice it would be to have only three things to obsess about.”

Or perhaps one perpetual, nagging thought about three things: “I suppose if I still had the sex and the drugs, I could do without the publishing.”

D.H. Tracy's poems, essays, reviews, and translations appear widely. He is the author of a book of poems, Janet's Cottage (St. Augustine's Press, 2012).