March is Women's History Month. It is Greek-American Month, Irish-American Month, Native American Heritage Month, Caffeine Awareness Month, Music In Our Schools Month, Mental Retardation Month and Foot Health Month. It is a month in favor of noodles and of sauce, a booster for peanuts and frozen foods. These things, we are told, might otherwise be forgotten.
Among these commemorations of the maybe-overlooked, March is also Small Press Month, as celebrated by Powell's this Thursday, March 20, with Smallpressapalooza, a marathon reading featuring 15 independently published authors including the avant-lit legend Steve Katz and local bizarro-lit luminary Carlton Mellick III.
Small book presses are essentially indie labels for books: avenues for outsider voices, international fiction, experimental fiction and poetry of all stripes, for debut authors and even for more established literary treasures like William T. Vollman and Lydia Davis. Essentially, they print the stuff that the large corporate publishers—stung by years of low profits—are too gun-shy to print and promote.
As with albums on small music labels, books on small presses may be unlikely to be carried in suburban chain stores, and they are less likely to be reviewed. But small presses often also carry some of the more interesting stuff around, books that take risks and seem new rather than rehash last year's chick- or dick-lit phenom. According to Lidia Yuknavitch, founder of Chiasmus Press and one of the readers at Smallpressapalooza, "there is a vital need for small presses because literature has become the product of high capitalism.... Small presses retain a kind of revolutionary interruptive energy."
In the interests of exploring that energy, here's a round-up (by no means exhaustive) of a few small- or micropresses in Portland you might not be familiar with.
Co-founded in 2001 by Richard Jensen (co-founder also of music label Up Records) and by local author Matthew Stadler, the literary imprint produces handsome, Japanese-printed softcovers of art, fiction or poetry. Small in both size and number (there are only nine so far), the books are not only good-looking but also meticulously curated in terms of content, to the extent they could sensibly be collected as a set.
Book to look out for: Orphans (2006), by Charles D'Ambrosio. These essays of moment and place have been compared to Joan Didion's 1960s evocations of California, but don't be fooled: D'Ambrosio is no prose minimalist, and he's got none of Didion's patrician reservations. The insight and close observation is there—those strange turns of mind and phrase that smack you upside the sinuses—but so too is a 24-page ode to pissing in the ocean and maybe eating part of a whale. You got me? Visit clearcutpress.com for more info.
Chiasmus is maybe the avant-punks in this crew—that is to say, punks with doctorates. Under Yuknavitch's editorial mantle, the books are headlong and kinetic and often sexually ballsy (so to speak), yet also informed by critical reading and the breakdown of the normal kind of storytelling. You get the idea they've all read '80s prose experimentalist Kathy Acker and want to mess you up from somewhere inside Michel Foucault's big bald noggin.
Book to look out for: Frank, by R.M. Berry (2005) Berry's Frank is demanding and ambitious and still somehow nuttily hilarious. The author calls this an "unwriting" of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, except that this time around the monster unleashed is language itself. Visit chiasmusmedia.net for more info.
Hawthorne is perhaps the best organized of the Portland presses, and one of the few to devote itself to not only discovering new talent but also to bringing back from out-of-print titles by worthy authors such as Tom Spanbauer (Chuck Palahniuk's mentor) and the unjustly disappeared Richard Wiley.
Book to look out for: Clown Girl, by Portlander Monica Drake (2006). What could have become a collection of quirks became here a Sherwood Anderson grotesquerie, some big allegory of the sorry show everybody puts on anyway. There are reasons Chuck Palahniuk is still jealous of her. Visit hawthornebooks.com for more info.
As befits a press founded by someone who works at a bookstore (Powell's Kevin Sampsell), the books on Future Tense are highly diverse, running the gamut from books on golf to Jemiah Jefferson's celebrity fictions (
) to the blockbuster-ish teen memoirs of Ms. Zoe Trope (since picked up by Harper).
Book to look out for: Partial List of People to Bleach, by Gary Lutz (1997). Lutz is possibly the premier maker of the great American sentence, that twisty post-Gertrude-Stein thing that comes only from the turned stomach. Here's the first one that ever got my attention: "From time to time I show up in myself just long enough for people to know that they are not in the room alone." He's our own little Beckett, and he knows how to make grammar an enemy. Visit futuretensebooks.com for more info.
Marriage doesn't want to publish you. They put out music, but don't want to record you. Marriage is sort of a limited-entry club, a means for a group of friends to put out the art they like by the people they like. Their series of unthemed book/journal editions,
, is accordingly filled with seemingly everybody they know writing about anything.
Book to look out for: The Sky Position, by Tom Blood (2006) This one just got done winning an Oregon Book Award. Blood's poems are a sort of grammatically indeterminate metaphysical play, punctuated often by a sudden burst of the immediate, as when "someone, a cool someone/ brought five pounds of roses in the trunk of a pinto hatchback/and then this was buried in your lawn, the car and everything." Visit marriagerecs.com for more info.
The editors of UDLE—Garett Strickland, Ashley Edwards and Ashley Toliver—describe their enterprise as a "literary convergence." As this has played out so far, it means they bring together both performance and publication, printing small numbered editions to coincide with quarterly readings held at the Mizpah Church, rather than hold poetry/prose readings as an after-the-fact promotion of something already published.
Book to look out for: Unwin Dunraven Quarterly, No. 1. The edition for UDLE's inaugural reading series (March 2008) includes work by poets Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Noah Eli Gordon, a new favorite of mine. In Gordon's poem "Ten Ways to Take Apart an Airplane," Gordon asks, "Is this how you underline your way into the pantheon? Pegasus was a horse. The airplane, an automobile." Visit unwin-dunraven.org for more info.
Smallpressapalooza at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 5 pm Thursday, March 20. Free.