Black Widow Press is a fairly new arrival on the independent publishing scene, and their commitment to quality material that other publishers won't go near really makes them stand out. The quality of their books is second to none. The following interview with Joe Phillips, Black Widow's publisher, took place in early February 2008.
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Powell's Chris Faatz: Black Widow Press is a fascinating venture, with its mix of classic surrealist texts and writings by exciting contemporary poets who dwell on the literary edge. How did you come by your interest in such material? What's the genesis of Black Widow itself?
Joe Phillips: As a bookseller of some 20 years, I found there were authors and titles I could talk to customers about but could not actually stock in the store as they were either out of print, had become expensive collector's items, were bad translations of good titles, or were just plain hard to come by. Over the years, frustration mounted, and I started to think and read about publishing. Two and a half years ago I took the plunge. I contacted poet Lee Harwood in the UK about his Tristan Tzara translation, a book which I had always admired but was unable to stock in the store as his 1970s paperback had become a $60 to $75 collector's item. Lee was gracious, willing to take a chance on us, as were the French rights holders, and about a year later our first book was out.
Mary Ann Caws, one of the world's leading authorities on and translators of both the Dadaists and Surrealists, had authored a number of wonderful anthologies that had gone out of print over the years, and I had been eyeing them, especially her anthology of André Breton's writings and her translation of Tzara's epic poem, "Approximate Man." With Mary Ann's help and friendship, we were able to put out two more quality titles (in revised editions), and I think that was the turning point where we laid down the foundation that we were able to build upon and are still building upon.
Dada/Surrealism has always been an extreme interest of mine. These two movements created/convulsed into being so much of what we consider today to be modern: art, typography, poetry, film — the list goes on. I think it is necessary to have these texts available, in good translations and at accessible price points: that is what Black Widow Press is trying to do with its Translation Series. Some of the books in this series are titles we have brought back to life in revised or augmented editions (Chanson Dada, Last Love Poems of Paul Éluard) and others are new altogether (Our Capital of Pain by Éluard, the Desnos anthology, our upcoming Joyce Mansour anthology).
I am hoping some of the "bigger name" anthologies will help generate interest and money so I can keep putting out some of the lesser-known but often equally fascinating poets of the 20th century. I have a list I have created over the years of authors, titles, and particular poems that I would like to see in print. For the Modern Poetry Series it is the authors who I think continue to push language, thought, images with the same type of forcefulness and experimentation that was born out of these earlier movements: poets who generate excitement, or a unique view, or a feeling or emotion within that made me glad I read the book.
Poetry is, of course, very subjective and personal, so how it affects me may not be the same for everyone: my choices may only appeal to a small group. A lot of what I'm attracted to is out on the "literary edge," as you put it, but I think that is where some of the best poetry is currently being written, as it has been in the past.
Faatz: So far the bulk of what you've published comes out of the French surrealist tradition. You've brought out works by Éluard, Breton, and Tzara. By far the most grand undertaking was the publication of a monster collection of the work of Robert Desnos. I understand he had a fascinating life, both as a writer and as a person. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Phillips: André Breton, in his first Manifesto of Surrealism, stated that "Desnos, more than any of us, got closest to the Surrealistic truth." Besides being one of the founders of the Surrealist movement, Desnos was one of the
leading theorists and experimenters of the group. His "automatic writing," often done while in induced trance-like states; his radical experimentation with language, wordplay, and puns (see Martin Sorrell's translations within our anthology for examples); his general spirit and enthusiasm for what he was doing; and his willingness to push himself toward radical change and to go within himself for his writings really make him someone worth reading and studying.
He progressed from a more purely theoretically based poet to one of the movement's great (along with Éluard) poets of desire, love, and eroticism. Whereas Éluard trended toward Romanticism, Desnos trended toward (as Michael Benedikt calls it) "amorous alienation, or romantic rejection." He fell out of grace with Breton during the late 1920s when he started writing film scenarios, scripts, film criticism, novels, and some journalistic ventures. Breton attacked him directly in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism in 1929. Desnos effectively counterattacked in his own 1930 Third Manifesto of Surrealism, which we have included in its entirety in our anthology. During the 1930s, he continued in his independent and fiercely original view of Surrealism, writing poetry and acting as an editor for the then-clandestine publisher Les Éditions de Minuit during the Nazi occupation of the 1930s, often putting out his work under various pseudonyms. He was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald and then to Terezine (both concentration camps), and he died of typhoid at the age of only 45.
Desnos remained a Surrealist throughout his short life and embodied so much of the spirit of the movement that I do not think you will really have an understanding of what was being accomplished within the Surrealistic circle and its many tentacles (and outlying branches) unless you look at Desnos in depth. I think our anthology addresses some of this need. In addition, I would highly recommend Katharine Conley's brilliant biography on Desnos entitled, Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life, which was published in 2003.
Faatz: You've also demonstrated a dedication to the American experimental poet — I'm tempted to say "literary madman and explorer of the sublime" — Clayton Eshleman. I loved his book Archaic Design. It's one of the most exciting and consistently stimulating books of criticism and history and musing I've read in years. What can you tell my readers about Eshleman, his aesthetic, and his work?
Phillips: Vibrant, generous, demanding of readers, fearless, an expounder of ideas, images, and symbolism, and always passionate. Really passionate: about what he does, about writing and poetry in general. This passion, combined with the forceful, almost magnetic personality of a man who has managed to remain resolutely himself... this sums him up, but not really, as his complexities prevent an easy summary. Reading his books will drag you into his world, his views, his prejudices, likes, and dislikes. Few poets run themselves through the blender as he does to analyze the various parts of his psyche, of who he is. Always, always in an erudite, provoking, emotive, often intellectually dispassionate, and concise viewing. You will know Eshleman if you read him: there is no way around it. He is there in his writings, exposed and dissected as much as he dissects minutely art, poets, poetics, viewpoints, politics of today, ancient cave paintings. Eliot Weinberger stated in an introduction to one of Eshleman's books that "No other American poet has gone deeper into human history, personal history, and the body itself. Few have invented, as Eshleman has done, the language to carry him." Adrienne Rich in a later essay on Eshleman said something similar, describing him as "a poet and translator who has gone more deeply into his art, its process and demands, than any modern American poet since Robert Duncan or Muriel Rukeyser."
Few things of importance have missed Eshleman's all-encompassing eye over the last 40 years. He pushes constantly: some will find it very off-putting, but I do not think he will respect anyone who does not push back. He is an entirely un-PC poet in a poetry scene that is becoming increasingly PC, homogenized, safe, institutionalized, and simplified, with an almost unofficial but officially sanctified "verse culture." He was one of Black Sparrow Press's rebel poets of the 1960s and continues to be a rebel force today. And today, the last few years especially, he is writing some of his most intriguing and challenging poetry and prose, as you found out when you picked up Archaic Design. This is also what a lot of people noticed with his recent collection of poems, An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire. I am proud to have this "literary madman" on our masthead; he exemplifies what Black Widow Press is about. In October of this year we will bring out Grindstone of Rapport: A Clayton Eshleman Reader, covering 40 years of verse, essays, musings, translations, and prose poems. It will open many people's eyes to the breadth of what he has been doing all these years as presented in this succinct overview.
Faatz: What do you have coming up? Is there anything that you're particularly excited by?
Phillips: This year alone: John Olson's Backscatter: New and Selected Poems. John is unique in many ways: a complete bombardment of words and images presented through prose poems. The words and images flow, pile up, recede,
and surge again. Unlike many experimental, linguistically oriented poets, his prose, to me, seems unforced, fluid, melodic, dazzling at times, and all in all thoroughly enjoyable.
Romanian poet Ruxandra Cesereanu's Crusader-Woman (new and selected poems) is next. She is in many people's opinion (including mine) one of Romania's most exciting young poets. She has a substantial body of work available in Europe, but only small, chapbook-type editions in English. She is a very intense flesh, blood, myth, mythos, baroque-imagery poet creating her own world(s).
We are bringing out a few more large compilations that are exciting in many ways. The first is an anthology of the poems and writings of Joyce Mansour, one of the two most important Surrealist woman poets. She's been ignored by publishers in the U.S., but for the last 10 years or so she has seen an enormous revival in Europe with anthologies, a new biography, and some literary-criticism titles. Her violent eroticism and mastery of the poetic form in general can be breathtaking. Her poems read as if written today: one would never guess most of these poems were written in the 1950s and 60s, and the explicit, yet always poignant, eroticism involved would have certainly precluded any U.S. publisher of that time from bringing them out. This book has been two years in the making now, is some 400-plus pages, and should bring attention to her in the English-speaking world as Hubert Nyssen's massive compilation of her works did in France a few years back.
Grindstone of Rapport, as we talked about earlier: the breadth and strength of Clayton's poems, essays, prose poems, musings, and translations, compiled from the last 40 years of his writing, will speak for itself. Very hard to squeeze it down to 500 pages with so many quality, intriguing, forcefully written pieces to choose from. This book, coming after his recently published and internationally acclaimed Poems of Cesar Vallejo, I think will open people's eyes to really take a look at Clayton and see the progression of his work though the years and the fact that he is truly one of America's great poets and translators.
Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton. This breaks from our strictly publishing poetry but I had to do it. Though originally issued in 1995, so much new material and so many letters have come to light (especially with Breton's personal library and many of his letters being auctioned off) since then that Mark Polizzotti has completely revised and augmented this book. New illustrations and at least one big surprise will be revealed in this edition. Not simply a biography of Breton, it is, in my opinion, still one of the best overall surveys of the Surrealist movement in general (and one of the least dry from a reader's perspective, being filled with anecdotes and insights from all the key and minor figures). After reading you, too, will come to the conclusion that, like him or hate him, no one else could
have kept this disparate collection of misfits and geniuses together or the movement going except someone as iron-willed and forceful a personality as Breton.
Furor & Mystery and Other Poems by René Char. Mary Ann Caws, who has edited a number of Char anthologies through the years, has been given the mandate to do the Char anthology she has always wanted to do. Go wild, run with it. And she has, in a bilingual format. This is a big book; it is a necessary book. Char's reputation is entirely deserved, he continues to awe and inspire others, including poets, and there are not enough good anthologies in English out there so we add ours to the mix.
You asked for big books but other titles coming out this year include a Raymond Queneau anthology (EyeSeas), Poems of A. O. Barnabooth (aka Valery Larbaud, translated by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky), Art Poetique by Guillevic (incredible book about writing poetry and writing in general, presented in Guillevic's sparse, concise, poetic meditations), and this is just this year. We include forthcoming titles in all of our books, and the list is updated in every new title or one can check our website. I get excited just going over the list; I hope a few people feel equally so. Every sale allows us to continue to do this, and I appreciate all who have bought our titles and also those bookstores that allow us some space in their poetry sections so people can discover these titles.
I could go on, but I have taken enough time and am probably taxing your readers' patience. Thanks Chris and thanks to Powell's Books for existing and broadening the selection of books available to the public.
Faatz: Thank you, Joe!