Notes on Five Canadian Small (micro) Publishers

14 May 2012
Greenboathouse Press, Victoria BC: Jason Dewinetz, editor and publisher

Greenboathouse Books was founded in 1999 by Vernon, British Columbia writer Jason Dewinetz to produce limited-edition poetry chapbooks and broadsides, and quickly emerged as producer of some of the most beautifully-designed and sought-after publications in the country. In his highly compelling ‘Conversation ending with a poem’ with Queyras (posted on Lemonhound on November 25, 2008), he talks about some of his initial interests and limitations, as well as his subsequent shift:

When I started Greenboathouse Books I had absolutely no experience with publishing. In terms of production, for the most part I was simply hacking together things with paper and staples, embarrassing attempts that left me entirely unsatisfied. The web, on the other hand, was a relatively simple and inexpensive media to learn and utilize. Sitting in a quiet room and tinkering with code fit my temperament, and I found the maze of late-90s html intriguing.

I was also going through an intense feeding stage with Canadian writing and I just couldn’t seem to get enough of it. A shift seemed to be taking place then towards a more crafted, form-driven poetry, and yet it was simultaneously exploring content that I found far more interesting because it was working with a looser understanding of meaning and meaning creation. The post-structural notion of disparate reference systems was becoming ingrained in contemporary writing (whether the authors knew it or not), and these new webs of understanding were resulting in some very unconventional and often surprising work. This sort of stuff was ideal for the web, and from a purely means-of-production position, the web was where I was able to work at the time.

Thus, while producing the Greenboathouse Reading Series in Vernon every summer, I had a fairly steady flow of new writing coming my way in the form of visiting writer from across the country. I was also keen to look in on as many literary events as I could, and, at about the same time, I was also going to school, first in Victoria, then Edmonton, and then touring a book, so I was coming in contact with some very intriguing people cranking out really intriguing work.

The result of this was first the Greenboathouse Poetry Archive (on the website) – along with the evolving series of chapbooks from Greenboathouse Books – and eventually the Variant Project, which Aaron Peck and I came up with to see what a random group of writers might do with a single thematic referent. Again, the web was ideal for this project as the reader could jump from one poem to another, quickly, and explore a variety of investigations of a given topic, which is what the web is all about.

All of this was a lot of fun, and I was also working freelance designing websites for a variety of clients, so, again, from a Marxist point of view, the economics of working as a freelance designer was keeping me involved with the web, and thus at least some of my creative energies were thriving there.

During this time, however, I was also falling in love with fine-press books, and I began to realize that this was the direction I wanted to move in, and away from the web. The reading series and the website did, it seems, serve a sort of community purpose, and I’m glad they’ve done so, but after half a decade, these projects were becoming repetitive from a personal-creative position, and thus were no longer challenging me.

I realized that it was time for a fairly significant change. My book design interests were beginning to take solid shape, and thus the activity of the Greenboathouse website began to slow. I have no regrets about this, because around the same time all kinds of other, similar things were popping up. The blogging world was beginning to take off, with BookNinja, Lemon Hound, Poetics.ca, and dozens of other contemporary literary sites popping up, offering a more interactive environment to look at new writing; each of these has taken on-line Canadian poetics much further than the Greenboathouse site ever did, and it’s great to see these sites cranking out the discussion. Facebook has allowed for the creation of book clubs and small-press publishing groups, and all of this is creating a new literary community that, ironically, I find myself shying away from more and more.

From writer and publisher, Dewinetz quickly added ‘graphic designer and typographer’ to his list of accomplishments, developing and honing his skills. Roughly a decade after he began, the press took a hiatus, to re-emerge as Greenboathouse Press, moving into more limited publications produced by letterpress printing and a far higher production value, putting it up as one of the standards of Canadian limited-edition literary letterpress publishers, alongside Frog Hollow, Barbarian, High Ground Press and Gaspereau.

Originally from, and now living back in the Okanagan Valley, Dewinetz is the author of the poetry chapbooks Géricault’s Severed Limbs Paintings (Vernon/Victoria BC: Greenboathouse Books, 1999), The Gift of a Good Knife (Victoria BC: Outlaw Editions, 2000), In Theory (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2002) and CLENCH (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2011), as well as the trade collection Moving to the Clear (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2002). With Edmonton academic Michael O’Driscoll, he is also the co-author of A Bibliography of the Black Sparrow Press Archive, a detailed catalogue of the University of Alberta’s collection of the Black Sparrow Press’ first 94 publications. Since he started publishing, Dewinetz’s design for Greenboathouse has brought in multiple consecutive Alcuin Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada, and, in 2008, he served as one of three judges for the annual competition. Concerning the initial origins of the press, Dewinetz writes:

[I] started Greenboathouse in 1999, was fascinated with books and poetry and wanted to make both, became more and more interested in the book as object and began to study its history. I didn’t really think anything was missing at the time, but came to discover that the thriving chapbook scene was missing a higher-production approach, and so pushed in that direction. In 2004 I began working with letterpress, and grew dissatisfied with the books I was making, and in 2007 I got a printing press of my own and re-launched Greenboathouse PRESS. Since then, all of our books have been printed letterpress from hand-set metal type, a process I find far more satisfying both in process and in the resulting book.

Greenboathouse was named for the green-painted boathouse where he had originally set up shop, by the Dewinetz family cottage in Vernon, British Columbia, on Okanagan Lake, and has turned small-run poetry chapbooks into collector’s items, admired by poetry and printing enthusiasts alike. Brad Cran, the outgoing Vancouver Poet Laureate, wrote of Matt Radar’s Greenboathouse offering, ‘he Land Beyond’ in Geist 52: ‘The people at Greenboathouse love making books and it shows – from the paper to the hand stitching to the beautiful cover design. Even the little plastic bags they ship the books in scream collector’s item.’ On her Lemonhound blog, Sina Queyras takes the appreciation further, writing of chapbooks as art objects. ‘Those of us who love books, love books, and while we might appreciate the access to them online as e-texts etc., I highly doubt we’ll want to let go of physical libraries and pages and editions and covers. In fact, it may be that we become more concerned with the object itself.’ Over the years, Greenboathouse authors have included Sarah Selecky, Matt Rader, Shane Rhodes, Sina Queyras, Laisha Rosnau, Andy Weaver, Aaron Peck, Douglas Barbour, myself, matt robinson, JonArno Lawson, Jessica Hiemstra van-der Horst, Jake Kennedy, Jason Dewinetz and Robert Kroetsch. In his ‘12 or 20 questions’ interview, Dewinetz talks of the shift from Greenboathouse Books to Greenboathouse Press:

Greenboathouse Books started in 1999, and the shift to Greenboathouse Press happened in 2008. The former functioned as a micro-press, meaning that books were produced very inexpensively (computer-designed and laser-printed), while the latter involves books made entirely by hand (hand-set metal type, printed on a hand-fed Vandercook press, and sewn and bound by hand). This shift, though, also meant a change of focus in general. The time and expense involved in letterpress production has meant that our audience has shifted as well, largely due, on the surface, to a steep increase in prices, but beneath that surface are the historical and aesthetic considerations of a 500-year-old means of production. As such, the frequency of projects and the subject of those projects have also changed. This is to say that for the first 10 years, Greenboathouse published almost exclusively contemporary Canadian poetry. With the shift to Greenboathouse Press, the mandate is now split between literary projects and projects focused on the history of typography and printing.

He continues, in a recent email:

When the books were printed digitally (pre-2008) the print runs were normally around 100 copies. For the micro-press/chapbook scene, that number worked well, and within 9-12 months they’d all be sold. With the new books (2008 and on), the runs have ranged from 50–125. 50 to 75 is a nice range for books printed letterpress, as the process of turning the cylinder on the press is far more manageable. (For a 32-page book, printed in two colours – 75 copies – I’m cranking the press, by hand, around 1500 times, not to mention 3-4hrs per page to set the type, hours of proofing, printing, then folding, collating, sewing and binding, etc.) Due to the production process and materials used, prices have gone up significantly in the last few years, and thus my investment up-front is far more substantial. As such, I can’t have 100 books on the shelf, so selling out has become quite important, in terms of getting money back into play for the next project. I’m not interested in reprints because it doesn’t provide me with the adventure and challenge that I feel with each new book. Most of our backlist authors have gone on to republish the material we’ve printed with larger, trade publishers, so I don’t feel that their work is in any way held back by our small runs.

Writing of Greenboathouse’s last publications through their previous incarnation, Queyras begins to emerge as one of Dewinetz’ most public admirers, writing: ‘Jay Millar’s chapbook was the last to come out of Greenboathouse, Hall’s the second last. Like Woods/Pages, Suspended is a testament not only to Jason Dewinitz’ technical skill, but his (and Aaron Peck’s) ability to choose intriguing texts.’ Further in his ‘Conversation ending with a poem,’ he talks of the shifts in his own writing, reading and publishing interests, moving from poetry into non-fiction:

For the last couple of years I’ve been reading non-fiction almost exclusively, in particular books on books, typography, the history of printing, etc. This has turned into a bit of a fixation, scouring ABE for rare titles and staying up late reading pages that stink of dust and damp. Such books, however, wouldn’t make for interesting discussion here, but I’ll mention that I’ve been especially drawn to books on Nicholas Jenson and the early Venetian printers of the 15th century. Aside from this stuff, I’m reading bits & pieces here and there: things that come into Greenboathouse (including recent manuscripts from Jan Zwicky & Robert Bringhurst), other things I find at used stores, chapbooks from a variety of very small fine presses, etc. I can’t remember the last time I read a book of poetry or fiction from start to finish, but I tend to have a half-dozen books on the go at any given moment.

At the moment I’m reading three different translations of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, as I’m planning to print an edition in a couple of years. It was a pivotal book for me in my late teens, inflicting considerable psychological damage, but I’m wrapped up in the idea of setting it by hand, perhaps as a way of exorcising it. I don’t know if this speaks to your comment regarding intertextual readings, but this mixture fits with my temperament, in that I tend to have a lot on the go most of the time, and mixing texts this way both informs and inscribes each page I’m looking at, just as my various activities do the same. I suppose one could make some sort of comment about multiplicity or juxtaposition or the always shifting post-structural matrix of language and meaning, but at the end of the day it just makes for a more interesting experience while breathing.

As the press evolves, and Dewinetz along with it, publications emerge slowly, over time, trickling out into the world. As Dewinetz says:

Does it work? I suppose so. I make these books because I enjoy making them, and because I believe in the material (the writing). I think the books sell because of both of these reasons: the writing is compelling and the books are produced with purpose: well-designed and made from quality materials, etc. Micro-presses work because they fuel the literary community at a level that trade books just can’t touch, mainly because ‘return on investment’ becomes an imperative in the trade world. As such, micro-presses can operate on pure intention, with only the writing in mind. The fine press world, which is where Greenboathouse Press now operates, is a different game altogether, with the imperative to produce a finely-crafted object from finely-crafted writing. Production becomes the priority, not sales (although sales are necessary to keep the press running).

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