Pyramid Editions was established in 2015. It publishes limited editions of ‘small and beautiful’ poetry pamphlets. The poems inside ‘feature three poems by a single writer. These poems are not discrete, but part of a unit; a three-faced form of poetic examination (thus, a ‘pyramid’).’ The interview that follows was carried out with Owen Vince by email exchange.
First, some background: this is a new enterprise with two people behind it: yourself (Owen Vince, Managing Ed.) and Penny Elliott (Design Editor). Please could you share the story of how the idea was born and then translated into a whole website and first publication?
I can be quite impatient. My last project, HARK Magazine, had come to an end, a death by natural causes. Our model was unsustainable, and we were still very green to publishing. After it closed, I still wanted to be involved in publication in some capacity or another. I was also using that time to re-engage with poetry at a personal level, and came across this dense ecosystem of smaller presses – principally in the United States, such as Electric Cereal, Calamari Archive, and now Dirty Chai magazine, who are going to be releasing chapbooks – and really it was a question of 'why not?' Especially when I started using websites such as Entropy magazine, which is a US-based publication that publishes an exhaustive ‘where to submit’ post every couple of months. You get an insight into so many presses, doing their thing! It's inspiring. So yes, it was the general massing together of an idea. Also, a possibly misplaced confidence that it would work. I was looking across the poetry landscape in the UK and thinking what I was looking for wasn't necessarily available or strictly visible. Annexe shut down reasonably recently, for example. And the presses I admire specialise in larger collections, such as Test Centre, and not pamphlets. The bigger the pool of presses, the more voices you find swimming there. That was the idea.
I initially started the press, set up the website, and began looking for the poetry I wanted to publish, which was experimental, guided by a more ‘surreal’ imaginary, and very specific. I guess you might say ‘alternative’ but I am interested in the operationalization of that term as a critique. I spend a lot of time thinking about it and I can bore people with it. To put it another way, it was the poetry I wanted – and continue to want – to read.
Anyway, at that time I was living in Norwich and had heard Sophie Essex, our first poet, read at a local event and thought, hey, this is really good, and then Sophie submitted poems, unprompted, and something clicked. I said yes. It was a joy. Sophie runs the magazine Fur-Lined Ghettos and Salò Press, which obviously everybody should check out.
After selecting Sophie's work I brought Penny onboard because she’s very good at the more technical side of putting websites together and design, and it seemed natural to play to her strengths. So that's how Sophie's pamphlet came to be.
In terms of the ‘idea’, I probably explain that in more detail in later questions. I’d say the key trigger for it was the fact that I didn’t want to work in collection size and saw a landscape very dense with longer-form pamphlets. I just traced the impulse back to the question ‘so why do we choose one structure over another?’. It seemed natural to go for three poems, because of the almost primary, psychological human obsession with groups of three (it's a central organising principle in fairy tales, music, artistic composition). I also have an ongoing in-joke with friends about the Illuminati, and somebody once asked me, after I set the press up, whether it was the Illuminati, whether it was related. Regardless, I wanted to dictate the length, and wanted writers to respond to that criterion. That's all.
How does your experience with HARK magazine feed into this new enterprise? Has it shaped the way you do things?
Yes and no. Running a poetry magazine had been a very different experience, partly because there are more moving parts to it. Even with four people it often felt like too much work simply to run the magazine. Too many things could potentially go wrong. I wanted to work with single poets, over time, in a sequenced way. HARK gave me the kind of rough tools anybody in small-press publishing uses to get by. I'd gotten to know people (such as Andrew Wells, who's our fourth poet), magazines, the small press landscape, about marketing and SEO. It didn't feel like starting from square one. PYRAMID felt like a refinement.
Funding: your website says ‘we are not about making a profit’. But what about funding the web design, the first printings and so on? Do you hope for cost recovery or what? And did you have to invest something to start up?
Not really. I’m not an expensive person. I don’t run a car or have a family. I looked at funding arrangements and grants, but that’s an increasingly unsustainable minefield because it’s ceasing to exist in the UK. Poetry doesn’t really have a value and it’s hard for poetic labour, for poetry work, to be alienated. It broadly resists commodification, so it’s been left to die in a field. And I should add that it's very comforting that a lot of people are making their way in it, financially, and it can be done, and I wish them all the luck. And that's very important, to be able to get by on a practice that you love and are deeply invested in. We're just not in that place yet.
So in fact the cost model we have for PYRAMID is really minimal. We have affordable printers, cheap web hosting, and zero overheads. I just used my own money. I spend a lot of time house sitting, so don’t really pay rent, and living in cheaper countries, which helps. I don’t want to recover costs, and we don’t. But I think the model is sustainable, and actually we sold out of Sophie’s pamphlet so there’s definitely a degree of money coming back which goes straight back into printing costs. A big loop. I don’t think you can really do what we’re doing and expect remuneration. Some wouldn’t be happy with that, but we are.
I suppose I’ll address this in more detail below, but for me it really resonates with what friends in the States and Canada are doing, in the altgames scene, and this is a huge, albeit tight-knit, community made up of fanatics who are completely alienated by the dense commercial spheres of the gaming industry, whether because they belong to minorities or because they're doing something experimental which the industry rejects financially and who have been subject to horrendous abuse and have had to fight for their continuity because of events like GamerGate. So for a lot of my friends it’s about mutual assistance, boosting each other, throwing ideas and support around and hoping, at the end of that, to be able to pay the bills and just carry on doing what you're doing. A good example is that Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson, who run Offworld, recently ran a Kickstarter campaign of critical work by people writing from marginalized backgrounds and experiences, and it made over $66,000, which is astonishing and very positive. What I'm saying is that it can be done, maybe not in poetry, yet. That just suggests that poetry is still searching for the right configurations. It goes unnoticed, though, that pamphlets and weird little publications do sell out. People are buying them, and reading them.
This is why I've mentioned ‘theorypunk’, which is a sort of half-jokey idea in the games criticism scene about an accumulation of efforts, as Lana Polansky has put it, targeted at pursuing thought and individual practices over institutions or financial success. It’s ‘just being alive’ and ‘continuing to create the best work that you can’ (again, that’s tj thomas). I just want to stay alive and continue doing this, and I think – for now – that I can. And I’m lucky like that. But it’s not just luck.
You’re so right. It’s not just luck! You reference the ‘alt’ scene on the website. I associate this mainly with online activity, not paper. But clearly word on paper’s important to you. Can you say something about the relationship between online activity and printed word, or is that a bad question?
It’s not a bad question. From a printing and publishing perspective it’s a very interesting one because I think by simply invoking the question – like summoning a ghost – we’re having a conversation about the shape, trajectory, and existential identity of ‘publishing’. About ‘why books exist’. I think it comes from two things.
(a) Online formats I looked at didn't offer what I was looking for this time. They worked well for HARK, though. I might at some point go down that route, but I couldn’t find a format I really liked. What I wanted to do was not available to me, and I was like, let’s do something physical this time around. If magazines were too bulky and expensive, then little, light pamphlets have got to be easier to manage.
(b) The poetry world still values print over online, I think. It's very rooted in. I remember reading recently a conversation on Facebook (haha) about this, and there were a lot of older poets saying, ‘oh you can read some good poems online these days’, and the implication was that the vast bulk of online poems and publications out there are still not up to scratch. Some were more blunt. It’s a kind of snobbery and the exercise of privilege, which poetry really suffers with. I’ve read some pretty major print poetry publications in the past, read front to back, and felt completely unmoved and kind of aesthetically excoriated by them. Just because something appears in print, it doesn’t make it ‘better’. Faaar from it. I want to convince those poets otherwise. This is a gateway drug for other poets to look more seriously online and stop seeing it as a weird relation or a kind of ‘first step’. Until this year, the Forward Prize for single best poems didn’t accept online magazines. That was a massive lacuna. I am so glad they’ll be open to places like PracCrit and Poems in Which in the future.
So okay, why print? I think print has that cachet and I’m compromising. I think young poets are important and I want them to get recognition now. So I’m going to print them now. But I also think print delivers a control over what I'm doing, and delivers a focus and accountability that I need right now to work. It also extends the act of reading. Pamphlets disseminate in interesting ways, especially when they’re small. I’m not interested in ‘widening participation’ in poetry simply by getting more people reading the poems. That’s a reductive way of looking at printing as a political act. I think you have to think politically about the actual act of representation and about ‘who’ you're publishing and how. It isn’t as simple as ‘getting more people reading’. Print is immediate, and it makes our poets feel part of that physical world, and they all have online presences of varying degrees too. And I like print. I hate feeling inactive or mediocre and need to be doing something. And I want to do something I can get my hands around.
Sophie Essex is the author of the first publication, which is now sold out, though I see you’ve reprinted another twenty copies. Did you see her three poems as a sort of prototype of what you had in mind for the Pyramids, or did your idea come first and her poems later?
I actually had the idea before Sophie submitted, but her poems very perfectly, so adroitly, slotted into that idea. I personally don’t enjoy writing single poems. I like reading sequences. I like sustained, sequenced engagement with an idea or theme or history. I also love detail and specificity. Sophie’s poems focus around sexual objectification and sexuality, about the sexualised body, and the poems offer – in a very well controlled voice – these different angles, sub and dom, liberation and threat. Sophie's poems confirmed what I was doing. And people have really clicked with them. That's why we're printing 20 more (they're on their way as we speak to my place).
I’m interested in the Pyramid concept. Three poems that talk to each other, that have a relationship. It could almost become a genre in itself, don’t you think?
Oh man I hope so. Like I said, I love sequences. Okay, we have Anne Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’ or Toby Martinez de las Rivas Terror, and so on. A sequence is a very compelling and powerful instrument in poetry. Like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, from last year. It’s a vessel for carrying a particular ‘argument’. And that can work at the small and large scale. The triptych was used in sacral, religious art to play on the idea of there being the ‘sacred, profane, and evil’. Three ontologies which overlap because they share the same set of signifiers. They’re in conversation around something, something important. Okay we’re not worried about god and hell much anymore. There are other questions.
I enjoy specificity. I studied Russian literary theory and have been interested in the thinking of Viktor Shklovsky, who’s Zoo and Fourth Factory expanded on this concept of ‘ostranenie’, or estrangement. The idea was that by looking, formally, at a thing – in a weird way you see the actual thing better. You understand how a thing works by looking at it differently. It's a skewing of Plato, isnt it? Look at the shadows on the wall, and actually obsess with and accentuate those shadows. Really mess around with them. Make insane shadows. And that, that’s how you get at the form of the thing.
In Sophie’s pamphlet we’re looking at sex and the sexed body, not in these teleological ways as in ‘his body’ and ‘her body’ and one object penetrating another leading to some sort of climax. No – Sophie’s poems are a crushing of these things together. We’re watching sex both from a great height and also microscopically. It’s watching an erotic film in a hall of mirrors.
Your printing is done by Footprint Workers Co-op. It sounds a great enterprise! But more traditional (I think it’s lithographic method) than into-the-future print-on-demand. You like the limited edition, sold-out-gone-forever idea, right?
That’s right. They’re so nice! And they print a lot of material for radical book fairs and other local action groups and campaigns. And they’re affordable and always answer the phone when I bother them (thanks Alex and team). I am very into the idea of these little sets of a kind of frail poetry. Yes, print is physical, but because of that – because of active transport –
the publications disappear. Frail and eternally strong. As Mikhail Bulgakov put it, ‘manuscripts don't burn’. Of course, they absolutely do burn. But the idea is still there, the act of creation. Bulgakov knew that because he was continually burning manuscripts so he wasn’t shot to death by the Cheka in a back room. But we still read and love him now.
I mentioned above that I’m big into the cassette label scene. You have labels like Illuminated Paths in Florida, J&C Tapes and Invisible City Records in the UK, and Farbwechsel in Hungary, and they often run prints of twenty five, fifty, sometimes more, sometimes less. Because the object is desirable and limited and because of cost. It has this (oh boy) ‘coolness’ and gracious intensity around it. THIS IS IMPORTANT, GET IT WHILE IT LASTS! Market traders get that. People have loved getting hold of these pamphlets exactly because of that. And you know, my mum isn't going to read poems online – she just isn’t. So I have to hand her the things on paper.
Print on demand is an interesting model. But I also don’t think it would deliver what I’m looking for right now. I had a very specific idea of what I wanted the pamphlets to look like. I love the idea of them all being here, and then not. Sometimes it’s good to keep people wanting and waiting, and it’s good to be part of something and have, basically, this very unique friable thing. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why, to return to the print/online question above, you see platforms like Kickstarter getting funding for digital projects (like games, or films), and giving away unique, physical backer rewards. We’re real bodies, and sometimes it’s nice to have something to anchor you down a little. Stuff. One of the benefits of working with an actual lithographic printer is that you can tinker and adjust and joke over the phone and it’s not a giant corporation that is trying to sell you branded magnets as well.
I think that ‘zines’ and printed material are very much coming back into the fore. Take this report from ABC news about the resurgence of zines among young artists, or even Kanye’s zine. Casting back, my first publication was in a zine in 2004. There are Zine fairs! Printed materials really luxuriate in physical skills and crafts. And their fragility and limited numbers are special because of that. Hannah Nicklin, a games critic and geographer, recently produced her online series of ‘psychogeography of games’ interviews with independent games developers in a physical format, a hand-printed zine. Working back from online to offline. The Arcade Review, for whom I’m a contributor, are doing a print anthology of their online content. It’s not so much about online vs. offline as a mutuality between them. Both have strengths – they don't have to be opposed in that way. I actually don't hear people talking about the 'death of print' anymore. Or maybe I've stopped listening.
Tell me about launches: the Pyramids only contain three poems. So when you launch a publication and the poet reads, technically that reading could be over pretty fast. Sophie Essex could deliver her three poems in about five minutes, I think, unless there’s something more complicated going on than just the text. Does this mean you’ll launch at least two or three at once (if you plan to have launch events)?
Oh yes. It’s going to be pretty quick. To be honest I have a limited attention span and appetite for poetry readings. All poetry readings last too long. You want to leave people wanting more, not feeling overfull and drowsy. So for the launch we’ll actually have four poets – from the first four pamphlets. That's twelve poems. Perfect.
The reading is going to have something of the spectacle about it. We’re going to have some very interesting music. We’re going to have some stage-craft. I want to have each poet read to, or around, a physical object that represents the ‘core’ of their poems. Like a séance. And then we're going to drink and talk and feel loved. Which is nice.
I liked your statement about what you like: ‘We want detail, mess, specificity. We’d prefer three poems on the fur trim of Anna Karina’s coat in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville to three diaphanous poems “about memory”. Although, nobody wants diaphanous poems about memory, do they? So in this respect, you are quite like other eds. Isn’t it almost impossible to define what you really want, except by choosing it? How are you getting on with choosing the content for the next set of publications?
You say that, but I feel like in modern lyric poetry the scene is dominated by memory poetries, and poetries which prioritise the ‘lyric I’. And for me – perhaps this is simply a question of taste – they can come across as diaphanous. I’m not carping (ha), and I love some of those poetries, but I also want to see people writing about other things. Just some. The six poets we’ve committed to publish are writing about different things. So there you go. I’m satisfied. You experiment in order to push the boundaries of a practice. I think these poets are deeply relatable, dealing with complex and beautifully evoked ideas. But they aren’t easy. They require you to dream and turn your mind upside down. I am so excited to be working with all of them. But they’re also not hewing to conventional expectations about poetry, especially the kinds of poetry I think people expect of young people. I read a lot of poems where the young poet has to be myopic and kind of coolly bored. I’m not interested in that. Life is terrifying, often oppressive, but never boring.
I think there’s this assumption that poetry happens because of a ‘miraculous’ triggering event and the poet whips out their notebook and works at ‘poeticising’ the event, or wants to raise their dead granny from the grave with a poem. But isn’t it actually about working? Collecting minerals, mining them, and boiling them down. A kind of alchemy. It’s transformative action on a language, and – for me at least – not a kind of reactive ‘response’ to a feeling. So we're trying to capture a process at work, the fabrication.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not being clinical. Poetry is a fractious activity. Emotional. Poets are selves, but they don’t have to write about ‘this me and what I feel’ in a direct way. Sophie is writing extremely emotional, alive poems, but the world she is describing is her own different architecture. It is also an intellectual activity. It can do a lot of things. I don't want it to seem like I'm prioritizing form over content, however. Both are important.
But I think the scene is dogged by this idea that poems should be like little novels, but more nicely written. You don’t watch a Tarkovsky film and say, ‘hey, where’s the love story? Who’s that guy? It doesn’t make sense!’. It does make sense, just differently, and is still emotional, and still about ‘a self’, and still about memory sometimes, but it’s also a complex texture; a strange, alien surface. A system of symbols. A collage.
I think poems are an attempt at architecture, really; an experimental architecture in which a particular dreamlike object is being constructed from transitory materials. It’s always an act of architectural rendering. These are still questions about existence. It’s a form of ‘unrequited love’. See, that's Tarkovsky! He said that, about art. It’s a longing across inadequate materials, and you’re the architect. PYRAMID is an expression of that architecture. The buildings of its city.
But yes, I am also going to have to define off the cuff and tell by doing. We actually have six pamphlets lined up (four have been announced, including Sophie’s). We have what I want. Poems about neuroscience by SJ Fowler (his Tractography is coming very soon); poems about East Germany and television and Berlin (Alison Graham); poems about an artist's model's posing (Andrew Wells), and so on. I'm finding that, through a mix of submissions and me asking folk I admire and like, we’re getting what we want. And hopefully people can see that and feel like they know what it is we want.
You’re based ‘between France and the UK’. This sounds complicated. How does it work? And where do you keep the publications? I notice your print run for Sophie Essex was only 50 copies, so perhaps you don’t have to store very many. But if you’re travelling, who will post out orders?
It’s not even strictly accurate right now. I move about quite regularly. In France, now, and about to travel to Denmark. To look after rabbits, should you believe it. It works because of the internet. Without the internet we’d be dead in the water. In terms of publications, it depends. We ship some personally, and Sophie actually sold a lot of hers directly because she’s so good at that and can sell them at the readings she does in the UK. Storing 50 copies wasn’t such a problem. We just take it as it goes. No real system, but it works. Some we post from France, some I bother friends to post, some Sophie sells, and so on. Friends are so useful.
I have plans to stock the pamphlets in physical stores, which we did with HARK. I still expect to get the most movement from online and reading sales, though.
Is 30 the official coming of age for a poet these days? Why 30? Has the long arm of the Eric Gregory Awards had an influence?
Unfortunately not. I think – and here I risk ranting again – there’s this expectation that in poetry you ‘work upwards’. You start off young and you write and wait and then you’re old and established. Reward is, staggered. I think that devalues the work you do when you’re eighteen and twenty eight, which is just as important as the work you might produce when you’re thirty eight or sixty eight. Young people, in this moment, are among the most undervalued and also the most precarious in society. We’re the first generation to have it worse than our parents. There are people like Laurie Penny in the UK who are documenting these effects, their emotional, physical, social toll. You hear things like ‘generation rent’ and it’s sad, and true. A lost generation! Except there’s less absinthe and, fortunately, less Hemingway. And the fact is that the upwards mobilization of people in this society no longer applies. We are expected to conform to those patterns of success, but denied the tools and privilege to achieve it. And we don’t necessarily want mortgages or families. Maybe we just want a little space, you know
The Eric Gregory is cool so far as it goes, but I’m more worried about the magazines and presses that say you have to have a track record when publishing. One even says, ‘don't even bother submitting if you don't already have a pamphlet and record of publication’. Why? Poetry isn't marketable guys! Do it because it’s exciting. A lot of these magazines just sound bored of poetry. They sound like the guardians of this decrepit temple that might collapse at any time and are tasked with having to bear its heavy load into the future. Art isn’t a time-capsule. It’s a current practice. Do it now!
I think this is also reflected in submissions requirements. Hard copy only submissions need to end in 2016. Yes, there are arguments for and against, but as I see it, and have personally experienced it, hard copy submissions aren’t accessible to people on low incomes, in precarious jobs, to poets who are overworking to feed families on the bread line, to people with disabilities. I think presses should at least offer an option for people to send email submissions. I think they'll find this easier to manage than it seems from the outside. By favouring offline submissions, there's a very real risk you're cutting yourself off from a vein of different poetry.
Do you have plans for the long-term? And if so, what are they?
Yes! We want to continue with the core model. In ‘epochs’ (groups of four). They may evolve over time, of course. We’re thinking about just carrying on doing it until we get bored. I like finding poets online, but we're also still getting quality submissions.
We've also been thinking about dual translations (Czech and German initially) and doing e-pamphlets. We want to do launches, and have the first planned for December. We might do some workshops at some point based on the ‘PYRAMID’ principle. That would be so good. I’m moving back to London later this year so if somebody wants to do that with me, or knows of a good place to rent out, then get in touch please. It's owen [at] pyramideditions [dot co dot uk]