this interview was conducted over email from August to December 2016
Before settling in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1982, Geoffrey Young spent student years in Santa Barbara (UCSB), and Albuquerque (UNM), then lived for two years in Paris (a Fulbright Fellowship year followed by a six-month stint working for La Galerie Sonnabend). From 1975-1982 he lived in Berkeley (two sons born). His small press, The Figures (1975-2005), founded in Berkeley, published more than 135 books of poetry, art writing, and fiction.
He has directed the Geoffrey Young Gallery for the last 25 years, as well as written catalog essays for a dozen artists.
His own recent books include Click Here to Forget, Isolate Flecks, 2016; All the Anarchy I Want, Lonely Woman, 2013; Dumbstruck, Yawning Abyss, 2013, with paintings by Daniel Heidkamp; The Point Less Taken, The Figures, 2013, with drawings by Lucas Reiner; and Get On Your Pony & Ride, Non-Fiction, 2012, with paintings by Chie Fueki.
A chapbook of sonnets, THIRTY-THREE, recently appeared through above/ground press.
Q: Your legendary small press, The Figures, produced more than one hundred titles over thirty years before you closed shop. It might be an oversimplified question, but how did you first get into writing and publishing?
A: Writing, besides being a subject we were all taught in school, and were expected to use with reasonable skill, in book reports and term papers, was also something we could do on our own to account for personal experience. That’s how, slowly, I found my way to writing.
As for publishing, the most conventional door of entry for young poets is running their own literary mag, and that was true for me, as well. I helped a college friend, Allen Schiller, put out copies of his mag, Stooge, and pretty soon, back around 1972, I was doing issues of his mag, too (which he encouraged, being non proprietary).
Q: How did you move from Stooge to The Figures, and what was the process of starting a small press? Who else was around at the time when you were beginning to publish?
A: As most editors of literary mags soon realize, it can be a burden looking at the accumulation of incoming envelopes stuffed with typed-up poems sent from hither and yon, all asking for attention. And often, about that time, it occurs to many to begin to think, producing a book featuring a poet we really like would be preferable to spending hours reading submissions and sending rejection notes.
Anyway, that’s what happened to me and Laura Chester back in 1974 or 75: Stooge, in its 13th issue, was running out of gas, and The Figures, a new small press still in the birth canal, had been named, and we chose SOME LAMB (poems by Stan Rice) to be the press’ first book.
It was fortunate, at just that moment in Berkeley, CA, that the West Coast Print Center had been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, to provide low-cost production and printing facilities for alternative presses. I got a job there and learned to design books. Ten, twelve, fifteen important small presses were born in this climate, of which The Figures was but one.
Q: How did all of this activity impact upon your own writing?
A: A post-Beat generation of writers seemed to have blossomed in the Bay Area in the mid-seventies, and I aimed our new press at what I liked of it. Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Stephen Rodefer, among many others. Readings proliferated, magazines printed new and challenging works, critical disputes flared up and evolved. I was translating poems and writings from the French, everyone was reading Breton and Barthes, Jacobson and Stein. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara appeared to an eager audience, etc, etc. Naturally (as in a slightly mad laboratory), my own writing was affected by the richness of what was in the air. I appropriated and adapted texts, I wrote lyrics, I told heart-felt stories of personal family loss. Meaning jousted with abstraction, common sense with sonic freedom. Some of the variety of what I was capable of then appeared in 1980 in my first substantial book, Subject to Fits.
Q: While I suspect you didn’t found the press for the sake of publishing your own work, did you have any hesitation producing your own titles?
A: It wasn’t foreign to me, the idea of including work I’d written in things I was producing. When we had Stooge, the mag, I routinely included a few poems in issues I was editing. But The Figures was different. I did wonder if it was cricket to publish a book of my own in the context of what we were doing in Berkeley. Eventually, I got over it—wanting my book to resonate in just this context—and did my Subject to Fits in 1980. (At the same time, co-publisher Laura Chester produced her book, My Pleasure.)
Did so for a couple of reasons, I guess. One, I’d learned how to make books, a skill I was intent on using; and two, I wanted to control the look of each book. I asked New York artist Mel Bochner to provide drawings for cover and interior sections of Subject to Fits, which he did. I’m sorry it’s long out of print, now. But for the most part, The Figures set its sights on the work of our contemporaries. Periodic grants helped fund production, and certain books did very well, and required re-printing. Rodefer’s Four Lectures, for example, as well as Lydia Davis’ Story and Other Stories, and Clark Coolidge’s Mine: The One That Enters the Stories.
Q: What kind of response did you have for those early publications? How did the press begin to build, and even find momentum?
A: I remember the pleasure we got when one of the books was reviewed locally, or in a New York mag. The late Ross Feld reviewed Stan Rice’s Some Lamb in a 1976 issue of Herb Leibowitz’s poetry review, Parnassus. Gloria Frym reviewed Rodefer’s The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing in the San Francisco Review of Books in 1978. Joyce Carol Oates raved about Lydia’s book in some context. Reviews confirmed something important, but really it was enough just to get the books out, to know they were circulating, were part of the conversation.
Presses get a name for the quality of the books they make available. No one in Canada wanted to publish Christopher Dewdney’s Spring Trances in the Control Emerald Night, for example, but I jumped at the chance, having gotten in touch with Chris late in 1977 when he was still living in London, Ontario, after reading some brilliant critical thing he’d written in a magazine. At that point, back in 1978, we had ten books in print, including Spring Trances. We did a little catalog to promote them. We included a few photographs of book covers, as well as quotes from reviews. Seemed like a milestone. Little did I know it would be the last “catalog,” despite continuing to publish books for another 27 years.
Q: How did your writing evolve after Subject to Fits?
A: Ron Silliman’s Ketjak and Tjanting had come out in 1978 and 1981, respectively. They used various procedures (repetition & Fibonacci counting issues, for example) in original ways. Then his essay, “The New Sentence,” appeared, which focused attention on the sentence as an atomic unit. There was nothing in Ron’s sentence that hadn’t been achieved by Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons, decades earlier (it could be argued), but Ron’s theoretical work was influential. My next book, Rocks and Deals (1987), though not at all like Ron’s, was sentence driven. The sentences didn’t have to build to anything climactic, but they had to be interesting at every moment. They had to constitute or be evidence of a certain sensibility. Rocks and Deals is made up of 15 poems, each about fifty lines long.
In 1993, as I was proofreading Tizzy Boost, a suite of 47 poems by Bruce Andrews, I began to write them all backwards, from the last line in poem 47, to the first line on page one of poem number one. I didn’t worry about sense, wasn’t troubled by meaning. Yet, slowly, over time, this activity (together with much editing and many a rewrite), became my book Cerulean Embankments (1999), published by Living Batch, the press of legendary maverick writer, teacher, publisher Gus Blaisdell of Albuquerque. These poems are as close to what I’d call jazz poetry as anything I’ve written.
Some years later I got interested in the sonnet. Ted Berrigan had of course foregrounded it early on (when the sonnet as a form was held in low repute). I started converting any short poem I had into a fourteen line poem, and I kept writing new ones, as well. Didn’t have to rime, or have a concluding couplet (though some did). All they needed was 14 lines. Routinely I divided these poems into three quatrains and a concluding two liner. In 2005 I bundled up over a hundred of them, called it Fickle Sonnets (with covers and drawings by Donald Baechler), and published it under the press name, Fuck A Duck (a subsidiary of The Figures).
Q: Fickle Sonnets was the first publication I saw of yours. It’s one thing to say you became interested in the sonnet, but I get the sense that you’ve composed little else over the past decade or more. What is it about the form that appeals so deeply? What do you see capable in the form of a sonnet that might not be possible in other forms?
A: When Michael Gizzi and I used to sit around reading each other’s poems, one of our critical lines was: “get in, then get out.” The sonnet, being a short poem, insists on this thematic. Of course there are skinny sonnets and fat ones, so the notion of short is relative. How curious it would have been to be alive in the 1590s in London, when every fool with an inkwell was writing a sonnet sequence to some fab (if sometimes imaginary) babe.
I got in the habit ten years ago of using the three quatrains and closing two liner as ways to put pressure on the writing, to concentrate and clarify the few sentences that make up the poem. To get what you have to say in fourteen lines takes some editing resolve.
I’ve written lots of prose over the last ten years, as well, and when doing so, don’t see any difference between the care required to get the prose just right, and the care that goes into the sonnet. And besides being famously conventional—the “sign” of poetry itself–a single sonnet fills a book page with room to spare.
Q: Your new chapbook, THIRTY-THREE, is composed entirely of sonnets, including new pieces as well as poems selected from a variety of your published works. How do you feel your sonnets have progressed between the publication of this new title and, say, Fickle Sonnets?
A: Can’t say in what way more recent sonnets have progressed or developed, if they have, because I’m still adapting (funneling, fitting) any short poem I may have written into the 14 line sonnet convention. My methodology may prevent any radical rethinking of the form? Originally, the sonnet made claims for the troubadour’s love of his nearly unapproachable lady/muse, but I’ve been told, by Alan Bernheimer and others, that there’s nothing I won’t try to say in this form, including the love poem. Naturally, a writer’s content, like his love-life, changes over time. One day I might transform some paragraph from a Samuel Johnson letter, and the next day find myself standing outside in the dark of night looking at the stars and writing about Arcturus, or Sirius. Given the political and moral uncertainty of the age we’re living in, any attention brought to bear on things in this world should function as a tonic.
Q: What caused you to finally shut down The Figures?
A: After thirty years I finally wised up! Since deciding to stop publishing books, I’ve had more time for myself and more money. And fewer boxes of books to store in house and barn. Putting an end to The Figures was painless. I didn’t have the money to keep making books happen, anyway. Since that time I’ve kept my hand in, however. All the books now are cheaply produced, and all of the books are, gulp, by me. (I joke, “I’ve finally found my favorite writer.”) A dozen or more chapbooks since 2005, when The Figures stopped. And each chapbook has a different one-off press name (for the goof of it.) These new books are more like wampum than official culture. Many feature the artworks of people whose work I admire, or show in my gallery. I sell a few, but mostly give them to the curious, or trade with friends, moving them out into the world of poets, artists, and non-writers.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Yesterday I was looking at a book I wrote in 1987, called Rocks and Deals, after not reading it for fifteen years, and thought, these poems should be part of a selected poems. A selected is a goal, therefore, one that I will continue to sort and shuffle and work at. Also, besides directing a contemporary art gallery, I’ve been having a good run, since April of this year, doing colored pencil drawings. Two of them will be showing soon in New York at the National Arts Club. And five new ones will be showing in a gallery in Brooklyn in January, 2017. The ex-pat American writer, Mark Terrill, who has lived in Germany for the last twenty years, will be using 20 of my drawings (all done since May 2016), to accompany twenty of his new prose poems in a book that will appear in early 2017. And finally, in a book that I will produce, twenty of my new poems will be in a book featuring the paintings of the young Brooklyn painter, Eric Hibit.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He is “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, a regular contributor to Open Book and both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs, and an editor/managing editor of many gendered mothers. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com