Interview with Upper Rubber Boot Books

Tell me a little about yourself.
Joanne Merriam (Publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books): In addition to being a small press publisher, I’m a writer (primarily poetry and science fiction) and work a day job as an administrative assistant to three surgical oncologists. I’ve always had the idea of running my own press in the back of my mind. What solidified it, for me, was something that the poet Molly Peacock said to me. She’s an American who immigrated to Canada, and I am a Canadian who immigrated to America, so when she gave a reading at Vanderbilt here in Nashville and I had the opportunity to talk to her afterwards, I asked her how she found moving to another country, because adjusting to the American literary culture has been a real challenge for me. She said that one of the reasons she started The Best Canadian Poetry in English series was to help with that disorienting adjustment, and advised me, “Start something! Then they’ll have to come to you.”

I started Upper Rubber Boot Books in the summer of 2011. In Canadian vernacular, Upper Rubber Boot is slang for a remote, possibly unhip, probably insignificant place, much like America’s Podunk. Upper Rubber Boot Books gives a voice to writers working from a (metaphorically) remote place, and to that end publishes fine literary and speculative writing, with a special focus on poetry and short story collections, genres which have a particularly difficult time finding a home in the publishing world.

I had been editing Seven by Twenty, a weekdaily online journal of pieces that were short enough to be published on Twitter (that is, that fit into 140 characters), so our first titles included a best-of anthology of 140 pieces from the journal, called 140 And Counting. I also did a reprint of my own poetry collection, The Glaze from Breaking, which was originally published in the UK by Stride Books, and a poetry chapbook by Heather Kamins called Blueshifting.

Our most recent titles include the anthology Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days, edited by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum and Alexander Lumans, which contains short stories by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Paolo Bacigalupi and poetry by writers like Brian Barker, Kevin Prufer and David J. Daniels; and Peg Duthie's Measured Extravagance, which contains a lot of formal poetry; and a dystopian collection of short stories by New Zealand's RJ Astruc called Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories.
Which genres do you prefer to read?
Joanne Merriam (Publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books): For Upper Rubber Boot, I like speculative (that is, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism) work with a literary feel, or literary work which exploits some of the tropes of speculative writing.

In my personal life, I read just about any genre — I like mysteries and romances and science non-fiction, too, but I don’t like them enough to spend months on one manuscript, so I don’t publish them. I read a lot of poetry, too. Most recently for poetry, I finished Wayne Miller’s The City, Our City, which is so, so good. The last prose book I read was Caitlin R. Kiernan’s excellent ghost story The Drowning Girl, which features a mentally unstable narrator, so you’re never quite sure what’s real in the world of the book, which made for a really compelling read.
What's some writing advice you've received, that works for you?
Joanne Merriam (Publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books): Don’t try to follow the market. I think the best books follow the author’s passion rather than being copies of whatever is currently popular. I get a lot of submissions that seem to be trying to follow a trend. As a publisher, I’m vastly more interested in something new.

We also thought you might enjoy hearing from our authors:

David J. Daniels (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): Find two or three people who love you, to read your work, who will beat up your bad writing and praise your good.

David M. Harris (Contributor, 140 And Counting): Sarah Schulman, who was my advisor for two semesters at Goddard, once said in a letter, “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.” Oddly enough, I got the same advice from my friend Carter Stevens, former publisher of the S&M News. But Sarah was talking about finding the difficult emotional truths of each scene; don’t stop until you’re reaching something that part of you doesn’t want to reveal, and then reveal that.

Heather Kamins (Author, Blueshifting - from an interview with author Steve Vernon): Read a lot. Write a lot. Lather, rinse, repeat. Give yourself permission to take risks, to play, and to let yourself fail. Keep a notebook and think of it the way an artist thinks of a sketchbook: a place to make lists of words and phrases you like, doodle, and sketch out drafts. I also recommend getting your hands on a copy of Gregory Orr’s essay “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” That essay completely changed my writing life by helping me identify what it was that made my better poems work, and understand how to reproduce it.

David C. Kopaska-Merkel (Contributor, 140 And Counting): Would you think less of me if I admitted I rarely listen to advice? It’s true. But one can’t help hearing things. One piece of advice I’ve received, that I almost never remember to use, is to read my work aloud to myself before submitting it. It’s a shame I don’t do this more, because when I have done it I felt it made my poems more concise and gave them more punch. It’s even more odd that I don’t use this technique with every poem, when you consider that I have been writing technical presentations (about geology) since 1981. For most of that time I have practiced aloud and reaped the benefits. My talks have gone from incoherent to less incoherent. One piece of advice I have taken and use all the time is to put away a piece of writing when I finish it. Best to put it away for a least a day or two and then read it again. It allows one to be a lot more objective about the strengths and weaknesses of a poem. And it often makes obvious what needs to be changed and how.
What is your writing process?
We thought you might enjoy hearing from our authors:

David J. Daniels (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): Every morning, I try to write—if not write, read—poetry. It’s a habit I’ve developed since childhood from years of waking up exceptionally early, before anyone else in the house. If I can write on my own, I’m pleased—but mostly I work by imitation. I enjoy a couplet by Thom Gunn and seek to emulate it. Once I’ve started, I work with the language itself, typically through rhyme, seeking out that next line, less concerned with ‘the story to be told,’ which I don’t much believe in (write prose, if you have a story to tell) and more concerned with technique and craft, the silliness of rhyme or the startling echo.

Judy Jordan (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): Slow and labored and one of accretion. I have no self-esteem whatsoever and hate my own writing so much of writing for me is forcing myself to sit at my desk and then battling with the “shit committee” in my head which constantly tells me my writing sucks and I need to go back to delivering pizzas. So my writing is a few scrawled lines then those same lines rescrawled slightly changed then some criticisms from the ‘shit committee’ over and over so that by the time I have something like a first draft it’s a page, front and back, scrawled all over, upside down, in the margins, with lines and arrows pointing to scribbles off in the corners, plus various stabs at similes scattered here and there. I then rewrite that onto a clean page, scratch out lines, add lines, scrawl things in spare spaces with lines and arrows, until the page is nearly impossible to read then I start again on a fresh page. A few drafts in I type up the poem then edit the typed copy and continue to do that for a few drafts. This whole process usually takes one or two weeks by the end of which I’m exhausted and hate the poem passionately. At that point I put it away and come back weeks, even months later and look at it with fresh eyes and objectively and see that despite what the ‘shit committee’ has to say, it isn’t all that bad.

Kevin Prufer (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): I only write very late at night. (It’s very late now, as I type.) Most of that time I spend pacing around my office, flipping through books. The amount of time I spend actually typing is much smaller that the amount of time I spend thinking about what I’m going to type. After I finish a first draft, I reread it and ask myself: now what’s this all about? And when I can answer that question, I rewrite the poem.

Joshua Robbins (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): I try to write something every day, at least six lines per day, usually comprised of images and bits of language that I record in a pocket-sized notebook I carry with me. The progress on individual poems comes gradually. Sometimes my poems are assembled collage-style from my daily writings and notes. Sometimes they come from little assignments I give myself. For example: “Write a poem that uses the following words: sunrise, cargo, tunnel, spirit, knife, geography, pattern, reason, smoke, and water.” As I write, I find that the assignments will often trigger something in me and I’ll have an entirely new direction to go, hopefully toward a draft. Once I’ve got a draft, the process is one of counting: making pass after pass over the draft, tinkering with the accentuals and measure, culling superfluous lines, altering syntax, improvising and moving the puzzle pieces around until I finally recognize the picture.
Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?
We thought you might enjoy hearing from our authors:

David J. Daniels (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): Probably, but I’m the wrong person to ask, I imagine. Have I neglected people? Likely, but I’d have to ask them. Writing demands, I think, a certain level of selfishness and extended periods of quieting what’s around you.

Kevin Prufer (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): Aside from a great deal of time, money and energy, I have not sacrificed much. My entire professional life, though, has been dictated by my moving to places where I could find the time and resources to write. I spent a few years in Cloverdale, VA and St. Louis, MO learning how to do it well. Then I spent 15 years in a very small town in west-central Missouri, teaching and editing a literary magazine, writing in the evenings. Now I’m in Houston. Poetry has taken me to all these places, and away from the places that I might otherwise have lived. But I don’t consider that a sacrifice. It’s more interesting than that.

Joshua Robbins (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): I would never use the word “sacrifice,” but I have, I suppose, risked some things. One story I like to tell is how I was forced, or so I thought at the time, to read an excerpt of Paradise Lost in high school English class. It was soon after reading Milton where I discovered the power of poetry: Milton’s language had made me, a Southern Baptist’s son, feel sympathetic to Satan! If that’s what poetry could do, I wanted that power, I wanted to be a part of poetry. Soon after, I was cluelessly browsing the local bookstore’s poetry section and waiting for a title to speak to me as Milton had. And then I saw it: Satan Says by Sharon Olds. I was a broke teenager, but had to have it, so I put the book in my pants and squirmed my way out of the store. I never looked back.
Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?
We thought you might enjoy hearing from our authors:

David M. Harris (Contributor, 140 And Counting): I’ve always been pretty glib. Good sentences have never been my problem. Working in publishing (which I did for about 25 years), I always saw writing as something that almost everyone did. So I started doing it. Most of what I wrote (other than cover copy and suchlike) was pretty awful because, even though the sentences were good, there wasn’t any heart; blood on the page, as I’ve come to call it. Writing was a mechanical process, aimed at getting published rather than at learning anything. It wasn’t until after I left the business and went to Goddard that I learned about putting real heart into my good sentences, and that’s what I’ve been working on ever since. When I write non-fiction, as I still do sometimes (I published a chapbook essay collection some years ago: Democracy and Other Problems), I’m trying to understand some aspect of the world outside me. My poetry is sometimes external, but even when I’m writing about, say, the 9/11 attacks, it’s to understand my own relationship with that subject. Of course, since I’m also trying to universalize my feelings, I hope it will speak to others and their connections with each other and the world, but if I don’t get my own blood on the page (there’s that phrase again!), I won’t touch anyone else. None of this applies to light verse, of course.

Judy Jordan (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): For me, I think it is the former. I spent most of my childhood confused. It was a childhood in which I was witness to racism, sexism, classism, and great amounts of violence. And I understood none of it. It was also a childhood in which people were taken from me. Most importantly my mother who died when I was seven. But other people died also and other people just disappeared (perhaps because they no longer came to visit my mother.) It was a childhood of silences. The whole thing about southerners being storytellers is a great myth (at least in my family) so my entire childhood is a puzzle piece of silences and glances and cleared throats and people answering “I can’t speak bad of the dead.” when asked direct questions. So all my life I’ve tried to piece together this puzzle. Tried to find a narrative thread in a broken story, tried to find reasons for why this man committed suicide, why this child was beaten, and this other child died, this child shot, this man shot, this man jailed, this man destroyed by drugs and alcohol. So all of my writing is about trying to figure out the world, at least my small part of it.

David C. Kopaska-Merkel (Contributor, 140 And Counting): For me, writing has had its biggest effect on my ability to communicate. At least, this is true for fiction and poetry. With regard to science writing, there’s nothing like trying to explain something to teach you that you don’t understand it yet!

Kevin Prufer (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): A little of both. I do find that I discover what I want to mean through the act of composing a poem, and that the poems I like most are those that create the illusion of a mind at work on an unsolvable, complex problem — whatever that problem may be! At the same time, I think poems do much more than merely enact thought or feeling … or (heaven forbid!) help me understand myself. I wouldn’t inflict my poems on the world if that was all I wanted for them. I believe that poetry is a very effective way that we communicate with each other, that poems are wonderful containers for the communication of complex ideas or for truths that are larger than we are.

Joshua Robbins (Contributor, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the End of Days): I’ve found that writing poetry is a process of discovery. Always. If I’m not learning something about myself, about my relationships to others, if I’m not finding new ways to explore the world and make it new through language, if I’m not made uncomfortable and challenged by my own material, then I don’t know what it is I’m doing exactly, but it’s not writing poems.
How do you feel about DRM?
Joanne Merriam (Publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books): Digital rights management, which limits the use of digital content after its purchase, is offered by all the major ebook vendors. If I wanted to add it to my product, it’s simply a matter of clicking the appropriate box when submitting the file for sale. I’ve long thought that DRM reflects a hostile attitude towards readers, inconveniencing them while treating them like thieves; meanwhile actual copyright infringers find it trivial in most cases to work around DRM. I decided against DRM and in favour of trusting my customers. Some of them will undoubtedly share their files, in the same way I think nothing of loaning a book to a friend, and I think the goodwill and word of mouth advertising generated by that more than makes up for any losses I might suffer thereby.

In any case, as a publisher of poetry and short story collections, piracy is the least of my worries, although it gets a lot of press in the popular media. I’m far more concerned about the almost monopoly-level power vested in a handful of ebook vendors. Amazon reportedly sold more Kindle editions than print ones as of May 2011 (not counting free editions). They have the largest market share, followed by Barnes and Noble and Apple; in Canada Kobo (majority owned by Indigo) is also a force. I’ve read some wildly varying figures—while Amazon makes it easy for authors to get sales figures for their own books, they never release aggregate sales figures for the Kindle—but most sources agree that Amazon had half of all U.S. book sales, print and ebook, by the end of 2012. That’s a lot of power for one company to have, and the current political climate in the U.S. makes regulatory antitrust actions against them seem unlikely to me.

We’re living in interesting times in the book industry. Issues like monopoly power and predatory pricing, piracy, authors’ rights and fair compensation are all coming to the forefront as ebooks increase in market share. Self-published indie authors are typically pricing their books much lower than publishers are, which may lead to reader expectations of nearly-free books which make it even harder for writers to make a living. For society at large, access to information may become even more abridged for people too poor to afford ereaders or too technologically unsavvy to keep up with the rapid pace of change. These sorts of issues will be a challenge to us all.
What do you love most about supporting independent writers?
Joanne Merriam (Publisher, Upper Rubber Boot Books): I’m really excited about the possibilities for independent and small press writers and publishers these days. The internet has of course opened up a lot of possibilities for us. I primarily publish ebooks (although we did do a limited edition print run of Apocalypse Now, and we plan to start delving into print more regularly in the future). Ebooks are a really excellent economic model for poets especially, since we’ve always had to embrace small runs and non-traditional ways to get our work out there. It’s made it economically viable for me to publish some really fantastic poets who will likely only sell a few hundred copies, and not have to charge hardcover prices in order to recoup my costs.

I think some of the most exciting work being produced right now is happening at the margins, and it’s tremendous to have a hand in getting it before the public.
Published 2013-09-15.
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