A regular feature of OmniVerse, Poets, Presses & Periodicals is a conversation with the publisher of a small press or periodical, a poet they have chosen to highlight, and one of our OmniVerse staff writers.
In this installment, a poem and audio recording of the featured poet, Kirsten Jorgenson, follows the conversation.
Pepper Luboff holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Utah, where she first met the wonderfully smart and sassy Kirsten Jorgenson. Since that first year of graduate school together in 2005, Kirsten has been Pepper’s dear friend and literary arts ally. In fact, if it weren’t for Kirsten and her husband, Nathan Hauke, Pepper might have drifted away from poetry. The two helped keep her in the fold by soliciting a chapbook from her for their imprint, Ark Press. Last spring, Ark Press brought Pepper’s And when the time for the breaking into being. In addition to her chapbook, Pepper has been published in Colorado Review, Projector Magazine, Drunken Boat, and Poetry Flash.
Jen Tynes is the founding editor of Horse Less Press. She is the author of two full-length books, The End Of Rude Handles (Red Morning Press) and Heron/Girlfriend (Coconut Books), and the author or coauthor of about a dozen chapbooks, most recently Here’s the Deal (Little Red Leaves Textile Series) and New Pink Nudibranch (Shirt Pocket Press). Her third full-length book, Trick Rider, is forthcoming this spring from Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in Western Michigan and, with Michael Sikkema, cohosts Poetry & Pints, a monthly reading series.
Kirsten Jorgenson is from Salt Lake City, Utah, via Chicago, Illinois. She is the author of one full-length collection of poetry, Sediment & Veil, which is forthcoming from Horse Less Press. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Deseret (Horse Less Press, 2011) and Accidents of Distance (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), and coauthor of the poetics chapbook Country Music (DoubleCross Press, 2013). She lives in Western North Carolina with her son, dog, and partner, Nathan Hauke, with whom she coedits Ark Press and cocurates the Ark Press Summer Reading Series.
Pepper Luboff: How did you get to know the other editors working on Horse Less Press, and what does your collaborative process look like?
Jen Tynes: I just came from teaching a business writing class on “you attitude,” how to think about the reader’s needs and point of view when writing professionally. I mention it because every time I talk about the goals, intentions, and plans I have for Horse Less, I worry I focus too much on what I get out of it rather than what we’re hoping to create. But I think that’s a huge part of how I see poetry community and publishing: we make these things because of the pleasure (and other generative emotions) we experience doing so. Even publication, the “product” part of writing, is really about process. I met Erika Howsare in Rhode Island when we were both MFA students at Brown, Jen Denrow in Colorado when we were both PhD students at University of Denver, and Michael Sikkema when Horse Less published some of his work (and then we started writing collaboratively, and then we fell in love…). All three are people whose writing and thoughts about writing I respect immensely, and they’re all also people I regularly disagree with about writing and writers; when I asked each of them if they’d like to collaborate, I wanted a formal way to carve out space to have conversations with them about the work I was seeing and the projects we’d like to see, and I wanted to read the journal and books that we and our different interests would make together. Time and place constraints mean we are rarely all involved in a project anymore, and our contributions take many different forms; Jen Denrow and I might edit a series of chapbooks that Erika solicits work for and Mike designs, for example. I think there’s a lot of indirection involved: the press is an excuse for the conversations, a way to put them on the schedule, and everything extracurricular seems to lead back into a Horse Less project.
PL: One of the things I appreciate about working as part of an editorial team is the catalytic exchange of ideas about writing. What are some of the important revelations, or even small shifts in understanding, that you’ve shared as an editorial collaborative? Considerations of new trends and antitrends in poetry, recalibrations of aesthetic and conceptual interests, energizing disagreements, anything that made your brain buzz and stuck as a guiding principle?
JT: Most recently, Mike has being doing and soliciting more asemic writing, which has started some really useful conversations about how we define poetry, whether there is or needs to be some distinction between poetry and visual art, how we respond to an image differently depending on whether we’re thinking of it as text we cannot “translate.” Publishing more vis-po means revisiting our technical approaches, too, thinking about how we can better present that work online, looking into ways to do color printing for chapbook interiors (not an option for us right now); I really appreciate how shifts in aesthetic/conceptual interests lead to shifts in practical and technical approaches that lead to more shifts in aesthetic/conceptual interests.
We are all four interested to constraint-based and process-based writings and have had some really generative conversations about how constraints and processes can and should be communicated in a text; I think we all have the ability to get drawn into someone’s fascinating writing experiment, but the work that has really resonated and stayed lively has been the work that’s managed to transform itself and generate something new out of those original processes, so we shy away from notes explaining process or works that telegraph their process too overtly, even though I find that information interesting. Our shared interests in new/neo-pastoral, futurist, regionalist, and nature writing has us regularly talking about the “new” there: is there value in making a traditional or categorical connection, and what’s keeping these concerns lively? I think that our regular disagreements about this means we are, more and more, drawn to writers who are also interrogating those specific labels.
When we started Horse Less, I still knew poets who were hesitant to publish online or read online journals. At this point that’s not an issue, at least not with anyone whose writing I care about—that hurdle has been more than leaped—but I am becoming very aware of how much of the day I spend at my computer and am feeling more drawn to making physical objects. We’ll be publishing six full-length, perfect-bound books this year and fifteen handmade chapbooks; issue 16 of the review is almost ready to be released online, and Megan Burns has fabulously guest-edited issue 17, which will come out this spring. I’m considering what happens if we let the journal fade out or take a break. It’s a tough choice to make, in part because we interact with so many new writers that way, but the longer works that we gravitate toward and the making processes that I really enjoy right now seem better served by chapbooks. (There’s a lot of “I” in this paragraph—it’s something I’m just now starting a conversation about with the other editors.)
PL: When you speak about the press, one of the driving motivations you mention is your interest in forming community—a desire that’s also reflected in the way you worry about “I” statements and an insufficient “you attitude.” I’m wondering how intentionally you connect editorial decisions with the community that these decisions attract or affect. I guess this ties into what you’ve said about letting pleasure and process draw you into company. But, for example, if you find that going on hiatus with Horse Less Press Review narrows your community, will you consider making pleasure secondary to community? And have any of your editorial decisions affected Horse Less Press’s community in ways that surprised you?
JT: Those are good and big questions. I made the reference to “you attitude” a bit jokingly because I was feeling the juxtaposition of my day as I was replying, but I guess one real discovery I’ve made as an editor is that poetry and publishing are not “business” for me, and I never want to think of them as such. As a person with a very, very loose toe-hold in academia (aka an adjunct instructor), I completely appreciate why some folks need or want poetry publications to offer professional credibility, and I understand in general why it sometimes feels necessary to emphasize the ways in which writing poetry is WORK. (I also understand that all those decisions are much more complex and nuanced than the simple way I just laid them out.) But, ultimately, I need my poetry WORK to remain an end itself, not a means to an end. There are times I have to choose between devoting the hour I have on a given day to making my own poems or promoting someone else’s; the pleasure I get out of being an editor is very much about community, though, so there haven’t been many instances when I needed to choose between community and my own enjoyment there. I’ve been feeling less energized by the review work because I feel like fewer conversations have been happening around it than happen around the books and chapbooks, so choosing to give that part a break feels more like a response to where our community resides. When I first started the press, I’d given almost no thought to all the different ways the editor-author relationship can work. In the first several years we were making books, I figured out pretty quickly that what I am interested in is collaboration; obviously there are many ways that the author’s contribution outweighs mine, and we give our authors final decision on most everything involved with their publication, but I do think of myself as a collaborator, not a service provider. Some publishers are publishers because they have the money or facilities or time or special know-how that their authors do not have. Though I’ve certainly learned a lot about publishing and being an editor over the past ten years, I am also just a very broke poet who doesn’t have enough hours in the day and largely works at the dining-room table. I believe we all take turns at this, because it allows us to work all of our poetry muscles, and because this is what a community does. This attitude means that we publish more writers who also seem to be involved in our community in ways other than writing: by organizing readings and events, publishing and editing, teaching and sharing what they know. We try to balance publishing authors we know (people we know, writing we know) with authors who are new to us, but I have discovered that the “who” is important to me. We did one blind reading, and it was fine, but I felt like I was missing some really important information. More than once, we’ve opted not to publish a manuscript, even though we loved the work itself, because the author clearly wanted something that we were not going to be able or want to provide: someone to fund their work or head their PR or help them develop their CV. All of these desires are admirable, and we of course are glad to help with these things when we can, but for better or worse we are—as editors—more partners than benefactors.
PL: Yeah, I got it that your comment about a “you attitude” was said with a wink, but it managed to launch me into a fantasy about all the poets out there teaching business writing and the subtle influence this legion of business-writing-teaching poets might have on the ways we do “business.”… Along with your handmade chapbooks, perfect-bound books, and online review, Horse Less curates a feature called OPEN: Notes & Letters of Review. I want to spend a little time on OPEN, because it’s such a needed kind of literary feature and it speaks so well to your thoughts and feelings about community. Would you describe how OPEN differs from the traditional review and how you developed the idea for it?
JT: OPEN is still a feature-in-progress, which we haven’t had much time to devote to this year, but it’s something I’m really excited about and hope to be attentive to again soon. We are trying to use the open-letter format as a way to encourage both intimacy and conversation in the review writing we publish. The idea is that each poetry review be addressed to the author or some aspect of the book itself, and hopefully that constraint will encourage a focused, local conversation (the kind I imagine most writers want to have with readers) that will also be accessible and engaging to everyone overhearing. Finding a generative balance between public and private conversation in open letters is tough; as editors, we’re still figuring out how to help reviewers with that. So far a lot of names have shown up more than once, as both letter writers and recipients. I want to keep encouraging that and would love to be publishing responses to the responses.
PL: Are there any of the OPEN letters that really sang your life with their words?
JT: I have quite a few favorite reviews; Megan Burns’s letter to j/j hastain is in video form and really captures the intimacy of a reader’s experience with a book and of Megan’s address to the author. I love how you can hear the birds and outside sounds while she’s filming, how Burns’s response and hastain’s text sometimes blend into each other, the way that it starts out feeling scripted and intentional and then begins to feel more improvisational and generatively messy—a person working from a written text but very much thinking and recording on her feet. When I finish listening to it, I have some sense of the book and some sense of how Burns engaged with it, and it’s also a review I’d listen to as a text/creation in its own right. It opens up lots of conversation space.
PL: I kind of want you to talk to yourself in response to your own mission, “We believe in the necessary absence of every articulated thing.” If your mission were given to you as an improv prompt, how would you respond? Is there any way you can work with the other Horse Less editors on this answer?
JT: You may have meant as a writing prompt, though I read “improv prompt” in terms of acting and have been stuck for days, thinking about what that would mean, to act out the absence of what is articulated. I cannot remember how we got to that mission statement—I don’t have a memory of writing it, and I don’t believe it’s borrowed from anywhere. I think, like a good tattoo, it’s managed to shift meaning favorably as we have shifted as a press, and maybe as a phrase it’s good at enacting itself. We are interested in how what is not said is made manifest by what is. I think the texts I’m most drawn to are really motivated by eros and other kinds of wanting but not having, desire without resolution. I appreciate a list of what will not happen, what we cannot have, what we did not or will not do, for its ability to incite just the opposite. We are, as a press, drawn to writing that is about needing and what you can make out of necessity. If I have a favorite poem, “Provinces” by C.D. Wright is it; when I read our mission statement/motto as if I’ve never read it before, this poem is the first thing I think of.
I asked Erika Howsare and Jen Denrow what their immediate associations are. Denrow wrote, “It reminds me of Beckett and the correspondence between what exists and what is outside of our relationship to what exists. Oh, there is a great quote by John Dewey that I’m in love with and that I always teach and think about. It says, ‘The tangible rests precariously upon the unknown and ungrasped.’ [The Horse Less mission] also reminds me of Stevens and the essential interdependence between imagination and reality. It’s about ghosts, too, and the presence of absence, the need to establish the emotional reality of an object.” Erika sent me this quote from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us: “The first European ever to sail across the wide Pacific was curious about the hidden worlds beneath his ship. Between the two coral islands of St. Paul and Los Tiburones in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Magellan ordered his sounding line to be lowered. It was the conventional line used by explorers of the day, no more than 200 fathoms long. It did not touch bottom, and Magellan declared that he was over the deepest part of the ocean. Of course he was completely mistaken, but the occasion was none the less historic. It was the first time in the history of the world that a navigator had attempted to sound the depths of the open ocean.”
PL: What a great set of associations. I like that your mission isn’t so much a rule as it is a magnetic field.
You’ve named Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop as your early role models for Horse Less. Did they give you advice, or were you influenced by them more through osmosis, by coming into contact with their books in their own home library? If they did give you more overt guidance, what was it?
JT: I was a student of Keith’s and got to meet and talk with Rosmarie when I lived in Providence. They have both given some valuable, practical advice that directly pertained to editing and running a press, but I think I’ve been even more influenced by their presence and the community they’ve created. So many writers and artists would list them and Burning Deck as major influences. I appreciate how giving they are with their time and energy and yet how they’ve managed to block off time to work on their own projects (or to go to a theater and watch a film together, for that matter); you couldn’t keep a press going for so long if you hadn’t figured that out.
I am nervous to pass along stories in case I’ve misremembered details of them, but this was the first thing I thought of when you asked the question: In a workshop once, Keith talked about how he’d balanced his paying job and his own writing when he had an administrative role at Brown; at midnight, he said, he was done with the paying work no matter what, and he’d switch over to his other work, which at that time was a lot of collage-making, because that’s what he was able to do at the end of the day. Keith is such an amazing collagist; I love to think that he became interested in that form out of necessity. I love this story in light of the fact that, at least last time I knew anything about their habits, the Waldrops are both pretty nocturnal people. I have no idea whether that’s always been the case for Keith, but in my imagination, starting on his own work at midnight began to mean that he was up all night working. Whether or not this is true, it is good inspiration for me to keep reimagining what my day looks like and rediscovering where and how the work happens. As an overworked adjunct, it’s good to remember that books and art can still make me stay up all night.
At a party once, I heard someone ask Rosmarie how she and Keith had stayed together so long, and she joked that it would be impossible to separate and move their library. I think about their library a lot, that it’s not just full of amazing books, but it’s full of amazing books that are written by friends and inscribed to them, and they are on bookshelves that Keith and Rosmarie built to run all over the house. Last time I was there, years ago, there really wasn’t any blank wall space. You can make your life be about books and writing in isolating and frustrating and counterproductive ways, but they absolutely have not. That library is a community that they support and that supports them.
PL: Have you given any thought to celebrating your tenth anniversary? Or has it already come and gone without fanfare?
JT: I had not even thought of it until I saw that the fabulous TYPO magazine was celebrating its tenth anniversary at the end of last year, and I realized ours must be nigh. We turn ten this year. Beyond greatly expanding our catalog, we haven’t made any plans yet, but I suppose there’s still time!
PL: I hope you do make time to celebrate, because making it to a decade as a small press is an accomplishment worth dancing about.
For my part, I’m doing a little jig out of excitement for the Horse Less poet you’ve chosen to highlight, Jen, because Kirsten’s a good friend of mine. You’ve already published one of Kirsten’s chapbooks and you’ll be publishing her first book, Sediment & Veil soon; and she and her husband published my chapbook last year, so this interview feels, in some ways, like coming full circle.
JT (to Kirsten Jorgenson): I have always loved the way your poems engage with the outside and how it gets in, what happens when outside and inside muddle or switch or call bullshit on each other. You do this when you write about relationship to place/landscapes and when you write the permeability of the body. For me, your poems are constantly recreating that moment of discovery without articulation: they keep acknowledging and arguing about the sublime in a way that is energizing and generative. I’m mostly familiar with you as a poet using the open field of the page and a pretty organic, often really fragmented line to make this happen; I’m really curious and excited to see how you’re accomplishing similar things in fiction. In the excerpts you just sent me from “A Skin for Light, a Skin for Water,” it seems like both humor and the grotesque get more emphasis; something about the literal necessity of a sentence’s resolution seems to contribute to that. I know this is a work-in-progress, but I’d love to hear about your experience so far with this hybrid prose piece, how it’s comparing to your processes and goals when you write poetry.
KJ: I think the answer to your question has everything to do with the fact that I’m a new mother. My days are a whir of swift exchanges between the sublime, grotesque, and humorous.
I have always loved the nebulous, weird, and slippery space of hybrid work, and I’m enjoying writing in it right now because it pairs easily with the space of new motherhood. When I write poetry, it is as an activity of attention that knits me into a moment, a landscape, a body, etc. Early in my pregnancy, however, I found that the radical embodiment and presence of that event took the place of writing poetry. New motherhood is an even more intense and joyful distillation of that experience. I find that writing fiction, which requires more critical distance for me, is a way to record and meditate on the felt experience of motherhood. Sliding between the channels, I find a way to translate what would appear to an outsider to be the monotonous, repetitive drudgery of mothering into the rich, exhilarating daily experience of the permeable nature of the body that mothering actually is.
A Skin for Light, a Skin for Water
The bird at the window had burrowed a hole through her wide enough to open like an eye. Alice stood on the shore of the lake. It was the dream the bird had woven through her: a sun that burnt the grass and blurred her skin into the sand. A sun that sucked the color from the water. She felt the hollowed out place lined with snakeskin inside of her and knew its cavity was clogging with spit and feathers, an eye hardening shut with sleep or pus. She walked into the wake.
Alice had heard of a god punished for seduction by having his body covered in a thousand vulvae he washed into eyes when the shame of them took on its transformational power and made a new kind of vision for him. Knowing turned to seeing. All eyes opened to bear back into the world what they took in and mixed up in themselves. All pupils dilated to flood the eye with vision. She never knew a word that wasn’t a product of collective staring. Her own voice washed into terrible, pointing symbols. It was the cloying Adam eye name-making for all the world’s sake in her sockets, some thousand-eyed god blinking back at her from the water.
The bird’s eye had its own language akin to wreckage. It shambled its sentences in the ruin and cast off of other things. Animate and other spit glued together.
Alice walked into the water until she felt the lake lift her dress from her skin and flow through the eye. Her body filled with the lake and the lake floated her skin to its surface like a shopping bag. She squinted at the sky and watched gulls wheel in an updraft above her.
The bird had arrived on Tuesday morning while she was eating breakfast. As she bit into her toast, it flew into the window. Alice felt a catch in her throat. She leaned into the window and observed the angle of the bird’s neck, its shallow, rapid breath, the sudden stillness of the form.
Sliding her feet into her garden boots, Alice walked out into the yard and grabbed a shovel from the shed. She dug a small hole beside the apricot tree. When she finished digging, she gathered the bird and laid it down in the hole. With her palms, she scooped the earth over its small body and packed it gently. Alice rubbed her palms together and walked inside.
It was a sparrow.
It out-sped its form.
Alice’s mouth felt gritty. At the sink she wiped coffee grounds from the bottom of her mug.
That afternoon, Alice lay down beside the little grave. She stared up into the light eating between the leaves and fruit. Sparrow had passed through the window and went god knows. She felt the hump of earth where its body nested, already at work breaking down and transforming into something else. Alice, curious and solid, stood up and brushed the grass from her legs.
That night she dreamed she became a burrow for small animals. The bird song tightened like piano wire around her as the animals chewed and dug tunnels through her. She felt their soft bodies shuddering beneath her skin and began to pull stray feathers from her chest.
The next night she dreamed the animals become one body beating its wings inside of her. When she woke, she felt it rustling beneath her rib cage, fluttering as she did the dishes and weeded the garden.
Alice had become a nest and the weather moving through it. Each night she felt lighter, knowing the bird had eaten or rearranged an organ to create more space for itself inside of her during the day. The bird would be her liver and spleen, her heart and lungs.
As she slept, its song drew her into motion, walking her through a forest and towards a lake. Debris disintegrated and circulated on the shore. At last, the sun burnt the grass around her and blurred her skin into the sand. At last, the sun sucked the color from the water. The bird shucked loose of her like breath after a hard fall and Alice was left with lake. They were two mirrors shining back at one another.
She walked into the waves. Alice pushed off the silty lake bottom and dove into its water, pulling and kicking to remain buoyant. Fabric brushed against her feet and she opened her eyes. She floated above a nest of weeds opening in the current like a peony bloom, like a head of hair.
When she woke up she turned to her husband, Greasewood, “Let’s drive out to the lake this afternoon.”
“Sure, it’s hot and it’s raspberry season. We could get milkshakes.”
“We could go swimming.”