Derek White, Calamari Press
Derek White runs Calamari Press & Sleepingfish. He currently lives in NYC, but has been known to disappear for long spells to various corners of the globe. On the internet he lives at 5cense.com
Mark Thwaite: When and why did you start Calamari Press? Does it have a 'mission statement', or a particular 'objective'?
Derek White: I started Calamari Press in 2003. It actually started with Sleepingfish magazine, which led to chapbook- then book-length projects, some of them my own, or collaborations with other like-minded artists or writers that seemed to be falling between the cracks.
In regards to objective or a mission, I am sort of making it up as I go along, letting what comes across my desk dictate the course. Suffice to say, there seems to be a thread of language-driven works – language as art, or art as language... art that fits in books.
MT: Calamari's books are each designed quite beautifully – are the aesthetics of the 'book object' important to you?
DW: Thank you, and certainly. Growing up in the 80s, the packaging and art of 4AD records had a big influence on me (attributed to a design duo that called themselves 23 Envelope). And then the album art of Radiohead (by Stanley Donwood, with perhaps some help from Thom Yorke). Not only was this a sort of branding that identified & unified the aesthetic of the label/band, but it also adds to the experience of the album as an art object, rather than just a collection of disparate songs. All too often you see books that look more like advertisements or flyers, or whose covers have nothing to do with what's inside, as if the designer hadn't even read the book.
MT: Where do you stand on ebooks?
DW: I personally don't read them (though I read a lot online), but certainly don't want to deprive readers who'd rather read books in this format. And they are useful for previewing a book. Having worked for the likes of Napster during the digital transition, I concluded, as a consumer, that the (unencrypted) MP3 is the only format I'd personally buy music in. Likewise, the PDF seems to be the only viable format for ebooks (or dbooks as I like to call them, as digital seems a more accurate description than electronic – the book itself is not electronic after all). I appreciate Amazon for some things (for example, selling MP3s), but what they (and Apple) are doing to the digital book industry is criminal.
MT: If Calamari had a patron saint, who would it be? I feel the presence of Gordon Lish, looming – am I wrong about that!?
DW: Well, I don't want to speak on behalf of the Calamari authors – there are certainly writers in the catalog that have fallen under the Lish spell & attribute a lot to him – but personally I think he is overrated & hasn't done anything notable in the last 10 or 20 years. But this isn't his fault so much as all the Lish worshippers who egg him out of retirement, beg him to write or say something, anything... & whatever comes out of his mouth (or ass) gets unquestionably put on a pedestal as gospel. Personally if I had to name a patron saint, in regards to a manifesto, a reason to publish or to write (or to just live), it would probably be Derrida or Deleuze & Guattari.
MT: What are you working on right now?
DW: Being that below you ask what's next for Calamari, I'm assuming you mean this as what am I personally working on – which is a book about/by my brother who died prematurely, pieced together from his art, writings & journal entries he left behind, most notably his MFA thesis in which he extrapolates/maps James Joyce's extrapolation/mapping of The Odyssey to his own travels (in search of our father who also died prematurely, for reasons similar to my brother). And I'm also working on the 2nd book of the West of Kingdom Come tetralogy (the first being The Becoming, mentioned below).
MT: You've recently published The History of Luminous Motion, Sleepingfish 12 and The Becoming – can you tell us something about each of those titles?
DW: The History of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield was a transformative book for me, a twisted coming of age novel first published in the late 80s. Despite accolades from the likes of Ballard, Lipsyte, Lethem, Gaitskill, Chabon & Wolff it went out of print, so I decided to re-issue it.
Sleepingfish 12 is the 10-year anniversary issue of Calamari's literary magazine, with a bunch of great stuff in it, including a few new ones by Gary Lutz.
The Becoming is something I wrote, that perhaps no one will understand, but I needed to exorcise it from my body – the guilt of being American. Yet it's also a homage/juxtaposition of Lewis & Clark and the Romulus & Remus myth (was living in Rome when I wrote it & am from the Pacific Northwest... if that explains anything). Mostly it's an experiment with language, sort of Kaspar Hauser-ian, wherein the language they invent takes on elements of Chinook Jargon, French (from the fur-traders of the region) & the pidgin English of found expedition journals.
MT: You publish Gary Lutz – a truly singular writer, but not one for everybody. What is it that you see as so important and unique about Gary and his work?
DW: It's easy to be rebellious & break rules & plenty of writers have—to chuck words at the page & see what sticks, to write stream of consciousness without regard to craft. But Gary Lutz has accepted & embraced that we have created a language system & deeply respects its grammatical rules & syntax as not only necessary, but as essential components to constructing art from language. He has taken this lexical/syntactical system & forces it to perform seemingly superhuman & perverse feats, magically without breaking it. At the sentence level, in the English language, he is undisputed master of his domain.
MT: Do you have a Calamari favourite?
DW: Obviously it's hard to pick favorites, this would be like taking sides amongst your children. Each book is special, otherwise I wouldn't have published it. I might name some because they never received a lot of attention (such as Tortoise by James Lewelling, A Mortal Affect by Vincent Standley or Land of the Snow Men by Norman Lock) or I might name The History of Luminous Motion just because it was a book that was special to me way before I even thought to publish books, or I might name The Singing Fish by Peter Markus because that was the book that prompted me to start publishing. Or I could point out some of the early chapbooks, the collaborations I did with Carlos Luis, who recently died. They are all special in their own way.
MT: Who would you love to publish?
DW: Obviously there are many authors & artists that I'd love to publish books by, but most of these already have books or are recognized enough to get published. And I tend to think in terms of books, rather than just author—that is, I wouldn't necessarily publish a book just because a certain author wrote it (unless it was by the likes of Amos Tutuola or Frank Stanford). There seems to be a pattern with Calamari of publishing first books by new or virtually unknown authors, or bringing old under-appreciated books that have gone out of print back into print.
There a few artists & writers that have been in Sleepingfish that I would like to see full-length books from: Ali Aktan Askin, Dmitry Babenko, Julie Reverb, David-Baptiste Chirot. I'd like to publish another book by J'Lyn Chapman, more books by Peter Markus, or Miranda Mellis. And more books by writers from diverse backgrounds (without compromising the Calamari aesthetic).
MT: What is next for Calamari?
DW: Books by Elizabeth Mikesch (a young unpublished writer who appears in Sleepingfish 12), Sasha Fletcher (re-issue of a book he published with Mud Luscious before they went belly up), Stanley Crawford (a re-issue of his Travel Notes, originally published in 1967 & never reprinted) & a new novel by Brandon Hobson.
For some time I've been wanting to carry more art & one of a kind art books... hopefully will figure out how to do this soon, starting perhaps with some original works by Dmitry Babenko.
MT: Thanks Derek!