A few months ago, I sat down to a dinner and interview with Nick Demske, a librarian, curator and poet in Racine, Wisconsin. We spoke about his take on a library’s place in the world of contemporary small press poetry and fiction, as well as his thoughts on cross-pollination.
So Nick, since you are both a librarian and a poet, do you spend most of your time in the poetry section of the library?
Yes, poetry section, all the way. I also wind up in the feminist and the language sections a lot.
Have you taken some kind of ownership over that section, since you are an active poet with an up-to-date knowledge of contemporary poetry?
First of all, I think that description of me is more flattering than accurate (I'm blushing, though). That aside, I was hired at the library just as a book shelver, but the management and staff at Racine Public has been really open to ideas I've brought to the table over time and let me get involved in other stuff. There are a lot of libraries that would have shut me down from the start but, because the RPL is pretty progressive and open to new ideas, I've been able to get creative with library services. So, informally, yes, they've let me contribute a lot to shaping our poetry section.
What other things are you doing at the library?
I do some book acquisitions for the library on special occasions. It is really unusual for a book shelver to do that. Our librarian in charge of poetry acquisitions, John Dey, has been very helpful and flexible with me in that process. But there are two sides to me doing that. On the one hand, it's a great privilege for me to be included in that process--it indicates a lot of trust from my institution and I really appreciate that. But the flip side is I'm doing a librarian's work at a book shelver's wages. While that's not ideal for me, long term, right now I feel it really is mostly just a beneficial set up for everyone involved (most of all the library patrons). It's not like the library is desperate for someone to do this work. If I didn't agree to do it, it just wouldn't be getting done. And that's pretty much what's happening at public libraries all over--it's the norm. They've got lots of things to worry about so contemporary poetry acquisitions aren't usually so proactively taken care of. But, because all parties involved agree that innovative, independently published writing is important for our community, we are getting to raise the bar in Racine for mid-sized public library collections
In addition to acquiring new poetry books, I heard that you also organize fundraising events for the library. Can you tell me about the fundraisers?
Well I only direct one annual fundraiser, The Write-A-Thon. 2010 will be the event’s third year. Basically, The Write-A-Thon is like a Walk-a-thon or Rock-A-Thon or any of various other a-thons one might imagine. Participants are asked to seek pledges from individuals and businesses for a quantity of writing to be written within a certain week. The money raised gets split in half; half goes to the library for small independent press acquisitions and the other half goes to the writer in support of his or her work.
How did you decide what books to purchase with the fundraiser money?
We purchase books that come from small independent presses. I am at liberty to acquire whatever I think the community would most benefit from, really. I work with the poetry acquisitions librarian John Dey, who is an excellent poet himself and a good, enthusiastic librarian, very helpful and supportive with everything I do. A lot of the decisions on where to spend the funds raised have to do with whom I know and whom I think I can strike a deal with. Each acquisition is a bit of a miracle. First I have to convince the library, and then I have to convince the press to give us a discount. So far we have worked with Fence, Wave, Canarium, Cracked Slab, Flim Forum, Cinematheque Press. We're trying to acquire all the Mitzvah Chaps titles soon and hopefully more to come, as well.
How do you let the community know of the new additions?
The books appear in the generic new books area, if they're recent releases, and I try to include them into programming, like book discussion groups and things. We received a lot of Fence Books all at one time so we made a specific display for that. And whenever we get some new poetry books into the library, I try, if possible, to incorporate the authors into Bonk!
What do you think about Tarpaulin Sky books?
The Fence blog posted some information about what I was doing a while ago and included my e-mail for other presses to contact me. Christian Peet was the only person who ever followed up on it. We didn't have any fundraiser money left over so he straight up donated a fistful of titles to our collection, which was a really surprising bit of generosity (ironic, given my views of poetry's gift economy). Now that we've raised more funds again, though, I'm hoping we'll get to soon acquire what we don't have of the Tsky catalog.
Bonk! is the reading/performance series you curate in Racine. What else, besides the new books in the library, drives the decisions you make in regards to the series?
I started the reading series with Matt Specht and Nick Ravnikar. We really wanted to create a series that wasn’t redundant, which was pretty easy in Racine because there were no other series' aside from open mics. And those open mics were great, in many ways (I use the past tense because most of them have died away). People were getting together, sharing their work, and just making friends in general. But there was often also an “I want to write, I don’t want to read other writers or go outside this circle of people here,” mentality. Bonk! was created in hopes to provide an alternative to that mentality.
Bonk! focuses on cross-pollination, what is that exactly?
At each Bonk! we try to put performers together that you wouldn't typically see in the same line up. We hope that the performances somehow affect each other and influence new interpretations of the work. We invite spoken word artists, translators, musicians, dancers, poets, novelists, visual artists, hip-hop emcees, barber shop quartets... and we try to group them together in the most unlikely ways we can think of. There have been culinary artists, filmmakers, percussionists...we love nothing more than getting contacted by a group of performers that do things we know nothing about.
Do you feel like poetry itself is a mix of many influences?
Hmmm. This feels like a trick question because, when I speak ideally, I try to take the stance that there's no real lines between poetry and music or poetry and visual art...or poetry and mowing the lawn, even, I guess. And I really do believe that, ultimately. I think that anything someone chooses to associate with the tradition of poetry can then be poetry...that's about the best definition I have for it. If I want to pour kool aid down my pants in a liquor store--and I do--if I want to call it poetry, I feel that I rightfully have that privilege...nay--that duty! However, in usual, practical conversation and thought, my ideas of poetry tend to be pretty limited, I guess, to words on a page with line breaks and blah blah blah blah. So, speaking in those terms, yes, definitely, for me poetry (my poetry, in particular) is a mix of many influences outside of those boundaries.
I have heard that you never buy books, why is that?
Well, I buy books sometimes...gifts for other people or if I really really want a keepsake from a reading or something. But that's rare. It's because I'm so enamored with the institution of The Public Library (capitalized, yes). I am much happier to have ownership of a book communally than privately...it seems like the best idea ever. I'm a little saddened that we haven't followed suit with too many other things which we currently have just private ownership of. The other side of this coin, though, is that I'm vehemently opposed to the current state of the gift economy structure that the poetry community is built on. I usually feel very alone with this stance. When people try to give me books for free, I try to not accept them or at least discourage it, but poets won't hear of it...they'll force a book upon me and, often, assume I'm living my life by some sort of really backwards, money-centric mentality. But that's not it. If libraries didn't exist, I don't think I'd be against the gift economy model. The thing is, we, as taxpayers, have sort of already bought those books. We have money built into our tax system just so our libraries can purchase the items we want--books, films, music, whatever. So I really feel authors shouldn't give their books away; I would rather see people who read poetry shift, instead, to making their libraries order these titles they want to read. Ultimately, I feel poetry's gift economy is enabling libraries to be irresponsible. Librarians will order more Danielle Steel novels because, as far a they know, no one reads poetry and "Everybody reads Danielle Steel" (this is written on the back of her book jackets...awesome). And why would they think any different? If no one is requesting poetry books from libraries because they're getting the books for free from the authors, why would librarians have any idea that people in their community even read poetry? They wouldn't. And that's the case now. Readers of poetry need to take ownership of their libraries--especially public--and just voice the fact that they want those books to be ordered.
This is destructive from the library stance, because library collections end up being much more homogeneous and mainstream than they maybe should be. But it's also destructive from the poetry side--it's grotesque, but nothing can sustain itself in a capitalist economy without money--at least a little money. Poetry often seems to think itself transcendent of this. But it seems to me, unless the poetry community acknowledges that it needs resources to survive--unless we at least start holding our public libraries more accountable and purchasing the books we might otherwise have authors and publishers give away for free--I doubt poetry would be able to sustain itself in the way it exists now.
I'm finding myself feeling really self-conscious and vulnerable answering this question. I think it's because I'm aware that I haven't thought every angle of it out and, also, it's a really new philosophy for me and this is the first time I've ever tried to write it out. I imagine it could probably use some criticism so, hopefully, if anyone reads this, they will engage me and others in discussion around it...
What are some of your favorite presses?
Man...Flood, Canarium, Wave, Cracked Slab, Ahsahta, Omnidawn, Edge, Roof, Futurepoem...there's a lot I like. A ton in our greater IL/WI region alone. Dancing Girl, which you've got a chapbook with I know, and Switchback. Would it be redundant to say Tsky? : ) (i can't wait to read the new Johannes Goransson pageant). Having my book chosen for the Fence prize by Joyelle McSweeney was extremely, extremely exciting to me, not just because of the general excitement about getting a book published, but because Fence and Action Yes have to be the two presses I've been most influenced by personally. They publish so much great, consistently offensive work. I'm reading Ito Hiromi's Killing Kanoako right now and I just got to see Ben Doller read...those presses just never cease to publish things I find inspiring.
You seem to be recently getting involved in publishing the work of others. What is the purpose of your online journal?
Good segue. So the journal--boo: a journal of terrific things--is supposed to be a refuge for offensive work. Work being whatever, not just poetry. Anything, ideally, but we've been publishing pretty much just creative writings for the most part so far. That's something I would like to see change in the future, but the only people who know about the journal are poets, pretty much, so we'd need to take a really active role to change that. So yeah--offesnive work. That seems to offer itself up to a lot of interpretation so translate it however you will. I guess, when I say it, I'm thinking of offensive to partially mean "not defensive," which could also almost be my definition for avant-garde, in its military origins--an etymology and word-evolution which, itself, I find offensive, in the more traditional sense. Does that make me easily offended? But my co-editor, Angela, interprets it very differently from me, I think, again with a more traditional definition of what offensive is. I think I would like to shift a little toward publishing more traditionally offensive things in the future, actually, as well. But I've really loved the stuff we've gotten to publish thus far. I've memorized a few of those pieces.
Are you considering publishing chapbooks or any kind of print publication? And if so will you expect others to buy it, when you yourself never buy books?
I self-published a little print chapbook last year under the imprint I made up called "Friend of the World." Friend of the World hasn't published anything else since, but it will be publishing a chapbook by the terrific poet Nick Twemlow in June. This is a collaborative effort with The Bathroom Reading Materials, Nicholas Michael Ravnikar's press. Nicholas and I organized something ridiculous called The Racquetball Chapbook Tournament, where a handful of poets submitted a chapbook manuscript and then just played each other at Racquetball until one poet-athlete was victorious over the others. Nicholas and I played, but we played for other peoples manuscripts. I played for Twemlow's and, lo and behold, my athletic abilities proved the least-worst-of. Which is awesome, because Nick Twemlow is a bomb-ass writer. If you don't know him, look some of his stuff up. Better yet, buy the chapbook :) ...My emoticon hopefully betrays the irony. Seriously, though--as far as expecting others to buy this chapbook: nothing in the world would make me happier than if no individual people bought this chapbook and, instead, every copy was bought by a library because one or more of their patrons requested it. Help make your library more responsible!
As a former bookstore employee, I feel a real need to have ownership over a book, especially one that really made a poetic impression on me. Do you ever consider buying or even stealing your favorite books?
Ooh...how honestly can I answer this when I know it will be posted on the World Wide Interweb? In truth, I don't think I have ever actually stolen a book like that before, but it's definitely crossed my mind. I first read Berryman's Dream Songs as a library checkout and came very close to not returning it...but I was young and foolish! Ne'er would I consider such a dastardly, anti-library deed now. But, again, I do buy books occasionally. And if it's a book I expect I'm going to annotate the hell out of (any book that hugely influences me comes away highly vandalized), yes, I will buy it. But I can't even think of the last time I did that. It barely ever happens with poetry. Books like the Tao te Ching or the Bible or the Koran are usually the ones I end up buying. My Bible is so defaced...it took me three years to read the whole thing so, in its travels, it also got beaten up in every other way. But I have things written in there that would offend the 2nd Earl of Rochester, man! Things that many people would probably want to kill me over. Most of that book offends me to no end, though. So maybe that just makes us all even, in some sort of weird cosmic balance. Or not.
Are there any new plans for events at Bonk, the library, or Boo?
Nothing too new...just trying to maintain things we've already had set up. Our 3rd annual Write-a-thon fundraiser is happening soon at the library, where people raise money for the library just by writing and getting sponsored for it. Half of the money goes to the library to buy small press titles, but the other half just goes right back to the person who earned it, which I think is so cool. I've never seen such an effective way to make money with poetry before on such a community scale. That program rocks.
I understand that you have your first full-length manuscript coming out in Fall 2010. Do you want to give us any information on that collection?
Poets and Writers magazine just mentioned the book recently and they called it "untitled," but I don't think of it as untitled. When I wrote it, I conceptualized it as self-titled, which isn't a tradition in literature, I guess, but it is in music. So this has the potential to make the book eponymous. But not necessarily. I'm interested in how groups or musicians can produce self-titled records (which we could--but don't-- perceive as untitled) and then it kind of is incumbent upon the community to name it. Sometimes people just end up calling those albums "the self-titled album" or "the self-titled debut album" or whatever. But, other times, a specific name evolves for the album. The Beatles self-titled album turned into The White Album. I think it's Led Zepplin's 4th album which was like that as well. I think people now either just call it "IV" or maybe that's the one people sometimes call "Zoso," too, because it has a symbol on it that looks like those letters? I just think that's a cool phenomenon.
The privilege of naming something or defining something comes with a great deal of power and responsibility (librarians should be highly aware of this when cataloging items, for instance, or assigning subject headings to books). The book of mine that Fence is publishing concerns itself primarily with cultural and identity issues, categorizations, definitions, the lines between one thing and another thing (like whether there is a line between poetry and mowing your lawn, for instance). We assign words--little names--to all these things to separate them from each other, but those distinctions so often--maybe always, I don't know--are artificial and that's a majorly flawed system. Poets have been writing about the flaws of the system of language for a long time, now, but I would like to think this book has something to contribute to that conversation. Anyways, making the book self-titled in an attempt to kind of force collaboration on others is one of my ways of trying to circumvent--or at least bring attention to--one of those power-imbalance flaws of language. Blah.
I just look forward to seeing what people decide to call it. If, indeed, they bother calling it at all.
Nick Demske lives in Racine, Wisconsin, and works there at the Racine Public Library. He was awarded the 2010 Fence Modern Poets Series prize for a self-titled manuscript that will be published in November of 2010. His work has appeared in Conduit, Sawbuck, Moria, Pinstripe Fedora, Action Yes and elsewhere. Nick is a curator of the BONK! Performance series and is an editor of the online venue boo: a journal of terrific things. Visit him sometime at nickipoo.wordpress.com
Quick jump to authors: Jenny Boully | Ana Bozicevic | Traci O. Connor | Mark Cunningham | Claire Donato | Danielle Dutton | Sarah Goldstein | Johannes Göransson | Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson | Gordon Massman | Joyelle McSweeney | Joanna Ruocco | Kim Gek Lin Short | Shelly Taylor | Max Winter | david wolach | Andrew Zornoza