Dan Holloway, curator of eight cut gallery press and 79 rat press, is giving “the maximum possible exposure to the most startlingly talented unseen and unheard voices” in writing today. Dan sat down with IndieReader and talks about what it means to be indie, poetry, and independent publishing.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about eight cuts gallery and 79 rat press. Who are you? What are you? What’s your vision/mission?
Dan Holloway (DH):79 rat press grew out of a wider project, eight cuts gallery. Our mission there was always incredibly simple – to give the maximum possible exposure to the most startlingly talented unseen and unheard voices (or “over grounding the underground” as I ended up calling it). That project combines online exhibitions, blogging interviews and anything of interest, publishing, and more recently has become the focus for a lot of spoken word shows.
The mission at 79 rat press is fundamentally the same, but much more tightly focused, built around specific one-off sets of publications with a very tightly defined feel. Specifically, we want to do for literature what art exhibitions did for Young British Art in the late 80s and 90s.
LK: Do you think poetry is making a comeback with digital publishing? Do poets have more of a platform with the advent of self-publishing?
DH: Poets have always been self-publishers, largely because there is so little money in publishing that only a tiny handful of publishers ever take people on. In a way digital publishing has made poetry take a step back because eBooks and eReaders have taken a long time to become friendly with poetic formatting. The internet as a whole though has given poetry a massive push through the emergence of e-zines some of which, like 3am and Metazen, have gone on to become hugely popular and make poetry their focus. And YouTube has been fantastic for performance poetry. Social media in general means that meeting like-minded poets and sharing poetry is easier than ever – the first ever literary movement spawned by social media, Brutalism, started off with a poetry collection.
LK: Do you consider your press an indie? Why? Why not? What does indie mean to you?
DH: I think indie has become a minefield. To those “in the scene” it seems to mean as many things as there are people, and to those “outside” it’s just “arty people getting precious about terms that don’t matter.”
When I started self-publishing back in 2008/9 there felt like a real content to indie, the same way that in the early mid 90s indie music meant a certain kind of guitar band. Indie writers wanted to differentiate their content, which was generally edgy, often urban, and rarely followed genre lines. They were making a statement that they were outside the establishment artistically. It was never really about making money, because there was no money to be made.
At the risk of sounding like an aging rocker (good grief, I’m 41 and wearing a Nirvana T-shirt, I *am* an aging rocker) that kept it pure somehow. Since Kindle made it possible to make real money, the whole indie thing has been flooded with entrepreneurs. That’s fine, but it’s not why I or most of the people I know self-published.
LK: Explain how you provide writers with a platform, virtually?
DH: Mainly by having spent the past six years dipping my fingers in any pie that was going. Whether it’s projects, such as the Year Zero Writers collective or Free-e-day open source arts event in 2009, or writing articles and interviews for places from Pank to Writers’ Digest to The Guardian, or blogging, I’ve always tried to say the things that needed saying but everyone was keeping quiet about, whether it’s defending the integrity of self-publishing (or, these days, calling self-publishers out for having too little artistic ambition) or promoting the unusual or campaigning for more ethics in publishing, I’ve always been forthright, hopefully always been polite, but gradually built up a reputation that means people know what I stand for and the kind of work I promote.
I am also very lucky that it means places where readers of that kind of stuff go will often accept things I push in their direction for review or release. And one of the first books I published, Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom, was highly commended by the judges of the Guardian First Book Award, which is a major prize in the UK, and that has helped immensely in being taken seriously.
We also do a lot of real life events, and that still matters–our spoken word show The New Libertines regularly tours venues and literary festivals across the UK and pretty much always sells out and picks up nice reviews, for example.
LK: What kinds of poetry does your press accept? What themes are you interested in?
DH: I think the best thing to say is I want a poem, or fiction, to do to me what my favorite art does. I point people at Tracey Emin or Mark Rothko and say “like that.” It’s easier to say what I don’t like. I don’t like one dimensionality – poems that are just about a single point, or delivering a joke, or flatly melancholic or rosy-tinted. Emotional complexity and emotional truth are essential. And I really don’t like imitative poetry. I’d rather have someone do what only they do and be flawed than to be “in the style of” someone else, however polished. Which is my final thing, really – I don’t like polish, as a rule. I prefer raw and rough around the edges but with the soul intact.
LK: Explain your publishing model. Do you think more small publishers should consider becoming more a part of the writing conversation?
DH: At the moment I think small publishers are right at the heart of literature, nurturing and championing the kind of writing that big publishers don’t have the time or financial model for and many self-publishers don’t have the inclination or confidence for.
If I were talking about what’s exciting in literature I would fill my sentences with small presses – from the fairly well-known but fiercely independent like Peirene and Melville House through the likes of Bluemoose and And Other Stories to tiny little presses like Civil Coping Mechanisms that punch way above their weight by knowing exactly what they stand for and being right at the heart of a community of writers and readers.
Our own model is based on the art world – hence the gallery in eight cuts gallery, and the staging of exhibitions like the forthcoming NOTHING TO SAY. We make our work available to anyone digitally for free, and sell limited editions and live experiences. But primarily we are not about making money, we are about ideas. About changing the world in some small way, the way an artistic movement is, about showing people what books can do and be.
LK: I feel like many small, traditional publishers are only accessible to a small niche of readers such as those that read Dada or deconstructionist poetry/writing, etc. Those that make staunch claims to publish voices that are not traditionally published. What do readers want these days? How can publishers avoid pigeonholing themselves? And how, as a press, do you keep up with what’s trending in traditional publishing houses?
DH: I think small publishers have to pigeonhole themselves for want of a better word. It’s true that most readers don’t care where a book comes from, just what it says. For a small publisher with no marketing budget to speak of, the key is how to make people care where the book came from, how to ensure that someone keeps coming back to you because they trust everything you do – and that means sticking passionately to, well, what you’re passionate about. I’d never say “ooh, that’s a Bloomsbury, I must have it!” but when it comes to the likes of Peirene, And Other Stories, Melville House, Civil Coping Mechanism, Knives, Forks and Spoons, Blackheath, Wrecking Ball or Grievous Jones, I will go back to them for everything they do because I know they will introduce me to something new that I’ll love. That’s what a small press has to do.
I think the moment you look over your shoulder at what someone else is doing, that’s the sign you’re losing it. I think you have to be passionate about what’s happening in literature, but you stand or fall by your intuition, your instinct and, as a small press, by finding and promoting people no one has discovered – and that means scouring the internet, going to gigs, and pummeling your friends for what’s new.
LK: Tell us about your themed shows. What’s the thinking behind the selection criteria: “1. Does it fit the show? 2. Do we absolutely love it? 3. Can we legally display it?” What’s your criteria for “Do we absolutely love it?”
DH: Well the third of those is simple – we can’t afford to be bankrupted by plagiarism. I suppose I have a reputation for being very theoretical (I think theory is essential, and I have no time for writers who don’t think through what they are doing or refuse to be aware of the wider political or philosophical or linguistic issues around what they do), but actually I respond to art in a very emotional way. I like to be hit between the eyes. I want the way I live to be changed. That comes from many of my formative experiences both as a child, sitting in a room surrounded by huge Rothko canvasses or as a student, being utterly overwhelmed by the power of Tracey Emin’s My Bed or the transcendent beauty of Krzystof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy or the visceral emotion of the film La Haine, and that’s what I’m looking for in literature.
It happens very rarely – books like Philippe Djiann’s Betty Blue, Banana Yoshimoto’s NP, Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. But it does happen – Penny Goring always does it, as does another of our writers, Andy Harrod. Paul Askew’s “Five Dream Sequences” left me speechless when I first saw it, Sian Rathore’s “I’m so jacked” left me whooping for joy, Katelan Foisy’s Blood and Pudding and Veronika von Volkova’s photography changed the way I write poetry forever.
LK: Talk about the idea behind the Not the Oxford Literary Festival. You say it’s “the kind of writing you won’t see at the Literary Festival.” Why? What’s different about the voices you showcase at the festival?
DH: The festival scene in the UK is very dry, although in the years since we started Not the Oxford Literary Festival it’s changed considerably, with smaller and more niche festivals doing exciting things. But by and large the big festivals, like Oxford, charge high prices to see the same authors talk about the same things they talked about in Edinburgh, Hay, and Cheltenham. There’s a lot of talking heads where an august interviewer asks the same questions to writers of well-known literary fiction, there are master classes by popular genre writers, and non-fiction writers will give talks. If there’s poetry it will be of a very particular kind.
We started the festival because Oxford has an incredibly vibrant literary scene, but visitors to the festival saw virtually none of it, especially the performance poetry that’s at the city’s cultural heart (we’re the home to Hammer and Tongue, one of the oldest and biggest poetry slams in the UK). So we showcase local writers, and people doing things that never hit the mainstream, like performance poetry, folk storytelling, internet poetry and transgressive fiction.
LK: What’s next for eight cuts?
DH: At the moment I’m focusing on 79 rat press’s first show and set of publications, NOTHING TO SAY. We are launching limited edition collections by six wonderful writers – Paul Askew, Emily Harrison, Andy Harrod, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Jared Joseph and Sian S Rathore. We also have a catalogue featuring works by an incredible array of poets. We’ll be launching with a spoken word show at Stoke Newington Literary Festival in London on June 8th before coming back for a week-long exhibition in Oxford starting June 10th, which will include a brilliant update of a medieval mystery play by Rob Bliss, taking people all around Oxford. eight cuts gallery will continue to tour The New Libertines. We are appearing at Chipping Norton Literary Festival on April 20, and Woodstock Poetry Festival on November 16.
Dan just released his latest novel, Evie and Guy (free to download from his website, which is a novel written wholly in numbers (with no words).
* Image courtesy Eleanor Leone Bennett