Friday, June 26, 2009
I’m not sure how I got the job--I guess it had something to do with how detail-oriented I am. And unlike a lot of guys obsessed with details, I’m also a pretty good people person. Although my editor would probably argue that poets are not real people. After I graduated from college I started work at a publishing house on the outskirts of the town I grew up in. They took in anything, technical manuals, novels, self-help, local history, erotica, poetry, and anything avant-garde. About three-quarters of their work was volume printing, but there was a fairly active chapbook division and some print-on-demand. My boss, Harold, had no literary aspirations, nor did he possess the drive to lend a hand up to starving artists. But he was desperate to make ends meet, and would take anything he thought he could turn a profit on. Chapbooks with runs measured in the dozens actually pay pretty well if you charge the authors enough up front, and Harold knew these types would pay anything to see their names and their babies in print. Unfortunately, Harold could not stand these types. That’s where I came in. Disagreements always erupted into full fledged confrontations, complete with two-colour covers ripped in half and thrown down on desks, spiral-bound spines crunched like choux and plastic chips falling to the floor, and gallery proofs thrown through windows. Harold would fix misspellings, consolidate typography, and obsessively tighten up line breaks to save paper. He would standardize fonts and justify margins, attributing anomalies either to poor control of a manual typewriter or to an artistic whim that he might just as well ignore. The poets then, the bold explorers of white space and type, would grow ever more experimental, producing concrete poetry, prose that forgot its place in the world of literary categories, and intersections of paragraph and illustration. Sometimes I think Harold would catch legitimate mistakes and the authors would stubbornly cling to them when confronted, just to spite the Philistine, insisting that they had meant to write it that way, that it was essential to the meaning. If the sound must be an echo to the sense, the sense in Harold’s office was usually one of chaos and bruised egos on both sides. Shortly after I came to work for Harold, he had one of his shouting matches with an archetypical poet-type, long hair and velvet jacket, aquiline nose and slender, bony hands. After the poet stormed out, I followed him to his bike and talked him down. He pulled out his notebook and showed me what I wanted. I took it, promising to fulfill its every jot and tittle. A week later we mailed him the gallery proofs, and two weeks later he showed up at the publishing house specifically asking for me. He was delighted. The work was excellent. He would work with us from now on. And I knew, and Harold knew, that he would be writing a lot more. Initially irritated that Typo-Ass (Harold’s term) refused to speak with him, Harold soon came around and acquiesced to the poet’s insistence on working solely through me--and now, twelve volumes (and only a slightly greater number of sales in indie bookstores) later, Harold is satisfied. It was only a matter of weeks before I had become his official go-between. I take the notebooks, the loose-leaf of typewritten sheets, the print-outs from library computers, and go over them with the authors, at their houses, at coffee houses, at meditation centers, at farmer’s markets. I make copies and mark them up carefully, indicating what is to be done in the typesetting at each point. Then I go to Harold. I almost wonder if it doesn’t matter anymore what’s on the page--whether or not I really keep every idiosyncrasy intact, the authors feel safe in the knowledge that someone is paying attention. Harold doesn’t care how crazy and time-consuming the type-setting might be--he doesn’t have to deal with the Type-Asses. I’m kind of a detail person. But I think people are pretty interesting, too.