04 October 2010

Lunch with Matrix

Recently, Conundrum Press publisher Andy Brown sat down and interviewed me for the Montreal-based magazine Matrix. I’ll post a few excerpts from the interview below. You can find the full interview in Matrix 87, on newsstands now.

¶ On Wild Letterforms

ANDY BROWN: So here we are with Andrew Steeves in the King’s Arms Pub in Kentville, Nova Scotia. Wild Letterforms of Kentville Nova Scotia was a presentation I saw you give at the Wayzgoose last Fall and found it very interesting.

ANDREW STEEVES: The world we live in is full of letters. It’s so much a part of our lives that we forget about it. We pay more attention to clothes.

BROWN: Well I don’t! [laughs]

STEEVES: We forget that letters are this incredible system that’s married to language and the letters we deal with in society are, for the most part, prefabricated letters. Generally, people don't know how to form a letter with their hand these days, with a brush, pen, or chisel. Instead, we push a key and the letter magically appears. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but something is lost when you lose the connection with how things are made, with how the body shapes things. We have the same problem with hamburger and houses. We go to the grocery store and pull a cellophane-wrapped item off a shelf. We consume passively instead of create. Anyway, at the time I put this Wild Letterforms talk together, I was biking from Wolfville to Kentville everyday, traveling the back routes where there was graffiti …

BROWN: Well to call it graffiti would be misleading. It’s not even tagging really.

STEEVES: Well it’s not up to Montreal standards, no. It’s pretty bush league. There are other examples of hand-made letters around town. So I started documenting all kinds of stuff, from welded letters, to letters chiseled on old tombstones. There are examples of well-made local stones from the 1770s and '80s, letters made by some guy with a hammer and chisel and a unique idea about what a letter should look like. So I put a slide show together which talked about these spontaneously made letters, and about the ecology, the diversity, of letterfoms possible in a small town. From the stenciled “Don’t Park Here” signs to the crayon “Rabbits for Sale” notice. And what I discovered is that the wild letterforms were still holding their own against the commercial drone of pre-fab Tim Hortons and McDonalds signage. That stuff can really take over and kill out the native letterforms if you let it.

BROWN: What is the project your working on based on the old Planter tombstones?

STEEVES: That project was born of the methodology which got me into publishing and printing in the first place, the thinking being that if you want to learn about something, go back to its root form and figure out how it works. Don’t wait for the machine to break, just take it apart.

BROWN: You’ve figured out a way to import the letterforms off the tombstones into the computer to make a font?

STEEVES: When I got into printing and publishing I didn’t know anything about it. I came in blind. My background is actually in Criminology. [Laughs.]

BROWN: There are a lot of young offenders in publishing.

STEEVES: I’m not going to comment on your list, Andy.

BROWN: I publish a lot of them actually.

¶ On Cultural Funding

BROWN: A $15 paperback is the price of a movie now. Yet people still go to movies. You do need to be practical and have a market. Someone has to buy the $60 well made book.

STEEVES: But here's the question: Why is there no market in this country for Literary books? I wonder what effect the funding environment we function in here in Canada has on things when it comes right down to it. The government has its fingers in culture, and though it’s well intended it makes a mess of things. There seems, for example, to be this conception in government that if little presses had better marketing skills that they could sell all kinds of books, as if an ads ever sold a poetry book. It's nonsense. Culture doesn't work that way. This funding infrastructure has everything to do with supporting an industry and little to do with cultural at the grassroots.

BROWN: I would argue that the Canada Council’s mandate is not to support industry but rather culture.

STEEVES: The Council is constantly directing money into activities that they believe will help grow companies bigger and make them more like the big players. What we really need in this country is help fostering a readership. Think about hockey. Why do we view it as being a part of our culture? Because so many Canadians are involved in it when they are growing up in their communities. It dominates television culture for a certain portion of the year. It is hard to avoid. Almost every community had a hockey rink, most likely funded in part by public money. Even though few kids make it to the NHL, hockey is a part of their lives. Soccer is like this in other communities, or figure skating. But my point is that government invests in community sports infrastructure, and the result is a community of people who are interested in sport, both as participants and as consumers.

BROWN: How do you cultivate a culture of interest for esoteric beautiful books of poetry? How do you sell it to the average individual?

STEEVES: I guess to oversimplify the matter, I would suggest you invest heavily in the educational system, and in cultural infrastructure that everyone gets to use – not just in industrial infrastructure like publishing houses.

BROWN: But why would they be reading your $25 letterpress book? As opposed to The Twilight Series? There seems to be two things going on here. There’s reading and there’s the quality of the book. And those are two totally separate things. I think reading is being promoted but it’s middle of the road sold in vast quantities. There needs to be an appreciation of the book as opposed to ebooks or pulp, essentially just text, which is all going to go online anyway. For books to survive, any printed book, not just Gaspereau-style books, they will need to become an objet d’art since pretty much every piece of text will just be online.

STEEVES: That’s conjecture in the largest sense.

BROWN: That’s what I do. I’m a conjecturer.

STEEVES: I think books are only a small piece of the equation. What I’m really all about is getting people to pay attention. You take the small corner of the culture that’s devoted to books and writing and ask why no one is reading the types of books published by literary presses, the reflex response is that it’s because publishers are not professional enough about marketing and promotion. What I’m trying to suggest is that we dig deeper. If we build stronger communities culture will follow. Right now there are programs that fund the writing of book, the publishing of the books, the marketing of the books. Hell, governments fund everything except buying the books too. And yet despite all this investment in 'culture', very little benefit trickles down to the citizen in the street. Only the people directly involved in the industry (the writer, the publisher) really benefit. The average citizen has very little contact with this official literary culture. I don't like it. But let's say you take the same amount of money and instead of funding the arts from the top you fund it from the bottom. Let's say instead you gave every Canadian a voucher to buy one Canadian-published book this year. There are many problems with this suggestion, but the big advantage is that you have engaged the general populace with literary culture. Right now that’s kind of what’s missing. Right now we are propping up an industry that is dysfunctional. We all have a bunch of really great books in our warehouses that nobody’s reading, even though they helped fund their production through their tax dollars. I would rather get those books out there. Afterall, a good book is a ticking time bomb, it can sit there a long time. If it's well made, that is.

BROWN: Look at John Donne. Hundreds of years.

STEEVES: Or even more locally a book like Rockbound, a long-forgotten novel which became an overnight success with CBC's Canada Reads. Books are patient. If you make them well enough they can be very patient.

¶ On Stepping off the Ladder

STEEVES: I think that if you want to occupy a place outside of the mainstream you need to adjust your thinking. You need to get yourself off the ladder of advancement, plant your feet somewhere and focus on perfecting your art. You have to slow down and pay attention to your craft. Mind your own business, you might say.

BROWN: And you’re going off the grid.

STEEVES: Yes, quite literally. My wife and I sold our house and bought 35 acres of woodland, about 20 minutes outside town near a place called Black River. We are building a house, and doing most of the work ourselves. It's a good piece off the road, so we’re going to use solar electric, wood heat and some propane backup. In the meantime, we're pretty much living in a tent for the summer. It's awesome.

BROWN: And your children will have to bike to town to use the Internet. Is this what you mean when you talk about going off the ladder.

STEEVES: What I mean is that we get sold this bland idea about what is normal, what is possible, and what is important. And we tend to go along with it because it's too much work to imagine things being any other way. Sometimes as we mature we can see that it's not really that simple, and we rebel to whatever degree we are comfortable with. Or, we step of the ladder. I get a lot of joy out of designing and making things, our of solving problems. I also get a lot of joy out of the natural world. So building a house in the woods is a way of combing these things, instead of just buying the suburban home and large screen TV.

BROWN: You once said that if anyone put a canoe in her submission to you that you would publish it. [laughs]. That’s your editorial process?

STEEVES: Well, yeah, canoes are an interest of mine. But what I’m really looking for is people who are paying attention. People who pay attention to the world around them and are able to condense what they discover down into something worth saying.

BROWN: How does that translate to your publishing list? What is your editorial mandate for Gaspereau. There’s poetry, non-fiction, biographies, novels. What’s the link?

STEEVES: The link is engagement. The link is paying attention and finding some useful or entertaining way to talk about what's discovered.

¶ On The Alcuin Awards

BROWN: You just won five Alcuin design awards. Why are you monopolizing these awards?

STEEVES: No idea. I just make these books. I don’t know who is going to love them or hate them. Bringhurst's Selected Poems won first place in the Poetry category this year. There are eight categories, and I submitted to three categories and took first place in all of them. Which doesn’t always happen, mind you.

BROWN: Well it never happens for me. [laughs]

STEEVES: I have to add that I don’t put much stock in awards. So I have to be circumspect when I win as well as circumspect when I don’t. Regardless, it’s always gratifying when your colleagues take the time to say, This is good work.

BROWN: Do you think your particular design aesthetic is exactly what the Alcuin Awards jury looks for? Just coincidentaly?

STEEVES: There is an element of that, perhaps. The Alcuin competition tends to have a nostalgic sensibility. My design aesthetic is informed by 1920s and '30s British book typography. Houses like the Nonesuch Press and early Penguin were great infulences on my work. At that time, people like Francis Meynell and Jan Tschichold were trying to figure out how to marry centuries of typographic tradition with mass production technologies in order to produce inexpensive books that were not 'cheap' crap. They often succeeded. And that’s at the heart of what we do at Gaspereau Press, take the strange mix of letterpress and offset and digital stuff and to bring it all together in order to make good, strong functional books that are reasonably priced. So maybe if a press is doing more urban, gritty, modern design it has less appeal for the Alcuins juries. It's possible to do that sort of design well, however; but it's rarely done well. Usually 'designers' for literary presses just slop some type over an interesting photograph and stir it all around.

BROWN: You are not using colour photographs.

STEEVES: Not often. It's often a lazy approach, I think, to rely on a photograph to carry a book cover. But I'm biased. I'm into type. And remember, the Alcuins are about the book as a whole, not just jacket design. The people coming out of art school and doing book covers, they aren't usually typographers. They are graphic designers. Type is a mere visual element to these people, not a system with a history and a tradition to be learned and understood before it's mucked around with. There are very few good typographers in this country. I can list the living one's I've encountered on one hand: Stan Bevington, Tim Inkster, Glenn Goluska, Robert Bringhurst, Will Rueter. There's a younger generation starting to get the hang of it, though, including people like myself and Jason Dewinetz, and some encouraging work coming from the generation or two younger than me who seem hungry to learn. So I'm hopeful for the future of typography in this country.


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