Big job for a small house

Dennis Teichman is the man behind the pages at Past Tents Press, a small press publisher whose mission, from day one, has been to "support and publish writers who live, work or have a history of involvement in Detroit's cultural communities." Since 1985, Past Tents has brought out books by many of Detroit’s best known poets, including Bill Harris, Ken Mikolowski, Mick Vranich, Chris and George Tysh, and Ted Pearson, among others. The latest book from Past Tents Press is Gregory Kiewiet’s In the Company of Words, a wildly varied collection that moves from the conversationally stripped down lyric-language poem made popular by Robert Creeley to poems that are enigmatically aphoristic and ironic in both tone and design.

Metro Times: What were you thinking when you decided to start Past Tents Press?

Dennis Teichman: I had the opportunity to work with Jim Wanless and Glen Mannisto on the Detroit River Press back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, a chance to be part of a lineage of folks who printed books and literary magazines dating back to the Artists Co-op, and found the experience of making books quite enticing. It was a combination of thinking about how words look when they get set on the page, the enjoyment of getting to print (and read!) peoples’ poems and stories, working with artists on covers and artwork for the books we did and the roll-up-your-sleeves physical jobbing on the offset press we used. A lot of collaborative spirit back then, and we ran with it, printing a wide variety of publications including 48220: A Detroit Anthology, poets Hank Malone, Larry Pike, artist Nancy Pletos, and poet/songwriter Jim Atkinson, to mention some.

A culmination of sorts came in 1983 when we collaborated with Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press on Melba Joyce Boyd’s Song for Maya. After that, the feeling was it might be time to go in different directions. We all had other projects going on in our lives anyway, and so Glen stayed with Detroit River Press and went on to publish Trait magazine, Jim had his work at Henry Ford Community College as chair of the English department. Also, Kofi Natambu had Go-For-What-You-Know, Inc. going strong with Solid Ground and was working on his Post Aesthetic Press, M.L. Liebler had the Ridgeway Press, Christine Monhollen (of today’s Doorjamb Press) was working on putting out a literary magazine, and all that activity was encouraging. I had learned a lot from my press experience, had got some valuable advice and help from good working pressmen like Ken Mikolowski, Nick Provenzano and Ralph Rinaldi, so I thought another press might still be workable in the community.

In 1985 I partnered up with Deb King and Paul Schwarz to form Past Tents Press. We wanted to do poetry books by writers based in Detroit or at least had a history of being or working in the region. There was plenty of talent around to offer a press to, which has proved itself out over time.

MT: Did you, when you started, have a model small press that you looked up to and hoped to live up to?

DT: Oh yeah, a great many presses held our interest; The Alternative Press, Broadside Press, Black Sparrow, the Figures, Coffee House Press, O Books, Post Aesthetic Press, Sun and Moon Press, Tuumba, the list could go on. What struck me was the wide variety of styles, the quality of the printing, the attention to issues of layout and typography that goes into making a book. I came away with the impression one need not be a scion of the publishing industry to come out with solid, well-structured books written by outstanding authors. I think Ken and Ann Mikolowski’s Alternative Press really influenced us by the way they spread so much poetry/art around over such a long period of time. They were great to be around and a pleasure to talk to about how a press can be integral in, as Ed Sanders put it, "keeping the issues alive." We knew we had a lot of work to do to approach their abilities, and we certainly made plenty of miscues in the process; but again, over time, I think we’ve been successful at what we set out to do.

MT: There seem to be more small presses starting up nowadays than ever before. Why is this? Is this good or bad for good poetry?

DT: Small presses have the versatility to work at a grassroots level in the community, giving a wider variety of writers the means to put their work into the public view. Even in conservative times like today, grants and other funds from universities and foundations are available for locally based groups and presses to get the kind of books published that reflect the issues of their region. That’s definitely a good thing for writing as a whole. More voices, more reasons to read, more planetary discourse. And this is the info age; My Spacing/You-Tubing over the electronic waves seems to lend credence to the feeling that an audience of a few is as important as an audience of many thousands. Major publishers won’t/can’t handle that much unsolicited writing anyway and their selections are subject to the demands of business and shareholder responsibility; even the well-known small presses are stressed to get writers more visible while figuring ways to stay solvent.

So, it’s a conundrum: The growth of desktop publishing, digitization and computer-run press equipment makes books done by smaller presses like ours not that much more expensive to produce than in years before; at the same time, it is getting more difficult to get books on the store shelves. Therein lies the bigger problem: distribution. Once a book is printed, where does it go? The continuing demise nationally of indie bookstores has presented a serious problem to small presses, especially those who could only stick it out for a few books. For the non-franchised, unchained bookstores it’s an honest problem. Nobody can keep books on the shelves indefinitely. If they don’t sell then they eventually, albeit reluctantly, get sent back.

Bookstore owners I have talked to say a concern is the small one-book-published press that disbands shortly after getting their book on the shelf. The store wants to do right by them but those responsible don’t return, generally leaving them with a quantity of books that are essentially abandoned. Quite a burden to those standing against the tide of giant chain store encroachment. Problems arise again. The selection policies of big-box style bookstores exempt a great many small presses, as do those of distribution houses. Generally a track record of sorts is needed to avail a press of these entities. It’s understandable as an economic protection policy, unfortunate as it is.

Is there a way to circumvent standard operating procedures like the above, and keep all in a state of contentment and not contest? There are ways. Used bookstores can come up with the goods and make pleasant places to hang out. Libraries, although fidgeting under local government budget constraints, are more than happy to house a few copies of small press’ books. I feel the trend to print-on-demand style presses will grow as the technology evolves and more and more people start buying books online. This may be the real solution for those who publish infrequently or maybe just once. The upside is a great many writers will have the tools to publish their work. The downside might be more pressure on the indie bookstores. Plus, there is the issue of electronic books, books on tape, on the Internet, etc. Online presses are growing in number and they offer the book in its new form. There certainly will be a change in the way people perceive the function of book stores and other repositories of printed material, along with how they want to obtain it, store it, use it. But, at least we’ll have the opportunity to avail ourselves of our favorite authors no matter what way they get to us, and that might be the most important issue of all. Peter Markus is the author of three books published by small presses, the latest of which is The Singing Fish (Calamari Press). Send comments to [email protected]

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