Q & A with Doug Mowbray of twentythreebooks

Posted: October 5, 2010 by fsucenterforcreativewriting in Interview, Poetry, Resource

How did twentythreebooks get started?

twentythreebooks started in 2006 by Baltimore poet, editor, and publisher Douglas William Mowbray. Doug worked as an intern for BrickHouse Books, reading and critiquing poetry manuscripts for founder Clarinda Harriss. One manuscript, The General Is Asked His Opinion, by Omar Shapli, stood out for its sophisticated playfulness in lyricism and historical/political allusions. Doug recommended the manuscript for publication but BrickHouse Books’ docket was full so Doug asked permission to approach the author and offer to publish the book under his own auspices; thus, twentythreebooks was born.

How have you seen the publishing industry change and how are you responding to it?

I have been publishing in one form or another since high school—mostly producing small runs of zines in the early years, then contributing to the publication of small journals and anthologies through collaborations with fellow students and writers and artists. The change I have seen in the industry on one level is (the attempts, failures, and successes of) sustainable production and distribution models based on the DIY and zine aesthetic. The difficulty of breaking into the mass market for books is no longer a necessity nor necessarily a desirable or needed outcome. Reaching an engaged and engaging audience is now possible through a variety of distribution models and each artist must now become their own publisher and promoter. Some artists are having a hard time with this model because they just want to create, or only feel comfortable remaining behind the scenes, and now this is no longer a viable option.

I think this is a good thing—one does not have to hope, or put all their reliance on, some faceless entity that may only want a piece of your creation for the potential bottom line benefits it could afford their own institution. There is now a more direct connection with the consumer (read: engager), but this involves a whole lot more relationship management than artists are used to, or may not have practiced the skills to excel at.

My response is not only to support the artist’s creation—books of poetry in my case—but to be a resource center, and educator, to help guide the writer through this transition. I prefer to work with an artist that has modest aspirations for their work taking hold in the noncollective conscious, and that affords me, and the artist, a certain freedom in how we proceed with getting the work into a reader’s hands. We still have to respond to the usual expectations of providing a product, but we are also free to experiment with distribution, and this freedom is borne out in the multitude of methods available to both artists and publisher. Now is the time to take advantage of the new models and not despair over the seemingly shrinking reading public and the transition to digital productions. The audience is there; they just have different ways of approaching a text and we have to make available every possible format for engagement. (I prefer ‘engagement’ to ‘consumption.’)

What are your opinions on self-publishing, online or in print?

The concept of ‘vanity publishing’ is now nearly dead. Good. An artist who takes pride in their output and wants to share it has a limitless number of ways to do so and should be commended for following through on taking advantage of these opportunities. Reliance on self and the confidence in the work goes a long way in connecting with other people. Note the choice of ‘people’ versus ‘readers.’ Art is really about conveying one individual’s human experience and connecting with other people on some common ground. Language is the most common conveyance and there are many people that may not consider themselves “readers” simply because of the limited volume of books they read in a given year, but every person is interested in bearing witness to the human condition and you can turn anyone into a reader simply by enlisting them in your own witness by way of printed text. However you can bridge the gap between one human and another, I say go for it. One should not be judged negatively for their distribution method—the intention is paramount.

What benefits does a small press or journal offer writers?

Patience of attention. Matronly care in a kind of way. Publishers should be midwives and wet nurses equally with the DNA-provider. A small press is inherently interested in taking on this role and being more than a scavenger for profits. A small press will be your guide and spend more than a couple of months promoting your work. They will be with you for a lifetime.

What mistakes should writers avoid when submitting to twentythreebooks?

Assuming their work is finished when they’ve clicked “Save.” That’s when the work really has just begun. It’s a partnership between press and artist. You are in this together and the success depends on an equal give and take. The artist is the best representative of their own work and should not expect the publisher to manufacture the magic necessary to reach an audience. For a small press, resources are limited, so do not expect an immediate return on investment, whatever that means. (The economy will not collapse, again, because poets did not sell all their work; however, the economy could collapse, again, if people are not engaging poetry.)

The commitment is long-term and you have to treat the release of a new work the same on day one and day thirty and year three. Do not expect that the publisher knows the audience you are hoping to reach either. You may have to do the bulk of networking and the publisher could simply be administrative support. You know who you want to read your book; educate your publisher in what you know, too.

Other than what’s listed in your submission guidelines, what are you looking for in a submission?

Are you committed to do as much work as I am to get your book into uncollective conscious? It’s that simple. This is a cooperative on every level and I need to know that you believe in your work so much that you are willing to do anything to work with me to define, mutually, what success is, and then put in the hours to make that happen. I have published friends, but I am not interested in publishing only friends. But I expect that we become friends and partners in this venture of publishing your work.

What events/publications do you have coming up that we should look out for?

My newest release is an intriguing series of poems by Raymond J. Cummings, Crucial Sprawl. Ray has mostly been writing music reviews over the past decade and a half, and his reviews have always been literary intrigues in and of themselves. It’s fun to work with his lyrical dexterity and introduce another side of him to his usual readership. He is, at heart, a poet, and this is his first full-length collection of poetry. It is a shot across the bow, but this shrapnel is more nutritious than what war and Taco Bell have to offer.

Another poet I have worked with recently is Christophe Casamassima. I published the third volume in his self-proclaimed trilogy of intertextual aesthetics, Ore. Christophe has the dedication and the vision to produce work that is both a commentary and reaction to his own engagement with the text and the modern inclination to revel in derivation rather than feel hindered by it. He is one of the most important writers in the modern mode and no one knows it yet.

Anything else?

I will end with a few lines from a personal recent poetic experiment, creating a text from engaging the 23rd page and the 23rd line from multiple text sources:

Sheet from his powdery beak—
beauty all my life—
sending heat down on me—
dark, hold in the rush, make the bottom
to this world of poverty and insecurity, from which my father had
well-combed, sleek hair, his big self-satisfied healthy face
and treason law introduced for helping Hanoi…

***

Douglas William Mowbray

For more information on twentythreebooks visit their website and come meet Doug at the Small Press Festival, October 16.

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