Ottawa-based poetry chapbook publisher above/ground press was founded in July, 1993, and has produced nearly seven hundred publications since, all of which have been selected, edited, folded and stapled by Ottawa writer rob mclennan. The press has long been known as a forum for both established and emerging writers, and has been fortunate enough to produce multiple publications by writers such as Rae Armantrout, George Bowering, Marilyn Irwin, Stephen Brockwell, David W. McFadden, Sarah Mangold, Cameron Anstee, Lea Graham, Monty Reid, Marcus McCann, Stephanie Bolster and many, many, many others. above/ground press celebrates twenty years with an event in August, as well as an anthology launch of ‘the best of the second decade’ in October, through the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
rob mclennan is also founding editor/publisher of the literary trade publisher Chaudiere Books (since 2006), the Ottawa poetry pdf annual journal ottawater (since 2005) and seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics. He is the author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, and spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.
SWF: What does above/ground press offer authors that other presses don't?
rob mclennan: A worthy question. above/ground press is a poetry press that produces chapbooks, broadsides and occasional issues of our writing group journal, The Peter F Yacht Club (one of a number of journals the press has been involved with over the years). Chapbook authors are paid in a percentage of the print run, usually fifty copies or so (print runs are predominantly between 250 and 300 copies). After that, eighty to one hundred copies are distributed among subscribers and “friends of the press,” as well as a small handful to potential reviewers, so I’d say that distribution and visibility is something the press offers. I mean, even if I don’t sell a single individual copy, there are still over a hundred copies in interested hands.
I would also like to think that the press produces astounding writing by an array of Canadian and International writers that is both easily available and affordable. My print runs allow for most works to still be available a couple of years after initial publication.
SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript?
rm: I look for writing that excites me, pure and simple. I look for writing I can’t not produce so I can tell everyone about how amazing it is.
SQF: What mistakes do authors make when pitching their books?
rm: What I find enormously frustrating is when I receive an email submission from someone I haven’t heard of before, without any indication or information telling me exactly what it is a submission for. Is it a submission for Chaudiere? above/ground? ottawater? ottawater, for example, is a journal that only publishes current and former residents of the City of Ottawa, and Chaudiere Books doesn’t take submissions online. I don’t have time to go through the file and simply guess. It annoys me to the point that I’m always tempted simply to erase automatically. When I inquire as to what the submission is exactly for, the response “whatever you want” sends it straight to the junk folder. I mean, if you’re not going to take your submission seriously, why should I?
And yet, I am open to unsolicited submissions. But tell me what the submission is for so I can know how to respond, and which file to put such in.
SQF: Of the books your company publishes each year, how many are by previously unpublished authors?
rm: For above/ground press, I’d say about a third, with another third being authors I’ve published previously. This year alone, above/ground press produced first publications by Brecken Hancock (Ottawa), Jordan Abel (Vancouver), Abby Paige (Ottawa) and Amy Dennis (Toronto/England). This year also included chapbooks by writers I’ve produced works by previously, including Stephen Cain (Toronto), Helen Hajnoczky (Montreal), Gil McElroy (Colborne), Gary Barwin (Hamilton), Marcus McCann (Toronto), Jason Christie (Calgary), Jessica Smith (Birmingham) and Aaron Tucker (Toronto), as well as a number of previously-published authors that are new to the press: Jill Stengel, Wanda O’Connor, Rosmarie Waldrop, Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Marthe Reed.
I like going back to authors I’ve published for a second, third or fourth item. This month I’m producing new chapbooks by Ottawa poet Monty Reid and Toronto poet Marcus McCann, each publication being the fourth titles above/ground press has produced of theirs over the past decade. I consider that this not only builds a list and encourages the work of writers I’ve come to admire, but a community of writers around the press.
SQF: What is your advice to new, unpublished authors looking for a publisher or agent?
rm: I can’t speak to agents (as neither myself as writer nor Chaudiere Books as a literary trade press have dealt with agents), but the best thing anyone can do is do their homework, and be patient. About a decade back, above/ground press received a submission of a two hundred page medical text, asking if I was interested in publishing such. More than a couple of times, I’ve received what could only be described as a “bag” of loose poetry submission, with a note telling me “I could take what I wanted” from it for publication. All of these were immediately returned unread. If you are going to attempt a submission to any publication or publisher, it is essential to first know whether or not what you are sending actually fits with the mandate of the publication. above/ground press is a publisher of poetry chapbooks up to twenty pages; how exactly is a two hundred page medical text going to actually make it through? While that does seem like a fairly blatant example of misunderstanding the process of submission and publication (and a lack of research), you also aren’t going to send your long poem to a journal that produces haiku.
Above and beyond all of that, most books and chapbooks are still sold predominantly through and by the author, so authors have to be willing to put themselves out there to get works into journals, do readings and reading tours, and simply be visible. Books are hard enough to sell with authors who do such things, let alone attempting to sell books by invisible authors that no one has heard of. above/ground press at least has the advantage of subscribers who receive everything the press produces within a calendar year, but there are a number of titles by Chaudiere Books that haven’t moved much, in part due to author silence.
SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t? And how would you answer it?
rm: Given that the press is two decades old now, I guess some fairly obvious ones become “how do you sustain a press for twenty years?” or “where do you go now?” I’m not entirely sure myself, and don’t feel as though twenty years have actually passed. I simply keep doing what I do, attempting new things as they occur to me, while holding the foundation of producing poetry chapbooks that excite me. Years ago I told myself that I would stop doing any of this activity once it was no longer fun, but that seems as far away from me now as it did when I began. Does that make sense?
Thank you, rob. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.
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