Poems Find Their Way Out or They Don’t: An Interview with Geoffrey Nilson

Geoffrey Nilson, publisher of pagefiftyone – a brand new poetry micro-press dedicated to print culture – talks publishing, Internet vs. print, music, and chill, with Invisiblog guest editor, Shazia Hafiz Ramji

Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Geoff, you’ve started a press. Tell us about it. 

Geoffrey Nilson: pagefiftyone is a poetry micro-press dedicated to print culture. The name comes from an administrative quirk of my local library, who up until recently used an embossing stamp on page fifty-one of each new title added to their collection. 

pagefiftyone issues single poems in short runs of 50, business card-sized or postcard-sized, small enough to use as a bookmark or pass in the palm of your hand. Inspired by rob mclennan and jwcurry (not to mention the long tradition of independent print culture in Vancouver), pagefiftyone is an act of service to a poetry community that has given me a place, but runs contrary to the trend of small-press digital publishing. 

rob mclennan: poet, publisher, small press badass

The internet has done some wonderful things but, in my opinion, publishing is not one it does well. Since I began reading, my fascination with the written word has been as much with texts as it has been with book (or print) objects, which I view as physical manifestations of language. Analogous with digital music, the digital poem is not real matter, but a collection of ordered ones and zeros translated into a form our eyes can understand. You can not hold a digital poem in your hand, smell the ink, or feel the grit of the paper between your fingers. These tactile pleasures are equal to the interpretation of content in how I experience poetry. Books and broadsides can live for hundreds of years, can be read far into the future. How long can we honestly expect the internet to last before it devours itself?

SHR: If that isn’t a hot take, I don’t know what is! *Fire emoji*! I have to ask: what do you mean when you say that publishing is not something the Internet does well? Is it the tactile aspect? What is it about the physicality of a book as object? I personally can’t read a novel on a digital thing, because I can’t see how it unfurls in space (which is very important to me because of its relationship to time). Same with poetry, same with any book… But to get back to the Internet…

GN: I think one reason for publishing with the internet is because of funding constraints. The internet has no printing costs. Wide distribution. Direct access to readers. The idea makes sense if you are trying to run a business. But a poetry press isn’t a business, even though it may seem and have some characteristics of a business. 

Given the funding shortage many organizations will be using free (or almost free) publishing platforms. And these platforms leave much to be desired, whether from lack of layout options or the omnipresence of advertisements and extraneous content to the wholesale pillage of your data. Even when a digital publisher has the funding to ensure good layout and ad-free content on a secure server, you still run into the fact that readers do not concentrate as much on the work when on a digital device. 

A recent article by novelist Will Self in Harper’s (“The Printed Word in Peril”), describes research that shows “under certain controlled circumstances reading on paper affords important advantages—allowing for greater retention of information and comprehension of narrative than digital reading,” and that “we experience less ‘transportation’ (the term for being ‘lost’ in a piece of writing), and as a further consequence become less capable of experiencing empathy.” These seem (to me anyway) the primary reasons to read and to relegate them to concessions of publication is a crime. 

I’ve viewed documents on a screen for most of my life. That’s strange to think about, those early years of home computing in the 1980s all the way until now. But reading was always about books and magazines and newspapers. That probably makes me sound ancient. I’m in love with the object and the words embodied in reality. The thing here in front of me. 

SHR: Chapbooks and micro-presses in particular have a history of being exceptionally beautiful objects to hold and behold. Why did you decide to make pagefiftyone publications postcard and business-card size? What are your hopes and dreams for pagefiftyone? Do you do it all yourself? (I know you do all the design and art yourself, as you have that exceptional photo of the sculpture that accompanies my poem on a pagefiftyone postcard!)

GN: “To hold and behold.” I love how you nail the duality of the poetry object, both in our grasp and beyond it. The sizes came from my budget. I can do a run of postcards or business cards for the same price as a night out (a much better value in my opinion). One of the things the internet does really well is the production of advertising materials, so these items are inexpensive. I’m not interested in making money off them, and don’t have them for sale online. If I ever manage to organize a launch reading, I may ask for donations to future printing costs. pagefiftyone is about the poem. How little can you say while saying it all? 

I don’t do it all myself! Thankfully! All the contributors so far allow me to publish them: Kevin Spenst, Claire Matthews, and you of course. Vancouver artist Shauna Kaendo contributed an embroidery to accompany Kevin’s poem. I would really love to include more artists (and more poets, of course). My photograph just fit so well with your poem. I don’t foresee using many more of my own images. Full disclosure: I’m listening to Bjork on a chillout mix and I’m dreaming of ways to combine audio objects with poetry objects. A poem that meets a record halfway to meaning. 

SHR: I have no doubt that you’ll receive support when (not if) you launch pagefiftyone. You’ve always been interdisciplinary in your approach – I still have your chapbook, “O,” that was in response to artwork at the New Media Gallery in New West (I showed it to my students in poetry class and felt very proud to say “my friend Geoff did this! Look what poetry can do! How far it can go!”). And now, a “poem that meets a record halfway to meaning…” I love it. How do you make time to chill and experiment? 

GN: Chill? What’s that? I’m not trying to glorify my perpetual state of ‘doing,’ but I don’t have a ton of downtime, what with raising my daughter, working a day-job, and all the word-related projects stuffed in-between. I snatch moments when I can. To answer your question: I make the time to experiment because I refuse to keep experiments separate from my regular practice.

Anakana Schofield

I remember hearing Anakana Schofield read at KPU a few years back and during the Q & A, I asked: “how do you keep the critical and creative threads separate in your work?” Her answer: “I don’t.” How often I come back to that when questioning my own practice, and whether my own interests will fit together, however disparate or intellectual. It was a license to experiment all the time, beyond the limitations of form or genre or interest. I think my ‘chill’ is when I allow my impulse to combine and to play.

As a musician, I think I’m more able to connect emotionally with music than with language. I make the distinction of music being rooted in melody, harmony, and rhythm, and language being rooted in diction, syntax, and metaphor. Writing triggers reactions from my brain and music triggers reactions from my heart. And with this in mind, I use music to spur me on, sometimes inspired by a song on the stereo, sometimes pushed into a sequence phrased like a melody I had been playing on guitar or piano. What is your version of ‘chill’?

SHR: Well said. Separating “critical” and “creative” has never been an option for me, as a visibly racialized person. I really dislike discussions and categorizations of race, class, gender, ability etc. as “identity politics.” I mean, it isn’t my “identity” …  it’s my being. Separating the critical from the creative ignores that complexity. 

My version of chill is listening to Brian Eno on nice speakers while alone in my bed in the almost dark, and crying really hard, and maybe writing some lines if they come. I try to make time to do that, but sometimes my social relationships suffer because I need to be alone quite a bit, and I also need to cry to allow myself to feel my feelings, especially when I’m working on something, which is always… 

Recently though, I’ve found chill when I’m on the move. I love travelling and being at airports especially. Sometimes I’ll go to the airport just to find chill. That might mean I’ll hang out at the airport on Friday nights and hit the rave at 1 a.m. right after a hermit session, and that’s also chill. These days too, I also feel chill in an energized and renewed way after teaching. It’s surprisingly energizing when a class goes well and analysis and inspiration are flowing in equal pints! I really love teaching.

But yeah, so then, how do you find / make time in the midst of adulting?! Geoff, please share your time management and life skills … 

GN: I want to take one of your classes! You have this effortless way of blending theoretical concepts with emotional intelligence, and you read widely. I always come away from our conversations with a sense of how little I know, which is exactly the place where I find my best self and my best writing. 

One of the reasons I think we get on so well is because we’ve both been afflicted with an appreciation for ambient music. Have you heard the Robert Fripp & Eno collaboration ‘Evening Star’? Airports carry a feeling of being between places, even being between selves. And there is anonymity as well, where you can disappear while being totally exposed and surveilled. Maybe that specific tension is something you’re drawn to? 

Something about the idea of having to make time for writing doesn’t ring true for me. I’ve never had to force the schedule, so to speak. I write late when my life commitments are over, in break time at my day job, or on the bus home. The poems find their way out, or they don’t. I don’t think about it much more than that, really. I struggle with making the time for social relationships. That’s probably most neglected when I’m working on a project. I enjoy spending time alone! But I could be better. People are patient with me. 

SHR: You are so kind, Geoff. I would love to be in class with you. My mentor, Meredith Quartermain, taught me about having discipline and not waiting for the poem to come. But if you’re writing on the bus and in between breaks, you have discipline and routine without thinking of it in those terms! This explains why your poems are so badass.

Geoff, we could go on and on, I know, but I really appreciate what you said about poems and their ways, and I want to end with quoting you back: “The poems find their way out, or they don’t.” 

I patiently await your next ones. 

GEOFFREY NILSON is a writer, editor, visual artist, and the founder of pagefiftyone, a BC-based poetry micropress.

A regular contributor to Coast Mountain Culture, he is the author of four poetry chapbooks: In my ear continuously like a stream (above/ground, 2017), O (Swimmer’s Group, 2017), We Have to Watch (Quilliad, 2016), and Alchemy Machine (2015). 

Nilson’s poems, essays, and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and periodicals such as PRISM international, Event, Poetry is Dead, subTerrain, The Capilano Review, CV2, The Rusty Toque, Lemon Hound, Qwerty, and the Glasgow Review of Books. Nilson holds a BA in Creative Writing from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is an alumnus of the Banff Centre Wired Writing Studio, and has been shortlisted for TheMalahat Review Far Horizons Award for Poetry and the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize.

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