In true New Orleans style, whenever I ask the good folks at Lavender Ink/Diálogos for review copies of new titles, I always get a little lagniappe thrown into the box. And somehow I always love everything that they send me. It’s as if they have some sort of mind reading powers. Or maybe it’s just the common roots.
Either way, you’ll find me gushing about their titles: here or in the upcoming roundup for Sabotage Reviews. But before we get into all the goodness that exudes from the press, let’s get to know some of the faces behind it.
This week I spoke with Founding Editor Bill Lavender (pictured here with his Mardi Gras face) about choosing manuscripts, his vision for the press and of course current trends in poetry. Hope you enjoy!
What mishmash of fictional, historical or pop culture characters best describes the press?
Imagine that Emily Dickinson (looking cynical and uncomfortable), Ted Berrigan, Nikki Minaj, Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht and Jacques Lacan were sitting at a table reading manuscripts and drinking. At a certain point they all pass out. Then I come in and clean up, forging their signatures to the stuff I like.
Who are your literary superstars, mentors and heroes?
They are both too numerous and too few to mention. When I was younger I went through brief periods of romantic attachment to the Romantics (mainly Coleridge), feelings of Marxist historical burgeoning for the German Expressionists (like Brecht), drug-crazed word burnout on Rimbaud, prosey oceans of Joyce, meta-enchantment with John Barthes and Paul Auster, swung both ways on the Derrida/Lacan argument, heard the dumb thrumming of language in Zukofsky and its watery mirror in Lorrine Niedecker, feel into Jack Spicer’s trance, drummed with the Beats, and rejected it all as being too precious. One thing I have always hated: the contemporary United States poetic establishment: the “big names” in po-biz, AWP, MFA programs (even though I taught in one, for a time), “Best American Poetry 20xx” (an embarrassment, if it were true), I could name names but I’m too discreet—and I mean I ALWAYS hated this crap. I didn’t come to hate it after loving it for a minute in misspent youth. I came into poetry because it offered an ESCAPE from John Ciardi (just to name one who was famous when I was cutting my teeth—actually I don’t remember them; I paid no attention.) I did have the great privilege of growing up poetically in the same environs as Frank Stanford and C.D. Wright—I remember C.D. turning me on to some French poets I didn’t know, this was back in about 1973 or 4. Frank didn’t like my work (it didn’t deserve to be liked), but I learned tons from the Battlefied…. It was like finding a French surrealist in my hometown.
How was the idea for the press born in you, and what is your vision for its future? Proud milestones? Recent successes?
Now that I have basically retired—perhaps not from money-grubbing but at least from doing it in soul-killing bureaucracies like universities— I’m putting a lot of time, energy, and money into the press, even to the detriment of my own writing, so I seem to be determined to accomplish something. In some ways my press adventures are all experiments: I want to see what happens if I disseminate a certain work in a certain way. I’m intrigued by the notion of financial success, but so far that is entirely theoretical.
Tell me about the process of choosing manuscripts. Who do you most want to see published? Any collections you wish had come out of your press?
I have several people, sort of an informal board, most of them authors published by us, that I regularly ask for advice. Peter Thompson, at Roger Williams University, has been my partner in Diálogos from the beginning, and I always confer with him on matters of translation. In the end, though, all the decisions come back to me.
And lately, I should add, my publication decisions have come to depend more and more on concrete matters at hand… that is, isn’t ONLY that I feel the work SHOULD be published (for in truth, anyone can publish anything now; that old sacred goal of PUBLISHING really doesn’t exist any more) but HOW it should be published, where it should be pushed, encouraged, what sorts of conversations and interactions it might produce. For a long time I eschewed the humble form of the pre-pub blurb, but lately I’ve come to see that the pre-publication discourse, of which the blurbs can be the locus, can be as important as any other segment of the book’s arc.
What brought about the 2012 expansion from exclusively poetry into fiction and other genres?
This question is more troubling and troubled than its brevity would portend. It actually has many answers, one being that I have begun writing fiction (novel) myself (get the ebook), but that practice, too rises out of a growing… disillusion is the wrong word; there is still a lot of poetry that interests and satisfies me… let’s say a growing sense that poetry is no longer expanding, that it is no longer implanting itself at the true center of the culture and fomenting rebellion there. That it is, in short, fizzling. I know a lot of people will protest this vociferously, and it may actually be that part of the problem is their sheer number. It may be the fact that we have now sanctioned “National Poetry Month”…. Such efforts culminate in a Disneyworld of poetry; wax (well, PVC) effigies of social responsibility. Where prose right now, with its complete and entirely unnostalgic commodification, actually presents an opportunity for subversion; cracks in the editorial edifice open up because the editors ARE accountants and have no idea what they’re reading.
In the aftermath of Katrina, much of coastal Louisiana has eroded. Do you feel that same sort of erosion is true for its culture? Was the publication of the 200 yrs of N.O. Lit title important to its preservation? And is the current literary scene still thriving or on its deathbed?
Well, I certainly don’t think it’s on its deathbed. There is so much happening in New Orleans right now it’s hard to keep track of. One of the reasons we cut off N.O. Lit pre-Katrina was that there is so much contemporary material that the book would have doubled its already substantial size. The real impetus for Dr. Nancy Dixon’s N.O. Lit: 200 Years of New Orleans Literature was a teacher’s desire to see a sampling of the very rich, disparate, multi-lingual field of the city’s literature collected into a single volume to use as a teaching tool. It’s astonishing, really, that no one ever attempted such a collection before.
Talk to me about your relationship with the city of New Orleans and the Louisiana connections of (most of) your authors.
I’m not an unreserved fan of New Orleans and its cultural output (I thought Treme, for example, was awful—an embarrassment.) And lately in the poetry community there has been some talk about our unsung past, about how the Beat movement had more roots here than we are given credit for, etc. Such chest beating bores me. What doesn’t bore me are the actual poets and writers at work here with little or no recognition. I could name names: Joel Dailey, Megan Burns, Chris Sullivan… but this list is simply the Lavender Ink catalog.
Who are some of the other faces behind the press?
Well, my wife and constant inspiration, Nancy Dixon, is second in command. She reads in her field and I never design a cover without consulting her. Peter Thompson at Roger Williams U. is a great friend and consultant on matters of translation and on Diálogos titles in general. I have called on almost every author in my list, at one time or another, to help out with editorial duties, from manuscript recommendations to copy editing to fact checking, etc. And they are all great and generous partners in the endeavor. In the end, though, I’m too cantankerous and autocratic for most people to work with, so it pretty much ends up being my baby.
Dr. Nancy Dixon
How does Dialogos (an imprint) fit into the larger press? Is the cross-cultural focus an outgrowth of New Orleans’ history as a port city?
No. It comes from my earliest experiences with poetry that excited and moved me, which was always poetry in translation. There was a real flowering of translation as its own art form when I was cutting my teeth in the 60s, and I was disappointed to see a waning of interest in literature in translation in later decades. I think there was brief flowering of internationalism back then that coincided with the country’s general swing to the left. That, of course, is gone now and we have sunk back into (the normal human condition of) paranoid xenophobia. Now I enjoy being an irritant, at least as much as I am able…
Current trends (in poetry or fiction) that frighten you? Those that excite you?
Certain things do frighten me, but they aren’t the things you’d think. It doesn’t worry me that “no one reads poetry any more.” No one ever read poetry. Nor does it bother me that fiction lives at the whim of capitalism. The novel was born in Grub Street and was never meant to be anything but a means for hustlers like Defoe to add a few pounds to their income. What worries me is precisely the opposite of these… Maybe too many people read poetry now; maybe we are actually developing an inflated idea of poetry’s potential and importance. Poetry doesn’t make revolutions. Poetry—fine poetry that describes in great detail our innermost feelings and defines in certain terms the parameters of our identity—can exist in the most egregious police state and be written by the most ruthless bureaucrats. Didn’t Mussolini write haikus? There might be such a thing as poetry that can change the world, inspire rebellion, bring out the knowledge we didn’t know we had—but most of us just want to run when we encounter it.