SPENCER GORDON is a writer, actor, and retired professional wrestler according to his bio. The author of Cosmo (Coach House Books, 2012), a collection of short stories and the upcoming chapbook Conservative Majority (Apt. 9 Press), the follow-up to 2011’s Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast!. I could go on and on about this guy. How he’s taught at both Humber and OCAD, and is gathering award noms and media success all across this great land. But why I really want to talk about Spencer Gordon (or @spencergordon to you twits) is because Spencer Gordon is one of the editors of a lil something called Ferno House. And here in the BookStylist’s secret lair, we like to expose the warm, beating hearts of people doing amazing things in the name of literature. Spencer Gordon is one of those people. Someone who wears many skillful hats and was most obliged to explain all the sordid details of his unique publishing project.
Explain Ferno House and your role there? Ferno House is a micro-press publisher based in the west end of Toronto, Ontario, committed to designing and printing hand-made chapbooks, anthologies, and full-length collections of fiction, poetry, visual arts, and other works of art. Ferno House was founded by me, writer Mat Laporte and designer Arnaud Brassard in early 2009. My role there is to help find new manuscripts, lend a hand in substantive suggestions and copy-edits/proofs, drum up some promotion for our very occasional launches, and do whatever I can in terms of helping Arnaud and the others put the books together (printing, crimping, cutting, binding, etc.). I am not a designer, so in these tasks I am firmly subsidiary.
The small and the fragile and the beautiful still have a place in the world, and without people committed to this idea, it can sometimes feel suffocating and lonely.
What is a chapbook? How does it differ from a book-book? Officially, a chapbook is a small booklet, running (on average) between 10 and 45 pages. Anything more becomes, well, something more, and anything less becomes a pamphlet or a broadside or a flyer or something. Typically, chapbooks also have limited print runs, or in any case much smaller than book-book print runs.
Why publish chapbooks? Well, chapbooks offer a chance to showcase works-in-progress, smaller pieces (such as poems) linked together by concept or theme, or a kind of thematic preview of a longer publication. As they’re much quicker to produce than trade paperbacks (let’s say), they offer the writer or artist an immediacy, a shortcut to audience. They also invite more hand-crafted aesthetics, greater attention to detail, more intimate production values.
FH is described as “handmade” works of art. What does that involve? “Handmade” is a tricky term. To me, it means that we do everything ourselves, from initial design to final book numbering. It means selecting and ordering paper, printing on our own machines, using our own production tools (e.g., a perfect binder, a foil stamp, a screen press, etc.), collating and sorting and sewing with needle and thread. It’s time intensive, laborious work, but it ensures that each object we produce has something of the unique about it; there are personal touches, one-of-a-kind traces, in every one of our books. We like to think that each book (numbered and treasured) is a unique work of art.
So does the design of these follow a certain branding aesthetic or are they unique among themselves? Each round of books (or each individual book) has had a particular design flavour. You can pick up on a lot of continuities throughout our run: Patrick Larkin’s illustrations have popped up in numerous chapbooks, both inside and out. We use the same font for each book. We have a press insignia; we perfect the wording of our colophon and the placement of our flysheets. Any design similarities found throughout our last three or four years of production can be traced to Arnaud, who has grown and evolved as a designer and artist throughout the process. This year’s chapbooks—Ben Ladouceur’s Impossibly Handsome, Jimmy McInnes’s Begin Speech With, and Fenn Stewart’s Vegetable Inventory—are part of a set, so they share a lot in common with regard to design.
Why do you think a publishing model like this is important in today’s lit-landscape? Or do you? Well, the short answer is yes, I do think it’s important. But my personal biases about publishing have a lot to do with traditional models of apprenticeship and consecration. As a poet, I believe it’s important to produce your work in smaller (chapbook, broadside, etc.) formats.
We try to run works that have an air of uniqueness about them. We aren’t interested in reproducing the most common forms of the Canadian lyric, or in more boring forms of experimentalism.
It allows you to receive feedback from your peers and elders, get a sense of what it’s like to be in print. It builds networks, communities, allows for more dialogue and exchange (the chapbook world is infinitesimally small). In other words, it’s a time-honoured way to cut your teeth. People want the world; they want a full-length trade collection by the time they’re out of diapers. The secret is: there is no rush. Poetry is patient. Poetry is utterly unforgiving. As far as writers go, if you’ve published three chapbooks by the time you’re shopping a manuscript, I tend to trust you. Maybe this is all old-fogey talk, but it’s the way I was apprenticed, mocked, humiliated, indoctrinated, embraced. The old guard, ancient regime of consecration is still relevant, even in an age when the opportunities to be published and ‘legitimized’ as a writer are greater and easier than ever. Moreover, head to Costco or WalMart, and look at what books are for sale. Skids upon skids of the literary equivalent of So You Think You Can Dance. Head to the poetry section in your local Chapters. Is there one? I am not knocking mass culture, so-called low-brow entertainment. I am merely asserting that the small and the fragile and the beautiful still have a place in the world, and without people committed to this idea, it can sometimes feel suffocating and lonely. Especially at Costco.
What is your ultimate goal for FH? For yourself as a micro publisher & author? I don’t really have an ultimate goal for Ferno House. To be the best we can be? To provide younger, talented, developing writers a venue, audience, cradle for their work? To inspire other people to do the same? To always challenge ourselves to make better, more exciting works? To find friendship and camaraderie in it all? My ultimate goals as an author involve #millionsofdollars, #sexslaves, #springbreak.
What keeps a house like this running? We were lucky enough to receive a Crafts grant from the Ontario Arts Council in 2011, which solved many of our problems with regard to funding. With low print runs and a capricious market for chapbooks, one must be financially prudent (to put it lightly) if one wants to continue producing books into the future.
What can we expect from FH in the future? Expect an awesome, hush-hush book called Prodigy that will retail for $200 a copy. It’s that f-ing insane. Or not. Expect more chapbooks, but better produced, more audaciously designed and conceived. Expect drone missiles, unexpected strikes.
What do you look for in a chapbook submission? We don’t accept submissions, per se, as we’re committed to either soliciting works from people whom we admire or we want to work on in-house projects that don’t involve too many outside players. Concerning poetry directly, we try to run works that have an air of particularity/uniqueness about them. We aren’t interested in reproducing the most common forms of the Canadian lyric, or in more boring forms of experimentalism. A thorough description of our aesthetic biases (mostly shared between Mat and me) would be an exhausting document. My suggestion is to buy our entire backlist and see what I mean!
Where can we find FH/FH titles? At our launches, and the occasional press fair. And you can buy titles directly from us via PayPal at www.fernohouse.com.
SO. Is your interest peaked? Are your fingers tingling with a sensation that can only be described as a deep, curious temptation? Well Ferno House is having a (free!) fall launch on October 11th in Toronto, celebrating 4 brand new chappies and featuring their entire backlist. What do you say?