In a hot town some people call Tucson, a handful of dudes (and sometimes a few ladies) run an online and print publishing house known as Spork Press. Yes, the books they make are sometimes fiction, sometimes poetry, sometimes both. But they’ve also got this crazy mixtape they’ve given away as a chapbook. Their books don’t go out of print, and they’ve never become a nonprofit because they don’t want to come up with a mission statement. How about that for punk rock? They even grow really big, gnarly beards sometimes. But seriously. They really don’t have a mission statement. (So you probably shouldn’t quote this, at all.)
I talked to three of their editors about their taste in music, what it’s like to live (or not live) in Arizona, and even more relevantly: the high and low tones that make up running a small press where books are totally put together by hand. Read on for a sampling of wits from fiction editor Joel Smith; poetry editor and South-Korea-based foreign correspondent Jake Levine; and Drew Burk, one-half of the co-founding team that started it all way back in 2001.
Paper Darts: Each book made by Spork is pretty handmade. What was the process? Who learned how to sew and focused on the craft of the book?
Drew: I made a record deal, years and years ago in a band back in California. It fell through and everything went to hell, a gun was put to my head, so I left town and moved to Tucson, thinking I’d pop into another band. But it didn’t happen because everyone else seemed to also be a refugee from some horrible experience in their last band. Nobody trusted anybody.
So I was writing a bunch. Then I wrote a couple novels and they were awful. I thought I should get them out there somewhere. But I got really offended by the idea that somebody else would get to decide the fate of the things that I had done. So I put them together, with nails and hanger-wire, and made some really ugly books.
And then I thought I could probably do that better. I gradually started learning, pre-internet. I kept refining the process. When we started production, we asked, how can we do many of these quickly and sell them at an affordable price? If you do a fully hand-bound book, you really can’t afford to sell that for ten bucks.
PD: And you released that cassette mixtape earlier this year as a chapbook.
Drew: The idea was sort of to show the sound of the studio. If you were here now with us, this is what it would sound like. Only, you know—none of the drinking and swearing. You can imply that.
Joel: People really like that. Cassette tapes have had a real resurgence lately; there’s something cool about it. And the first time you play a cassette, it’s actually better quality than any digital stuff.
PD: How else does music show up in your projects and events?
Joel: Towards the front of each of our books, it will say what music we were listening to, what kind of beer we were drinking. We also did a book release party at this club, Congress. There was live music outside, and Colin [Winnette] was reading parts of Animal Collection—and we were reading other pieces to warm them up—all set to music that Andrew Shuta, our design guy, was DJing.
There’s definitely a thrum of music under everything we do.
PD: Do you think there’s anything else unspoken that really separates Spork?
Joel: We’re more hands-on with our editing. We’ll spend hours going back and forth with our writers. I think a lot of people will accept something as-is, or they’ll just reject it because the premise of messing with it is onerous.
Jake: We’re not supported by anybody. We’re super DIY. We’re not a nonprofit. We have no hierarchy. But the biggest difference is that there is chicken shit on everything.
Drew has chickens. Where we make the books is next to his chicken coop, so it always smells like chicken shit. And nothing is safe at all. When you use the sander and you sand cardboard, you’re supposed to wear safety goggles and a mask. Drew does neither. So the shit just goes straight into his face.
I cut off two parts of my fingers cutting down books. Maybe more people are safety-oriented, but we are not. Maybe that’s what separates us. We also have no consensus in terms of ideology. We have completely different interests and opinions: Drew loves Batman. I think Batman is the scourge of the earth.
PD: You also have a predominantly all-male staff. We imagine it to be frat-house-y and full of smells.
Joel: It’s too hot and dry. Even if you did smell, I think it evaporates very quickly out here in Baja Arizona. There’s no weird boys club. We do grow some pretty gnarly beards, though. Although not this time of year. It’s really frickin’ hot.
Drew: Our all-guy thing has never been by design. It just keeps happening that way. Girls we want to work with say things like “I want to move to New York.” They tend to have other things they want to do.
PD: What makes you like working in Tucson?
Drew: I met a guy years ago. He’s dead now, but he was in a band playing in Pomona. I saw him and I said, wow you guys are super cool, where are you from? And he said, Tucson.
So I asked, what’s going on in Tucson? And he said, nothing.
When it became time to get the hell out, I thought, that’s the place I want to go. I want to go and not be constantly staring at people doing similar things as me. I want to go and not compete with anybody or anybody’s ideas or objects and just figure out what the hell I’m doing. And do it well.
The thing that I like most is that it is a good place to work. You are ignored and under-appreciated. You can just work. And then you take the work somewhere else where people can appreciate it.
Jake: Tucson is a super great place to work. It’s really fucking cheap. Have you been there?
PD: No. I’m totally from the Midwest, and I pretty much just spent the last three years on the east coast.
Jake: We grew up dreaming of trees. And water is mysterious. Tucson is a super old school, run-down, economically-fucked-up place. It’s one of the cheapest places in America to drink. You can get one-dollar draft beer.
I feel like Tucson is really American.
PD: Does the plague still exist out there? We’ve been telling people that.
Joel: The plague? As in the bubonic plague? I don’t know about that. We do have Africanized killer bees, but that’s kind of a racist thing to call an insect. It’s not right.
We also have a lot of weird stuff that will bite you.
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