Interview with Jorge Evans, Founder, Publisher and Editor of RockSaw Press
Diana Joseph: Describe what RockSaw is and how it came to be.
Jorge Evans: RockSaw Press is a chapbook press. A chapbook is a short, bound book (usually 30 pages max and as few as a couple pages minimum. Robert Bly has a chapbook with one poem that's about four pages total.
A little history of chapbooks: They originated in 16th century England as broadsides, or posters, that contained laws, religious sermons, etc. Eventually someone had the idea they could fold the sheets, if printed on both sides correctly, into 8ths and 16ths and it made a little book. From then on it was a very affordable way for writers to share their work. In a time when there weren't presses all over the place dedicated to publishing literature, it was an author's only option to gain recognition.
Ok, so now that the history lesson is over, here's how it all came to be: I'd been interested in presses and book making and whatnot for a long time. I buy old books because I like how they're put together. I have a book of Thomas Aquinas written in Latin just because it smelled nice. I have a Socrates book that I bought simply because some of the pages were still connected on the outside edge (you used to have to cut pages open in older books). With that obsession of book making, it was just a matter of time before I'd start a press.
In Rick Robbin's poetry workshop in the fall of '08 we had to make a chapbook as a final project and in my obsessive compulsiveness I went and found a free layout program and used photoshop to make a cover. It dawned on me then that I could do the work of a chapbook press. It would just be a financial issue.
Then we read The Gift by Lewis Hyde in your Teaching Creative Writing class. And we had that conversation about how we need to be out there spreading the art by all means necessary and I think that's what solidified the idea. I did some accounting, figured out cost, called my parents to make sure if I went bankrupt they'd be able to save my butt, and started the press.
A side note on the press name: It was a typo. I was meaning to type Rickshaw for something or another and I accidentally typed RockSaw. I take it as a happy accident because that happened a year before I started the press and the name has stuck with me. Plus, I like power tools. So it's fitting.
Joseph: What's RockSaw's mission?
Evans: The official mission statement is: "RockSaw Press is an independent publisher with close ties to the Midwestern region. As such, we strive to publish the work of Midwestern writers and work that reflects the state of the region regardless of the writer’s origins.
Our mission is to publish the best work that comes our way. Work that informs, inspires, challenges, and, sometimes as it is, daunts.
We keep our publishing in house, assembling our books by hand with the belief that manual work nets the best results in regard to the art of book making and the spirit of the independent press.
We hope, through our publication, to promote a stronger literary culture in the Midwest and expose the talent that the region has to offer."
Unofficially, we want to do kick ass chapbooks. And I want to help expose the writers in the MFA program here at MSU because I think we have some of the best talent in the country but a lot of people are afraid to publish or to submit to publishing.
And, on a personal, business level, I'd like to take the press to a level where it could be a viable career. I love doing the work and I hope the press survives past my graduation from the MFA in Mankato. Minnesota is a great state for presses with the funding available and I've always been willing to live paycheck to paycheck, so I'm going to do all I can to keep it going as long as I can.
Global domination would be cool, too.
Joseph: What sorts of work made up your catalog so far? What sorts of work are you interested in?
Evans: I'm glad you asked this. So far we have three poetry chapbooks. I think it's a misconception that people think chapbooks are only for poetry. Certainly, poetry lends itself well to the chapbook form, but prose is also just as viable. Essays, short stories, flash fiction, novel excerpts--all of it works in a chapbook. It's just the page count that's limiting. I want to do prose as well as poetry. I want to break that myth that only poetry can be in chapbooks.
As far as work in general, I want work that is influenced by the Midwest or takes place in the Midwest or has some connection to the Midwest. But I'm flexible on this. Just so long as there's some tie--the author is from the Midwest, the story passes through the Midwest, etc. You know me, Diana. I'm fiercely Midwestern.
I used "Midwest" six times just now.
Joseph: Why are you doing this?
Evans: According to the newspaper articles, because I want to lose money. But that's not it at all. I'm just willing to lose money because I want to spread the art. That's the main reason: exposing new writers and their work. Another reason, though, is because I love the work. I absolutely love doing layout, making covers, binding the books, talking to writers. And I'm doing it because right now, while in grad school, I've been given three years to work on my craft and devote myself to writing. So I've got the time. When I graduate I might end up working 40 hours a week in a soul sucking place and I won't have the time. So, while I do, I want to take advantage of it. As I said before, I'm fine living paycheck to paycheck and I'm well aware that this isn't a way to make millions. I do it because it makes me happy and it's not often that people get to do work that they love to do.
Joseph: What are the payoffs and pitfalls to starting up a small press?
Evans: Pitfalls: Financially, it can be draining. I'm always defending the credibility of the press (but I've noticed I only have to defend the credibility to people who don't know a lot about small presses). Those are really the only pitfalls. Some might consider time loss a pitfall, but I don't mind that.
Payoffs: I get to read what's being written right now. I really enjoy the work (as I talked about before) so it's great being able to do it more often than for school projects or for myself. There's a big artistic divide between doing art for yourself and doing art for someone else. It's amazing when you do work for someone and they really like it. I guess it's self satisfaction, but I also like the idea that I worked with someone to create a piece of art. It's a two souled creature. Plus, it's great experience. Where else would I be able to get this kind of experience? And I'm putting together a great portfolio so if I ever have to fold on this press (and I hope I don't), I can show my work to other presses for potential jobs.
The biggest payoff, I think, is when you give someone their book and they are more excited to see it than you were putting it together. It's like giving presents. I like to give presents.
Joseph: Do you have a staff?
Evans: Yes. And I want to expand the staff. Right now David Clisbee has been acting as the PR guy (and doing a hell of a job getting newspaper interviews and radio spots). And a few other people in the MFA program have offered their services. Sarah Snook said she'd help with news releases. Seth Calvert is reading submissions for me. When we put together Clisbee's book, Sarah Blossom and Danielle Starkey helped on the assembly line. I kind of consider the MFA program as my staff. The faculty has been supportive and helped with ideas and motivation. The students in the program have also been supportive and willing to help whenever they can. Right now I don't have a landslide of submissions but I'm planning to advertise heavy this summer so the waterfall should start soon and I'll for sure be asking for--needing--help. And I'd like to keep it connected to MSU because this is where it started and I think it's a great opportunity for MFA students to get involved on the publishing side of things.
Joseph: What are your submission guidelines?
Evans: The exact guidelines can be found here. But generally our guidelines are prose should be no more than 10,000 words total. That can be broken up into two 5,000 word stories, three 3,333 word stories, four 2,500 word stories, etc. One thousand ten word stories might be a little much, but if it’s good, we’ll consider it. Poetry should be around 700 lines. That can be a 700 line poem or broken up. The spread is up to 25 pages. So around 20 poems because the pages are smaller and a poem that doesn't page break in word normally will page break in the book.
And the submissions should be snail mailed. The address is on the website. I know I'll probably get flak for not embracing the internet submission trend, and for killing trees, but I find it much easier to stay organized if I get the submissions in paper. (And I recycle, so it's not that bad for the environment.)
Joseph: Where can people learn more about RockSaw Press?
You've landed at Diana Joseph's Syllabi. I am Diana Joseph; these are my syllabi. I teach at Minnesota State University, Mankato where every student is my favorite. My collection of short stories HAPPY OR OTHERWISE was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. My memoir I'M SORRY YOU FEEL THAT WAY is forthcoming in March 2009 from Putnam Books.