Saturday, November 26, 2011

“The Spirit of Literary Independence” at the Old American Can Factory, Nov. 22, 2011

By Patrick Thomas Henry
Traveling to the Gowanus district of Brooklyn in the midst of a torrential downpour is like setting foot in the rain-lashed environs of a gothic novel. An “atmospheric tumult,” to pilfer Emily Brontë’s description of the weather at Wuthering Heights, battered the F train and jostled rain-soaked passengers together as it squealed along its tracks toward Brooklyn. Outside the 4th Avenue-9th Street Station, the crowd dispersed, and I headed northward, in the direction of the Old American Can Factory at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street for the “Spirit of Literary Independence” celebration.

I entered the Old American Can Factory and mounted the stairs to the building’s upper levels. I glanced down the high-ceilinged corridors when I reached each landing. These hallways were gated with flung-open, vault-style doors. The night’s event was in the Issue Project Room on the third storey. Since 2003, the Issue Project Room has sought to build a creative hub for Brooklyn, with an emphasis on experimental art forms.

The “Spirit of Literary Independence” event worked toward that mission, through inviting independent publishers to present several of their authors. The night’s format—a reception and short breaks between readers—encouraged attendees to mingle and chat with the evening’s participants, creating a more intimate atmosphere than the usual question-and-answer format of such events. The co-sponsors were Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, the journals Habitus and One Story, and Ugly Duckling Presse.

Author Irena Reyn reads from a work in progress
The readings illustrated what independent and small publishers offer readers and the literary community, including evocative and beautifully conjured short story collections. In addition, the readings served as reminders that small presses can offer us considered and deft translations of foreign literatures, such as Ross Benjamin’s translation of Joseph Roth’s Job (Archipelago Books). Independently published journals also offer authors an opportunity to present works in progress. Rachel Cantor (One Story author) and Irina Reyn (Habitus author) both shared such work and referred to the valuable relationships they've developed with their editors and readers.

 Small presses have the leeway to engage with darker, more violent, more graphic content that may concern the big houses. Lonely Christopher’s short story “Milk,” from his collection The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse (Akashic Books), evinced this through a detailed—and gory—scene where shooting a horse parallels the family’s tensions. These publishers also offer opportunities for works that, though self-contained, are not book-length projects; John Surowiecki’s narrative poetry, which draws from his personal experiences and sensitive considerations of those affected by the Vietnam War, appears as the chapbook Mr. Z., Mrs. Z., J.Z., S.Z. (Ugly Duckling Presse).

Of course, mainstream publishers continue to print hundreds of powerful books a year, but small presses can explore literary terrain that may be foreign—or  seem unmarketable—to larger companies. And today’s small press titles can become literary classics in future decades. This isn’t just waxing poetic about the value of small presses: Literary milestones historically have their foundations in these humble origins. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for instance, was initially published in the journal The Criterion, and the poem’s initial appearance in book form was as a print run of 450 copies, produced by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.

When I left the Old American Can Factory, I felt waterproofed in the evening’s layers: energetic readings, warm company, and the comfort of a few Brooklyn Lagers. The balmy rain, which still fell in chilling reels, seemed a bit less gothic, a bit less discouraging, after an evening spent amid the vibrant spirit of literary independence.