“This is our century now, and we are alone in it.” – An Interview with SOd press
I’m not sure of the first time I was exposed to SOd press, but I think I can map the event back to perusing the annals of weird lit Twitter, possibly at my day job in Seattle, sitting at a desk, wasting as much time as possible. I was immediately compelled by the strangeness of the work I found on their site. Neo-Dadaesque asemic and collage work. Glitch art and childlike sketches bordering on Art Brut. A PDF based on the Braille reading of a beaded garment.
Who are these people? I wondered to myself. Then a coworker walked up and asked me to make some copies in a glazed over mutter. I was back to reality. The ‘lo-fi’ nature of the works collected on their minimal Tumblr site did not compromise the radicality of these texts, but enriched them in a complicatedly quixotic way. Later, the names of the editors, aj carruthers and Amelia Dale, bubbled to the surface. Through my tendency of extensive internet lurking, I tracked down some information about this truly unique Australian avant-garde press. That said, I was still thirsty for more data. How did all of this come about? Through the establishing of a Google Doc (a strange blank digital bridge between our continents) and several weeks of exchange, I was able to ask a few questions of Amelia and aj to try and understand a little more about the ethos, intention, and direction of SOd.
Barrett White: I was hoping we could begin by discussing the future first. Are there any upcoming or recently released projects with SOd that you are particularly excited to share?
A.D.: We’ve just published a set of (chap)books, among them catherine vidler’s chaingrass, an extraordinary sustained piece of visual, post-digital work, which can be downloaded from the site.
vidler’s work is part of a pdf SOd.doc series I am editing, which I guess could be characterised broadly as encompassing post-digital work by experimental, feminist writers.
Other work that’s “fresh” on the “stale” site is Nick Whittock’s untitled cricket pdf book: a treat, especially if you’re interested in antipodean experimentalities.
How did you two meet and how did the initial idea of starting an online press emerge? And how did the name/term “Stale Objects dePress” come about?
aj: Sometime in 2011 myself and another poet Sam Moginie (we were sharing a house) had a piece of stale bread that was lying around. We didn’t know what to do with it. Throwing it away felt wrong. So we watched it. And at a certain point after watching it go even more stale — going through that process of dehydrating but never quite going rotten — I decided to hang it up as art. Then in the tradition of the modernist avant-garde, we wrote an (anti)manifesto we both have since disowned. When it became unsightly to leave the bread hanging there, we decided to paint it red and turn it into a “Ferrari” (true to our implicit critique of value). Then it was thrown away. An absurd anecdote.
Time passed. Then in 2013, I decided to turn this loose “idea” into a printing press, Stale Objects dePress (now just SOd press: first two letters majuscule ‘SO,’ the ‘d’ miniscule). The first thing made under the SOd name was a stapled square chapbook by Toby Fitch called Quarrels. It ran to about 45 copies, from what I can remember. Then we did Michael Farrell’s Long Dull Poem, Ella O’Keefe’s Rhinestone and Amelia Dale’s Metadata. All had small print runs and scans are now downloadable online. In 2015, I asked Dale (who did Metadata) if she would like to be involved. She can speak more about that.
Looking back, you could say it was born out of the stale urban environs of Sydney, a touch of depressive affect, and some degree of radical political consciousness. But there are aesthetic origins too. At the time I was obsessed with Robert Rauschenberg and George Herms, the kind of collage/sculpture artists of the “Combines.” I had encountered Herms and seen a performance by him in 2011 when I was doing a Research Fellowship at the Getty Research Center in LA. The stale yellows of those Combines reminded me of home, perhaps. Australians can be sort of stale, daggy, flat. A generalisation of course. I’m Asian-Australian, too, so it might have had something to do with being “in the middle” (stale being between the fresh and the rotten), but that’s a stretch. There’s also, of course, the art-historical notion of the found object, the beyond of use, of recycling, or the unoriginal as new.
But to contextualize, historicize a bit. It came out of an earnest, often manifesto-like radical positivism: that experimental writing was and is possible. It came out of a zeal for the material object. It also came from an inkling that the Sydney experimental poetry scene, which was going strong then, and is now thriving, needed more small press activity. We knew vaguely that in the 1970s they had this kind of thing, particularly underground work of Pam Brown (who is like a radical elder among us), so where had it gone? More guerilla publishing and small press noise. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to topple the reign of prize-winning, palatable-yet-forgettable conventional verse. To oppose affirmatively, not react against. Still some work to do, but the opposition is stronger than ever. All the experimental work that gets thrown aside by the Establishment, we pick up. We publish it. I don’t ever want to hear again about a young poet struggling to get their high-quality experimental works published. We’ll take it if it’s experimental. We’ll ignore it if it’s conventional.
We also want to participate in world poetics now, that’s the digital part. Like many other literary contexts, but perhaps more so, in Australia the avant-garde remains still somewhat underneath, another layer that doesn’t get much exposure overseas. The digital helps with that global reach, not for renown or to get attention, just to participate.
From emily stewart’s Australia’s largest DIY (SOd.doc8)
Recently, PDF press Hysterically Real featured several SOd-affiliated writers, and Amelia, you completed a microfeature with Jacket2 on experimental poetry performance in Sydney. Can you discuss how these opportunities and collaborations came to fruition?
A.D.: One thing we both want to do with SOd is demonstrate the diversity and strength of experimental/difficult writing in Australia. We come from a particular aesthetic (and I think it’s also a political) standpoint. There’s not that many spaces dedicated exclusively to radical/experimental writing in Australia but I think this might be changing.
When I came on board with SOd it was more based around paper “objects” and I shifted its focus so now I think “stale objects” encompasses a preoccupation with obsolescent digital “objects” (like Elena Gomez’s A GLAZED WINDOW W/FAT BORDERS//[TAUT & DISCOLOURED], Jessica Mei Cham’s premium pastoral poetry and Aurelia Guo’s Black mUJI notebook to name some of many).
Basically all of what SOd does is born out of collaborations and supportive friendships with other writers. In a SOd reading/launch in 2015, in Melbourne, Ann Vickery generously (and generatively) launched SOd texts by O’Keefe, Fitch and me, and contextualised the importance of the press. Our recent reading/launch at Sydney involved nine writers reading their work: Pam Brown, Astrid Lorange, Alison Coppe, Yasmin Heisler, Emily Stewart, Holly Isemonger, vidler, Dave Drayton and Whittock. Several travelled from interstate. Eddie Hopely helped with the space, iced tea and watermelon for the launch, and Fitch lent us his sound system. In a similar vein of collaboration: the Hysterically Real publications were curated by Claire Nashar, a former Sydneysider and (SOd) poet and scholar now based in Buffalo.
Being a poet and a publisher of poetry is intensely social: you’re within a specific local community of people you know and love — people I’ve been writing about with the Jacket2 series — whose writing and conversations inform your aesthetics and your practice, and you’re also within a wider online space, conceiving projects through Twitter friendships and long email conversations.
Considering some of the ethos you’ve described for the press, I’m thinking of Joey Yearous-Algozin’s HOW TO STOP WORRYING ABT THE STATE OF PUBLISHING WHEN THE WORLD’S BURNING AND EVERYBODY’S BROKE ANYWAYS AND ALL YOU REALLY CARE ABT IS IF ANYONE IS EVEN READING YR WORK, released by Troll Thread, as a cornerstone for this kind of thought process: an accelerated, experimental, global, ‘noise’-oriented, and perhaps most importantly, free publishing space. What are some of the most exciting things you feel are coming out of/from online publishing at this time?
aj: Yes, isn’t Joey Yearous-Algozin’s work wonderful? That particular one is curious because it is a kind of implicit critique of the world in which much of his work operates. I’ll admit there are similarities between SOd press now and other presses in the United States like Trollthread and GaussPDF, being online, being “free.” Plus the youthfulness, the exuberance, the sheer experimentality of it. But I’m aware that even though there are similarities between all of these radical but seriously experimental presses, they are also very different. I would like to think that SOd represents some kind of continuation of the Australian avant-garde tradition. It is an accelerating (not accelerationist) engine. But it’s also very slow. It wants to discover old ideas. It sometimes almost stops. It’s extremely small, possibly the “smallest small press in Australia.” That’s the branding, that’s the “market.” Yet given how wonderful the community support has been, it feels big-hearted. There is also a broad sense that this is contemporary. It’s now. There are tendencies toward post-conceptual work; either repudiation of the conceptual, or using its foundations to get to something else. But I like to think it has it’s own non-USA-inflected aspects as well.
A.D.: The exciting thing about poetry (particularly avant-garde poetry in Australia) is that it is so difficult to monetize. As catherine vidler’s conceptual twitter account @usefulstars regularly and intermittently tweets: “SPECIAL ADVISORY: THE MONEY MACHINE DOES NOT RECOGNISE POETS.”
SOd begun with the utopian idea of making all the poetry, including the chapbooks entirely free, but that became increasingly expensive for us, and the chapbook print runs were never big enough. Online publishing lets you do more with less. At the same time, publishing poetry for free, or as cheap as you can, involves leaning or leaching off entities that are for profit in every sense of the word. The SOd website is a “free” tumblr, the pdfs are hosted on a google drive that comes “free” with a “free” gmail account and so on. I like to think that SOd has a parasitic relation to the more corporate spaces of the internet: we’re grabbing their stuff in the same way as we – and so many small presses – sneakily borrow paper and printers from our workspaces to print a run of chapbooks. Joey Yearous-Algozin’s book articulates the scrounging that poetry publishing involves when the world’s burning and everybody’s broke anyways. As Yearous-Algozin notes, Lulu operates as a capitalist enterprise. SOd, Troll Thread etc. can create books through Lulu and other print on demand publishers and make zero revenue, but Lulu does profit when we buy our own books. So the “free” online publishing space exists in an inevitably close relationship to digital capitalist conglomerates.
I also enjoy the way digital noise offers such a different reading experience to the codex book: you can write for an environment of pop-ups, email alerts and instant gratification. You have more space to be brasher, bigger, entertaining and/or banal. It necessitates a poetics that reflects our lived experiences amongst screens.
How do you feel about the Australian ‘scene’ in comparison to what you know about other ‘established’ (Western) locations, like the United States, Canada, the UK, and parts of Europe? How do you see SOd corroborating or going against these traditions, and perhaps their ‘staleness’?
aj: There’s so much joy, so much fun happening in Australian poetry. In addressing the question of “tradition” I don’t want to sound negative because really everything is ok and we’re lucky to be doing what we enjoy doing. But it should be mentioned that in Australia some of this is quite “oppositional.” Throughout Australian literary history experimental poets have been somewhat sidelined. The poets who we are taught are “important” write boring, mediocre and very conventional verse (I know there are similar patterns in other literary traditions). Sometimes the content leaves a lot to be desired in terms of treatment of race and gender in particular. It’s not really so much “tradition” as convention, given the avant-garde is also a tradition. All these little books of boring lyric poems about looking out a window and feeling melancholy. You can’t blame the reader for being disinterested. So these conservative, older, and mostly male poets often get put forward as the one’s people should read for overseas audiences… and they all seem to be called Geoff or Geoffrey. They’re not the benevolent, wild avant-garde father you could be proud of, like maybe for the Canadians, a BpNichol-like cult figure. They’re just the worst kind of “canon.” “God help us,” as the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating used to say. I know it’s the same in other literary communities around the world but it feels very strong here.
The extraordinary rise of a large-scale generational opposition to this canon has been called the “New Wave.” Emily Stewart’s recent book Knocks has this term in the blurb. The term I think might have come from Michael Farrell, a poet routinely cited by the mainstream as too experimental, hermetic, “meaningless.” I like the term “New Wave,” as modernist as it is to want to create a movement. But it’s a thing now, for certain. Time for an adventure. We draw on our own group of seniors to admire. Thinking of the older generation of radical experimentalists or “neo-avant-gardists”; Jas H. Duke, Thalia, Amanda Stewart, Anna Couani, Ania Walwicz, Javant Biarujia and others, they’re now back in the limelight, in part because the “New Wave” younger generation of experimental writers are increasingly interested in what they are doing (or have done) than in the received canon. They’re important, much more important. They are the “canon” (or the stale, anti-canon), as far as we’re concerned.
So we are doing it differently. People do sometimes say, “But the avant-garde is over, what do we do now, we’ve already pushed past all the limits.” I don’t like to hear that so much. There still are things to do. I’d argue that there’s no “limit” to how experimental something can be. If one generation set up parameters for pushing aesthetic or aesthetico-political boundaries, why can’t the next push them even further? I wager that the avant-garde is historical, but it’s less synchronic as diachronic, evolving through time as a tradition. You can join it, participate in it like any other tradition. Nick Whittock, another favorite poet of mine, sometimes lives off the grid (places without adequate power), and yet is creating some of the most experimental poetry in the world (think Jackson Mac Low, Hanne Darboven).
In terms of established Western locales, this is a very interesting question and several ways to approach it. Ultimately, of course, I’m skeptical about Australia placing itself within Western locales. The late Martin Harrison spoke about this in Who Wants to Create Australia (2004), the difference between Australian, British and US poetics. He expressed distrust of the whole thing about how Australia is “ignored” overseas. I agree, with the added qualifier that while there are clear links to Western locales, they are complexly unsettled by the fact that Australia is located in Asia. More precisely the Asia-Pacific region, so everything we are as a Nation-State, inclusive of economy and identity, is in a fraught (and rich) relation with this region. We’re in a dialectic between, region and locality, stale and fresh. The twentieth century is over. This is our century now, and we are alone in it.
A.D.: Building on what a.j. says, in terms of global, networked spaces, I see SOd as being part of a larger collaborative project (which sites and presses like Troll Thread, GaussPDF etc. are part of) publishing and making freely available difficult, avant-garde, digital poetry. At the same time, the specific “Australian” conditions a.j. talks of, allow SOd the luxury of being more provocative, of being more oppositional than in locations where such forms of publishing are more “established”. My chapbook Metadata, for instance, received a review where the reviewer found it boring, drafty and difficult: I find it exciting and rewarding to publish and write in a context where people are offended by experimental writing simply because it might be iterative or difficult.
I ultimately hope the tradition SOd can participate in is an Australian lineage of inventive “unsettled” writing, to borrow the terminology of Michael Farrell’s brilliant recent book, Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945: poetry that formally upsets colonial (and orientalist) complacency through pushing the boundaries of forms and materials. In the poetry of Natalie Harkin, Elena Gomez, Samuel Wagan Watson and Lionel Fogarty (as well as the work of many others, especially the experimental, stale “anti-canon” poets a.j. lists), you can see a direct alignment between an “avant-garde” pushing of poetry and language to its limits with political urgency.
So much of what SOd does is an experiment, and as a result its direction is fluid, and up to the poets who we work with. I want to see what happens when poets are given freedom and space to write visual work, choose their own fonts, the colour of their pages, and can explore and unsettle and scream and spread over hundreds of pages, in a venue that’s not dominated by trite expectations and/or deadish white male gatekeepers.
I have to agree with you that unfortunately it seems that poetry environments entwined with nation-states seem to become echo chambers. However, there are also presses that seek to trouble these borders (both physical and aesthetic) by publishing works in translation (two US presses, Action Books and Ugly Duckling Presse, come to mind). Do you have any other examples of this kind of exchange, particularly in the Pacific region, that highlight Australia’s complex hybridity/interconnectivity?
aj: Yes, I would like to look at more of the Ugly Duckling and Action Books, but love what I’ve seen. I’ve a copy of Registration Caspar of J. Gordon Faylor. Fascinating, really my kind of novel, I’ll write something on it. In terms of borders physical and aesthetic, the less borders and more dispersal of centres of power and influence the better for poetics, I think. I guess hybridity is a complex question in Australia. There’s a wonderful poem by the Indigenous poet Lionel Fogarty called “Advance Those Asian and Pacific Writers Poets” which speaks well to some of those regional questions mentioned above. Given all non-Indigenous ethnicities are visitors to this land, which is stolen – owned by its Indigenous peoples and never ceded — I want to say that Indigenous literature is both hybrid and local. This might look, at first, something like a centering, a coring of such writing. Then, a solidarity with other Indigenous and non-white ethnicities (one way of reading Fogarty’s poem). To get the full picture you’d have to ask them, though. Natalie Harkin, another Indigenous poet, and probably one of my favorite poets writing in Australian today, addresses some of these questions in her thrilling book Dirty Words. Hers is an urgent poetics.
Vagabond Press has this Asia-Pacific series and through that we have been alerted to poets working between Australia and various Asian countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines. Poets are often doing residencies overseas in the Asia-Pacific region. Some Australian poets have gone to Korea, to Japan, to China. For me, Australia is an Asian country before any other. Asia is our hemispheric relation, our home. Some poets in Australia tend to rehearse Orientalist East/West discourses, particularly those conventional ones I was speaking about, but I prefer to think of our relation with Asia to be more real than a fantasy. It’s really South / North-North-West. We’re here, so let’s make the most of it.
A.D.: Apart from Vagabond Press, there’s also AJAR Press in Hanoi, which runs a bilingual journal (in Vietnamese and English) another press which troubles borders, and publishes exciting work in print and online. Another example that springs to mind is Cordite Poetry’s recent issue “Dalit/Indigenous Australian,” which published Indigenous Australian and Dalit and tribal Indian authors, with their poems in language and in translation, in the spirit of global indigenous solidarity, and suggesting aesthetic continuities.
Now would perhaps be a good time to return to the future: If you had to imagine a global poetry discourse ten years into the future, what do you think it will look like? What about 100 years?
From Yasmin Heisler’s Aquarium Drift (SOd.doc17)
aj: The future could be very dark. In part because of what’s happening in the USA, Russia, geopolitical earthquakes. Robocops are real. Patterns are repeating themselves (is war eternal?). As the Australian experimental poet and theorist Amy Ireland has said, poetry is cosmic war. I hope it won’t be, but who knows. What’s online is not stable or permanent or better. The internet in times of cyberwarfare will be a completely unreliable space. Perhaps we will have to return back to print books. Things that you can hide away when the supercomputers are hacked and cars are burning outside on what once was a suburban street. As a commun(al)ist and historical materialist by inclination, some kind of radical change, not just antifascist opposition, is needed. There are positive things: SYRIZA, Bidya Devi Bhandari, Evo Morales, strong movements….but so many more negative. Can poetry reflect on this? Yes. Can it do anything about it? I don’t know.
Perhaps there will be a point at which SOd, in its small way, in this enormous and troubled world, will have served its purpose and marked, in its aesthetics and social purpose, a certain historical moment of change in Australian poetry. But the plan is to eventually move into print books on a larger scale while continuing the plasticity of online publication. That’s my plan, maybe not Amelia’s, so who knows. I want to make good objects, big objects. Artist-book like things. Huge volumes, 300-400-500 pages. Books with a print run of 1?
AD: In response to a.j.’s comment, I’m suspicious about the way print isn’t immediately shareable. Cherishing the codex book in our contemporary moment can look dangerously like nostalgia. I publish and research eighteenth-century literature so I think about print historically: it made sense to print books then, I don’t know if it does now. They might be nice objects but so are coasters, vinyl records, parchment scrolls and chandeliers. That said, they’re probably more ultimately durable than digital texts, where file formats have only a limited lifespan, and every website is on a quick path to obsolescence. The internet is forever but every web page is always already staling, rotting, dying. This is our literary ecology: I don’t dare imagine — like Christian Bök — a poetry that goes beyond the end of the universe, nor that I can publish it. At the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney there is a kind of dated but still fascinating “space” exhibition that has material from the space age, including the (preserved? Or was it rotting?) meal of an early astronaut. I hope, for the future, SOd will come to resemble that meal: a staling, visceral, perishable object from an age of exploration.
Of course, both of you are not only publishers and reading hosts, but also poets and artists yourselves. Care to share any recent or upcoming projects? (Somewhat) recent things I’ve seen from the two of you: Amelia, your humorous projects GOALF and TRACTOSAUR; and aj, your textual engagements with Asian conceptual and performance artists (Ode to On Kawara and Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh, respectively). Each of these projects seem to radiate a political imperative, and push against expectations of readability and syntactic logic (in a ‘literary’ sense).
aj: That’s a totally nice description and yes the social and political imperative is there, I hope, throughout my work, particularly in AXIS, my lifelong long poem, the one poem around which all of my work is structured. Each of the unfolding books in this series will add an extra column such that the poem is like an infinitely expanding chorus. AXIS Book 1: Areal (Vagabond 2014) was all in two columns. AXIS Book 2 will contain three “micro-books” (“Blazar,” “Chorastics” and “Disc”), with 3, 4 and 5 columns respectively. “Disc” will be entirely numbers, written as words: nine, four, fifty-three, etc.. As much of we have been speaking about here, the aspects of hemispheric regionality, etc., these are reflected in the AXIS works, which, rather than using “poetic language” seeks other languages than the poetic; science (cosmology, astrophysics, neuroscience), and language of radical politics, and processes from the other arts (particularly conceptual), as you say, that lead to performance events. A lot of the time performing AXIS poems has involved multiple voices, 2, 3, 4 and more. Like the symphonists, who never seem to get past 9, the numerical system I have invented will take the poem to 9 books in total, but that is only a notional limit at this point in time.
More and more my work is about radical acceptance. Though it might be difficult on the surface the concepts I use to frame these works are getting simpler. One might just accept the difficulty and move on. Or one can begin to challenge, without too much effort even, the very notion of what is a poem. At this juncture, there needn’t be a mandated “sound” that we think of as poetic. Those two online books, Ode to On Kawara and Opus 16 on Tehching Hsieh are homages, not linked, necessarily, but a recent tendency to explore how art by certain artists that inspire me can change the processes of the writing. For this reason I’ve written further homages to the Australian composer Liza Lim, the painter Agnes Martin and the German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven. The homage series was largely so I could remember the names of the artists I loved.
Lately I’ve been turning to extreme versification — up to molossuses and tribrachs — using Mac Low and G.M. Hopkins as primers to create 20-line (4 quintain) stanzas which follow strict, and sometimes obscure, versificatory models. For this I wish to challenge the notion that the verse-lyric has to sound a certain way. As readers of Hopkins’ verse know, it’s actually extremely experimental, which is why Mac Low was inspired by him in his 154 Forties. I want to reclaim the radical spirit of prosody. How unreadable can prosody become?
As a scholar I’m pleased that my academic book Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, 1961-2011: Stave Sightings (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) is out in the world. This is my first contribution to USAmerican poetry and poetics, and to the field of long poem studies. I’m excited now to be headlong into my second project The Languages of Invention: Australian Experimental Poetry and Literary History, 1973-2014, which argues that Australian neo-avant-garde and contemporary experimental poetry has developed a character of its own. The case studies include Jas H. Duke, Ania Walwicz, Amanda Stewart, Thalia, Lionel Fogarty, Natalie Harkin, Nick Whittock and Mez Breeze.
A.D.: Yes, in my writing I’m interested in challenging conventional readability and with this comes a concern with what it means to read conventionally today. I think about a lot what it means to read on our digital devices, like when it’s 3am and you’re in all manner of darkness, staring into the tiny illuminated screen of your phone as it bleeps work related emails and apocalyptic news alerts, those nights when the morning might never come and you’re caught between boredom, fear, fatigue and your facebook feed. As a writer, I want to create work that speaks to contemporary reading practices, work that can make you go “lol” or “hmmm” when you’re feeling bored and scared. I have a book coming out soon called Constitution with Inken Publisch. It’s about many things, among them the banal brutality of the settler nation-state and the failure of parliamentary politics.”