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Gary Dunfield and Andrew Steeves
Tell us a bit about your press. How did you start? Who are your influences, in Canada and beyond? What is your mission?
Gary Dunfield and I [Andrew Steeves] started the press, and a literary magazine, in 1997. We had just little enough understanding of what we were doing to think it was a good idea. From the start I was most interested in publishing rural authors because I felt that Canadian publishing was dominated by urban voices and publishers. But I was also interested in the book as an object and a tool. As a student, I had been aware of Coach House Press and The Porcupine’s Quill in Ontario and of American publishers like North Point Press and Copper Canyon Press, but it would be going too far to inflate this consciousness into an ‘influence’. I was more influenced by the early-20th century ‘private press’ movement and British presses like Nonesuch Press and the earliest incarnation of Penguin Books. But really, in our isolation and ignorance we set our own course, and only later were we reassured to notice that others had done some similar things. Being both printers and publishers, bringing the editorial and the material aspects of book production back together under one roof, was part of it from the start. Controlling the production process had economic as well as aesthetic advantages, and it was fun. We got pretty good at it, and a large part of our reputation is based on our books being ‘beautiful’ objects. I prefer to think of them as being ‘robust’, tools suited to their cultural purpose. We often integrate traditional techniques and tools with modern ones, such as wrapping offset-printed trade books in letterpress-printed jackets made of handmade paper. I like the mischief of this. I would think most literary publishers worth a damn would have the same simple mission: to make robust books that serve their community.
What about small press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
What excites me most about small press publishing isn’t particularly new or ‘right now’, but rather an older truth about scale. The multinational corporations that dominate trade publishing will never be able to properly serve our communities because they do not meaningfully share in our fate; our needs are not their needs, nor our interests their interests. But small presses, like local enterprises everywhere, are intimately connected to their communities and this is what makes their work invaluable and irreplaceable.
In many ways, we could be in the Golden Age of the small press right now, if we bothered to make it so. Most of the tools you need to publish are ubiquitous and cheap. Publishing has become democratized without also necessarily becoming amateurized. With a laptop, some basic software and a few good digital typefaces, anyone curious enough to learn the trick can edit and typeset a book that’s every bit as good as anything anyone has ever done down through history. With these tools you can produce production files for a wide range of output options—letterpress printing, offset printing, laser printing, and all the various electronic delivery platforms. And with that same device you can manage much of the communication, marketing, bookkeeping, inventory and sales transactions required to hustle your books. This is a long ways from the mimeograph, photocopier, tape, glue, stapler and mailing list that characterized the small press toolbox a generation ago. There are, of course, losses that come with the gains, and not everyone who owns the means of production bothers to learn ‘the trick’ and produce thoughtful things. But the possibility excites me.
How does your press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large?
Our engagement centres on the books we produce each year—usually 14 new trade books and a bunch of reprints, three or four offset-printed chapbooks, and a handful of letterpress printed broadsides, chapbooks, limited-edition books and ephemera. Making these things, and then making them available to the public, is our main point of interaction with the culture. People think about publishing in terms of being in the ‘public’, but the truth is that a lot of the work we do is rather intimate in nature. We engage with various authors one at a time and help them to bring their work to the community. And reading is a very intimate activity too; people most often engage with the books we produce in a way where the ratio is 1:1, ‘author (via the text) : reader’. The community that the book fosters is one made of many discrete individual engagements with a text over time.
The press is also engaged with the community in more general ways—from organizing readings and events (like our annual Wayzgoose book-arts festival and open house), to mentorship, teaching and advocacy. Gary and I have always seen our role as publishers as having a strong ‘community development’ component, and we see the press as an important piece of cultural infrastructure. A lot of local people drop into the printshop to discuss everything from the local food bank to navigating the community’s political and administrative processes—things we’re interested in as citizens. And we spend a lot of time on the telephone with younger printers, publishers, editors and authors, offering encouragement and support. We always try and make time to listen, reflect, and suggest. We think this is also part of publishing books.
Tell us about three of your publications. What makes them special, needed, and/or unique?
I’d suggest these three, all by Nova Scotian poets. Any one of these books well represents the kind of work that Gaspereau Press is striving to bring forward. Check them out below.
How have the current multiple global crises impacted your work with the press?
Our early lean years taught us the value of frugality. As the press matured and stabilized we never abandoned caution, keeping risks to a scale we could manage. So Gaspereau Press arrives at this global crisis in good shape. Any student of publishing will tell you that there have been few periods in history during which publishers have not faced looming catastrophes or crises; in publishing, crisis management is standard operating practice. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve been able to work safely and so our production schedule was not much disrupted; however, we closed the printshop to the public, which was a big change. In the spring, we saw a drop in both book sales and job printing, but these are rebounding somewhat. The federal government offered pandemic support, both to the cultural sector and to businesses in general, and they have helped us. The biggest impact has been the disappearance of author travel and in-person events like festivals and readings, things critical to promoting and selling literary books. We’ve been working to design new approaches that are more than mere stopgaps, and that work is ongoing. We’re also worried about the impact that all this stress and uncertainty is having on the people in our community. For Gaspereau Press to survive is meaningless if our neighbours do not also survive. A community is a complex ecology of many interconnected things, and books amount to nothing if the rest of the cultural infrastructure fails. There is much work to do if our communities are to thrive through this time of crisis; luckily, though the specifics of this crisis are novel, the way through it is familiar. For book publishers, a significant part of that work is to continue to help our community to understand itself, and to tell its stories.
Anthesis stands out for its content, but also for its form. The text of the poems was extracted, word-by-word, from an autobiographical novel Goyette wrote two decades earlier that deals with a childhood trauma. With this process of inverted redaction (as she calls it) she creates a freer and more powerful account. This is our fourth book with Goyette, and I feel that she is emerging as one of the most original writers working in Canada today.
I’d also recommend Murmurations, our second book by Annick MacAskill. Her work is crisp, its sense of language, rhythm and sound finely honed. While this is unabashedly a book of love poems, it’s not so myopically fixated on the lover and her beloved as to omit from its notice the singing of the birds or how the world around the lovers is connected to the world between them.
Waking Ground is a collection of poems connecting the social and ecological challenges our communities face with the unresolved legacy of Canada’s settlement and its ongoing impact on the lives of Indigenous people. Full of frankness and hope, Joudry’s poems speak to the resilience of Mi’kmaq culture and the collective work of reconciliation that lay before us.