A DISCUSSION ABOUT PUBLISHING YOURSELF
By Myriam Kipielka Gurba
I don’t have to snort cocaine. I’ve got another Colombian pick-me-up, tatiana de la tierra. You can do tatiana like a drug. She travels into your veins and pops like a firecracker. Her writing has the same effect, though it can be hypnotic, too, a psychedelic lullaby. Her publications include For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomenology/ Para las duras: Una fenomenología lesbiana, Xía y las mil sirenas and the chapbooks Porcupine Love and Other Tales from My Papaya, Píntame una mujer peligrosa, and her latest, tierra 2010: poems, songs and a little blood. Since this Colombiana’s work is so explosive, she creates her own spaces in which to detonate. Her own minefields and pyrotechnic stages. I sat down with tatiana at her kitchen table, cracked geodes lining her walls and santos on bookshelves staring at us, their stomachs growling, to talk guerilla publishing.
Me: In what different forms have you self-published?
tatiana: All of ‘em (laughs)! esto no tiene nombre y conmoción [are two zines I worked on]. I was a founder, and it was a collective. We put the whole damn thing together. We put together the concept to getting material to printing, distribution, subscriptions. We figured out how to do grant writing.
M: How did the idea for esto no tiene nombre originate?
t: At Miami, 1990. I was part of a Latina lesbian group, Las Salamandras de Ambiente, and I got into doing the group’s newsletter, but when we put out the first one (laughs) the group wanted to kick us out! The reason was that those of us publishing the newsletter were very forthright about sexuality, and we saw the newsletter as something bigger, and we took it on as a bigger thing. In our first issue, we had columns, poetry, opinion, local events. Our vision was bigger than just local and conservative. The group wasn’t okay with that. It’s a long story but that’s how we started, and we did subscriptions and solicited work. It was written mostly in Spanish ‘cause we were in Miami, but we reached out nationally and internationally, and this was really my contribution. I had to really search [for contributors]. There were few Latina lesbian published writers, and I’d be in Miami calling Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, saying, “Who are the writers? Give me your name, your number? Can you write something?” It was completely grass roots. It was its own golden moment. It was new, and it was exciting, and we published that first, and then we published conmoción. (To read the entire gory story about the rise and fall of these seminal zines, go to http://delatierra.net/index.php?Activist-Latina-Lesbian )
M: What have been your favorite benefits of self-publication?
t: The process itself. As you’re putting it together, you’re kind of envisioning. It’s its own process. I don’t know if I want to say it’s beautiful.
We can call it that. I like being in a position of having to envision a project like that. It makes my wheels spin, and it makes think. It makes me apply my creativity in different ways. I didn’t grow up doing arts and crafts, I’m not artistic per se but it lets me express myself artistically beyond the word, and you can see I’m into color and pretty things (seated in a red rocking chair, she waves hands at retablos on walls, Colombian dolls on a shelf). I have an aesthetic of my own and play with that. So that’s one thing, the process of making it. It’s utilitarian in the sense that there it is, [a chapbook], you take it with you. I have it, I don’t have to buy it [from a publisher], I can give it away, decide how much to sell it for. Sometimes when I publish, I don’t get enough copies. It’s easier to share, and because it’s self-published and in small quantities, it doesn’t stain it for future publication. Like my story in Porcupine Love. I self-published it in my little chapbook and now it's going to be published in an anthology. So it gives you freedom. It’s like the first platform for the public. I actually publish what I want to perform so I have it with me to read. It gives a platform to try out pieces in public. I try to stick to what I have in my books when I read in public. This is why I did the new book, [tierra: 2010]. I had new material and I wanted all the material in one book. I tend to publish poetry, shorter pieces, and songs.
M: What have been the biggest drawbacks of DIY publishing?
t: Distribution. It goes through you unless you get a distributor. But when you have one, they take a large cut. There are few to any distributors that will deal with self-published chapbooks. It limits who material gets to. Limits it to who you know, where you go, where you get invited. For me, [promotion] is done in person.M: You’ve kind of addressed this, but can you expand on what has inspired you to self-publish?
t: I needed something to present, and I was doing more and more readings, and I had more and more material, and I needed somewhere for it to be. I’ve always really been on the margins in terms of language and sexuality and genre. It’s not that I’ve never submitted. I’ve hardly submitted poetry anywhere ‘cause I don’t know who’d publish it considering all of the above. I’m not part of the bigger picture by publishing myself. I’m not sure where I fit into the bigger picture. Self-publishing just seemed like a natural thing to do. In Buffalo, I started Chibcha Press. I published two other poets thru Chibcha. Little print runs. Beautiful little books. We were part of a group called El Salón de Belleza.
M: What is Chibcha?
t: My Andean ancestors, an indigenous Colombian tribe. They made beautiful figures (she grabs a chapbook off her dining room table, opens it, and shows me the logo. It’s insect-like). I had one on a necklace (she leads me down the hall, to her office. She shows me some golden Chibchan figurines under glass. They look like paperweights).
M: Tell me about your books made of recycled materials. Where did the idea come from and how labor intensive are they to make?
t: The idea came form Buenos Aires’ Eloísa Cartonera. In the 90s, when Argentina’s economy collapsed, a group of publishers got together and started a press, and they take material from contemporary authors and classic stuff, and they get the cardboard from cardboard pickers. People became poor and went through trash and [Eloísa] bought [their cardboard] from them, and eventually they hired them, and they got writers and artists involved, and they did it in a way to work outside the system, without banks, because the banking system brought everything down, and this was their way to do it. Eloísa sells the books. They’re pretty rough. They have a ton of titles. Their content is good quality. That was my direct inspiration. I also went to Matanzas in Cuba (she shows me an Ediciones Vigia book Todo lo guardé by Ruth Behar and it’s an intense work of art, 3-D with tiny cardboard suitcases and cardboard mementos stuffing it). When I saw it I was like wow, I didn’t think I’d be doing that, but when I saw Eloísa’s books I was like well I can do that.
So I used books from Argentina for inspiration, and I observed how they were made, and through trial and error I came up with a way. My cousin helped me cut cardboard. I became a cardboard picker (she points at a cardboard pile by her cats’ scratching post). I have more in the garage. I’ve become a fixture at the Cambodian market. I use a lot of things from their boxes. All the materials are from my neighborhood. I have reams of paper from my life. I put those to use. My friends Ginger and Daniel gave me paper that I used for the table of contents and centerpieces. I didn’t pay anything for the materials, although I paid fifty cents for the dragon (she points at one of her books with a plastic dragon on the cover). It was placemat at a secondhand store.
M: Have you ever considered selling out for a whole bunch of money?
t: Oh yeah. I would (laughs). For the money and because selling out implies reaching a wider number of people, and that’s good. I’d like to do that. There’s a beauty to being small and beauty to branching out. When you write you want your words to go all over. Words want to go. Words want to travel.
M: Have you ever engaged in criminal activity to put together self-published work? I know that some people use their employers copy machines, staplers, etc. It’s a way of getting back at the man, making him support your art. Does this behavior sound familiar?
t. Well, let’s just say that my Buffalo chapbooks, a good portion came to life thanks to University of Buffalo of libraries. I had liberty to…There were days when I would be in the library till midnight. They didn’t know what I was doing, but I was cranking out my books, on the days that I worked at night. The manager of night circulation would walk in as I was photocopying. I’de have my book all laid out and he’d (she impersonates the night manager covering his eyes) and I’d be sweating. It’s physical, like physical labor.
M: Did you build muscle?
t: I had to build muscle to publish. You must be fit to lug that shit around. And have attention to detail and be a super good organizer.
M: How can people buy your works?
t: Contact me directly. firstname.lastname@example.org
M: What advice do you have for writers and artists whose stuff might not fit the establishment’s mold? Their gelatina is too alternative. Should they cry?
t: Crying is bullshit. In a certain way, everything fits. When you’re alive, you fit. You may not fit within certain particulars, but that’s when you self-publish. That’s the good thing about today. Also, I’m not a graphic designer, and I don’t have these great graphic abilities electronically but, I do a lot of things the old fashioned way: cutting, pasting, collaging, arranging. You don’t need software to do that.
M: Yeah you need glue. Okay, so I’m going to put out a chapbook called Dientes Amables. Counsel me.
t: Start with what’s your purpose, what’s the focus, is it one a time thing? Think through what is it that you want it for. What is the page count? How many pages are you willing to fill with content, fold over and trim? You can look at other people’s chapbooks for inspiration. And then decide if you want to be simple or fancy, how labor intensive you want to be.
Myriam Kipielka Gurba is author of Dahlia Season; she teaches high school in Long Beach, CA.