An Interview with Derek White
Derek White is one of the most interesting people you could ever hope to meet. White is a busy man. Not only is he the editor of the literary magazine Sleepingfish, but he also runs Calamari Press where he publishes some very intriguing and alluring stories, works of art, drawings, poetry, sketches and hybrid texts. He goes for the antithesis of what mainstream publishing aims for and that quality alone is refreshing. He also finds time to blog at 5 cense and record his recent thoughts on offbeat novels and works that he’s recently read.
Perhaps one of the most appealing things about White is that he’s very involved in every aspect of publishing. Whether it’s his work or someone he’s chosen to publish, he does all the cover art and even gets involved with the binding and stapling of each piece he produces. To say that Derek White is hands on is putting it mildly, but it’s what sets him apart as an editor, writer and publisher from all the rest.
I had the chance to talk with him over e-mail about his travels, his writing and new day job as well as what qualities he likes in a writer and why he finds the product of our subconscious mind so intriguing.
I want to talk about Sleepingfish and its beginning. How difficult was it for you to start it up? I know you have a degree is physics and a background in technical writing, so tell me at what point having a literary magazine seemed to be the next thing on your plate.
Sleepingfish started out as a home-printed hand-stapled zine so it was easy to start. There was no real commitment nor expectations. Soliciting writers was probably the most difficult task then. People have asked that question, about going from physics to literary stuff, and I don’t have a logical answer. Before I was studying math and physics I was writing (and before that even, making music), I just never saw anything in the arts as a viable “career.” Not that I had any career guidance or ended up making a “career” out of physics or even used it in a professional capacity -- as post-graduation I became a field geologist! Maybe I’m being ignorant, but it’s strange to me that people “study” writing or art. I think the most important thing in literary writing is having something to write about, otherwise it doesn’t mean shit how good a writer you are. Not that I know what I’m doing. Art is also a privilege, and most of the things I’ve done have been driven by necessity. Writing and even publishing has always been something I’ve had to do in my spare time. And as to why at some point I started to do these things, I have no clue.
You are someone who travels a great deal. You just returned from Africa. What were you up to there?
I was a stowaway in my wife’s suitcase! My wife works in Africa a great deal, so I had the privilege of going along with her on this trip. She works for the Millennium Villages Project, so we went around on various site visits to these villages. So minus a few side-excursions, a safari and visiting the gorillas in Rwanda, it wasn’t your typical vacation. And oddly, it led to a new job which I start tomorrow, so I may be returning in a different capacity.
When I travel, I get a chance to read a lot of things en route to someplace and depending on how far I'm travelling, I have the opportunity to finish more than one book. You keep a blog, 5 cense, and on it you catalog the books you've read over the years during the course of your travels and elsewhere. During this last trip, what book(s) did you tackle? What did you love?
Thanks for noticing. Yes, I like to read when I travel, or maybe it’s because sometimes that’s the only time I have to read. I try to choose books based on where I’m going, that are contextually relevant, so my last trip I brought some African writers: Amos Tutuola, Moses Isegawa, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Ben Okri. I always love reading Tutuola, and Okri, and I’d never read Ayi Kwei Armah before, so I was pleased to discover his work. Reading Matigari (by Ngugi wa Thiong'o) when I was in Kenya was probably the most relevant, especially given what’s been happening more recently.
Your book, Poste Restante is a collection of sorts that deals with images and dream-like sequences/stories/vignettes that cumulated from a half-wake state of mind that followed you as you moved and travelled over the years. Was that work difficult to write down or recall having just woke up or were you able to go back and make sense of things you'd written down much later and fill in the gaps? It's such an interesting idea, what happens to us when we dream. Danielle Dutton's Attempts at a Life has a section in her work, Michael Peirson. She told me that those sections were all various dreams she'd had. The subconscious is such a great thing and can make for great stories if the conscious/awake part of our head can be clear enough to remember/write it all down, especially if we're still partially dreaming as we write.
The Michael Peirson sections were my favorites from Dutton’s book, so it’s not surprising to me. That’s probably also why I like Tutuola so much is that all this crazy stuff happens that could only happen in dreams. The stuff of dreams is usually more interesting or telling to me than reality. It wasn’t hard for me to write those as I’ve always had a tendency to write my dreams down. So it was just a matter of self-indulgently sifting through them to find interesting ones that stuck out. Some of them have been edited to the point that I’m not entirely sure that’s how the original dream happened. In this sense the dreams were just seeds. The actual writing is challenging as when you are scribbling things down half-asleep you typically don’t concern yourself with grammar or the most eloquent way to write something! In this case I am in debt to Norman Lock who, I’m sure painstakingly, went through and line-edited the hell out of it. Even still, I think it was a salvage effort and admittedly these probably aren’t of much interest to most people.
You regularly publish new and interesting authors through your press, Calamari Press. Your latest with J'Lyn Chapman is just now complete. I'm curious to know about your process when you sit down to choose what author or what type of genre-bending work you'll produce. A lot of the authors/artists are new and others, newbies. Calamari Press provides opportunities for unique and interesting artists to get their work published in a business that often ignores the offbeat and goes for mainstream.
It’s all quite whimsical to be honest. There is no “process” really, and it’s funny to me all the book proposals I get where people are trying to sell me their book on the merits of its marketing potential, or their professional credentials or qualifications, who endorses them, etc. All I care about it is how interesting it is. I don’t even care if it has a plot or not. Typically things that are interesting to me are different or offbeat. I guess if I read it and think, “this is cool, this is something I’d want to read, this feels like it should be published so others can read it,” then I decide to publish it so others can read it.
I watched your latest video on YouTube of your contributions to J'Lyn's work and what goes into publishing/printing a chapbook/story collection and it seems like you are involved in every facet of production, from the art work, to editing and even the printing and stapling! Aside from writing, you are also a great artist. When did you begin working on cover art and when in general did you find art equally appealing as writing? Or not?
Thank you for the kind words. I guess I started making cover art because books need covers and I can’t really afford to hire people to make covers. Or for any other facet of production. Distribution even. And if you want something done, do it yourself! I like doing art. In New York it kind of sucks because I have to get all my shit out and make a mess on our floor and then put it all away when I’m done. My wife and I were just lamenting last night about how it would be nice to have space where you can make such messes. Then making art would be even more appealing. But writing appeals to me equally. I’m not sure which I like better, and sometimes it’s hard to make the distinction between the two. And I like collaborations. Some of my first collaborations I was on the writing end of it, and then somewhere in between, and then more recently I seem to be the one doing the visuals. And a lot of it is selfish, I read a great manuscript and think this looks like fun and want to jump in the sandbox with them.
You collaborated with Carlos M. Luis on two separate works: Ma(i)ze Tassel Retrazos and O, Vozque Pulp. How did you meet and decide you'd work together on both of these projects?
I think we met virtually because he submitted some stuff to Sleepingfish or we were involved in Spidertangle together. Then he sent me this whole package of drawings which fired my imagination, inspiring me to write some associative texts to go along with them.
O. Vozque Pulp is a mix of ink drawings and surreal text interpretations whereas Retrazos describes "stenciled remnants that a seamstress leaves on the floor" after sewing. Luis pulls together a mix of these bits and pieces to make new pieces of art, much like the way you piece together all the necessary elements with publishing and piecing together artwork and textual images with authors you publish as well as your own work. Do you usually find that you're writing your interpretive texts based on his works? Have you ever thought about this process in reverse? A role reversal if you will?
I consider most of the projects after the two with Carlos to be role reversals. If by role reversal you mean me doing interpretive drawings based on texts? This is what happened with Norman Lock, though in this case we both assumed the identity of George Belden. Then with some of the other books to follow. As for the Retrazos idea, I’m sure this carried through with me in both art and writing, and probably existed before I just didn’t have a term for it. Poste Restante are “retrazos,” remnants of information handed down from a dream-state that served as the basis of stories. I think it was Carlos that first told me that’s what retrazos were, but I have never been able to find that word used anywhere in such a context, so maybe he either made it up, or I read into it, or something was gained in translation. Regardless, I like the word and I like the idea of it. Retrazos are like junk DNA in my mind that can be recycled or collaged together to create new art forms.
Text and Image mirror each other in many ways. Are there any authors/artists you see being the mirror for your work, either as an author or visual artist?
Since I’m listening to the new Radiohead box set as I’m writing this, there’s an obvious one. I deeply admire not only their music, but Stanley Donwood’s art, the lyrics, and the whole package -- how they turn an album into an art object. In the past ten years in music, the concept of an album that was meant to be experienced as the artist intended, has been lost. Radiohead has been one of the few bands to preserve this concept by not allowing their albums to be broken up. And now with In Rainbows, they have managed to almost completely extract themselves from the ugly promotion and distribution business that plagues music in much the same as it does the publishing world. They have managed to assume complete control over their creative process and every aspect of the final object, which is how it should be for all artists. In this sense, they are influential to me not only as an artist and writer, but as a publisher.
Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with that you have yet to work with and why?
There are tons of people I would like to collaborate with! I’ve been wanting to do something with David-Baptiste Chirot for quite some time. I’ve been wanting to do a collaboration with my wife Jessica Fanzo’s photography for quite some time. The problem is time. There is just no time for these things. Unless I quit my job and go live on the cheap in Mexico which sounds like a good idea right now.
Your works, Trapezoidal Juggernaut along with Spiritual Turkey Beggar Baste Mechanism by Sandy Baldwin are combined works but operate independently of one another. One is a screenplay for Kung Fu Opera and the other a script for childhood abduction. How did this project come together?
Sandy Baldwin sent me Spiritual Turkey Beggar Baste Mechanism for Sleepingfish. It was too long for what I was doing with Sleepingfish at the time, but I really liked it. Stories that get past 12 pages are a hard thing to find a home for even though it’s a good size to read in one sitting. It also reminded me of a story of mine, Trapezoidal Juggernaut, that also was difficult to find a home for due to its length and text/image formatting constraints.
Not only are the two works unique in style but form too. This work reads in opposite directions. What motivated you to tell these stories this way?
Getting back to the music analogy, or going back to the times of vinyl, I like the idea of a single with an A-side and a B-side, something that when you are done listening to it flip it over and listen to the other side. I think also at the time I was commuting to work on the subway and thinking the time it took me to get to work was about how long it took to read 12 pages. So you could read one on the way to work and flip it over and read the other on the way home. Not that either is readable. But that was the idea for the format anyway. And how they run in opposite directions but lay under the same cover. This has been the only one so far in this “roundtrip” series, but I hope to one day do more. When I quit my job and move to Mexico.
Having a mathematical background, it seems fitting to apply some of that knowledge when you can, even in literature, which may sound odd to the regular reader but you make it interesting. Your work, P.S. At Least We Died Trying to Make You in the Backseat of a Taxidermist is one of the most intriguing premises. It deals with the "Fibonacci Sequence." Some of us may not know what that is. Can you explain how this works in conjunction with your visual poetry?
The Fibonacci sequence was first used to explain generational population growth in rabbits. There’s all sorts of wonderful facts about the Fibonacci sequence, and the ratio of successive Fibonacci numbers, which approaches the Golden Ratio. I was particularly interested in plant morphology and how plants “used” the Fibonacci sequence in their branching and spiraling patterns. All sorts of interesting visual patterns emerge from these patterns, and from the equilangular spirals determined by the Golden Ratio. I exchanged some ideas with the artist Wendy Collin Sorin about this and we started creating these drawings/texts that evolved in this vein. So rather than have a work that grew linearly, this piece grew in successive iterations in much the same way the Fibonacci sequence expresses itself. And the “story” itself also evolved associatively in this manner.
You have a new day job and it seems in the past they usually involve writing. Does this new venture allow you to be creative as well?
Mostly what I do during the day is web production stuff. Sometimes it involves writing, but not usually (unless you count writing specification documents, etc.). It’s more about information architecture, which suits me fine. A week ago I started at this place Millennium Promise, a nonprofit whose main missions are the Millennium Development Goals. I’ve usually worked in the media industry, which although might allow creative liberties, is not nearly so rewarding at the end of the day.
I really enjoyed Miranda Mellis's book The Revisionist. Aside from the excellent style she has I really enjoyed the premise of the book. Can you tell me how about how Miranda's project came to fruition?
I’m glad you enjoyed it, I’m sure Miranda would be thrilled to hear that. I think it was Brian Evenson that first turned Miranda on to Calamari Press and/or Sleepingfish. She was a student of his at Brown. I think she sent me a few things for Sleepingfish and one thing led to another. The Revisionist was actually just a small part of a larger novel she sent me, so I’m sure there’s more where that came from. We just found out a few days ago that it will be published in Italian, which is exciting.
Miranda Mellis is recent graduate from Brown University where well-known authors like Evenson and Thalia Field teach. What are your feelings on MFA programs in regard to authors publishing in today's market?
In regards to making connections in the writing community and being able to interact on a daily basis with the likes of Brian Evenson and Thalia Field, I guess you can’t deny the importance of MFA programs. And of course you’ll probably learn how to technically be a better writer. But no matter how good a writer you are, you have to have something interesting and unique to write about. In editing Sleepingfish, I see a lot of stuff churned from the MFA assembly line, some of it is good, but we also get really interesting stuff from people that have never been through an MFA program. I guess it depends on the person. And if you are looking to get a teaching job or whatnot, then obviously an MFA is critical, so I’m told. Thinking now about the Calamari Press authors, I think they all have MFAs or higher degrees. So obviously MFA programs are turning out some good writers. But would they be just as good without?
I also find the idea of a Revisionist interesting for political times today. Politicians kind of serve as a type of Revisionist in a sense. It made me think of candidates on both sides who are trying to win over the people and they really have a way with revising the facts, reality, etc. Since we're into an election year, who would you like to see elected?
Oh no, the political question! I don’t consider myself a very political person. The more I try to be informed or involved, the more depressed I get and the more detached I feel from this country. As absurd and chaotic as it is, the world Miranda paints in The Revisionist is far more compelling than this country. To answer your question, I would really like to see Bloomberg run and get elected, but that probably won’t happen. It would be nice to have someone outside of this ridiculous CNN-fueled bipartisan system that actually gets shit done. Realistically... having spent most of my adult life under a Bush or a Clinton, it would be nice to at least see Obama have a shot.
Finally, what project are you working on now?
Personally, I’ve been working, all day today actually, on a patchwork novel that I think will be called Our Mother for the Time Being. It’s a sort of Lynchian fish-out-of water story based on experiences I had working as a stand-in on a film in France. I wrote the first draft when I was living in Savannah in 1997, so it’s been a long time in the making. But I think I’m on my last round of rewrites, and on page 120 of 180, so I’m getting there, hopefully this spring. Though I’ve been submitting some excerpts around that have been met with nothing but rejection, so maybe it’s not so good. Aside from that, we are reading submissions now for the next Sleepingfish, and on the Calamari front the new novel by James Lewelling, Tortoise, is due from the printer tomorrow.