Interview #3: Radiator Press

Our third interview is with Ryan Eckes of Radiator Press. Ryan is a poet from Philadelphia. His latest books include General Motors (Split Lip Press, 2018), which is about labor and the influence of public and private transportation on city life, and fine nothing (Albion Books, 2019). Recent work can be read in Tripwire, Slow Poetry in America Newsletter, the tiny, Sundog Lit and Entropy. Eckes has worked as an adjunct professor and labor organizer in education. He won a Pew Fellowship in 2016.

This interview was conducted by email during the month of July 2022.

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Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. First, could you give us a description and history of your press? 

Radiator Press started in Fall 2018 to publish the work of Philly poets. I started the press with Ian Davisson and Kim Gek Lin Short. Our first two books were Futureless Languages by Cynthia Arrieu-King and Austerity by Marion Bell, which came out in 2019. And in 2021 we published Sousveillance Pageant by Emily Abendroth and Open Source by Warren C. Longmire.

What have been Radiator’s biggest influences and motivations, both literary and political?

Our primary motivation is to publish great writing that few publishers are willing to. Philadelphia has been a vibrant place for poetry for a very long time, but we haven’t had many independent presses over the years to help disseminate the work on a broad scale. So we wanted to do that, to try to make at least some of this poetry more widely available than it otherwise would be. The books by Marion and Warren are their first full-length books, and it’s been meaningful to make that happen. It was not an intention from the outset, but everyone we’ve published so far are people I’ve known for at least a decade. The relationships we’ve established over time have been a big influence.

When I first got into poetry, in 1999, I was in my last year of college. I fell in love with the Beat and New York School poetry from the 1950s and 60s and 70s, and so when I came back home I sought out poetry scenes that might be akin to those and eventually found people and learned that poetry could be this present-day, living, breathing, public thing that connects people across time and place. Philly in the early 2000s had open mics every week and a strong DIY culture. There was a lot of overlap between poetry and activism. You found out about protests at readings and anti-war readings were a regular thing, for example, so poetry was a way into learning more about politics and history. It was a continual education. Robin’s Bookstore played a key role in that at the time. I didn’t realize it back then, but those institutions that make public space for political education are so crucial. Gentrification has made such spaces harder to come by, unfortunately. But in terms of influence, that was the beginning. My understanding of poetry as a public event and a form of political engagement ultimately shaped how I view the role of independent publishing.

As an editor, what are you looking for when evaluating work for publication? Also, more broadly, do you ever experience a conflict between your political principles and the nature of editorial selectivity (that is, the need to “reject” others’ work)? 

I’m drawn to a broad range of aesthetic approaches, but I think specifically what I look for is poetry that sharpens my perception and keeps me thinking about something, returning to an idea or a story, long after I’ve read it. There’s some kind of residue. Sometimes it’s just the pleasure of the texture of the language that keeps me coming back, as with music. I tend to be interested in anti-capitalist work, though I also enjoy reading poetry that’s not explicitly political. In any case, when I learn something from the book, that’s good. The work I’m into usually spurs my own creativity. That’s true of the four books Radiator has published so far.

We haven’t yet opened to unsolicited submissions because there’s still plenty of work out there by writers we know that we’d love to publish but can’t because of limited resources. The problem right now isn’t having to reject writers so much as not having enough people and resources—enough presses, really—to put out all the great work we know exists.

Getting more into the details, could you describe for us how your books get made? For instance, how do you make and distribute them; how many people are involved; how much work is volunteer; how are things funded, how is money handled, etc.? 

We’re a small operation. It began with three people: two editors and a designer. We’ve used Bookmobile for printing and SPD for distribution. We’ve received no institutional funding, though I started the press with $3000 I had saved from a Pew Fellowship in 2016. Our goal from the beginning was to break even and hopefully use sales from the books we published to keep financing future books. Printing is the most expensive part of the process, followed by distribution. Kim gets paid for the layout and design (our books look amazing because of Kim), and we were able to pay a few of the artists whose work we used for the covers. Our authors are paid 10 percent of direct sales annually. But the pandemic has thrown a major wrench into our plans. My co-editor quit last year, and because I’ve been unemployed the last few months, we’ve had to go on hiatus this year. Hopefully I can find steady work again and we’re able to rebuild and continue at some point. In the meantime, I want to keep selling these books (so if you’re reading this, consider buying one).

What aspects of publishing do you feel are most likely to compromise someone committed to anti-capitalist politics and ethos? How have you handled these challenges yourself?

For most poets I know, poetry is something you do in addition to selling the hours of your life to pay for rent and food. You have to make time for it, and it gets harder to make that time as capitalism advances, as life gets worse for workers, as we scramble to hold our lives together. In terms of keeping the press going, the hardest thing is dealing with capitalism itself. The publishing industry is not outside of that. You’re compromised from the get-go. I think poets, like anyone else who might have class consciousness, should fight back however they can, whether it be through joining a socialist org or tenants union or helping to organize their own workplaces, etc. Sometimes that means even less time for poetry, which sucks. But poetry is inevitable. It will appear suddenly. It will spill out of you, maybe in the street with friends or while driving to pick up a loved one from the hospital. You never know. And it will be something totally different by the time capitalism is gone.

One thing we’re interested in is how leftist literary publishing intersects with non-literary political activity (e.g. labor unions, mutual aid, anti-racist and anti-fascist action, anti-carceral work, Land Back, etc.) Have you seen such intersections around Radiator? And more broadly, what do you think the role of literary writing should be relative to such organizing and activity? Does it have one?

Yes. Poetry and fiction can inspire people and feed political movements, but more importantly, writers can tell stories about their experiences in those movements and those stories can be incredibly useful. Emily’s book, Sousveillance Pageant, is a good example of this. I’m not saying that writing itself is a substitute for organizing or action, and I think it’s important to reiterate this point because prominent writers and academics often suggest that saying something is doing something, as if making an argument solves a problem. It doesn’t. But when organizers write and writers organize, it opens up more possibilities. We spread knowledge, we find like-minded people. Lately it seems more and more poets are writing about their jobs, writing about the material conditions of their lives. This can only be a good thing. When I teach introduction to creative writing to undergraduate students, my favorite assignment is to have them write about their jobs because they get riled up and start talking to each other. Most students have worked low-wage customer service jobs and have experienced the same kinds of bullshit. They realize they’re not alone and want to vent about it. Suddenly the writing gets very detailed and impassioned, and the conversation in the classroom more intimate and grounded in our day-to-day lives.

For me personally, the experience of organizing teachers changed how I think about language. After thousands of one-on-one organizing conversations, my poetics became the poetics of driving a wedge between boss and worker: how to break the identification with authority, how to imagine instead the connection with other workers—and without arguing. I began to write differently as my understanding of fear and human nature deepened. Why do we write? To tell stories, to explore ideas, to play with words, to connect with people, to challenge people, to think shit through, all the way through. Despite what many writers say, writing is inherently social. You’re never just writing for yourself. The words in your mouth aren’t even yours. The whole point is to report back: this is what is working, this is what is not working, this is what is crushing my soul, dear god, full communism now, etc. Also, Brecht’s strategies from “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” are still applicable. Number 5 seems especially difficult and especially urgent right now: “the cunning to spread the truth among the many.”

We are also interested in the (largely counterproductive) role the academy and major literary institutions play in leftist publishing efforts. Can you talk a bit about where you and your press stand relative to things like MFA programs, AWP, CLMP, SPD, literary foundations, etc.? And how do you view the influence and role of these entities more broadly in the literary world?

I don’t think much about MFA programs or AWP, though I still often think about higher education because I’ve spent much of my life working and organizing in it. English departments are an ever-shrinking sliver of the university, defunded by the state and increasingly under corporate control (look at who’s on the board of trustees at any university). I believe that all universities should be public and free and that this is still worth fighting for, and regardless of whatever you’re studying or teaching, you can join in that fight. Education is a public good. The professionalization of poetry and art is driven by the privatization of all things public, and it pushes people away from poetry and ensures homogenization and elitism. So I think it’s important to organize within and against the institutions, especially those which reinforce dominant ideologies. The logic of austerity comes from the business school, which I would abolish before MFA programs.

As you know, Poets Union boycotted your distributor, Small Press Distribution, in the summer of 2021. While Radiator was not a boycotted press, we would be remiss if we didn’t ask about that relationship.

We decided to use SPD starting in 2018 mainly because we wanted our books to be available in bookstores. It has become quite expensive (we get very little money back, not even enough to cover the cost of shipping books there), but it was the most affordable option we were aware of, and it is a long familiar place to get books that are not available anywhere else. I wish there were more channels for distributing independent literature, not to mention bookstores, but the industry right now is bleak.

Do you have any advice for younger writers and publishers on the left? Put differently: What do you wish you had known 20 years ago?

In terms of publishing, I’m still a novice, so I don’t have much advice. The best model for a press is probably a cooperative of 5 to 10 people who can share the labor and figure out a way to collectively fund it, maybe through monthly dues. To do that, you need people who can stay committed to the project for a while, which is hard these days because capitalism tends to keep everyone scattered about, hopping from one thing to another, one place to the next. It’s the same reason it’s hard to organize part-time workers with multiple jobs. But it can be done. Beyond publishing, I think joining/forming collectives is very important, whether they’re official (named/branded) or not, especially as social systems keep deteriorating. The choice we’re ultimately faced with really is socialism or barbarism, and we’re not going to just avoid the latter by voting and pursuing our individual careers and hoping for the best.

What I didn’t know 20 years ago was how bad things would get, even as socialism seems to have become more popular among young people. I didn’t realize how quickly gentrification would spread across the cities, making it much harder to live as a poet or artist, even though I knew the process was well underway. In the 2000s I would visit NYC sometimes and do readings and think, man, this place is fucked up, and I read Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and The Gentrification of the Mind, these books that explained the process and the effects of gentrification on people’s lives, but New York still seemed to me like its own animal, as if the worst of the real estate industry was confined to that island and other places could develop immunity. I was naïve. And I believed, for at least a few years, that a group of poets and artists in one place could build a kind of bohemian life together on their own terms (that mythology of the 60s and 70s), independent of capital’s demands. Maybe in Philly I caught the tail end of that possibility in the late 2000s. I don’t know. Things have changed dramatically. What I know now is we have to fight for the life we want, as people always have, and we need to get creative in how we do that.

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