Interview #4: Adjunct Press

Our fourth interview is with Adjunct Press, co-edited by Jonny Lohr and Alice Ladrick. Jonny is the author of a well-regarded Robert Langdon fan-fiction novel, as well as an article about Milwaukee communists’ role in the JFK assassination. Alice’s poems have recently appeared in Trilobite.

This interview was conducted over email in late summer of 2022.

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

We’re a small-run chapbook press that’s based in the Milwaukee-area. We started in 2015 with our first publication, Invisible Cities by Paul Vogel. Our last official release was Padova, translations of Igo Gruden poems by Matthew Moore. I think our output can be divided into different eras: first, when we started and were outsourcing all printing to a print shop; second, when we acquired some means of production and did the work in-house (for example, the pen-plotter covers); third, when we had access to professional printing tools and could freely-experiment with color printing (for example, the 2019-2020 releases; and currently, the loss of those tools and returning to limited in-house production.

As an editor, what are you looking for when evaluating work for publication?

We try to stay away from a particular house-style as far as the aesthetics of the work. We’re interested in the local, not just here in Milwaukee, but the author’s sense of place and community, wherever they are from.  I personally like a sense of fragmentation, in the unfinished sense; failed experiments, half-thought-out ideas, early drafts, etc.

We are very interested in the material specifics of making and circulating books. Could you give us a run-down of how you make and distribute yours?

We generally make 50 copies of each chapbook. 20 copies are given to the author as payment. We give five copies to Woodland Pattern (the poetry bookstore based in Milwaukee), one copy to the UW Milwaukee Special Collections library, and then try to sell the remaining copies on our website. We send them out via USPS media mail, which is $3.49.

We try to do all the book-labor ourselves and without outside help. This is because we see the press as an un-paid hobby but wouldn’t want to bring other people into the labor without compensation. The other is that, as a hobby, we basically work on it in bits while watching tv or whenever, so scheduling times for people to meet up would probably be harder.

For typesetting we use InDesign, which fortunately we have a free access to. We print our black & white text pages with a Brother HL-L2350DW on Boise X9 20lb paper. We’ve been working through our stockpile of that paper that we got at a great deal, so I think our pages printing cost is about 3-4 cents. Unfortunately we don’t have access to at-home color printing at the moment and have to have that done at a local print shop. Padova was our most expensive book to make recently because it had color illustrations throughout so we were unable to do any of the printing ourselves. We sometimes print our covers with a pen-plotter we got a couple years ago. This style can be seen most-regularly in our 2018 Retail Labor Series, and occasionally in subsequent years. The main problem with this method is that it can take several minutes to print each cover. We stitch all our books with linen thread, which costs about $12ish per book-run: it’s usually around $35 a spool and we use a third of it. 

Your website is very direct in its reference to expendable labor, lack of funding, and the “academic oligarchy.” Why do you feel it is important to name these things, which so many presses avoid speaking on?

We were kind of riffing on the idea of the name Adjunct Press, which we took on when we started because we saw adjuncting as the natural career-pull for both of us as recent MFA grads. We thought the of the press itself as adjunct to the credential-giving publishing world, that our publications wouldn’t be used to further careers. Ironically, neither of us ended up ever working as adjuncts, but I think the name is still somewhat reflective for the world of small press publishing. I think that, rather being some “outside” of academia oppositional force, our publications show the kind of breakdown of that line in small press publishing. Most of our authors are not making their living as academics, but some are. I like the idea of the diminishing importance of someone’s job to their poetry writing.

On a side note, I’ve been reading Tom Montag’s book of essays and reviews Concern/s, covering a lot of small press and independent publishing over 1972-1976, during a height of NEA-funding for both publishing and institutional-buying of small press. It was interesting to see that back then the “too many people publishing” idea was being used, but in an almost opposite way that it is today. Today, you usually hear that from older academics who are upset that their specific idea of poetry can’t be considered universal anymore. Back then, it was being used as a way of saying that institutional people were publishing unexciting things, overshadowing the independent small press stuff. I just thought that was funny and want to highly recommend that book for anyone interested in small press history.

As mentioned earlier, Adjunct published its Retail Labor Series in 2018. Could you tell us a bit about that project and how it came about?

Conceptually, I’ve always been interested in the way that retail and service industries had fallen through the cracks in post-Reagan/Clinton US Left labor activism that frustratingly still seemed to hold the industrial worker as the labor-ideal. We were looking to put out a series that tried to bring out voices of retail/service-as-labor for our post-industrial environment.

For the book-objects and planning, we were inspired by the Kenning Editions Ordinance Series, a series of single critical essays published as small books. For this, we solicited people because we didn’t want to be in the position of accepting or denying something written for this specific idea.

As an aside, I think the discourse on this has shifted massively since this initial idea, with the union pushes at Starbucks, Trader Joes, Chipotle, etc. and the rise and fall of performative appreciation for retail/service workers within the grotesque “essential workers” categorization. Could definitely be time for more work on this.

Much literary publishing tends to be a “labor of love,” relying heavily on volunteer labor and often operating at a loss (or barely breaking even). Do you think this is simply an unavoidable reality of the market for literature, poetry especially? Or do you see other models or possibilities out there?

As I mention above, we kind of specifically keep our press low-key enough to maintain at a “hobby” level. Materially-speaking, we generally run at a financial loss and the labor isn’t really factored in. I wrote a short thing last year about how that level allows us to feel good about ourselves during the difficult questions of labor abuse at SPD or the ethics of volunteer/”internship” labor; but it also can work as a detriment to our authors, keeping them stuck at our small-time level.

I’m interested in the possibilities of other models. I’ve been thinking about an idea that we’re entering a golden-age of DIY presses putting out books with “professional” trappings typically reserved for presses with institutional backing, such as perfect-binding and offset printing. Also of short-run digitally-printed books that are indistinguishable in material-quality from POD-printed University Press publications. This greater-ease of publication, along with the flattening of “quality” disparity, can hopefully allow for more and smaller presses putting out cool stuff.

One thing we’re interested in is how 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 your own publication? And more broadly, what do you think the role of literary writing should be relative to such organizing and activity? Does it have one?

It is difficult to balance our desires to be a politically-relevant entity, but not try to delude or brand ourselves as something greater than what we can realistically be as a small poetry press. Much of our political engagement has emerged through local community. We helped put out a single-issue journal that went to support IWW General Defense Committee. This got us in touch with Milwaukee IWW’s efforts to unionize CapTel (the phone captioning company that previously employed us and a large percentage of Milwaukee poets and artists over the years, but recently announced mass layoffs). So I guess I mean we try to stick with what evolves around us.

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 Adjunct stand relative to things like MFA programs, AWP, CLMP, literary foundations, etc.? And how do you view the influence and role of these entities more broadly in the literary world?

I think Ryan Eckes’ response to this almost perfectly encapsulates my ideas on this, so definitely read his first, and then I’ll just try to add a little anecdotal stuff. We really don’t have any interaction/overlap with the worlds of AWP, CLMP, PoFo, etc, but we do both come from the MFA world. It’s been almost ten years since we were each in our respective programs, so apologies if this is very outdated. Personally speaking, my time in grad school expanded what I would be reading and how I was writing just through interaction with people in and around the program.

I also think the argument that MFA programs produce a homogenized and pre-professional style is an outdated one. I would argue that much of the anti-MFA rhetoric coming from the tenured-class is an aversion to worker autonomy. Poetry is no more attached to academia today than at any other point after the later-20th century era. What’s different is that, prior to the Creative Writing the MFA degrees, the student-poet worked under a traditional, unchecked-mentorship model. This left the student-poet at the mercy of the whims of the tenured-class teacher. A brief glance at work histories within academia will show stories about the controlling egos, destroyed careers, and abusive workplaces that this unchecked-mentorship model produces.

I’ve long argued that tenured professors belong to a managerial-class in relation to student-workers and even adjunct-workers, and that they maintain class solidarity amongst themselves. This is an extremely unpopular argument, amongst tenure-class poets, but I think it’s self-evident. The MFA degree-professionalization has allowed the students to gain worker-solidarity amongst themselves through peer-workshops (as opposed to solely mentor feedback), payment for labor, and even unionization. The opposition of many tenured-class poets to grad student unions, strikes, or even living wages clearly shows that much of their opposition to MFA programs, even if it is couched in “poetry is too professionalized,” is opposition to worker’s gaining more power.

The danger post-degree is that the university system is trying to pressure MFA graduates into acting as cheap adjunct labor and the academic poetry world is helping to create this pressure by upholding the classic poetry-world hierarchies. I like the idea of people getting a couple years of free poetry school with funding and then not adjuncting. I think a future of people being around poets, reading poetry, writing poetry, and then living as hobbyist poets publishing on the side because they’re driven to do it sounds cool.  

If you were able to go back in time to when you were starting out as writer and publisher and give yourself advice, what would you say?

Advice as a writer would be to just start self-publishing immediately and send things out to friends. That’s my favorite thing. As a publisher, my advice would be to initially try to figure out what you want the press to accomplish and at what level. To maintain this idea and communicate it openly so that everyone involved, whether as author or publisher, is on the same page as to what a publication can do. Materially speaking, advice would be to find any access to cheap or free printing. Can you sneak some stuff on an unguarded office printer without getting busted? Definitely hit it up. Then just have fun and make some lowkey chapbooks, drink Pepsi, wear Reebok. 

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