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Interview: Kevin Sampsell, Publisher

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In addition to being an excellent writer and musician, Zack Wentz also conducts a damn good interview. He recently stepped up to the Slushpile.net plate and spoke to multi-talented Kevin Samsell for us. Their chat was a great meeting of artistic minds. Here’s Zack…

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The Pacific Northwest has always been a hotbed (despite being such a cold, damp place) for DIY, multi-media, creative activity. Kevin Sampsell, author, editor, publisher, musician, and indispensable employee of the infamous Powell’s books in Portland, OR, is an exemplary practitioner. In addition to several books of his own, his work is all over the Internet, appears regularly in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and his press, Future Tense, has published authors who have subsequently been picked up by big houses (indicating his talent as a tastemaker, as well as an artist), alongside the enduring cult favorites, and talented new voices he works with. How he has managed to pull all this off by himself in a place that rains all but 70 days, on average, out of the year without completely losing it, is beyond most people. Here Kevin took the time to let us in on some of his activities and inspirations.

Slushpile:  You’ve stated explicitly before that Future Tense was influenced by NW indie labels such as K and Sub Pop. I can see that in your press. Especially the K angle. Everything has that personal, handmade touch. Quirky and arty, but warm, never pretentious or stuffy. How else would you say these record labels have influenced Future Tense?

Sampsell:  Well, I remember the first time I saw Beat Happening. It was in 1988 in Seattle. I was there to see Fugazi but I was mostly into Britpop at the time. I didn’t even know there were many cool American bands. Seeing Beat Happening was a totally new experience for me. I went out and bought all their records the next day. I was almost obsessed.  Then I started to check out the other K stuff. I loved that naive sort of “we made this ourselves” thing that they encouraged. I loved their mail order catalog. The weird descriptions of the tapes and records were written in this almost beatnik type of jargon. And there was this genius element of understated hype that they–or Calvin–perfected. Sub Pop took that angle and brought the hype to the front and put out records because they liked them, not because they think they’ll sell tons of everything. I started making my own chapbooks in 1990 and I didn’t even know much about zines or anything like that. And like Sub Pop and K, I have always put stuff out there simply because I like it and not always because I think I’ll sell a lot. I put out stuff sometimes that I know will only sell 100 copies, but the people who like it will really, really like it.

Slushpile:  You actually started out as more of a music guy. A DJ and fanzine head. What turned you toward books and writing in particular?

Sampsell:  I always liked to write when I was a kid, but I didn’t read books. I read music magazines and my early writing was probably as inspired by Melody Maker magazine as literature. But I fell in love with books in the early 90s. Something about reading really excites me and spurs me to write my own fiction. If I don’t read for a couple of days I start to get depressed, like I’m missing something in my chemistry. It’s weird. I can’t explain it much better than that.

Slushpile:  You still seem very involved in music. Ever make any of your own or collaborate with any musicians?

Sampsell:  I’ve been in a couple of bands. Really fun, dorky stuff. I still have these cassettes of my friend Terry and I doing these guitar and vocal punk songs back in 1986. I was very into Black Flag that year. Our band was called Neon Vomit. I was in a band in Ft. Smith, Arkansas when I lived there for a year in 1991-92. We were pretty good. I was the singer and we were called Love Jerk. I mostly yelled and spazzed out and we had a cool song about Florence Henderson.

I was in a band here in Portland about ten years ago called Moon Boots. I played a flat drum kit like Mo Tucker and my friend Vince played guitar and sang. I have good natural rhythm. We were pretty rockin’. But Vince stopped smoking pot and then gave up music. It was sad. The only thing I’ve done directly with music lately is when I wrote liner notes for the last Reclinerland album.

Slushpile:  I started looking into the online lit-zine thing recently, and was stunned by the sheer number of them and how specialized most of them are. It seemed like you had something published in every other one I checked out. Have you been involved in this community from the start? What do you think it’s doing for literature in general?

Sampsell:  I was really down on the Internet lit sites for a while actually. But I think that was because I didn’t know where the good ones were. There’s ton of crap out there–especially the poetry sites. It’s embarrassing. But there are a bunch of good ones now. And I like publishing on those good ones because they look nice and there are other good writers I’ve discovered through them, and because I can save money on postage! But I don’t believe this idea that books are dying and we’ll all walk around with e-books or whatever, reading off hand-held screens. I sure as hell hope not. People still need books. Reading books beats reading a screen always.

Slushpile:  You’re Mr. Small Press Champ. In addition to having your own, you’ve been involved with Manic D, Incommunicado and Word Riot, and help run the small press section in what is arguably the greatest bookstore in this country. Things have been rough over the last few years for a lot of indie presses, and the publishing industry in general (hell, rough for our whole economy). How do you think small presses are surviving?

Sampsell:  I know a lot of small presses who are publishing more non-fiction these days. More niche type of stuff. That’s one way to find readers. Give people information that the big houses aren’t. But I still prefer fiction and I think some great fiction can be
found in the small presses. The type of fiction that scares or unsettles publishers who need to sell 100,000 copies of a book can usually be found on smaller presses. I heard somewhere that fiction was actually making a comeback this year. I hope that’s true.
I would say the small presses who can sell their titles on a web site is extremely helpful too. Because not many bookstores will carry these books. And the stores that do carry them need to be supported and cherished.

Slushpile:  Some of your books are funded in part by grants from Oregon Literary Arts, Inc. How does that work? How are most of your books produced?

Sampsell:  Actually, I’ve only received two grants in the past eight years. So I’m mostly paying for stuff myself, which is why I mostly do chapbooks. It’s what I can afford–making books 50 or 100 at a time at the Office Depot. I only went to Kinko’s when I had “a connection” (someone there that gave me discounts!). I do the folding and stapling myself. For the paperbacks I’ve done, I do go to a regular printer and I’ve had different benefits and shows to help pay for those. It can be a challenge–I’ve had to sell records and books and furniture to pay for projects. I live paycheck to paycheck, like most of the writers I work with.

Slushpile:  Any thoughts on POD presses?

Sampsell:  When it comes to places like iUniverse, PublishAmerica, or First Books, I don’t like them. I think they charge too much for the writer and the reader and the production value is usually terrible. Dumb cover art, dull-looking print jobs, no editing. It’s a scam mostly. I’d rather see people do it themselves and go out and promote any way they can. I respect that so much more.

The POD method is being picked up by other small presses though, so it’s not all terrible. Places like Chiasmus are even doing it. If POD can make presses like that–small but serious book publishers–then it might turn out to be a good thing.

Slushpile:  You studied under the infamous Gordon Lish, and seem to belong loosely to the Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte, Gary Lutz school of authors that emerged from under his tutelage. How did he influence your work? Any thoughts on Lish and his influence in general?

Sampsell:  When I read Dear Mr. Capote it was a turning point for me as a reader, I think. I was immediately a fan. Then I heard that he was coming to Portland for a workshop and I thought it would be fun. That was in 1994. I hadn’t taken many writing classes at all. I went to college for one year. I never liked school.

He has some very stringent views and ideas for sure. I’m not sure I agree with all of them but I connect mostly with his views on language and how he likes his students to bend language by creating really unique sentences. Lutz and Lipsyte are prime examples of that. Marcus too, but I see a larger scope being used in Ben Marcus’s work. It does seem like a lot of great writers have been taught by him. I think his hard-to-please way of editing turns some people into really sharp writers. I also really love Diane Williams and Christine Schutt, who’ve studied with him as well.

Slushpile:  Who are some authors you think people should really be checking out now?

Sampsell:  Besides the people I’ve mentioned, I really love this Canadian writer named Miriam Toews. Her book, A Complicated Kindness, was my favorite book of the past couple years. I fell in love with it. I mean, I just want to hug and kiss that book. I always like to tell people to buy Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth. It’s really one of the most fucked-up books I’ve ever encountered. I’ve liked a lot of prose poetry lately. It inspires me to write flash fiction, which is sort of like prose poetry, and for that I recommend James Tate or Russell Edson. Larry Brown died last year and he was one of our best. People should read him for good strong southern fiction. Jonathan Ames is also someone I’m always telling people to read–especially his non-fiction. It’s hilarious. Davy Rothbart (of Found magazine fame) has a collection of stories that is really powerful. Two books I really liked this year: Trinie Dalton’s Wide Eyed is a weirdly alluring and Kevin Keck’s Oedipus Wrecked is laugh-out-loud funny and filthy.

Slushpile:  What’s in the works for Future Tense and your own writing?

Sampsell:  I’m doing a once-a-year series with Manic D Press in San Francisco that I’m really excited about. I get to pick a book that they’ll publish and distribute as part of a Future Tense series. The first one was The Insomniac Reader, an anthology that I edited with stories about stuff that happens at night. The newest book of that series is Eric Spitznagel’s Fast Forward: Confessions of a Porn Screenwriter. It’s a very funny memoir about him trying to survive in the porn industry. I have to decide the next book in that series very soon (for Spring 2007 release). Without Manic D letting me do this series I wouldn’t be able to pay for the cost of printing a longer book, so it’s a nice opportunity for me to be involved with more than just chapbooks.

But speaking of chapbooks, I just published a chapbook of non-fiction stories by Justin Maurer, who’s a great young writer and singer in Portland punk-pop band Clorox Girls.
 
As far as my writing goes, I had a collection come out on Word Riot Press called Beautiful Blemish last year. I was really happy with how that went and I received a lot of great feedback on it. I guest-edited the newest issue of Spork Magazine. That was a fun experience and Spork is possibly the nicest magazine you’ll ever see. I’ve had some stories in some magazines and anthologies recently and in a lot of ways, I think the fiction I’ve been writing since Beautiful Blemish is probably my strongest and most complex work.

I also started writing some articles for Associated Press and other non-fiction venues. And I’m also in this goofy haiku group here in Portland called Haiku Inferno. We go out and do “performances” around town. It’s almost like performance art, but, you know, shorter.

For more information on Sampsell’s publising efforts, check out Future Tense Publishing.