Q&A: Clear Cut Press
Founders: Rich Jensen / Matthew Stadler

questions posed to Matthew Stadler by Selah Saterstrom

"After being involved with a couple of social projects that turned into independent record labels in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I was interested in pursuing a social/business experiment around the slow-moving music of books . . . we decided early on that our publishing business would be about producing and circulating beautiful pocket-sized books, and not about controlling the authors’ texts...We really admired that books are machines that keep running for decades. For Clear Cut Press, publishing is the physical business of literature.”
          —Richard Jensen

"Rich . . . initiated discussions about poetry and economy. We realized that the new writing we liked best was poorly published, if at all, and initiated a business and artistic practice based on a kind of utopian notion of how books ought to move through an economy. As a business and artistic venture, Clear Cut is inspired by early 20th century subscription presses, such as Hours Press and Contact Editions, and by the mid-century paperbacks of New Directions and City Lights. These historical models seem well-suited to the independent economies that emerge every generation or so around the cultural movements and new demands of global youth, whether punk, grunge, hip-hop, hippie, beatnik, or flapper."
          —Matthew Stadler

The Morning News / Interview by Andrew Womack / July 2004

This look at Clear Cut Press includes a brief interview with co-founder Matthew Stadler as well as excerpts from three Clear Cut titles including two stories from Robert Glück's Denny Smith (stories), two essays from Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture by Lisa Robertson, and the opening of Danielle Dutton's forthcoming book, S P R A W L.

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SS: The aesthetic of Clear Cut Press—in union with the consumer/subscription model that structures the press—taps a lineage which celebrates reading. I'm thinking about, for example, how the imprint model of Clear Cut Press genuflects to early 20th century subscription presses which generated and encouraged a culture of reading. By participating in (and commenting on) this lineage, Clear Cut titles remind that reading is an event—a temporary space of heightened significance.

In thinking about how to begin, I've been considering my own history of engagement with Clear Cut titles. In one way or another, these engagements have always put me in contact with issues of memory and desire. The first time I saw a Clear Cut title, I was drawn to it, as a text-object. I was reminded of the sensual potential within the essence of all books: the reciprocity between the interior experience of reading and the exterior presence of the world—the ways the outside and the inside reach across distance in order to touch.

The subscription dimension of Clear Cut Press embodies the phenomenon of the "serial installment" and unique to this form of literature, is its dependence upon—and thus its cultivation of—memory and desire. Placing the book (actually and conceptually)—as well as the event of reading—between memory and desire generates speculations about not only books and reading, but stories—why we tell/need them, and finally, language itself, which often inhabits/is of the space between memory and desire.

As you consider the history of Clear Cut Press, How has time and experience informed the evolution of the press? What does the press know now that it could not have known at origin?

MS: Primarily we have learned a lot about what Rich calls "the physical business of literature": how do books move through the world; how to get books from the warehouse to a reader; how to avoid sending books into the trash can of thoughtless distribution. Three years of moving these books around on a minimal budget has taught us to be very focused. We try to only ship a book out of the warehouse if we feel confident that it will reach a reader. That means (1) shipping to those who have already paid (subscribers and online orders); (2) shipping to stores that know CCP well and will shepherd the books to readers; (3) shipping to distributors who know CCP well (SPD and BuyOlympia); (5) responding to others who show an informed interest. It took these years to learn exactly how crucial it is to treat each copy of each book as our primary resource and to concentrate all our efforts on getting that copy of that book to a reader. Direct is best. There are many unreliable chaperones out there.

SS: And to pick up on the nuances of Clear Cut's imprint model, certain interpretations of it have argued that it is problematic to organize a group of writers under a shared aesthetic because it implies a particular or unified political or regional point of view. I wonder if you could speak to this interpretation/concern?

MS: The only grouping we imply is that all our authors are great writers and they are all part of a shared conversation. Not shared by them, necessarily, but shared by CCP and its readers. It's a valid and catalyzing assertion. We articulate it as a way to signal to the reader, or perhaps invite from the reader, a kind of involvement and attention spanan enduring synthetic intelligencethat other publishers don't care as much about. Most publishers have to move units in order to succeed as a business; we have to create an enduring, broad conversation. It's just a different business model.

SS: Recently, and in many diverse forums, there has been a lot of discussion about the consistent, public, and controversial instances which reveal the nature of the "publishing machine"—meaning: those paradigms which establish the conditions of the market place, the way power is expressed in the publishing realm, and how these issues effect cultural perception, and so on.

In thinking of Clear Cut Press existing within the spectrum of presses, and thinking about spectrums which always reveal shades of difference, one could say, for example, that Clear Cut Press reveals certain edges of the "publishing machine." Many are grateful for this kind of revelation—even as they acknowledge that it has created painful instances for independent presses (I'm thinking in particular of Charles D'Ambrosio's disassociation from Clear Cut Press in light of his association with a large publishing house).

When Clear Cut Press started, did you anticipate that you would hold a particular posture within the realm of publishing that might challenge and/or trigger certain (painful, but necessary) conversations?

MS: CCP is an informed and calculated attempt to make a new infrastructure that meshes well with the surrounding ecology of publishing. We are not against big publishing; we are happily working with it. We cultivate a long-term conversation that makes a community of readers (and therefore a market) that isn't reached through the national book review organs or most bookstores. This expansion of the economy of publishing is at its bestits supports our writers bestwhen it happens in combo with the traditional "unit-moving" approach of bigger publishers. We encourage our authors to publish the same texts with other, bigger publishers. This was going to happen with Charlie D'Ambrosio's book of essays, Orphans, but that got scotched when Charlie concluded that our success with his book would undercut Knopf's market. I don't agree, but then I'm not working at Knopf. My view is that we're a very elegant complement to the Knopf approach, not a competitor. The only thing painful about those disagreements is how easily they could have been avoided if we and Charlie had communicated better.

SS: How has it been for Clear Cut to hold such a space in this "conversation" concerning the publishing industry and all that comes along with it (such as how the industry both shapes and changes communities and relationships)?

MS: We would like to be part of the conversation about subscriptions and distribution and the "long term" economy. It is a growing conversation and most of the time we are included. That's been great.

What things has Clear Cut Press noticed, as a result of its experience as a publisher, that feels relevant for readers and writers to think about?

MS: What we've noticed is that there are some superb books out there which have not been published at all well, if at all. It is a golden age for publishing. The quality of available work is astonishing. Anyone who is prepared to package that work in a durable, enduring book format and begin the long, slow work of cultivating a long term conversation about it will be ushering great work deeply into the culture and helping shape the future.

Editor Matthew Stadler is the author of four novels, including Landscape: Memory, The Sex Offender, and Allan Stein. He is a past contributor to the short-lived Dutch architecture journal Wiederhall, Frieze Magazine, Arcade, The New York Times, and The Stranger. He was the literary editor of Nest Magazine and is the editor and co-founder of Clear Cut Press.

Publisher Richard Jensen worked at Olympia, Washington's KAOS radio during the 1980s, leading to a fruitful association with Calvin Johnson's fledgling label K Records. Jensen was later hired by Sub Pop Records to run the business operations of their perennially insolvent company. Unusual market conditions in the early 1990s saved the company from ruin and provided Jensen with nine years of employment as their general manager and president. In 1994, he helped to found Up Records with his roommate and friend Chris Takino, working there until Chris's death from leukemia in 2000. His involvement in Clear Cut follows from conversations with Matthew Stadler about poetry and economy.