w/ Jane Sprague & Jonathan Skinner

by Michael Boyko

As writers, we have a hard enough time getting our work in print without worrying about how our tiny publishing victories are going to effect the environment. As readers, we feel like we're doing a good deed just by picking up a book instead of flipping on the TV. No one wants to think that the book they are reading or publishing is toxic to the environment. Television is the enemy, books are our friends. Right? In a lot of ways, yes. But in many ways, the environment is better off if you subscribe to cable than if you crack the spine of a freshly purchased book. Writers and publishers are, often unwittingly, contributing to one of the most pollutant industries in the country each and every time we make or buy a book or print out another draft of a work-in-progress. But before you fall back into the soft folds of your sofa and resign yourself to channel surfing as environmental crusade, be aware that there are efforts being made to clean up the publishing world in an ecological sense. Jonathan Skinner, editor and publisher of the journal ecopoetics, has for years now put ecological concerns at the fore of both his writing and the journal he produces. Jane Sprague’s Palm Press ( recently found itself facing the financial and logistical difficulties of producing an environmentally friendly perfect-bound book, when it set out to publish Skinner’s own Political Cactus Poems.

Palm Press is a small press with a modest list of titles. Their mission is "to make available works which navigate the interstices, the between spaces, of academic and non-academic realms and discourse," publishing writers "whose work challenges notions of genre . . . who consciously work within and among these spaces in poetry, essay, cultural studies, narrativity, theory and the increasingly blurred edge between such categories." Sprague, an active, established writer, began the press in 2003 with the publication of a pamphlet, the transcription of a talk by poet Ammiel Alcalay, titled Poetry, Politics, and Translation: American Isolation and the Middle East.

Sprague aims not only to publish great texts, but to create books that embody the intent of the author and the work. Palm Press’s second book, Juliana Spahr's things of each possible relation hashing against one another, was one such “product of conversations” between publisher and author, with Sprague again making sure that the book's design, as well as what was inside, reflected things that were important to Spahr and her work. The result was a 32-page, hand-sewn chapbook, “a series of poems that opens with the view from the sea and ends with the view from the land and is about the ecological hashing that happens as these two views meet in Hawai'i.” In the short essay following her poem(s), Spahr says that “Around the time I was working on [things of each possible relation . . .], Jonathan Skinner started publishing his journal ecopoetics. And then I realized that what I was looking for all along was in the tradition of ecopoetics—a poetics
full of systemic analysis and critique that questions the divisions between nature and culture while also acknowledging that humans use up too much of the world—instead of a nature poetry.”

It seems only natural, in looking at the development of Palm Press, that its next book would be one by the founder of ecopoetics, Skinner himself. Sprague says she is pleased with “this through-line of collaboration which has developed. It is as if each publication is in a kind of communication with the next one, through Palm.” However, publishing Political Cactus Poems—and doing so in an ecologically-sensitive way—has its roots in personal experiences as well. Prior to looking for ecologically sensitive printers, Sprague was fairly unaware of the tremendous pollution and waste involved in the process. “Which is strange,” she says, “because I grew up outside of Binghamton, New York, and actually had a summer job once working in a printing/publishing factory—Vail Ballou." Sprague worked "the line":

Third shift, "stuffing packets" chucking great sheaves of paper into this kind of paper-eating machine. . . . There are several publishing factories outside of Binghamton. Penguin is there, Putnam, and also Vail-Ballou. All of these factories are situated right on water which eventually becomes the East Branch of the Delaware River. You can imagine what may be happening in terms of waste, run-off, and pollution.

According to Sprague, Political Cactus Poems is concerned with "landscape, environment, politics, ruptures of both language and human relation, and this incredible split we find ourselves with or in: that of our highly industrialized world culture as sheared off from ecological concerns—at our own expense." It was clear to Sprague that any collaboration between Palm Press and Skinner would require “a certain intention and care regarding ecology.” If his poetry takes “the shape of a changing response to questions posed by the environments the poet physically inhabits,” then the book in turn would have to change its shape in response to these questions. “So, we decided to go for it, as a press,” says Sprague, “and have the book printed in the most ecologically conscious way possible.

Sprague sought out an ecologically-minded printing company Skinner had mentioned: Alonzo Printing, located in northern California. The result was an affordable, ecological-friendly book, printed with soy-based ink on 100% (“well, 99.8%”) post-consumer-waste recycled paper. It turns out that very few printers currently offer Alonzo’s environmentally friendly services. “Alonzo is a terrific company,” says Sprague. “Even after I priced everything out (with the likes of Bookmobile—this print-on-demand place out of the Midwest that tons of indie presses are using nowadays—to McNaughton & Gunn), Alonzo was just moderately more expensive but ultimately worth it.” Initially, all of the chapbooks slated for publication by Palm Press in 2005 were to have their covers printed by Alonzo—unfortunately, the economic reality of small press publishing, such as it is, made costs prohibitive. Palm's next perfect-bound book, however, will printed using environmentally-friendly methods.

What do we do about our other favorite books and literary journals? Or about our own printing habits? No one at Staples will tell you that chlorine bleach is used to make paper (even recycled paper), that dioxins are a by-product of chlorine bleach, and that dioxins are poisonous and carcinogenic. Most inks and toners used in printing are also toxic. It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but hardly anyone ever thinks about it when they think about publishing. Why? Denial, probably. Ignorance, definitely. I had never thought about the impact my art had on the environment until I started writing this article (I’d been too busy sending out submissions and printing out innumerable copies of my manuscript in its many forms. But never mind that—let’s forgive ourselves and move on.) Now is as good a time as any to start thinking about it.

According to Skinner, "The pulp and paper industry is the 3rd most polluting industry in North America. When I checked Environmental Defense for point-source pollution in the Buffalo area [where ecopoetics is published], printers came up among the biggest culprits.” And he says that while global paper consumption has more than tripled over the past 30 years, “Editors and publishers (and office managers) are uniquely situated to influence this state of affairs.”

Skinner cites many ways that publishers can make their process more eco-friendly:

Paper-free publishing on the Internet is one route (supposedly, so long as your readers aren’t automatically hitting Print). Responsible printing is another. Recycled, tree-free and processed-chlorine free papers are not materially (in the long run) any more expensive or difficult to produce, nor is their quality substantially different from the other range of papers available. (It might be interesting to note that the pricey cotton-based papers that have been around for a long time are largely tree-free.) Places like Alonzo show that the toxic aspects of printing can be minimized and responsibly managed. The only factor holding the price up is low demand. There’s prejudice or ignorance about recycled paper— that supposedly it jams up copiers, or that it’s cost is prohibitively out of range, or that it handles ink unpredictably, etc. And there’s also a lot of unreflective use of “recycled” paper. If it’s not at least 60% post-consumer content I’d say it’s not recycled; anything less is token. (The organization “Reach for Unbleached,” and their journal “Mill Watch,” will settle for 30% post-consumer content when the paper is also processed chlorine free [PCF].) There’s also the problem with certification; as with bottled water, there’s no official certifying organization. As it is, paper mills can slap “recycled” on any old pulp, and customers would never be the wiser—it depends on the state/ country, probably. Finally, there’s the issue of bleaching: chlorine-free processing is just about as important as recycling—no certification process established for this either. (There is the Chlorine Free Product Association, which supposedly does 3rd-party certification for the UN: In short: the more demand we generate for recycled, tree-free and processed-chlorine free paper, the more we can begin to deal with these problems. And the more we demand the more the price will come down. There is currently a program for offices to join together and form “office buying clubs” for such supplies. Small presses should be getting together to do the same.

Skinner admits that this is not always the easiest thing to do, since many small presses are run with pocket-change and spare-time. The first issue of ecopoetics was printed on paper that was only 30% post-consumer recycled waste. The next two issues, however, reached 60%. The covers were made from such materials as recycled money, recycled denim, and the African fiber kenaf (all obtained through Greg Barber Paper ( Though Skinner says he chose these materials more for how they looked and felt, they remain an aesthetically interesting alternative to the glossy cover and are free of the toxic side effects of the photographic process and lamination.

Skinner remains as interested in the paper itself as in the ecological ramifications of using that paper:

There are some cool handmade papers out there. Green Field Paper Company makes “Grow A Note” paper—embedded with wildflower seeds, it will sprout when you plant it! Or their confetti-colorful 100% recycled junk mail paper: Once I came across some recycled golf-course clipping paper, but now wonder if I dreamt that, since I can’t find it anywhere.

But does it matter if small presses engage in ecologically sensitive printing methods? Small presses don't really produce enough to have much of an impact on the environment. Maybe. But that's like saying that just because you don't drink a case of beer a day, you shouldn't bother recycling your cans. As anyone who recycles knows, the idea is that anyone who can do it should do it. Besides, we all know where the big publishing groups get their best ideas: by copying the small presses. The sooner small presses jump on the eco-publishing bandwagon, the sooner the big presses will try it out, too—saving us from a whole lot of pollution down the road.

Skinner eloquently sums up this lead-by-example philosophy, saying, "I try to show that it can be done differently— not so much a matter of elevating consciousness as bringing it down to earth."


Jonathan Skinner was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1967, and has lived in Mexico, England, Italy, France and, most recently, New York State. Skinner edits the review ecopoetics in Buffalo, NY, where he curated the Steel Bar reading series and where he continues to misidentify birds along the Niagra River. He teaches at the State University of New York and in the Buffalo public schools.

Jane Sprague publishes Palm Press. She began and curated the West End reading series in Ithaca, NY as well as the 2004 conference "Small Press Culture Workers." Her poems and reviews are published in numerous print and online magazines including ecopoetics, Columbia Poetry Review, Kiosk, Tinfish, and Tarpaulin Sky (V2n2-3). Recent poems are in the current issues of How2 and Bird Dog. Her manuscript, Halocline, is in circulation; her current writing project is The Port of Los Angeles from which "The Den of Ships" has been excerpted. She lives in Long Beach, California.

Michael Boyko is a Poetry Editor for Tarpaulin Sky