BACKWORDS Press: Origins

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Matthew D. Kulisch: The Idea

I’m not certain which day it was specifically, only that it came to me on a Wednesday in grad school. And I’m not certain which discussion we were in the midst of, only that the indomitable, quiet, and assured Norma Cole—poet and teacher—was the one leading it. We were talking, vaguely, about influence, diving through a pile of related texts (most of them new to us), when Norma gave her harshest imperative of the whole term: a light rap of book-spine to tabletop and the instructions, Be more curious.

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Norma had a way of cutting to the heart of things…roundaboutly. Hushed and unruffled, at 66, the victim of a stroke (which has left one side of her body useless), Norma gives one the impression of an extrovert trapped in an introvert’s body. She is easy to smile, to let humor and playfulness creep into everything, so that the casual observer of her classroom might judge her haphazard, ineffectual, or both. Yet she is none of those things. Instead, Norma is an endless resource of encyclopedic knowledge, both on writing and in life—so that, with us, she plowed so many times through the question, Do you know so-and-so?, confidently past our chorus of No’s into the answer of things that my notebooks are full of lists of her references.

One idiot fiction writer in our MFA program once asked, plainly, why was she even allowed to teach here... Well, the poets descended upon this poor soul as quick as a murder of crows looking for some dinner. (It was the closest to a bar fight I’ve ever been…)

I think the fondest memory I have of Norma is a meeting, during office hours, where she simply asked to see what I was working on. I pulled out a big text-bloc of a poem. She read it once, turned my writing notebook to a blank page, and relineated most of the poem word-for-word first into couplets and then into tercets—teasing out some intralinear rhymes and cadences I hadn’t even noticed were there. Like the classroom, Norma thought we could learn as much by trying things, by being playful, as anything else. It’s that generosity, really, which convinces me there can be poetry of joy.

The idea of a literary t-shirt press grew up in me somewhere along the way in her classes. It is some part of that rapped book-spine, another part word-fight over drinks, still another part defense. Yet most of the idea is playfulness: the kind of serious play we are engaged in as creatives attempting to interface with the world.

Phillip Trey: The Induction

BACKWORDS Press had to win me over. The early talks of starting this press, and of my involvement specifically, were around the time Jenny, Matty, and I took a summer screen printing class over two years ago. Picture it: the Multnomah Arts Center is providing one of their many arts courses. The three of us are in a class with a mix of personalities and ages. There is the mother-daughter duo, the “real” artist type that stays both aloof and seeking approval, and the guy who’s only there for work reasons.

Then there was our teacher. She taught us so many methods to screen print, to etch, to create art, that they would blur back and forth between different topics while trying to teach only one. Constantly correcting her previous statements because they pertain to other mediums and artistic practices.


I heard the plans for the press, knew (some) of the skills required, and I thought it sounded interesting. If I were being honest, however, I never really believed I would be a part of its creation. Flash forward to Jenny and I curating and founding BACKWORDS Blog, the extension of the press ever-present during our establishment. I realized though that it wasn’t the idea of the press that got my support, but being a part of building it that did. After the endless conversations and tireless scenarios of how to make the press a reality, I recognized how much I believe in the project. How much I believe in its mission. How much I want to be a part of BACKWORDS Press and how rewarding it feels to do so.

I’ve only been in Portland for three years, and my initial reluctance about being a part of the project I know have been due to my insecurities of feeling outside of the the artist community here. I recognize faces, know names, but I don’t inspire the same in them. When soliciting work for our first literary t-shirt issue, I didn’t think I knew a poet well enough to ask. It was through my work with the blog and through the confidence of my friends and partners, Jenny and Matty, that I even attempted to ask one of my poetess heroes, Elaina Ellis. I quite honestly cried with joy when she said yes!

BACKWORDS Press won me over. It inspires me because the worst thing is to regret what we never did. I won’t regret this. I can’t wait to see where BACKWORDS takes me next.

Jenny M. Chu: The Obsession

I don’t remember the exact moment the idea of the literary t-shirt press was brought to me. It’s very possible that Matt and I were strolling through Portland, or stationed at a coffee shop, or waiting at a bus stop, or just loitering at Powell’s Bookstore on Burnside. It’s possible that we wandered aimlessly in the literary fiction and poetry sections seeking respite, reading passages to each other the way emotionally weary post-grads just out of their MFA in writing programs do to one another as a spiritual practice. Somewhere in between all those possible moments, Matt had said to me, "I have this idea about a literary t-shirt press. I’ve had it since San Francisc