BACKWORDS Press: Origins
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.
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 Francisco…" What I do remember was the definitive and absolute feeling of “Yes. It’s great. We’re doing it!” Despite having none of the hard skills required to do such a thing, like screen printing experience or any financial resources—we just paid $35,000 for our graduate degrees, each. Enough said.
At the beginning of 2013, we had an impassioned meeting full of ideas where we came up with the major tenets of the press, including the decision to make it submission and contest-driven, and the desire and unformed plan to pay our writers. At this time, we also came up with the name “BACKWORDS” and I played around with the typography, eventually landing on using Microsoft’s Twentieth Century font, which would become the logo that we’re currently using. We asked Phillip to come on because we valued his marketing and social media experience, and because we knew it was important to have someone that would ground us in our vision when our ideas became too academic or lofty.
Then we sat on it.
Six or nine months passed. Life and other bullshit reasons kept getting in the way. Then the three of us enrolled in a screen printing class.
Then another year passed.
A slew of excuses kept cropping up, complaints about being too busy, or that the timing wasn’t right, or that we didn’t have enough capital to start (except no one was actually saving any money), the fear of starting something new prevented us from doing anything at all. Though the promise that the “press would happen someday” kept us complacently hopeful. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that we weren’t doing enough—that we weren’t serving the greatness I recognized in Matt’s idea; that simple genius in his re-imagining of an existing literary model, kept pulling at the tail ends of my gut.
Let me mention that I was absolutely complicit in letting BACKWORDS sit for those two years. At
some point I came across an Atlantic article titled “Can your language influence your spending, eating, and smoking habits?” The piece took a critical look at economist Keith Chen’s study, which found speakers from countries who used the future tense often (“I will do this later”) were less successful at achieving their future goals than individuals from countries like China or Japan that don’t use the future tense. Instead of a “you are what you eat,” it was a “you do what you say” kind of study. According to Chen, “…speakers with weak future tenses (e.g. German, Finnish and Estonian) were 30 percent more likely to save money, 24 percent more likely to avoid smoking, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese, than speakers of languages with strong future tenses, like English.”
For me, “we will do it” quickly became, “we are doing it.” I’m a very practical person, and it’s not entirely romantic that an article about linguistic tenses was the kick in the ass (or more aptly, the mind) that I needed to seriously get started.
In short, Phillip and I appropriated the original BACKWORDS logo and started the blog back in October 2014 with the plans to launch the press in Spring of 2015. And now here we all are, a few weeks before the launch on April 29, wringing our hands in the insecure and gritty reality of it all, teetering on our heels hoping that people will see what we see in it.
I’m so in love with BACKWORDS Press, and obsessed and nervous as fuck about its debut into the world. But thank goodness for friends that keep you sane, because I can’t think of two better people to do all of this with than Phillip and Matt.
Despite the ongoing tickertape of ideas and to do lists in my mind, or the waking up at three in the morning, the blurry vision from staring into our spreadsheets, the out-of-pocket expenses we can’t afford—this whole endeavor, in the deepest most feelingest part of my animal heart knows it’s worth it. BACKWORDS Press and what it stands for: bringing poetry and prose into places it has never been, changing the moment of literary encounter, building new audiences and support for writers is fucking rad. A literary press that uses a t-shirt as a medium for print is fucking smart. And it's just fun—that "serious play" that Matt is always talking about.
We will have literary magazine-style subscriptions; you will get a chance to buy specific literary issues; you will get those shirts worn to words; and people that don’t normally read poetry will tap you on the shoulder and ask you, in line at the grocery store, or out on the sidewalk, “where did you get that shirt?” And you will turn around and say, “this poet…this writer…”
Soon it will all be present tense.
Onwards with BACKWORDS.
Phillip Trey, Matthew D. Kulisch, & Jenny M. Chu