When we first began dreaming up which writers we’d ask to be part of the inaugural BACKWORDS Press issue, Kevin Sampsell was the first person that came to my mind. With each printed piece no more than 300 characters long, I chose Sampsell because, after reading his novel, This is Between Us, I knew he was a master of the short-short form. The whole book is a collection of tightly framed vignettes, some sections only a single paragraph long, where each moment ended for me with an “oh,” “aha,” “mmhm.”
Sampsell’s just a bit harder to peg as an artist. He’s done so much. He’s creatively versatile, and those are exactly the type of writers I enjoy and read—the malleable un-pin-able kinds. Right now, he’s doing a lot of collage work, which you can find here.
But even before reading This is Between Us, before the press, before asking Sampsell if he wanted to submit something to BACKWORDS over a plate of shitty-nachos at the Sweet Hereafter, a local-Portland hipster haunt, I first met Sampsell at a Literary Arts holiday party a couple years ago. He and his wife, B. Frayn Masters, (who I like to call the “b-girl of live-storytelling”) host and producer of BackFence PDX, were in attendance. I was most certainly glowing with red wine enthusiasm and talking with my hands a lot when I found out that Sampsell was a fan of the writer, Gary Lutz. This reveal felt to me like finding a mutual fan of your home team in the middle of hostile territory. Lutz is not a mainstream writer. For one, he doesn’t prescribe to the trend of literary realism that gets reviewed, sold, and awarded in a U.S.-publishing market that is myopic at best when it comes to taste and trend. Lutz is a bit fringy: not driven by plot or character but in love with the sentence. In a piece written for The Believer, Lutz speaks about his second-coming into language by discovering the writers that were edited by Gordon Lish: “These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy.” Lutz wrote this in 2009, and Sampsell’s book This is Between Us was published by Tin House Books in 2013. If I could appropriate pieces of history and knit together the space-time-continuum to represent what reality feels like, “These books…” that Lutz mentioned would definitely include Sampsell’s This is Between Us.
Beyond the literary work, Sampsell is just an all-around cool dude. He’s the most unpretentious literary guy I’ve ever met. In an interview that I don’t know how I found on the Future Tense Bookswebsite, what looks like the deep web where the text is white on a black background and a disembodied interviewer is talking to Sampsell himself, I find out that he didn’t really start reading until he was twenty-three. One of my great embarrassments of being a writer and sort-of in the literary scene here is that I also didn’t start reading seriously until I attended graduate school. In Portland, where there’s a lot of smart people—some incredibly smart, and some I suspect not at all—and where that affect is often packaged in a sort of “I know everything” stoicism, I really appreciated the authenticity and enthusiasm that Sampsell showed me after we bonded over our fan-boy/girl love of Lutz. I do not know everything, but the things that I do know and are excited about are often expressed in pumping my flat palms in a “raising the roof” gesture, and right now I’m really stoked about revealing Sampsell’s amazing piece titled “Anti-Extinction” at our launch party—in a week— on April 29!
Sampsell has generously published and promoted countless other writers through his work with Future Tense Books, in the small press section at Powell’s Bookstore, and co-production work with LitHop PDX. In fact, the first LitHop in 2013 was my first introduction to Elaina Ellis, and where the three of us, the BACKWORDS Press cohort first encountered Ocean Vuong—the two other writers whose original work will be featured alongside Sampsell’s in our inaugural issue. We’re honored to get their pieces out into the world in a new way.
There are so many pretentious literary types out there, and because that’s more the status quo, Sampsell is awesomely atypical. He’s un-pin-able. There’s a sense of ease and originality to his art, whatever form it takes. He’s creative in the most genuine and sincere sense of the word. He creates whatever he’s drawn to (did I say that Sampsell is currently collaging?), and he does it all incredibly well.
Jenny M. Chu
Kevin Sampsell is the author of the novel, This Is Between Us, and other books. He has been published in The Rumpus, Salon, Hobart, Fairy Tale Review, and in anthologies such as Best Sex Writing 2012 and Best American Essays 2013. He's recently published his poetry and collage art in magazines such as Black Candies, Jerkpoet, and Kolaj Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon and runs the micro press, Future Tense Books.