“Poetry Is the Consciousness of This Planet:”
A Conversation with Mark Lipman, Founder of the Venice Press, Vagabond
by Krista Schwimmer
Beachhead: So, why did you start Vagabond?
Mark: Well, I found there was a gap between what was accessible as far as access to a microphone, access to the printed word, access to the conversation. There was this mass media of what they want us to read, what they want us to think. There wasn’t any venue for other voices. So we actually founded Vagabond three years ago this week, December 21st, 2012, the first day of the new galactic spring.
BH: What is the new galactic spring?
Mark: That’s with the Mayan calendar. It’s the new season for the galaxy. We founded the press with dedication to published works, primarily poetry, but other works as well, of social, economic, and racial justice. We’re publishing probably three to four books a year at this point.
BH: And when you say “we”, is there someone else who is part of the main publishing?
Mark: It’s more of a collective “we”. I’m the one horse show behind this. The “we” is with the intention of this being a larger organization down the road. This is something that is meant for the community. That’s the local community, but also the national, international community of poets and artists and free thinkers. One thing you might find interesting with Vagabond is I make it a point in every book, on the colophon here, to print “Venice California”. This is particularly a Venice press. What I mean by that, there’s a certain spirit to Venice. You say, “OK, I’m from Venice.” But what does that really mean? This artistic cultural, traditional community sense with Venice. You might be here for twenty minutes and connect to that. You might be here for twenty years and not connect to that. I feel, in my small, way, a connection to what Venice has been since its founding.
BH: It’s a spirit more.
Mark: It’s a spirit. It’s a continuation of that spirit. I feel I’m just a next generation of what that comes from. To be part of that next generation you have to respect the generations that have come before you.
I’m looking to make Vagabond an avenue that voices who haven’t been as privileged, who have been on the receiving end of capitalism, have a voice.
BH: So, when you go to select the book ideas, is it something that is connected to what’s current in the culture? Is it a combination of that and also things that you have been working on that you think are important?
Mark: A combination of yes’s there. For example, the last anthology we just did, “The Border Crossed Us, An Anthology To End Apartheid”, was birthed out of the atrocities that were all over the place last summer, 2014, where Operation Protective Edge was being launched in Israel against the people of Gaza and simultaneously these stories were breaking about child refugees being held in detention camps in Southern Texas. And, in both of these cases, children were the main targets of all of this violence. There was worldwide outcry about this. When something like that effects so many of us, the first question I ask myself is, “Well, given what I’ve got, what can I do about that?”
Using the vehicle of the press, I put a call for poetry out on the combined themes of immigration and justice for Palestine. I started receiving poetry from around the country, even poems from around the world. We have actually multiple languages in this edition — English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. A bit of everything in there trying to give a voice to these issues not only that are important in their own right, but intricately connected in our entire planetary structure.
For example, if you noticed a couple months ago, “Black Lives Matter” endorsed the “Justice for Palestinians Movement”. That was right around the same time we were launching this anthology. It was such a perfect synchronicity with the times that we are in. Because those bridges between individual movements are starting to be made. Not only are we facing the same struggles, but we’re in this together. And your movement is just as important as my movement because there is an injustice happening to someone. And if we let that injustice go by, then it is an injustice that will come back upon us.
Where we are at as a global society today is that we’re really at this point where we need to make that next evolutionary leap as individuals and as a movement. So the way that is happening is through connecting all of these issues and campaigns together so that we can have, not just a common voice, but a common platform. As a movement, we’ve identified five pillars of campaigns: social, economic, racial, environmental justice, and true democracy. Those pillars are what hold up all the other demands that come from them. Once we have that common foundation, then all of these issues can work together for a common purpose. And that’s how we become strong as a people and a movement.
BH: Do you have other books planned in your mind for the next year?
Mark: For sure, for sure. We’re working on an anthology right now. We have a call out right now for an anthology, “Rise”, an anthology of power and unity which is going to focus primarily on labor and racial justice with an emphasis on police brutalities. So, we’re looking to publish that — target day is Labor Day of 2016.
BH: Are you still taking submissions for “Rise”?
Mark: That’s still open.
Also, let’s talk about the Beachhead anthology that we’re looking to do maybe next fall. We’re still in a conversation about what that is going to look like. What I envision is a little bit of the history of Venice and the Beachhead, to get that introduction to our community and to the paper. Let’s look and do some cherry picking of some of the best of the Beachhead. But, also, for the current poets who live in the area and are contributing today, an open call to let people say, “This is my best work today. This is what’s happening on the front burner. Can you put that into the anthology as well?” I think that should be a yes. I would suggest an open call until April 1st. That would give us about four months to receive submissions from the community. We’re looking at the community who has been regularly submitting to the Beachhead. And then we would do a selection from all of that.
BH: So, new work from the writers of the Beachhead mixed with the background of the history and some of the great poetry (of that history).
Mark: I look at this as actually how you were saying earlier — is it “I” or “we”. This is one of those steps into the “we”. The Beachhead involves a collective process. I am going to do the editing because I have a certain editorial eye for the layout. There is something very special about the books, speaking of layout, that I wanted to show you. Open to any page and there is a certain balance to it. Every page, for me, is an art piece of its own. I think that’s very important for the work, as an editor, because, too often, we see books that are just thrown together and the information is great, all the information is there, whatever the type of book it is, but it’s just kind of thrown on the page and printed. One thing that I love to do is these square formats, 8 1/2 X 8 1/2. This is a signature style for the press because what it allows me to do is not only respect the poets pagination for how they line up their poem, because some poets have long lines, but also, for example here, I have a poet who has very narrow lines so I can create columns. So, I can also save those extra pages as well. Something that I like to do with anthologies is create a poet page. Instead of listing all the bio’s at the end, what we do is put the picture and the biography of each poet at the end of their last poem.
BH: One of the topics I’m interested concerns the indigenous people, particularly what’s happening to women. Just recently, Dennis Banks’ granddaughter was murdered in a domestic violence situation.
Mark: Thank you, because I have some good news for you. I’m actually scheduling a series of female poets — Antonieta Villamil, Dorothy Payne from up in St. Louis and San Francisco — very, very powerful poets, both of them — and I’m looking at some other female poets to create a whole collection of female voices because that’s something that I feel is important and is a voice that is underrepresented at this point with our collection.
BH: I noticed that a little in the list of the names. I looked into the whole topic of violence towards women. Amnesty International has a really great report. It’s still one of the worst human rights violations. It’s worse for certain groups; but, I think the Native American women are the worst of all. The murder rates for Native women are 10 times the national average.
Mark: And you will read some of that in this anthology here. Because some text to the anthology was also indigenous rights. As far as the question of immigration, those who we are calling immigrants today are actually the native inhabitants of this land. I’m on the same page as you that these issues need to be brought to the forefront.
BH: Do you have a vision of Vagabond growing larger? Do you want to keep it a certain size so that you can maintain a certain quality? Or, do you just want to see how it goes?
Mark: Probably, a little of both, a mix. There is that element of “see how it goes”. There is no grand plan to anything that I’ve done in my life. There’s interests and I feel also responsibilities I have to my place in this world. And, I’m going to continue to do the work that I can do to promote both my own artwork, of course, but also the larger voice of the movement. I’m all in as far as the movement is concerned. Being a cultural bridge to our activist communities is such a needed thing, a missing piece of what’s happening on our organizational structures that it’s a perfect fit for me. Part of my past two year plan has been bridging our artist communities, artist networks, with our activist and organizing networks. We’re looking to create a community bridges initiative here in Venice where we’re going to connect communities on cultural lines and hopefully bring poets from other communities here. I think that’s what everything is about. The relationships that we build and maintaining those connections between people.
BH: When people want to find your anthologies, do they go to your website? Do you put them in bookstores in the area, like Small World Books?
Mark: They’re in Beyond Baroque right now. Also, our website, http://www.vagabondbooks.net
The entity is just “Vagabond.” But then, everyone kind of tags on books or press. That’s fine. The website is vagabondbooks because vagabond was taken.
BH: Is the title of your press, Vagabond, reflective of your life at times?
Mark: Yes. I’ve been actually contemplating that for a decade already. I’ve done several start and fail attempts — then said, I’m ready to launch some that really is representative of what I want to produce. Vagabond just came to me one day. That was the right name for it. I like the unpredictability of being a vagabond, so to speak. Sometimes, you don’t know where you’re going to wake up that next morning. But there’s also that kind of security in knowing that you keep waking up that next morning anyway. Because if I was able to get through yesterday, I’m sure I’m able to get through today as well.
After all, what is our life about? It’s not how much money we make. It’s about how we spend our time. And, again, those relationships that we build. When you have a bit of unpredictability to you, it allows you to take in more. Everyday is a new adventure. You don’t know what you’re going to discover on the way. I like that. That’s something that I like about Venice. You never know what the next day is going to bring here. That’s something that’s very special. Maybe why I connect so well to this community. If I travel around the world, anywhere, if this isn’t my last stop, I’ll still feel I’m from Venice wherever I go.
BH: Do you take the book somewhere to have it printed? Is it the same person you work with? Does it depend on the book? Since you’re a small press, it’s interesting to know.
Mark: Actually, that’s an excellent question. This is also a business. You have to be able to get the right price for the right quality. There’s all of these web-based printers that you can do. And, I know people who do that. They do just one book at a time. I just can’t go with something like that. A, it’s not local — a lot of these books are being printed in the Philippines or wherever. Then, there’s the capitalist connection: you have to be doing this through Amazon and giving them a certain percentage. I couldn’t go with that route at all. So, I had to find a printer. I have worked with printers in other states; but finally, I’ve been able to find a local printer. That’s an important part of any part I do is that I work locally.
Before having machine bound books, I was actually doing — for our old press, Caza De Poesia — hand bound books. We were still using a printer to print all the pages; but then we would spend all the time putting the book together by hand. Could reach 90% of the quality of a machine bound book; but then, it came to a point as artists, as business people, the time is so much more valuable to be able to have the books. One hundred books is a really good starting point for the first book. It gives you enough to get through the initial launches, get those first sales and then you can see where you’re at. The thing is, you don’t want to have five hundred books and have them sitting in your attic for a year. Working locally, I’m able to do that. I’m able to get smaller quantities at a good price. And I’m helping to feed people that I see in the region. That’s important to me.
BH: Do you pay the writers anything at this point?
Mark: It depends. For anthologies, no. It just becomes too cost prohibitive. If you have sixty poets in an anthology, it’s impossible. Each contributor gets a copy of the anthology because that already is a big hit. I have to do a larger print run for anthologies to start with. That can run me upwards of $500, $600 already. As someone who is operating on a shoe string, every book sale counts. For individual books, I basically work individual deals. There is no standard deal for any poet I am working with.
BH: You don’t have a formula.
Mark: There’s no set formula. It’s been working so far. There’s a balance. How I look at publishing — and this is very important — and this is for any project you’re working on, I’m sure you can testify to this — none of us have any money. We’re all flat broke. People say, “how the hell are you able to produce all this?” What I do is, I do the physical work that only requires my time and energy. That doesn’t really require money. It just requires someone to do the work. I do all that work.
BH: Which is a lot!
Mark: Which is a lot. And through that process, when the money needs to get there, (and, I’m sure you’ll really appreciate this being in tune with the energy), I let the money materialize. And I’ll help it. I’ll put out a fund raising call — several times. And I’ll push. Little bits come in, little bits come in. Some people do presales. So I’m able to take all of that and put it directly into a savings fund for the printing. Then, I go to my printer, say, “I’ve raised this much,” and we start haggling over prices. Actually, I find I’m pretty good at that.
BH: That is a talent.
Mark: I say, “Look, this is all that I can afford. How many books can I get for this?” Then, we work out the deal. I’ve got a really great printer who works with me. And I think that’s important. It’s that relationship. He knows that I’m not going to be bringing him a run of one hundred thousand books. He does do runs like that. But he knows that I’m going to be consistently bringing him work. And, I’m also talking about him. So, it balances out for everyone.
BH: How many books have you published through Vagabond?
Mark: Eight books in three years on December 21st. Sad to say, this year we only came up with the anthology. The other books were the first two years. But this anthology I wanted to put all my energy into it because the issues just spoke so deeply to me. The book itself, hint, hint, is only $20. Now this has sixty poets from around the world in it and something that is very important to note, there are twenty-six full color illustrations in this. That drove the initial price through the roof. It was almost at a point where I wouldn’t be able to publish this, but I went to the printer and said, no, I have to have the color. Pictures are so important in this. It makes the book stand out.
I’ve done every book from Vagabond with him. Next year, we look to have a very large run. I’m looking to do the Beachhead anthology. The “Rise” anthology, and an anthology from the poets of St. Louis. I recently became friends with Michael Castro, the Poet Laureate of St. Louis. I was at the Brick City St. Louis Poetry Festival last September and met the whole community there. It’s another community like Venice. It’s got all the different, eclectic bits to it and it’s spread out much further. You have these enclaves and different communities, but they’re all connected to the city. Each community has its flavor and it works together. That might actually be one of the first groups that we bring to Venice as part of this community bridging initiative.
Mark: Another community I’m looking forward to working with is the Mission up in San Francisco. I’m friends with Alejandro Murguia who is the Poet Laureate in San Francisco. He’s like, “Yes, let’s do this!” So, we’ve got the organizational networks through the poets to connect any city basically on this planet.
I’m working with several poetry groups internationally, The one I’m the most deeply connected with is the Revolutionary Poet’s Brigade. We have the chapter here in Los Angeles and thirteen cities around the world now. We’re getting thousands of poets connecting to our work. All of the work we do specifically in this group is again, social, economic, racial, environmental justice. Those are really the pillars of the work we’re doing. And then capitalism — root of all evil.
Then, there’s the World Poetry Movement, founded in Medellin, Columbia, by Fernando Rendon, the Director of the Medellin International Poetry Festival, the largest poetry festival in the world. When we were there back in 2010, we were performing outside for the closing ceremony. You had all the poets from around the world performing there. Three thousand people in the audience there for six hours of poetry in the rain. In the rain! People sitting with their umbrellas in the rain sitting there patiently, listening to poetry. Thousands of people!
BH: Poetry has a different audience in other countries. Always has. People like Anna Akhmatova, Pablo Neruda who had thousands of people who would memorize his poems. It’s only in the United States that poetry has this weird mix of love and people who think it’s a waste of time. It’s an odd thing. I think that things that you’re doing can help to bridge that, too. Poetry matters.
Mark: Poetry is the consciousness of this planet. It connects us all to our deeper humanity. And, there’s a great awakening in the poetry realms right now. Writers who can speak to the higher consciousness: there’s more of them now. And this is something that is an exponential process because of these masters that led the way. All of a sudden, these voices are ringing through the years, back to us. And more people are connecting to the issues. What’s the number of people on the planet? Seven billion people and growing. How many of those people are poor compared to one hundred years ago? Just the amount of people that are living in difficult or poverty level conditions has just exploded. So, obviously, the number of poets writing about these things is also going to explode exponentially. But the great thing with poetry, again, is that we connect on a different level.
Another group I would like to mention is 100,000 Poets for Change. Michael Rothenberg up in Guerneville, California put out a call for doing events same day, same time. Now we had seven hundred events in five hundred and fifty cities. I was in Salerno, Italy for a poetry conference this last summer and we had one hundred poets from around the world, coming together, discussing the issues, the things that are happening in their communities, things that matter to them and finding that larger community and connectivity. So, we can connect to almost any community in the world through poetry. Now, take that, and add your activist networks. With all the work that activist networks need to do and need to be connected into, poetry can be the bridge for all of this.
BH: That’s fantastic. When is your local launch for “The Border Crossed Us” going to be?
Mark: Friday, January 22nd, 2016, 7 PM at Beyond Baroque. This is going to be the Venice launch. We’re looking to have a large body of readers. I think there are eighteen readers, including Luis Rodriguez, our Poet Laureate. Oh, by the way, Luis Rodriguez did the introduction to the anthology. I was very thrilled he agreed to do that. It fit perfectly. He was the perfect person to introduce the anthology. We’re going to have a fantastic reading. I’m very excited about it. This is starting to catch on. As they say in the news industry, it’s getting legs.
(Note: The above was taken from a fifty minute, taped interview with Mark Lipman, on December 15, 2015. The original transcript was edited for length and clarity. Consideration was given to maintain the voice and the integrity of the original transcript.)