Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Interview with Rami Shamir

Today I'm posting Part One of my interview with Rami Shamir, in the last 29 hours of a Kickstarter campaign for his novel TRAIN TO POKIPSE. This explosive and heartbreaking novel not only deserves your support on its own merits, but also stands out for a few other things. POKIPSE was the last editorial project of the infamous publisher Barney Rosset (Grove Press and Evergreen Review). The novel has been the heart of an extended experiment in independent publishing and marketing by Rami and his co-conspirator Adam Void, who designed the stunning cover. Rami and Adam published the book (as Underground Editions) in 2012 and engaged in guerilla marketing techniques, blanketing cities in wheatpasted ads and a sticker campaign. Rami went on a coast to coast reading tour in 2013 and in the process created a network of independent bookstores to support the book's distribution. You can find the Google map he created to share with other indie authors and publishers here. Rami has rejected Amazon completely in marketing TRAIN TO POKIPSE. You should also know that Rami was one of the early and long time Occupiers at Zuccotti Park.

Karen: I understand that the first printing of TRAIN TO POKIPSE is sold out. Why are you doing a second edition of POKIPSE? What's different about this edition?

Rami: Yes, the first edition of TRAIN TO POKIPSE has been sold out for about six months now. I’m doing a second edition, because the demand to read the book remains high and because as both the book’s author and publisher it’s my responsibility to keep what is a very important work alive and well in the world. This second edition will have a new introduction from Micah White, the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street and the former Senior Editor at Adbusters magazine; it will be printed in a run of 1984 books—Why? Because the first edition was a run of 911 books, and as Adam Void, POKIPSE’s cover artist and my longtime artistic collaborator pointed out, “What follows 911? 1984.”; lastly, there will be an annotated e-book version, which depending on whether or not we reach our stretch goal of $19,000, will either be a simple digital annotation (if we don’t) or (if we do) something far more interesting: involving film footage of New York City nightlife from circa 2006 that I took before setting off to write POKIPSE, as well as documentary visuals, music, and multi-media discussions.

Karen: Barney Rosset, your friend and POKIPSE’s editor, was a big inspiration to you. And to so many of us. He was an undeniable force in creating a place for counter culture America, in cultivating an audience for--what do we call his authors?--the avant garde, for some of the most politically and culturally relevant literature of his time. His boldness and his marketing genius matched his passion for art and revolution, and he seemed to be able to transport “art” from obscure corners and deliver it to the street. He made household names out of writers who might today be published on University presses. There are a lot of different questions here. First, can you talk about how you see literature today? Do you see any publishers taking these kinds of risks? Are these risks there to take? Is there an equivalent literature today, reaching a broad cross section of readers? Is there an equivalent audience? Who are the living writers you admire who are carving out new cultural or literary territory?

Rami: Well, Barney Rosset was less of an influence on my life, than he was something akin to a fact; as much a fact as the rotation of Io or Europa around Jupiter are facts. When Barney allowed you into his life, you became part of a planetary system, the moon of a gas giant. As such, I enjoyed a privileged education and vantage point to understand American literature across a long span of time. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m beginning to believe that the first thing to go isn’t going to be the water or the air; the first thing we’re going to lose, in fact that we’re already losing, is our literature. It really takes a village to produce a literary work and book publishers in America, at least the ones that I’ve encountered, can’t produce that sort of village like Barney could: they won’t take the risks, they don’t have the financing, and they don’t have the will. That’s why I’m doing the Kickstarter to publish the second edition of TRAIN TO POKIPSE. As an author, I don’t have any faith left in American publishers; but I have a lot of faith in people: the world’s readers, not the world’s publishers, are who can and who will save literature.

That’s not to say that there are no good publishers in America today; not at all. Semiotext(e) has just brought out To Our Friends, the sequel to The Invisible Committee's 2007 The Coming Insurrection—which along with Crimethinc.’s Work—could be cited as one of the paramount texts that infiltrated youth culture in America and helped incite the 2011 onset of Occupy Wall Street.

But the fact remains that my personal experience with book publishers in America has not been that great. I was around a lot of publishers who feigned to have pretensions of being the spiritual descendants of Barney Rosset. Barney took TRAIN TO POKIPSE to two indie presses, one in New York and one in the Midwest. I mean these were two important indie publishers of the day that claimed to be students and apostles of the great Barney Rosset. You'd have thought that they would have jumped on the opportunity; instead, they demanded ridiculous changes or dragged their feet. Eventually they both turned down the last book that their hero would edit and champion. I think there’s a lot about American book publishing in that parable. Nonetheless, I do believe in what my good friend Jack Doroshow has always told me; I do believe that minds are meant to change, and I’m more than open to my mind changing on this matter.

Karen: Can you talk about the direct influence Barney’s publishing legacy, broad or specific, had on your outreach plan for POKIPSE? I know that your plans for POKIPSE evolved over time, and I also know there was a lot of DIY ethos in the air by the time you released your novel in 2012. So I’m curious what interactions with Barney (or Astrid) sparked different aspects of your handling POKIPSE?

Rami: Well, as I’ve mentioned before I’ve really had three great publishing influences in my life; David Nudo, who’s now the Book Sales Manager at the New York Times, Barney Rosset, and Adam Void, who was the co-publisher for POKIPSE’s first edition. Along with his partner, Chelsea Ragan—who’s been my main collaborator on POKIPSE’s Kickstarter campaign— Adam bears a lot of the credit for TRAIN TO POKIPSE’s continued existence in the world. Adam is rightly credited as being a seminal figure in the zine chapter of American publishing history.

POKIPSE was written during the advent of that North Brooklyn’s Print Renaissance. You know, Joe Ahearn’s Showpaper had a really big effect on a lot of people including me and Adam. Gabe Fowler of Desert Island started Smoke Signals after doing a few issues of Showpaper, and POKIPSE’s posters eventually modeled themselves after Showpaper as well. In fact, I think that Linco, the printer over in Queens that so many of us use, owes a lot of its business to the great influence that Joe Ahearn and Showpaper have exerted on so many people in their twenties and thirties.

Of course, this is all an issue of the counterculture. There are many very intelligent and highly attuned people in the world who are neither aware of this information nor welcome it into their worldview when they become aware of it. That is how counter-culture works. The culture just can’t accept the dark matter of it all. Barney, of course was not one of those people. I brought copies of Showpaper and Smoke Signals to Barney; and when Occupy Wall Street hit, I brought Barney zines from a New World and Crimethinc. as well as issues of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, which very much impressed him. Now, Barney and I didn’t agree with each other completely all the time. Limiting POKIPSE’s first edition to 911 copies (a decision which of course was an off-shoot of the text, and as such, in this effort to bring forth a perfect first edition was non-negotiable) led Barney to claim that I was more difficult than Beckett. Of course, I took that as a compliment. “It wasn’t meant as compliment,” Barney had quickly replied. He was always so fast on his feet. Nonetheless, we never argued; we were involved in a discourse, a debate, and the mutual purpose shared by both parties was the most beneficial outcome for TRAIN TO POKIPSE.

Karen: I think that 9/11 affected us in as-yet-untold ways. Have you read any novelists (or other writers) writing about the fallout of 9/11, how it affected New Yorker’s lives?

Rami: Yeah, I’ve read a few. The ones that are most exciting are of course the ones that don’t scream so much about their being about 9/11. Gary Indiana’s Do Everything in the Dark is exemplary in that respect. Written after 9/11, the events of the book take place in the summer of 2001 and extend to just a few days before the events of September 11, 2001. I think Gary once told me the exact date, but I’m sorry I just can’t remember at the moment… something like September 09, 2001 is the last day in the book.

I really understood 9/11 much more clearly after reading this book, because I saw how frightening America had become in the years before the attacks. So the response, which of course in many ways is examined in TRAIN TO POKIPSE, became more comprehensible to me. Gary’s books are really part of our great national treasure of literature, and it’s a crime that they’ve been allowed to go out of print for so many years. Fortunately, a few publishers have been slowly rectifying that. Among them are Christopher Stoddard’s Itna Press, which has just released a new edition of Do Everything in the Dark.

Photo by Lydia White
Karen: It’s getting tough to pay the rent in America. Almost everyone I know in the “Post” Recession is either underemployed or overworked. Either of these can be challenging for artists, who need to both pay the bills and save some time for the often-unpaid second job of writing or creating. Maybe get a little health coverage in there. What’s your strategy for balancing out these needs? What kind of strategies do you see working among your creative acquaintances? And do you have health care coverage?

Rami: I mean this is a great question; one that I’m always discussing with people. You know, I’ve been a cliche of every writer in many ways. I travel the country, I sleep around, people house me, one day I’m in this city, the next day I’m in another city. I have different personas which sometimes even take on different names (few people know about this; it’s in tune with George Orwell’s “slumming” approach and has been coming out ever since Occupy, in large part as an investigation for the next book). I’m almost always broke, but I have amazing friends and people around me. Without them I couldn’t be who I’ve been, and the whole mission, this whole journey would never have happened. It’s fun and all, but it is also a very valid criticism that the unwavering conviction and integrity that I’ve had as a writer has caused havoc on my personal life. I totally want my own room, where I can find my stuff, with my own bed. I very much want to date people, which hasn’t been possible with this type of existence. While it’s exciting, it’s only because I’ve decided to view it that way. Viewed another way, I guess it’s indisputable that I’ve “suffered for my art.” You know, you do what you can do, and then you change it when you have to. I did this Kickstarter because I couldn’t do it like that anymore. I needed help from the public. I went to the public, and the public has responded beautifully. With less than 42 hours left in this campaign, 142 backers have brought us to 99% of our goal, and what can be more beautiful than that?

Editor’s note: The campaign reached 100% of its goal by the time I was publishing this interview on Blogger, but Rami has a stretch goal of $19,000. Please check out the Kickstarter funding campaign for this terrific novel and fiercely independent literary spirit.


Stay tuned for Part Two of this interview, which will be published next week.

Read my previous post about Rami Shamir here:
Must-Read Indie Publishing Interview: Rami Shamir