An Interview with Birds, LLC

The editors of Birds, LLC were kind enough to answer a few questions this summer about their unconventional editorial process and what went into Trees.

Joe Hall: How is Birds, LLC’s editorial process different than that of other independent presses? & what made you want to foreground the editorial process?

Dan Boehl: The way we approached the editorial process was to say, “Let’s be awesome and do dope shit.” We knew that Chris and Elisa had great manuscripts, but they are not getting published anywhere. Once we decided on the authors, we looked at the manuscripts and decided to make them be awesome. It took a lot of work. Each manuscript was assigned an editor. Justin for Chris, and Sam for Elisa. After the assignments, all the Birds editors read both manuscripts and gave feedback. Then a new manuscript was created by the poet/editor combo, and we repeated the process.

Chris Tonelli: i think we’re just kind of old fashioned. we want to spend a lot of time with the author and designer to help make that happen. each book is assigned a lead editor based on a variety of things, and he and the author, with feed back from the other four editors, work up new versions until everyone is satisfied. same with the design…the editors and designer work up versions to show the author and make changes as necessary. nothing fancy. but with so many friends unhappy with how their presses have edited, designed, and promoted their books, it does seem kind of novel…with a few exceptions.

Joe H: The editing of “The Wasteland” is so extensive it can almost be considered a collaboration between Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Lucille Clifton became lifelong friends with Toni Morrison during the editing of Good Woman, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog simultaneously considered murdering each other while making Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and producing records in the 70s meant feeding musicians’ appetites for blow. Who in Birds is Toni Morrison? Who has plotted to kill who? Who depends on booger sugar to make art?

Chris T: if only we were that cool. i mean, i freak out when i drink coffee.

justin was so familiar with my work already that i pretty much trusted what he had to say, and if i really wanted to push back about a suggestion he went with it. and there was very little line edits…maybe a few here or there. but it was mostly about order, sections, and what poems to cut/leave in. many of the poems in my book are really old at this point so were pretty done when it came time to put the manny together. and it also helped that justin just had his book come out and had some similar issues. sections that were fairly distinct from one another and showed a sort of early-career progression. sam and elisa can talk more about their experience.

Justin Marks: Where I felt like the majority of my editorial energy went was to help keep intact the larger themes of the book while cutting old poems and adding new ones. To me, the book had an almost mythological journey feel to it blended masterfully with domesticity and–yes–the development of the poet himself.

What I actually did to help maintain that theme was say to Chris on occassion, “dude, stop revising/worrying or you’ll totally fuck up your book.” Chris can be really OCD about his work–which is part of what makes him/it great–but he can certainly go too far. I remember one day he was really obsessing over what I felt were very minor details. It seemed as soon as I talked him off the ledge about one thing, he was right back up there with another. I thought to myself, “this must be what it was like to work with Axl Rose on Chinese Democracy.”

That’s about as “tense” as it ever got. We’ve known each other and have been reading each others’ work for 12 years. The report is totally second nature at this point.

Chris T: yeah…i’m super anal and self-loathing. a great combo to work with. justin is such a lucky guy. he helped me focus on big picture stuff. cut this poem. include this poem. order the poems this way. here’s how the sections should work. that kinda thing. i was more “should i break the line before or after the ‘the'” of a 5 year old poem. really constructive stuff i’m sure.

Joe H: Final questions from a creepy motel in Zanesville, Ohio: So in addition to the comments of the lead editor, each MS receives comments from the other 4 editors. That’s a shit load of editors. Some questions come to mind: What does this stack of commentary look like? Do some of you tend to focus on particular aspects of the MS? Do you feel like you’re coming to these manuscripts with a relatively unified aesthetic or do your aesthetics diverge? How do you manage all these voices?

Dan B: The important thing about the editing process was to have a lead editor for each book that worked as a filter for all the comments. An editor who could take into account the other editors’ quirks, hang ups, and off the wall suggestions. It is sort of like having a team captain.

As for aesthetic, I always thought of the five of us existing on a continuum sort of like this:

Traditional Aesthetic                                              Experimental Aesthetic
Chris—————-Justin—————-Matt—————-Dan—————-Sam

Everybody is probably going to go apeshit for me laying out that continuum, so I better say it is just something I think about, not a finite structure.

Dan B: Actually, the continuum is more likely like this:

Traditional Aesthetic                                               Experimental Aesthetic  

Chris—————-Matt—————-Justin—————-Dan—————-Sam

Though there could also be something like this:

Matt—————-Chris—————-Justin—————-Sam—————-Dan

Dunno.

Chris T: although my continuum would be different, the point is a good one. each of us will provide an author with our own approach, while at the same time trying to make a manuscript the best it can be, on it’s own terms, not on our terms.

Justin M: seriously, dan’s continuum is a bit crude. i take issue with it. but it serves it’s purpose, which i guess is to show that there’s a wide range of taste, but at the same time we’re all sort of coming form the same place. ultimately we wind up generally agreeing about the really important stuff when it comes to manuscripts.

anywho…the literal process of editing chris’ book was mainly done over the phone. i’d read what he sent me, make notes to myself, and we’d discuss it. that was our 20th century way of doing things.

but we’re also both on g-chat and we did a lot of conversating that way about what was/was not working for the book.

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Joe Hall is the author of Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean Press). Other reviews are out there somewhere and a recovery of Paul Blackburn is forthcoming in Octopus.