Although Houston proves itself in the literary arena with multiple organizations hosting readings, workshops, and arts journals, our sprawling oil city isn’t the first place people think of when they imagine an extensive scene for actually publishing those works. However, this city is proving itself in that sphere as well. Houston is experimenting, fruitfully, with tiny presses. Some of these small publishers are working to blur the lines between craft and literary production, while others are trying to pull the DIY culture of zines into a more traditionally poetry and prose-based atmosphere.
I sat down with Traci Lavois Thebaud and Kalen Rowe to discuss their DIY-based literary projects, Anklebiters Publishing and Whatever, Mom Publications.
Sara: Talk about your projects (publishing and otherwise!). What role do you think you have in Houston?
Kalen: My friend Chris Wesley and I had been talking about making an anonymous poetry zine, and wanted our friends to contribute. All of us helped make the first two issues of what we called Poets Anonymous. The zines were made cheaply and DIY with ten poems by ten poets in each. I printed a few on my printer until the ink ran out and Chris printed the majority at his mom’s work.
Ultimately we like the idea of publishing our talented friends and gradually reaching out to all of them for work and then cycling back through, while of course making new friends as we go — for the sheer fact that publishing something brings people together and naturally forms a community. Our new work, Primitive Magazine, came after Poets Anonymous, and it was a culmination of two years of interrupted effort. It contains poetry, short stories, visual art, photography, and comics, all by people we know all too well. The online version even has some recordings by one of our poets/friends. We printed it ourselves with a printer and fancy paper we bought from raised funds. Our besties at Whatever, Mom Publications scored and bound it for us with Traci’s binding machine. Primitive is 100% an inside job, with the openest arms for absurd stuff in Houston. I’d say that’s our purpose.
Traci: I am the founder of Whatever, Mom Publications, a painfully DIY publishing house churning out new works from the east side of Houston.
Whatever, Mom has just released its second publication called Sleeper Hits by Lewis Edward Watts. It is a wild collection of fiction short stories, each brilliantly illustrated by six local artists. Lewis’ work is zany and absurd and a whole lot of fun to read. I am really proud of this collection. We’ve run into some challenges in binding such a large work. DIY ain’t always easy baby, and we are learning as we go…
I’m not really sure of my role here in Houston…I hope it’s to entertain and help empower other humans to follow what they want hungrily, to get their hands dirty and create the space they want for themselves in the world. Jeromy Barber of Beta Theater has talked a lot about this idea of “celebritizing” local talent and that’s something I’d like to do with Whatever, Mom: mine the city for the best written works and give those people a platform, throw them a party, make them a name in and around the community, turn them into a third coast celebrity. I think this is vitally important.
I hope it’s to entertain and help empower other humans to follow what they want hungrily, to get their hands dirty and create the space they want for themselves in the world.
Sara: What about the literary community in Houston? Do you think there is one? What do you see in it?
Traci: I think we have this very cool zine culture here, but the large majority of content is art based. When I moved back to Houston I definitely felt like there was a space to fill, or maybe one to create as far as literature. I think Houston is in need of a non-academic outlet for the written word and I hope that this a place where people like Kalen and I can help. I hope to provide a way to put people’s work out there, to gain interest and a readership around local writers. I want to provide a platform for people to share, while creating a beautifully bound product.
Sara: Kalen — especially considering your role in Anklebiters publishing and the poetry series you guys produced, what do you think the role of anonymity is in zines / small publishing?
Kalen: Anonymity just seemed interesting. It was Chris’s idea and our agreement on pursuing it was kind of just based on “that seems cool!” But now I’m seeing a lot more in it, especially as I’ve become more aware of ignoramuses who discriminate against certain people because of sex and or race. Poets Anonymous can be a forcefield against anyone who reads the name on a poem and decides not to read it.
Sara: Connected to that, but for both of you: We’re super bound up in internet “publishing,” especially as younger writers and artists. A lot of work is very much accessible through blogs (ahem) and online portfolios, or even ebooks. What is the merit of producing a physical text for both of you? What purpose do you think it serves?
Kalen: Something about physical labor in an art makes it much more compelling. Anyone can put anything online, and it can be really great, but it will always be virtual. You can only get a physical community by giving people something to hold in their hands, and why not give them the actual thing they’re communing over?
Traci: We live in a world of economy and consumerism. It feels good to spend money on a product you believe in, on something local and made with a lot of hard work and blood and sweat and drool. Also I think, or hope, that for most real, avid readers, there is something romantic and important about a physically bound work to thumb through… of course we provide links for free downloads to all of our books on the site, so that if for whatever reason, they can’t afford or can’t get a physical copy, we can still accommodate these readers.
We live in a world of economy and consumerism. It feels good to spend money on a product you believe in, on something local and made with a lot of hard work and blood and sweat and drool. Also I think, or hope, that for most real, avid readers, there is something romantic and important about a physically bound work to thumb through.
Sara: How do you both plan to expand from this point in time? What’s next?
Kalen: Anklebiters and Whatever, Mom had their second installment of Shitfaced Poetry Night recently at Beta Theater. We plan on making this a somewhat regular thing where anyone can meet up, drink, workshop, then perform at an open mic that anyone can also come to. We are publishing Pat Brogan’s magazine/poetry collection, New Sky, sometime next month. I am working on a collection of poems to publish sometime soon. And Matt/Jet Propelled Insectivore has a few novels up his shirtsleeves. There is a poetry collection by Sally Anderson in progress. Chris and I have talked about a series of one-hit wonders (magazines that run for one issue each), food articles, some investigative journalism, a piece about First Ward Sound, and a cover by Moses. All is looking good.
Traci: We are working on some bundles that include the entire Whatever, Mom/Anklebiters cannon of work. I think I have another collection in me this year too. I would love to see a Whatever, Mom/Anklebiters collab America tour as well. Spreading the idea of DIY touring outside of just the music scene has become greatly important to me. It is way more achievable than people think and traveling with your work is one of the most fulfilling and enlightening journeys an artist can take. To do that with a bad ass group of makers, writers, printers, and binders would be a dream come true.