Amy Berkowitz on Publishing Ugly Chapbooks


Why do you publish works of poetry and fiction in a disappointing way?

I started Mondo Bummer in the winter of 2009, when I was living in freezing-cold Michigan and working toward an MFA. While I was grateful for the full funding package the university provided and for the dear friends I’d made, I was feeling alienated from the poetry program. The story that best sums up my alienation takes place on our first day of workshop. Over the summer, a professor had invited students to email him with recent poetry books they liked, so that he could pick a few of them and have us read them together in workshop. I recommended CAConrad’s Deviant Propulsion, and he assigned it to the cohort.

So it’s the first day of workshop and everyone has their copy of Deviant Propulsion on the table in front of them. The professor opens up the discussion, and my cohort says: “I’m angry that I had to spend $14 on this. This isn’t poetry.” “No, it is poetry—but it’s not literature.” “It’s not poetry or literature. This is filth.” “There’s a whole poem about shit.” “The sex scenes are gratuitous.” “And they’re offensive.” “He’s just out to shock.” Flustered people blushing at the cuss words and the queer sex, flipping furiously through the book they hated so much to point out examples of this or that offense. “Here—page 7! Revolting!”

Finally the professor looks at me and says, “Amy, what did you like about the book?” And I say, “I don’t think my opinion of the book is relevant. If people didn’t like it, they didn’t like it. It’s not my job to tell people why they should like a book.”

I was shocked to find myself in such a stubbornly insular poetry program. How could people care about poetry if they weren’t interested in reading anything other than the kind of poetry they already liked to read? How could I care about poetry when I was only reading the kind of poetry that they liked to read?

As the shock wore off, it melted into low-grade anger and depression. I was tired of being asked to engage with poetry that I found inane and lifeless. And I was tired of feeling far away from poetry that mattered to me. I started Mondo Bummer because I wanted to make a space for the kind of poetry I cared about.

There were two reasons for the super-low production values. First, printing books on my printer, corner-stapling them, and folding them was easy. I didn’t have to buy special envelopes or postage; they fit in letter-size envelopes. But this wasn’t the whole reason. The other reason for the “brilliant, deadpan production values” (thanks, Robbie Dewhurst!) was that I was making a statement against pretension. Against poetry (or literature) taking itself seriously.

Another professor in my MFA program spent the majority of a class telling us that there was only one road to success as a poet: The Academy. “I challenge you,” he said to the class, “to name a single famous poet who’s not a professor.” I was too taken aback to speak, but I was heartened to hear one of my classmates say “Alice Notley” without missing a beat.

So Mondo Bummer was taking a stand against this false and dangerous belief that there was only one road to success, that a poet needed the approval of some venerated institution—a university, an established press—to be a Real Poet.

That’s why Mondo Bummer books are so ugly. Sure, you can be a Real Poet and have a couple collections published by Copper Canyon—and that’s great, they’ve put out some great books. But you know what? You can also be a Real Poet and have a shitty-looking chapbook published by some DIY press that nobody’s ever heard of.

Plus, in my fury, I simply did not have the time or the patience to fold, to sew. I wanted to print those chapbooks and get them out there. In that stifling town where CAConrad was considered a talentless pervert desperate for attention, I couldn’t run to the post office fast enough to distribute copies of his Mondo Bummer chapbook, Touch Yourself for Art.

What would it be to publish in a non-disappointing way? Will you ever do that?

I think it would be hard to publish things in a more disappointing way than I do now, so any slight improvement would push Mondo Bummer in a less disappointing direction. After publishing 41 books, I’m starting to get kind of bored with the format. And we’ve already been experimenting with less disappointing books: #35 is a gorgeous full-color broadside by Paul Ebenkamp, #36 is a multi-author chapbook that’s actually bound like a chapbook, and #39 includes ASCII art. Our current approach is about being open to any ideas an author has about how they want their book to look. What I like about the classic Bummer aesthetic, though, is that it makes people feel at ease with their newly acquired chapbooks. I like it when I hand someone a book and they say, “Oh no, I don’t want to get burger on it!” as they’re eating or “Oh no, I don’t want to fold it!” as they try to fit it in their bag, and I can say, “Come on, it’s a Mondo Bummer, it’s fine,” and they’re like, “Oh, true.” I don’t ever want to totally let go of that.

What connections do you see between baby dolphins and Mondo Bummer?

I was eating a burrito at Taqueria Vallarta the other day (after a reading at Alley Cat across the street), and I admired, as I always do, the eatery’s haphazard collection of murals. That place is full of art. On the walls, on the ceiling. Peasants, eagles, an illuminati pyramid, a guitarist who is possibly George Harrison. The tour de force is the large mural on the left wall: A painting of the Golden Gate Bridge, featuring baby dolphins gracefully jumping through the Bay and a handful of 49ers sort of hovering above the water as they throw and catch passes. It’s clear that the 49ers were an addition to the original bridge and dolphins painting. None of these murals make sense together, but on the whole, they create a rich and gently psychedelic tapestry. In a way, Mondo Bummer’s catalogue produces a similar effect. The books are so varied (conversational meditations on gender, a very strange play about a guy who gets a Q-tip stuck in his ear, poems mocking Rod McKuen that are good in spite of themselves, etc.) that together they produce kind of a cacophony. But in a good way, like the murals at Taqueria Vallarta.

What's the best things you've gotten as barter in exchange for Mondo Bummer titles?

Barter makes me so happy. I love getting surprises in the mail. When I put out Thurston Moore’s chapbook, I got a lot of noise cassettes from Europe! My favorite genre of bartered item, though, is the classic letter-size envelope full of weird shit.

I got one in 2010 in exchange for Kendra Grant Malone’s chapbook that was so perfect I preserved it almost as carefully as if it were a time capsule. The highlights include: a plastic card with an image of a hamburger and perforations so you can punch out guitar picks with images of parts of a hamburger on them, a torn piece of paper with a “failed idea for a story” about a hospital where everyone smokes hundreds of cigarettes and has to guess what's wrong with them, and a Blockbuster membership card belonging to someone named EAT, MY FUCKING ASS.

What are you wearing and how did you decide to wear it today?

I had to get dressed quickly because I was late for work. My favorite jeans are high-waisted dark-wash Urban Outfitters jeans that only cost $11 because one of the seams is weird. I’m wearing a grey t-shirt and a vintage oatmeal-colored cardigan with lace panels that my friend Esmé gave to me. I’m wearing a silver ring with 4 out of 7 tiny rhinestones missing that my friend Anne gave me because nobody bought it at the going-away garage sale she had before she moved to Brooklyn. My friend Claire gave me these faded navy blue Keds and my dad gave me these socks for Chanukah. Finally, I’m wearing a necklace my best friend from high school made. Tasha was helping clean up after Hurricane Sandy, and she was working near a glass bead factory that had been destroyed by the storm. Amidst the disaster, there were beautiful glass beads scattered on the ground. She gave me the necklace, a pink / orange / red bead on a tan string, and said, “This was the best one.”


Amy Berkowitz is the editor of Mondo Bummer Books and the author of Listen to Her Heart. She lives in San Francisco, where she recently started the Amy's Kitchen Organic Reading Series. She doubts the frozen food company will threaten legal action. 


Posted on September 30, 2014 .