In Conversation with Robert Torres
Liz Mehl was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where she still lives. She's become increasingly proud of the place. She is the cofounder and director of Poetry Press Week, together with Justin Rigamonti, and newest work, a chapbook called Sixes, is forthcoming from a new publisher whose imprint name is tbd, and she's fine with that.
RT: Can you describe Poetry Press Week (PPW) for those who haven't gotten a chance to attend?
LM: PPW is a biannual showcase (we have one for Fall/Winter and one for Spring/Summer) designed to bring poets and their unpublished work before an audience of publishers, everyone from major publishing houses to literary magazines, the smallest start-up independent online lit blogs, and of course, the public. Poets are not allowed to present their work themselves, but rather, they must use “models” to do so for them. In four shows, we’ve seen models in the shape of musicians, dancers, actors, a seven-year-old child, and even a ninth-month along pregnant woman. What “model” means is completely open to interpretation.
With regard to our audience, it’s definitely not a scattershot invitation, though. As I mentioned above, everyone’s invited. We particularly zero in on getting publishers there for a couple of reasons: first, the poets are submitting their work directly to them, in real time. If we have fifty publishers in the audience, the poet is then submitting their work not to just one of the publications they’d like to appear in, but to fifty—at the same time and within the context of their single twelve minute show! The second reason we want the publishers themselves there seeing all this immediately available work is that it takes far less staff, far less time, less paper, submissions forms, letters/emails back and forth etc., etc. and let’s them just see it (and read it—because we always project the poems on the wall during each show) in one place, and directly. It’s so immediate. They are given publishers’ cards before the evening starts, upon which they can mark their interest in a poet or a particular poem, hand the cards into us at the end, and we put the two in touch. It’s so easy for both parties. And it is working. We just had manuscript or individual poem requests for multiple poets by multiple publishing outlets at our show last weekend (June 19th & 20th). Behind the scenes, publishers are not aware that there’s something of a bidding war going on. The poets know, as they are informed of who’s interested. If that’s not exciting, then somebody come find me and tell me what is.
We work on getting members of the press there, because, simply, press is good for poetry and for poets. If an established poet doesn’t feel they need “help” from PPW in getting publisher interest (and many of them really don’t), we tell them that they’re just there for the press, and the public—the public who gives them a career. And with some of them, we tell them the press & public are there to help them stay relevant. I mean, sometimes we just need to be real with the poets who feel this whole process is above them. I know it’s really just the idea that’s new to them, and I don’t blame them for being reticent to put up new work when they already have a huge publisher who’s going to take it anyway. Relevance…relevance.
RT: PPW draws its inspiration from Fashion Week. What elements have you borrowed from Fashion Week, and from where else have you drawn inspiration?
LM: Fashion Week is indeed the fundamental analogue informing PPW and its overall operation. My cofounder, Justin Rigamonti, and I, studied its history for clues as to how we could simply apply to poetry the same mechanism or mechanisms that work so well for the fashion industry. Just as an event was created so that everyone involved in that industry could show up in one place and one time to achieve all their respective goals (designers sell their designs, buyers buy the latest clothes, critics tell their audiences what’s coming down the pike for better or for worse, bloggers blog, not to mention the work of the models and photographers who also profit from the whole matter), so we hope PPW will help all those in the poetry industry (yes, I just called it that, because in America, it is that) come together for a single purpose: to promote poetry. Poets get to bring their new “designs”, publishers get to pick it up, the press gets to tell the world, and the public gets to come and find a line or two that night that could save their life. I keep trying to figure out why this isn’t good for everyone. I’m sure in due time, someone’s going to get real critical of it, but Justin and I (and our team, which consists of Heather Brown and Chelsea Carpenter, without whom the show would not be going on) believe that the benefits outweigh the risks. We welcome it. If anyone is talking about poetry, it’s good for poetry.
RT: How have you enticed publishers to see PPW as more than just another avant-garde poetry event?
LM: We tell them that if they are not in the audience to see/read work that is being unveiled for the first time for publication, it can (and will) go to the publishers who came. Eventually, I hope every last publisher actually vies to be in the audience. I mean, what department store buyer doesn’t go to Fashion Week—what relevant fashion publication doesn’t attend fashion week—what fashion blogger doesn’t try to get into the shows? If you’re not there, you’re already behind.
RT: What's the wildest presentation you've seen at a PPW event?
LM: Hmm…that’s tough; I love all the shows; they’re like my children’s children (I am not a mother, nor a grandmother, but it feels that way here a bit). Wildest, though, does narrow it down. Perhaps by my definition of wild, though, was the show poet Jessalyn Wakefield put together for a large prose poem she presented. She had her sister, a scientist by trade, go down to Los Angeles where she (Jessalyn) lived, whereupon she taught her sister the grand arts of memorization, acting, and recitation. When Jessalyn’s sister, Lillian Wakefield, the scientist, took the stage the night of the show, she walked out in four inch heels, gold lame pants, a little white tee, exquisitely caked on make up and teased hair—gripping a lawn chair, pink flamingo lawn decorations, and a soft drink—set things in their appropriate places on stage, then proceeded to recite the poem—fourteen minutes in length—while acting, while prancing and laying down and sitting upside down in the lawn chair, etc.—and, because the audience could read along with the poem, which was projected behind her as she recited, we together watched in awe as Lillian did not forget a word, never missed a beat, and never looked at the poem on the wall behind her even once. Needless to say, Lilli and Jessalyn got a standing ovation. To poets who wonder what is possible with this format, let that be a guide.
RT: Has anyone besides publishers shown interest in the work presented, like theaters or recording studios?
LM: Oh, great question—not that we know of. You may have just sparked a new outcropping of the show, or attracted a potential new audience member or two. Well done! That’s what this is all about—there’s an element of collective definition still happening here, and you just became a part of that!
RT: How do you see Poetry Press Week Expanding? More cities? More events? More genres? . . . ?
LM: We really want to be everywhere—because we want the steady advancement of poetry to happen everywhere. When poetry’s given a big stage every six months, it keeps poets from languishing. It keeps them writing toward the next one. Allow me to digress for a moment: I want to state that our hope is to give stage to everyone who wants to present at PPW, that it becomes an actual week with a multitude of stages and the return and re-return of the poets who want to show.
But back to expansion. We are in talks with a city on the east coast about bringing PPW there early in 2016. That meets our goal of being bicoastal within two years. We want to infill the US with PPW’s in cities that want them. We want to bring the format to countries that want it, and allow for it to bend and move within varying cultural contexts. We want to do this systematically though, so that a show going by our name or anything like it (we’ve got lawyers on this) will have to adhere to our standards—not because we think we know everything. It’s just that we’ve worked hard to develop some particulars, and we have high standards for the presentation of poetry, because that’s good for poetry. And more genres, you ask? We’re already talking about it.