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The Rumpus Interview with Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians

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I always get lost in DUMBO. As a “dumb-phone” user in what seems to be a smart-phone world, I’ve printed out a map to the Melville House headquarters in Brooklyn, even though I’ve been to that precise address already once before. I am fifteen minutes early as I step into the storefront attached to the office. As I wait, I wonder whether it would be worse if Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, the husband-and-wife team who founded Melville House, remembered interviewing me for a job last year, or if they didn’t.

“You look familiar,” Merians, a poet and former sculptor, immediately says to me after shaking my hand. Johnson—also a poet, as well as a fiction writer and journalist—looks at me carefully.

“I interviewed for a job here,” I blurt.

For a moment, we’re all a bit embarrassed and apologetic, and I remind myself that I agreed to do this interview because I liked them so much the first time we spoke. I liked (and still like) drinking coffee and talking about books and dreams. So we walk over a few blocks to the coffee place where everyone knows them, and begin.

***

The Rumpus: At the beginning of Melville House, The New York Times called you “a disaster in the making”—but now you’ve made it to the 10th anniversary.

Dennis Johnson: We were never very rattled by the Times thing, because we were artists, and we were used to starting projects with no ideas of making money. So the Times thing was kind of funny.

Rumpus: And the first book you published was Poetry After 9/11. Which came first—did you want to publish the book, and that was the impetus, or did you set out to start a company?

Johnson: Neither one. It was an activist impulse, basically. I was blogging—I was one of the first book bloggers on MobyLives. The day before 9/11, September 10, 2001, Yahoo—the Google of its day—

Valerie Merians: Believe it or not—

Johnson: —had picked MobyLives as the “website of the week.” So the blog went from having this small, dedicated following, to overnight getting tens of thousands more readers. So on the morning of September 11th, I had over 30,000 readers. At the time, the blog was just a bunch of stuff I was picking up online, and people were feeding me tips of insider stories. I would always try to have everything up by nine, so everyone would be at their desk with their coffee. On the morning of September 11th, at quarter to nine, people started e-mailing me and asking, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “What are you talking about? I’m blogging. Leave me alone.” Then one of my friends wrote to me and said, “Turn on your TV.” And I said, “I don’t have a TV.” And he said, “Look out your fucking window.” Where were you?

Rumpus: I was in science class at my high school in Appleton, Wisconsin. Where were you, exactly?

Johnson: In Hoboken. Right on the water. And at that time, the New York market was the biggest market in the country for non-cable television. Everybody in New York watched old-fashioned antenna TV. And all of the antennas were on the World Trade Center buildings, which meant that when they went down all of the television stations were gone and the radio stations went down. We had no mass media to find out what was going on. And so we were terrified. No one knew what was going on, and if we were under attack. We had gone down to the water front, and the police had chased us back. We were sitting in our apartment not knowing if we were going to be bombed.

So we went online—I felt like it was a really big cultural moment. TV was made when JFK was shot— everybody started watching TV in a different way then, and in greater numbers. So I felt like this was the real birth of the Internet as a source of information. And what we found when we went online were that people were writing to MobyLives, about what was going on and what their experience was. There was a poet that I knew, George Murray, who had a day job at 7 World Trade. And he had written me this hair-raising e-mail about escaping from his office . He worked in a windowless office, and he was just told to get out of the building. He came down to the lobby, and there was an airplane tire wedged against the door, so he couldn’t get out. When he finally could get out, he was dodging jumpers. Then the building collapsed, and he was one of the people running in front of the cloud. I published his e-mail on MobyLives that day.

So anyway, we kept posting all that kind of stuff, and it started getting attention. The Associated Press did a story about a poem we posted by Eliot Katz. In the middle of all this, George Bush came to town and said what we should do now is we go kill a bunch of people in Afghanistan. And Valerie was looking over my shoulder at the blog, and she said, “That’s the heart of New York. They’re not saying let’s kill people, they’re saying ‘what the fuck just happened.’” And at that moment, we decided we would gather some of this stuff up. We didn’t have a clearer idea than that.

Rumpus: So how did you select all the poems in your 9/11 anthology? You have some wonderful poets in the book: Kimiko Hahn, Eileen Myles, Molly Peacock.

Johnson: It’s a real snapshot of the American poetry capital at that precise moment. The idea just kind of grew, and we were the kind of people who went to poetry readings. So we thought, let’s make a chapbook and sell at the KGB Bar reading or something. But it kept getting more attention. There was this really weird phenomenon where we just noticed that poetry was suddenly everywhere. I wrote about this in the intro to the book. People were sticking poems up on telephone poles. In Hoboken, they have this really crummy little newspaper, and people were sending in these very moving—very bad, but very moving—poems. We have a history in this country of poems being part of journalism—especially here in Brooklyn, where our greatest poet ever ran the newspaper. Walt Whitman. The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle.

Rumpus: Are you both poets yourselves?

Johnson: Valerie studied poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Merians: That was a long time ago.

Rumpus: I ask because I’m in an MFA program now—

Merians: Where?

Rumpus: City College. Anyway, one of the discussions that comes up frequently with my classmates is, who’s reading poetry? A lot of times it seems like it’s mostly people who are poets themselves.

Johnson: Suddenly, after 9/11, though, it seemed like everyone was reading and writing poems. There were poems written in the dust. So we thought, This is remarkable. And me, as a former journalism prof, knew that poetry at one point in the 19th century had a part in the newspaper as a sense of reportage. They would have a story, but they would also have a poem about the story. So we said, let’s do that. Let’s ask poets to give us a poem they wrote sometime after the event. We didn’t really want poems about the event—we didn’t want people writing about, “That awful day! The giant candles! The falling birds!” The point was that life was going on in New York. And there is poetry after the Holocaust.

Rumpus: Right. Who was it who said how writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric?

Merians: Adorno.

Johnson: The title of the anthology is a reference to that. And that idea is something crucial. Bush said “kill,” people said “poetry.” The process just kept getting bigger. The chapbook grew. We thought, we better learn about how to make a book we can actually sell and get the word out. It was a great kind of activist thing to do in the age of books. You have to remember, 9/11 happened nine months after Bush had been appointed—not elected—president. We were really on fire about that. And so at some point, we thought, let’s make a bigger deal out of it. We decided to make a book, and although I’ve written as a critic and things like that—we had no idea how to make a book or how to sell it. So that was an education. We realized, Well, shit. We’re going to make a book, we have to have a company, get a lawyer, incorporate. So all that happened. Then, you got a company! So you don’t wanna quit.

Merians: Now you’re in trouble!

Rumpus: How did you figure out how to take the next step?

Johnson: Well, the book worked, you know? And it was very successful—shockingly so. We sold 12,000 copies. I told Valerie we were geniuses. Nobody could sell poetry, but we did it. And we thought, We have this company. Let’s do another book.

Rumpus: So how did you get from the first book to the second?

Johnson: We did a book with a guy named B.R. Meyers, The Reader’s Manifesto. And that grew out of my new favorite column. He had this article in Atlantic Monthly criticizing five of our most heralded literary novelists—Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy. The writers who had been considered the leading literary lights of the day ten years ago. And he just took them all apart. It was a controversial article. And at some point, The New York Times had written about it and said, “How dare he”—because he wasn’t an American. So I thought, Wow. That’s really fucked up. So I wrote a column saying, “That’s really fucked up.” So I wrote about this guy, and he was so happy about it that he contacted me and said, “You know, this thing that was in the Atlantic, that’s only half of it. I’ve got a whole book of this I’m going to self-publish.” And I said, “Well, my wife and I just started a publishing company. Let us do it.” So that was our second book. After that, we had all these poets in the first book that we liked, and we wanted to do full books with them. Of the first four books we did, three were poetry, and one was literary criticism.

Rumpus: Since then, a lot more fiction, it seems like.

Merians: The next really big book we did was reportage by Bernard-Henri Lévy about the death of Daniel Pearl, who was the journalist who was killed in Pakistan—and that book was an international bestseller. So that really launched in the nonfiction reportage world. A lot of our early work was activist books. Either about the elections, or Bush’s subsequent…

Johnson: Reappointment.

Merians: We were always kind of motivated in that way. When you have your own publishing house, you have to follow your own tastes, so we were publishing whatever we liked. We were also publishing a lot of translated fiction, because we felt that something that was important in the United States that was important then and still now, to combat that sort of insular feeling that we are all there is. To bring other writers and voices into the language, and get them exposed to new readers.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about your poetry in translation?

Merians: We published Polina Barskova’s Zoo In Winter. She is a Russian poet. She’s the greatest living Russian poet under forty. She has about five books in Russian.

Johnson: But soon she’ll be the best Russian poet over forty!

Merians: So we translated a selection from her five books into English.

Rumpus: Who did the translation?

Merians: We had a team. Which was Boris Dralyuk and our guy, David Stromberg.

Rumpus: Oh! I’m a little relieved to hear the team is only two. I was picturing—

Merians: A team of one?

Rumpus: No, a whole table of translators arguing.

Merians: So what languages do you translate?

Rumpus: Spanish and Japanese. Well, my Japanese is weaker, so it takes much longer for me. But anyway, I’ve heard so many people say, “Oh, so much gets lost in translation, what’s the point?”

Merians: Well, lots of things are found!

Rumpus: It’s better than nothing, right?

Merians: There’s an opportunity for something really beautiful in the new language.

Johnson: We were responding to the people at the time. This was a very conservative country to begin with. We’d just sold our soul to the right, and that had really far-reaching impact on our life. It wasn’t just the fact that suddenly this madman was about to take us into war for no particular fucking reason other than to avenge his father. But also, this is not a comfortable place to be a poet. This is not a comfortable place to like translated fiction. This is a very, very conservative culture. And our champions were abandoning it. This is when big publishers are becoming more and more about the bottom line and becoming bigger and bigger conglomerates. We felt like we were doing something very important to not only to the political culture, but to the culture.

Rumpus: Becoming conglomerates—that’s certainly a trend that’s continuing.

Johnson: Absolutely. And I think that’s what people really responded to with. We were interested in publishing poetry, and books of leftist reportage. But let me be clear that we saw all of it as the same kind of thing. It was all meant to be a work of activism. It still feels like that, very much. I mean, George Bush pulled this country so far to the right that we may not live to see it come back.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you: what’s it like to work together as a husband and wife?

Johnson: Like hell.

Merians: Yeah. I would say that we would not have made it as a company if it had just been one of us doing it. It’s just too hard. It’s too demanding. There’s no way to explain the level of involvement that’s involved.

Rumpus: And I’d imagine the amount of risk in the beginning.

Merians: And in a way, the risk just gets greater as we go forward. At the beginning, it was just Dennis and me, and now it’s the people that work for us, and our authors, and our translator. And that has become a lot of people.

Johnson: We have attorneys, accountants, back room, distributors—a lot of people don’t think about it. Copy editors, translators…

Rumpus: You mentioned, too, developing a relationship with authors.

Merians: We wanted to bring authors along. The first book is almost definitely going to lose money, but we hope to build a career and an audience for that author over the time. Maybe the third book or the fourth book starts to really pay for itself.

Johnson: If they’re [big publishing houses] not sure they’re going to sell 70,000 copies of a book, that means they’re not going to do that. So they’re not going to publish the avant-garde, a foreigner with a funny name—so many people are just screwed in big publishing culture to a big degree. That was their bottom line. So you just have to say, Well, we’re going to lose money for a little while. If a writer sticks with us long enough, nine times out of ten, we can make it work. Tao Lin started making money after four or five books. Of course, then he promptly left us, but that’s the role we play for the culture, and I find it very rewarding. But it’s complicated. Writers don’t really understand publishing. I went to the biggie—the Iowa Writers Workshop—and they never told us anything about publishing.

Rumpus: Is that where you met?

Merians: No, we just missed each other. We were a year apart at Iowa. We met at the MacDowell Arts Colony.

Johnson: I think writers need to—I just think it’s awful how they little they tell writing students about this business they want to go into. They know shit.

Rumpus: I think a lot of writers have this idea of, Oh, I just want to think about my art, and I don’t want to think about the business side because it would somehow taint my art.

Johnson: That’s a big problem! That’s a model that was invented in the middle of the last of the century. That we should live on a mountaintop. We’re the wrong publisher for that writer.

Rumpus: So now that you’re more established in terms of the writers you’ve been developing, how do you continue to find new writers? Do you work through agents, or read literary magazines?

Johnson: Neither of those. There’s just no time to do any of that. So many people just throw manuscripts at us. There’s no end of people who come at us. We used to have a slush pile—

Merians: Not that long ago!

Johnson: —and we had to shut it down about six months ago. It would’ve shut the company down. We couldn’t keep up with it. We didn’t have space for it. We didn’t have staff for it. If we had paid attention to it, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything else. So we reached a point where we had to say, This is heartbreaking, but we can’t do this. So we shut it down. As do most publishers, after awhile.

So there was that, but people still get to you. It is not that hard to find good books in this country. One of the most astounding books of fiction we’ve published is by a guy named Christopher Boucher. That had come in from an agent and I said to the agent, “Often enough we can’t deal with agents.” The pie is not big enough in the independent publishing world. The agents want to keep all the rights, for example. But we need the rights in order to make money, or at least make a little back. There’s a constant fight between us and agents. If you need an agent with Melville House, we’re doing something wrong. I would never look at agented works from someone I’ve never heard of. That’s a losing proposition. Even though I respected that agent and she had great taste, I sent it back.

Well, the author came up to me at the AWP—what can I do? “Please, I love Melville House, could you just look at this?” Well, he had good credentials, he had been in a good writing program, and he broke my heart! And on page one, I knew. We fell for it really hard, and we bought it. So he just hunted me down and found me—and I really hope you don’t publish that, because it’s never going to happen again—but that’s life. You got to keep your eyes open and your nose to the ground. We own this company and the books we publish represent our tastes. Like Polina. We saw her do a reading, and Valerie said to me, “Who is this woman? We need to publish her.” And we’d only heard her read in Russian.

Rumpus: Hold on. I have to stop you there. You heard her read her poetry in Russian and you knew you wanted to publish her? Neither of you speak Russian, right?

Johnson: Well, first we saw her at a reading at a small literary journal.

Merians: So she was reading at Melville House at the launch of a literary magazine, because we often rent out the space. And so she read a poem—first she read it in English. A couple poems in English, then in Russian.

Johnson: No, other way around.

Merians: Other way around.

Johnson: Because you made this declaration before we heard her in English.

Merians: That’s true! I guess that’s even more impulsive than I remember. And then we went to hear her at a Russian reading, and it was all in Russian.

Johnson: She read at St. Mark’s. So anyway, we gave the space to the magazine to have a launch event. There were three Russian readers and she was the middle performer. And she read in Russian for a little while, because a lot of the crowd there was Russian, and then she read in English. Anyway, she is a really, really amazing reader. And I don’t say that too often.

Rumpus: So you could tell when she was reading in Russian that she was wonderful because of how closely the crowd paid attention? Or because of the sounds of the words?

Merians: She was so compelling. Oh my god.

Johnson: I usually think you can’t really judge from readings, and that you should see how the work looks on the page. But there are some that—

Merians: Yeah, you could tell—

Johnson: So Valerie made her declaration, and Polina sent us some poems, and we liked them. Otherwise we would have recanted the declaration. It started, and as it turned out, her poems were as fantastic as we thought they were.

Merians: She’s so inside the language in a way you rarely see. We were blown away.

Rumpus: So what’s next?

Merians: We’ve got a lot going on.

Johnson: It’s a very busy time, you know? A very tumultuous time. We’re doing lots of experimenting. New project development, digital meets print—what’s that going to be? We’re doing lots and lots of thinking about stuff we never thought we’d think about. Format.

Rumpus: Can you give me any more details?

Johnson: Well, one of the most exciting things we’ve done is invent a format. We call it a hybrid. You buy a print book, and we also include an e-book. We’re thinking about the way print and digital may be apples and oranges. That we read differently on a screen than we do on a page. We’re trying to say that they are both great, but they are different, so let’s not kill one in favor of the other—let’s make them complementary. There’s a lot of science stuff in that project. How do we read an e-book as opposed to how we read a print book? So that’s been a really great project, where we did something kind of innovative and interesting and important.

Merians: Maybe you should tell her a little more about the content.

Johnson: Well, a hybrid book—what we started is with the novella series. The classics line. For example, the leading book in that series is Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville.

Rumpus: Hence the tote bag.

Johnson: So if you read that book, on the back page, there’s a QR code—and if you scan that, you go a website where you get the free e-book that goes with Bartleby. And the e-book is also all co-contemperaneous material. Some stuff we scanned from libraries, some stuff available on the Internet—but all pertaining to the book. Letters that Melville wrote when he was writing Bartleby, to famous friends, like he was writing about Nathaniel Hawthorne. And he was reading philosophy that inspired the book, so we have those letters, the replies, excerpts from philosophy, a lot of artwork related to the book—such as what New York looked like at the time—maps, color artwork, expensive stuff you couldn’t really print in the book. We have an ad for a scribner from the newspaper; we have critcism of Melville at the time, such as his takedown by Alexis de Toqueville, who fucking hated Melville. We have a recipe for ginger nuts, which is the thing Bartleby’s always eating. For a century, no one knew what it was. But we looked into it, and we found that ginger nuts were a thing that bakers at the time made by taking the scraps of the day’s work and putting them in a vat. At the end of the week, the scraps would be moldy, so they’d put a bunch of ginger on it to kill the mold—then bake ‘em up and sell them cheap. It was the first crap food. The first Cheetos. The first tater tots.

Merians: Most people didn’t bother to investigate what it was.

Johnson: But when you find out what it was, it’s actually heartbreaking! And it gives a whole dimension to the character of Bartleby.

Rumpus: So did you try making the recipe?

Merians and Johnson: No!

Merians: I don’t think anyone would like them!

Rumpus: Well, someone must like them, somewhere!

Merians: I don’t know…

Johnson: Maybe someone who’s been dead for 150 years. But I don’t think Bartleby liked them much, either. These are the circumstances that he’s reduced to, which is what made it such a telling detail to illuminate.

Merians: It really enhances and re-contextualizes the story.

Johnson: I hate that word, though—“enhanced.” It’s not an enhanced e-book. It’s a new reading experience. When you come across a book you really like, you don’t want it to end, so what do you do? You look up the author. Something about the book, or about where the book took place—you keep reading. So these books are like that. They’re part of a natural extension.

Rumpus: Sure. Like special features on a DVD.

Johnson: I think we’ve created something that’s a natural extension of the way people read a book. So it’s kind of a very multi-level thing.

Rumpus: What do you read? I mean, other than what you publish.

Merians: Well, as you say, we have very little time to read and anything we’re not publishing or considering publishing. At the same time, other interest that I’m itching to bring into our publishing program—I’ve been reading a lot of science books lately.

Rumpus: Fiction or nonfiction?

Merians: Nonfiction. And I’m not sure how to integrate that into our publishing program at this point, or even if we should.

Rumpus: The fun thing about nonfiction is that it allows you to become an expert about one very narrow topic for a short period of time.

Johnson: We’re lucky that we have a reprint line and a classic line, so we’re always reading things for those series that we don’t necessarily publish. So we do get outside of Melville House World that way, and that’s nice. We try to stay on top of the basic scene, but on the other hand, I don’t really care about the basic scene. I don’t really care what the big houses are publishing. I don’t really care what the big media is selecting to review and write about. We’re trying to do something different, and I don’t want to get too bogged down in that stuff, because we might start to publish that stuff. We’re following our own artistic tastes and our own political tastes. Often enough, that really works.


In addition to contributing interviews to The Rumpus, Abigail Welhouse's writing has also appeared in The Toast, the Heavy Feather Review, Keep This Bag Away from Children, Yes, Poetry, and elsewhere. More from this author →