Literary: Organization Spotlight
An Important Niche of the Heart
Elik Press presses forward with politics and poetry
As Salt Lake City-based publisher Andy Hoffmann will tell you, his Elik Press “is an entity that comes and goes with my energy for it.” That energy has been considerable over the years as the small–arguably “micro”–press has kicked out many a chapbook of many established and emerging writers, especially poets, from Utah and beyond.
Born out of political activism by Hoffmann and Michael Gills, both writers, the press was a personal project that, for Hoffmann, originally from Arizona, stemmed from his time in the mid-80s when he emerged from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. “One of the precepts [from Naropa] was to spend some part of life devoted to publishing others,” he says in an email exchange, “in whatever form that would take.” One of his mentors, Anne Waldman, a cultural/political activist and member of the Outrider experimental poetry community, instilled in him that “to become the bridge between a writer and her audience is part of the vow to poetry that is essential if we want the language to live.”
After earning his Ph.D. at the University of Utah’s Creative Writing Program in the mid-90s, Hoffmann was in “work mode” when the controversial African-American poet and activist Amiri Baraka made an appearance in Utah and “shook things up.” Appearing on a panel sponsored by the U of U and BYU departments of humanities, Baraka “proceeded to steal the room with his rant on the unjust shooting of innocent blacks by [the] NYPD,” he recalls. “Baraka made sense with his wail. Post 9/11 and we could see that Bush was pushing for a war that made no sense.”
Shortly after the encounter with Baraka, who died in 2014, Elik Press was founded. (Elik is Inuit for “one who has eyes.”) “The idea was that we would stick with nonfiction,” Hoffmann says of those early years, “and the more political, the better. Our first publications were essays of our own, along with a [Allen] Ginsberg interview we copped from a friend, and a [William S.] Burroughs tract that Waldman grabbed from Naropa’s archive.” The two publishers started creating monographs as chapbooks, which are, to this day, still the heart of the press. They published their own manifestos as well as interviews, including one with the brilliant Nicaraguan Catholic priest, poet and politician, Ernesto Cardenal, a liberation theologian and founder of the primitivist art community in the Solentiname Islands where he lived for more than 10 years. Submissions from all over started coming in to the press, especially when writers of a certain bent knew that Waldman was involved.
Only political prose was accepted until about 2006 when “publishing poetry,” says Hoffmann, “started to make sense.” For one thing there was suddenly a lack of political work being submitted that was also literary. Plus, Elik saw the need that poets just needed to get into print. “This was before the digital opportunities appeared,” he recalls. “I published Ira Cohen [the poet, publisher, photographer and filmmaker who died in 2011] who, as a younger man, published widely in small journals, but he hadn’t published a lot of books. He adored his Elik books. Even Paul West, [the British-born American writer] who had 20 books in print by major publishers, was delighted to create monographs [with us].”
The list of poets Elik has published is impressive: Alex Caldiero, Joel Long, Utah Poet Laureate Ken Brewer, Hector Ahumada and Melissa Bond, among many others. Of late the press has found that with print technology the way it is now, stapled wrapped chapbooks are not really that much less expensive to produce than traditional books bound with adhesive. In 2014 Elik published its first perfect-bound books, including Dark Music by Gordon Ball, a major figure in the Ginsberg group. The book, says Hoffmann, is “an amazing piece of Beat lit that hasn’t been paid attention to yet, but it’s interesting enough to matter in the long run.” Another, Negative Spaces by Nate Liederbach, received some attention, including in the pages of 15 Bytes (read the review here), and is the first and only fiction Elik has published until now. “It’s not necessarily practical printing books that don’t sell,” Hoffmann concedes, referring to small runs and the lack of a robust means of distribution (the bane of all small and micro publishers). “Even so, the joy that even the slightest publication brings to an author is worth being part of, and I believe now more than ever that small publishers fill an important niche of the heart…. I have a friend who works a letter press, printing a single poem by poets unknown on postcards in runs of 20. When I receive these postcards in the mail I feel the gift. I’m sure others feel the same.”
Political activism has arguably taken on a more measured role at Elik since poetry chaps have become standard publishing fare. Before Gills left the press in 2006 he conducted poetry workshops with imprisoned women as well as aging seniors at Salt Lake City’s Friendship Manor. Those works were published by Elik. That founding spirit is still present, says Hoffmann: “If somebody comes to me with a project where marginalized voices can be heard, I’m always willing to help.”
When asked if the social and political activism of Elik Press has paled because of the times, Hoffmann waxes philosophical. “Critical race theory and gender/queer studies are still huge, and that’s where the activism has been all along. [It’s i]ronic that many postmodern thinkers in the U.S. completely missed the fact that [French, postmodernist philosophers Michel] Foucault and [Jacques] Derrida were critiquing both capitalism and communism of the late ’60s.” He continues, “And as much as the Frankfurt school was and is appreciated, seems like much of the postmodern angst got lost in obscure language and wordplay when it very well could have deconstructed institutional aggression and exploitation, etc.”
He cites those literary and cultural critics (e.g., Edward Said) who didn’t fall “into the language trap” as many did, including so many avant-garde poets to whom “theory became the chief tool of expression rather than the poetry itself….I do think as a whole, the postmodern humanities did little to energize or activate graduate students.” That said, Hoffmann still sees the small magazine, pamphlet or monograph–what Elik is known for–as critical players to the necessary subversion of the status quo.
Elik is releasing two perfect-bound books this spring. The first, Dear Carolyn: Letters from Carolyn Cassady to Jim Jones, is a collection of late-life letters from the former wife of Neal Cassady, a major figure in the Beat Generation and prominently featured as himself in the original “scroll” version of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The other, Bull Awakening, is a short collection of poems by Ed Tick, a well-known healer among the PTSD folks and author of another Elik title Wild Beasts and Wandering Souls: Shamanism and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which has over 1000 copies in print. “For Elik,” says Hoffmann, “that’s a big deal.” Another title, Ginsberg’s Don’t Fuck Up Your Revolution tops out at about 1,200 copies, while author Jim Jones, who edited Cassady’s letters, also published Kerouac in Seattle with Elik, a piece that, among other of the presses titles, is now a collectible.
Book arts is an important part of Elik’s signature. Hoffmann does all the printing at his house on Lowell Avenue, with aged printers—the only feasible way because of costs. The chaps have not increased in price ($5.00 each) since 2001. He’s considering going even more in the direction of handcrafted books, hand-cutting boards and making special runs of hard bounds.
The publication of the recent chaps, Trace Elements by Michael McLane and Hoffmann’s own At the Edge and End of Water is, he says, “first a celebration of friends. I’ve known Michael since he was a teenager attending the Sawtooth Writing Conference, and I’ve followed his writing since. Trace Elements is just the beginning of Michael’s searching below (and above) the surface of the Great Basin and its toxicity.” The respect is mutual. Says McLane, “For me, growing up as a young writer here in Salt Lake, Andy Hoffmann was one of the first ‘literary activists’ I encountered. For every effort he put into his own beautiful work, he put just as much, if not more, into editing, prompting, and promoting the work of others he believed in. Elik Press is just a culmination of this kind of advocacy and love. It’s a perfect example of the kind of small presses and publishers who are doing the dirty work of creating great literature and receiving far too little credit for doing so.”
McLane’s writing, like Hoffmann’s, is steeped in social and environmental justice. Currently, McLane is working on a much bigger Great Basin project. “I’d be willing to publish [it],” says Hoffman, “but Torrey House Press has better distribution, and they should grab that book in a second.” Hoffman’s own At the Edge is inspired by a trip to Argentina, the drying of the Great Salt Lake, and the work of Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame) who created in threes. To this reader, Hoffmann’s new chap is a luminous meditation in both verse and prose on the dreamscape of human and environmental crossings.
Elik Press may be contingent upon the ebb and flow of Andy Hoffmann’s editorial and publishing energy, but his own crossings of the literary landscape seem indefatigably driven by a very personal sense of community and the value of giving voice to writers. That legacy of quality, small-scale, grass-roots publishing is a formative force in the flowering of what’s now being called the Utah Enlightenment, a renaissance of creative, thoughtful and critical work that speaks volumes . . . even (and perhaps especially) in a 24-page chapbook.
Literary: Book Review
A Bird That Howls
Susan Imhoff Bird’s New Memoir Journeys With the Wolf
Susan Imhoff Bird’s new memoir, Howl: of Woman and Wolf, has all the depth, complexity, and moving power of that most haunting of sounds: the howl of a wild wolf. Alternately joyful and mournful, lyrical and pragmatic, this hybrid tapestry of memoir and wildlife historiography offers equally keen views of the science and art of gray wolf recovery efforts, the people who love and loathe this highly symbolic species, and the beautiful bricolage of a life lived interestingly: births, loves, deaths, and the search for self-in-place that is the pith of experience. Inventively framed by the epic journey of wolf OR-7, AKA “Journey,” who made history by being the first gray wolf to venture into California since the species’ extirpation from the lower 48 states in the 1930s, this book journeys. Bird shows us that the gap between tameness and wildness, between two highly mobile, adaptable, social, and intelligent land predators—wolves and we, self and other—is not so far as it might seem, and we ought to venture across to find out how wild feels.
Bird’s canine muse is a study in cultural and ecological enmeshment, an ideal exemplar of ardent preservationist John Muir’s observation, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” Crucial to ecosystemic health, the wolf benefits everything from scavengers like magpies and ravens to trout, songbirds, beavers, willows, and aspen. And the wolf is just as culturally powerful as it is ecologically: whether big and bad, huffing and puffing, stalking hapless young women in red as they stroll through the forest, or viciously murdering dozens of sheep and cows “for sport,” the wolf’s folkloric resonance is as outsized as its effect on ecosystems. If the wolf is a symbol of rapaciousness for many, so too is it a symbol of noble, pure wildness for others, and neither metaphorical vestment may be an entirely good fit. In the end, what characterizes the human relationship to the wolf and to ecosystems alike is complexity: a tangled mass of associations and relations that stretches out in all directions at once.
In this memoir, wolf and woman alike unfold in the fullness of complexity: boundaries are few; connections are manifold. Bird moves effortlessly between searingly heartfelt and honest narratives of marriage, childhood, pregnancy, birth, divorce, travel, death, exploration, conversation, connection, separation, and the fumbling states in between. We learn of the birth and always-fragile life of the author’s son Jake, born with cerebral palsy, and the simultaneous stillbirth of Jake’s womb-mate, Little Joe. Little Joe and “Hoss,” the in-utero name for Jake (the author confesses a fondness for the television Western Bonanza), are yoked together by conception, yet separated by the simultaneity of birth and death. Paradox. Like all the nature writing greats, Bird is after essence: Edward Abbey’s bedrock and paradox, Terry Tempest Williams’s intimacy with land and with folk. What is at the center, and what radiates outward? Where do we fit, and how do we relate? With whom, what, and in what landscape do I—should I—dwell? Paradox beautifully animates the many strands of this deftly-woven braid: the fact that we as a species cannot seem to live with or without wolves, the fact that the very relationships we need (such as a nurturing relation to self) are the ones we run away from, the fact that we are willingly herded into stockpens of meaningless work while craving meaning and wildness, the fact that we live but do not always live.
Alongside Bird’s biographically-rich experiential and existential musings, the author offers a thorough history of the gray wolf, particularly after its 1995 reintroduction to Yellowstone and central Idaho. She parallels and punctuates key moments in wolf recovery with moments in her life: kids’ growth and movement toward independence, her own developing sense of self, needs, wants. Ultimately, we get the story of wolves, well-told, and the effect is an education on a singular animal and an identification with a singular storyteller. Through countless interviews, cast as deeply personal ventures into the making of knowledge and connection to place, Bird offers an admirably complete picture of a creature that seems perpetually to be in the crosshairs of science, myth, and memory.
As Bird reminds us, the kind of field-based ecology on which most wolf science is based is an unbound and often chaotic enterprise. It’s exciting, too, a fact the author relishes as she interviews folks like legendary wolf recovery project leader Doug Smith and others whose lives are fully lived outdoors in pursuit of information about—and connection with—the gray wolf. As befits such a sometimes-swashbuckling scientific style, ecologists often turn to metaphor (think “alien,” “invasive,” and so on to describe non-native species like the Gypsy Moth, the Zebra Mussel, or the Russian Olive, species that are vilified despite their lack of volition in the matter: we are the alien, the invasive, the weed). Metaphorically, biologists often refer to the gray wolf as a “keystone species.” Just as an arch would fall without a keystone, an ecosystem can collapse without the balancing influence of an apex predator.
The wolf is the architect of what biologists often call a “trophic cascade,” or a reorganization of energy in a foodweb. It goes like this: the gray wolf’s presence disperses elk herds. The newly pursued elk leave off their munching of willows to the ground, and willows rebound, creating dam material for beaver. Erosion is subdued by new beaver lodges, trout subsequently flourish, and songbirds return to the aspens, which are recruited in greater numbers when elk stop denuding them. Bird, too, cascades through her many forays into the field and complementary forays within. She gazes at wolves through a spotting scope, rides horses with anti-wolf dude ranchers and hunters, rides shotgun with Montana wildlife managers. She risks life and limb traversing the snowy miles between Salt Lake City and Montana in the icy grip of winter, experiences the exhilaration and freedom of riding a bike on sweeping canyon roads followed by the rude awakening of body hitting pavement, and spins a tale of love that is, I think, worthy of a slow, meditative read punctuated by one’s own journeys outside the comfort zone.
That is the keystone paradox at play here, deftly written in lyrical prose: finding what lies within while fearlessly finding what lies outside.