Gary Cummiskey was recently appointed the editor of New Coin, one of SA’s oldest literary magazines – it celebrates its half century this year. Cummiskey is a writer himself, and is the engine behind Dye Hard Press, which has published numerous titles by an impressive array of literary South African writers, including Arja Salafranca, Khulile Nxumalo, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Phillip Zhuwao from Zimbabwe, Gail Dendy, Kobus Moolman, Alan Finlay and Gus Ferguson. He shares his thoughts on publishing and on whether lit mags still have a role to play in the digital age.
Tell us about Dye Hard Press
I started Dye Hard Press in 1994, on a shoe-string budget, if that, and without having a clue what I was doing – I knew nothing about layout or design. But I did know I wanted to publish poetry, I had a computer and access to a photocopy machine … and staples. So I starting producing these chapbooks of A4, photocopied pages, stapled down the side. I called it Dye Hard Press because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but refused to accept defeat.
It was a fun time for South African poetry, just after the first democratic election. There were a lot of small journals that started up around that time – like BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly, for example. Home-made jobs. Kitchen-table publishing. People were optimistic and open. They were curious about what we were doing, curious about this poetry that was being written and published – it wasn’t the kind of poetry they had been forced to read at school. It was an exciting and creative time.
Since then, I have gone through periods of giving the press a break, but always coming back to it. Improving the product, as the marketing crowd say, evolving from producing these A4 stapled sheets to producing perfect-bound books, all professionally designed.
I haven’t bankrupted myself through Dye Hard Press, even though it has often been my own money that has gone into publications and most times I have barely covered my costs. But things are getting expensive, and even digital publishing is not as cheap as it used to be. And then trying to sell the books – especially poetry – is another matter. But small presses are important. We not only tend to publish the groundbreaking work, but also keep things going for poetry. Any big publishers putting out poetry at the moment? I don’t see any – only the small publishers, few that they are. But it is definitely getting tough. Bookstores are reluctant to stock poetry. Publishers battle to sell them. Most poetry now is sold at events – poetry sales have to be event-driven. And the poet has to play an active role in promoting the book.
During the three years that I will be editing New Coin, Dye Hard Press will have to take a back seat. But during that time I also want to rethink Dye Hard Press, particularly with regards to poetry publishing. Perhaps it is matter of returning to publishing chapbooks, to reduce the costs, and then sell them direct to readers at events or by mail order. This would also reduce distribution costs. There are many ways to get poetry out there – but it requires a change of mind-set by both publisher and poet.
Tell us about literary magazines in general – what are they for and who sponsors them? Can poetry magazines survived when there is so much poetry on the internet?
Literary magazines play an invaluable role in providing readers with a variety of voices within a culture, or maybe subculture or even subcultures – whether poetry, fiction or nonfiction. They can be almost like a snapshot of what is happening culturally at a given time. Not one voice, or even two voices, but several – all brought together, providing an insight into the diversity and richness of what is being expressed. South African culture is diverse, that is one of its strengths. In the past South Africa has had various literary journals, whether long-established, formal publications such as New Coin or New Contrast, and there was also Staffrider in the 80s and early 90s. But there has also been a wealth of small, home-published journals owned or even produced by an individual – I’m thinking of Lionel Abraham’s Sesame, there was also Gus Ferguson’s Slug News and Carapace, which is still going. There was BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly. We still have Botsotso, and Timbila, plus Kotaz in New Brighton. Some of these are or were sponsored, others not. I don’t think Carapace has ever received sponsorship. I published Atio in the mid-1990s, and then Green Dragon, which ran to six issues from 2002 to 2010. Some of the journals have never appeared regularly, but so what? Some poetry journals were fairly short-lived, lasting only a few issues, but at least they were published and that is the main thing. And besides, maybe they were not meant to last beyond a few issues.
I would like to see more online publishing initiatives in South Africa – more online platforms for publishing poetry, whether journals or even chapbooks. These can be blog-based and you don’t need a degree in web design to get them going. But there is still a future for print journals. I don’t see the online and print scenarios as being either-or, but rather both-and. Online poetry has tremendous advantages – instant international distribution, for one. But print also still has its benefits. I like to lie on my bed or on a sofa and read from a book. I guess you can do that with an e-reader, but with print there is the physical feel of a book, you can feel and appreciate the texture of its pages. There is a sense of a book – of creation.
However, if print journals are to attract and retain readers they also need to be vital, the content must be seen as vital. They must be regarded by poets and poetry readers are essential reading and cutting-edge – in touch with what is happening.
Tell us about New Coin
New Coin is one of South Africa’s oldest literary journals and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is published by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) in Grahamstown. It publishes mainly South African English poetry and reviews, and appears twice a year. New Coin is not available online as such, but is distributed electronically by various organisations, including Sabinet Online. New Coin is available on subscription but we are looking at introducing the publication for sale at selected bookstores.
Submissions can be made electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org. You will receive an acknowledgment of receipt. Poets should submit about six poems for selection, ideally as an attached MS Word document.
Do you have any particular desires or ambitions for New Coin?
My main aim is to produce issues containing quality poetry that is alive, exciting and challenging, as well as relevant to the contemporary South African poetry discourse and to poetry readers.
What do you read?
Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I recently finished reading DH Lawrence’s novel The Lost Girl, Jim Morrison’s posthumous collection of poems, Wilderness, and am now reading John Fowles’ first novel, The Collector. Last year I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which was one of the best novels I have read for a long time.
In terms of poetry, some of my favourite poets are Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Sinclair Beiles, Ira Cohen, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Henri Michaux, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Lorca, Wopko Jensma, Seitlhamo Motsapi – the list is endless. Will I ever be able to read everything I want? I doubt it. There is just too much. And that is just the first-time reads – not the books one wishes to read again and again.
What is your own publishing history?
I had my first poems published in one of the final issues of Staffrider – that was such an exciting literary journal. Then Gus Ferguson published poems of mine in Slug News. Gus encouraged me – not only to write but also with my publishing imprint, Dye Hard Press. I have published quite a few chapbooks of poetry through Dye Hard Press, but back in the mid-90s Gus published a collection of mine, When Apollinaire Died, in his Firfield Press series. Have been published by Tearoom Books too – apart from publishing a print chapbook of mine, Romancing the Dead, Tearoom also recently published an e-chapbook of free-form haiku, called I Remain Indoors. I had a chapbook published in India, by Graffiti Kolkata, called Sky Dreaming. Through Dye Hard Press I also published Who was Sinclair Beiles?, which I co-edited with Eva Kowalska, plus my debut collection of short fiction, Off-ramp.
What sort of poems do you write?
I have been influenced very much by the US Beat poets and the French surrealists, so this does have an effect on my approach to writing poetry. I once referred to myself as a “dada-surrealist-madhouse screamer”, which I guess fits the bill. Yet when I Remain Indoors appeared, someone was surprised and said: “These poems are not surrealist!”
But why play in one room when you can play in several?