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Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Interview: Michael Curran

Michael Curran is the man behind kicking, screaming publishing den Tangerine, the home-bound hardback joy Dwang and the promotion of insolent and exciting poetry. We ambushed him down a dark alley...

Could you give us a brief rundown of Tangerine's birth and evolution?

Well, to go way back, it all began with a book mail order company I ran between 1996 and 98. This was called Tangerine Books. I championed small press publications, primarily from the USA, as they had it down. It was my full-time occupation, though I needed an evening job to get by—cleaning aeroplanes at Heathrow, telephone surveys, kitchen porter, etc. Tangerine Books did not work so I threw 500 unused catalogues and a sluggish pc into a skip and entered the construction industry. But the itch was still there. So in 2006 I started Tangerine Press. William Wantling’s poetry was the inspiration to start publishing. I am eternally grateful to a man I shall never meet. Tangerine's roots seem to lie firmly in counterculture, and Dwang especially has a strong 1960s feel. Do you have a mantra in mind that reflects this when you're selecting, editing, writing etc.?

Tangerine is all about the counterculture, the underground scene. Occasionally it goes overground. The 1960s feel is something I had not thought about. I just like the look of certain publications, in particular Loujon Press’s The Outsider; also Spero, Wormwood Review, dust, Second Coming, so maybe that observation makes sense. My mantra in publishing is this: mix it up. No limits on subject matter, style, etc. Dwang, the yearly journal I publish, says it all. Where else would you find that dirty boozy bastard Joe Ridgwell published alongside Praemium Imperiale winner Richard Long?

What do you feel is successful and wanting in current poetry publishing?

There seems to be a more discerning publishing scene out there, that will not just publish anything. Care over presentation is equally impressive. Many small presses are letterpress printing too: Blackheath Books, Kilmog Press, Bottle of Smoke Press, X-Ray Book Co, etc. Wanting? The same it has always been: mainsteam publishing is a rotting carcass.

William Wantling and Billy Childish, two Tangerine favourites, must have, in their respective ways, presented interesting editorial questions and challenges. What did you enjoy and what tested you when putting together their collections?

Wantling certainly opened my eyes to what was possible with poetry. He experimented with different forms: sonnets, haiku, as well as the free verse style popular in the underground scene. He made the other stuff seem okay. He is known for powerful poems on the Korean War, heroin addiction, San Quentin Prison, but in putting together the two-volume celebration in 2008, the idea was to subtly show off that vision, that scope, the sheer breadth of his talent. He was undoubtedly a flawed poet and I did include some pieces I was not so keen on. But I thought: this is a career, with highs and lows, and I decided to leave it all in and let the reader decide. This is the impression I got of him as a man too: genuine but flawed.

After publishing the Wantling books, I was stuck on what to do next. I had published an obscure, dead US poet, now I wanted to publish an obscure, living English poet. Billy Childish was the only person I could think of, but thought it was impossible, as he published his own work with Hangman Books. However, after I invited him to contribute work to the first Dwang journal, there began talk of a book. I have been reading Billy’s work for many years and always admired his honesty and not shying away from any subject. Having met him many times during the course of putting the book together and, to a certain extent, getting to know him, the poetry took on another dimension. The ‘cult’ had become human, if you like. So the poems were more immediate and on occasion felt too personal to be reading. In addition, Billy’s dyslexia was a challenge. Proof reading blew my head off. I began misspelling and not trusting my own judgement on grammar. It was a very intense time working on that book.

Each publication is lovingly made and juggles looking professional with a warmth and uniqueness. How did you learn to bookbind and what is important to you about design in books?

Design and certainly binding by hand adds a very sensual element to reading a book. There is the story of the writer at the forefront, of course, but the binder/publisher has a presence too. That is what appealed to me about the Loujon Press publications. You can feel Jon and Lou Webb in the books, you can imagine them discussing the poems, taking breaks from printing and you can certainly feel their sorrow, relief and elation at the completion of a book. I often think how a poem hangs on the page is like the appearance of a door. It has to look right, balanced. With a well designed and bound book, you do not need to read the poems to know they are good. I spent five years in the Tibetan mountains, learning to bind books. With monks. If I made a mistake, they would beat the soles of my feet. I never spoke in all that time.

Who would be your dream Tangerine poet or poets?

In the four years I have been doing this, I have published my dream poets: Wantling, Childish, Voss. In terms of proper dream poets, as in they are dead, I would have loved to have been involved with Robinson Jeffers, Raymond Carver and Akiko Yosano. The latest issue of Dwang features a stunning long cartoon sequence, almost like a flickbook animation? Did you consider giving over such a huge chunk of the book to one sequence a risk, and what attracted you to the piece?

Yes, Kelsie’s cartoon did feel a risk of sorts. Only in terms of length, as it merits publication on its own. I was not sure if Kelsie would be interested in having his 40 year old cartoon-story reprinted in this way, as part of a journal. I am grateful he did. He is an extraordinary man and I feel privileged to know him. At the time of writing, Kelsie has tried ringing me a few times, from Reno, Nevada. He keeps calling at odd times in the evening (last night 3am, for long chats about the underground scene, Loujon Press, etc) but I have to be up at 6.30am for work, so it is proving difficult. Hopefully we can sort this out. The cartoon is extraordinary in its simplicity. I was profoundly moved by it—I had no choice in the matter. It tackles everything and draws you in. It still amazes me that he was only 19 years old when he created it.

Are you writing a great deal yourself?

I have to admit, I am one of those despicable creatures, someone who writes poetry and also feels he can judge what good work is as a self-styled editor. No, I am hardly writing anything at all. The work I receive for Dwang and the other books I publish just consumes me and I welcome it.

How on earth do you find time to run all of these projects and what motivates you?

I find the time because I want to. It is there. My motivation is to put out great writing in the best way I can, while I can. If I did not do this, you would probably find me on a bench in Tooting Bec Common, drinking cider and gently rocking, rocking.

I see you're planning a new Billy Childish collection. What else does the future hold for yourself and the Press?

Yes, there will be a new poetry collection with Billy later this year. He found a number of unpublished poems from the early 1980s, I assume as part of going though material for this year’s ICA retrospective. We went through them and decided there was enough good material for a collection. There will be a third Dwang next year, due May 2011. I am still deciding what book to publish in November 2011. After that, I will be taking a break. I intend to have a mass book burning of all unsold Tangerine publications in 2013. In which case, you may well find me on that bench in Tooting Bec Common.


For more information, investigate the equally delicious and mischievous collections available to buy from Tangerine Press.

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