“This goes back to vision”: A Conversation With Joshua Edwards of Canarium Books, curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Joshua Edwards is the author of several books of poetry and Photographs Taken at One-Hour Intervals During a Walk from Galveston Island to the West Texas Town of Marfa. He lives with his family in Chicago and Marfa, where he works in bookstores and co-edits Canarium Books.


Kristina Marie Darling:  The poet Marianne Moore coined the term “conversity” when speaking about the editor’s role, suggesting that their function is to host a conversation between artistic practitioners, a dialogue that is not already present in the literary landscape.  How is your press, and its commitment to honoring innovative texts, an answer to existing offerings in literary publishing?  How has that answer changed shape since the press’s inception?

Joshua Edwards:  I love Moore’s idea of the editor’s role, and it’s pretty close to Canarium’s mission. Looking back, I guess we started the press to answer some questions about the literary landscape that developed over the half-decade before that, when we edited a yearly journal, The Canary. There were quite a few great presses around that we admired and looked to for inspiration, but, speaking for myself, most poetry publishers at the time seemed boring or overly-dependent on contests. There were a lot of poets without books we’d published whose work we really loved, and they seemed ill-served by the contest and university press systems, so the idea of making single-author books mostly came from the desire to share their work. Ish Klein was one of these people and Union! was the first first-book we published. It was the visionary quality of Ish’s work that set the stage for everything else we published. While Canarium is interested in innovative texts and experiments, I think what we’re really committed to is individual vision and voice. As the years have passed, the conversation has of course expanded, but I think the visions of our authors remain central to our ethos.

KMD:  The channels of distribution for literary texts – ie, the ways we buy, sell, promote, and categorize books – assume that there is a clear boundary between genres.  Your recent releases – particularly American Letters and Screwball – call into question these commonly held beliefs about genre.  What challenges does hybrid work pose to you as the publisher, and why do you champion hybrid forms?

JE:  This is a great question. First, a few examples: Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book might be thought of as prose poetry, a novel, or even a collection of lyric essays, depending on who takes it off the shelf. Its readership is very wide, perhaps because a lot of people don’t immediately think “poetry” when they encounter it, and since prose is thought of as “accessible,” non-poets also feel free to comment on and review the book. John Beer’s Lucinda is a verse novel with theatrical passages, and both of Darcie Dennigan’s books also have dramatic elements, so the critical reception of hybrid works like these collections is complicated because there’s less shared knowledge of the books’ traditions. Readers have to give the authors more leeway. I think that readers of poetry are, in general, generous readers, but some more so than others. The reception of our brand new books that you mention, AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper by giovanni singleton and Screwball by Anne Kawala, is yet-to-be-seen, but the former could definitely be thought of as visual art and the latter reads as a long poem to some and an experimental novel to others. Our authors are all known as poets, and not to speak for them, but it seems, since they published with Canarium, they all want their books to be read in the context of a conversation about poetry, albeit one that is open to challenging genre boundaries. We champion work like this because its authors have chosen to experiment despite the complications. This goes back to vision.

KMD:  Tell us more about your design process.  Can innovations in book design open up new possibilities within a literary work?  Which of your projects most exemplify this?

JE:  Since the beginning of the press, mostly for financial reasons, we’ve done nearly all our designs and, until this year, they’ve all been the same size. They just look nice on the shelf like that and the size seems a good one. This year, giovanni’s and Anne’s books demanded different sizes (forms) because of their content, but I don’t think of these books’ innovations as relating much to the book object. Book design can of course be very important for new possibilities, but I’m afraid we haven’t contributed to this field much. A publication that comes to mind as an excellent example is Mark So’s a box of wind: Ashbery Series, published by my friends at Marfa Book Company. I think of it as a hybrid of poetry, visual art, and composition.

KMD:  What distinguishes Canarium Books from other presses specializing in experimental writing (I’m thinking of Tupelo Press, Wave Books, Black Ocean Books, etc.)?

JE:  We’re only distinguished by the authors we publish, so we’re simply a different garden in the same neighborhood. As a reader, writer, and publisher, I’m grateful to all small press publishers for the hard work they do. They’ve built a wonderful thing and we’re happy to be a part of it.

KMD:  More often than not, the audience for literary publishers consists of practitioners in the field.  What steps is the press taking to reach an audience beyond the literary community?

JE:  I intuit that the premise of your question is true, but I’d like to challenge it because I work in two bookstores (Seminary Co-op during the school year and Marfa Book Company in the summer), and most of the books of contemporary small press poetry sold in Marfa are to people who simply love poetry, while most sold at the Co-op (I’m guessing) are to students and professors who have no desire to “become” poets. Still, despite this evidence (a very small sample size), I am still surprised every time a professed non-poet tells me about their poetry reading habits, and this says something about the how I also still perceive poetry as a closed community. As far as steps we’ve taken: We’ve done free-book giveaways to union members, low-wage workers, and students, and when I am working at the store in Marfa I try to talk about poetry with people, whether they want to hear about it or not! Shortly after we published The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa, we gave away 100 or so copies as a way to talk about the book. It was subsequently reviewed in Art Forum, The New Yorker, and winning the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and things like this are also a big help for reaching a wider audience.

KMD:  You are an accomplished poet, in addition to your work as an editor. What has curatorial work opened up within your artistic practice?

JE:  I’ve learned a lot from publishing. The people with whom I’ve edited have been my greatest teachers (apologies to my parents and professors): Anthony Robinson, Nick Twemlow, Robyn Schiff, and Lynn Xu. I think a lot about the book object when I’m writing; how poems relate to each other, how texts and images work together, what a book can do with time and attention. Recently, I’ve thought about how a book can create its own political and aesthetic spaces, and I’ve started another project with this in mind, but that’d be a whole ‘nother interview.




Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (University of Akron Press, 2020); Je Suis L’Autre: Essays & Interrogations (C&R Press, 2017), which was named one of the “Best Books of 2017” by The Brooklyn Rail; and DARK HORSE: Poems (C&R Press, 2018), which received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.  She serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly.