Last year I had the pleasure of writing a blurb for Machinations, the brilliant exploration of Alan Turing’s life and creativity by JP Seabright and Kinneson Lalor. The book is published by Trickhouse Press, an imprint I hadn’t come across until then. Founded in 2020 by Dan Power, Trickhouse Press has an exuberant energy and sense of adventure that is reflected in the variety of its catalogue. As part of my on-going series of editor interviews, I spoke to Dan about the press and his own poetry.
– Dan, you are from the West Midlands, currently living in Dundee and studying for a PhD in creative writing at Lancaster University. How do these various elements of your life fit together?
Dan: It’s a bit hectic – I spend a lot of time on the train to and from Lancaster, looking out of the window. It’s cool how you can take the same train journey a hundred times and the view from the window never gets old. I guess it’s because you’re going so fast that you never stay with one view long enough to fully take it in or get used to it. Kind of like how you can scroll on Twitter for hours and never get bored, the content is always refreshing itself. I was reading something about how the average TikTok is shorter in length than a human’s short-term memory – you can be on that app all night and not remember a single thing you’ve seen! I don’t know what that’s doing to our attention spans… it’s probably okay though. It’s new at least! I like being overstimulated, I think. Although actually I think I enjoy being on the train because it gives me some time to get away from all the stimulation, and just sit with my thoughts for a while. I’m glad the wifi on trains never works – it’s the only place I can get anything done – even if the ‘anything’ that gets done is just staring out the window, watching the cows go whizzing by.
– You founded Trickhouse Press in 2020. Tell me how the press began, and about its vision and ethos.
Dan: Trickhouse was definitely born out of lockdown – I left uni in my MA year and moved back home, and suddenly found myself with half a year’s worth of student finance loans and nothing to spend them on. I’d wanted to start a press for a while, following in the footsteps of the folks at Spam Press, who I really admire, and the time just seemed right for it. I remember posting on Twitter asking if anyone had a pamphlet-sized manuscript that they needed a home for, and whether they’d be willing to entrust it to a press that didn’t exist yet, and I’m very grateful to James Knight for taking the plunge! He sent Machine over to an email address that I’d created earlier that day, I did the layup and designed the front and back covers in PowerPoint, bought a website and a stack of envelopes, ordered the books, and it all took off from there.
I think the vision for the press initially was to make it a space for work that didn’t fit into the normal categories of poetry – I knew there was lots of great work people were making that it was tricky to find a home for, and thought it would be cool to have a press that was truly open to anything and everything. It wasn’t specifically visual poetry that I had in mind at the start, although it did gravitate towards that very quickly. I think in a way ‘visual poetry’ is kind of a catch-all for any poems that are unconventional, because the only real, tangible convention in poetry is that you have a series of straight lines stacked on top of each other. There’s also a commercial aspect to branding Trickhouse as a ‘visual poetry press’, rather than an experimental or misfit poetry press – it helps people in online vispo circles find us, and helps put the books directly in front of the people who want to read them. I don’t like thinking about it cynically, but the press does need to break even if it’s going to keep on pressing. And it’s ideal for the authors too if the press’ brand, and therefore its audience, are kind of curated in a way that gets the books on the shelves of people who like visual poetry.
– My first purchase from Trickhouse Press was the inaugural Oulipo Puzzle Book (Spring 2022), one of a series of four delightful anthologies of poem puzzles that are informed by various constraints. In your introduction to Issue 4, you write:
‘My secret belief about Oulipo, in poetry and otherwise, is that the joy of Oulipo lies in the crafting of an Oulipo work moreso than in the reading of one…. What I’ve attempted to begin with this series of puzzle books is to put the pen in the reader’s hand, quite literally, and create spaces for readers to engage in Oulipoean thinking themselves. An Oulipo puzzle isn’t just a puzzle or a word game – it can also be a writing prompt, a springboard, a summertime, an autumn leaf, or a winter wondering land.’
Can you expand on this, with particular reference to your own relationship to poetry – as a reader, student, editor, and writer?
Dan: When I was a kid I was obsessed with wordsearches and mazes – actually I still am – and I liked making them and drawing them even more than trying to solve them. It’s very satisfying when you’re putting together a wordsearch or a crossword and you find the perfect word that intersects with the other words you’ve put down, and fills the space you’ve got left. Similarly with Oulipo, I like the challenge of writing under a constraint. I’m not great at it, and I think the things I’ve written that I’m most proud of came about from writing with absolutely no constraints, but it’s much more satisfying to complete an Oulipo poem because it has a kind of finality to it – there’s set rules, and a task to be completed within those rules, and eventually you get to a point where you can say for sure that it’s finished. There’s no finality with an unconstrained poem, you can keep editing and changing it forever. I thought of Oulipo writing as a kind of problem-solving, and a puzzle book working with Oulipian constraints seemed like a logical thing to make.
The idea for the Oulipo puzzle books came a few years ago when I was trying to get my head around how cryptic crosswords work, and I realised they had their own pretty consistent sets of constraints, and I wanted to see what other kinds of puzzles were possible by placing different sets of constraints on different kinds of puzzles. I also liked the idea of Oulipo as a method or a process, and was always more interested in the process of creating an Oulipo work than the finished work itself, trying out different combinations of words, exploring all possible avenues, tracing all possible connections… placing constraints on a piece of writing really makes you consider all the different detours it can take! As I said in the quote you mentioned, the puzzle books are about trying to give the reader that experience. The unfinished puzzles aren’t the poems, and the solutions aren’t either, they’re more like prompts – the poetry is going on in the reader’s head, it’s the thinking and the problem-solving itself.
– In addition to publishing books of visual poetry, Trickhouse also produces film-poems, which are described on the Trickhouse website as ‘visual poetry in motion’.To date you have produced film-poems by ReVerse Butcher, James Knight, and yourself, all of which are subversive and compelling. Do you envisage Trickhouse continuing with these two strands – book and film publishing – in parallel? What are the future plans and how do you think the press might evolve, particularly given the challenging conditions that small independent presses are currently facing?
Dan: I absolutely see things carrying on in this way! I really like the Trickhouse Films side of things because there’s no barriers to people being able to experience the poetry – it’s all online for free – which is great for the poets and also allows the press to keep sharing work when the budget gets a bit tight. Especially with work that’s taking risks and trying something new, being able to share it for free is very useful for the creators and the people who want to see it, because if something is taking a risk then a potential viewer might hesitate before spending money on it. When the cost of living crisis began there was a notable dip in book sales – it seems to have stabilised a bit now, I don’t know if the economy is on the mend or if people have decided that vispo isn’t something they want to go without – but I’m glad that Trickhouse is weathering the storm.
There’s another film in the works at the moment, a kind of Oulipian anthology film, I won’t give away too many details, but it’s been stuck in the editing phase for a while now because the editing just takes so long! In an ideal world Trickhouse would be a full-time job, and expand in every direction it could, but unfortunately that progress is being halted by my two mortal enemies – time and money. The press has been hovering around the breaking-even line since it began, which is comfortable, although now that I’ve started a PhD I do find myself having less time to dedicate to keeping things running. There’s still a lot of uncharted territory in the world of sound poetry – Hem Press are exploring this with their Angry Starlings imprint, which is very exciting to see! – and there’s also a whole world of poem objects and sculptures which can’t really be translated into book or film form without losing some of their essence, so if Trickhouse was to support that kind of poetry too it would need a whole different, dedicated branch. I’d love it if Trickhouse was able to bring together all of these different forms, but unless I get a bit more time on my hands I think it’s probably best to not start spinning too many plates.
In terms of evolution I’m not really sure – I guess evolution is kind of accidental? I think the rate of publishing will slow down a bit after this year. All the books we’ve published in the last few months were accepted for publication back in 2022 – it’s almost 2024 – I said yes to a lot of great books because I didn’t want to let them go, but also I feel bad about keeping the authors waiting for so long between having their work taken on and actually getting to see a physical copy. So I think moving forwards it will be more one-book-at-a-time. We’ve done a couple of anthologies in the past which were a lot of fun to put together, and they do offer more variety to readers and allow us to share the work of a number of poets in a single publication, so maybe we’ll put together more of those. There’s a big Steel Incisors anthology on the way which I’m very excited to get my hands on. It’s going to be a 350-page monster – an absolute whopper of a book!
There’s so much going on in the world of visual poetry, definitely more than one press or even a group of dedicated presses can handle. These are very exciting times! I think about what the role of a press should be, and I guess the foremost thing is to support the artists and poets creating the work, both financially however else we can, and also by helping deliver their work to their audience, but also I guess the job of a press is to kind of document what’s going on, taking curated snapshots of an evolving artistic field, and making an arrangement of work that in some way captures what each press understands that evolving field to be. I guess in that case Trickhouse will evolve, but only because poetry is evolving, but when and how that evolution takes place I have no way of knowing. Anything could happen!
– I’d like to talk now about your own poetry. Your Selected Dreams, which was published by Steel Incisors in 2021, has a narrative element, a glitched visual dialogue where boundaries between dream and dreamer blur and merge – at one point in the book the question is asked; ‘who’se dream is this?’. Your most recent book, Memory Foam (Doomsday Press 2023) also explores a dialogue interface, in this case the frothy territory of machine learning with ChatGPT. What are some of the themes that characterise your work?
Dan: The internet has always been on my mind – like poetry it’s always taking on new forms, being used in new ways, and changing the way we see ourselves and the world. I guess I grew up in the tail-end of the digital stone ages, when the Internet was finally establishing itself as a presence in everyday life but the technology hadn’t been streamlined to the point it has now. I’m just about old enough to remember dial-up! It feels surreal that you used to have to call the internet on the phone, I can’t be sure I didn’t dream it.
I think because I grew up as the Internet grew up I still have this feeling like it’s got so much potential, so many more things it can be than just a vehicle for politics and pictures and jokes. It used to be a lot more exciting than it is at the moment – I don’t think that’s just nostalgia, I think there’s noticeably less websites. These days I log on to Twitter, I browse BBC news, I check my emails, I watch YouTube, and that’s about it, but when I was a kid I used to go to all sorts of sites, I’d play flash games or explore Wikipedia or end up on someone’s personal blog learning about something completely unexpected. Personal blogs are so rich. Social media kind of replaced the need for blogging, and it’s nice that people can share their thoughts in a public forum now, but it’s also a shame that people don’t have their own, personal spaces in cyberspace, at least not in the way they did ten or twenty years ago. The world wide web began as a commons land, you know, a natural space untouched by capital and industry, and now it’s all been privatised and redeveloped by Facebook and Google – whatever happened to Ask Jeeves? Where’s the personal touch, the humanity? As I’m rambling I think I’ve realised that I’m interested in how the internet went from being exciting and comforting to where it is now, kind of alienating and combative and… I guess a bit boring? The internet never should have been introduced into the workplace – not everything has to have maximum efficiency! It was this beautiful thing, a place where people could be their most authentic selves, and we imposed all of the bureaucracy and professionalism of the real world onto it. It’s got all the drawbacks of offline life, with the added problems of being impersonal and giving you a bad back. But it’s also essential – to everything – I don’t see a future for humanity now which doesn’t have some kind of global information network. So we can’t escape it. It’s gone from a dream to a kind of nightmare. I think that’s definitely something that spilled into Selected Dreams.
In that book (I don’t know if it’s a comic book, a long visual poem?) I was definitely exploring anonymity, using this featureless avatar as a stand-in for the reader, and I wanted to interpret some of the internet’s more abstract features like portals and windows and clouds into very literal, physical things, to kind of examine the absurdity of it all. Similarly with Memory Foam, which I wrote with ChatGPT’s GPT-3 programme, I wanted to pretend the AI was just the same as a real person, getting it to answer questions it had no honest answer to, things about its childhood or its taste in music, as a way of trying to get it to reveal the construction of its own persona. It’s not so much about taking the mask off or looking under the bonnet, it’s more about the mask or the bonnet itself. I think persona and presentation is something I circle round to a lot in my work, although never intentionally, and I guess that’s also something that comes from growing up with social media, and having to manually construct an online identity before my offline identity had really had time to develop. It’s given me a weird relationship to myself, although with every year that passes this kind of self-construction is getting more and more normal.
– Please share one or two of your poems with us and tell us something of their context.
Dan: I made these poems during Storm Babet in Dundee – having been working from home for a few days I thought a chance to experience a storm was a good reason to leave the house – as it turns out it was a terrible idea, so I went back inside pretty shortly after. I did get some photos though, and edited them into these poems, thinking about the displacement a storm can create.
– And a final ‘Dundee takeaway’ – are you currently working on any projects that you would like to tell us about?
Dan: I’ve recently been getting into Land Art and how it overlaps with visual poetry, and I’m wondering if there’s any kind of digital equivalent? Maybe some sort of hacking and re-arranging of a website, a glitch, something like that. I’ve been making some sculptures in Minecraft this week, trying to create a virtual equivalent of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta. I’m not sure if it will stick, but it’s fun to play around with!
– Many thanks, Dan, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Dan: It was my pleasure – thank you for having me!
Trickhouse Press: https://www.trickhousepress.com
Dan Power on Linktree: https://linktr.ee/danpowerpoet