How to Start a Press While You are Still an MFA

Picture of Mike Young

Author: Mike Young

What is the press you run? Why did you decide to start a press?

I run Magic Helicopter Press (http://magichelicopterpress.com) out of my bedroom in Northampton, MA. It currently has its most spacious accommodations ever because the new apartment my girlfriend and I moved into in June has these little elf closets in the bedrooms, and we’re using one of the bedrooms for an office, ergo an entire elf closet for storing Magic Helicopter materials. We publish chapbooks, books, and wily electronic literature projects. Fiction, poetry, and stuff that puts genre in one of those homemade soda carbonators. I started it with Ryan Call, and now I work on it with Tyler Gobble—both stellar dudes. Also have to give shoutouts to my UMass-Amherst interns Todd Orchulek and Alicia LaRosa.

My friend Pete Jurmu asked me a while back why I decided to start a press, and I hope you’ll forgive me if I cop to admitting that I probably can’t say it any better now than I did then: “I wanted to start a press probably for the same reason I reacted to my favorite computer games as a kid by saying: cool, how do I make one? That itch-to-make plus the impulse to share, to say “hey, you gotta read this” to my friends. An invisible friendship model is how I think of writing/reading and definitely publishing. Our earliest projects were Mary Miller’s chapbook Less Shiny and Benjamin Buchholz’s chapbook Thirteen Stares, both of which I thought were doing startling things within their chosen forms, and both of which made me think of very specific potential readers.”

The only thing I might add is that the same idea was true of our first venture into perfectbound full length books: Dan Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets, which I think marked a full bore “OK, I’m doing this for real” moment for the press. We’re printing a new expanded content edition of in August. Dan goes into gloriously belligerent/rhapsodic detail about the genesis of the book in the new edition, but suffice to say I saw him glurg this amazing series of poems out on a blog and I was like “People have to carry this. People have to be able to put these in their pocket and open them up while drinking wine with friends on their bed and talking about how they are the same height as an Empire penguin.”

What is your favorite part of running the press? What is the biggest challenge?

My favorite part is unexpected togethering. Like you put out a book or put on an event associated with a book or author and things come together, people come together, in really joyful and surprising ways that totally escape you and skip you and brush you off, like you inflate a blimp and it brushes you off and says “thanks, I’ll take it from here.” It’s such the right feeling when the people I’ve published are happy and get new ways into being happier and more curious than before, or get tickets to challenge themselves in new ways.

The biggest challenge is no surprise: time and money. So much ambition, so hard to funnel and divert and stick and make the haul. Sometimes it really feels like an impossible fish hatchery, where fish = tasks. I don’t know how dudes like Adam Robinson do it—well, actually, I do, because Adam works insane hours, but I don’t know how Adam isn’t frothing at the mouth by now. I guess the biggest challenge for me is I am always beating myself up that I’m not doing enough, that I need to support the people I’ve published more and get them more and cuter and wiser eyes and reader-friends.

In your opinion, why should someone start to run a press while in an MFA program?

Well, I had plans to start the press before I got into an MFA program—it just so happened to coincide with my MFA program. So my avenue is a little weird. I guess one thing is you can get loans and use them to pay for publishing books? Also you have this local petri dish of a writer scene to help you not feel ridiculous, because they will know what you mean when you say vellum cardstock or whatever, which means less of a reassurance onus falls on loved ones. I keep trying to relate this question to race car drivers and engine makers, but I can’t. I would’ve done it with or without the MFA program, but I do feel like starting it in an MFA program made it a little easier, like going into one of those giant playground ball jumping things outside of Burger King makes jumping easier.

What kind of responsibilities go into running a press?

Financing, editing, soothing, schmoozing, pleading, cajoling, smiling, designing, plunging, risking, gabbing, organizing, trusting, standard-holding, knowing when to collaborate and when to smudge the glass with your thumbprints, box lifting, taping, scissoring, sneering at emails from Amazon, falling in love with Clay Banes and/or other assorted members of SPD but mostly Clay Banes, going to the motherfucking Post Office, trying as hard as possible to be timely and efficient, trying as hard as possible to be a graceful and diligent and humble and passionate bullhorn for very talented bawlers and brawlers.

What tips do you have for someone who would like to start running a press?

Give a lot of stuff away, but don’t give everything away. Ask for help and use help wisely. Talk to everybody and then talk to more people. Do the best job possible for the fewest projects, not a Swiss cheese job for a lot of projects. Remember that it’s sometimes about the tenderness of the hands you get things into and other times it’s about getting as many hands as possible and usually it’s both, which is fine and not a paradox. Be transparent and forthright and honest about everything and ask the same of others. Find the good stuff people like Roxane Gay and Reb Livingston have written about presses. Have an aesthetic philosophy, but have it work like sculpture—you know, that whole the-statue-is-under-the-clay shit. It’s about working toward. Make sure you have kickass design. Don’t pay too much for printing. Realize the handful of things you’re really good at and gear the whole kitten toward those; creatively minimize your need for the shit you’re bad at. Don’t be a codger or a stooge or a blowhard. Try to sleep as little as humanly possible.

What projects is your press currently working on that you are excited to see come to fruition?

I am excited about two new books we recently “picked up” to publish that I’m going to wait to officially announce, but one is an insane genre smoothie that feels like someone wrote a beautiful autobiography by doing an erasure of an essay about Videodrome (it’s not that, but it feels like that would feel) and the other is one of the most frank and pulsing collections of poems I’ve read in a while, guised up as letters to an incarcerated cultural figure known for his sick grill. I’ve also been working with Tyler G to reignite some of our zanier backburner projects. He has been awesome to work with. Such a booster, good heart, great mind, wide eyes. It’s taken me awhile to understand this, but good help is (am I really going to say this? maybe I will caveat it with an “almost” just in case I scare some demon or something) almost even better than coffee. Goddamn. Can’t believe I said that.