by Bükem Reitmayer
Publishing is a labour of love. No one gets into it for the money or fame. Often it is a side project, something done in the wee hours, when a break in responsibilities can be found. And yet, there’s no shortage of small presses to be found, which suggests that the often accused-of-being-dead industry is alive and well and in the hands of people who love books and writers and find a need to bring them to the public.
Metatron is one such press. A Montreal-based independent publisher that specializes in literary books and booklets by “new and rising authors”, Metatron has become well-known in literary circles for their ambitious and creative foray into publishing, and for beautiful and acclaimed publications.
Metatron is a collective effort led by Montreal writers Ashley Opheim, Guillaume Morissette, and Jay Winston Ritchie. Cosmonauts Avenue, itself a collective born of Montreal, reached out to the editors to get a better idea of what brought this group to publishing, and where they’re going next.
CA: Hi guys. Let’s start with something broad: Why does writing matter in 2015?
Ashley: Everything on this earth depends on communication, and since writing operates in the realm of ideas, thoughts and feelings, it connects us to one another and helps us understand and empathize with experiences outside of our own. Writing allows us to escape our egos and connect to the matrix of global consciousness. We live in a world that seems to be increasingly devaluing and commodifying human expression and feelings, which is exactly why independent literature is important.
Jay: One stereotype about millennials, which is our generation, I guess, is that they’re only concerned with themselves. I don’t think that’s true. I think we’re very much concerned in the emotional sense for other people in our communities and wish for everyone to be able to enjoy life, or find purpose when things seem bleak. Literature enables us to do that, to be inside of life, and Metatron’s authors (millenials, so far) have a particular way of engaging readers. The internet is a recurring motif, so is sadness and metaphysical bliss.
CA: Seeing how the landscape of small press publishers in Canada is kind of crowded, what was the impetus to start Metatron? Do you see yourself as a Montreal publisher, Canadian publisher or something else? And what was the thinking behind the name?
Ashley: When I started Metatron, there really wasn’t a Canadian publishing house that was publishing the kind of work I thought reflected our generation’s concerns and sensibilities, so, in that sense, I am not sure I agree that Canada’s small press publishing is crowded. As for the name Metatron, it’s derived from a shape in sacred geometry called Metatron’s Cube, which has been revered by mystics, sages and ancient civilizations throughout time as being the original symbol of creation. The history and meaning is a bit out there, but I encourage you to Google it.
Guillaume: The very first Metatron catalog featured only Montreal-based authors. At the time, it seemed like a lot of writers around us just weren’t being published in print. Since then, we’ve expanded a little bit and started working with writers who live outside of Montreal, or aren’t even Canadian, but I feel like it’s important to us to find a good balance and continue investing in local talent. A good example is our new fall catalog: Oscar [d’Artois] lives in New York and Berlin, Fawn [Parker] lives in Montreal and Sofia [Banzhaf] is in Toronto. We think this approach is beneficial to the authors. Like Oscar, for example, has a decent readership in New York, so publishing Fawn as part of the same catalog allows us to showcase her work to a crowd that might not have been exposed to it otherwise.
CA: You just went on tour with your latest published authors, doing readings in Montreal, Toronto, Buffalo and New York. What was it like to bring your authors to different communities?
Jay: It was the best thing ever. Everyone got along and was extremely supportive. We put together readings in dungeon-like basements, gorgeous book stores, art galleries, repurposed car garages, other remarkable places. Although each reading had its own atmosphere, there was a prevailing feeling of togetherness that gave them continuity.
Ashley: I think that bridging gaps on both the micro and macro level is at the heart of what we do. Wh ether it be between people, communities, cities or countries, it all plays a part in the vision we have of being more than just a literary press. For me, bringing people together and nurturing an open community is one of the most rewarding things about this job. It’s actually at the root of Metatron, since we started off by organizing alternative readings/parties.
CA: The new issue of Cosmonauts Avenue features a short story from Fawn Parker’s Looking Good And Having A Good Time, one your new fall titles. Can we talk a little about Fawn’s collection and why you’ve decided to publish it?
Guillaume: Sure. Fawn sent us a short story for our blog back in March, I think, which we all really liked. Later, we read another short story by her on Joyland and decided to reach out to solicit her for a manuscript. We were looking for more fiction, and we liked that Fawn was a strong female writer who lived in Montreal.
Fawn, to me, is an instinctual writer. Her voice doesn’t feel overcalculated, but genuine and spontaneous, which makes her stories fun, unpredictable and sometimes ambiguous. Fawn is one of our youngest writers, and in many ways, I think she’s still in the process of figuring out her identity as a writer and what she really wants to express through literature. For this collection, I tried to avoid pressuring her to be perfect or something, and instead just encouraged her to pursue her talent. Fawn, I feel, is exactly the kind of writer Metatron should publish, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Ashley: Oscar read at an event we put together called New York Lit Night in Montreal and, at the time, he was the only reader featured who didn’t have a book out. It seems kind of serendipitous that we ended up putting Teen Surf Goth out. Content-wise, it seems like a book that will make more sense as time goes on. To me, he is sort of a fucked up, contemporary Lawrence Ferlinghetti or something. We like to joke about how he was the ‘diva’ of our Fall Catalog. We could publish a full-length book of his emails we had to weed through. Right, Jay?
Jay: Oscar is the Frank Zappa of emails. His approach to poetry feels anomalous, like he doesn’t care what you think about it while still nodding to all the work that has come before it. I like it because I feel like it would exist somewhere, maybe on Oscar’s hard drive, in the exact same state it is now even if no one was reading it.
CA: I recently heard Rob Spillman from Tin House speak about what gets him excited about a manuscript. What do you look for in a manuscript? For example, earlier this year, you awarded the 2015 Metatron Prize to Sofia Banzhaf for her manuscript Pony Castle. What was that process like? How did you decide which manuscript to choose?
Ashley: What I personally look for when considering a manuscript for publication is ‘energy’ and ‘authenticity’. This may be a hard thing to really pin down, but it’s something I ‘feel’ when I’m reading. I am an intuitive person and Pony Castle was actually the first manuscript I chose to read for The Metatron Prize. It’s almost like something inside of me knew something amazing was going to happen to me when I read Pony Castle. Pony Castle reminds me of a contemporary version of The Bell Jar, in that it takes dark subject matter and makes it light and beautiful somehow. Sofia’s literary voice is so refreshing to read. She has this magical way of composing sentences that put you in a trance and, before you know it, you’ve read the whole thing. I think she’s a literary sorceress.
Jay: I also go by feeling, but I try to analyze that feeling in order to pinpoint what in the manuscript is catalyzing my response. That self-reflexive process helps me to navigate some instincts I have that I might not want to follow, for whatever reason. I think it’s easy to be partial to writing that mirrors your own experience, but that’s not always the best writing out there. I lose interest when I detect a formula. I like it when I can sense that a writer is pushing him or herself, trying new things. I like clarity. I like to be taken by surprise.
CA: Will there be another Metatron Prize next year?
Guillaume: For sure. To be honest, I feel like we’re already excited for the 2016 Metatron Prize. The Prize started as a kind of experiment, and I think we were all blown away by the sheer quality, quantity and diversity of manuscripts we received. We ended up spotlighting 10 manuscripts for the shortlist, and I think 8 of them have since been picked up by other presses. Also, it’s been funny to see media places like Quill & Quire reference the Metatron Prize like it’s a very serious, very important literary award, and not just something Ashley and I decided to make up one afternoon.
Ashley: One thing that was special about the Metatron Prize is that we provided 1-2 pages of feedback for every manuscript we received and took the time to feature the 10 writers on our shortlist via a daily spotlight on our blog, as opposed to just featuring their name on some abstract list.
Jay: Creating the 1-2 pages of feedback also helped us concretize our own opinions of the manuscripts. We had to be able to justify to each other and the author why we were or were not going to publish them.
CA: What’s up next for Metatron?
Ashley: Right now, my ultimate dream for Metatron is for us to have a storefront and/or office space in Montreal that we can operate out of. Having our own space would allow us to have an office space, sell our books + titles by other indie presses, host readings and workshops and cultivate a stronger community in Montreal. I think we’re constantly trying to think of new ways for the digital to complement the physical and vice-versa. Going forward, I’d like us to start offering some of our older titles as free PDFs online, publish podcasts, create video content, and put out a bi-annual Metatron magazine that features standout pieces from our blog. I also want to continue prioritizing women in our catalogs and finding ways of connecting with and supporting more writers of colour.
Jay: I’m also dreaming of a storefront. Going on tour was a transformational experience in that writers I had only read on the internet and in print became actual people and that wouldn’t have been possible without the venues that hosted our events. I would love to do the same for writers in the future. Maybe also reach out to western Canada, northern Canada.
Guillaume: Beyond my long-term goals for Metatron, I think I am also curious to see where writers we publish end up, like, 10 years from now or something. Since we work with a lot of debut authors, my hope is that Metatron allows them to gain experience and move on to bigger and better things over time, like teaching workshops or being courted by a more established press or putting out a novel that gets longlisted for the Giller Prize or etc. Something that no one ever tells you is that publishing other people’s work can be just as fulfilling as publishing your own.
Jay Winston Ritchie is Metatron’s assistant-editor and the author of the poetry collection How to Appear Indifferent While Crying on The Inside, a best-seller at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly in 2014. He lives in Montreal with his two cats, Ardelia and Aubrey [Drake’s real name].
Ashley Opheim is Metatron’s founder and managing editor. She is the author of the poetry collection I Am Here and her poems have been translated in Spanish and Romanian. She lives in Montreal with her ancient golden retriever, Phoebe.
Guillaume Morissette is Metatron’s co-editor and the author of the novel New Tab, a finalist for the 2015 Amazon.ca First Novel Award. He lives in Montreal with his cat, Gloomy.