Happy National Poetry Month!
Chaun Webster, a local writer, activist and proud father, puts action behind his words. Born in Saint Paul, and raised Northside, Chaun has been mentored for many years by the powerfully talented poet and activist Ewuare X. Osayande. The recipient of a Verve Grant, he has released his own book of poems, performs frequently, and has taught writing workshops. He started his own press, Free Poets Press, and recently published the ambitious HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethic, featuring work by Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, Jake Virden, and himself. I spoke to Chaun recently about this dazzling new book, the challenges of running your own press, and whether Minnesota’s specific demographic diversities have an impact on the work.
Tell us about your press, and how it came to be.
Free Poet's Press came out of a need that I saw in Minnesota's Black community particularly, and communities of color more generally, to control our own images. Whether that media be print, visual, digital etc. There are wide body of voices that were not and are not being heard due to a dominance of white publishing outfits through which people of color are marginally employed and furthermore marginally published. There are also mechanisms of legitimization for what is and is not art that I saw as alienating to a number of narratives and styles. It was like if you were not the one or two non-MFA holding persons of color to receive this or that grant then you had and have little chance at publication. Free Poet's Press then was me owning my power to produce and distribute art outside of the dominant model and to see that act as a legitimate process. Much inspired by the poets, librarians, publishers of the Black Arts Movement whose work was not determined by white patronage but empowered by a knowledge of their own value. This changed the discourse of that time in Black communities as well as the national discourse. I was and am determined to do my part locally through Free Poet's Press to open up the discourse in a way broader than we are often afforded.
How has your experience been so far with Free Poet’s Press? What are the challenges, and what are the rewards?
It’s constant learning. Anywhere from finding quality and yet affordable printing to learning how to do graphic and page layout work myself in order to have more control over the creative process as well as being able to develop more work in less time. This has been a profoundly enriching experience, not to mention that the politics that birthed this press have put me in the company of incredible artists who share similar aspirations of self-determining communities that have control over their own images. Challenges are very real as well in that we live in a time where 5 conglomerates control 80 percent of the publishing and where many independent and non-profit publishers as well as bookstores are operating out of the same playbook as those conglomerates only with far less monetary reward. This leaves very little room for presses like my own in that I can't afford distributors, or the cut that some independent bookstores (who shall remain unnamed, today) take which is no different than Barnes and Noble or Amazon. That just means that it takes more creativity, more drive to re-imagine the production of knowledge in ways that recognize that we are all a valid part of it.
What was the vision behind this project, HaiCoup? For this particular project, why haiku?
The HaiCOUP project was my effort to collapse the distance between the artist and the audience, the public and the private. I operate from the understanding that we are all creators of culture. If this is true then why all the esoteric posturing that doesn't connect with the lived experience of everyday people?
Those tactics seemed more like mechanisms of control to me and so I was working at writing more simply though not less meaningfully. The technical frame of the haiku lent itself to this in ways I am still growing in appreciation for. In the haiku every word matters, but so does that negative space of those things unsaid. In this way haiku have a subversive quality I've fallen in love with. I also wanted the message to come through in the type arrangement. Language is a visual experience, and I've always been frustrated with its static representation in most literature - but especially when it is represented this way in poetry. This project was a starting point for me to break from that.
Have you worked with haiku before or is this project your most extensive engagement with the form?
This is actually my first time engaging with the form. That's why this project took time. I needed to study, honor the art form and its point of departure as well as taking it to my own hands and rhythm and experience. I've a great deal left to learn, and that for me is exciting.
How did you choose the artists involved in the project?
As for the artists in the project, Marisa Carr, IBé Kaba, and Jake Virden; we had all known each other prior and they are young artists excelling at their craft. Their involvement also broadened the subject matter and brings a higher level of credibility to the kind of politics to which I subscribe. Interestingly enough even though we met together to talk about the idea of the project, we all wrote separately - yet there is this feel of dialogue happening among the HaiCOUP represented in the work. I feel honored to have worked in their company.
This specific group of writers is very diverse in terms of their cultural background as well as their poetic voices. How intentional was that?
It was very intentional.
And how do you think they reflect a particular strength of Minnesota arts communities?
Addressing the politics of space was at the heart of the project. The contracting of public space as the expense paid for private profit. The delegitimizing of artistic voices in communities of color by propping up convenient tokenisms that don't recognize our complexity. This required more than I could bring and even with the voices involved it is well understood that this is not an exhaustive approach. Rather, it’s a step in contributing to that dialogue in ways that hopefully bring more everyday people into it. Each artist represents an important piece of the conversation and as you said certainly represents the strength of Minnesota arts communities, as quiet as it's kept.
How can people purchase a copy?
HaiCOUP: a fieldguide in guerrilla (po)ethics, right now can only be purchased at featured performances or by emailing the name order amount, and sending address. The cost for the work is $6, $10 with shipping.