Jake Byrne: Why did you decide to start Metatron? Was there a void in the Montreal literary community or the publishing scene at large that you felt you needed to fill?
Ashley Opheim, Metatron Managing Editor: In 2012, Guillaume Morissette (a close friend and now co-editor of Metatron) and I started organizing readings to expose voices we felt excited about in fun and playful environments. Our reading series was called This Is Happening Whether You Like It Or Not. A core of writers began to emerge from those readings, and I felt a little surprised that apparently no one was publishing their work. Metatron was absolutely a direct response to a void within Montreal’s publishing scene, or even Canada in general, as it seemed like I wanted to publish the kind of contemporary literature that wasn’t really present in other presses’ catalogs, or at least not to my knowledge. I don’t think I was entirely conscious of this at the very beginning, but witnessing the growth and interest in Metatron has made me realise that what we’re doing is beneficial and exciting for the Montreal literary community.
Jake Byrne: Why print? I feel like we’re constantly bombarded with messages about how print media is dying out, and you folks have gone and bucked that trend. Any particular reason for favouring print (well-designed, eye-catching, I might add) chapbooks over ebooks or a digital quarterly?
Ashley Opheim: I don’t think print media is dying. I think that new methods of distribution are emerging and old methods of distribution are being faded out, but generally I think publishers now have more opportunities to showcase their literature to potential readers. It’s an excited time to be publishing books.
Books are so important to human consciousness, and we need books to continue to exist in the physical realm now that every aspect of our lives has been allocated to a digital device. In general, I see no reason why the digital and the physical can’t work together and complement one another. It’s a fallacy to think they’re enemies. We will continue to print books, but we are also looking at offering PDF’s of our books for free or by donation. Since producing a digital replica of a book doesn’t cost any money, it feels like the right thing to do is to offer that content for free (as long as the author is cool with it).
Jake Byrne: Many of the works you’ve published are by Montreal writers under thirty. Was this a conscious, deliberate decision? Are you specifically trying to create a market for emerging poets in Montreal, or is this just the best of what you’ve received?
Ashley Opheim: Metatron works with a lot of new or rising authors. This was in some ways a conscious decision, but also a response to the lack of support and resources writers in Montreal in my age category had available to them. When a writer graduates from a Creative Writing program with maybe a couple publications (sometimes none!) under their belt, getting a first book deal can be really difficult. I felt like there was a need for more “in between” publishers in Canada that were willing to take a chance on new writers. My hope with Metatron is that emerging writers can gain momentum from working with us, then maybe move on to bigger and better things if they feel ready. Writers under 30 are also a fun group to work with. Metatron will continue giving priority to young Montreal writers, but we also hope to expand our network to the literary community in Toronto and elsewhere in the world, like New York and Berlin. I feel our local authors and less local authors can both benefit from this approach.
It’s hard to pin down what exactly makes a manuscript suitable for Metatron, but that’s something that I think will become more apparent over time. I think all our writers are daring to express something that’s never been expressed before. I think there is a lot of technological alienation present in the work of our authors, but also a lot of pure life energy that I find refreshing and inspiring to read.
Jake Byrne: Can you walk me through a simplified version of the process of establishing your own press? Any financial or legal considerations we should be aware of? How arduous is it? Is there any advice you’d offer to say, a graduate of Concordia’s creative writing program if they wanted to do the same?
Ashley Opheim: Arduous is a great word to describe it. I often use the expression ‘an act of love’ to describe the work we do with Metatron. But to answer your question, yes, Metatron has been an insane amount of (unpaid) work. Sometimes I look back at what we’ve manifested in the past year and am genuinely amazed. It’s incredible what we can do when we dream big, work hard and collaborate.
To do something like this you need a vision and the drive and determination to not only do it, but to maintain it too. It is also so integral that you have people behind you who believe in and share your vision.
I mentioned this a little earlier, but I want to reiterate that I credit the community that emerged from This Is Happening Whether You Like It Or Not as being integral to our success. I think that having a strong physical community around you when starting a project is the most valuable thing that will assist you in creating and sustaining your vision.
Logistically, if you want to start a press you are going to need a little bit of money, access to talented writers and some technical skills—notably a design software and some coding skills. It also helps to know some generous artists you can hit up for cover art. Metatron began with roughly $2,000 that we obtained through a grant from Jeunes Volontaires, and a ton of support from countless nice people.
Jake Byrne: You published over ten(!) books last year. Does Metatron plan to continue that blistering pace? Or will the output become slower and steadier as the press establishes itself?
Ashley Opheim: We actually did 11 last year! But that’s a great question. To be honest, we’re kind of ‘going with the flow’ right now. We did 6 in Spring of 2014, 5 in Autumn 2014 and now we are releasing 2 for Spring 2015. I should mention that of the 11 we did last year, some are booklets (fewer than 64 pages, not perfect bound). We do both books and booklets, depending on the manuscripts. Booklets are obviously cheaper to produce and ship, so we can sell them for less.
I think we started off with a bang, which was probably why we got noticed and made an impact. Doing 2 books (one booklet and one book, to be precise) this spring has been a really nice experience because it’s giving us more time to promote each book and try out new ideas, like the Prize. In fall 2015, it’s starting to look like we’ll be doing 5 books again.
Right now, we are still exploring and figuring out what works best for us. Since we do small print runs, only reprinting if the demand is there, it allows for us to take risks—which I think is so important for anything that is trying to grow and find its place. I like having the freedom to do what is necessary for the press, without having to abide to a strict schedule.
Jake Byrne: Metatron has recently launched their first contest, and you offered readings of manuscripts along with the contest entry fee, which is a nice bonus. How was the response? And how big is your slush pile?
Ashley Opheim: The Prize was Guillaume’s idea and we just ran with it. We really had no idea what to expect in terms of number of submissions, like for a while, I think our main objective was to “not lose money.” As long as that happened, we were happy. The support we got from the literary community was really heartwarming. Lots of people helped us spread the word that we were looking for manuscripts. Even Sean Michaels, who won the Giller Prize last year, boosted Metatron on social media. The vast array of submissions we got was dumbfounding and exciting and energizing.
To help us with the Prize, we asked Jay Winston Ritchie, one of Metatron’s original authors, to come on board and help us read through the manuscripts. We loved and valued Jay’s presence and perspective so much that we decided to ask him to just stay on board and continue with us, which is great because we now have 3 dedicated editors devoted to Metatron. I am elated to be working with two of my favorite writers.
We get a consistent flow of queries and submissions for our blog. I try and take the time to get back to the writer with a response as soon as I can, just because that’s what I would want an editor to do for me. I would prefer not to have a slush pile. I want Metatron to be a friendly press that’s willing to take the time to acknowledge everyone that is reaching out to us in a timely manner.
Jake Byrne: For the Metatron prize, what was the selection process like? Were you looking for entries that fit with your general aesthetic/mission statement or more of an anything-goes feel?
Ashley Opheim: I like to think as Metatron as an ‘anything-goes’ kind of press. With that said, we definitely have a vision for our books that remains flexible. We like to support young writers that haven’t had a collection of writing published yet, especially writers located in and around Montreal. We also tend to publish a certain type of literature that doesn’t take its self too seriously and is a bit more playful and fun. I’d say that we are interested in publishing work that compliments and expands the ‘aesthetic’ we’ve developed. So, in this spirit, we approached reading submissions to the prize with open minds.
For the selection process, we worked on a Google spreadsheet and entered our thoughts and reflections on each piece as we went through the manuscripts. We got a lot of submissions that we enjoyed and felt were succesful at what they were attempting to do, but that maybe didn’t feel like the right fit for Metatron. All of our shortlisted manuscripts had an identifiable vision, were situated in ‘the here and now’ and had a certain energy driving the work that made the manuscripts fun to read.
Jake Byrne: Let’s talk wish fulfillment. In your dream board, best-possible-case scenario, where do you see Metatron in five years? Do you have plans for expansion to say, Toronto, or is Montreal the raison d’etre of the press?
Ashley Opheim: One of the things about Guillaume and I is that when we get together we come up with the most bat-shit crazy ideas. Initially, they seem very ‘insane’ to us, but after some discussion, they become tangible. So, needless to say, we have big dreams!
In the long run, I am hoping Metatron can have a physical space that we could operate out of. I’m talking about a possible storefront of some sort in the Mile End or Little Italy—a place where we could sell books, do readings, host workshops and generally offer as a resource to the Montreal lit community. I would also like to be able to print books on our own, too, so I would love to find a way, somehow, to purchase all the printing necessities we would need to do that.
We also would love to put together at some point an independent literary festival in the city, featuring maybe a weekend of readings, workshops, talks and a book expo. Somehow get a big name to read at that, someone like Ben Lerner or Miranda July or Ariana Reines or Lena Dunham. I don’t know how we would get Lena Dunham, but I’d love to get Lena Dunham. We’re also hoping to improve distribution and try to get our books nominated for awards. It sounds crazy, but I think the ultimate dream would be for a Metatron writer, like someone we’ve published in the past, to go on years later to win something like the Giller Prize.
Metatron is an independent publisher of contemporary literature operating out of Montreal. They publish beautifully designed works from Montreal’s brightest up-and-comers. You can find their chapbooks and blog here. Follow Metatron on Twitter at @onmetatron.
Jake Byrne is an undergraduate student in the Creative Writing department of Concordia University and an assistant at Lemon Hound. A recent transplant to Montreal, he discovered Metatron when he decided to scope out the Montreal literary scene. Jake has immensely enjoyed the chapbooks he’s collected and the readings he’s attended.
P.S. – In the interest of full disclosure, Jake’s friendly with a couple of Metatron’s authors.