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Literary Midwife

Kevin Sampsell and Future Tense

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Krista Gaylor
Kevin Sampsell Reading
w/ Zoe Trope
Jewelbox Theatre at the Rendezvous, 2320 Second Ave.
June 20, 7 pm, $5

One of the wildest books I've read lately is Please Don't Kill the Freshman, a memoir by a pseudonymous l5-year-old, Zoe Trope. This quasi-diary has characters named Vegan Grrl, Techno Boy, and Braid Bitch who alternately entertain and infuriate the brainy, pissed-off narrator. Kevin Sampsell, the publisher of Future Tense Books, met the author of this soon-to-be underground classic when he taught creative writing to some Portland eighth graders. After the class ended, "Zoe" e-mailed her work to Sampsell, who then made it into one of about 30 titles he has published since starting Future Tense. Last month Harper bought this title for a whole bunch of money (which Zoe shared with Kevin). This is only another example from the history of literature where a smart, daring, small press publisher like Kevin has found something really cool before the big guys were willing to take a risk on it. Thank god for the Kevin Sampsells of the world.


Why and when did you start Future Tense?

Purely for selfish reasons, in 1990. I was living in Spokane and going to the only open mic in town, as well as setting up my first-ever "spoken word performances" at a couple of bars. I wanted to publish my own chapbooks to give to people at readings. It was funny because I was the youngest person there interested in that kind of scene. I was 23, and the others who went to the open mic were more like academic types, most in their 30s, 40s, 50s. I had the gift of being blinded by naiveté. I thought they enjoyed my youthful input, but in hindsight I probably wasn't very good. This was also the same time I started to send stuff to little magazines and get a few things published. My first publication was with a weird lit zine called Blank Gun Silencer, from Wisconsin. When I moved to Portland in '92, I started to find other writers who I really loved and wanted to publish.


Did you have any models for this kind of publishing?

One of my early influences for publishing was the record label K Records. I was this big Beat Happening fan and really intrigued by how they put out their records on their own label. The popularity of "underground" music made me realize that doing something small could still be important. Now, in publishing there are lots of small, independent publishers: McSweeney's, Soft Skull, Manic D, Versus, Green Bean.


What qualities make you want to publish a book?

I like writing that is daring and tries new things and is maybe a little too silly or sexual for other presses. I also appreciate work that is accessible to a larger audience. There's a balance I strive for that mixes that easy-to-read quality with the sensation that you're experiencing something new or uncommon.


How do you find the manuscripts?

Many are Portland writers, but there's a good handful of them I've found in other cities or in small magazines. People send me stuff in the mail all the time. I reject a lot of it, including some stuff I like. I just can't take on everything I think is worth publishing.


How would you describe your role as publisher?

I see myself as sort of a midwife to some of these projects. I'm not sure some of these books would come out if I wasn't there to encourage the writers. I mean, some of the writers I've worked with had minimal experience with publishing. They had no idea where and how to start. I help to get their books out there, try to get people to talk about it, try to get readings for them, introduce them to other writers. I overheard a friend once say to someone: "This is all new to me. I didn't hang out with any writers before I met Kevin." That makes me feel good, when people who are good writers start to feel that confidence, like, "Hey, my books are out there. I'm a writer. I've got to keep writing."


Do you consider yourself part of a Portland or Northwest literary scene?

Northwest writing has had this reputation like we're all outdoors fanatics, like everything we write is based on Lewis and Clark or some other Northwest lore. I'm really glad it's changed. People might think of Chuck Palahniuk now instead of Craig Lesley or whomever. I hope the area gets even more diverse.


How about your own work? When did you start to write?

I wrote ever since I was a kid. At first I wrote really bad pop song lyrics. I'd even make little paper records and put the song titles on them and hang them from my ceiling. I wanted to be a famous pop star first, but I never learned how to play an instrument or sing. Sometime around the eighth grade, I started to write these weird little abstract poems. I think I was influenced by Monty Python's Flying Circus, or just weird music like Devo or the Cars. It wasn't until I started writing short stories about 10 years ago that I felt very confident in my writing. Since then I've also done a fair share of journalism, writing for a bunch of magazines and papers [Snipehunt, Plazm, The Stranger, SOMA, Carbon 14, and even The Oregonian].


You've written several collections, including Let's Start Something Special: A collection of post-punk pornography; Invisible Radios: Re-mixes, Statistics and Jokes, and The Patricia Letters. How about your recent work?

The next thing out on Future Tense will be one of my own books, a short 60-page thing morphing memoir into flash fiction. It also has footnotes from another writer, Mike Daily, and some really cool photo collage illustrations from Portland artist Melody Owen. After that there'll be a book by the infamous Mike Topp (of McSweeney's and Exquisite Corpse fame).

 

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