Experiments with Caryl Pagel

Ana and Emily discuss the editing process at Rescue Press and the inspiration behind the book Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, with the author and editoress herself, Caryl Pagel

Emily Cameron: In your book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, there’s a lot of discussion about spirits and connecting to the spirit/spiritual world. A lot of people consider this a pseudoscience; do you believe it is science or pseudoscience?

Caryl Pagel: I’ll separate my answer into two different things that I think: One is that I don’t believe in cliché ideas of ghosts or apparitions. I don’t not believe in them either, it’s just that I would not testify to any of that. But, I do believe that anything can be approached using scientific method. People still call things like psychology pseudoscience. A lot of these ideas and the people I talk about and researched in the book, like William James, were kind of on the forefront of psychological practice. So, yes, I do believe that it’s science, and I believe you can use science to approach things that aren’t measurable or possible to even know about. In the same way that scientists can study dream activity, and we might not ever have any solutions, we can study the idea of what happens to the soul after death. Those might be impossible things to ever figure out, but I think that they can still be approached using the same techniques of questioning and measuring and gathering evidence. It’s proof one way, proof the other way.

EC:  How did you become interested in the subjects of clairvoyance and clairaudience, like the ones in your book?

CP: I was always interested in that kind of thing, but I became obsessed with it when I encountered a group of texts which were these scientific journals from the late 1800s. They were the proceedings for the Society for Psychical Research, which was this group of scientists who gathered all of these stories about clairvoyance and telepathic activity and apparitions, and all this sort of unknown phenomena. Their goal was not to say, “This exists” or “This doesn’t exist,” but to just gather all the stories from the people that they could and try to figure out if there were patterns, and which testimonies seemed to be familiar to other testimonies. They were trying to collect evidence. And so I read these journals, these scientific texts, and I became really interested in these ideas. I became interested in them as this subject matter that is unknown, and the stories and people’s accounts are what were interesting to me. It’s a great party trick to ask people if they’ve ever seen a ghost, or even asking people about things like coincidence, or if they’ve ever had a near death experience. People have great stories about that. It was the content that drew me in, but it was the form, the act of storytelling around it, that kept me there.

EC: In your book, you have the “Botched Bestiary” poems, which are similar to accrual poems; do you think this form of hybrid literature disrespects or defaces the original work(s) like some people do? Do you think it adds more to the original(s)?

CP: I don’t know if I have a general opinion on that. I know for me, with those particular pieces, they came from a place where I was doing a lot of research on writing about animals and animal artwork. There are a lot of artists who are interested in the animal body and the human body, and the human as a machine or hybrid bodies with medical technology, and people living longer. There’s so much nowadays, that our bodies are changing in response to our environment, and a lot of that comes across in the visual art that I was looking at, at the time. I was thinking of some of these ideas that the artists were using, like collage, and a goat’s head stuck on a collage like Rauschenberg does, or different shapes on imagined animal bodies. Even things such as taxidermy where it’s half one creature, half another creature. This has always been in our imaginations. That’s where I started to write like that. I started thinking of the text as a body, and something that could be manipulated and rearranged and sort of refocused. So I think that there is a certain manipulation, or botching, or re-stitching something together. I also think of it things like heart transplants; these things in which we are taking pieces, not just in the art world, but also in the physical world. There’s hybridity to our contemporary lives in some way. These are the ideas that were swirling in my mind when I started to take parts of texts. That’s why the quotes are still in there, because I wanted it to be obvious. I thought of those quotes as a surgeon leaving a scar of where the surgery was done. In terms of general erasure projects and collage projects, sometimes you can abuse the original text by doing projects like that. Just like you can originally write a really bad poem on your own, you can also ruin other people’s things. There’s a million ways for it to go wrong, but there’s also a million ways for it to go right. A lot of my book was thinking of writing as an experiment.

EC:  Could you break down what the editing process at Rescue Press is like, and describe how it might be different from other presses?

CP:  I don’t know exactly how other presses work, but for us we basically collaborate with each author on the terms of their own piece. So, with the novella, Penny, n., we got the manuscript, and I read through it and made notes, I would call the author and we would have these long conversations about certain scenes or certain sentences, which was fun. We’d talk about these characters as if they were really alive, and we’d wonder, “What would Penny really do in this scene?” or we would ask, “Is that the right word?” It was a lot of conversations and dialogues, and some of the suggestions I made ended up in the final piece and some of them didn’t, depending on what the author felt like was right for the work. To contrast that with our newer novella, which is called Last Word, this piece came to us very polished and the author had spent a long time with it over the course of time. So, I didn’t have as many edits on that and he didn’t have as many edits on his own work either because he had already done all of that work and had a lot of other readers. It just depends on the project and what the author is up for, which means for some of them we go back and forth on all these different drafts and some of them we don’t do that much with. We think of editing as a service we can offer to people, which a lot of middle level presses or even other small presses don’t do anymore. They just publish your book. They don’t read it a bunch of times or help you edit it at all. And a lot of the bigger publishing houses will edit it without consulting the author, and they’ll just say, “You have to make these changes.” We try to offer ourselves to the authors and say, “What can we help you with?” or “What do you want to do with this?” It is very much a collaboration.

Ana Garcia: You must receive many manuscripts from authors who want to be published. What is the voice you want to give to them? What are you particularly looking for when you consider work for publication?

CP: It depends on a bunch of different things. It depends on what genre I’m reading, so in poetry sometimes I –at least, lately- am prone to writings that are more adventurous, wild or strange. In fiction, lately I am in a mood for traditional things. What I’m looking for on a manuscript changes depending on what I am interested in at the time, but also really strong writing, regardless of genre or style, can tell me the intention behind it and keeps me interested while reading it. When Rescue Press started, I was interested in hybrid genres, which I still am, but that was one of the reasons why we started, like one of our books To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, is a piece that is part memoir and part poetry, there are photographs and questions, so it is a documentary text that is very interesting. I’m interested when people are mixing mediums and playing around.

AG:  What is the most challenging part of editing an author’s piece? Are there any aspects in particular that you get tired of?

CP: That is one of the qualities I look for before I accept something. We publish about 5 books every year, which is kind of a lot for a small press, but also it’s not that many books. When I decide we are going to publish something, one of the things I think about is “Is this a book that I want to read one hundred times?” Because that is the editing process: you read it over and over again, and you collaborate with the author. In the process, sometimes your life changes or sometimes you’re reordering everything, or cutting huge parts or encouraging people to write more into it, so there are many things that can happen. Some manuscripts don’t need much work at all, but I pick things I know I won’t get tired of, which is hard because there’s a lot of good work out there and it’s quality writing, but I know I can’t read it a hundred times. However, this helps me to read out what I want to publish, too.

AG: Does the writing change a lot when it falls into the editors hands?

CP: It depends a lot on the book project, so some of them we’ve done massive amounts of work in collaboration with the author, and some of them we’ve changed one word. A lot of it depends on how much the author is willing to work with us and hear our opinion. So I would say that it is very different for different books.

AG: Rescue Press varies a lot on the aesthetics they choose for their books. What do you take into account in a book to choose how it should look like?

CP: One of the things that we do, but not all small presses do, is that we really try to make a physical object that fits the content, the style of the work and the author’s vision of it. That’s why all of our books look really different, a lot of small presses will use the same size, the same type of pattern for their covers, but we work very closely in collaboration with the author. Sometimes they’ll say: “I just envisioned sort of a big book for mine,” so we’ll try to make them interesting, trying to use the content to suggest other artistic representations for it, while keeping the author’s vision of it at all times.

AG:  After reading so many manuscripts, do you think they have influenced/inspired your own writing?

CP: Definitely yes! I don’t know if I could say how, though. I think just the more you read, the more influence you get. The work that I publish, that I read, influences me a lot. I just read Frankenstein for the first time, and I thought: “Wow, this book is awesome!” So all you read starts layering in your head, and there’s more like available sort of models that you can do.

AG: Now that you went to the publishing companies as a writer and not as an editor, how did this experience make you feel? Do you think that your experience as an editor prepared you for the editing process?

CP: It did. I knew what to expect and the editors for my book were great. Factory Hollow Press is the press that put out my book, and they are the amazing in every single aspect. It was such a gift to work with them, and I felt so honored that they wanted to publish my book. My editor, Emily Petit, spent so much time with my work, and gave me a million bizarre ideas for the cover. She was very patient for editing, and gave me great advice in reordering the poems. So yes, being an editor prepared me, but I was still very lucky with the people I worked with.

AG: What made you decide you wanted to become an editor? What do you enjoy the most about your work?

CP: I enjoy reading all of that work. Basically I just have been a huge reader since I was a little kid and I’ve always been a writer, too. I could not get enough reading while I was growing up. I read every single book in my house, and visited the library very often. That’s still what I do, I mean, part of my job is to read which is what I love to do. Even more than writing.

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